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Pair envisions do-it-yourself hybrids

| Saturday, June 4, 2011

Gas prices were rising, Nashville pumps were running dry, and Charles Perry's daughter was feeling the pain.

She asked her dad, an engineering professor and inventor with 33 patents under his belt, to invent something that would help drivers like her.

And so he did.

Perry, the Russell Chair of Excellence in Manufacturing at Middle Tennessee State University, and co-inventor Paul Martin III have spent the years since the regional gas crisis of 2008 working on a way to convert a standard, gas-guzzling car or minivan into a gas-sipping hybrid.

The idea was to help drivers like Perry's daughter, a soccer mom who did a lot of stop-and-go driving around the city. That kind of low-speed, brake-and-accelerate driving burns a lot of gas and wastes a lot of money.

Perry and Martin's invention someday soon might allow owners to retrofit their vehicles with a lithium-ion battery and a small but powerful DC brushless motor that would take over the work of nudging a car around the city at relatively low speeds -- under 40 mph or so. For the driver, it would feel a bit like suddenly heading downhill: They could lift their foot off the accelerator, and the car would continue coasting forward.

"On any given day, most Americans drive 35 miles or less, at speeds of 45 miles per hour or less," Perry said. "It should increase your mileage by double in town."

The plug-in hybrid engine wouldn't help with high-speed highway commutes, when cars are operating at peak fuel efficiency anyway. Acceleration is the time when a vehicle is at its least fuel-efficient, and that's when the plug-in hybrid would kick in, nudging the vehicle forward and sparing the gas engine the heavy lifting. As with other hybrid engines, every time the driver braked, it would help recharge the lithium battery.

Perry, who spent 28 years inventing new technology for IBM, partnered with Martin, an automotive engineer, to develop the MTSU UPIC -- the Universal Plug-In Conversion vehicle.

"Cars are my passion; I grew up tinkering with them. I'm terribly excited about this project," said Martin, a project manager in MTSU's Department of Engineering Technology.

For now, their do-it-yourself hybrid is a tabletop demonstration model. But this summer, Perry and Martin plan to be cruising the streets of Murfreesboro in the first MTSU UPIC prototype. Then it'll be a matter of finding investors to help put the conversion kits into general production, something that would take years.

"Every engineer we've ever showed this to has been very excited," Martin said.

Plenty of inventors and companies have joined the green energy gold rush, scrambling to invent plug-in hybrid conversion kits. A few are on the market, retailing for as much as $10,000, with their battery packages awkwardly and visibly bolted to the rear end of the converted vehicles.

Perry and Martin say their design could double a car's fuel efficiency for in-city driving, yet be small enough to install inside the trunk -- it's about the size of an airplane carry-on suitcase -- and could retail for about $3,000.

The most expensive component of the UPIC kit is the lithium-ion battery, which would have to be changed every 100,000 miles or so, Perry said. But with more and more hybrid cars in production, the batteries are getting cheaper and cheaper.

They hope to have the first UPIC hybrid on the road by August or September. And they already know who will be at the front of the waiting list for the next retrofit.

"I promised my daughter she'd get one of the first" UPIC kits, Perry said. After all, it was her idea.

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