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Spotlight on Conversions: 70 MPH Prius and Hummer PHEVs; Gas Guzzlers; CA Air Board Regulations
Jun 10, 2009 (From the CalCars-News archive)
This posting originally appeared at CalCars-News, our newsletter of breaking CalCars and plug-in hybrid news. View the original posting here.
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Even as we get closer to new mass-produced PHEVs, those converting vehicles continue work that shows future possibilities and has a strong impact on important decisionmakers. Who would have ever expected to see a PHEV Hummer? Who'd have guessed the leading state government air quality regulatory agency would find a way to accommodate conversions? Who'd have predicted independent engineers would invent a way to get a Prius driving all-electrically at 70 MPH? For this and other conversion stories, read on...

CALCARS' BROAD PERSPECTIVE ON CONVERSIONS: Since we announced our first conversion of a Prius (and before that as we spotlighted Dr. Andy Frank's conversions of multiple vehicles), we've always seen their value as primarily strategic, helping to build awareness and support for mass-produced plug-in cars. But as our understanding has grown that new plug-ins won't contribute significantly to overall petroleum use for 10-15 years, we're now emphasizing the potential of the companies building businesses around conversions to go beyond new hybrids.

The small aftermarket companies offer previews of a giant new industry to convert millions of internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles to plug in. We're working to make the case for broad government and corporate support of that approach as a second path to achieving all the benefits of electrifying transportation. For these retrofits, our goal is tested, validated, warranted designs, ideally done in partnership with carmakers. In April CalCars released an eight-page White Paper on the subject. Now we have a new 21-slide presentation, downloadable at­calcars-beyond-new-plug-ins.pdf that includes slides on some of the small ICE-conversion companies that we hope will emerge as players in this far larger opportunity. Links to both are also at the top of the CalCars home page.

HUMMER: THE ULTIMATE COUNTER-INTUITIVE CONVERSION: When we said, "the bigger the vehicle the more the benefit in switching to electricity," we weren't thinking of Hummers, which may go down as one of the follies of the first decade of this century. Yet now Raser Technologies has taken an H3 (the smallest Hummer) and turned it into a series PHEV with a 40-mile all-electric range. The most significant aspect of this vehicle may be that GM cooperated with Raser and integrator FEV, making available design information that helped them in the conversion and an efficient EcoTec engine for range extension. We hope this is a preview of automakers recognizing that conversions can provide them and their dealers with a revenue stream for cars they've already sold!

See details at­greencaradvisor/­2009/­05/­plug-in-hummer-satisfies-americas-need-for-large-vehicles-says-sen-hatch.html and­the-100-miles-per-gallon-plug-in-hybrid-hummer/­11591 and an "open road" video at­2009/­05/­22/­americans-need-big-trucks-says-sen-hatch/­ This Utah company, which promotes its efficient electric motor, brought the car to Washington DC with the help of Senator Orrin Hatch. Then Raser gave a drive to California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger (who was instrumental in encouraging AM General and GM to bring the giant military Humvees to consumers). See report and video of Sacramento press conference at­news/­2009/­05/­29/­463397.html . Then the vehicle, which gets 100MPG for 60 miles/charge, came to San Francisco and San Jose. Now that the Hummer line is being sold to a Chinese company, Siichuan Tengzhong Heavy Industrial Machinery Co., at a time when the Chinese government is promoting electrification of vehicles and raising taxes on vehicles with large engines­china/­2009-06/­05/­content_8254577.htm , it's not clear whether this conversion may be a factor in Hummer's future.

50,000 PICK-UP TRUCK CONVERSIONS BY 2013? Electric Motors Corporation and RV manufacturer Gulf Stream Coach have announced they are looking for federal funds to build a company converting pickup trucks.­features/­news/­2009/­163_news090818_electric_motors_corporation_light_duty_electric_pickup_trucks/­index.html#They showed the Hi-Pa Drive F-150 at the 2008 Specialty Equipment Market Association (SEMA) show.­autoshows/­coverage/­163_2008_sema_coverage/­2009_ford_f150_by_hi_pa_drive.html . They expect to have prototypes in September and look to invest $80 million and create 1,600 jobs by 2012 in hard-hit Elkhart County, Indiana, the "RV Capital of the World."

PRIUS CONVERSIONS NOW WITH LARGE NICKEL-METAL HYDRIDE BATTERIES: We (and those who've driven Toyota RAV4-EVs for over 100,000 miles) have long felt that NiMH's day was not over: like advanced lead-acid solutions, this proven technology still has life (as well as proven safety and durability records). Now Plug-In Conversions Corp. (PICC). of Poway, CA, which recently received an investment from large international battery maker Gold Peak, has a solution that replaces the original Prius battery. Its $12,500 conversion may be the design with the longest EV range. PICC has tested its system at Argonne National Labs with positive results including SULEV-level emissions, and intends to fully crash-test and validate its designs. PICC announced its new offering this week at the Advanced Battery Conference; its press release is reprinted at­news.cfm?newsid=21189 , and see an EVWorld interview with company founder Kim Adelman at­blogs/­index.cfm?authorid=12&blogid=753&archive=1 .

