UC-Davis research leads to plug-in hybrid car

DAVIS, Calif. (U-WIRE) — After years of work on plug-in hybrid cars done by University of California-Davis researchers, large corporations are finally taking a look at the advantages of mass-producing plug-in cars. On Apr. 9, Pacific Gas and Electric Company showcased a plug-in hybrid Toyota Prius at an alternative energy gathering in Sunnyvale, Calif. The car is the first of its kind in the United States that is capable of powering a home when plugged in.

Andy Frank, professor in the department of mechanical and aeronautical engineering at UC Davis, has been working on developing plug-in cars for over 25 years. According to Frank, the studies done at the Institute of Transportation Studies at UC Davis are the only academic studies of their kind done in the United States.

“We’ve been doing this research here at the university for the last 25 years and we feel that we’ve demonstrated over and over again that if we, with a bunch of students, can build plug-in hybrids, then the car companies can certainly do it and do a better job,” he said. “We’ve built nine of them already and they’re all different sizes.”

Felix Kramer, founder of the California Cars Initiative, a group that supports the adoption of hybrid cars, said the new plug-in cars will soon be mass-produced for consumers.

“We believe plug-in hybrids will become the standard automotive platform, with local miles electrically fueled, and the liquid fuel becoming the secondary ‘range-extender’ fuel, which will evolve from gasoline to biofuels,” Kramer said. “Fueling cars from electricity centralizes emissions so they’re easier to control and reduce. And even on the national power grid, a PHEV omits over 50 percent less carbon dioxide than a gasoline car.”

He added that he believes consumers will be quick to purchase these new cars because of their clear benefits.

“What consumer will say no to the opportunity to drive a cleaner vehicle, go to the pump less frequently and save money on fuel?” he said.

The plug-in cars are built so that they allow owners to plug the cars into home outlets in order to recharge the batteries. Frank said the cars will not only bring down the cost of fuel but will also help to bring down the cost of electricity.

“We have, in this country, excess electric energy because we only use a portion of the energy in the middle of the night compared to what we use in the middle of the day,” he said. “That means we have to turn off a whole bunch of power plants in the middle of the night. Instead, if we have plug-in hybrids with batteries that can be recharged, then those power plants can be running all the time. The result will be cheaper electricity for everyone.”

In addition, the cars that PG&E converted can generate electricity both ways. In the event of a power outage, consumers can plug cars in to power home appliances for several hours. PG&E also announced that it would like to pay consumers a credit for extra energy the car’s battery sends onto the state electrical grid, though this still needs approval from regulators.

Frank said the adoption of plug-in cars would not just be beneficial but essential in the imminent future.

“The need for these kinds of cars is immediate,” he said. “Our main objective is to get the car companies around the world to react as quickly as possible because both global warming and the peak of oil are coming at a very fast rate, and the effects are going to be catastrophic for the world if we don’t do something about it. We as individuals can do very little to slow it down.”