ExtremeHybrid: The Real Deal
By Bill Moore
AFS Trinity’s problem is their Extreme Hybrid™ drive system seems just too good to be true. 150 miles per gallon in an SUV platform that, at its best, might normally be expected to do one-fifth that number just isn't credible in many people's minds.How can this little West Coast company do what the likes of Toyota, GM, Ford, etc., haven't been able to do? AFS Trinity must be exaggerating, fudging the numbers or, at best, engaged in wishful thinking, say skeptics.
I am here to tell you that based on the 20-30 minutes I spent behind the wheel of one of the company's two XH-150 prototypes, which it co-developed with respected automotive engineering contractor Ricardo, the skeptics are wrong -- AFS Trinity has created a technology that could, if commercialized, make 150 mpg driving an everyday reality.
That being said, let me offer this caveat. AFS Trinity, for obvious competitive reasons, isn't about to share the details of their system, and what little their CEO, Ed Furia, did reveal to me last week, he asked me to keep to myself for the time being. How manufacturable the system is that they've assembled, I cannot say, but with the exception of the proprietary algorithms that AFS Trinity’s rocket scientists have written and tested that tie the entire system together, most of the Extreme Hybrid drive train is comprised of off-the-shelf components: lithium batteries, ultracapacitors and an electric drive acquired from a well-known vendor. The pair of 2007 Saturn Vues are stock. The only visible manifestation of the system is the encroachment of the electric drive controller into the rear storage deck, but even this component will be dramatically miniaturized in the production version of the vehicle that is expected to retain full storage deck volume. For the time being, however, in the prototypes, you won't be loading it with your brother-in-law's table saw or any of your wife's larger garage sale finds. There is room, however, even in the prototypes for your golf clubs and several bags of groceries.
After pulling out of the Los Angeles Auto Show last month in protest, the company parked their Saturn twins and 53 foot tractor trailer-cum-office in a parking lot down the street from the Staples Center.
When Craig Shields, my VP of Marketing, and I found Furia, he and several executives were sitting behind several desks in the trailer, ready to engage any members of the media who might track them down. Compared to the swarming beehive of activity at the official venue across and down the street, AFS Trinity's mobile exhibit could have been on the far side of the moon. Despite a steady stream of traffic racing by on South Figueroa St., most of the occupants of the innumerable cars and trucks -- and the odd cyclist, one of which we nearly hit turning into the parking lot as he came up on Craig's blind side -- seemed oblivious to the display, at least while we were there.
I've talked with Furia by telephone many times and corresponded with him even more frequently, but this was our first face-to-face meeting. He's a broad shouldered man with a barrel chest and ruddy complexion. He reminds me of a bear, though whether a Teddy bear or a Grizzly, I can't be sure. I suspect he can be both.
Explaining that I had a plane to catch, he handed me the keys to one of the Vue's parked out side and headed down the steps with me in tow, pausing only to ask if I wanted a Fast Energy baseball cap.
With about a dozen different caps collected over the years cluttering our entry closet, I politely declined. Craig took one, though, staying behind to talk to the other staffers manning the trailer in which the cars are transported.
Other than having to wait 5-10 seconds for the cars ultracapacitors to recharge, an event tracked by an analog display gauge mounted on the dash, starting the Extreme Hybrid is pretty much like any conventional car. Furia's only warning was to "turn the key just two clicks" and "be careful backing up." Since there's no starter motor to engage, you don't twist the key all the way over like you would a gasoline-only model; and with some 200 hp in the electric drive, backing up could be exciting if you're not careful, particularly since it is virtually silent in its default all-electric operating mode.
We pulled between the safety cones, rolled past the parking lot attendants who were busily waving flags on the street trying to get people to park in their lot, and carefully merged with the oncoming traffic. We headed up S. Figueroa St. to make our first of several circuits, the car performing flawlessly as we zipped along at 35 to 45 mph. There was nothing sluggish or unresponsive about the drive. In fact, I marveled to myself how smooth and quiet the experience was.
Around and around we drove, trying to find somewhere where the traffic would be light enough for me to see how the car accelerated. Yet, in the back of my mind, I kept thinking when will we be in electric-only mode? In hybrid mode, the power integration was as good... actually better than you'd experience in a Prius or Escape Hybrid.
It turns out I was laboring under a false assumption.
All the driving we were doing around central, downtown Los Angeles was in EV-only mode. The 170 hp gasoline engine hadn't even fired up yet. That wouldn't come until the last pass down Figueroa, when Furia asked me to slow down to a crawl while he pushed a green button on the dash that lit the Saturn's gas-burner up front, giving me all wheel drive and an impressive 370 combined horsepower!
As we drove along, Furia asked me to watch the twin gauges on the dash: one that monitored the recharge rate of the ultracaps mounted under the rear seat, the second a state of charge meter for the lithium ion battery pack mounted inside the console between the front seats. I learned that I had to really put the pedal to the metal to tap into the power of the ultracaps and that when I did, it took 20 to 30 seconds for them to fully recharge.
This is largely the reason AFS Trinity believes their battery-ultracap system will be good for at least a 150,000 miles compared to a battery only system. As Furia explained it to me in AFS Trinity Perfects Plug-in Hybrid Saturn Vue, the concept behind his company's system is to let the ultracaps do the heavy lifting (acceleration and regen) while the batteries are the endurance runners. This prevents the batteries from being deeply discharged, which would shorten their useful life.
