Plug-in Cars: The Lowdown

This is Part 1 of a three-part series on Vehicle Fuels and Technology.

1. Plug-in Cars: The Lowdown
2. Hydrogen Fuel Cell Vehicles
3. Fossil Fuels and Biofuels

The author of today’s post, Sheryl Canter, is an Online Writer and Editor Manager at Environmental Defense.

Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicles, or PHEVs, have been in the news a lot lately. It’s an appealing idea – virtually no emissions, just plug in your car at night and go. Plus the batteries that drive them could store electricity for homes and offices. When cars are parked and plugged in, the electric utility could draw on stored battery power during times of peak demand (with compensation to the car owner).

But will plug-in cars really be ready for widespread use by 2010?

Toyota Prius Plug-in
Toyota Prius, plug-in version.

Reading the news, you might think that PHEVs are just around the corner. Toyota just displayed a plug-in version of its Prius. A recent study by the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) and the Natural Resource Defense Council (NRDC) says that if plug-in cars are in widespread use from 2010 to 2050, the reduction in greenhouse gas emissions could be dramatic.

Certainly people are trying to make it happen, spurred by inventor/advocates such as Felix Kramer of and others. The Austin City Council has launched a $1 million campaign to promote plug-ins. Google’s philanthropic arm is donating $10 million towards the development of the technology. General Motors made a splash with its Chevy Volt concept in January. Ford has joined the party with a plug-in prototype of its Edge SUV.

Chevy Volt
Chevy Volt.

But as our automotive expert John DeCicco points out, there are some daunting technical issues. In a briefing [PDF] before the U.S. Senate, Advanced Automotive Batteries president Menahem Anderman estimated that plug-ins won’t be generally available for another 10 years. Honda manager John German, also in Senate testimony [PDF], said that the problems with plug-ins were so difficult that Honda wasn’t even going to try.

So what’s going on? Are plug-ins around the corner, 10 years away, or not realistic at all?

The bugaboo is the battery. Here’s a summary of the problems, based on Anderman’s analysis:

  1. The plug-in battery will be about 3 to 5 times the size of today’s non-plug-in hybrid batteries, essentially filling the cargo space of an average sedan.
  2. The weight of this battery will add 200 to 300 lbs. to that of the car, putting a drag on performance and efficiency.
  3. The lithium batteries needed to provide adequate performance for plug-ins raise a serious concern about hazardous failure, such as a fire in a home garage, because they need much deeper, full charging than the smaller batteries of today’s hybrids, which are always kept at an intermediate state of charge.
  4. The cost of this plug-in battery (at pack level) to carmakers, using present technology, will be 3 to 5 times the average cost of today’s hybrid batteries, i.e. around $5,000 to $7,000 per pack.
  5. The life of any battery technology, lithium or otherwise, when used in a plug-in car is not known. There’s a good chance that battery life will be short, meaning costly replacements over the life of a vehicle.

Ford Edge
Ford Edge.

John German points to market problems, as well. He says that unless battery prices drop considerably, the vehicles will be too expensive for broad acceptance. So Honda has instead chosen to focus on hydrogen fuel cell technology (the subject of Part 2 in this series).

German closes his statement with some good advice about how the government can help:

It is impossible to predict the pace of technology development and when breakthroughs will or will not occur. Accordingly, technology-specific mandates cannot get us where we need to go. In fact, previous attempts to mandate specific technologies have a poor track record, such as the attempts in the 1990s to promote methanol and the California electric vehicle mandate. The primary effect of technology-specific mandates is to divert precious resources from other development programs that likely are more promising. If there are to be mandates, they should be stated in terms of performance requirements, with incentives and supported by research and development.

So will plug-in hybrids eventually become mainstream? Possibly, but only with sufficient investment in the development of battery technology. Since we can’t know for sure which technologies will work out, it’s best to push ahead on all fronts – including making better use of the technologies already at hand – and not put all our eggs in the plug-in basket.

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  1. Posted July 30, 2007 at 4:28 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for opening up a discussion about PHEVs on ED’s website! Of course, the starting point has to be to use what’s already at hand. That includes energy conservation, both by reducing miles traveled and increasing the MPG of current engines.

