Plug-in hybrids have electric appeal

Part of a Hummer H3, a plug-in hybrid SUV

TEXT OF STORY

Steve Chiotakis: Today, Congress is looking at the idea of rebating gas-guzzling car and truck owners up to $4,500 for trading for something a little more fuel-efficient. There are separate measures in the House and in the Senate.

The plan is being debated as the next generation of eco-friendly cars are being marketed. Toyota's planning to trot out its new plug-in Prius later this year, and other car makers aren't far behind. But what kind of appeal will these cars really have? From the Marketplace Sustainability Desk, Jennifer Collins reports.


Jennifer Collins: Edward Kjaer wants to introduce to you something greener than your average hybrid:

Edward Kjaer: This is the Ford Plug-in Hybrid Escape.

Kjaer works for Southern California Edison testing electric vehicles. Conventional hybrids run on both electricity and gas. This plug-in can go further on its electric motor.

Kjaer: Here we are, nice and smooth. Now we're up to about 30 mile an hour -- still electric.

In a conventional hybrid, the gas eventually has to kick in to recharge the battery. But in a plug-in hybrid, you recharge the battery by connecting the car to the grid.

Kjaer: What plug-in hybrids technology is doing is it's really going to start to unlock the true potential of hybridization. The gas hybrid gets it to a certain point. The plug will take it to the next level.

So the car will be able to run at higher speeds, for longer periods, on pure electricity.

James Francfort tracks plug-in hybrids for the Department of Energy:

James Francfort: We've demonstrated the potential to get 100, 200, 300, up to 400 miles-per-gallon depending on how the vehicles are driven.

Trouble is in early tests, Francfort found plug-ins hybrids weren't necessarily getting much better gas mileage than conventional hybrids.

Paul Scott of Plug in America says it's all about teaching consumers how to drive the cars.

Paul Scott: You have to obviously charge the batteries.

Some test drivers weren't, and that meant the cars relied more on gas. And gunning the engine does the same thing. So if the cars are sold without any thought to consumer training:

Scott: Well, in that case then people might not buy them.

But if consumers are properly educated, Ed Kjaer says drivers could change their priorities.

Kjaer: Our parents, you know, it was all about miles per minute. Now it's all about miles per gallon. So it's all about how do you squeeze more and more and more efficiency out of the system?

That may depend on how efficient the auto industry is at teaching consumers a new way of driving.

I'm Jennifer Collins for Marketplace.

About the author

Jennifer Collins is a reporter for the Marketplace portfolio of programs. She is based in Los Angeles, where she covers media, retail, the entertainment industry and the West Coast.

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