How did everybody miss this?

Declaring the country’s economy, environmental health and national security at risk, a grassroots coalition of cities including Austin, Baltimore, Denver, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle as well as electric utilities and national policy organizations today kicked off a nationwide campaign to urge automakers to accelerate development of plug-in hybrid vehicles.

Click on the webcast if you want to see a bunch of stuffed shirts give speeches. Even Senator Hatch (the ultra conservative Republican from Utah) shows up late to throw in his two cents. The only real expert on the panel was Dr. Andrew Frank, the mechanical engineering professor at UC-Davis who has been studying this concept for decades.

The goal is to convince automakers to build plug-in hybrid electric cars by promising to subsidize purchases of such cars. The usual excuses are given as to why it is OK for government to subsidize, namely, because everybody else does it! Sometimes government drives me crazy. The tax credit for buying hybrid cars is completely unnecessary. I trip over a Prius every time I go out my door. Note in this link that an all-electric car would get a tax credit of $4,000. This would knock about $1,200 off the purchase price of one of these $14,000 high-end golf carts (if you are in the 33% tax bracket). One press release I saw mentioned that GM and Toyota were “watching with interest” the development of new battery technology that would make such a car feasible. Both manufacturers are understandably gun shy, having marketed the financially disastrous EV1 and RAV EV respectively.

Who would guess that a two seat, 100-mile range car, selling for $40,000, would not be a hit? Especially when you realize that two or three years after you buy it, you will have to replace all of your batteries? They were only able to lease 800 of the 1100 they produced, and after investing over a billion dollars, called it quits and destroyed the remaining cars to keep the lawyers from feeding on them for the next decade.

At least Toyota had the courtesy to put up a website that explains exactly why their RAV4 EV was a commercial failure. GM needs to do the same thing to mollify the conspiracy theorists.

Toyota remains committed to developing an “Eco Vehicle,” one that will have a minimal impact on the environment. Toyota believes that in order to have a positive environmental impact, a large number of consumers must embrace the technology. In order for this to happen, the vehicle must meet the lifestyle needs of, and be affordable to, the mass market. Although a significant marketing effort was undertaken for the RAV4-EV, we only sold about 300 vehicles a year.

In addition to overall customer acceptance, technical issues tied to electric vehicles remain a major hurdle. The California Air Resources Board published a guidance statement regarding EV battery life. The guideline stated that when the battery capacity decreases to less than 80% of the original capacity, the battery needs to be replaced. A battery’s capacity is the amount of charge that it holds, and is commonly measured by the range of the vehicle. It is cost-prohibitive to replace an EV battery. The cost to replace the battery is more than the value of the vehicle.

There are some people here in Seattle who actually make a living converting cars to electric. I talked to one yesterday. He is real busy. I have fired up my three-dimensional solid modeling/drafting software to flush out some ideas that have been floating around in my head. There is an electric hybrid concept no one has touched yet and I am curious to know why. We may not need new battery technology to get this ball rolling. I am motivated by the hope that a viable design might save some rainforests. I’ll keep you posted.