Plug-in Hybrid Fever Spreads, Despite Cost

Chevy Volt

Mostly everyone agrees that the next big leap in hybrids—the capacity to plug-in to the grid and run mostly on electricity—will be expensive. But that’s not stopping major automakers from pushing forward with plans for plug-in hybrids that promise dramatic increases in fuel efficiency.

News and announcements about plug-ins have gained momentum in the past few weeks. General Motors said it’s on track to introduce the Chevy Volt plug-in hybrid sedan in late 2010, followed by a plug-in sport-utility vehicle in 2011. Hyundai plans to have a plug-in hybrid on sale by late 2012. Volvo said that its plug-in hybrid will be “a reality” by 2012. Toyota will begin commercial production of plug-in hybrids in 2012, producing between 20,000 and 30,000 units in the first year, according to media reports.

A plug-in hybrid car is similar to a conventional hybrid vehicle—both use a gasoline engine as well as an electric motor. However, plug-in hybrids use larger more expensive battery packs that can be recharged by connecting to common household electricity. Plug-in hybrids provide many of the benefits of an electric car, while maintaining the same driving range as conventional vehicles.

The cost of developing plug-in hybrids, and uncertainty about market acceptance, is not delaying GM’s plans for them—even though the company is in bankruptcy. “I can tell you that I won’t lose one day in terms of customers being able to walk into dealerships and actually purchase a plug-in,” GM Vice Chairman Tom Stephens told Automotive News. The company has not confirmed production numbers, but its intentions clearly are aimed at the mass market. “My job is to get it out there and get it right the first time but then get it cost-effective so that we can do a huge number,” said Stephens.

Blue-Will Concept Rear width="304" height="174" />Blue-Will Concept AboveBlue-Will Concept

Hyundai plans to release a plug-in hybrid based on its Blue-Will concept vehicle.

Earlier this week, Hyundai announced plans for a new plug-in hybrid model based on its Blue-Will concept—but does not see the technology as profitable. “We want to be the leader in fuel economy and alternative fuels,” said Yang Woong-chul, president of research and development for Hyundai-Kia Motors. “We want to show our technology and improve our image, not necessarily make money on hybrids.”

Blue-Will is a four-door sports car powered by a 1.6-liter gasoline engine and a 100-kilowatt electric motor. Hyundai said the Blue-Will will get an estimated 50 to 55 mpg in the hybrid-electric mode and can travel about 38 miles in electric-only mode. “We’re going after Prius and the Volt with the plug-in,” said Woong-chul.

Volvo Plug-in Hybrid

Volvo announced plans in June to produce a plug-in diesel hybrid. At the press conference, Volvo chief executive Stephen Odell said, “This is a significant leap compared to our earlier plans of offering a regular full-hybrid on the market by 2012.”

The company admits that a diesel vehicle with a lithium ion battery will be expensive. The current Volvo V70 plug-in hybrid demonstration car uses an 11.3 kWh battery pack. At that size, the battery pack alone could cost $10,000 or more based on current prices. Volvo expects those prices to come down, especially if the battery is downsized to meet, but not exceed, consumer needs. The battery pack is combined with a front-wheel drive diesel engine with a rear-wheel drive electric motor.

A few days ago, Nikkei reported that Toyota also plans to begin commercial production of plug-in hybrids in 2012. Toyota has been slowly evaluating plug-in hybrid concepts, but until now has not committed to a production date. According to Nikkei, Toyota’s plug-ins will run 12 to 18 miles on battery power alone at full charge, and will cost about $48,000.

While on the campaign trail, President Obama said he hoped to see 1 million plug-in hybrids on the road by 2015, a number beyond the most optimistic forecasts. Since Obama took office, the federal government has implemented a broad range of consumer and industry incentives to promote production and sales of plug-in vehicles.


  • Reality Check

    It seems odd so many auto makers are talking about developing plug-in hybrids when so few auto makers currently produce non-plug-in hybrids. Right now there are just 5 total, and only 4 with self-developed technology (Toyota, Honda, Ford, and GM).

