The Zen of Hybrids
I know two people who own, and love, Teslas. Volkswagen, makers of the venerable Beetle, is going all electric by 2040. The F-150 pick-up, for Christ’s sake, will be electric next year and, as Ford tells it, will be able to tow your house while supplying electricity for it when it is bored in your driveway.
I get it. Electric cars and trucks are the future. Internal combustion engines (“ICE”s, since I will use that phrase often in this piece) have to go. I am no climate denier; climate change caused in large part by burning of carbon, while maybe not an immediate existential threat to human life, will cause massive and dangerous disruption of our economic and social order.
However, I there is a problem with the current state of development of an all-electric car society.
Charging stations. Unless you live in the Bay Area or maybe LA, they aren’t here.
As you bicycle around your community, note how many gasoline stations there are. If it weren’t for Starbucks, they would be the most ubiquitous business around. Why? Because Americans don’t want to have to plan their trips with an eye on their gas gauge. They just want to know that when they are out of gas they can get it almost anywhere they are.
Charging stations, not so much. The venerable PA Turnpike, all 470 miles of it, has five, count them, five, charging stations. Three on the eastbound side, two on the westbound side and none on the Northeast Extension. And, as best I can understand their website announcement, it cost $2.5 million to install them. And charging an EV to full capacity and range takes much longer than filling the tank with burnable carbon.
That’s a problem. Not insurmountable, but a current problem.
The solution to the problem is a generation, one generation, of hybrid cars and trucks. Hybrids use a battery to run electric motors that drive the wheels plus a smallish ICE to provide extra power when needed and to charge the battery when it is low. Most of the charging comes from the electric motors serving as a generators when you are braking.
When I owned a Prius some years ago, it seemed to me that this was an almost perfect solution. I got 50+ mpg and never needed to worry about charging the battery. The battery in my car would not get me very far (maybe 20 miles) if the ICE wasn’t working (that never happened), but the car was reliable, comfortably sized, had good leg room in the back and a nice trunk.
Technology has changed and now we have batteries that will drive a car (or an F-150) without ICE assist with a range in excess of 300 miles.
Why don’t we build a fleet of vehicles based on those batteries that includes a very small ICE, maybe lawn mower size or smaller, whose only job is to charge the battery as needed? The Prius was proof of the technology needed to charge a battery without an outside source. It was introduced in 2007, so it is not exactly cutting edge. The battery was charged by regenerative braking, which would be included in the new generation that I am proposing. That tech and the improved batteries minimizes the need for an ICE.
With the more powerful batteries developed for EVs, we could have a self-contained, fully electric vehicles using only enough gasoline to run the small ICE when it is charging the battery. I suspect we could build hybrids today that would get many hundreds of miles on a gallon of gas. No charging stations needed.
I understand that the ICE will still be putting out greenhouse gases but the amount would be hugely reduced from today’s standard ICE cars. It seems to me that the technology to produce this type of car exists today. And, they would not require the new infrastructure of millions of charging stations throughout the country.
Hybrids may never be the final personal transportation answer to the climate crisis, but they can make a significant difference as we transition to EVs. They will give our society time to figure out the best way to make charging stations ubiquitous enough to encourage the acceptance of EVs. One thing I fear in our current move directly to EVs is that the major oil companies will figure out that their existing gas stations are the logical place for charging stations, giving them leverage over how quickly we move away from ICEs. A generation of hybrids may allow some innovation in how we power EVs that, in the long run, will be much more effective way to achieve carbon-free transportation.