Series Hybrid Hints

This week the Los Angeles Auto Show had its 100th annual exhibition at the Los Angeles Convention Center. In his keynote address on 11-29, Rick Wagoner, the Chairman and CEO of General Motors, congratulated the producers when he said “you have ‘arrived’ this year as one of the industry’s top international shows.”

This is more true than the distinguished Mr. Wagoner may realize. California is the home of automotive industry newcomers Tesla Motors in the Silicon Valley, and Phoenix Motorcars in California’s southland. Tesla Motors is noteworthy because they have the backing of some of the wealthiest, smartest venture capitalists the Silicon Valley ever spawned, and they are using the already commoditized lithium ion batteries used in laptops, with extremely high energy densities, to power their 100% battery powered Tesla Roadster. Phoenix Motorcars is interesting because they have a supplier agreement with Altair Technologies, who claim they have a next-generation “nano-titanate” lithium ion battery that has faster recharging times and greatly reduced problems with heat management. Could the automotive industry’s center of gravity be shifting from Detroit to California?


What we really were looking for when listening to the GM Chairman Wagoner deliver his keynote in Los Angeles was any indication that GM was going to deliver a series hybrid car, as rumor has it – read “The Series Hybrid Car is Here.”

In Wagoner’s keynote (read text here) he mentioned flex-fuel vehicles, E-85 gasoline, new hybrid vehicle roll-outs, even a plug-in hybrid! We like plug-ins, even now using nickel metal hydride batteries, because some of us only have 10-20 mile commutes, which means we can plug our hybrid cars into a wall socket each night and spend $.02 per mile using the electricity from the grid, instead of triple that cost when we charge our cars batteries using on-board gasoline. Read “Electric Car Cost per Mile” or “The 100% Battery Powered Car” for charts explaining the cost-per-mile savings of using grid electricity vs. gasoline.

We are extremely excited about series hybrid cars, because in this design the onboard gasoline engine is hooked only to an electric generator. This means it can operate at a constant RPM, which means it can attain up to 40% efficiency, far, far more than it can achieve when hooked to a drivetrain with constantly varying RPM and torque requirements. The efficiencies getting power from a generator through a battery pack and into an electric traction motor are surprisingly high. We believe the serial hybrid is potentially more fuel efficient than today’s parallel hybrids, and we believe they are far, far less complex to build and maintain.

We were told, off the record, by a GM spokesperson only two days ago that GM is definitely going to have a serial hybrid concept car early next year. But the best we got on 11-29-2006 from Chairman Wagoner is the following: “GM is committed to the development of electrically driven vehicles that will help improve energy diversity, and minimize the automobile’s impact on the environment… and, we’ll follow today’s announcements with additional announcements during the auto show season… including Detroit, in about six weeks.” That’s an enticing tidbit.

GM has gotten a bum rap by environmentalists. GM has tried everything; the experimental EV-1, sixteen generations of internally designed fuel cells, hybrids, flex-fuel; now plug-in hybrids. But if they don’t come through (as they have hinted so far they will) with a serial hybrid car, which is the closest thing yet to a 100% battery powered car and eminently practical, someone in California is going to do it instead, and the automotive world’s center of gravity will shift westward…


Categorized | Cars, Electricity, Energy, Fuel Cells
13 Responses to “Series Hybrid Hints”
  1. kent beuchert says:

    Serial hybrids are not as efficient as plain gasoline engine powered cars at highway speed. They are best at stop and go, where not only can energy be recovered during braking, but no energy is expended while sitting in traffic (except for A/C, stereo usage, etc.). The best news about a series hybrid is that it is one small step away from being an all-electric car and is very simple in terms of engineering. One of the deficiencies of the hybrids today is that they require two powertrains to move the car . It’s not an elegant or efficient solution. But with the serial hybrid, simply replace the small generator engine with batteries and there you have it: an all-electric car. This serial hybrid GM is referring to is obviously simply a renaming of their fuel cell development vehicle, sans fuel cell and massive hydrogen tank.

  2. kent beuchert says:

    The Tesla technology is a dead end, since their battery packs take hours to recharge and won’t last much beyond 4 years of use before you need to pony up another $20,000 plus for a new set of batteries, making it , per mile, far and away the most expensive car on the planet to drive, at least for those 98% of us who don’t put 100,000 miles on a car every 4 to 5 years.

