The Plug-In Race is About to Heat Up - Autoline on Autoblog with John McElroy

I just shot a show with three leading environmentalists in California, all with the idea of getting into their heads and figuring out where the next round of CO2 regulations is headed. After all, as goes California, so goes the nation-and ultimately the world.
What the California environmental lobby wants are cars that get somewhere between 70 and 100 miles per gallon. Though they're open to all alternatives, they're especially fixated on plug-in hybrids, because they see them as the fastest way to dramatically cut CO2 emissions.

Automakers that think they're going to have a hard enough time meeting the new CAFE law of 35 mpg by 2018 better brace for impact. These environmentalists merely see that as a first step. After that, they plan to push for big cuts in CO2, and they plan to push hard.

John McElroy is host of the TV program "Autoline Detroit". Every week he brings his unique insights as an auto industry insider to Autoblog readers. Follow the jump to continue reading this week's editorial.

I spoke with Roland Hwang, Vehicles Policy Director for the Natural Resources Defense Council; Dr. Mark Bernstein, Managing Director of USC's Energy Institute; and Dr. James Lents, President of the International Sustainable Systems Research Center. That interview will run soon on Autoline Detroit.

Actually, they prefer pure electric cars. But the last time California mandated EVs in the early 1990s, it was a complete disaster. GM, Ford, Chrysler, Toyota, Honda and Nissan all offered electrics, but practically nobody bought them. GM alone probably lost a billion dollars on its EV-1 program, and all it got in return was a movie blaming it for killing the electric car.

With today's soaring gas prices, maybe the public is ready for cars with limited range, but back then they sure weren't. And that's where plug-ins come in.

By being able to run in pure-electric mode, plug-ins can dramatically reduce CO2 emissions. And when the batteries run out of juice, no problem, you've still got an engine to keep you going.

Interestingly, Dr. Lentz from the ISSRC says that nearly half the commuters in Los Angeles have a daily commute of less than 20 miles. He says that even a plug-in with a 15-mile EV range can make a big difference. That sure caught my attention because automakers are knocking their brains out trying to develop lithium-ion batteries that can provide a 40 or 50 mile range. Sounds like they could shoot for a shorter range and use half the batteries at half the cost. Or use nickel-metal hydride batteries instead. In fact, Toyota recently announced it has a road-ready plug-in using nickel-metal hydride batteries.

One of the points we discussed on the show is whether the grid can take millions of plug-ins charging up. These guys say it can. They point out that the peak load is between noon and 4 PM and that we could actually use plug-ins to feed juice back into the grid at that time, and then charge them back up during off-peak hours.

And they say that even if we use coal-fired generating plants to provide the electricity it still results in a net reduction of CO2 compared to having all those cars running on gasoline.

In fact, their preference is to have plug-ins with engines that run on cellulosic ethanol. That results in one of the biggest CO2 cuts of all.

I'm still skeptical that climate change is man-made. And I'm not the only one. In fact, I'm in some pretty good company. But I also realize that as far as the public debate goes, this train has left the station. Like it or not, the regulations are on the books and more are on the way.

From a regulatory, marketing, and public relations standpoint, automakers have got to dramatically cut CO2. Toyota won the first round by absolutely dominating the hybrid market. But for now the second round is still a jump-ball. And it will be fascinating to watch the car companies fight for the high ground with plug-ins.


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