Jumping on the hybrid bandwagon


Around U.C. Davis, they hardly look twice anymore at the SUV with Dr. Andrew Frank behind the wheel. If he goes a bit fast from time to time, they're used to that, too.

"It will go over 100 miles an hour," said Frank.

Now the surprise. His car can achieve such speed without using a single drop of gas. It's an experimental, plug in hybrid, with both a gasoline engine, and a big electric motor.

"The main difference between this and the Prius is in the back. We can take in energy directly off the wall so that the first 40 miles of this car will drive electrically," says Frank.

Your first reaction upon looking at this car might be to use the word 'revolutionary,' but it's more like evolutionary. Dr. Frank has built 15 of these vehicles since 1972. Dr. Frank's first plug-in hybrids were clunky and mechanical. It's not easy to get a electric motor and gasoline engine to work smoothly together.

"I did it all manually," says Frank.

He took his motivation from personal experience. The days of gas rationing, when lines stretched around the block, and prices pushed an astronomical 90 cents a gallon. Not many people, back then, could imagine how electricity might power cars, but Dr. Frank saw the future.

"But even in those days, I knew the price of oil was going to keep on going," said Dr. Frank. Dr. Frank's simple theory that if average American drives 34 miles a day, they won't need gas if an electric car can hold a 40 mile charge. Better yet, American garages are pre-wired.

Today, the cars he builds with his students use electricity at an equivalent of 70 cents a gallon, but until recently, the major car companies paid only moderate attention to Dr. Frank's research and advice.

"I've presented this thing to Detroit many times. The first thing they said is, 'Yeah, the batteries aren't here.' Then, the second thing is 'It will cost too much.' The third thing is, 'It will weigh too much.' The fourth is, 'We don't have transmissions, we don't have the technology,'" said Frank.

That's not the case anymore and Detroit has begun to catch up. Many of Dr. Frank's students work for General Motors and as it turns out, some of them helped design Chevrolet's new Volt. The Volt is a fully electric, plug-in car which will use lithium batteries, and deliver that benchmark 40 mile charge.

"The Volt is symbolic of what General Motors stands for today," says GM CEO and Chairman Rick Wagoner. Better late than never. Incidentally, the day it showed off the Volt, General Motors never mentioned Dr. Frank by name. He has never received as much a one dime for his many patents.

"My feeling is this kind of thing is not for the United States. It's not for the car companies. It's much bigger than that, it's for the world. Because with the plug-in hybrid, we have the ability to shift the world off of using oil and onto electricity," says Frank.

So, while Detroit gets the headlines, remember one of the men who poked and prodded, who even today, helps to show the way.

If an all-electric car isn't in your budget, you'll probably own a hybrid in the not-too-distant future. IBM's institute for business value interviewed 125 car industry executives from 15 countries and came to the conclusion that within 12 years, all new cars will be hybrids.

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This report was written and produced by Ken Miguel.

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