Can plug-in hybrids ride to America’s rescue?

The engineer behind many electric-car advances says oil’s days may be numbered.

Mark Clayton
Father of Plug-ins: Professor Andrew Frank holds up the plug that charges his ninth and most recent experimental hybrid.

If the United States breaks its oil addiction, a measure of thanks will no doubt be due to Andy Frank, who some have dubbed the “father of the plug-in hybrid” car.

Laboring in near anonymity in his garage-style laboratory on a leafy byway of the University of California at Davis campus, Dr. Frank has for three decades focused on developing plug-in-hybrid technology. With his students, he has built nine plug-in vehicles since the 1990s, winning several vehicle contests sponsored by the Department of Energy and automotive companies.

Even so, Detroit showed little interest in the idea of plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs) – until recently. With $4-a-gallon gasoline killing SUV sales, big automakers like General Motors, Ford, and Toyota have begun to talk about a future with plug-in hybrids – or even futuristic fuel-cell cars – instead of SUVs.

Plug-in hybrids go much farther on a single charge than an ordinary hybrid. Some converted Toyota Prius plug-ins get the energy equivalent of 100 miles (or more) per gallon and travel nearly 40 miles on electricity alone before a gasoline engine kicks in for longer trips. With their hefty battery packs, such hybrids can be plugged into a socket in the evening for a charge.

Since 78 percent of American commuters drive 40 miles or less each day, a plug-in driver might need only to fill up his tank with gasoline a half-dozen times a year. It’s a game-changing concept that’s won over many energy-security hawks and even environmentalists who had been married to futuristic fuel-cell vehicles, but now see plug-ins as a here-and-now way to fight global warming as well as freeing the US from imported oil.

One of the main complaints about plug-in technology is that you’re just trading one form of pollution for another – tailpipe emissions for power-plant smokestack emissions. But a recent “well to wheels” life-cycle analysis by the Electric Power Research Institute and the Natural Resources Defense Council shows that a shift by the US to plug-in vehicles would cut carbon emissions by as much as 500 million tons annually and 10 billion tons cumulatively by 2050. At the same time, other exhaust pollutants would decline.

They found that the US power grid could easily handle the load of three-quarters of Americans switching to plug-ins, which require only about 1 to 2 kilowatts – about the energy load of a dishwasher. The cost of that electricity for transportation would end up being about a 75-cents-per-gallon energy equivalent, according to the study.

“The heart of the matter is to begin to use electricity and to use it as quickly as possible to power a major share of our transportation and to break that 96-plus-percent monopoly oil has over our transportation systems,” former Central Intelligence Agency director James Woolsey told a Washington gathering on plug-in hybrids last month.

But to Frank, the future is about far more than saving a few bucks at the pump – it’s about changing the world – or maybe saving it.

“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.”

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.”

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