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A Gas-Sipping Van

A spinoff from the Rocky Mountain Institute has developed a 100-miles-per-gallon plug-in hybrid.
April 28, 2009

Last week, Bright Automotive, a startup based in Anderson, IN, unveiled a plug-in hybrid utility van designed to travel 50 miles on half a gallon of gasoline. The company plans to start producing the Idea vehicle in large volume by the end of 2012, and it hopes to sell 50,000 a year starting in 2013.

Bright Idea: A plug-in hybrid from Bright Automotive called the Idea.

At a time when dozens of automakers are developing new hybrids and electric vehicles, Bright is notable because of its history. Its CEO, John Waters, designed the battery pack for the EV-1, GM’s first electric vehicle, and the company is a spinoff from the Rocky Mountain Institute, a highly regarded nonprofit based in Boulder, CO. The institute is famous for proposing in the mid-1990s to radically change the design of cars to make them more efficient. The Idea is the partial realization of its Hypercar concept, a hybrid vehicle that would use as little as one-fifth the amount of fuel that today’s vehicles use. It does so by combining a hybrid of gas and electric propulsion (and eventually fuel cells instead of the gas engine) with lightweight composite materials, an aerodynamic design, and more efficient electronic accessories. The Rocky Mountain Institute had started another company to develop the Hypercar, but that vehicle never made it into production.

Bright thinks that its new business model, which involves selling vehicles to commercial and government fleets rather than to the public, could help make things different this time. Fleet customers look at the total cost of ownership, Waters says, not just the up-front cost, which is higher for plug-in hybrids, since they incorporated both a gas engine and an electric motor and also require a costly battery pack. He says that over the life of the vehicle, fuel savings will make up for the higher initial cost. Several potential customers have already signed letters of intent to purchase the vehicle once it’s in mass production, says Lyle Shuey, Bright’s vice president of marketing and sales. The van was designed in cooperation with a number of potential customers, including Duke Energy–an investor in Bright–and Cox Communications.

Recent government support for more efficient vehicles could also help the company succeed. Bright is applying for $450 million in government loans to scale up production. Other incentives, such as tax credits for plug-in hybrids in the stimulus package will also help. “Obama’s emphasis on the electrification of the vehicle makes this the perfect time to be in the industry,” says Evan House, the company’s vice president for advanced battery engineering.

Like the Hypercar, the Idea will be lightweight and aerodynamic, although the design doesn’t quite go to the extremes of the original concept. For example, rather than using a carbon-composite frame, it uses a metal one, although it’s made of aluminum instead of steel to reduce weight, and the designers have incorporated composites elsewhere in the vehicle. The van weighs 1,500 pounds less than conventional vehicles of its size, the company says. Reducing that amount of weight reduces the size of the battery pack needed for the vehicle’s 30-mile electric range, which also reduces the overall cost of the vehicle, House says.

Utility van: More views of Bright Automotive’s plug-in hybrid called the Idea.

The vehicle’s “through-the-road” parallel plug-in hybrid design also cuts costs. In general, plug-in hybrid vehicles use more than one source of power to propel the vehicle. Typically, an electric motor–powered by batteries that can be recharged using an ordinary outlet–is coupled with a gasoline engine that extends the range of the vehicle beyond the distance that it could travel on the energy stored in the batteries alone. In the Chevrolet Volt plug-in hybrid, due out next year, the gas engine serves only as a generator that recharges the battery after it’s depleted–there’s no mechanical connection between the gas engine and the wheels. In this design, the electric motor has to be big enough to provide all of the power needed for acceleration. In contrast, in a proposed plug-in hybrid from Toyota, the gas engine and the electric motor are both mechanically connected to the wheels via a power-splitting device, which controls how much of the power needed to turn the wheels comes from each. In this setup, the motor can be smaller, but the power-splitting device adds cost and weight.

In the Idea design, a gasoline generator powers the front wheels, as in a conventional vehicle, while the rear wheels are driven by an electric motor that draws power from a battery pack. There’s no mechanical connection between either motor, so the only link is the road itself–hence the name “through-the-road” hybrid. When the driver presses on the accelerator, a control system automatically decides how much of the power for accelerating the vehicle will come from gas-powered front wheels and how much will come from the electricity-powered rear wheels. When the battery is fully charged, the van can travel on electricity alone for about 30 miles, although for very fast acceleration, the control system has to call on the gas engine for a boost of power. After 30 miles, the power needed to propel the car comes mostly from the gas engine, but the battery can provide bursts of power as needed for acceleration, or to keep the engine operating at its optimal power range. The battery can be recharged by the gas engine (much as a conventional engine charges the starter battery) or by capturing energy from braking. The vehicle can travel 50 miles between battery charges using half a gallon of gas (equivalent to 100 miles per gallon). But if it has to go further between charges, it uses more gasoline–for example, traveling 70 miles takes one gallon of gasoline.

In this design, the electric motor doesn’t need to provide all the power, so it can be smaller and cheaper than the motor used in the Volt. It also doesn’t need the mechanical power-splitting device used by Toyota, Shuey says.

Bright plans to build its own battery pack using lithium iron phosphate cells, a battery chemistry that’s safer and lasts longer than the lithium cobalt oxide used in laptops and cell phones, but the company hasn’t yet named the battery supplier.

But some experts predict that Bright will have a difficult time competing with other automakers. Mike Omotoso, senior manager of power-train forecasting at J.D. Power and Associates, says that sales projections of 50,000 vehicles are optimistic. “It looks like a good vehicle,” he says, but he adds that “the overall demand for that type of vehicle isn’t as high as they think it is.” What’s more, the company will face competition from Ford, which has announced plans for an electric van to be available starting in 2010. Ford has a much bigger marketing budget, and it already has factories to produce the vehicle, Omotoso says. Bright will also compete with Smith Electric Vehicles and Azure Dynamics, which makes a hybrid delivery truck.

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