PHEV Shuns Gas Pumps

Grant project produces 170 mpg Toyota Prius

Mark Hickman and Tim McCluskey with Toyota Prius PHEV

PHEV stands for Plug-In Hybrid Electric Vehicle. PHEV also stands for amazing gas mileage. Working in partnership with Bemidji State University, the Transportation department at Dakota County Technical College received $39,000 in funds from Minnesota Department of Commerce and CAFE grants to convert an on-road hybrid vehicle, in this case a Toyota Prius, to PHEV operation.

Mark Hickman and Tim McCluskey, both instructors in the DCTC Automotive Service Educational Program, better known as ASEP, served as co-managers of the project, which tracked and recorded all facets of the conversion process and featured the stated goal of achieving at least 70 miles per gallon of gasoline during vehicle testing.

Hickman, who was recently honored as the college’s 2009 Instructor of the Year, reported that five other colleges in the Minnesota State Colleges & Universities system also purchased Prius hybrids for PHEV conversion—Hennepin Technical College in Eden Prairie, Minn., Lake Superior College in Duluth, Minn., Minnesota State Community and Technical College-Moorhead, Northwest Technical College in Bemidji, Minn., and St. Cloud Technical College in St. Cloud, Minn.

“Tim tried to tell me that we weren’t in competition with the other colleges,” Hickman said, “but I didn’t really see it that way. ” Hickman’s hypermiling road trips in the Prius yielded astonishing results—once as high as 170 mpg.

Hickman explained that a Toyota Prius off the lot has a 1.3-kilowatt nickel metal hydride battery that recharges by reclaiming energy when the brakes are applied. The PHEV conversion required adding a 188-pound, 5kw Hymotion lithium-ion batterypack that recharges when plugged into a 110-volt outlet.

“You get a huge boost in mileage with the plug-in,” Hickman said. “Tim drove the Prius realistically as your typical commuter would and got better than 95 miles per gallon. The stock nickel battery gets you rolling at seven or eight miles per hour before the gas engine kicks in. With the lithium-ion, you can up that to 30 miles per hour—and acceleration is where you really burn fuel.”

Hickman pointed out that students in the college’s automotive technology programs benefited tremendously from the project. Hybrid technology is taking on an increasingly important role in the automotive industry and technicians need to understand how hybrids operate so that they can make effective repairs while following strict safety protocols.

Both the nickel metal hydride and lithium-ion batteries supply 288 volts and can deliver a damaging, possibly lethal shock if the terminals are inadvertently touched. Safety glasses and Class 0 electric service gloves are required equipment when working on hybrids.

Hickman noted that PHEV is something of a new paradigm for students enrolled in transportation-related programs “For the most part, our students are gearheads,” Hickman said. “They’re into muscle cars and like the smell of gasoline. They’re not all that sure about hybrid electric vehicles. This project opened their eyes to the technology and showed how mastering it can be a great asset to their future careers.”

McCluskey, who along with Hickman is a GM World Class Technician, agrees that PHEV technology holds real-world promise for the future. “Both Chevrolet and Toyota are offering plug-ins in 2010,” he said. “The Chevy Volt can go 40 miles on a single six-hour charge.”

That’s good news for people who drive to work or school five days a week. For 75 percent of American commuters, the Volt’s round-trip range on electricity alone would slash gasoline usage and emissions to zero.

Later this summer, McCluskey and Hickman will be delivering PHEV diagnostics and conversion training to automotive faculty from other state colleges at the Minnesota Teachers of Transportation and Industrial Areas conference. The Future is Now–MTTIA, which will take place in Brainerd, Minn., August 12–14, is a collaborative discipline workshop that will help instructors plan for the array of rapid technological advancements in the their fields.

“Including PHEV technology in our curricula is vital for the growth of college-level automotive programs,” Hickman said. “Getting up to speed on plug-in hybrid electric vehicles promotes safety in the workplace and gives our students a definite edge in the job market.”