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California and the West

Air quality group orders test fleet of plug-in cars

March 07, 2007|John O'Dell | Times Staff Writer

The world's biggest automakers say it could be several years before plug-in hybrids are ready for the marketplace. But Southern California's principal air quality regulator expects some of its employees and other drivers to be tooling around in such vehicles by the end of the year.

The South Coast Air Quality Management District agreed Friday to spend $2.6 million for a test fleet of 30 plug-in hybrid cars and sport utility vehicles.

A plug-in hybrid uses a rechargeable battery pack that is more powerful than those on standard gasoline-electric hybrid vehicles. The batteries can be recharged overnight from a residential outlet.

General Motors Corp. and Toyota Motor Corp. have said they intend to build plug-ins but are waiting for stronger, lighter and more reliable and durable batteries than those available.

A standard hybrid such as a Toyota Prius can travel solely on electric power at very low speeds for short distances. But the vehicles requested by the air quality district would be able to travel as far as 30 miles using battery power alone or as a booster to the gas engine.

"They will have zero tailpipe emissions on all-electric power," said Matt Miyasato, the district's technology demonstration manager in Diamond Bar. "Increased use of plug-ins will give us improved air quality."

The enhanced batteries also could enable the vehicles to achieve fuel economy of 60 to 100 miles per gallon of gasoline, depending on daily driving demands, he said.

District directors Friday awarded contracts to Quantum Technologies Inc. of Irvine and Hymotion of Toronto, Canada, to prepare a plug-in test fleet.

Quantum, which also develops hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles and hydrogen storage systems, received $2 million to buy and convert 20 of Ford Motor Co.'s Escape gasoline-electric hybrid SUVs. The Escapes will use batteries from Advanced Lithium Power Inc., a Vancouver, Canada, company in which Quantum is a 20% stakeholder.

Hymotion, which sells plug-in conversion kits for the Escape and Prius hybrids, was awarded $560,000 to turn 10 standard Prius models into plug-ins. The cars will use batteries from A123Systems Inc. of Watertown, Mass.

The vehicles would be used by businesses and public agencies throughout the air quality district, which covers Orange County and large parts of Los Angeles, Riverside and San Bernardino counties.

Data collected during the five-year test period would be used "to help understand how consumers use the vehicles and to help the battery manufacturers better define the reliability of their products," Miyasato said.

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john.odell@latimes.com

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