Saturday, October 27, 2007

Soot and Spin: Two Plug-in Paradoxes

Required reading: Bill Moore's EVWorld review and Martin Zimmerman's LA Times piece about their test drives of the Toyota Plug-in Prius and the hydrogen fuel cell Highlander FCHV.

Paradox 1 - Soot: There's an apparent emissions paradox with plug-in hybrids (PHEV): Driving longer distances on battery power means more cold starts as the internal combustion engine (ICE) stops and starts up again after the batteries deplete. Cold starts mean more pollution. The catalytic converter that keeps the ICE from being a gross polluter in conventional cars and hybrids however, isn't kept warm by the continual embrace of an ever-churning engine in a hybrid with all-electric range. This catch-22 - you need the polluting engine running to keep the emissions mitigation running - has regulators including the California Air Resources Board (ARB) frowning upon PHEV conversions. It also spreads doubt about the enviro bona fides of plug-ins. Third party converters have spent time and resources tweaking their plug-in hybrids to meet ARB testing written with gasoline-only hybrids in mind.

It doesn't take a rocket scientist to offer solutions. A supplemental electric heater comes right to mind. But you have to want to solve the problem. Third-party and DIY converters can't muck with every system on a car. They are busy proving, despite automaker resistance, that the plug-in hybrid concept is worth pursuing. And these advocates have successfully prodded Toyota to dangle a concept PHEV before our eyes.

The automakers, including Toyota, that are not interested in rushing to market with plug-in cars never tired of suggesting that conventional gasoline-only hybrids are cleaner than plug-ins. Yet according to Bill Moore's report in EVWorld on Toyota's own PHEV Prius, Toyota solved the cold start dilemma with "a vacuum bottle of sorts on the Prius that stores a heated fluid for up to three days and is used to pre-warm the converter, thus reducing cold start emissions." (UPDATE: Felix Kramer of Calcars informs me that the vacuum bottle is standard on 2004-2008 Prius.)

Toyota undoubtedly was testing this and perhaps other solutions even as they toyed with CARB's emissions sensitivities to retard regulators' interest in plug-ins. After all the system gaming of the ZEV mandate over the years, it is past time for CARB to recognize an automaker ploy to delay the zero-emission possibilities of plug-in options for what it is. The commonsense truth that emissions decrease with greater electric drive capability has been willfully confused for years now by automakers. CARB ought to tap into some of its bottomless reservoir of technological optimism applied to hydrogen and fuel cells when considering obstacles to plug-ins.

Paradox 2 - Spin: The automakers don't want regulators telling them what to do, even if they are going to do it. And they don't want consumers demanding that which they don't (yet) want to produce. The automakers aren't simply toying with regulators, as in the emissions example, to forestall regulations. They are, of course, spinning journalists, and thus, the public, to manage expectations and desires. Thus we endure the paradox that the less complex, less expensive, nearer-term useful vehicle (EV/PHEV) is perceived as not yet ready, yet the impossibly costly and complicated and inefficient and useless in the real world car (H2/FCV) gives off the whiff of green perfection and inevitability.

Automakers have ensured that perceived problems, technological and otherwise, with plug-ins have received outsized attention. They could make PHEVs and EVs today, but they don't want to. Large problems regarding hydrogen and fuel cell technology, get diminished. They may or may not ever market FCVs, but they hold out the promise of the "perfectly green" car. Plug-in cars have been under attack while a love affair with hydrogen and fuel cells has been well promoted.

To take one example, batteries. The NiMH batteries (same chemistry as in every Prius, including the PHEV under review here) which take my Toyota RAV4 EV over 100 miles using 10 year old technology and existing electric infrastructure and cost perhaps $20,000 in minimal production numbers, aren't considered ready for prime time and are often said to be too expensive. (Both California regulators and automakers make this claim.) Yet somehow hydrogen & fuel cells, lacking infrastructure and costing perhaps $1 million per car, offer enough promise to warrant advertising (here, here, here, here) and significant state resources.

Toyota, the biggest hybrid manufacturer, has been compelled to respond to the commonsense plea for a plug-in hybrid. Thus the PHEV test drive for journalists. But they need to manage expectations. They ensured that its plug-in hybrid did not receive too much undiluted attention by pairing the PHEV for demonstration with, again, its oft-test driven FCHV. And that's why a mere two cars will be tested in California over three years, studied by UC researchers, with $1 million in state funding, to determine consumer reaction.

We can see how this plays out in how both Bill Moore and Martin Zimmerman wrote about their visit to Toyota's proving grounds. Toyota ought to be pleased with the tone of both stories. Both came away with a sense that the near-term viable vehicle, the PHEV, still has work to be done, while the long-term vehicle of questionable viability was truly fabulous. Bill Moore writes:
Toyota may still be learning on the PHEV Prius, but it clearly has its act together on this vehicle (the Highlander FCHV).
Now Zimmerman:
Truth be told, I think I was a bit spoiled by the hydrogen fuel-cell Toyota Highlander I tried out just before the Prius test runs...It was smooth as silk and brimming with torque.
Both reporters recognize that these fuel cell gems, seductive though they be, aren't going to be sold in showrooms any time soon. Zimmerman writes:
Too bad that there are only a few dozen in existence and that if you could actually buy one -- which you can't -- it would have a sticker price of about $1 million. Maybe, as some critics like to say, hydrogen is the fuel of the future and always will be.
Now Moore:
...for all the FCHV's advances, it seems everyone at Toyota recognizes that fuel cells remain a distant dream. Even if Toyota succeeds in lowering costs to 1/100th of their current level, while improving the durability of the stacks to the equivalent of 150,000 miles, the problem of infrastructure and sustainable hydrogen production present daunting obstacles...
Both reporters gave us honest, useful stories about the cars. I am thrilled that Toyota is working on a plug-in. I am thrilled that each writer put hydrogen and fuel cells in some context.

However, unfortunately green-minded consumers are again left confused. What is possible? What is preferable? What can, what should, car companies be making?

"Let one hundred flowers bloom" said Vijay Vaitheeswaran recently in San Francisco to promote his book Zoom, The Global Race to Fuel the Car of the Future. It is unfortunate that environmental organizations and concerned writers continue to take Chairman Mao's advice when considering the choices facing us. Surely if we study and fund and chat about all the options before us - biodiesel, ethanol, hydrogen, fuel cells, electricity - we will find our salvation, they suggest. I'm afraid not. We haven't got the time or money.

Electric cars have been so beaten up over the last decade that often electricity isn't even considered an alternative fuel. As in this NY Times story entitled Challenging Gasoline from a few days ago. Yet the hard cold reality is that unless we begin to move to grid electricity for most driving, none of the the other fuels will ever stand a chance of contributing to the end of the petroleum era.