Plug-in Cars Give Owners A Real Jolt Of Satisfaction
September 9, 2008
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Dan Davids has his own transportation infrastructure: an extension cord.
It works like a dream, he and a growing number of electric and hybrid vehicle owners exult. They juice up at home overnight, or in a pinch, at scattered locations throughout the Puget Sound area while at work, shopping or running errands.
Davids, a former Microsoft Corp. program manager and one of about 500 people who attended the "Beyond Oil: Transforming Transportation" conference at Microsoft this month that was organized by the Cascadia Center of the Discovery Institute, is an evangelist for "cleaner, cheaper, domestic" technology.
Now, with rising gas prices, and concerns about foreign oil and the effect of fossil fuels, people are paying attention to something Davids and others have advocated for decades: cars - and even trucks, buses and boats - that run on electricity.
"This is really happening - now. Electric vehicles are finally hitting the mainstream," said the Woodinville resident, who owns an early Toyota all-electric vehicle. Last week he became the first private citizen in the state with a commercially - versus experimentally - modified hybrid Prius with a lithium battery pack. The pack boosts the miles the car can run on electricity only, he says.
"I can go 1,000 miles on a regular (10-gallon) tank of gas," Davids said of the Prius. "The gas gauge hardly seems to move."
While private companies and public entities increasingly are interested in the new technology, some private individuals already have bought so-called neighborhood electric vehicles for nonfreeway driving (they don't have air bags), and converted their own cars or scooters - usually with lead-acid batteries instead of the more advanced lithium batteries.
A pure electric car, or EV, uses rechargeable batteries to power motors and systems instead of an internal combustion engine. Hybrid electric vehicles combine electric and fuel technology, while plug-in hybrid electric vehicles have batteries that can be charged externally. Most can be charged by plugging into a common wall socket.
"All this started as a grass-roots thing," Davids said. "We don't know exactly how it's going to shake out ... but cars, like mine and the next generation EVs, do not look like golf carts or science projects. They are fully functioning - no compromises."
Steve Lough, president of the Seattle Electric Vehicle Association, agreed. "I've had five electric vehicles, and been a builder, owner, lecturer and preacher on electric vehicles for 28 years. It finally feels like everyone is catching up."
The association has grown from 30 to nearly 100 members in the past few years, with the number of plug-in sites also growing. Electric vehicle advocates, however, are quick to point out that the available sites are an informal, voluntary network that is nothing like the more regulated plug-in network in California.
Nor is one necessarily needed, Lough said.
"There are tons of places to fuel up, but 99 percent of people recharge at home, at night," said Lough, who has been known to let SEVA members use a socket on the outside of his garage if needed. "Having plug-in sites at restaurants or parking garages is a backup comfort, like knowing you can go to Safeway at midnight to buy milk."
Lough said studies show most daily vehicle use is within urban areas, 40 miles or less, and that's well within range of an electric car, he said.
"I think the whole thing about having a daisy chain of charging places from here to Disneyland is ludicrous," he said.
Many speakers at the conference said electric vehicle technology is critical.
"The long-term solution is not to drill for more oil; it's moving away from oil," said James Woolsey, former director of the Central Intelligence Agency and an energy adviser to Republican Sen. John McCain's presidential campaign.
"When I started my research 30 years ago, fuel was 60 cents a gallon and there was little incentive to switch, but now the tables have turned. The next wave of technology is the plug-in hybrid," said Andy Frank, a University of California-Davis professor credited with the development of electric vehicles.
Frank said solar, wind, and even nuclear power can be added to the electrical grid, but that the U.S. needs to be more forward-thinking, such as developing lithium battery plants in this country.
David Kaplan, founder and chief technology officer for Seattle-based V2Green, said his company is developing software to ensure that future demand for electric vehicles does not max-out the electrical grid.
"This is fundamentally a neighborhood problem. If everyone comes home from work at about the same time and plugs in their EVs while cooking dinner, turning on their heat/air conditioners, it could cause brownouts or power outages. The rush hour on roads becomes rush hour on the grid."
And "clean cars don't solve congestion," said Rob Bernard, Microsoft's chief environmental strategist for environmental sustainability at the conference.
"Clean cars in and for themselves are not enough," Bernard said. "The U.S. has to lead by example" and reduce total vehicle miles traveled through telecommuting, ride sharing, more efficient scheduling and other means being researched.