WASHINGTON – A group of scientists urged Congress on Wednesday to fund research for plug-in hybrid vehicles, touting the technology as another way to reduce the nation's dependence on oil through the help of a simple electrical socket.
With high gas prices straining some Americans' budgets, advocates of the alternative vehicles told a House committee that plug-in hybrids could reduce gasoline consumption and reduce air emissions. And while ethanol-fueled vehicles will require a better network of fueling pumps, a plug-in hybrid car could recharge at home.
"To think that you could pull into your garage at the end of the day and 'fill 'er up' just by plugging your car into a regular, 110-volt socket in the garage is very appealing," said Rep. Judy Biggert, R-Ill., chairwoman of the House Science subcommittee on energy.
Plug-in hybrids combine hybrid technology — which uses both gasoline and electric power — with large batteries that can be plugged into a standard wall socket.
To help learn more about the vehicles, Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, said he would introduce legislation to provide $250 million in grants to research battery technology and develop a fleet of demonstration plug-in vehicles that could be further tested.
President Bush has called for more research to develop smaller, longer-lasting batteries for plug-in hybrids, noting that the technology could help motorists drive 40 miles on the battery without having to use any gasoline.
Dr. Andrew Frank, a mechanical and aeronautical engineering professor at the University of California, Davis, said researchers have developed pre-production vehicles but need funding to create a fleet of about 100 plug-ins that could be tested around the nation.
The auto industry has said the technology offers promise, but notes the current vehicles are not cost-effective and says it's too early in the development of advanced batteries and hydrogen vehicles to know whether they could be viable.
Hybrids currently account for about 1 percent of the U.S. auto market.
The additional battery capacity can add up 500 pounds to the vehicle, reducing its performance, and the demands on the battery are greater, leading to faster deterioration of the battery.
John German of American Honda Motor Co. told lawmakers the technology offered potential, but the larger battery pack "adds thousands of dollars to the initial price of the vehicle and detracts from the performance and interior space."
Others have worried that thousands of plug-in hybrids could overwhelm the electric grid.
Paul Williamsen, a product education manager with Toyota, told reporters Tuesday that the automaker found from experience with electric vehicles that consumers often plugged in their vehicles during the day, leading to "increased total consumption on the electrical grid during those peak daylight hours."
But Roger Duncan, deputy general manager of Austin Energy in Texas, said the obstacles involving the batteries could be addressed. The main obstacle, he said, is "automotive industry inertia based on a perception that there is not a commercially viable market."