Ford, Edison to Test Rechargeable Hybrids

By: Anthony Fontanelle

Ford Motor Co. and Southern California Edison will announce a multimillion-dollar test of plug-in hybrids in an effort to accelerate mass production of the new technology.

Plug-ins are deemed the next-generation development of the present yield of gasoline-electric hybrids like the Toyota Prius. Equipped with more powerful batteries that could be recharged overnight, plug-in hybrids are engineered to run for considerable periods on electricity alone thus significantly escalating their fuel economy.

The utility will get a Ford plug-in hybrid vehicle by the end of this year and as many as 20 by some time in 2009 to test their durability, range and impact on the power grid, said Susan M. Cischke, Ford senior vice president for sustainability, environment and safety engineering. The utility serves 13 million individuals in 11 central, coastal and Southern California counties outside Los Angeles.

With such partnership, the Dearborn automaker could not only flaunt chic and other accessories or powerful engines for that matter; it could sport utmost fuel efficiency.

Plug-in hybrids generally have batteries that power an electric motor. It comes with an internal combustion engine for use when the batteries run low. The batteries can be recharged using a standard wall outlet. Southern California Edison will help Ford by placing the cars with consumers and collecting data, Cischke said in an interview. "They have the wire-side knowledge about the grid and all the issues there," she said. "By partnering with these two industries, we're hoping that it does accelerate the commercialization and certainly drive some of the cost issues down."

Power shortages are major concerns in Southern California Edison's vastly populated service area. As such, the company is under a state mandate to build five power plants that would fire up during peak energy use periods. The plants would help prevent projected energy shortages.

Many automakers have plug-in hybrids that are similar to Dearborn automaker's experimental vehicles, but mass production has been derailed by cost and battery technology that reduces the vehicles' range. Automakers are racing to bring the technology to market as auto shoppers seek alternatives to the internal combustion engine and increasing gas prices.

"We see electricity as itself an alternative fuel in support of transportation," said John Bryson, chairman of Rosemead, Calif.-based Edison International, parent company of Southern California Edison. Bryson said the collaboration will allow Ford and the utility to better see how technology that has been tested in the laboratory works in the real world. He said plug-in hybrids have the potential put the power grid to better use, for example, by charging vehicles in overnight hours when electricity demand is lower.

Ford, Cischke said, already is testing two plug-in hybrids in its Dearborn labs that are based on the Escape small sport utility vehicle, a model that the automaker offers as a gas-electric hybrid. Cischke added it's still too early to predict when Ford can mass-produce the cars.

"That's one of the reasons for this program, to gather more data and fully understand the customer usage part," Cischke noted. She added that in the future, power generated by wind could be used at night to recharge vehicles.

In addition to saving gas, Ford and Edison said, increased use of plug-in vehicles would lower greenhouse gas emissions and reduce American dependence on imported oil. The partnership will explore how plug-in hybrids would operate and how they would fit into the state's electricity grid.

Other automakers, including General Motors Corp., Toyota Motor Corp. and Nissan Motor Co., are also pursuing the said technology. Plug-in vehicles won't be widely available until the end of the decade, experts said.

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