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Mon, Jun 9th - 6:32AM

Fighting Back against High Gas Prices

 Imagine paying $5.40 per gallon of gasoline? Seem farfetched? It is what Canadians are currently paying at a rate of $1.35 per litre (there is roughly 4 litres in a gallon).

So are Canadians fed up with paying high gas prices? SUV sales are dropping and smaller car sales are soaring. Consumers are so fed up that they're finally adjusting their behaviour...?

In the past, we complained but did nothing, preferring instead to condemn those evil oil companies and demand that the government keep gas prices artificially low.

This time it's different. The long-term trend toward high prices is clear.

Imagine test driving a vehicle that, in a variety of driving scenarios, uses considerably less gasoline than conventional cars. When booting around the city, it almost uses no gas at all. Instead, it relies mostly on electricity from the grid. Just plug into a wall socket overnight and you're ready to go in the morning.

Interested? You should be – it could be the kind of car sitting in your driveway 10 years, even five years, from now. It's called a plug-in hybrid electric vehicle, or PHEV.

In this case it is a 2004 Toyota Prius that had been retrofitted with a lithium-ion battery pack and a charging outlet on the back bumper. Unlike a regular Prius, which has a smaller nickel-metal hydride battery that's recharged by the engine and by capturing braking energy, this Prius uses electricity from the grid to displace gasoline use.

Concord-based Hymotion did the retrofit, using batteries from Boston-area company A123 Systems, which is now Hymotion's parent company. It's the same battery technology being considered by General Motors for its Volt electric car, which is scheduled for commercial release in 2010, and a plug-in hybrid version of its Saturn Vue SUV.

For drives within the city, each trip ranging from 10 to 20 kilometres, the fuel economy is about two litres per 100 kilometres.

"Downtown, these types of vehicles can make huge improvements," says Ricardo Bazzarella, founder of Hymotion. He says more people than ever are stopping him on the road and asking questions about the car. "People want to know more because gas prices have gotten so high and they're looking for alternatives."

Smog is another issue. On Friday, the Ontario Medical Association announced that smog is responsible for an estimated 9,500 premature deaths in the province each year. Imagine if we all drove an emission-free electric car in downtown Toronto?

Hymotion/A123 is selling its plug-in retrofit kit for $10,000 (U.S.), aimed mostly at Prius drivers who need to replace their battery pack or are looking to push the fuel economy of their cars to the limit. The market is there. Toyota announced last month that Prius sales had surpassed one million since going on sale in the late 1990s.

Within the next few years, however, it's expected the major car manufacturers will have a number of their own plug-in models available for sale at prices affordable to the average driver.

Ric Fulop, an A123 co-founder and vice-president of business development, said they're not for people who generally drive more than 50 kilometres each day, at least not until the battery range improves – and they are improving. "But plug-in hybrids are very good for most commuters."

There are a few caveats. Like any vehicle, driving behaviour can dramatically affect performance. Aggressive drivers kick the car into gas mode more often, so get worse fuel economy. Same goes if you drive longer distances and on the highway. Efficiency also improves the more a person drives the vehicle, because they become more familiar with fuel-saving driving techniques. It should also be said that fuel economy, like most vehicles, is generally not as good in colder weather when you're cranking the heater and using defrost more often.

If you drive mostly in the city and rarely take the car on long highway drives, this type of vehicle is for you. If your commute every day, you'll still get decent mileage. But so will a typical subcompact car that's cheaper to purchase. It really depends on your needs.

The Automotive eZine - The Lilith eZine Automotive Section

GM's Hydrogen Equinox
Ford Escape Hybrid 2008
Toyota Prius Hybrid 2007
Toyota Camry Hybrid 2007
Saturn Aura Hybrid 2007
Lexus GS Hybrid 2007
Honda Accord Hybrid 2007
The Eco-Car Battleground
Green Cars in 2020
Green Sports Cars
Ford unveils `plug-in' fuel-cell hybrid
Hydrogen Power becoming a Reality
Laws pushing zero-emission cars
Is hydrogen power the future?
Cost, infrastructure hinder hydrogen
China auto makers roll out 'clean' cars
Fuel-cell work on track

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