If you think electric cars are wimpy vehicles relegated to the world of tree-huggers, you haven’t met the Dodge Ram pickup truck taking part in a massive Electric Vehicle Project spearheaded by the  Idaho National Laboratory (INL).

    The full-sized Ram truck delivers 390 horsepower and can carry an 8,000-pound payload with its hybrid technology that combines gas and electric power. And it gets an average 35 percent more miles per gallon than its standard gas-only cousin.

    “We’ve seen well over 30 miles per gallon on vehicles we’ve fully charged,” Electric Vehicle Project manager Jim Francfort said about the hybrid Rams.

    Francfort knows his electric car technology.

    As principal investigator for Advanced Vehicle Testing Activity Energy Storage and Transportation Systems at the INL, Francfort has been examining all aspects of electrically powered transportation since 1993.

    “It’s really been in existence since the 1980s,” Francfort said about feasibility and technology studies involving electric cars. The U.S. Department of Energy has been the driving force — no pun intended.

    “We all know how gas cars work,” Francfort said. “The electric car is more unknown.”

    The Electric Vehicle Program being conducted by the INL is attempting to strip all the mystery away from the use of hybrid gas-electric engines and pure electrically powered vehicles.

    Currently, 17,500 electric and electric-gas hybrid vehicles are participating in the study which gathers data on everything from mileage to battery life.

    “We’re getting about a million miles of road data every eight days,” Francfort said. “This is the biggest program of its kind in the world and Idaho is in the middle of all of this.”

    It is the INL project’s responsibility to implement and monitor a light vehicle study or Advanced Vehicle Testing Activity (AVTA).

    The goals are simple: reduce petroleum consumption by boosting mileage and enhance the energy security of the U.S.

    Francfort said with the unrest in many places of the world where oil is most plentiful and increased competition for the fossil fuel, it makes sense for this country to explore ways to make a barrel of oil go a lot further.

    By using a large group of voluntary electric car and hybrid car owners across the nation, the Electric Vehicle Project at the INL is able to scrutinize how the vehicles are used, when people recharge the batteries and all the pluses and minuses of the technology.

    “People buy the vehicles at their own expense, but we help with financial incentives to set up the hardware for charging. The massive fleet operating under the watchful eye of the INL includes brands such as the Chevrolet Volt, the Nissan Leaf and Toyota Prius.

    The main private sector partners in the project are Nissan and OnStar/GM. Also assisting with the project are more than 30 electric utility companies, air quality boards and state agencies.

    Electric cars eventually must be “plugged in” to recharge, so a large part of the study is designed to determine peak periods when electric car owners recharge their vehicles. Data so far indicates the bulk of the owners recharge at night which coincides with the lowest demand for power on the nationwide grid which reaches its low around midnight.

    The study is also trying to determine the effectiveness of “fast charging” systems that can deliver 440 volts of electricity and fully recharge a Leaf in about 30 minutes. Because battery-powered cars do have limited range between recharging, the INL project is trying to determine how a system of electric “service stations” could be set up in areas with more dense populations.

    “Fast charging has higher costs associated with it,” Francfort said.

    The bulk of the car owners involved in the INL study live in larger metropolitan areas like Seattle, San Francisco, Dallas, Atlanta, Chicago, Philadelphia and Los Angeles. In fact, Los Angeles and Shanghai, China are working together in a sister city approach to closely evaluate electric cars and the potential establishment of remote charging stations.

    Francfort said the newest technology involves being able to charge a vehicle without a plug-in using electrical energy transfer through the air. And the quest to find more efficient batteries continues.

    “When we started it was lead-acid and now its lithium,” Francfort said.

    The INL project is designed to help use reliable facts to help shape the future of motoring in the USA.

    “It think it’s a fun program,” Francfort said. “The lab is really at the center.”