AutoblogGreen Q&A with Sherry Boschert: why plug-in hybrids will recharge America

Sherry Boschert is a freelance writer medical news reporter (she's the San Francisco Bureau Chief for International Medical News Group) who often writes on medical issues. Then she got, ahem, turned on to plug-in hybrids and followed her interest all the way to her first non-fiction book, Plug-in Hybrids: The Cars that Will Recharge America. Boschert interviewed EV and plug-in advocates like Chelsea Sexton, Felix Kramer, Marc Geller, and R. James Woolsey. AutoblogGreen recently had a chance to interview Boschert about her book and how plug-in hybrids have changed her life.

What kind of car do you drive?

After Ford took away our beloved Th!nk, we drove a 1980 VW Rabbit that had been converted to electric - bought it on eBay - then a converted 1993 Ford Escort station wagon. Those cars had a range of 30-50 miles, and we still had the conventional Corolla as a backup. When the Corolla died, we pared down to one car, an electric Toyota RAV4-EV with a range of 120 miles between charges.

What got you interested in plug-in hybrids?

I'm not really into cars, but plug-in cars represent so much more than just transportation. It's their potential to address issues like air pollution, global warming and our dependence oil that make them interesting to me. Plus, the people involved have fascinating stories to tell, some of which I had the privilege to tell in my book.

( There's lots more after the jump)

Personally, after my partner and I added solar panels to our San Francisco home, we started looking for an electric car. At that time, if you looked hard enough, you could find some for lease in California , though not for sale. In 2002 we leased a Ford Think!City, a little two-seater hatchback with a range of 35-55 miles, depending on how hard you drove it. I was surprised by how much I loved that car. Despite its limitations, it met nearly all my driving needs. It was peppy, clean and quiet, and small enough to park just about anywhere.

We also had a conventional 1987 Toyota Corolla as our back-up car for long-distance driving. By the time it died a smoggy death in 2005, the California Cars Initiative had converted a Toyota Prius hybrid to a plug-in hybrid, and the Southern California company EnergyCS had done several plug-in hybrid conversions. It was obvious that for one-car families, a plug-in hybrid could be a great compromise – local driving on cleaner, cheaper electricity, plus a backup fuel tank for longer distances. And for two-car families, having one all-electric car for local/regional driving and a plug-in hybrid for long-distance driving could meet all their needs with the least amount of fossil fuels.

I became aware of these prototype plug-in hybrids because in 2004 I had become very active in the electric vehicle community, after Ford made us return the Th!nk to be destroyed. As seen in the fine documentary Who Killed the Electric Car? [ed note: soon to be released on DVD], all the major automakers began canceling leases and destroying electric vehicles after the California Air Resources Board watered down its Zero Emission Vehicle mandate in 2003. That whole story – and the protests by activists who managed to save around 1,000 electric vehicles from the crushers – make up the first chapter of my book. It's part of the history that helps readers understand why electric cars make sense and why we can't get them. Then it's easier to understand subsequent chapters on how plug-in hybrids fit into the story, and the challenges they face.

What are some of the most amazing facts you discovered in researching this book?

Plug-in hybrids aren't so new – most of the major car companies toyed with them in the 1990s and early 2000s, but they took a back seat to all-electric cars and conventional cars. One company went so far as to start building a fleet of plug-in hybrids for further testing, with an eye toward selling them, but the company was bought out in 1998 by one of the Big Three automakers, which shut the plug-in hybrid program down in order to focus on its core product - SUVs.

Professor Andrew Frank at the University of California, Davis and his students have built a plug-in hybrid a year for a decade, showing that there's no technological reason these can't be made.

Despite this activity, it's only in the last few years that the technology has ripened and matured to make the time right for plug-in hybrids, for reasons discussed in the book. That technological threshold has converged with increasing calls for plug-in hybrids from many sectors of society in order to deal with the social and environmental issues I mentioned earlier (pollution, peak oil, etc.). We're likely to see plug-in hybrids introduced as early as 2007 and 2008, but there's no guarantee, as we saw with the story of electric cars. One of the main lessons from the electric vehicle battles is that we each can make a difference in bringing plug-in cars to market, and helping them stay there. The book suggests ways to help make that happen.

Can you give our readers a summary of the book in a paragraph or so. I'm sure that's an easy task, right?

Plug-in hybrids are bridging a divided America. An unusually broad coalition of environmentalists on the left, neoconservative national-security hawks on the right, and many people in between get the idea that plug-in hybrids offer one of the quickest ways to start reducing our carbon footprint and our dependence on oil. I tried to convey information about plug-in hybrids in an entertaining way through the stories of some of these characters.

The book makes some comparisons between conventional cars with internal combustion engines, hybrids, plug-in hybrids, and electric vehicles, explaining a bit about each one. I also take a look at hydrogen fuel-cell cars and all the hype around them that helped delay the inevitable introduction of plug-in vehicles.

I spent a lot of time researching the question of emissions – are plug-in hybrids really green? After all, they do have an internal combustion engine and a tailpipe. And the electricity has to come from somewhere. I collected every study I could find, and can say that I'm very comfortable with the current shade of green of plug-in cars, and with their huge potential to be even greener as we continue to clean up the electrical grid with more renewable power and add vehicle-to-grid technology. That was one of my favorite chapters to write.

Do you see plug-ins as the best vehicle propulsion system for cars? If so, how long will this last? Is there a future technology you see coming that will best plug-ins?

The global warming crisis is so urgent that I don't think of any car technology as being the best right now. Whatever we can do today to move away from fossil fuels, we need to do, fast. That means hybrids, biodiesel, ethanol, and plug-in cars (as well as bicycles, walking, and mass transit) all have roles to play. The same can't be said for hydrogen. That doesn't mean we should do any of these without thinking. How we make the electricity or biodiesel or ethanol is important, so that we don't create as many environmental problems as we solve. I do think plug-in cars are inevitable, because they can run on alternative fuels (sunshine or wind) that don't compete with land for food crops, forests, etc. One of the beauties of plug-in hybrids is that the backup to the electricity doesn't have to be gasoline, it could be ethanol, biodiesel, or what have you.

Where do you think the political support for plug-in hybrids stands in America today?

The political momentum for plug-in hybrids in the last two years has been amazing, yet a lot of it is still bogged down in some of the same traps that stalled electric cars. There are still too many calls for research, and not enough incentives to start production. Some of the high-profile politicians who back plug-in hybrids still pay lip service simultaneously to hydrogen cars, which won't be ready for decades - if ever - and drain resources from the cleaner cars that could be built today. Grass-roots support for plug-in hybrids is building incredible momentum, however, thanks to groups like Plug-in Partners, CalCars, Plug-in America, Set America Free, and others. That's driving automakers and politicians to accelerate plug-in hybrid activities.

So it's clear you like electric cars and plug-in hybrids.

Once you've had a chance to drive on electricity, you never want to go back to gasoline. I haven't been to a gas station in four years, except to slap a Who Killed the Electric Car? sticker on the gas pump.

Share This Photo X