In a press release issued just before the opening day of the LA Auto Show, the company reported that independent tests they had conducted showed that their hybrid battery-ultracap energy storage system outlasted a conventional lithium battery pack by a factor of six. Using identical deep cycle, recycle charging routines to mimic a worst case electric car driving cycle of a vehicle being aggressively driven, they report to have found the lithium-only pack showed serious degradation equivalent to only 25,000 miles of service.
In fact, Furia told me after we'd finished our test drive that they'd actually replaced the original lithium test pack with a second one and it too showed similar deterioration characteristics beween 500 and 600 recharge cycles, while their battery-ultracap pack just kept going and going and going past 3000 cycles, then past 3500 cycles... like the Energizer Bunny… until they stopped the test after the batteries reached end of life at 3800 cycles. And yes, the tests were conducted completely independently over a ten month period by Mobile Power Solutions of Beaverton, Oregon..
But what about that 150 miles per gallon assertion, the very claim that got them in dutch with the LA Auto Show, which refused to allow them to make such a allegedly exaggerated statement?
Furia explained that the way the company arrived at this "conservative number" is by taking the car's 40 miles of EV range, which is resumed to be what most American commuters will drive most days of the week. They then allowed for another 40 miles of running errands on Saturday for a total of 240 electric-only driving miles six days out of the week. On Sunday they estimated the family might drive 80 miles, or 40 miles on gasoline, which they calculated at 20 mpg. So, in a given week, the a family driving an SUV equipped with an ExtremeHybrid system would drive a total of 320 miles, but only burn 2 gallons of gasoline. So, multiple 320 miles times 52 weeks in a year and you get 16,640 miles annually during which time only 104 gallons of fuel are burned. Divide 16,640 miles by 104 gallons and you get 160 mpg.
Furia and his associates conservatively rounded this down to 150 miles per gallon or 1.56 liters/100 km; and this is in a full-sized SUV.
"The EPA hasn't figured out yet how to calculate fuel economy in a plug-in. We believe our method is as valid as anyone's," he argued.
He had a point, noting that this is all explained in the FAQ section of the www.afstrinity.com web site, but I wasn't in any position to argue or surf the web at the time, focused as I was on making sure I didn't do anything stupid in heavy LA traffic.
"So, when are we going to drive in hybrid mode," I asked, as we turned back down Figueroa. Furia asked me to slow down. It was then I encountered the only wrinkle in my brief cruise around central LA. For some reason you have to slow down and let up completely on the accelerator pedal before pressing the green button to engage the gasoline engine. Ed didn't elaborate why and since I was concerned about missing my flight, I didn't pursue the matter. Whatever I did, it inadvertently shut off the gas engine entirely. We had to come to a complete stop, restart the electric drive system and then start the IC engine, which came to life with a perceptible rumble after gliding along in silky-smooth electric-only mode.
In subsequent communication by email and telephone, Ed explained that what caused the gas engine to turn off was that the Vue’s original “mild hybrid” mode controller had turned the engine off when I applied the brakes, a situation that can easily be remedied by making sure not to apply the brakes while pressing the green button to add the gas engine to the drive train. I learned later that, while AFS Trinity’s engineers in Livermore, California had been testing new controls, including the green button rolling start function for several weeks prior to my visit, Ed had only done so for the first time two days before my arrival.
Unruffled by the glitch, Furia encouraged me to "Try the acceleration."
I let the cars ahead of me widen the gap and then stepped on it. 200 hp of electric drive and 170 of gasoline engine make this a serious performer! The closest I've come to similar hybrid performance is when driving the Lexus 450h, which has a combined 339 hp rating.
All too soon, we arrived back at the AFS Trinity trailer, Furia animatedly reviewing the recently concluded battery tests and defending the company’s mileage claims. But I was impressed. You hear all kinds of claims in this business, many of them unsubstantiated, some of them boldfaced lies. This isn't one of them, at least as far as I can tell. The fact that one of the world's most respected automotive engineering firms is an integral part of the project only lends further credence to the veracity of AFS Trinity's assertions.
Still, here AFS Trinity was, three blocks down the street from the main action and hyperbole where promises and platitudes are cheap and product scarce to non-existent. This is hardly an encouraging development, which clearly rankles the former EPA official who helped found "Earth Day." Despite what seemed to me a setback, Furia was upbeat, pointing out that the firm had gotten huge amounts of publicity as a result of the events surrounding the show, saying he took great pleasure in the positive and very encouraging New York Times coverage of AFS Trinity’s announcements the day the show opened.
"So Ed, what's your business model?" I asked. "Do you want to just license your IP or go into the manufacturing/conversion business?"
That question found its answer in yet another lengthy press release in which the company -- which is looking for $2.5 billion (10%) of the $25 billion in federal "loan guarantees" to the auto industry -- is proposing to use 80% of the funds (up to $2 billion) to retrain workers and retool an existing, but under-utilized America SUV plant to produce 150,000 vehicles annually using the Extreme Hybrid system.
"AFS Trinity has the technology to make possible cars, trucks and SUVs that people want, but AFS Trinity is a technology developer, not a manufacturer. On the other hand, the American auto industry has skilled and experienced auto workers and sophisticated manufacturing. By infusing AFS Trinity technology into existing, but recently under-employed American SUV plants, new plug in hybrid SUV models can be built that will leapfrog world competition," said Furia in the release.
From what I experienced briefly in LA, he isn't blowing smoke... and that's a good thing in both senses, though maybe lighting a couple fires under Congress wouldn't hurt any.
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