    Instead of using Altair’s batteries, the only ones that are both completely safe, very longlived (15 years plus) and can be recharged in a few minutes, Tesla has decided to saddle their customers with exorbitantly priced battery packs (with 8,631 cells!) that require a Rube Goldberg monitoring and controlling computer system that has to maintain the right battry pack temps (so the batteires don’t croak after a few months in a hot garage, or explode while discharging or while being charged). Tesla whimsically is offering this technology to other automakers. Somehow, I don’t think they’ll view this technology as a step forward and take them up on their offer.

    The Tesla car ignores the two crucial characteristics an electric car must possess to be considered a viable alternative; fast recharges so that public charging stations make sense and can be built, providing unlimited driving range, and practical batteries. Li ion batteries are simply way too expensive on a per year basis. The Altair’s cost less than 1/3rd what the li ion batteries cost. Altair batteries should power the Tesla, regardless of the fact that they would impose a weight penalty. That penalty can be mitigated since their fast recharge will provide unlimited range – I would set up the Tesla with 35KWhrs battery pack, with 175 mile range, weighing 980 pounds instead of their 700 pound plus current 50 KWhr pack. A 280 pound penalty is not particularly significant and it transforms the Tesla from an in-town only vehicle into a bona fide fully functioned automobile. I don’t understand the thinking of the folks over at Tesla. Their namesake, Niklas Tesla, was more or less an eccentric fraud during his later years. Perhaps they’re following in his footsteps.

  3. Joao Monteiro says:

    Since 2005 I’ve read many reports about Altairnano fantastic batteries, and I can`t understand why no major automaker grabs the chance. Anyone wants to comment?

  4. Tony Belding says:

    I have to question a few things Ken Beuchert is saying. First, I don’t believe rapid recharge is necessary for electric cars to become successful. I think you need long range (say 500 miles) or else you need rapid recharge capability — but not both. 500 miles is a full day of driving for most people. If the car can be charged overnight — at a motel — then you are ready for another 500 miles the next day, and you can drive indefinitely. The Tesla Roadster is already supposed to achieve 250 miles on a charge, so if battery capacity doubles in the next several years (as a number of people expect) then they will be within striking distance of that goal.

    I have to question the $20,000 replacement cost of Tesla’s battery pack. They have estimated it has about $20,000 worth of batteries at today’s prices, but as we all know the prices trend downward. They estimate by the time the first cars need replacement batteries the cost should be somewhere closer to $12,000. That is still not cheap, but you should note that gasoline-burning exotic sports cars are not cheap to maintain either. Taking into account the savings from fuel and engine maintenance, the cost to keep a Tesla running shouldn’t be outrageous for the type of car it is.

    Another point. . . Six years from now when the batteries need replacing, one can imagine them being upgraded to whatever technology is current at that time. Even if the original batteries are obsolete by then, the whole car won’t have to be replaced.

    Deriding Tesla’s battery pack as a “Rube Goldberg” device is really an unworthy comment. It’s an engineering problem, and if it works then it works. They are putting the cars into production, which is more than can be said for some other companies that want to be in the EV business.

    At the end of the day, the Tesla car is for early adopters and high-tech sports car nuts, and it makes sense in that role. It’s not meant to be for everyone, so criticisms about it not being everyman’s car are moot.

  5. Ed Ring says:

    Tony: You’re right about one thing for sure – the Tesla Roadster shouldn’t be compared with a Prius or a Lupo, the leading hybrid and high-mileage diesel, respectively. It should be compared with a Ferrari or Testarossa. The Tesla Roadster potentially will log both the fastest 0-60 time and the fastest top end speed of any production car in the world. It is priced accordingly. If nothing else, the Tesla Roadster will put to rest the notion that electric cars and high performance can’t go together.

  6. Kent Beuchert says:

    “December 2nd, 2006 at 8:28 am: The Tesla technology is a dead end, since their battery packs take hours to recharge and won’t last much beyond 4 years of use before you need to pony up another $20,000 plus for a new set of batteries, making it , per mile, far and away the most expensive car on the planet to drive, at least for those 98% of us who don’t put 100,000 miles on a car every 4 to 5 years.”

    Not exactly. I commend you to the Tesla Motors web site for accurate information about the Tesla Roadster and its complete powertrain system.

