Chevroelt Volt (© MSN Autos)Click to enlarge picture

General Motors has announced that it will build a production version of the stylish Chevrolet Volt plug-in hybrid that was revealed at the 2007 Detroit Auto Show.

Ford, Honda and Toyota have spent millions telling motorists that, unlike the electric vehicles of the 1990s, their gasoline-electric hybrids don't need to be plugged in to operate. Just fill 'er up at the gas pump and the electricity needed for the electric motors is generated on board the vehicle.

However, a new hybrid marketing campaign is being formulated. In two or three years the message will be, "plug it in."

Why the about face?

Advances in battery technology promise the ability of a plug-in hybrid-electric vehicle (PHEV) to travel around 40 miles in all-electric mode—depending on the type of hybrid system—far beyond the brief range of existing hybrid cars. But to achieve this mileage, the new Lithium-ion battery packs that are the favored replacements for the current nickel-metal hydride batteries will need to be recharged by plugging into a standard electrical wall outlet found in the home.

The idea is that the batteries would be recharged at night when power is plentiful and cheap. And, for those nearly 80 percent of daily commuters who travel 40 miles or less, the round-trip commute would be made entirely on electricity. If the driver needs to travel beyond the range of the energy stored in the battery, the vehicle slips seamlessly into the conventional hybrid operation until the next charge.

Depending where you live, the daily cost to recharge the batteries range from 50 cents to $1.50, a fraction of the cost of gasoline. Motorists who drive less than 40 miles a day could use no gasoline at all.

Overall, combining the miles driven in the battery-only mode with extended miles driven in the normal hybrid operating mode, the average U.S. drivers could see fuel economy approaching 100 miles per gallon.

Although no major auto company offers a plug-in hybrid, General Motors announced at the 2006 Los Angeles auto show it would produce a plug-in version of the Saturn Vue Green Line two-mode hybrid. Also during the LA show, Toyota gave a hint about their future plans by saying plug-in hybrids will play "a starring role" in the auto industry in the 21st century. Neither firm revealed a date for production models.

The most definitive indication that PHEVs will make an appearance was the introduction of the Chevrolet Volt concept vehicle at the 2007 North American International Auto Show in Detroit. A hybrid with a twist, the Volt is essentially an electric vehicle.

The system works like this: The Volt runs on electricity from the fully charged batteries for 40 miles to 50 miles and then, a small 1.0-liter turbo four-cylinder kicks in. But the kicker is, the gasoline engine has no direct contact with the wheels, it serves only to recharge the batteries.

Chevy says the Volt should be able to go more than 600 miles on its 12 gallon tank of gasoline. Of course if you drive less than 40 miles a day, the gas will never be used.

While Chevy has not demonstrated a drivable prototype of the Volt—GM officials have been adamant that the Volt will be built—DaimlerChrysler has somewhat quietly been evaluating plug-in Dodge Sprinter vans. The company currently has four of the vans in operation with customers and will add 16 more within a year, some with Lithium-ion batteries said Nick Cappa, the company's manager of advanced technology communications.

Further behind the scene is the Plug-in Hybrid Electric Bus Program. A total of 19 hybrid buses have been awarded to states around the country by Advanced Energy, a non-profit corporation. The project's ultimate goal is full market penetration of the technology.

Currently, two PHEV school buses are in operation, one in Florida, the other in Pennsylvania. The powertrain for the buses couples an International V8 diesel engine with a hybrid-electric powertrain, incorporating a transmission, electric motor and lithium-ion battery pack.

The hybrid school buses are also outfitted with a proprietary GPS system that allows school officials to track the exact location and performance of each bus.

Read:  Back to Future Hybrids