    But it also includes taking advantage of existing solutions using today’s technology and needing no new infrastructure. Plug-in hybrids and all-electric vehicles bring the benefit of not simply reducing gasoline use, but of DISPLACING oil with electricity that comes from increasingly renewable sources. Now that the EPRI-NRDC study has demonstrated across-the-board greenhouse gas benefits from switching to electricity under many scenarios, and now that the Pacific National Lab has proven we have enough off-peak power, the huge benefits of PHEVs run by cleaner, cheaper, domestic electricity become apparent. We can even start to get a glimpse of the potential of “vehicle-to-grid” solutions to turn intermittent renewable energy sources into reliable 24/7 sources — for instance, by storing night-time wind-power in car batteries.

    Some battery experts tend to play catch-up with technologies — a few years ago they said PHEVs would never happen. Now they’re saying 5-10 years. Soon carmakers may be ahead of them! Testimony at the California Air Resource Board’s Zero Emission Vehicle Symposium a few months ago led the ARB to conclude that PHEVs are the most promising immediate solution.

    Toyota’s RAV4EV shows nickel-metal hydride batteries can last over 100,000 miles. Tesla Motors shows lithium-ion batteries can survive crash tests. Many batteries under development have phosphate and other additives that vastly improve safety. I drive a 30-mile range conversion with lithium batteries that fit entirely under the deck of my Prius, not reducing everyday storage, and add only 150 pounds to the car. My Valence batteries have already lasted 30,000 miles and have a long way to go. Many batterymakers working with automakers and national labs (A123Systems/Cobasys, Compact Power/LG Chem, Johnson Controls/Saft, Altairnanosystems and others) expect their batteries will last the lifetime of the car. (Then instead of recycling, utilities now say they’ll buy batteries that are at say 80% strength to use for stationery storage.)

    The remaining issue is the cost of batteries. Many people can’t wait to pay thousands of dollars more all the time for leather seats or sunroofs, without worrying about “payback.” Now analysts estimate millions of car buyers will pay more for the “environmental feature.”

    At the same time, with electric miles at under $1/gallon, the economics are very favorable. The high first cost is addressed by Google, Bank of America and others showing the way forward by offering $3,000-$5,000 employee benefits for buying standard high-mileage hybrids, by federal and state legislation proposing major incentives to carmakers and carbuyers, and by the potential of vehicle-to-grid payments by utilities to car owners for “renting their batteries” — what Federal Energy Regulatory Commissioner calls the “Cash-Back Hybrid.” Wait until we get to mass production: studies project PHEVs could SELL for $3-$5,000 more than all gasoline hybrids.

    The key as far as Environmental Defense goes is the last paragraph. No one knows what technologies will work. PHEVs have just started to get a few million dollars in support, while hydrogen (via the FreedomCar program etc.) has been supported with billions of dollars in R&D funds. Ethanol is another years-away solution requiring a new infrastructure, and its implementation using corn is clearly a disaster. If we put a few PHEV eggs in the basket FOR THE FIRS TIME, we can start powering local miles electrically, and watch what happens among all the contenders for liquid “range extension” fuel. We can work for a level playing field, with a priority to solutions than can help today, not decades in the future.

    — Felix Kramer, Founder, The California Cars Initiative (

  2. bfearn
    Posted July 31, 2007 at 11:09 am | Permalink

    This article from ED on PHEV’s is similar to so much of what we read these days. We may have a massive global warming problem, oil is being pissed away but when it comes to PHEV’s or other promising solutions well there are problems, there are costs, we’re not quite sure they will be perfect. No one bitches when people spend tens of thousands more than they need to on cars they don’t need. No thats just fine. But spend $5000 more for a battery that gives you 100 mpg, are you crazy! American priorities are all mixed up and even ED doesn’t get it.

  3. Dave K.
    Posted July 31, 2007 at 11:11 am | Permalink

    I think you miss an important point here, I can buy(or produce my own) green power NOW, this is not the case for any other transportation fuel. Even biodiesel made from waste still has the high NOx emissions like petro diesel.
    Also I can’t stress enough the infrastructure issue that all other transportation fuel replacements have, when I already have an outlet in my garage.