  7. Rick Simonton says:

    I’m not sure who Kent Beuchert is but he can found all over the internet spreading disinformation about alternative energy. Here (at the top)
    he states “Serial hybrids are not as efficient as plain gasoline engine powered cars at highway speed.” This is not true. All modern rail locomotives and many (most?) large ships are serial hybrids. But this is just a sample Kents contributions. I suspect Kent is a PR professional working for big oil or the auto industry, OR he just takes pleasure from trashing other people with half truths, fake statistics and out-and-out lies. Take a look at his book reviews on Amazon for insight into the psychology of this man.

  8. Ed says:

    Rick, well heck, if Kent is a professional working for big oil I am flattered – they are reading! But as to the issue you raise with Kent, I think on an absolutely level surface, with no wind, at an absolutely stable speed, a diesel is more efficient. The problem is those conditions are never in met in the real world.

    In reality, at stable high speeds there is only a slight edge today between the efficiency of a diesel or gas engine over a serial hybrid. But at low speeds and changing speeds, the efficiency of the serial hybrid towers over the efficiency of direct diesel or gas drivetrains.

    The serial hybrid design also towers over the parallel hybrid in price, and any car in terms of longevity and low maintenance. There are rumors that GM is going to announce a serial hybrid car in 2007…

  9. Rick says:

    Ed, First let me say I’m not an engineer, so I don’t have the typical or average statistics at my finger tips. But it is my understanding that the reason all rail locomotives and a lot if not most very large ships employ serial hybrid in their applications (like crossing the country or an ocean) is due to their higher efficiencies at sustained high speed.

    And its my understanding that it is not a marginal difference. I personally am a fan of the serial configuration having had the opportunity to drive one in the 70′s during the gas shortage. This was a homebuilt chevy vega with a DC elevator motor and a small gas generator to run it. Except for the starter battery for the ginny, the car had no batteries. It averaged 80 to 85 mpg in combined driving. This was at a time when auto industry said it was not practical. To me, what was not practical was waiting in line for 4 hours to get gas. My solution was to convert my car to run on propane. At 35 cents a gallon it was far cheaper too. Plus my car was bi-fuel, so I could flip a lever and run on gas if I chose to.

    My whole point is to say there are many practical alternatives out there and its hard enough to be environmentally sensitive AND fight the good fight against large energy and automotive conglomerate, when folks like Kent seem to take pleasure spreading misinformation all over the internet.

    BTW, I no longer think Kent is a professional on the payroll of big oil et al, he’s just a hobbyist…on other sites he has proclaimed the virtues of Altair Nanosafe Batteries, which really do appear to be a very exciting breakthrough technology that could help ween us off oil. Sorry Ed, if I got you all excited.

  10. Ed Ring says:

    Not an engineer either, but there are obvious advantages to locomotives having extremely high torque when pulling a train to speed from a standstill. For this only electric motors will do.

    I do think on a level surface and a constant speed (no wind) there is an optimal efficiency for a diesel powered car that is probably comparable to that of a serial diesel/electric car – at optimal cruising speed and under ideal conditions. Think about it – with direct traction there is no extra opportunity for friction loss or heat loss that is inevitable in any hybrid design. But this is not a real world scenario.

    In the real world, that is, in virtually any realistic duty cycle, I believe a serial hybrid is a more efficient design. Moreover, a battery-buffered serial hybrid can add kilowatt-hours of storage between duty cycles with inexpensive grid-electricity, something by-definition impossible with a diesel.

    We hesitate to place too much blame on heavy industry for the slow evolution of the car – during the supposedly oil-rich ’90′s consumers didn’t want electric cars bad enough, and electric car technology is only now really taking off. Besides, American industry has always adapted quickly to new challenges once their mind was made up.

    I would love to hear more independent verification of Altair Nanotech, and also of that Austin, Texas based “ultra-capacitor” company, EEStor.

  11. Dean says:

    Kent Beuchert (if that’s really his name) is also spreading misinformation about global warming and green house gases. It’s sad that people do this. He’s either ignorant, misguided, or being paid to misinform the public.

  12. Paul says:

    Kent really does work as a PR man for the Petroleum industry. I checked it out. He’s based in Virginia.

  13. Rick H. says:

    This comment is for Rick who wrote in 2006 that he converted a Chevy Vega into a series hybrid vehicle using a small gasoline generator powering a DC elevator motor, with propane flex fuel capability. If he could achieve 85 mpg with a four wheeled vehicle, then with a little aerodynamic tweaking, 100 mpg seems achievable! Real
    x-prize candidate here…$10,000,000 first prize. I would like Rick to be in contact with me at: naturalhormone@yahoo.com

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