    All these car makers talk about plug-in hybrids so they can avoid having to develop and compete with real hybrids today. In 2012 or 2014 when all these promises come due I doubt these auto makers will deliver with the goods. Maybe we will all be surprised though…

  • tom gray

    Perhaps someone in touch with reality should inform our dimwitted President that a million electric cars (or plug-in hubrids) won’t accomplish one thing in terms of either oil or emission avoidance. Try 1/5th of 1 percent oil reduction and 1/20th of 1 percent
    emission reduction and try to make a plausible argument.

  • ex-EV1 driver

    Plug-In Hybrids expensive? Pay now or pay later.
    I laud those who chose to pay now to get us off of our dependence on oil while we are still able to afford gas.

    It is much better than leaving it to the young generation that will have to pay huge costs for oil and pay huge costs for their cars.

  • ex-EV1 driver

    Tom Gray,
    Please enlighten me: How do a million cars that don’t use oil not avoid it?

  • Charles

    The Toyota, Ford and some of the GM (big trucks and SUVs) hybrids can be converted to plug in hybrids with very few changes. Their electric motors can drive the cars at suburban speeds. Honda and the smaller GM hollow hybrids are worthless as plug ins. For the Prius, Camry, Fusion and Escape hybrids replacing the batteries and chargers with lithium based batteries would just about do it for plug in conversions. The cost of the batteries is a big stumbling block. The other big problem is the life expectancy of lithium batteries. My notebook computers go through their lithium batteries in two years or less.

    I like the idea of plug ins, but I am not going to buy one anytime soon.

  • Tony

    Tom Gray was exaggerating just a little bit.

    First of all, we’re not talking about a million cars that don’t use oil (or more accurately, fossil fuels), we’re talking about a million cars that use electricity. The top two sources of electricity in this country are and will remain, for at least a couple of decades, coal and natural gas. Although there is oil in the mix as well, and most of these cars will be PHEVs not EVs because most people aren’t willing to leave their home in a vehicle that they’re not sure will get them where they’re going and back without the option to refuel it.

    More to the point, those million cars, which will use some oil just not as much, represent only about a percent of the total fleet in the US — counting only passenger cars.

    Passenger cars are only a fraction (though a large one) of all transportation in terms of fuel consumption.

    And transportation as a whole is only a fraction of total energy consumption.

    So he’s correct in that 1 million PHEVs is not exactly a wholesale replacement of foreign oil with clean energy.

    It is, however, a start.

    I’ll point out, again, that had the Bush energy policy been enacted as proposed in 2001, instead of being watered down and delayed til 2005, we’d likely be halfway there by now.

    I’ll also point out that under Bush, the goal was understood and he put forth a proposal that would have gotten us there. President Obama shows up and articulates the same goal, though explicitly and with a bit more specificity, but with no indication whatsoever of how to get there, and is lauded as some kind of visionary. It’s ludicrous. Ironically, the greatest threat of delay to the commercial availability of PHEVs is the Obama administration’s handling of the bankruptcy of the only automaker up until six months ago that had been working on one.

    Style over substance, the age-old complaint of conservatives about how their liberal counterparts are received by the public.

  • Tony

    Reality Check:

    It doesn’t seem odd to me at all. Most auto makers were late to the game on HEVs. Without making excuses, deciding what the market would want is a big guessing game. Witness the loss in popularity of HEVs when gasoline fell back to the $2 range. It’s obvious that people will want more efficient cars the more gasoline costs, but predicting the cost of gasoline is anything but trivial.

    At this point, however, things have changed. It is clear that if legislation favored by the Obama administration becomes law (and it is certain that some form of it will become law), the cost of gasoline (and all other carbon based fuels, as well as all goods and services requiring the use of energy from those fuels in their production) will increase dramatically. That takes a lot of the risk out of pursuing the HEV route, because the government is basically going to guarantee a market for them.

