Will GM Win the Great Plug-In Hybrid Race?

Will GM Win the Great Plug-In Hybrid Race?

Part I: The father of the plug-in hybrid has his doubts

I'm driving up the California coast to visit two key players in the plug-in hybrid electric vehicle (PHEV) world. Appropriately, I am making this trip in a hybrid vehicle, the Lexus RX 400h SUV. It's not a plug-in hybrid — which could be recharged by household electricity or an onboard gas engine — but at least it saves fuel and reduces emissions. On this 800-mile trip I'll average 26 mpg. Not bad. But if I was driving a plug-in hybrid I could be getting 100-plus mpg.

A week earlier, in the State of the Union address, President Bush told the nation that we need to achieve energy independence by, in part, developing PHEVs. GM has already taken an exciting step in that direction, a kind of one-two punch. Not only did GM announce its intention to bring the Saturn Vue Green Line to market as a plug-in hybrid, but it also said it would develop the sleek and very cool, second-generation PHEV, the Chevrolet Volt.

When I first heard GM's announcements, my patriotic spirit soared. "Yes! We can do it!" I thought, fist pumping like Tiger Woods. "Detroit is going to win the plug-in hybrid race!"

But then memories of GM's EV1 debacle flooded my mind. Those electric cars were aggressively pulled back by GM and crushed as depicted in the documentary Who Killed the Electric Car?. Was Detroit really serious about putting another electric car — a plug-in electric car, at that — in the hands of Americans? Or would GM talk big and, once again, let the Japanese steal its lunch money?

That's why I began this hybrid journey — to put these questions to three people knowledgeable in the PHEV field. Who better to start with than the inventor of the plug-in hybrid, Andy Frank, director of future automotive technology for the University of California at Davis. I am also planning to speak with Felix Kramer, founder of CalCars.org, an activist promoter of plug-in technology, and Tony Posawatz, vehicle line director for the Chevrolet Volt and Saturn Vue Green Line hybrids.

The inventor of the plug-in hybrid While research into plug-in hybrids is going on at many different automakers, Frank is the one who actually holds a patent for this technology. He applied for this patent in 1998 and received it in 1999 — at least a year before the first hybrid hit the market. In his laboratory-turned-chop-shop, Frank and his students have converted nine ordinary cars into plug-in hybrids that have logged tens of thousands of real-world miles while saving gas. In one such conversion he took a Chevrolet Suburban, removed the V8, put in a four-cylinder Saturn engine and loaded it up with an electric motor and lithium-ion batteries. It runs like a hot rod and gets about 100 mpg, Frank said.

The auto shop where Frank works is littered with dismembered engines, transmissions and other car parts. A Chevrolet Equinox is up on a hoist and his students are hard at work converting it to be a plug-in. One student says to me, "We aren't trying to reinvent the wheel. We just want to reinvent the car."

Though Frank has strong opinions, he doesn't seem like he has an axe to grind. He is relaxed and friendly, with an easy laugh. We spoke as we toured his auto shop, and then later over a cup of coffee in a local restaurant.

You described yourself as a hot-rodder. In high school I put a V12 Cadillac engine in a '36 Ford Phaeton.

So in a way you're doing the same thing now. Taking out powertrains and putting in new ones. Sure. (Laughs) It's a lifetime profession. The most important thing is having fun.

How significant is this announcement that GM made about the Saturn Vue and the Chevrolet Volt? If they are really serious, it's very significant. I'm not convinced about their seriousness yet. The Saturn Vue is probably more serious than the Chevy Volt. They've been forced by people like Felix [Kramer] and EnergyCS [a plug-in hybrid conversion company] to offer cars with a larger battery pack.

What are the chances that the Saturn Vue will come to market as a plug-in hybrid? My view is that they might just offer it [plug-in capability] as an option. And there's nothing wrong with that. But if you look at the advertising they aren't going to offer it with more than a 10-mile range.

Basically, when you increase the battery pack you are increasing the weight of the car. And you are increasing the weight balance of the car, if you design the car correctly. As you change the weight balance of the car you really should change the suspension, and they don't want to do that. It's too expensive. So if you keep the all-electric range to about 10 miles you can get away with keeping it the way it is.

If you had a plug-in hybrid with an all-electric range of 10 miles, would that be useful to people? My calculations show that a 10-mile range would save you about 30 percent of the gasoline over a regular hybrid. Emissions would go down as well. But you would be plugging in all the time. The whole objective of the plug-in hybrid is to offset the use of oil. The main objective we have in this country is to get off the oil diet as President Bush has said.

I hear people saying that plug-in hybrids can get 100 miles per gallon. Is that an accurate way to present their capabilities? Initially I didn't like that idea because it isn't really 100 mpg. It is ignoring something [in the calculation]. The way I like to explain it to people, you drive the first 60 miles all electrically and that's infinite miles per gallon. Then the gas engine kicks on and you go into "charge sustaining mode." That means you can drive from San Francisco to Washington, D.C. because you don't have [to plug back into the grid]. Really there should be two parameters in a plug-in hybrid. One is all-electric range and the other is the charge-sustaining fuel economy in miles per gallon. So if you use this way of measuring fuel economy, even the Chevy Suburban [converted by U.C. Davis to a plug-in hybrid] is getting about 100 mpg. And the Equinox [another U.C. Davis conversion] is getting about 200 miles per gallon. But [saying 100 miles per gallon] did get people's attention. And if you look at GM's Volt announcement they talk about getting 150 miles per gallon.

