Friday, January 28, 2005

Converting Cars To Hybrids With Off-The-Shelf Parts

Researchers at UC Davis have been converting cars with conventional engines to hybrids using off-the-shelf parts, according to USA Today. The article discusses hybrids in general, noting an objection I've had to purely electric cars that they're only as clean as the power plant that generated the watts to charge it.

But the main interest for me -- and what the story writeup focused on -- was the activities of UC Davis researcher Professor Andrew Frank, who's been busy converting a Ford Explorer to a hybrid.

With engineering students at the University of California at Davis, Professor Frank has spent more than a decade turning production vehicles into plug-in hybrids using off-the-shelf parts. "We just built a high-performance plug-in hybrid Ford Explorer," he says. "It's 325 horsepower — 200 of that horsepower is electric and 125 is gasoline. This car goes like a rocket, but still gets double the fuel economy of a regular hybrid. And for the first 50 miles it is all electric — zero emissions."

That's enough for many drivers to complete their daily commute. Compared with conventional cars, the annual fuel consumption of the modified cars "is only about 10%, because you're using gas so infrequently," he says. "Our studies show [that] the average person would only go to the gas station six times a year compared with maybe 35 times a year."

Built on a stock Explorer platform, the hybrid retains all its original interior space. There is also more space in the engine compartment because the vehicle lacks moving parts like a fan belt, generator, water pump, and even a transmission. Because it has fewer than one-fifth the number of moving parts of a conventional SUV, the hybrid's weight, even with a heavier battery, stays the same. Assembly is simpler and reliability, better. In production, it might cost $40,000 or less, he says.

A quick look at the UC Davis website describing their activities (the second item down) mentions Team Fate. Funded in part by Challenge X, a government-industry consortium consisting of the Department of Energy, General Motors, and others, its object is to "provide engineering schools an opportunity to participate in hands-on research and development with leading-edge automotive propulsion, fuels, materials, and emissions-control technologies." With seventeen teams nationwide, the big surprise is that MIT, traditionally a school with deep links to the automotive industry, isn't one of them. Good stuff, although as the Peak Oil blog points out, Jevons paradox predicts even more strenuous demand for oil should fuel economy suddenly increase. But, it's a good first step.