  4. Posted July 31, 2007 at 11:22 am | Permalink

    Environmental Defense isn’t against PHEVs or paying more for green technology if people want to do it. I was just describing some of the challenges in bringing PHEVs to market. I hope the investment dollars keep on flowing – towards PHEVs and other technologies as well.

  5. DavideAndrea
    Posted July 31, 2007 at 11:25 am | Permalink

    > 1. The plug-in battery will be about 3 to 5
    times the size…

    Not True! The Hybrids Plus battery takes *exactly the same space* as the original battery, and gives 30 miles at 100 mpg. See:

    > 2. The weight of this battery will add 200 to
    300 lbs…

    Not True! The Hybrids Plus PHEV-15 battery weighs only *46 lb* more.

    > The lithium batteries … raise a serious
    concern about hazardous failure, such as a fire

    Not True! You are confused: you are thinking of the cobalt based cells used laptop batteries. All PHEV conversions available today use safe nano-phosphate LiIon cells, which *do not self-combust*.

    > 4. The cost of this plug-in battery (at pack
    level) to carmakers,…

    I don’t know about carmakers. But, yes, I do know that PHEV conversion today are very expensive.

    > The life of any battery technology,
    lithium or otherwise, when used in a plug-in car
    is not known…

    Again, you are confused: you are thinking of the cobalt based cells used laptop batteries, which have a limited calendar life. The nano-phosphate cells used today in PHEV conversions operate at a lower voltage and are therefore mostly unaffected by that phenomenon. Those cells do have a proven life of many thousand of cycles, which works out to a range comparable to the rated lifetime of the original battery.

    Davide Andrea
    VP of Engineering
    Hybrids Plus

  6. Jenny
    Posted July 31, 2007 at 11:43 am | Permalink

    Did you see the AP story today on electric vehicles in amateur motorcycle drag races? Apparently, these “giant cordless drills on wheels” are poised to break speed records set by bikes that run on (eek) nitromethane. Analysts predict that drag racing technology will spill over into the mass production cars. The article doesn’t talk about size or longevity of the charge, but it does talk about improvement in cost and safety. Cool!

  7. Posted July 31, 2007 at 11:56 am | Permalink

    The motorcycle article reminds me of a speech given recently by Arnold Schwarzenegger, where he talks about how the future is in green “muscle cars” that inspire people by their coolness. We linked to the speech in a “Quote of the Week” post, if you want to take a look. It was good.

  8. Posted July 31, 2007 at 12:34 pm | Permalink

    Yes, you seem to have rounded up the most skeptical commentators on the state of batteries. If you focus exclusively on the problems and foreseeable problems of ALL supposedly greener technologies, I guess you could say you have a (somewhat fear-tinged) editorial policy. If you accept the more optimistic views of any one of the contenders (biofuels, hydrogen fuel cells, PHEVs and EVs) in one of your articles, you would start to have a bias or at least can be used as a tool against battery-electric transport.

    Will you report on the potential environmental devastation associated with unregulated markets for biofuels, especially the displacement of rain forest and peat bogs by cropland and the disruption of the food system? These have already started to happen and are not mere speculation. Will you report that the preferred clean scenario by which hydrogen is generated is approximately 30% efficient meaning that 70% of the renewable electricity that would be applied to the process would be lost?

    I would hope that Environmental Defense would be encouraging the development of (the most promising) greener technology rather than promoting a view that will suggest to people that they remain with the status quo out of fear. As other commenters point out above, we know that NIMH batteries are durable and lithium is getting there very soon. Therefore some form of PHEVs and EVs are there now or will be there pretty soon.

  9. Posted July 31, 2007 at 12:53 pm | Permalink

    Pointing out the technological challenges in bringing PHEVs to market doesn’t mean we are against PHEVs or think money shouldn’t be invested in developing the technology. In fact, I think there’s a much better chance of reaching the goal if we start with a realistic assessment of where we are.

    It would be a very cool thing if PHEVs could happen in the way it’s envisioned, and of course we should try. Try this, and try other things, too, because none of us have a crystal ball into the future, and none of us can predict in advance what technology will work out. Right now there are unsolved technological problems with PHEVs – that’s all we are saying.

