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Volvo Tests Plug-in Hybrids

The company will bring vehicles to market in 2012.

This summer, Swedish car company Volvo and European energy company Vattenfall will begin testing plug-in hybrids and gathering data about how people actually drive the cars and where they recharge them. They’ll use the data to refine the design of vehicles that they hope to bring to the European market in 2012.

Volvo plugs in: Plug-in hybrids being tested by Volvo can be recharged from a wall socket or from special charging stations managed by energy company Vattenfall.

In making its announcement earlier this month that it will introduce a plug-in hybrid in Europe, Volvo joins other large automakers in plans for the alternative vehicles. Companies including Fisker, GM, and Toyota have said that they will begin selling plug-in hybrids in the United States in the coming years. The Volvo plug-in hybrid, with an all-electric range of about 50 kilometers, is designed for the European market, where the average trip is shorter than in the United States. The company has not said whether it will sell plug-ins in the United States.

So far, Volvo has built three of the plug-in hybrids for preliminary testing and may build as many as 50, depending on how well these first models perform. One of the cars being tested this summer can go up to 50 kilometers on a 100-horsepower electric motor powered by a lithium-ion battery before switching to a 205-horsepower diesel engine. The other two cars have similar specifications, according to the company. All the cars have two plugs: one for recharging in about five hours when plugged into a standard wall socket, and one for recharging in about two hours when plugged into special charging stations developed by startup companies working with Vattenfall.

The cars incorporate a “smart-charging” system developed by the Argonne National Laboratory, in Argonne, IL. The system combines a battery charger with a cell phone and GPS that transmits the charge status of the battery and the vehicle’s location, be it a residence or a charging station, to a utility operator. “The car doesn’t start charging until it calls the [utility] company and gets the okay,” says Ichiro Sugioka, a science officer at the Volvo Monitoring and Concept Center, in Camarillo, CA.

Volvo may incorporate a similar monitoring system into the commercial versions of the plug-in hybrids if the current tests demonstrate its usefulness. Potentially, the smart-charging system could allow utilities to optimize electricity usage, avoiding unnecessary charging during times of high electricity demand.

Another reason to gather this kind of data is that it can be used to optimize the design of the car. Indeed, Volvo is working with multiple undisclosed battery manufacturers and has not yet finalized the vehicle’s design, says Sugioka. Some batteries have a better energy density and can go longer between charges; some are more powerful. “We want to get the car into people’s hands and see if they use it as they say they would,” Sugioka says. Since 1992, the company has tested a number of plug-in hybrid designs. “We did not bring any of the previous plug-ins to market because battery costs were too high to justify taking a loss,” he says.

Vattenfall is working with Volvo in hopes of addressing concerns about how the widespread adoption of plug-in hybrids and all-electric vehicles will affect the electrical grid. The worst-case scenario is that everyone who owns one of these cars will come home from work at 5 P.M. and plug in, leading to stresses on the grid and possible brownouts. “Will people plug in at every opportunity or not? We don’t think that’s going to be the case, but we only have computer models,” says Sugioka.

The Swedish collaborators will also monitor whether most people charge the cars in garages or will take advantage of fast-charging stations located in public places, which could offer electricity solely from renewable sources of power, such as wind. Sugioka says that Vattenfall has not yet announced which companies are providing the charging stations or how many there will be. Drivers could use them for a fast charge to avoid having to employ the diesel engine–but there is a trade-off. “Fast charging heats up the batteries and shortens their lifetime,” says Sugioka. Fast charging may also strain the electrical grid if people use it during peak hours, instead of charging the cars at home at night.

The Swedish project is one of a number of studies under way to monitor how people will use plug-ins. A group of anthropologists led by Tom Turrentine, director of the Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicle Research Center, at the University of California, Davis, has distributed plug-in vehicles equipped with monitors to several families. “We suspect that people will make some adjustments to save energy and oil, but it’s hard to say how much people will change: we’re creatures of habit,” says Keith Hardy, acting director of the FreedomCAR and Fuel partnership at the U.S. Department of Energy.

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