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A plug for your future car

Aptera / Auto X Prize
Click for slide show: Nine ideas for future cars.

The "Car Talk" radio guys go on a joke-filled quest to find the perfect car of the future in a TV show premiering on Earth Day. And the punch line is that the technology they're looking for is already available - for a price, that is.

"Car of the Future," airing Tuesday as part of PBS' "Nova" documentary series, marks the prime-time television debut of Tom and Ray Magliozzi, a.k.a. Click and Clack, the Tappet Brothers.

The brothers have made a name for themselves with a newspaper column and call-in radio show that blends folksy advice on auto maintenance with even folksier repartee and punnery. (For example, their credits list the accounts payable administrator as "Imelda Czechs" ... get it?)

That mix of the serious and the silly carries over to the TV show. Tom and Ray set the scene in their garage in Cambridge, Mass., where Tom's 1952 MG roadster just refuses to turn over.

"It sounds like a sick cow," Ray says.

Joe Seamans / WGBH Science Unit
A Mazda concept car goes on display at the Detroit

Auto Show, in a scene from "Car of the Future."

So the brothers hit the road, looking for an up-to-date replacement. And we're not talking about just going down the street to the local car dealership: Tom and Ray check out the glitzy cars on display (and the glitzy showgirls displaying them) at the Detroit Auto Show.

"I thought you were interested in these models," Ray says.

"I am," Tom answers.

"I meant the cars," Ray quips.

They're less impressed by some of the high-powered, gas-gobbling vehicles at the show. "Who the hell needs 500 horsepower!?" Tom exclaims.

That sparks a tale that highlights past, present and future automotive technologies:

  • Is there a better way? Although federal regulations led to an increase in average gas mileage from 1975 to 1987, the average actually slipped downward after that time, due to the popularity of bigger, more powerful cars. Today, high gas prices, concerns about carbon emissions and the need for greater energy independence are generating fresh interest in more efficient vehicles (and a fresh upturn in mileage averages).
  • Is hydrogen the answer? The Magliozzi brothers travel to Iceland, where geothermal and hydro power are harnessed to produce electricity, which in turn is used to produce hydrogen for a fleet of experimental buses. The geopower/electricity/hydrogen scheme could eventually fuel all of Iceland's cars - but experts figure it will take 50 years to make the transition. Will hydrogen ever work for the United States and China? We'll see. 
  • What about ethanol? Yes, some of our energy needs can be met by ethanol, an alcohol replacement for gasoline. Currently, corn provides most of the raw material for U.S. producers, but that sets up a food-vs.-fuel problem. Tom and Ray gab with researcher Lee Lynd at Mascoma Corp., which is genetically engineering microbes to produce ethanol efficiently from cellulose rather than corn sugar. 
  • How about lighter, more efficient cars? Less than 1 percent of the energy contained in a car's gas tank actually goes to move the driver down the road. The other 99 percent is either lost through inefficiencies or ends up moving the car surrounding the driver. Tom and Ray learn about efforts to make internal combustion more efficient (at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, their alma mater) and to make ultralight, ultrastrong car bodies out of carbon composites (for the Rocky Mountain Institute's Hypercar project in Colorado).
  • Will electric hybrids save the day? Gas-electric hybrids like the Toyota Prius are already making a difference: Although they're more expensive to produce, they consume 30 percent less energy than gasoline-only cars and emit 30 percent less carbon. Tom and Ray take a test drive with Andy Frank, a researcher at the University of California at Davis who has pioneered plug-in electric hybrids.

Plug-in hybrid electric vehicles have large banks of batteries that can be charged up overnight, meaning that the cars can go 40 to 60 miles before the gas-fueled engine kicks in. Frank figures that range would account for 90 percent of a typical driver's mileage. Some hybrids already have been converted to plug-in power, and Chevrolet's Volt plug-in should be ready for prime time by the end of 2010.

At America's current energy rates, running a plug-in hybrid is only one-fourth as costly as running a gasoline-only car, Frank says. He adds that the full benefit of plug-ins will be felt when the electricity comes from renewable sources such as wind turbines or roof-mounted solar cells.

"I think one of the things that this kind of car motivates is the possibility of personal wind and personal solar," Frank tells the "Car Talk" duo.

"My brother's been responsible for a lot of personal wind," Ray Magliozzi jokes.

By the end of the program, Tom is clearly sold. (On plug-ins, that is, not on making wind.) He's back at the garage, contemplating the next step.

"I've seen a lot of very interesting technology, and I know what I want," he says as he looks at his beloved MG. "I want to turn that into a plug-in hybrid."

And now ... the rest of the story

That may be the end of the documentary, but it's not necessarily the end for Tom's MG. In an interview last week, Frank told me it's technically possible to make Tom's dream come true.

"My message, fundamentally, is that the plug-in hybrid is something you can build right now," he said.

As an experiment, he has already taken a GM EV1 all-electric car (the car that was supposedly "killed" on the commercial market a decade ago) and converted it to a plug-in hybrid with a smaller electric motor and a 2-cylinder gasoline engine - all in the same space.

"The hybrid weighed 200 pounds less than the electric vehicle," Frank said. He said the juiced-up EV1 was so efficient that even when the car was running on gasoline power, it got 80 miles per gallon.

He told me he has converted nine cars to plug-in power in the course of his quarter-century of automotive research: Rather than being more complex, the plug-ins are simpler, in part because of UC-Davis' patented transmission system. "All of our cars have far fewer parts than a conventional car," Frank said.

Frank said he enjoyed hanging out with the Magliozzi brothers while "Car of the Future" was being shot - and so he's willing to offer Tom a dream of a plug-in deal for the mere sum of, say, $40,000 to $50,000.

"We'll be happy to convert that MG for them," he told me. "It'd be fun."

If you miss Tuesday's show, or if you don't get PBS in your corner of planet Earth, you can watch "Car of the Future" online starting Wednesday. For more about Click and Clack and future cars, check out Newsweek's Q&A with the Magliozzi brothers. And in case you missed it, here a report on the Progressive Automotive X Prize, which is offering $10 million in prizes for super-efficient, eco-friendly vehicles.