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Northwest Voices

Seattle Times letters to the editor

February 25, 2009 at 2:16 PM

Plug-in hybrids

Cutting costs, far from foolish

Danny Westneat is so right about plug-in hybrids being pointless [“Reality check on plug-in cars,” staff column, Local News, Feb. 22]. Our collective experience says technology doesn’t get better over time and progress is rarely possible.

Surely, expecting a battery’s cost to be cut in half is foolish.

Westneat’s computer no doubt costs many millions of dollars and uses huge amounts of electricity to power its vacuum tubes.

Westneat no doubt flies in a wooden plane that can glide a few meters above the ground for several hundred meters carrying only himself.

Westneat no doubt loves fireworks, but knows there’s no way for a rocket to fly higher than 700 meters and hoping one day it could carry a person is just silly.

Yeah, Westneat knows when technology is foolish because getting something to be twice as good or cost half as much is out of the realm of possibility. Or you may have to wait 18 months.

— David Wall, Kirkland

Disrupting the way things used to be, a smart plan B

I understand why Danny Westneat might mock “green mania” as a problem when Prius plug-in, hybrid-electric cars fail to live up to their mileage “hype” and biofuels seem to “go bust.” But, in my mind, his report just offers fresh evidence that we have no plan B for future transportation, at our own peril.

We have no replacement for our petroleum-based system with its heavy vehicles dependent on energy-rich design, we aren’t able to respond to global warming and we aren’t prepared to adapt to peak oil.

Having little kids that will bear the brunt of our world-sized mistake, though, I argue we need to keep trying to figure this out, iterative attempts included.

As a society, I wish we’d apply some engineering moxie to redesign our transportation system from the ground up, with new ideas based on real needs, resource limits and waste limits, besides messing around with rigging old-style, heavy automobiles that need heavy, expensive batteries.

It seems to me the great value of the U.S. auto industry has been its creative ability to turn on a dime and do what needs doing even if it’s on a massive scale, even if it’s disruptive to the way things used to be.

I hope this way of thinking attracts its fair share of federal research-and-development funding after being so discredited by Westneat’s article. At worst, it might make our bleak transportation prospects incrementally better and, at best, might support a renaissance that serves the world.

— Fred Bentler, Seattle

Kicking our oil addiction

Danny Westneat’s column needs to be set in a broader context.

First, the plug-in vehicles being studied by the city and City Light are aftermarket conversions, not production vehicles. As such, they lack important efficiency technologies that production vehicles from General Motors, Toyota and others will bring to market beginning in 2010.

Second, the 51-miles-per-gallon figure cited by Westneat is an average across all driving regimes in the study period, including trips when the vehicle operated only on gasoline power. When operated with electric-motor assist, study vehicles averaged 59 mpg, a 50 percent improvement over the vehicles’ gasoline-power-only mileage of 40 mpg. Further, study vehicles averaged 105 mpg when driven less aggressively; a few trips achieved up to 400 mpg. It’s too early to know the fuel economy of production-electric vehicles such as the Chevrolet Volt, but there’s good reason to be optimistic.

The Volt, for example, will have an all-electric range of 40 miles, according to GM. This means that a commuter who lives within 20 miles of work (over 70 percent of people in the U.S.) will be able to commute round-trip without burning any gasoline on a typical day. That’s infinite mpg, if anyone’s counting.

Workplace and public charging sites can further improve the picture, by increasing the percentage of all-electric miles.

Electric vehicles are hands-down the best means of kicking our oil addiction. Transportation accounts for two-thirds of world petroleum use. Nonpetroleum alternatives to electric propulsion lack electricity’s scale, flexibility and — with wind, solar and hydro power — the electric potential for a zero-carbon footprint.

We’ve seen the future of transportation; it’s electric.

— David Kaplan, Seattle

Gas sippers challenge a pipe dream

It is surprising nobody explained the differences between parallel- and series-hybrid vehicles to Danny Westneat, as he researched his column. Allow me to do so now.

A parallel hybrid vehicle makes use of both a combustion engine and an electric motor for propulsion. On the other hand, a series hybrid generally uses only an electric motor to propel the vehicle, while the combustion engine is used solely to recharge depleted batteries.

The Priuses tested by the city of Seattle were more or less built as parallel hybrids. Consequently, they have relatively small electric motors, which can only be used under certain driving conditions.

New plug-in series hybrids, such as the Chevy Volt, will have a more powerful electric motor and a larger battery pack, enabling them to run exclusively off electricity at any driving speed.

These plug-in series hybrids and fully battery-powered electric vehicles will dramatically decrease gasoline consumption.

Next time, I suggest Mr. Westneat do a bit more research before labeling plug-in cars “a pipe dream.” I’m sure that many members of the Seattle Electric Vehicle Association who currently drive gas-free could persuade him otherwise.

— Gregory Johnsen, Seattle

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