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Not Ready for Prime Time

GM is not projecting how many Volts it thinks it can sell the first year. "But if we didn't think this could be a big seller for us, we would not have chosen to put this technology into a Chevy model," Posawatz said, given that Chevy is GM's high-volume nameplate.

And Toyota and Ford have not made any projections about when they might start producing their plug-in cars on a mass-market basis for consumer use. But Toyota's Hanson and Ford's Staley both emphasized that a good deal of information will be gleaned from the road-testing their electric cars will undergo with fleet customers and with the DOE / Southern California Edison, respectively.

"We don't have any high-volume scenarios in place yet," Staley said. "The supply base still needs to be in line before you can move forward. But the day-to-day feedback from those road tests will go a long way to helping us decide how robust this first lithium battery is."

Toyota's Hanson expressed similar sentiments. "We're happy with our progress on the development of the lithium battery technology, and we'll have a factory up and running in 2009 that will be producing the batteries," he said. "But we just don't have enough real world data yet, these vehicles still need to undergo miles and miles of testing before we can deliver them to consumers.

"Any new technology is going to have cost issues, and whenever anyone develops a new technology, they will continue to find ways to reduce the cost. But ultimately, for any new technology to be worth anything, you have to be able to sell it at large volumes and at an affordable price. But in that respect, the plug-in is just not ready for prime time yet."

Staley said one issue that needs to be explored is a relationship between the automakers and the electric utility companies. Indeed, the Escape Plug-In Hybrid fleet currently being developed is a collaboration between Ford, Southern California Edison and the Electric Power Research Institute.

"Connecting the auto industry and electric utilities is something that hasn't really been explored much in the past, but it's something that could potentially yield some good results for the consumer," Staley observed. "For example, what if, in some regions, consumers agreed to let the electric company brown them out periodically during vehicle charging -- and in exchange, the utility would allow 100,000 electric vehicles to be plugged into the electric grid, and these consumers were charged a lower rate for that electricity? That could really add value to the grid operators, and give value to the consumer in lower costs to operate their vehicle."

High Expectations

"People are going to have high expectations when Toyota rolls out its first electric car," Hanson said. "They are going to assume, going in, that it will be every bit as good as the Prius, which means nothing can go wrong, and the battery will have to be good for eight years or 100,000 miles. So we really need to spend as much time as we need to in order to make sure that all of the challenges have been overcome."

Toyota's lithium battery-powered plug-in hybrid will use "a blended approach," Hanson explained.

"You'll be able to get into your vehicle in the morning, after it's been charged during the night, and push the EV-mode button," Hanson said. "In EV mode, you'll be able to run on pure-electric power for perhaps up to about 10 miles, at speeds of up to 60 miles an hour. Then, as the lithium battery approaches its duty-cycle limits, the computer switches over to Prius Mode, and the car will operate like a normal Prius, switching between gas engine, electric motor, or a combination of the two. The system will not re-charge the lithium battery to full capacity, but will continue to deliver Prius-mode performance, fuel efficiency and emissions."

The upcoming Toyota plug-in is still unnamed, although there has been much speculation in the automotive press that it will be a plug-in version of a Prius. Toyota's plug-in vehicle will also be able to be fully charged using common household current -- "either 110 or 220," Hanson noted. "But it will charge twice as fast at 220."

Meanwhile, like the Volt, Ford's Escape Plug-In Hybrid also has a battery that can be fully charged using common household current. Ford estimates that a full charge will take six to eight hours.

When driven for the first 30 miles, the Escape Plug-In Hybrid can achieve up to 120 mpg on surface streets. Once the charge in the battery has been depleted, it continues to operate like the current Escape Hybrid. The flex-fuel version can also go 30 miles in electric-only mode before converting over. But if it is using E85, fuel economy can reach 88 mpg in city driving and up to 50 mpg on the highway.

Nissan plans to introduce an electric vehicle in the United States and Japan in 2010 for fleet use, and to consumers in 2012, said Darryll Harrison Jr., spokesman for Nissan North America. But, again, the company has yet not declared whether that will be a plug-in.

For its part, while Honda does not have a plug-in vehicle already in the pipeline, it says it recognizes the potential of plug-in cars, "and like other manufacturers, we are working to further develop the technology," said spokesman Todd Mittleman. "That being said, Honda is focusing on the critical missing component -- a versatile battery that can withstand the demands of deep charges and discharges, is smaller and lighter than current technology and that can meet the cost requirements that will dictate success in the marketplace. Also, Honda would want to take the same approach as we have with the FCX Clarity hydrogen fuel-cell vehicle -- instead of putting a test vehicle on the road, we'd want to deliver a real-life car that satisfies customer's expectations."

