New Hybrid Cars Could Get 100 mpg, House Committee Told

By George L. Richards III

Washington - They were talking gas prices on Capitol Hill, and it wasn't $3 a gallon – it was 62 cents. And instead of 30 miles per gallon, some people were predicting 100. Proponents of a new type of car, a plug-in hybrid, say it is more efficient than current hybrids and could easily achieve those numbers. At a House Energy subcommittee hearing Wednesday on plug-in hybrid electric vehicles, supporters argued the new technology could help free the country of its dependence on imported oil.

Current hybrids, such as the Toyota Prius or the Ford Escape, use both batteries and electric motors, along with gasoline engines. The gas engine charges the electric battery, which powers the car much of the time. Toyota says the 2006 Prius can get above 50 mpg, while Ford says the hybrid Escape, a sport utility vehicle, does better than 30 mpg.

President Bush, as part of his Advanced Energy Initiative, has set a goal of creating plug-in hybrids that are capable of traveling up to 40 miles on battery power alone. Most Americans commute less than 40 miles a day. Plug-in hybrids have larger batteries, which can be charged overnight using an ordinary electric outlet. Gasoline is a secondary fuel, used only when the battery runs down. Instead of using both battery power and gasoline at the same time, a vehicle may not have to consume gasoline at all.

This moves energy consumption from the gasoline tank to the electric grid and emissions from the tailpipe to the power plant and should lower the overall cost of driving. Rep. Brad Sherman, R-Calif., estimated that would lower the average price of a gallon of gas to 62 cents. "The last time gas was that low I had hair," he joked.

Reps. Jack Kingston, R-Ga., and Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., were at the hearing to promote their bill, Fuel Choices for American Security Act of 2005. The bill would set a goal of cutting oil use by 20 percent in 20 years, redesigning the way the federal government calculates fuel use, giving consumers incentives to buy hybrids and developing better alternate fuels, including ethanol and other grain or waste-product fuels.

Kingston said he is willing to compromise. "We will not allow perfection to prevent progress," he said. After the hearing, committee members took a ride in one of two Toyota prototype plug-in hybrids on display outside.

Andrew Frank, director of the University of California-Davis'Hybrid Vehicle Research Center, told the committee it is a challenge to find a battery that can meet expectations. He said more research and road testing are necessary.

"A plug-in hybrid relies on the battery. The better the battery, the better the car," explained Mark Duvall, of the Electric Power Research Institute.

John German, manager of environmental and energy analyses for American Honda Motor Co., added, "The extra batteries add 175 to 500 pounds to the vehicle, which decreases performance, and it is difficult to find space for the extra batteries without detracting from the utility of the vehicle."

Duvall said that number might be too small. "With today's technology, the battery would easily weigh over 600 pounds," he said adding, "It would take one to two hours for a full charge."

Rep. Michael M. Honda, D-Calif., said plug-in hybrids might place a strain on power grids, requiring new power plants. "I fear we would just be shifting our addiction from one petrochemical to another," he said.

Source: Scripps Howard Foundation