  10. Posted July 31, 2007 at 2:17 pm | Permalink

    I’m all for realism…though realism includes a positive assessment of the benefits of a technology along with its drawbacks, existing and potential. In your piece I do not read much about the gains in fuel efficiency and flexibility of PHEVs or the overall energy efficiency of an electric motor (3x as efficient) over a combustion engine…your focus is on potential downfalls of PHEV or EV.

    If you want to stay with the current editorial approach, for consistency’s sake, you would need to focus your interviews in upcoming installments on the views of Joe Romm or Ulf Bossel about hydrogen and Lester Brown and George Monbiot about biofuels. No advocates or upbeat assessments…just the critics (whose views in the case of biofuels and hydrogen I largely agree with).

  11. Posted July 31, 2007 at 2:32 pm | Permalink


    I didn’t leave off the good part. The first paragraph describes the promise. To me, one of the most interesting and exciting aspects of PHEVs is the ability to store green energy (like wind power) in the car’s battery. When you plug them in, the power can flow either way.

    The mayor of Austin, TX wants to replace all the parking meters with plug-in meters so the electric utility can draw power from vehicle batteries during peak times (click the “Austin City Council” link in the article for details). How cool would that be!

    But focusing on coolness factors doesn’t get us there. Why not be realistic about the technical hurdles – and they are real. Maybe laying these issues out frankly will cause more money to flow into solving the problem. Certainly I see nothing to be gained by pretending no problems exist.

  12. Posted August 1, 2007 at 3:25 pm | Permalink

    Hi Davide,

    Sorry for the slow reply to your comment. I wanted to talk to our car expert about some of your points, and he was tied up yesterday.

    You make a lot of very technical statements about batteries – sounds like you’re an inventor. We don’t track battery technology at that level here, so I can’t respond specifically to what you say. As an organization, Environmental Defense is “technology agnostic”. We want to shift market forces so that inventors are rewarded for their efforts, but we don’t endorse any particular technology so we don’t delve into the technology at that level of detail.

    The points you dispute were made by an industry expert who does track battery technology at that level and is respected enough to be asked to testify before the Senate. So I give him a lot of credibility. But if you’ve found new ways to do things, I’m glad!

  13. eschneider
    Posted August 10, 2007 at 4:43 am | Permalink

    I am confused, and would like to ask the following questions:

    1) What happened to the Ovonics batteries that powered the all-electric GM EV1? Why isn’t that battery technology being used to power PHEV’s? After all, it was successful 10 years ago…..

    2) Miles Automotive Group is currently marketing 100% electric cars. They are marginally available for purchase in the United States, but have been limited to 25mph by the DOT. It’s not an unsafe car – it passes European and Asian safety standards; so why is a 200mph Ferrari granted exemption to DOT certification, while an entry level all-electric car is not?

    3) The miles car has a 100+ mile range in all-battery mode, but only in the Chinese version. Why does this car use different batteries when imported into the US? Why can this technology not be used in PHEV’s?

    4) In 1995 Ford and the DOT sponsored a collegiate Hybrid Electric Vehicle Challenge. Similar competitions were sponsored in 1996 and 1997 by GM and by Chrysler. All of the vehicles entered in those competitions were plug-in hybrid vehicles. What has happened to the research and knowledge generated by these competitions over 10 years ago?

    In summary, I don’t understand how battery technology is an obstacle today, when those problems seemed to have been overcome more than 10 years ago by college students and by GM. Further, I don’t understand how a Chinese company is able to mass-produce an all-electric car, and yet we are unable to find batteries to power PHEV’s?

    with respect,

  14. Posted August 13, 2007 at 6:59 pm | Permalink

    Eric, I don’t know the answers to your questions. I’ve forwarded your message to the auto experts at Environmental Defense. If they have any insights, I’ll post ’em.

  15. Posted August 14, 2007 at 2:34 pm | Permalink

    Hi Eric,

    We’re not able to give you a point-by-point response to your questions, but I do have a link to a WSJ article from last week that you might find interesting. It talks about how Toyota is delaying its introduction of hybrids using lithium-ion batteries because of safety problems.

