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Idaho energy lab tests plug-in hybrid cars in Seattle

Nov 6, 2007 - The Associated Press

Fill it up, plug it in, then drive. And drive. And drive.

That's the dream, anyway, of an Idaho National Laboratory program testing 13 Toyota Prius hybrid cars retrofitted with mileage-boosting batteries that can be plugged into a regular household electrical outlet when they're not in use to give them more oomph on the roads.

It's part of a yearlong, $156,000 U.S. Department of Energy demonstration project aimed at judging the performance of plug-in hybrid electric vehicles in an urban area. Over the next 12 months, the converted cars owned by the city of Seattle, King County, Port of Seattle and the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency will drive the streets of Western Washington under the close scrutiny of INL researchers.

They'll be testing the car's performance, then sending that information to the Department of Energy as it tries to develop even more fuel efficient cars. So far, the cars' mileage per gallon has about doubled after being outfitted with lithium plug-in batteries, to 125 mpg in city driving conditions.

"We've done some testing where we've seen over 200 miles per gallon" under laboratory conditions, said Jim Francfort, who leads the INL's Advanced Vehicle Testing Activity program. "Where you've got a lot of city driving, we're seeing 125 miles per gallon, plus."

Currently, there are 10 versions of hybrid cars available in North America, with versions from Toyota, Honda, Ford, Lexus, Mercury and Mazda. Hybrids generally use power from their gas-fueled engines or generated by braking to charge their batteries to propel them in rush-hour and city traffic; in higher-speed situations like highway driving, the engine kicks in.

That's why hybrids get better gas mileage in city driving than at high speeds.

Plug-in hybrids can get even better mileage, but they aren't cheap.

The Seattle agencies and the DOE are each paying half of the $12,000 cost to outfit each of their Toyotas with the new batteries, made by A123 Systems Research and Development Labs based in Watertown, Mass. Still, Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels said he hopes the demonstration project will expand the promise of plug-in hybrid technology, eventually helping reduce the cost.

"In King County, 52 percent of our greenhouse gas pollution comes from burning oil in our cars and trucks," Nickels said in an Oct. 29 statement. "For the sake of our economy, security and our climate, we need to use fewer cars and greener cars for getting around."

The Prius comes from the factory with a 1.3 kilowatt-hour battery pack. INL is testing vehicles that have been given 5 kwh to 10 kwh packs. Scientists hope to reduce the cost of a plug-in hybrid battery to just $3,000 per car.

Though the green aspects of the cars are nice, Francfort say it's these cold, hard economics that will likely drive whether plug-in hybrid technology becomes the standard accepted by America's driving masses. General Motors is developing a new car called the Volt - a plug-in hybrid the manufacturer says will be available in 2010.

"It's kind of a trade-off," he said. "What is it going to cost you, versus how much gas you can save?"