    As far as jumping straight to PHEVs, that one is easy. For those auto makers who came late to the game, HEVs will be obsolete by the time they could get a brand new HEV to market — thanks largely to GM and the Volt, which is what prodded Toyota into that particular race.

    Of course that doesn’t eliminate ALL risk. It is expected that millions of jobs will be lost as a result of Cap And Trade. So while it’s guaranteed that high-efficiency vehicles, particularly PHEVs, will have a larger share of the market, it will be an increased share of a much smaller market. Which means that if you’re an auto maker, you can’t not make PHEVs, because people are definitely not going to be buying traditional vehicles anymore. But you can’t really count on making back your investment either because most people won’t be buying anything at all.

  • Shaunney Cakes

    What it is is that these companies are not likely to compete against the established Prius and Ford Hybrid brands. If these companies hit the next product, all will be available at around the same time and everything starts at a clean slate, then it will be the product that decides the market. We know it won’t be Toyota since theirs will not hit the market until 2012 and be REALLY pricey, even in comparison to the Volt, but that is all we know. The Volt will likely hit the market first, then the iMiev, Focus EV, and Nissan EV are expected around 2011 and Nissan claims it will be in the $20,000 range.

  • Samie

    Tony

    “And transportation as a whole is only a fraction of total energy consumption.”

    On average transportation accounts for at least 25% of our energy needs not sure that is a small amount of energy consumption
    http://www.eia.doe.gov/oiaf/ieo/transportation.html
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Energy_in_the_United_States

    How is it that “It is expected that millions of jobs will be lost as a result of Cap And Trade.” Are you looking at growth in other sectors or firms that develop new technologies to help larger firms from going over permit requirements? Or requiring standards in trade agreements? If done correctly not like the European mess a few years ago it should spur market based solutions.

    Tony I would also still love to know “I’ll also point out that under Bush, the goal was understood and he put forth a proposal that would have gotten us there.” not sure I get that, & that’s not a political comment. I don’t see how technology was ready nor the government incentives or regulation was there to do it….

    Will alternative energy & technologies cost more to the average consumer? Yes it will & I doubt that’s a surprise (at least in the short-term). We at some point are going to stretch supply in our lifetimes, who knows when but petroleum based energy is going to start to cost a lot more even if you do not add government regulations or hedge betting into the mix. That is why it is smart to start w/ the plug-in concepts & improve each generation of vehicles.

    I get worried that many people think in one point in time ideas. 2015 1million plug-in cars may not happen nor as pointed out mean much in petroleum reduction (though they may have not accounted for the offset of the actual increase in petroleum needs by 2015) but to me that topic is merely a talking-point for political ideology & not the real market environment. Does it really matter when 1million plug-ins or say EV’s are on the road? What matters is progress through competition to reduce costs and improve on battery technology by offering consumers products that eventually will become more affordable to all. How long will that take? I don’t know. But don’t think in terms of how technology is today or how the costs today will dictate pricing in twenty years or else we still would be talking about the first generation Prius…….

  • Joe

    Sick of the whole Car situation that greenies want to shove down your throat. The Carbon emissions are a farce and AL Gore is pushing a lie about CO2. I dont believe global warming garbage, I just want our country to energy independent without costing an ARM & A LEG!

    Save the Greenbacks!

  • Dave K.

    There is no silver bullet for peak oil/climate change whatever your favorite issue is but PHEVs come the closest of anything. Putting cars on the grid solves so many problems it’s hard to list them all. Though most people would be fine with an EV I don’t think many will accept a car with limited range, also that expensive battery can be sized for the average commute instead of max daily need + headroom like an EV. the cost of a range extender is minimal. The advantages of electric drive are well documented and not really in doubt. Also LiFePO4 batteries are already $500/Kwhr and are lasting 5-6000 cycles so the battery is no longer the problem.
    It’s time for a change, in 5 years fuel will be so expensive no one will want a car that’s not a PHEV so they better be ready.