  16. James A. Maxwell
    Posted August 15, 2007 at 2:05 am | Permalink

    Nice article, Sheryl,

    I think for clarity it would have been useful to have prefaced Dr. Anderman’s analysis with some of the system boundaries that he considered:

    His analysis is for a 20mile All Electric Range large, full power (140+kW, 75+mph) PHEV sedan (like a Camry).

    I don’t think any of the Prius PHEV conversions on the road right now go more than the 35mph limit of the Prius in EV mode. Dr. Anderman’s intent is to show the difficulty faced with building a full function long range EV Mode PHEV (like GM’s Volt is trying to be).

    So his assessment is for a much different system than Mr. Kramer or Mr. Andrea have experience with. But that does not mean that these people’s experience is invalid at all! It just means we are comparing vastly different systems here. (Dr. Anderman might like to try his analysis on the types of systems that are seeing some success today, such as the current conversion vehicles, for low power EV and blended mode operation.)

    But Dr. Anderman still has valid points:

    His estimations of battery life (unknown) and cost ($5k to $7k) and safety (fire concerns) are all valid and based on known research. There are exactly zero PHEVs with 5 years experience on them, let alone the 15 years/150,000 miles that automakers want to be able to guarantee. There are no conversion PHEVs with a full trunk and a spare tire. There are no conversion PHEVs that have been through a full slate of FMVSS/NHTSA or IIHS crash tests and safety evaluations. There are no SAE standards for lithium ion battery conversions. None of the conversion vehicles are fully certified by a government agency. So it is disingenuous for anyone to tell the public that it is “today’s technology,” because it’s not quite true, yet. Hopefully soon, but not quite yet.

    Maybe Lithium Iron Phoshate batteries solve some of the safety concerns, as Mr. Andrea points out. Forgive me if I wait to see the FMVSS crash tests. Do they solve the life concern? Still unknown. Manufacturer data for 1000 cycles at carefully controlled conditions is no match for a real world full environmental durability test over real time. Do they solve the cost concern? Probably not. Do they solve the packaging space concern? It is difficult. But even Dr. Anderman said in his multi-client report that LiFePO4 was probably the best bet for the types of PHEVs that Mr. Kramer and Mr. Andrea are working with, but the challenges for a full function long EV range PHEV are not inconsiderable.

    So the automakers have a lot on their plate as they attempt to solve this one, and it is not really surprising that none of them have issued production contracts yet.

    One thing to keep in mind, though, is that the Prius PHEV (low EV range) if produced in volume will still live on gasoline for most of its miles for most real users (appologies in advance to Mr. Kramer). Yes, the EPRI study shows that a lot of miles can be covered by PHEVs, but not the kind that are being converted today. We need a couple of generations of PHEV vehicle technology before we see the real environmental benefits, but the end result is the same – we need another solution beyond gasoline. PHEV is only a step in the right direction; it is not an end in itself. And government and automakers need to plan beyond the next step.

    For tomorrow’s PHEVs, it will be interesting to see how the range extender aspect plays out, and what combination of fuels and technologies will work the best. But I think it’s clear that the grid will be an important part of the transportation energy mix, and everyone, automakers, government, utility companies, should plan on taking the steps to prepare for it.



    (sorry about the longwindedness)

  17. eschneider
    Posted August 19, 2007 at 1:24 am | Permalink


    With respect:

    …..His estimations of battery life (unknown) and cost ($5k to $7k) and safety (fire concerns) are all valid and based on known research…….

    Is this any different than the trial period of the original HEV’s?

    …. There are exactly zero PHEVs with 5 years experience on them, let alone the 15 years/150,000 miles……

    Again, is this any different than the trial period of the original HEV’s?

    …..There are no conversion PHEVs with a full trunk and a spare tire…..

    Are you suggesting that a PHEV necessarily could not have room for a trunk or spare tire?

    …. There are no conversion PHEVs that have been through a full slate of FMVSS/NHTSA or IIHS crash tests and safety evaluations……

    … None of the conversion vehicles are fully certified by a government agency…..

    Well, the crash tests pertain to occupant safety and the structural safety of the chassis. As long as the batteries do not exceed the GVW rating of the vehicle, am I to understand you would have the drivetrain configuration evaluated by the FMVSS, too? is there any vehicle on roads today subjected to such testing?

