DaimlerChrysler has announced that it will put a fleet of 20 plug-in hybrid-electric vehicles (PHEVs) onU.S. streets and highways between now and the first quarter of next year.
Plug-ins combine a full hybrid system, which manages power provided by a conventional fuel-burning engine and an electric-motor system (such as in the Toyota Prius), with improved battery capacity and a stronger motor capable of propelling the vehicle in normal driving on its own. Such vehicles would allow a driving range of 20 to 40 miles on electric power alone, with the engine and hybrid system taking over after that for a conventional driving range of several hundred miles, improved farther perhaps by the hybrid system. The battery system could be recharged nightly.
The DaimlerChrysler fleet will consist of Dodge Sprinter vans, some with gasoline engines and some with diesels. Within the group, some will be equipped to be real-world testing beds for advanced lithium-ion battery designs in comparing them with the nickel-metal hydride type that’s currently used by most hybrids. Further development of lithium-ion batteries is commonly singled out as essential for widespread adoption of plug-ins.
DaimlerChrysler says that the Sprinter PHEV has the ability to go 20 miles on electric power only. A dashboard switch allows the driver to manually switch between the two modes or have the vehicle’s onboard controller do so automatically.
In the release, the company claims to be “the only auto manufacturer currently evaluating a variety of plug-in hybrid powertrain (diesel and gas) configurations in real-world, customer-operation service within the United States .” The automaker also says that this is the first fleet test of a diesel plug-in.
Commuter vehicles and those used by local businesses would potentially benefit the most from PHEV technology. The average American’s round-trip daily commute is about 30 miles, which would mean that a significant portion of plug-in drivers could avoid using gasoline (or diesel or ethanol) except for longer trips.
A recent study from the federal government suggested that there is enough spare power capacity from the grid to support charging cars daily even if the majority of drivers switched to plug-ins. Furthermore, the transition would reduce overall greenhouse-gas emissions, especially as the increased demand would speed up replacement of older, dirtier coal plants.
General Motors and Ford have already made several announcements concerning plug-in hybrids and are working with battery suppliers to help make plug-ins feasible.
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