Gasoline-electric hybrids use both electric and gas motors, but plug-in hybrids can be recharged from a wall socket and come with more battery packs, which allows them to rely on electricity more often than gasoline. These vehicles get roughly 100 miles to the gallon and emit less greenhouse gas than gasoline-driven vehicles or even regular gasoline-electric hybrids.
According to New York State Energy Research and Developmental Authority official Ray Hull, the agency has projected a budget of $10 million to try the plug-ins and convert their current hybrids. It recently solicited contract bids for nine plug-in hybrids, and if the trial period is successful, the state will attempt to convert its 535 hybrids into plug-ins. Gov. George Pataki helped pass the program through New York legislature during the summer, Hull said.
Hull also said the state would probably get a modified version of the Toyota Prius -- the first production gasoline-electric hybrid -- later in the year. It is also attempting to obtain a Ford Escape hybrid in order to transform it into a plug-in version, but no one has attempted this specific conversion before, so it may be a few months before the car arrives, Hull said.
California is following suit with Sacramento testing plug-in hybrids over a three-year period before deciding whether it wants to convert. So far, Sacramento has put about 1,000 on its plug-in with only two years left in the trial period, and the city intends to show some preliminary data soon.
San Francisco took a slightly different route and ordered DaimlerChrysler diesel hybrids for its municipal transportation fleet, and Austin, Texas and its local power company launched a $1 million plug-in incentive program last year. It is hoped that this program and others like it will bring plug-in hybrids out of the realm of car hobbyists and into the mainstream.
"There is kind of a snowball effect, from individuals and small companies to larger companies and agencies," said Marc Kohler, business development manger at lithium-ion battery maker Valence Technology. "Everybody is still in the testing phase, but the testing is becoming more mature. People are looking at crash testing and cold-weather testing."
The cost of hybrids and the cost of conversion have been hurdles for the programs, but Kohler expects the prices to drop as demand increases.
Hull added that color has been an obstacle for New York. All the state vehicles are silver, which is the color in highest demand for the Prius model, so the state may have to settle for green, he said.