    …..There are no SAE standards for lithium ion battery conversions…..

    SAE does not impose regulations on the automotive industry; furthermore, many SAE conventions are ignored by auto manufacturers.

    …it is disingenuous for anyone to tell the public that it is “today’s technology,” because it’s not quite true………….

    well, thats correct in the US. However, there are 100% EV’s being built in China by at least one automaker (Tianjin Qingyuan Electric Vehicle Co.)

    ……….So the automakers have a lot on their plate as they attempt to solve this one, and it is not really surprising that none of them have issued production contracts yet………

    Well, actually Miles Automotive Group (Tianjin Qingyuan Electric Vehicle Co.) and ZAP have both issued contracts. Unfortunately, both groups were forced to contract with Chinese companies. Why is that? Can we really not create the jobs and revenue from L-ion technology here in the US?

    Also, you haven’t mentioned Nickel metal hydride batteries, the technology of which was developed by the USABC (United States Advanced Battery Consortium), sponsored by the EPRI and the DOT in research grants to universities and researchers, and in conjuction with the big three automakers. The best of that technology, developed by a company called Ovonics, was used by GM in the EV1. That technology appears to have been successful – in acceleration, range, packaging, and price – 10 years ago, in a 100% EV vehicle – but it appears that the technology resides now in the hands of Texaco-owned Cobasys, and is no longer available for purchase – certainly not to the taxpayers who helped fund the research grants for the technology.

    ….We need a couple of generations of PHEV vehicle technology before we see the real environmental benefits………

    Again, how is this any different than the first wave of original HEV’s?

    …………we need another solution beyond gasoline. PHEV is only a step in the right direction; it is not an end in itself………

    Would you suggest that we not implement current technology, but rather we should wait for the end solution to be developed? In 1995, the end solution was advanced technology batteries. In 2000, the end solution was fuel cells. In 2005, it was Hydrogen. What is the end solution now?

    I seek only to understand.

    Again, with respect-


  18. eschneider
    Posted August 19, 2007 at 1:50 am | Permalink


    The article link you posted was intriguing. I cannot imagine why Toyota would cite older Lithium ion overheating problems as an obstacle, when ZAP and Tianjin Qingyuan are both using Lithium Polymer technology in their Li-ion batteries. Also, Valence Technologies seems to have developed a Lithium Phosphate variant and is ready for commercial marketing.

    Again, we have omitted the NiMH technogy developed by Ovonics, today held proprietary by Cobasys. It was working technology 10 years ago!

    i still do not understand why battery technology is being cited as an obstacle?

    With respect,


  19. James A. Maxwell
    Posted August 19, 2007 at 9:16 pm | Permalink


    Thanks for the good thoughts – I’ll see if I can address a some of them –

    A couple of difficulties with NiMH (Ovonic’s invention, derivatives of which all of the auto manufacturers are using in today’s hybrid batteries):

    a) Energy density is low, compared to Li-Ion. About half, give or take. So if you want a PHEV battery, the size and weight of a NiMH battery would be approximately double that of the LiIon variety for a given battery storage amount.

    b) Charge-Discharge efficiency of NiMH is much less than Li-Ion (~70% compared to ~95%) (I can’t remember exact numbers – correct me if I’m wrong anyone).

    c) Self-Discharge rate of NiMH is much higher than Li-Ion.

    So all of these things together does not make it such an attractive solution for PHEV.

    Would it work in a PHEV? Yes.

    Would it work well enough to mass produce a consumer product with a clear benefit to the customer? Doubtful.

    Which is why all auto manufacturers have been working for years on developing Li-Ion batteries for pure hybrids. Of course they see the clear advantages!

    But the problem with the Li-Ion so far has been a few things:

    a) Safety (LiFePO4 is a new beast – A123 and others are doing good work to capitalize on safety trouble of other chemistries).

    b) Cycle life (less than NiMH) especially at deep discharge. Again, some excellent work is being done on it, but I don’t think any battery company will tell you that they are unconditionally ready for an automotive application. If they do, ask them what the warranty is, and whether they are willing to put up their own money to guarantee it. Everyone is willing to use the automakers’ money, except, of course, the automakers!

    c) Cost. Still expensive! Yes, some people will pay an additional $10k. But how many? Enough people to make a profitable vehicle? Nobody knows, but the risk to an automaker to make that gamble is pretty big.

