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NYTimes: Hybrid-Car Tinkerers Scoff at No-Plug-In Rule

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  • Felix Kramer
    A PDF version of this article, including photos, can be found via http://www.calcars.org/kudos.html at http://www.calcars.org/NYTimes-PRIUSPlusApril05.pdf --
    Message 1 of 1 , Apr 1, 2005
      A PDF version of this article, including photos, can be found via
      http://www.calcars.org/kudos.html at
      http://www.calcars.org/NYTimes-PRIUSPlusApril05.pdf -- initially as a
      reprod-Paton of the online article, later as a scan of the print version.

      The New York Times Business Section April 2, 2005
      Hybrid-Car Tinkerers Scoff at No-Plug-In Rule

      PHOTO CAPTION 1: Ron Gremban modified a Toyota Prius by installing
      auxiliary batteries.
      PHOTO CAPTION 2: Felix Kramer, left, and Ron Gremban in Ann Arbor, Mich.,
      with an auxiliary battery charger for a converted Prius. Toyota has spent
      millions persuading people that the car does not need to be plugged in.

      DETROIT, April 1 - Ron Gremban and Felix Kramer have modified a Toyota
      Prius so it can be plugged into a wall outlet.

      This does not make Toyota happy. The company has spent millions of dollars
      persuading people that hybrid electric cars like the Prius never need to be
      plugged in and work just like normal cars. So has Honda, which even ran a
      commercial that showed a guy wandering around his Civic hybrid fruitlessly
      searching for a plug.

      But the idea of making hybrid cars that have the option of being plugged in
      is supported by a diverse group of interests, from neoconservatives who
      support greater fuel efficiency to utilities salivating at the chance to
      supplant oil with electricity. If you were able to plug a hybrid in
      overnight, you could potentially use a lot less gas by cruising for long
      stretches on battery power only. But unlike purely electric cars, which
      take hours to charge and need frequent recharging, you would not have to
      plug in if you did not want to.

      "I've gotten anywhere from 65 to over 100 miles per gallon," said Mr.
      Gremban, an engineer at CalCars, a small nonprofit group based in Palo
      Alto, Calif. He gets 40 to 45 miles per gallon driving his normal Prius.
      And EnergyCS, a small company that has collaborated with CalCars, has
      modified another Prius with more sophisticated batteries; they claim their
      Prius gets up to 180 m.p.g. and can travel more than 30 miles on battery power.

      "If you cover people's daily commute, maybe they'll go to the gas station
      once a month," said Mr. Kramer, the founder of CalCars. "That's the whole

      Conventional hybrid electric cars already save gas. But if one looks at
      growth projections for oil consumption, hybrids will slow the growth rate
      of oil imports only marginally, at best, with the amount depending on how
      many hybrids are sold. To actually stop the growth of oil imports and
      potentially even reduce consumption, automakers have focused on developing
      cars powered by hydrogen fuel cells.

      But fuel cells would require a complete reinvention of the automobile, not
      to mention the nation's gas stations, and the technology to put them on the
      road is still a long way from fruition. Advocates of plug-in hybrids say
      the technology for these vehicles is available now to the point that people
      are building them in garages.

      "All of the relevant technology is at hand," said Frank Gaffney, founder of
      the Center for Security Policy and an assistant defense secretary in the
      Reagan administration. His group was among a coalition of right-leaning
      organizations that released an energy plan this year promoting plug-ins as
      one way to increase fuel efficiency in light of the instability of the
      Middle East.

      "If you're thinking about this as an environmental issue first and
      foremost, you're missing the point," Mr. Gaffney said. Curbing dependence
      on foreign oil, he added, "is a national security emergency."

      Toyota, however, says the plug-in is not ready for prime time.

      "They say this is the next great thing, but it just isn't," said David
      Hermance, an executive engineer at Toyota. "The electric utilities really
      want to sell electricity and they want to sell it to the transportation
      sector because that expands their market. They have an agenda."

      But the plug-in hybrid is not just coming out of the garages of enthusiasts
      in California. DaimlerChrysler has developed several dozen plug-in hybrid
      vans in cooperation with the Electric Power Research Institute, a group
      financed by more than 300 utilities, including the New York Power Authority
      and Southern California Edison. Testing of the vans will start this year,
      and one will be used by The New York Times on a newspaper delivery route in
      Manhattan. Several small companies are also developing or have developed
      plug-in hybrid prototypes.