  • Freedom

    Joe if you don’t give a buck oh five who will

  • DC

    PHEV, as they are currently configured, are something of a scam, and a deliberate one at that. Firstly, its a widely accepted principle in engineering that the simplest solution is the best one. Hybrid vehicles for personal transport violate this prinicple in spades. Hybrids no matter what they are called, combine a dangerous, inefficent engine, with weak, neutered batteries that while offering some very modest benefits, fall far short of there potential. That however, is by DESIGN. It seems few people have seriously questioned just why Li-on is suddeny the battery of choice amoung car makers.

    The oil companies and there auto-partners prefer Li-on for a variety of reasons. Oil loves them because there expensive, and know the more costly they are, the less market share they will gain. Auto-makers prefer them because they are more complex, and have short(er) life-spans. Li-on are use-it-or lose it batteries, Li-ons simply dont have long shelf-lives weither you use a lot or a little. This ensures the on-going maintence costs to the end user remain high. Auto likes fact the all-electric preformance(by design again) is so poor compared to gas, that it wont casue any friction between them and there big oil partners, everyones happy. It seems to bother few people that it is far from certain there is even enough lithium to even partially electrify(or hybrid if you prefer) the worlds car fleets. A small but signifigant fact im sure big oil is well aware of.

    When even the proponents of hybrids, freely to admit, that they do not address the underlying problem, you have to wonder why all the effort? Its well within our capabilites to produce gas and diesel engines that are nearly as efficent as HEV for less cost and complexity, and certainly lower cost, so why? I dont adocate that, only pointing out it is possible-not desireable. HEV’s PHEV whatever, real purpose is to keep everyone tethered to the gas-pump-Period. Full BEV are the only viable solution to the energypollution problems we face. HEV PHEV are a needlessly complex and expensive step we could just skip all-together, but of course big oil is not about to allow that.

    1 million PhEV or HEV wont make a much of an impact on energy dependence or pollution, I million EV’s however, would be a signifigant step foward. Of course, the oil companies couldnt even handle the 1500 Rav4 EVs and a few EV-1′s rolling around could they?

  • uktiger

    Limiting the GVW of passenger cars is a much more practical solution. I do have to say to the Tom Gray’s of the world… innovation should not be about ideology. Just because Rush Limbaugh isn’t advocating for it doesn’t make it a bad idea.

  • otherguy

    “Expensive” is a misleading term. While at today’s gasoline / battery prices, an average consumer is unlikely to recoup the additional cost of a PHEV, battery prices will almost certainly decline and most long-term analyses of oil prices predict rising crude prices.

    Yet even at today’s prices, there are applications for which PHEVs make clear economic sense. US Postal vehicles, for example, return horrible gas mileage (under 15mpg), generally travel relatively short daily distances (under 50 miles), and have long service lives. This market is begging for a solid PHEV or EV solution. Smart companies, such as Bright Automotive, are developing PHEVs for the fleet market, and both Miles Electric Vehicles and Chrysler are looking at pure EVs for this market. For these uses, PHEV and EVs are decidedly inexpensive.

  • sean t

    DC,

    I found it difficut to understand you. You prefer EV and don’t like PHEV/HEV, don’t you? PHEV/HEV may be a transitiion from ICE vehicle to EV.

  • Robcares

    Okay, so I did a little home work about what it takes to generate electricity in this country. My source is the Department of Energy report just released last month. What follows is, present use source figures;

    Coal-51%
    Nuclear-21%
    Natural gas-17%
    Renewables-9%
    Petrolium-1%

    When you look at the trend predictions to 2020, the greatest increase is in the use of Petrolium, second; Naturel gas, and then Coal. Nuclear will be in decline, Hydroelectric has leveled off, and Non-Hydroelectric renewable energy production shows a slight increase.

    What this tells me is that with EV’s we are trading gas for coal, which concerns me from a polution stand point. I now believe that an NG hybrid is our best short term solution, until we fix the way we derive electricity. I know what some would say, but I don’t see that we have any choice but to expand the use of nuclear power. The government needs to subsidise and advocate solar as much as possible, then and only then does it really make sense to go EV. It would also give us some more time to develop the battery tech. that needs to be better to really make EV’s viable.

