Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Electric Event

Toyota Prius Plug-In Hybrid Vehicles (PHVs) were delivered to SyracuseCoE this morning. These are demonstration concept cars that drive about 13 miles on a full electric charge before switching over to the Prius' regular hybrid system. Out of 600 PHVs delivered worldwide, Syracuse has six, with Syracuse University, SyracuseCoE, and CuseCar taking possession of two cars each. Toyota is partnering with universities and other organizations in order to get real-world driving data with the hope of improving the PHVs for the mass market.

Syracuse is a great place to test the cars, of course. We have, um, "robust four-season weather," so if the Toyota engineers were wondering how the cars will charge up when the temperature is 20 below or how the system will fare with a temperature swing of 60 degrees in a day, they've come to the right place. Thanks to some excellent lobbying by Barry Carr of Clean Communities of CNY, Toyota also know that this city has been used as a test bed for all sorts of products over the years and that our city's green reputation is growing stronger each day.

It's easy to be cynical about technologies such as Plug-In Hybrids. To some, it might be seen as "too little too late," and the 13-mile driving charge simply too small to be effective. But think for a minute about your typical driving day. For me, during the week, it's a 16 mile door-to-door commute, and if staying at home on a weekend, it's chores in the village, a mile from my house. That is, the 13-mile charge will do very well for a typical week's driving.

In fact, the average commute distance for Americans is 16 miles. And that fact might be the key to what Toyota want to achieve with these concept PHVs. It'll be awfully difficult weaning Americans off the internal combustion engine, and one drawback to electric cars in the minds of many drivers (I heard this comment more than once at today's press conference) is the fear that losing charge in a car will leave the driver stranded.

To make a bridge for the consumer between gasoline engines and fully electric cars, the Toyota PHVs parked at SyracuseCoE not only have a charge that more or less matches the country's average commute distance, they have an easy-to-use system that allows the car to be plugged into a regular 125 volt outlet (for a slow charge) as well as a 240 volt outlet (like the outlet that runs your clothes dryer, for a quick charge).

Where electric cars should get to, as I wrote in an earlier post, is an exchangeable, generic battery system and a national network of battery changing stations, ideally using locally produced energy to charge banks of batteries. We may get there some day, but for now, Toyota should be given points for developing a car that helps pave the way.

—Martin Walls, Syracuse Center of Excellence

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