Plugging in the car of the future

As batteries improve, plug-in cars are finally hitting Canadian roads

Electric Cars, Toyota, PriusFor those concerned about the environment, or about the price of gas, plug-in cars—which recharge by plugging into the wall—have long been the dream. Now, we might actually start to see some of them on the road: Toyota’s trying out its new plug-in Prius in several Canadian cities, and Chrysler’s working on a plug-in hybrid version of the Dodge Ram pickup truck, with the help of a Mississauga, Ont.-based company, Electrovaya Inc.

Despite Toyota’s recent woes, the Prius remains a bright spot (March sales of the hybrid were up 130 per cent) with room for improvement. Plug-ins would be able to travel further than current generation hybrids on just electric power, says Peter Frise, scientific director and CEO of Canadian automotive research network AUTO21. “If you lived eight or nine kilometres from work, and were driving just on city streets, you could theoretically drive the car all week” just on battery power, he notes, recharging by “plugging into the wall at night.”

So why the holdup? The challenge in designing electric vehicles “has historically been the battery,” says Gitanjali DasGupta, manager of electric vehicles for Electrovaya, which will supply Chrysler with batteries for the Ram. Cars need space for “luggage, kids and groceries, but the larger the battery, the further you go electrically.” Advances in lithium batteries—which helped make cellphones and computers smaller and sleeker—are making plug-in vehicles possible, DasGupta says.

Toyota’s tests may go a long way in convincing skeptics that pricey plug-in hybrids can work. It’s lending five plug-in Priuses for testing to 13 partners across Canada, including the cities of Vancouver and Toronto, the University of Manitoba, Hydro-Québec and AUTO21. Each will be fitted with a device to capture data on how the vehicle performs. If all goes to plan, the plug-in Prius might be commercially available as soon as 2012.

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