      "We think it's the only way to rekindle interest in electric
      transportation," said Robert Graham, who manages research into electric
      vehicles for the Research Institute. "There are no technology hurdles at
      all. It's simply a matter of getting the vehicle built out on the street
      and getting people to recognize its value."

      For power companies, the notion of people plugging in cars overnight
      represents not only a new way to make money, but the vehicles would also
      draw power mostly during off hours which would improve efficiency, because
      power plants cannot simply shut down at night as demand diminishes.

      As it stands, though, modifying a hybrid like the Prius to enable it to
      plug in would add perhaps $2,000 to $3,000 to the cost of a car that is
      already roughly $3,000 more expensive than conventional gas cars. Advocates
      say the costs would be much lower if such cars were mass-produced by a
      major automaker.

      But Nick Cappa, a spokesman for DaimlerChrysler, was cautious, calling the
      technology one of many the company was exploring. Among its current
      drawbacks is that the added batteries take up space and make the company's
      Sprinter van several hundred pounds heavier.

      "This is part of a small program investigating these technologies," Mr.
      Cappa said.

      And Mr. Hermance of Toyota said that batteries today were not durable
      enough to handle the wide range of charging up and charging down that a
      plug-in hybrid would need, calling that the most damaging thing you can do
      to a battery.

      Edward Furia, the chief executive of AFS Trinity Power, a privately held
      company in Bellevue, Wash., that develops mechanical batteries called
      flywheels, agreed with Mr. Hermance, but said that a secondary energy
      storage technology like a flywheel could solve the problem.

      "If you've got a flywheel with your chemical battery, you can draw down the
      chemical battery, but when it's time to do a heavy lift, to accelerate or
      absorb energy, the flywheel is doing the acceleration or the absorption,
      not the chemical battery," said Mr. Furia, whose company is developing its
      own plug-in hybrid that it says will get several hundred miles per gallon.

      While many environmentalists support the technology, some say in terms of
      emissions, electric cars would only be as good as the power plants that
      produce electricity.

      "The concern on plug-in hybrids is that we not substitute addiction to one
      polluting fuel for addiction to a more polluting fuel," said Dan Becker,
      the head of the Sierra Club's global warming and energy program. "Coal is
      more polluting than gasoline, and nearly 60 percent of U.S. electricity is
      generated by burning coal."

      Roger Duncan, a deputy general manager of Austin Energy, a utility owned by
      the City of Austin, Tex., said that "it's hard to say what impact it will
      have on the nation as a whole," but that in regions that use
      cleaner-than-average power sources, like Austin or California, it would
      provide a clear emissions benefit. Mr. Duncan even imagines a day when
      drivers could be paid to return energy to the grid during times of
      excessive demand.

      Plug-in hybrid prototypes have been around for several years, but the idea
      of modifying a Prius stemmed from the curiosity of some Prius owners in the
      United States, Mr. Kramer said. They were aroused by a mysterious unmarked
      button on their Prius and discovered that in Priuses sold in Europe and
      Japan, the button allows the car to drive for a mile in electric-only mode.
      Mr. Hermance said the feature was disabled in Priuses sold in the United
      States because of complications it would have created in emissions-testing

      Mr. Kramer said "a bunch of engineers reverse-engineered it in the United
      States and figured out how to hack it."

      But they soon wanted to travel on batteries for more than a mile and began
      to collaborate through CalCars on adding batteries to the Prius that would
      allow for longer pure electric travel. With the help of dozens of volunteer
      engineers collaborating online, the group retrofitted a Prius in Mr.
      Gremban's garage to travel about 10 miles on nothing but battery power.

      Mr. Duncan said the plug-in hybrid was "very realistic, because it's not
      that big a leap in technology."

      "Look what Felix has done with Prius off the street," he added. "This isn't
      rocket science."

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      Felix Kramer fkramer@...
      Founder California Cars Initiative
      PRIUS+ PHEV Conversion Group
      CalCars-PHEV Newsletter
      PO Box 61222 Palo Alto, CA 94306
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