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Ohio moves toward fast lane in electric, hybrid car development

Myers Motors and OSU C.A.R. Photos Bob Perkoski and Ben French
Myers Motors and OSU C.A.R. Photos Bob Perkoski and Ben French

When Paul Havasi drives the daily three and half mile route to work from his home near Cleveland he gets a lot of second looks from other drivers. Some of the looks are appreciative thumbs up, others are jeering laughter, but very few ignore his mode of transportation - a three-wheeled electric car.

"It's a totally fascinating experience," says Havasi of his short commute. "I get the gamut. It's usually positive, but some people point and laugh."

Of course, Havasi didn't purchase the car because of the response he might get from other drivers. He had plenty of other good reasons.

A computer network engineer by profession, Havasi says his background in electrical engineering made him very interested in an all-electric car. He was also happy to purchase a car made in Ohio. His NmG is made by Myers Motors of Cleveland.

Gas savings was not at the top of his list for reasons to buy the car back in 2006. He has since appreciated the tremendous savings the car offers on fuel, however.

"I like that I'm not using foreign oil," says Havasi. "I also don't need to waste time looking for the cheapest gas. It's convenient to go home and just plug it in."

While electric car drivers like Havasi may be the exception now, there are many companies and researchers in Ohio betting there will be lots more like him in the near future.

While only about two percent of vehicles on the road today are hybrid, that number is expected to climb steadily in the next five to 10 years, says Vincenzo Morano, director of the Ohio State University Center for Automotive Research (CAR).

"All-electric is where the technology is headed," says Morano. "The feeling of being less dependent on gasoline is important. "PHEVs (plug-in electric hybrid vehicles) will help the introduction of renewable energy."

CAR is working on several aspects of PHEV transportation, says Shawn Midlam-Mohler, a research specialist. Among the challenges are how PHEVs will access the electric grid, fleet adoption, and battery technology.

"There is lots of momentum right now in electric vehicles," says Midlam-Mohler. "Quietly, people are moving their fleets into hybrids."

With new electric models expected this fall for the first time from the big auto companies, such as the Chevy Volt and the Nissan Leaf, the public will now have the option of purchasing an electric car that is mass produced.

"Plug-in hybrids are a good compromise," says Midlam-Mohler. "They can typically go 40 miles on a charge. Fifty to 60 percent of people drive less than that in day."

As more electric autos hit the road, charging them will become more of an issue. While Morano estimates that our current electric grid can handle an increased load, the best scenario would be to access the power at off-peak hours in order to avoid overburdening power stations.

Plug Smart of Columbus has been working on this problem closely with OSU's CAR and they have developed technology that can keep electric cars from crashing our power grids as owners simultaneously plug in. Chris Direnzi, innovation engineer with Plug Smart, says his company has developed technology that enables the charging station where an electric car is plugged in to communicate with a power plant and draw electricity only at low-demand points.

"An electric car uses two times as much power as a household in a typical day," says Direnzi. "Our transformers can't handle it. We have several pilot programs that allow the power company to have a say in when a car charges."

While a final product is still in development, Direnzi says he foresees a scenario in which an electric car buyer may purchase one of these "meters" when they buy the car. It could look something like a parking meter, he estimates. It would be hooked up in their home, or could even be portable and travel with the car to wherever it needs charging.

"I think in five years there will be an increased demand for these," says Direnzi. "In 10 years the market will be strong."

One electric car company that has been working with Plug Smart is Cincinnati based Amp, which will begin releasing its first converted electric models this fall.

J.D. Staley, director of sales and marketing for Amp, says his products will attract those who want a traditionally sized and styled vehicle that is also electric. Amp converts two existing combustion engine models - the Chevy Equinox and the GMC Terrain - to electric propulsion.

Through an arrangement with local dealers, Staley says customers can order the cars from the dealer and have Amp convert them before they are delivered to the customer in an effort to qualify for the full $7,500 new vehicle tax credit. Converted vehicles normally would only qualify for a $2,500 tax credit.

The tax credit, combined with a $15-20,000 cost of operation savings over the life of the car, helps to make up for a rather steep sticker price of more than $54,000, says Staley.

"If you look at the cost of ownership of a $50,000 electric car it compares to a $35,000 gas engine vehicle," he says.

"We're seeing quite a bit of interest in these new cars," he adds. "I've read predictions that by 2015, three to five percent of the cars on the road will be electric. That may not sound like a lot, but that's tens of thousands of cars.

"When you consider that to fully charge an electric vehicle costs about the same as one gallon of gas, it's easy to see what people might like."

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