Solid Tech Improvements Advance Practical Hybrids
Although the idea of driving a hybrid vehicle (and getting a better car insurance rate for doing it) has become increasingly common for the automotive public, designers are still hotly contesting the best form “alternative” fuels should take and happily experimenting with everything from electrical and hydrogen-powered cars to those that run on compressed air or draw power from solar cells. With the venerable Toyota Prius now an everyday sight on American streets, the two most productive areas of improvement for currently available and soon-to-be introduced models can be found in battery tech and the changed view of driving underlying the interest in plug-ins.
A major step forward in hybrid technology is the move away from first-generation nickel-metal-hydride (NiMH) batteries to lithium ion, which hold twice the energy per pound of convention lead-acid batteries. For their day, NiMH batteries were a significant improvement, but this is an area where research will continue at a fast pace. Consider that in 1997 when GM produced the now legendary EV1, the lead-acid battery it used was 8 feet long and weighed 1,200 lbs. The much anticipated Chevy Volt, on the other hand, will be equipped with lithium-ion cells that store an equivalent amount of energy in a five-foot unit weighing 400 lbs. As developments in this area continue, it’s going to be all about less weight and more energy storage.
Making the Jump to Plug-Ins
Plug-ins are all the rage these days, with private enthusiasts and specialty garages already converting the popular Prius and other hybrids for plug-in capacity. In addition to the much-hyped Chevrolet Volt, GM is also working on a plug-in Saturn Vue and both Nissan and Toyota have vehicles set to debut late in 2009 and early in 2010. This represents a significant shift in how people think about their daily driving that is hugely beneficial to the progress of wide-spread hybrid adoption. Studies have shown that most people drive 40 miles or less in a day, therefore a hybrid with an all-electric range of 40 miles that can also be plugged in to a regular outlet and recharged at an equivalent cost of about $1 a gallon would largely eliminate the idea of “pain at the pump” on a daily basis while dramatically reducing greenhouse gases.
Relatively “simple” advances of this nature are serving to put working, efficient hybrids on the road today while engineers continue to grapple with thornier questions like finding a way to construct a catalyst for a hydrogen fuel cell car out of something a little less pricey than platinum, which hovers around $1,000 an ounce.