    So can a conversion be built that will work? Of course. We see several of them.

    But back to your question of certification – basically an automaker would not sell a PHEV similar to the ones that are being made now with batteries in the crash-crushable spaces of trunk and spare tire area. Yes, NHTSA tests significant differences in powerplant configurations, if they think it mght have a different crash test result. A PHEV with a bunch of batteries in the trunk would probably not pass FMVSS 301. It might be just a question of packaging – it must be possible to build a car where the battery is protected (like today’s hybrids) and where it poses no risk of fire in a collision, and no projectile risk to occupants. But this means a new vehicle body, which costs several tens of millions in initial investment. So you might forgive automakers for waiting until they know for certain they have a battery to put in it!

    So yes, you are probably right – PHEVs are similar to where HEVs were in the early to mid 1990’s. And you will remember it took until the late 1990’s for the first couple of hybrids to exist on the market, and not until the early 2000’s until they existed in quantity, and not until gasoline prices rose to around $2.50 to $3.00 per gallon that a consumer could actually save money by driving one, versus a similar non hybrid car. And not until now for a US automaker to introduce their own hybrid (Ford’s is based on Toyota’s technology).

    So forgive me if I’m skeptical about the immediacy of PHEVs – I think the technical difficulties put it off a few years, and once those are solved, it takes some value proposition to sell it to a consumer. Cost and perceived value have to strike a chord with the consumer.

    Once most of the technical hurdles are achieved, I think these steps need to be taken in order for PHEVs to be successful:

    1) Government must buy the difference in cost between a PHEV and a regular HEV (because the energy security value and environmental value of plugging in is a societal savings, not a mere private savings). This needs to be done at the automaker or vehicle dealership level so that consumers do not have to foot the bill waiting for the tax credit comes through.

    2) Utilities need to heavily subsidize the recharging cost, and eat the seperate meter costs. If government pays, so be it.

    3) Government needs to underwrite the vehicle warranty for battery, to remove the risk to the automaker. Battery needs replaced? Take it to your dealer. No cost to consumer, no cost to automaker. Again, it is a public benefit, so public funds should be spent. Part of this is, of course, spurring the battery makers to solve some of their problems.

    4) Automakers, governments, utilities, and advocates need to get some public charging locations out there where I can plug in (get a headstart on plug-out infrastructure while you’re at it!)

    5) Government, auto dealerships, and large corporate fleet managers have to ask for it on purchase orders. A couple of hundred consumer advocates don’t sell a lot of cars.

    6) Consumers may have to accept slightly less luggage space, or other feature losses.

    And in the long run

    7) Every PHEV needs to come with a solar panel or windmill installed somewhere, otherwise we’re still trading gasoline for coal and have not done the world so big of a favor as we think we have.

    Just beating up automakers and demanding PHEVs won’t work. If it is necessary for society, and it makes sense, then society should do it.



  20. eschneider
    Posted August 20, 2007 at 4:03 am | Permalink

    Hi James;

    Thanks for the reply.

    First, current electric cars are NOT using the advanced technology developed by ovonics. Panasonic is the battery supplier for current HEV’s (not to take anything away from Panasonic). The battery pack for the Prius Gen I was literally D-cells strung together.

    Second, the battery packs in current HEV’s are only 6.5 amp-hours, weigh around 50 lbs, and are relatively small. Packaging, safety testing, and technology are not obstacles by simply adding say, 3 extra batteries. Certainly noone would suggest that 150 lbs, or even 300, would warrant additional crash testing (unless one proposes to locate the additional batteries on the rear bumper) Lithium batteries are superior, no doubt – but the existing technolgy is not being utilised to its potential. The best of existing technology (ovonic) is not even publicly available.

    Third, I see repeated references to Lithium-iron battery problems. There are other variants of Lithium batteries, so lets not discount the entire entire family of lithium batteries when only one subcategory has an overheating problem. How many Segways have been sold with Valence battery packs? Let’s also remember that current HEV’s already incorporate a temperature regulation system.

