PHEV Conversions Slow to Catch On in U.S., But Could Be Big Elsewhere

By Scott Doggett September 13, 2010

Low Cost 'Revolo' Hybridization Kit Could Boost India's Presence in Gas-Electric Arena

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By John O'Dell, Senior Editor

The idea of converting existing gas- and diesel-burners to plug-in hybrids with electric-drive systems that augment their internal combustion powerplants and boost their fuel economy through the roof is a compelling one.

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Michigan company ALTe is one of a handful of U.S. firms hoping to profit from turning vehicles like the Ford F150 pickup into hybrids. 

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Selling new hybrids and electric vehicles helps slow our use of oil and reduce air pollution and CO2 emissions from transportation, but it will take decades to sell enough to meaningfully dilute the impact of the nearly 1 billion internal combustion vehicles on the world's roads today.

But convert many of those existing vehicles to electric drive and the impact could be tremendous and immediate.

That's been the message that plug-in advocates such as CalCars founder Felix Kramer and University of California engineering professor Andy Frank have been preaching for years.

It looks like at least a few people have been listening - at home and abroad.

In India, where air quality can use all the help it can get - and where consumers can use all the relief from high fuel prices that the auto industry can pass on to them - a pair of major Indian corporations have teamed up to develop an aftermarket hybridization kit that could someday make its way to the U.S.

It may well be that countries such as India and China, acting from a sense of urgency that wealthier, more developed nations such as the U.S. just don't yet feel, will wind up leading the 21st Century transportation parade.

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At home, one of the conversion leaders seems to be a Michigan company, ALTe, that has been showing a prototype converted Ford F150 pickup (above and left) in which the standard gas engine has been replaced with a modular system consisting of a smaller internal combustion engine and an electric motor and lithium-ion battery pack.

Several others, including XL Hybrids of Boston and Chicago-based Hybrid Electric Vehicles Technologies, offer conversion systems that use the vehicles' existing engines and transmissions and add the necessary batteries and electric drive components.

CalCars maintains a list of U.S. plug-in hybrid conversion providers, although Kramer points out that most are start-ups that work on special orders but can't yet sell you a completed vehicle out of inventory.

"There's no place yet," he said, "where you can go and buy a validated, warrantied plug-in car."

Barriers range from the high cost of components to the relative paucity of tax credits to help purchasers of conversions.

ALTe, which charges about $25,000 for its F-150 conversion, can only qualify for a $2,500 federal tax credit while the new factory-built Chevrolet Volt PHEV and Nissan Leaf battery-electric vehicle each will qualify for a $7,500 credit.

That's not smart, says Kramer, who agues that encouraging conversion of most of the nation's millions and millions of big pickups, delivery trucks and SUVs to plug-in systems would save a lot more oil - and cut a lot more CO2 - than selling tens of thousands of new PHEVs and EVs.
 
Yet the maximum federal credit for a conversion is $4,000 and most- like the ALTe system - qualify for much less. The federal formula is a credit of 10 percent of the conversion cost up to a maximum of $4,000 - for a $40,000 conversion.

But things are moving along, albeit slowly.

At Alte, company marketing director Brian Polowniak told us recently that he expects to have several announcements to make by late summer, including word on the disposition of his company's application for a $100-million loan guarantee from the federal government's advanced technology vehicle manufacturing program that will help ALTe build a factory to begin turning out a stream of plug-in conversions. Also in the works: a distribution deal with a major auto dealership chain.

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Indian 'Revolution'

And in India, the new aftermarket hybridization kit, called the Revolo system (right, taken from "revolution"), is slated to go on sale by the end of the year. Its developers claim it can increase the typical Indian-market passenger car's fuel economy by 40 percent while reducing CO2 output by more than 30 percent.

The system, which can use either common lead-acid batteries or far more expensive lithium-ion batteries, is a development of global automotive components maker Bharat Forge and product engineering and information technology consulting firm KPIT Cummins Infosystems (yes, that Cummins - the diesel engine specialist is a partner).

The companies have formed a joint venture to manufacture and market the system, which KPIT Cummins Chairman and Chief Executive Ravi Pandit says can be installed on most any car or truck in India by a competent mechanic in less than a day.

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Pandit (left) told us during a recent telephone interview from his office in Pune,  a major university and industrial city in western India, that the system would be priced,  depending on power output, in the range of 60,000-150,000 rupees ($1,300-$3,250) using lead-acid batteries, which are sufficient for the typically short driving ranges of most Indian motorists.

The battery pack, typically producing 60 volts from five valve-regulated, lead-acid batteries, can be recharged from the standard Indian household current of 230 volts in four to six hours, he said.

Once the business model is proven in India, Pandit told us, the companies expect to go global with the system. Company executives have hinted that a Revolo plug-in hybrid conversion kit for a small car in Europe or the U.S. could cost as little at $5,000 using lead-acid batteries, he said.

Lithium-ion batteries, which the company also is experimenting with, would boost the cost substantially but increase range and decrease weight.

The system's components, Pandit said, include the rechargeable battery pack, power electronics controller and a 7.5- to 10-horsepower electric motor that is coupled to the engine crankshaft so it can both provide power assist to the internal combustion engine and operate as a generator for battery recharging during braking.

The system controller also is programmed to shut down the internal combustion engine at stop signs to eliminate fuel waste and emissions when the vehicle is idling.

Pandit said the system has been in testing for more than a year on Indian roads and that its fuel efficiency gains have been certified by the Automotive Research Association of India, an industry- and government-backed R&D institute.

Smaller, Cheaper

The joint venture is conducting market research to "develop a demand estimate," said Pandit , who believes that the low initial price and low operating cost of converted vehicles will help make the Revolo conversion kit a hit with both private and fleet b=vehicle owners in India.

It's that kind of low-cost, easy-to-install kit that will be needed to make plug-in hybrid conversions accessible to most people in the U.S., said Kramer - who also believes that it will take the development of smaller and more powerful batteries and inexpensive in-wheel electric motors to truly make U.S. passenger car conversions work, as there is little room on most cars to day to add an electric motor and a battery pack.

He sees, and he's not alone, the commercial-vehicle segments as the immediate markets for conversions.

Not only are trucks, vans and SUVs larger and better able to accommodate the extra equipment a hybrid system require, "it just makes more economic sense to start with big vehicles and migrate down," Kramer said.

"Commercial fleets look at total cost of ownership over many years and many miles, so a higher initial purchase cost isn't that much of a concern if the vehicle saves money on maintenance and fuel."

And if the U.S. doesn't get on the ball - private business and government alike - Kramer worries, pointing to efforts such as Revolo, then fleet operators may be purchasing their conversion systems, or converted vehicles, from overseas suppliers in the electric-drive industry's repeat of the Asian takeover of the small-car business in the U.S.

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LEAVE A COMMENT

felixkramer says: 6:53 AM, 09.13.10

Thanks for the great rundown, and for "getting" the fundamental point that while it's great to have new plug-in vehicles finally coming on the market, they won't have a major impact on our use of fossil fuels for decades.

-- Felix Kramer, Founder, CalCars.org

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