  • DJB

    We’ve got to do so much:
    1) Reduce the desire to drive through urban planning
    2) Convert our fleet to plug-in hybrids or full electrics
    3) Convert our electricity grid to clean-renewable energy

    Start environmental taxation of fossil fuels and it will all happen faster!

  • Hallm

    Perhaps someone should tell dimwitted American complainers (like T. Gray) that you have to start somewhere. If the world sits around and continues to buy gas guzzlers that the oil companies continue to make obscene profits and he car companies continue to pump out more gas guzzling crap vehicles.

    Maybe its time to make a change, and I guess we can all sit back and say that buying a hybrid car will make .000000000000001 difference to global warming, or we can all do try to do our best and reduce carbon emissions to the best of our abilities.

  • RemyC

    Renewables 9%
    Wow, I remember when it was 2%
    There’s hope yet…
    And Joe, what do you care how much it costs?
    The rich will always get richer, while the poor get poorer.
    That’s how it works!
    How much does a planet’s biosphere cost?
    Seems Noah gave us another chance after the flood.
    Seems to me we’re blowing it again.
    You just have to be on the side of what people want to buy, and people buy just as much with their heart as with their mind, or their pocket book.
    The Prius was successful because it pulled at green heart strings, then everyone got on the band wagon, including this blog.
    It’s a good thing, isn’t? You need first adopters. Now we need to mainstream alternatives, so sure nuclear power industry union workers are going to fight tooth and nail for their survival.
    And do I care? No!
    Do I care about GM workers? No.
    Do I care about anyone manufacturing products with no redeeming value? No.
    Do I think we’d be much better of if 90% of the Earth’s population took an extended vacation? Yes!
    Does that make me a monster in the eye of many? Probably.
    Eco-fascist!
    That’s because I look at the big picture. Global warming is real, whether we’re its only cause or not. The gunk we’re pumping into the atmosphere isn’t helping any. We better wake up and develop survival technologies, machines that use trickle amounts of power to function, and we’re doing that. That’s where the jobs are going. So if you’re afraid for yours, time to train for another.

  • RickT

    Good mileage cars have been affordable for many years. I have almost 200,000 miles on my very affordable 2001 VW Jetta TDI (Turbo Diesel Injection) and it still gets about 50 MPG whether I drive 30 or 80 MPH. It is back now for 2009 but the mileage has been chocked down a little (40′s now) due to tighter air standards. The key for plug-ins and hybrids will be affordability.

  • Right Wing Tool

    Hey Tom Grey!

    How about giving some respect to the battered office at least. Remember, calling any president names is UN-American, you socialist! Besides, we have to start moving away from terrorist supporting oil rich countries sometimes. Or do you like giving money to the Saudi’s so they can open more Wahabe schools to train more extremists? Where is YOUR Patriotism?

  • ACAGal

    I have solar on the roof, and I’m just waiting for a good car with great turning radius, handling, safety, great seats, and hauling space. The Volvo V70 should fit my current needs. Hopefully it will be available to me when I finally give up my
    850 T wagon (which gets better mileage than every 5 seat SUVs I’ve looked at of late). Luckily for me old Volvos just keep running, and running, and running……

  • Obsolete is what most people use now.

    To hear that HEVs will be soon obsolete is music to my ears, as that means that everyone will start buying and using them and they will be the dominant vehicle form until PHEVs and EVs overtake them. After all, our primary vehicle technology today comes from the 1880′s and 1940′s. I agree that those companies that don’t come out PHEVs and EVs soon will simply be also rans who milk the hybrid cow for svereal more decades, assuming they come out with desireable products (some do seem incapable of that basic manufacturing task).

  • charles nagel

    It’s a start at least – our”dim” president is glowing brightly in comparison to the past guy. I can hear him now in his faux Tex accent saying: “switch grass” and “we’re addicted to oouul”.

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