In two, maybe three years, you should be able to walk into a Toyota or Chevy dealer and ask to see the plug-in hybrid car. With any luck, they'll point to a shiny vehicle that, among its many other attributes, gets close to 100 miles per gallon.
Plug-ins are like hybrids on steroids. All hybrids have battery packs, but plug-ins have much bigger ones and the ability to go 30 to 40 miles in zero emission, all-electric mode. Plus, you can recharge the batteries from a wall outlet. If you have a five-mile commute, you may never need to start the gas engine, but it's sure nice to know it's there for longer trips.
Felix Kramer: The plug-in hybrid's best friend.
Plug-ins were once just a gleam in the eyes of people like Felix Kramer of CalCars.org, and automakers said they'd never happen: too complicated, too expensive, and the battery technology wasn't there. But now both General Motors and Toyota are testing them, and promising to bring them to market. Toyota says it will have a car ready by 2010, though initially just for fleet use. GM is deep into lithium-ion battery testing on its Volt, which it says will go 40 miles on electric power.
Some people are so excited about plug-in hybrids that they've built their own, and conversion kits are available. But most people will probably wait for the production versions, which were just given a significant boost by a powerful state agency, the California Air Resources Board (CARB).
CalCars' own plug-in Prius claims 100 mpg.
CARB sets emission standards, and provides incentives for manufacturers to sell cleaner cars. Earlier this month it changed its standards to favor plug-ins, and is asking automakers to produce more than 58,000 of them by 2014. It sounds impressive, but of course California has almost 20 million smoke-belching cars on its roads.
At one time CARB was going to require that 10 percent of new car sales be all-electric, but battery cars are still not ready for the mass market (though the Tesla roadster may yet make a good case for itself). The new mandate cuts the requirement for zero-emission cars even further, from 25,000 to just 7,500 (and even those could be powered by hydrogen).
Electric car advocates, who tend to be fanatical about their batteries, were outraged at CARB's decision. I actually think that we'll see great things from long-range battery cars in the near future, but plug-in hybrids are probably closer to the starting gate.
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