    Finally, with regards to increased cost and customer demand. If customers purchased current HEV’s based on logical analyses of fuel costs, no HEV’s would have been sold. Several gasoline and diesel vehicles achieve greater economy. The public has overwhelmingly demonstrated willingness to pay extra for “green technology”, even given that the motivation to purchase that technology is not logically justified by cost savings, or even real reductions in environmental impact. The Prius wasn’t supposed to sell because of its increased cost; it has been one of the biggest success stories in recent automotive history. Who would really suggest that a more expensive PHEV, even if $10,000 more, would not sell?

    As for PHEV’s necessitating government subsidies and grants – those monies have already been spent in battery development, utility subsidies, highway funds, and municipal charging facility implementation. Rather than the government opening its wallet again, I would humbly suggest that we enforce that the entities who received those monies provide the benefit of the cash they received. Somebody removed the municipal charging stations that were established in the 90’s. They should be replaced without cost to the public. Battery technology was government funded. That technology should be available to the people who paid for it. Battery insurance was a part of the federal budget in the late 90’s. Would we postpone PHEV’s because the public has to provide funding AGAIN for programs that were never realised?

    Yes, I do understand that those who squandered these monies will never be held accountable for providing the services and goods for which they were paid from public funds. However, I do rebuke the notion that the success of PHEV’s would be dependent on how much money the government provides.

    In summary:

    Agreed – Lithium batteries are superior, and one variant of Lithium battery technology has immediate overheating issues.

    Disagree – I do not beleive PHEV development is dependent on Lithium-iron battery technology.

    Agreed – PHEV’s are not the end solution for our transportation needs

    Disagree – I don’t beleive we should hold off on PHEV’s and EV’s while we wait for the end solution. We keep changing our direction on the final target, anyway!

    Agreed – PHEV’s will be more expensive, and will not offer the same features as similar gasoline cars.

    Disagree – That public demand is an obstacle for a more expensive vehicle with fewer features. The success of the current HEV’s demonstrates that the public will pay for green technology, even when that technology is imperfect. Would Toyota claim that they’ve lost money on the Prius?

    Disagree – that PHEV’s are dependent on governmental spending, or contributions from the manufacturers or utilities. Besides, the money was spent once already and nothing tangible remains today.

    Disagree – that EV / HEV / PHEV technology trades “gas for coal”. Respectfully, I really hate to see this issue raised again, as it’s been long disproved.

    Agree – that PHEV is not the best current solution. We can do better RIGHT NOW. 100% BEV’s are current technology, in production, and in demand. (no, they’re not perfect – but they’re selling)

    But that’s another debate.

    I’ve really enjoyed this discussion, and regard your contributions (and those of the other contributors) with the deepest respect. I extend my gratitude to Ms Canter for writing a provocative article. May I humbly suggest a “part 4” to this series, summarizing the solutions and technology currently being implemented by the likes of Tianjin Qingyuan, Zap, Smart, Tesla, GEM, Zenn….. Perhaps with a comparison to the EV1 as a baseline, and a summary of the current status of the now decade-old EV1 technology?

    There has been a lot of focus on the problems of future technology. Precious little is presented on current technology.

    Eric Schneider

  21. Steve K
    Posted February 26, 2010 at 8:05 pm | Permalink

    We are very close to the release of the Nissan Leaf and the Chevy Volt. Both are counting on early adopters to spur on sales and enable the R&D folks to see how the cars function in the real world. My question is: what is the well-to-wheels impact of these new lithium based batteries? Is the overall carbon footprint of these vehicles, from the mining of raw materials for the batteries to the energy that goes into their production to the actual charging and street use, an improvement over what we already see in existing hybrids like the Prius? Will the required charging result in an increase in the generation of electricity produced with the burning of coal or is there enough capacity, both in generation and distribution, to handle the anticipated increase in demand as the result of the proliferation of plug-in electric vehicles? Clearly, there are some areas of the country where the majority of electricity is produced using natural gas and nuclear energy so the carbon footprint of a plug-in electric vehicle will differ in those regions compared to other areas where 50% or more of the electricity is produced via the burning of coal.