Reality check on plug-in cars Danny Westneat Seattle Times staff columnist Remember last spring, when Seattle's mayor rolled out the city's first car that could be "filled at the plug instead of the pump?" It's called a plug-in hybrid. They are all the green rage — "possibly the most sought-after technological innovation since Captain Kirk first flipped open his communicator," says The New York Times. You may have seen the city's cars around town, painted with an eye-catching claim on the rear bumper: "This plug-in hybrid gets 100+mpg." Also, a greener boast: "150+City MPG!" Not exactly, it turns out. Not even close. Try 51 miles per gallon, city and highway combined. Not counting the cost of the electricity. It's what 14 plug-in Priuses averaged after driving a total of 17,636 miles. The pilot project is one of the few in the nation to subject plug-in hybrid cars to regular motor-pool duty, as opposed to being driven by hypermilers or alt-energy enthusiasts. "We're not putting these cars on a test track," said Scott Thomsen, a spokesman for Seattle City Light, which has three of the plug-ins. "We've got them on hills and wet streets, in the cold and the hot, on short trips and long — all the conditions that real people deal with every day." Getting 51 miles per gallon sounds fine compared to most gas cars. But it's a black eye for a technology that trumpets it will get twice that. And which doesn't pencil financially unless it hits at least 80 miles per gallon. "That's not anywhere near close to the ballpark of what plug-ins need to be getting," said Therese Langer, of the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy, a nonprofit think tank in Washington, D.C. The plug-ins the city is using are only one of many types in development. It's a standard gas/battery hybrid Prius with an extra battery you charge using a 120-volt wall socket. The car runs on the extra battery until it needs to kick on the gas. It theoretically goes about 30 miles on battery alone, using gas only for bursts of acceleration, on steep hills and after the battery is exhausted. Obviously, this one isn't working as advertised. It's partly the technology, which is new. And partly that drivers aren't used to the cars, says Jim Francfort, of the federal government's Advanced Vehicle Testing program, which is overseeing the Seattle project. He says we tend to accelerate too fast. In a plug-in hybrid, anything but smooth, slow acceleration drains the battery quickly and craters the mileage. "How people drive has a huge impact, much greater than it does with gas cars," he said. Maybe that can be fixed. Or maybe plug-ins aren't ready to go mass market. There is a green wave building behind them anyway. Plug-ins are seen by many as the best way to reduce America's dependence on oil, right away. Barack Obama pledged to get 1 million plug-ins on the road by 2015. Congress is spending billions to ready the electric grid, build charging stations and entice people with tax credits to buy the cars. The problem is the extra battery costs $10,000. At 51 mpg, the plug-in saves only about $200 in gas costs annually compared to a regular Prius in the city's fleet (and that's at $4 a gallon.) It would take 50 years to make back the cost of the extra battery. Even if the battery cost is cut in half, as some are hoping, you'd have to get 80 to 100 miles per gallon, consistently, to earn back the premium price. In its February issue, Consumer Reports road-tested a plug-in Prius and concluded the cost was "more than you could ever expect to recoup in gas savings." The search-engine company Google has nine plug-in Prius hybrids in use by its employees. They're getting an average of 54.9 mpg. (You can monitor the cars' performance at a Web site, www.google.org/recharge/dashboard.) That exceeds the Seattle figure, yet "Google is now sort of embarrassed about their results," said Tom Turrentine, director of the Plug-In Hybrid Electric Vehicle Research Center, in Davis, Calif. "I think we all need to be more careful," he said. "When we say we're going to get 100 or 150 miles per gallon, then that's setting expectations way too high. It just leads to disappointment. We need to deal in reality." That is the reason I'm writing this column. We are in the grips of green mania. Take the federal stimulus bill. It included $60 billion in green spending projects and another $20 billion in green tax breaks. I'd love to go all Thomas Friedman on you and say it's a green Apollo project that will launch us to a green moon. But a lot of it will turn out to be hype. The hype is more than just a sideshow — it undermines the goal. What I'm wondering is: Can we do anything without pledging 100 and then delivering 51? Green fever feels a lot like dot-com mania. Or the housing craze. The biofuel bust. Divide in half what was evangelized, and that's what we got. Hopefully, the plug-in story will end better. Give it time, say smart, reasonable people like Turrentine. Still, the Seattle road tests are hinting at something bigger. That there is no magic techno bullet to going green. "Drive less" may be a boring message, not as sexy as "150+ City MPG!" It does have the advantage of not being a pipe dream.