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The New York Sun


Heavy Iron = Energy Independence

April 07, 2005

By Peter W. Huber, Mark P. Mills

So, will high oil prices finally force everyone to buy cars the size of toaster ovens, or ride bicycles? Suburban-driving soccer moms, or working Joes driving delivery trucks or taxis may find themselves thinking along those lines every time they pull up at the pump. But the highway of the future won’t be crowded with cars like the dinky Honda Insight or Toyota Prius. SUVs will survive and thrive.

Silicon power is the answer to $55-a-barrel crude and $2-a-gallon gas. No, not solar-electric cells, but the future plug-in hybrid bus, truck, and car, which can get a good chunk of their most fuel-hungry miles from $40-a-ton coal and $15-a-pound uranium oxide.

The future is in the heavy-iron hybrid drivetrains now starting to roll off assembly lines. Hybrids like the GM Silverado pickup, the Ford Escape SUV, the new 268-horsepower Lexus RX400h SUV, or the newly announced Dodge hybrid Durango or GM Tahoe SUVs for 2008. Mercedes and Porsche have announced hybrid plans, too. And GM is focusing on a hybrid system for bus and industrial-truck markets. Within a decade, almost every new car and truck will be built around a hybrid drive.

This isn’t happening because someone turned off the spigot in Riyadh, or because of some edict originating in Washington. Hybrids are coming because they promise better performance, in a smaller, lighter, more reliable package. And if they aren’t yet cheaper, they soon will be - both to manufacture and to run. The power guts of your next car are now tied to the economics of Silicon Valley. You don’t have to look past your desktop PC to know what that means.

Hybrid drive-trains for really big wheels have been around for decades. You could say the nuclear Navy pioneered the technology in the 1960s. GE’s 6,000-horsepower hybrid locomotive is powered by an enormous diesel-engine electric generator. Komatsu’s monster 300-ton-capacity hybrid mining truck is propelled by a 2-megawatt electric generator. The key components of the hybrid car’s drive-train are anchored in the same high-power silicon technologies used on these platforms - technologies that only recently got compact and cheap enough for mass-market use in SUVs and cars. Silicon now shapes and control kilowatts in cars as quickly and efficiently as it controls the microwatts of bits in computers. Hybrids using high-power silicon, controlled with cheap microprocessors, bring stunning improvements in around-town mileage.

There’s more. All hybrids have hefty battery packs to supply power surges for acceleration, and allow the engine to switch off at stops, and power the vehicle for short distances on battery only. In today’s hybrids, those batteries are recharged by an onboard generator. But they could also tap into the electric grid any time the vehicle is parked.

Power already flows in the opposite direction. The GM Silverado hybrid offers 2.4 kilowatts of construction-grade power from a phalanx of AC outlets. Parked in a garage, however, it would make more sense to treat the truck itself as the rechargeable appliance. Most hybrids’ batteries store 2 to 5 kilowatt-hours; not much, but enough for at least five miles of travel. Most urban trips are under six miles. Add another 90 pounds of batteries, recharge opportunistically in garages and parking lots, and you can shift about 25% of a typical driver’s most fuel-hungry miles away from the gas tank to the grid.

If you can, you will, because the grid’s electrons are a whole lot cheaper. Central power plants are much more efficient than even the best V-8. Two-dollar-a gallon gasoline produces electric power from the Silverado at 60 cents per kilowatt hour. Many utilities will sell off-peak power to the truck for well south of 6 cents. Grid-powered miles do gradually wear out the hybrid’s batteries, but battery costs add only about 4 cents a mile.

The automakers aren’t yet talking plug-in hybrids, still less offering them.

When pressed, they’re ambivalent, even uncomfortable with the idea. None wants to see its clean-and-green PR campaign confused by talk of grid coal or uranium. But any way you slice the numbers, it’s far cheaper, cleaner, and more efficient to run a car on coal or uranium than on crude - if you can. Five years from now, cheap, high-power silicon will give the hybrid the edge on every metric of price and performance.

Heavy-iron hybrids aren’t emerging now because of the recent run-up in the cost of crude - the technology has just taken engineers decades to mature. The confluence of the two events might just light a fire under sales. Heavy-iron hybrids aren’t what most environmentalists were looking for. But they will give drivers the room and performance they demand, cheaper miles, and perhaps, eventually, less dependence on foreign oil.



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