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Book Review: Plug-in Hybrids by Sherry Boschert

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For a hot automotive topic like "plug-in hybrids," there are surprisingly few books out there. Sherry Boschert's title Plug-in Hybrids came in the Amazon search right next to Build Your Own Plug-In Hybrid Electric Vehicle by Seth Leitman and that was pretty much it. I have been looking into a possibility of converting my Prius into a plug-in for some time now but neither the challenge of meddling with a piece of machinery that can easily kill you nor economics of such a conversion made much sense to me, and so I opted for a book that appeared to be less hands-on.

I was looking for a broader look at the plug-in hybrid technology in hopes to understand why the seemingly simple idea (get more batteries, recharge them while the car is idle overnight) has proven itself to be so difficult to realize. Indeed, even Toyota, the leader in hybrid technology, had failed to release the plug-in version with its third generation 2010 model Prius. There has been much talk about it in a couple years leading up to last year's release of the 3rd-gen Prius but the closest they got to the promise of plug-in hybrid is the (manually engaged) all-electric mode. That will yield you 6-7 miles or less, depending on driving conditions of range. Not exactly your average commute distance as proponents of plug-in hybrids had in mind.

So, back to the book: if you liked An Inconvenient Truth and Who Killed the Electric Car, you will most certainly like this. Indeed, Chelsea Sexton, the star of Who Killed the Electric Car, is prominently featured in the opening chapter of the book. There is little technical information there (much to my chagrin) but a whole lot of what has been repeatedly called the "sausage making" process of politics. I now know more names of people allegedly responsible for keeping more fuel-efficient cars off US roads than I care for. However, in my humble opinion, the book did a very poor job at explaining the complexity of the engineering challenge that plug-ins present.

Since the book was published (2006), there have been many developments in the automotive world as well as in the general economy that have provided some additional perspective as well as alternative paths. Vehicles that have both internal combustion engines and electric motors with batteries (traditional or plug-in hybrids) may not even end up "recharging America". In fact, it may be precisely the complexity of marrying the internal combustion engine with all its necessary vital parts and the batteries and electric motors that will eventually kill these "almost electric cars"

There are several completely electric cars on different stages of design-production cycle from Tesla Roadster (already produced) to Nissan LEAF (due out in 2011) that are poised to become the next big thing in the automotive world.

If you are considering "Plug-in Hybrids. The Cars That Will Recharge America" by Sherry Boschert, my advice is to wait until the next revision. After all, as the president of the San Francisco Electric Vehicle Association, Sherry is uniquely positioned to see the rise of completely petroleum-free electric cars and write a book about them.

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