Finally, in mid-July, Chrysler LLC pronounced that its ENVI division, which is devoted to eventually bringing electric-drive vehicles to market, was currently developing electric vehicles and was planning to introduce them in three to five years. Chrysler did not elaborate whether they would be plug-ins, however.

"It's important to have the appropriate technology for each product," spokesman Nick Cappa said. "The three Chrysler brands -- Chrysler, Jeep and Dodge -- will benefit from the new technology coming from ENVI. With the right battery and controls technology, we could remove the automobile from the emissions and fuel economy equation."

Conversion: Good or Bad?

Of course, with every market comes an after-market, and there are presently companies out there who are converting gas-electric hybrids into electric-only hybrids. Others are selling conversion kits for those gearheads who have the mechanical aptitude to install them on their own.

"Part of Americans' love affair with the car is to take 'em home and start messing with 'em," EPRI's Duvall said.

One conversion company, Plug In Conversions Corp. converts the Toyota Prius, model years 2004-'08, "for a cost of $14,900 or $19,750, depending on the low-speed EV-only range of miles-per-charge," said Kim Adelman, the company's founder and president. For now, customers need to take their Prius to the company's conversion centers in San Diego or San Francisco. "But we've had a lot of interest in recent months, so we'll probably have certified installers in other locations by the end of the year."

Adelman recommends against people doing the conversion on their own, "unless you are highly trained and qualified to work with high voltage equipment. Some of these voltage levels can be lethal.

"But I'm looking forward to carmakers bringing out their plug-ins," Adelman added. "I think that will really legitimize what we're doing."

Another conversion company, A123 Systems, makes the Hymotion L5 Plug-In Conversion Module, priced at $9,995, which is also used to convert the Toyota Prius Hybrid models from 2004-'08. Conversions are done at its "Green CHIP (Certified Hymotion Installer Partner" locations.

"The problem with conversions is that, if the conversion company is not working in conjunction with the automaker, it's very difficult to develop a conversion system that will work properly in the vehicle over the long term," Duvall noted. "That makes it hard for these conversions to achieve the same level of reliability as the automakers will achieve. This is a complex technology, and it's just a very difficult job to modify an existing system."

"You can't really stop people from doing it, but we don't sanction it," stressed Ford's Staley. "Some companies have received funding to do this kind of work, and it's useful in terms of research, but as a long-term proposition, it's just not viable, because people need and want a fully-engineered system that has been integrated into the vehicle by the OEMs -- and the OEM warranty that comes with it."

Ah, the warranty – a key concern, because in some cases installing a conversion kit can void a vehicle's entire warranty.

That's why Toyota also preaches caution when it comes to conversions: converting a regular hybrid to a plug-in could cause damage to the vehicle, which would in fact void the vehicle's warranty, Hanson noted. "We're concerned that a conversion of this type may push some components beyond their design parameters or cause some other parts or systems failure.

"Aftermarket modifications may put warranty coverage at risk, because they frequently cause unanticipated consequences. But our policy is to evaluate each situation, on a case by case basis, to determine whether the conversion, or any modification, caused a particular failure."

Or, as Chevrolet's Posawatz put it: "Plug-in conversions scare me to death."

On that warranty issue, Adelman of Plug In Conversions says that "we don't change any original factory components, systems, or settings. We just add a large battery and our control system, which periodically connects the new PHEV battery to the factory battery in order to keep the factory battery charged. We don't modify the factory control systems or traction battery in any way - so after-market modifications should not affect the warranty on any component or system not impacted by the modification."

In Conclusion

"Organizations like the Natural Resource Defense Council and the Department of Energy have been doing studies on this issue for a long time," said EPRI's Duvall. "Everyone knows it's very important for our future energy independence that we develop new technologies that let us use alternative fuels, and which have the potential to reach mass production.

"And we've had some unexpectedly large leaps forward in the last few years, in terms of the using electricity to power automobiles, and in the area of plug-in technology, and it really couldn't come at a better time -- because people now realize, more than ever, the connection between our national security and high fuel prices and climate change.

"So, the people of this country are obviously ready for this. They want options, and they want them now. And we think this is one of the most promising options."

Read More Hybrid Articles at AOL Autos:

- Turn Your Car Into a Plug-In Hybrid

- Is that Hybrid Worth It?

- All Hybrid Articles

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