Can plug-in hybrids ride to America’s rescue?
The engineer behind many electric-car advances says oil’s days may be numbered.
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“We want to emphasize that this plug-in vehicle is not really about fuel economy,” he says, his hand gliding along a silver-sized Chevrolet Equinox whose gas-guzzling engine was ripped out by his students and replaced with high-mileage, plug-in innards that make it go 40 miles on electricity alone before using gasoline. “This idea is all about displacing gasoline. If we can dispense with maybe 80 to 90 percent of the gasoline a conventional car uses, then we can begin to get our nation off of using fossil fuels. Then we can save the planet from global warming.”Skip to next paragraph
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For a kid who liked to cobble together hot rod cars in the 1950s but didn’t have enough money for gasoline, it was natural for Frank to wonder if you couldn’t get both – hot performance and high fuel economy. That’s why when the oil crisis of the 1970s struck, Frank – then an assistant professor of engineering who had worked on the Apollo moon mission and other aerospace projects – told his students they were going to make a vehicle that could get high mileage and go “like a rocket,” too.
Frank now admits that he was too far ahead of his time.
“I tried to build a hybrid car in 1972 that ran on gas and electricity,” he says. “But I found out quickly that we were missing key technology. We didn’t have electric motors that were very good or batteries that were worth anything.... We didn’t have computers cheap and powerful enough to be useful in a car.”
Still, he kept at it in the mid-1990s and early part of this decade, building on the fundamental idea that a vehicle that could largely replace oil with electricity – but also have an unlimited range – could be built.
Others were following similar paths. Tom Gage, president of AC Power, which now converts regular cars to all-electric, says Frank’s work was “influential and ahead of its time.” Felix Kramer, founder of CalCars, a nonprofit plug-in promotion group says Frank laid the groundwork for technology that may be America’s best chance to break its oil dependency.
“Andy is the person who’s been thinking and most consistently exploring plug-in technology since the ’70s,” says Mr. Kramer. “Others have tried, but he’s focused his work on plug-ins and just doesn’t let up.”
General Motors says it will build a plug-in by 2010 and Toyota, Ford, and other manufacturers say they’ll soon be plug-in producers, too. Both Barack Obama and John McCain have cited plug-in hybrids as key to their plans for energy-security and curbing global warming.
Now some measure of recognition has finally arrived with Frank often asked to speak about plug-in technology or fielding calls from reporters. A few years ago, he testified before Congress. Yet most of his career has been spent working without much recognition and with only marginal funding. Now the grants are rolling in and the university has opened a new plug-in hybrid center.
Even though he and his student teams produced several plug-in hybrid prototypes in the 1990s and offered the technology to US automakers, there was little interest – except from Japanese car companies. Ironically, General Motors and Ford contributed the vehicles that most of Frank’s students have retrofitted.
“I made this demonstration to the US car companies year in and out, and gave them an opportunity for them to jump ahead of Toyota if they would invest – or wait and become a follower to Toyota,” he says.
When the US companies wouldn’t look at it, they took the plug-in to Toyota in 2003, he recalls. “I felt bad that our American companies didn’t take us up on it,” he says.
He has been trying with little success to interest US automakers in his mechanical version of a continuously variable transmission (CVT), which he says is critical to plug-in development because it is much more efficient than other CVT systems and could greatly boost mileage.
Despite that snub, he’s circumspect about the future while posing for a photo beside an ordinary hybrid car he drives daily. The license plate, which he was given as a gift reads: “PHEV DAD.”
“We could be completely energy independent in this country,” he says. “We have the technology to do it.”
Then he smiles. “Of course,” he says, “everything is more affordable as the cost of oil gets higher.”