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Davis, California

Sunday, June 16, 2024

“NOVA” to feature UC Davis professor

The car of the future exists today.

At least that is what Andrew Frank, UC Davis professor of mechanical and aeronautical engineering, believes. Frank is one of the many experts featured on PBS’ “NOVA” premiere of Car of the Future. The program will air Tuesdayat 8 p.m.

Car of the Future examines the evolutionary changes that make cars more energy efficient. Tom and Ray Magliozzi, co-hosts of NPR’s “Car Talk,” take to the streets to find which alternative energy vehicle can challenge today’s gas-guzzling, high-powered cars and become the car of the future – or at least replace Tom’s 1952 MG TD Roadster.

“The big idea is pretty simple,” said Car of the Future director Joe Seamans in an interview with “Car Talk.” “The world is consuming oil at an alarming rate, and we need to find other ways to power cars. The big question is what can replace oil?”

The Magliozzi duo tackles everything from giant automakers to Iceland’s involvement with tomorrow’s cars. In the process, Tom and Ray go through the advantages and disadvantages of energy saving technology, such as ethanol, hydrogen, more efficient engines, electric carsand hybrids.

This is where Professor Frank comes in. Known as the “father of the plug-in hybrid,” Frank spent about 25 years taking the hybrid concept one step further.

According to Frank, the conventional hybrid still runs on gasoline, converting only some of its gasoline to electricity. The hybrid he and his team designed uses very little gasoline.

“We designed [the plug-in hybrid] so that 90 percent of its energy comes from electricity, and only 10 percent of it comes from liquid fuel,” Frank said.

This is done with a large battery pack that can be charged from an electrical outlet.

“The reason we want to charge this from the wall is because … it’s equivalent to buying gas at 70 cents a gallon,” Frank said.

Add a larger motor and the plug-in has the advantage of an electric car with the capabilities of a conventional car.

“So we can build SUVs as plug-in hybrids, but the SUVs will run mostly on electricity,” Frank said.

Frank believes that energy-efficient cars, such as his plug-in hybrid, can mitigate the current dependency on oil.

“The value of the dollar has been going down internationally because we’re shipping so much of our money abroad to buy oil,” Frank said. “The plug-in hybrid gives us a chance to stop using oil and start using domestic energy sources.”

He also adds that these innovative breakthroughs can pave the way for global change.

“Once we shift from using oil to using electricity, we can start supplying the electricity by solar and wind,” Frank said.

Frank’s plug-in hybrid, with its method of using cleaner energy, would essentially tackle both problems and revolutionize the way we commute.

While Frank’s research has proven to be energy efficient, this technology is not yet available to the public.

“What we want to do now is to take the technology that we’ve developed here at UC Davis and bring it to the world,” Frank said.

Dr. David L. Greene, another featured expert on the show and corporate fellow of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, agrees with Frank regarding the need to switch from petroleum because of energy security and climate change.

However, he explains that the plug-in hybrid, like the other developing types of alternative energy vehicles, is not yet ready for mass consumption.

“The cars we need to achieve our 2050 goals are not yet ready for the marketplace,” Greene said. “I cannot see a major market share for plug-in hybrids, for example, without a smart grid for them to connect to…. In my opinion, neither hydrogen fuel cell cars, nor plug-in hybrids, nor battery electric vehicles can meet consumers’ expectations for mass market vehicles today.”

Yet he said he believes creating a completely new vehicle fueling structure is feasible in the future.

“It’s a huge task, but … it’s a cost we can easily afford over a period of 20 years or so,” said Dr. Greene. “We have to make up our minds to do it, and the technology needs to be ready.”

Green thinks Car of the Future leaves “the viewer with a sense that the problems are serious and that we must change, but still there is good reason to be optimistic.”

Frank remains optimistic on this front, as well. His next step is to try charging his plug-in hybrid by solar panels, something that has yet to be done.

“We’re trying to demonstrate that our car can run completely on the sun,” Frank said. “One day’s sun could give you tomorrow’s driving free.”

Maybe that could be the car of the future.


APPLE LOVELESS can be reached at features@californiaaggie.com.


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