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Plug-in hybrids not safest choice for drivers

Michelle Udem

Issue date: 10/17/08 Section: Opinion
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This just in: plug-in hybrids found responsible for recent West Coast wildfires. I'm just being playful; the West Coast may be especially environmentally conscious, but I cannot blame the droves of hybrids for what is really just the beginning of wildfire season. However, I can go ahead and raise an eyebrow at society for perpetuating the plug-in hybrid trend and purchasing these vehicles, which have been known to overheat and catch on fire.

By now, most trend-conscious readers are aware of hybrid cars. If you Google the word 'hybrid,' the first link that shows up is a site for General Motors - not a site for hybrid animals or plants. A hybrid vehicle utilizes an electric motor and an internal combustion engine for power. The plug-in hybrid has the same characteristics of a hybrid vehicle, but also allows you to recharge your car's battery by connecting a plug to an electric power source. Recently, some hybrid owners have been purchasing kits to convert their hybrids into plug-ins since automakers have not been supplying many plug-ins on the market. The kits include additional batteries and plugs that allow drivers to replace some fuel with electricity from a standard wall outlet, allowing them to get more than 100 miles per gallon.

The kit sounds pretty simple and alluring, but the hybrid vehicle itself may not appreciate the do-it-yourself nature of the conversion. According to a Cooperative Research Network report on June 7 of this year, a recently converted plug-in caught on fire.

The plug-in fires were not entirely unexpected. The potential of fires from the plug-in hybrid's battery has been a concern since a couple years ago when 4.1 million Dell laptops had to be recalled due to battery fires. It has been concluded since then that neither the laptop nor the plug-in fires have to do with the lithium-ion batteries, but consumers and automakers remain concerned about getting in a car with one of them.

Even the most popular vehicle in this middle school-like playground of trend-setting vehicles, the GM Volt, has not convinced all technology reviewers of its superiority and efficiency. According to Kevin Bullis of the MIT Technology Review, the Volt's production design is ready, but the vehicle's battery still needs work. GM is still unsure of the battery's resilience to certain climates such as the deserts of Arizona, or if it could persevere through the vibrations and jolts of the road. Consequently, the Volt and other proposed vehicles like it are expected to cost thousands more than a more conventional car.

SUVs have been burned by society, but at least we would not literally burn inside them. A smaller car with a higher MPG would be a more economic, safe, carbon- and energy-conscious choice. And while we are all still in our college bubble, who needs a car when we can rely on our safe and prompt RTA system and bumming rides from or carpooling with friends?
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