SHORTLY before Christmas, an electrician arrived at my home to put a special socket on its own circuit in my garage. It would work off the mains but would enable me to safely charge electric cars.
I was very excited. The house which had been built before there were such things as automobiles would now be ready for the next stage of their evolution. I proudly showed off the socket to visitors and family alike. I could hardly wait until some 12 days ago when I would pick up the first vehicle which I could plug in to recharge.
As so often -- and despite an awful lot of experience -- my enthusiasm didn't prepare me for the eventual let down.
I was picking up the Toyota Prius Plug-in Hybrid which tries to be the best of all worlds by having an electric motor, the 1.8 litre petrol engine, a generator and the high-performance lithium-ion battery which is larger than the one in the normal Prius so that it can be plugged in and recharged from an external source.
The electric motor alone powers the drive wheels when the car is operating in EV (electric vehicle) mode. This range unfortunately is only 20km at the very most. However, once the EV battery charge has been consumed the car automatically operates as a full hybrid until recharged from an external supply. This, of course, gets over the limited range constraints of a conventional EV. However, there is a cost element and many people will wonder why they should bother for 20km. Yet, the use of the recharging system enables CO2 emissions to come down to just 59g/km and combined fuel consumption to 30 per cent less than the conventional Prius.
And remember that that 20km range is very much on the optimistic side. Air-conditioning, lights and even the on-board computer are going to take their cut. The bar chart showing the range very visibly shrinks every minute. As my foot and driving style got lighter, I was able to get a bit more out of the car before the rest of the system kicked in but my first trip from Park West off Dublin's Naas Road to Talbot Street exhausted the charge as did school trips from Phibsborough on Dublin's northside to Rathgar on the southside. It does charge up, to give another 20km range, in about 90 minutes or around 80 per cent of the range in about a third of the time. But that basically means finding an on-street or forecourt charge point or returning the car to your garage or drive and plugging it in.
As somebody whose intellectual energy was sidetracked by the Eagle magazine and its massive centrespread cross-section of tanks, warships and planes, the Prius was like a second coming. Various displays will tell you what part of the energy source is driving the car, what percentage of your journeys have been done using such and such a system and what your consumption is minute by minute or the consequences of a heavy foot on the accelerator.
The Prius is also very well-equipped with Bluetooth, sat nav and other creature comforts although as said before, you can graphically see them affecting the energy source. It has now put its early evolvement as a rather boxy, uncomfortable but right-on green vehicle firmly behind it and become a comfortable family saloon in its own right.
Even with government subsidies, hybrid and electric vehicles aren't cheap and the Plug-in Prius will have a considerable premium of around €4,000 on the ordinary Prius models which come in at €27,125 for the basic model and another €1,200 for the luxury edition.
The Plug-in Prius is interesting and good but it is probably too much of a test-bed as part of a demonstration programme than the finished article which will be brought to the market in 2012. The miniscule range is just ridiculous despite the company quoting statistics that the average daily commuting journey is just 15.8km. However, Toyota must be congratulated on always marching forward with their technology since the first Prius (which means "to go before" in Latin) was launched in 1997. The car has become the darling of the concerned Hollywood fraternity and a total of 2.8 million hybrid vehicles have been sold by the company worldwide, accounting for about 80 per cent of the global hybrid sales.
There is no doubt that electric power will be very much part of the mix in powering vehicles in the future and I believe the plug in my garage will be increasingly used -- at least I hope it will. But there needs to be more work before this Prius makes it in its own right as compared to the conventional petrol/battery hybrid. But it is getting there. As ever the optimist, I look forward to 2012.