Plug-In Demo Charges up Clean Cities Coalitions

The closest most people get to a vehicle before it is offered to the general public is seeing it on TV or at an auto show. But five fortunate Clean Cities coordinators were able to test Toyota’s plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEV) as part of the demonstration project for the PHEV Prius, which is expected to be released in 2012. Clean Cities is an initiative in the Department’s Vehicle Technologies Program that is focused on reducing petroleum use in transportation – which makes this demonstration a perfect fit.

A PHEV Prius can run for up to 13 miles on all-electric power before calling on its gasoline engine for supplemental power. After that, they operate like traditional hybrid vehicles. When you think about it, a 13-mile range would allow you to run a host of errands and chores without using any gasoline. PHEVs can reduce petroleum use and pollution. Since they have smaller battery packs, they may be less expensive than all-electric vehicles, and they can charge in only a few hours from a 120 V outlet.

Most of the coalitions got to demo a single vehicle for about six weeks (Toyota is only testing 160 of them nationwide). Chuck Feinburg, the coordinator for New Jersey Clean Cities, drove the vehicle to several events, including a Clean Cities stakeholder meeting, which included representatives from utilities, local governments, universities, fleet managers and other community members.

He said, “It gave us the opportunity to show our stakeholders and others that … we have access to cutting-edge technology and the ability to bring it here to New Jersey.” Similarly, Barbara Spoonhour from Western Riverside Clean Cities in California, used a demonstration vehicle in the Alternative Fuel Vehicle Day Odyssey, a biennial event promoting clean transportation. She also said the vehicle, which is prominently labeled as a “plug-in hybrid,” ironically attracted the most attention during the few times they visited the gas station. In fact, the biggest challenge for most drivers was simply remembering to charge the vehicle to maximize its fuel economy. Massachusetts Clean Cities coordinator Steve Russell shared the vehicle with other employees at the state’s Department of Energy Resources and said having a charger at work helped drivers take full advantage of the all-electric mode.

In contrast to these short-term placements, one coordinator is spearheading a longer-term project. Barry Carr of Clean Communities of Central New York is overseeing eight vehicles that have been placed at Syracuse University, Georgetown University, the Syracuse Center for Excellence (supported by the Department), and the car sharing service Cuse Car. The two vehicles at Cuse Car are part of the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority’s project under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. In addition to the demonstrating these vehicles, Cuse Car is also installing about 100 electric chargers and will be collecting data on driving and charging to help the Department of Energy better understand usage patterns. Partnering with a car-sharing company allows a variety of drivers to experience the vehicles and enables some people to avoid owning a personal vehicle altogether.

By collecting information in a variety of geographic and climatic conditions, demonstrations like this one allow manufacturers to ensure their vehicles are ready to handle any challenge. The Department’s Vehicle Technologies Program carries out similar evaluations through its Advanced Vehicle Testing Activity program. By benchmarking vehicles’ performance and capabilities, the Department can guide new research efforts and develop more accurate models. Thanks to the Recovery Act, the Department is currently working with eight different companies to collect data on more than 13,000 PHEVs and Electric Vehicles and 22,000 chargers.

The PHEV Prius demonstration project is a learning experience for Clean Cities coordinators and manufacturers alike. And it’s one of many projects helping PHEVs move from the laboratory to the road.

By Dennis A. Smith. Dennis A. Smith is the National Clean Cities Director in the Vehicle Technologies Program, Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy at the Department of Energy.