You took out a patent in 1999 for the plug-in hybrid. Are you the inventor of the plug-in hybrid? Yes. So to speak. People have called me the father of the plug-in hybrid. Maybe that's an appropriate term. Some people have said every hybrid is really a plug-in hybrid because you have to charge the batteries somewhere. But it's a little more complicated than that. The objective is to build a car that is really automatic, where a person only has to plug it in, just like your cell phone. Then, when you drive, the car automatically takes care of using gas or using electricity. That is the essence of the patent. You want it so it is seamless, you don't know if you are running on electricity or gas.

Back in 1998 when you applied for the patent there were no hybrids in the marketplace. What was it that gave you the idea for the plug-in hybrid? In 1970 was the first gas crisis. I was a professor at the University of Wisconsin. I got to thinking about how to improve fuel economy. I did some calculations that showed that if you designed it correctly you could get 100 miles per gallon even in a big car. But you have to find a way to store energy. If you successfully managed all the energy in a car you could, conceptually, get 100 miles per gallon. That was my objective. I built a hybrid car using all lead-acid batteries. And I quickly found out that wasn't going to work.

Lead-acid batteries were all that was available back then. Right. So I used three Caterpillar tractor batteries, about 450 pound of batteries. (Laughs) So it was clear that there were a lot of technologies that needed to be developed. Batteries was one of them. The transmission was another of them. There were no CVTs, except in Europe, the Van Dorn. But they were less than desirable.

Is the work that you do here all research or are you working to bring about political change as well? I'm definitely trying to get the message out so I'll appear at the [California] Air Resources Board hearings. But I've appeared at the Air Resources Board so many times it almost sounds like I'm a broken record. Over the course of the last 10 years, because I've been adamant about moving toward using plug-in hybrids, people have begun to take notice. But one guy trying to move the world is kind of hard.

But a lot of things have happened in the last two years that might convince people it's time for a big change. We've had extreme gas spikes and a lot more attention being paid to global warming. I don't care what anyone says. Global warming is one of the more serious problems we have worldwide — this isn't limited to our country. I believe that we in the United States have an opportunity to show the rest of the world the way to go. And in a way, the plug-in hybrid is beginning to filter around the world.

Going back to GM's announcement, it could be the beneficiary of a lot of great publicity if it introduces a viable plug-in hybrid. GM got hit hard by the negative publicity from the movie Who Killed the Electric Car? But do you think it has learned from that experience? I think the announcement of the Chevy Volt is a direct result of Who Killed the Electric Car? They rushed that out. Knowing how the car companies work, there's all kinds of denial when it first comes out. But the guys at the top know what the heck's going on. They reacted. But the Volt was the platform for the old fuel-cell car. And the fuel-cell car is basically an electric car. So they replaced the fuel cell with a gas engine and — that's it. It was a quick and dirty way of taking the stuff they were doing [fuel-cell cars] — which isn't going to work anyway — and producing something that is going to get them a visual impact, some eye candy.

Is there anything technologically speaking that still needs to be proved about plug-in hybrid cars? I believe that GM is still not too serious about the whole plug-in hybrid business. And the reason I say that is because their transmission is basically a Toyota transmission, which means it is a transmission plus a transmission. It has two electric motors and two controls. So it's more expensive. In contrast, what we are building is a single motor and a single transmission, a CVT [continuously variable transmission]. So they aren't serious unless they look at what it takes to bring that cost down.

The technology we are developing will wind up with a transmission that is less than half the cost of any other hybrid and rival the cost of any other conventional transmission. The money we save in downsized engines and low-cost transmissions will offset the cost of the batteries.

Because lithium-ion batteries are expensive. Until the volumes get up they will always be expensive.

How much interaction do you have with the car companies? I've made presentations to GM and Ford. For example, I was just at Ford last January talking to their top executives. I made a presentation about plug-in hybrids and what they can do and the research that we're doing. The chief technology officer at Ford, after the presentation he said, "Well, Professor Frank, that's interesting. But what makes you think you have better technology than we have?" I said, "Why do you say that?" He said, "Look, you're only one guy and we have the best technology in the world. We hire people from MIT and Cal Tech. Why are you better than those guys?" What was I supposed to say? "You hired a bunch of dummies?" (Laughs)

Let's ask the most important question. Do you think that Detroit is basically uninterested in improving fuel economy in its cars? Fundamentally they are not. The reason why is that the cost of gasoline is not high enough. They believe they can still sell enough cars without making their product more fuel-efficient.

You don't seem bitter even though people attack you and don't listen to what you are doing. I get disappointed when car companies commit to a program and I find out that they're not sincere. The EV1 was an example of that. It performed great but if you didn't plan your trip you were in trouble. It was exactly the problem with a pure electric car. In that planning process you had to leave a lot of time for charging.

To find a dealership that knows how to treat shoppers right, please visit Edmunds.com's Dealer Ratings and Reviews.

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