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CalCars' First Prius Conversion Destroyed in Fire

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  • Felix Kramer
    CalCars first Prius, converted to plug in by advocates in 2004, updated in 2010 with a commercial system, was destroyed in a fire on Wednesday. It s a sad end
    Message 1 of 1 , Mar 7, 2013
      CalCars' first Prius, converted to plug in by advocates in 2004,
      updated in 2010 with a commercial system, was destroyed in a fire on
      Wednesday. It's a sad end for a vehicle that gave hundreds of public
      officials their first opportunities to drive electric and helped
      inspire a campaign that brought us the Chevy Volt, the Prius Plug-in
      and other plug-in hybrids and extended-range electric vehicles. It's
      also a huge personal setback for its owner, Ron Gremban, CalCars
      Technology Lead.

      (Shortly after it goes out on email, this posting will also be
      viewable at http://www.calcars.org/news-archive.html -- there you can
      add CalCars-News to your RSS feed.)

      The New York Times story below, by Bradley Berman, founder of
      HybridCars.com and PlugInCars.com, explains the situation. Because of
      the extent of the damage, there's much we don't know and may never
      know about the cause of the fire. Here are a few preliminary broad points:

      * It's fortunate that no humans were injured, especially Ron's
      partner, Lynne McAllister, who discovered the fire and notified the
      fire department; it's very sad that one of their cats died and the
      other is missing. And the damage to their home is a heavy financial
      setback from Ron and Lynne.

      * This incident has NO implications for mass-produced plug-in
      vehicles. Ron's car used nickel-metal hydride batteries, the same
      battery type used in the original Prius and in other conventional
      hybrids for the past 15 years. Today's production PEVs use
      lithium-ion batteries. This commercial conversion did not use the
      current industry-standard J-plug found in all the fully validated and
      tested cordsets in production vehicles.

      * What happened can be put in perspective when compared to the
      internal combustion industry's record, chronicled by the National
      Fire Protection Association: from 2003-2007, an annual average of
      287,000 vehicle fires, 480 civilian deaths, and $1.3 billion in
      direct property damage. http://www.nfpa.org/categoryList.asp?categoryID=1123

      * In 2004-2005, our message was that amateurs and engineers working
      in a garage could show how we could have cars that plug in NOW, with
      batteries that were "good enough to get started" and would improve.
      We encouraged the media and the public to imagine how much better and
      safer they would be when mass-produced by automakers. These
      conversions drove home the benefits to drivers, the economy, the auto
      industry, the environment, and national security. (This story is well
      told in early news stories http://www.calcars.org/kudos.html and
      http://www.calcars.org/early-news.html , and chapters in dozens of
      books, especially in Sherry Boschert's "Plug-In Hybrids, the Cars
      that Will Recharge America" http://www.calcars.org/books.html .)

      * This first conversion and many dozens more completed through our
      Open Source Prius+ project proudly announced that they got "100+MPG"
      of gasoline, plus a few cents a mile of "cleaner, cheaper,
      domestically produced" electricity. They and about 1,000 other
      conversions by small companies had a giant impact. They helped reach
      the goals of CalCars, the Electric Auto Association, Plug In America,
      and others: raising awareness, getting opinion leaders the
      opportunity to experience driving electric, and encouraging carmakers
      to mass-produce all types of plug-in vehicles.

      * 80,000 plug-in cars have been sold since the end of 2010
      http://www.electricdrive.org/index.php?ht=d/sp/i/20952/pid/20952 .
      And it's been clear for some time that the era of small-scale hybrid
      conversions was drawing to a close. We still hope that more
      companies will jump into a larger opportunity -- converting tens of
      millions of internal combustion engines to plug in, an idea we
      promoted heavily from 2009-2011
      http://www.calcars.org/ice-conversions.html . And we still have much
      to do to bring PEVs into the mainstream, through DrivingElectric.org
      and other efforts supported by CalCars, EAA, PIA and allies.

      * Finally, about Ron. He's a talented and resourceful engineer, a
      good writer, and a smart strategist. CalCars, founded in 2002, got
      its most important jump-start when he came on in 2004 and led the
      conversion project and many subsequent programs. He devoted his life
      to this effort from then until he got his Chevy Volt at the end of
      2010. Due to budget constraints at CalCars, he was largely a
      volunteer. Ron's costs in rebuilding his home and replacing damaged
      possessions and his car will not be fully covered by insurance. We
      have already received inquiries from people who would like to help.
      If you would like to donate directly, please reply to this message or
      write to sponsor (at) calcars.org .

      Thanks for all the support and help this community has provided over the years.


      March 7, 2013, 6:00 PM

      Fire Destroys a Pioneering Plug-In Prius Conversion

      A 2004 Toyota Prius that had been converted to run on grid-supplied electricity caught fire at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday night in Corte Madera, Calif., according to The Marin Independent Journal and other Bay Area news outlets. Nobody was hurt, but the fire killed a cat and caused about $250,000 worth of damage to the owner's condominium.

      The cause of the fire was unknown.

      The vehicle, which had about 50,000 miles on the odometer and was owned by Ron Grembam, played a crucial part in the history of plug-in electric vehicles. In 2004, Mr. Grembam said, it was converted to use a plug -- and an added battery pack larger than the one provided as standard by Toyota � so that it could run for a number of miles purely on electricity. At the time of the conversion, Toyota and other automakers were not making plug-in hybrid cars and expressed doubt about the technical and market viability of the technology.

      "The message we had from the start was that if a group of amateurs and engineers could make the technology work in a garage, then the major automakers could make it much better and safer," said Felix Kramer, the founder of CalCars, the plug-in car advocacy group that organized the conversion and a subsequent campaign to get car companies to produce electric cars and plug-in hybrids. In an interview Thursday, Mr. Kramer added, "This unfortunate fire unequivocally has nothing to do with today�s production plug-in hybrids."

      Nearly 40,000 plug-in hybrid vehicles were sold in the United States in 2012. The market includes the Chevrolet Volt, Toyota Prius Plug-in Hybrid, Ford C-Max Energi and Fisker Karma. Honda and Ford will introduce new plug-in hybrids this year.

      Mr. Grembam, who is also associated with CalCars, could not explain the cause of the fire, which had occurred while the vehicle was being charged. "It's not obvious," he said. "The car exploded and apparently destroyed all the evidence." The vehicle was using a $5,000 Brusa charger plugged into a 120-volt outlet and was able to pull only about eight amps, Mr. Grembam said. "That shouldn't be enough to overheat the battery pack. That deepens the mystery."

      The fire was controlled in about 30 minutes. The exact cause is being investigated by the Corte Madera Fire Department, Mr. Grembam said.

      The Prius was originally converted by CalCars to use grid-supplied electricity in 2004. In 2010, the vehicle's plug-in system was replaced by equipment supplied by the Plug-In Conversions Corporation of Poway, Calif., near San Diego. In the conversion, the existing batteries were replaced with a 6.1-kilowatt-hour nickel-metal-hydride pack, as well as a charger, control electronics and a plug. The conversion was intended to increase fuel efficiency above 100 miles per gallon. Since 2008, Plug-in Conversions has performed about 70 without any problems, said Kim Adelman, the company's chief executive.

      Mr. Grembam said: "This incident very well might make a dent in aftermarket conversions. It would give anybody pause. But I'm hoping it doesn't affect the market for O.E.M. plug-in vehicles."

      He said that major car manufacturers use large teams of engineers to make sure every safety factor is considered, but it's more challenging with one person or a small team. "It's possible for things to get missed," he said.

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      Felix Kramer , Founder
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