General Motors, Chrysler and Ford face an uncertain future. They have been lobbying Congress for a $25 billion bailout, which representatives seem reluctant to grant them. It seems like an odd time to be talking about technological breakthroughs in the automotive industry. But GM is saying that it still intends to come out with its plug-in hybrid, the Chevy Volt, by 2010, and that this new car will “completely reinvent the automotive industry.”
Plug-in hybrids run for a certain distance on batteries (so far, hackers have been able to create plug-in hybrids that run for about 10 miles on batteries). After that, they revert to standard hybrid operation, which uses gas and electricity. When you get home in the evening, you plug the car in and recharge the batteries so that the following day you can drive another 10 miles with the electric charge.
Today you can only get a plug-in hybrid by hacking your Prius to add more batteries to it. We filmed members of the Palo Alto nonprofit CalCars doing just this for our QUEST story on plug-in hybrids in 2007. If you’re not handy with tools, you can have someone else retrofit your Prius with the necessary battery pack. Luscious Garage, in San Francisco, has started offering this service. They’re featured in today’s QUEST story “Waiting for the Electric Car,” which explores why all-electric everyday cars remain an elusive goal. The limiting factor is the difficulty in making a battery that is powerful, long-lasting and cheap. QUEST goes behind the scenes to a battery lab at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in Berkeley to find out what goes into the making of a lithium-ion battery and why it’s taking so long to make one that can power an all-electric car, or even a plug-in hybrid that can go for more than 10 miles on its electric charge.