This and other retrofits are likely to be eligible for up to 10% federal tax credits, but we have not yet heard of anyone getting one for a conversion. We've partially updated our "How to Get a PHEV" page­howtoget.html to reflect these new designs.

SPEED BREAKTHROUGH ON PRIUS CONVERSIONS: Several aftermarket converters have found ways to circumvent the Prius limitation that starts the engine above 34 MPH, raising that number above 50MPH. In "forced stealth" mode. the car has to be turned off and restarted to go at higher speeds--hardly simple or practical -- and there are potential emissions complications. Now Chicago's Ewert Energy Systems has announced a proprietary electronic solution that enables some converted Priuses to drive up to 70 MPH all-electrically, and in general consistently exceed 100MPG at highways speeds during the battery's range. (The company was co-founded by Chris Ewert, team member for CalCars' second Maker Faire conversion in 2007 and key member of the CalCars-co-sponsored Open SourcElectric Auto Association PHEV Discussion Group.) Ewert has an exclusive distribution agreement with PICC (above), in part because its replacement battery can provide more energy to the system than do add-on-battery conversions. News at the EVWorld URLs above and at­2009/­06/­picc-20090610.html and at messages 3623 and 3625 at the EAA-PHEV discussion list­group/­eaa-phev/­ , where you can also see technical discussions.

CASH FOR CLUNKERS LEGISLATION: With compromises between Congressional sponsors of multiple "scrappage" bills, successive versions of the legislation are increasingly disappointing. The goal of boosting demand for new vehicles has generally eclipsed the motivation of improving fuel economy or cutting CO2 and other emissions. While our White Paper, "Cash for Clunkers Paves the Way to Retrofit Gas Guzzlers"­scrap-or-retrofit.html shows a replacement vehicle needs to have twice the MPG of the scrapped vehicle to have a net energy benefit (including the embedded energy in building the vehicle), the proposed legislation (House, Senate bills and the provisions included in Markey Waxman) requires far less. See an update, including a report on Senator Feinstein's role and comments by environmentalists, at­cgi-bin/­article.cgi?f=/­c/­a/­2009/­06/­04/­BU9O1808JK.DTL and an update on the measure that just passed in the House at­2009/­06/­09/­news/­economy/­cash_for_clunkers/­index.htm . CalCars has suggested the measures expand to make the payments of up to $4,500/vehicle available to converters as well as crushers, but we regret that we haven't had the resources or staff to effectively intervene in the discussions.

POSITIVE OUTCOME ON CALIFORNIA AIR RESOURCES BOARD REGULATION OF CONVERSIONS: If you've been following this issue from past postings at CalCars-News, you'll be glad to hear the relatively happy ending. In late January the California Air Resources Board considered proposed regulations for hybrid conversions. CalCars and others made the case that these regulations were too early and would put small innovative companies out of business. CARB then OKd a delay for some months to allow for discussions with the aftermarket companies. At its May 28 hearing, the Board reached a decision, a compromise between its staff recommendations and the provisions proposed by converters, that the companies say they can live with. First a look at the testimony at the May hearing from auto industry representatives that shows how far we've come, then some details on the results.

See­lispub/­comm/­bccommlog.php?listname=phev09 which includes the testimony at both the January and the May hearings. (Or see our a single file with all the May comments combined to make them easier to read, plus links to several PDFs, available at­all-may-phev09-comments.html .)

We draw your attention especially to comments #174 from Ford and 175 from Toyota and 178 from GM. We're especially happy with this from posting #166 from the Alliance of Auto Manufacturers, the trade association of 11 carmakers:

"With respect to plug-in vehicle conversions, the Alliance understands the early interest in PHEVs and can support reasonable methods for expanding the introduction of this relatively new technology in the US vehicle market. Conversions as a mechanism can, in general, have a place in our market to help promote the growth of a technology and the infrastructure that supports it. However, it is imperative for conversions to be achieved in an environmentally responsible and safe manner."

In general, they are sympathetic to the impulse that leads people to convert cars, while of course warning that any failures or negative experiences with conversions could represent a setback for the industry, and emphasizing that PHEVs are best coming from mass-production with full engineering, testing and validation, and all saying they plan to deliver plug-in vehicles.

Here's CalCars Technology Lead Ron Gremban's report on the event, as posted at­group/­eaa-phev/­message/­3605

History was made at the California Air Resources Board (CARB) hearing last Thursday, May 28, 2009. The board adopted rules for the certification and sale of plug-in conversions of hybrid vehicles, thereby legitimatizing the physical process that we at CalCars started five years ago and that has been all about. We commend the CARB, along with the rest of California's government, for being vigilant about continuing to clean our air while supporting and legitimatizing the nascent plug-in vehicle conversion business that could grow to become the most effective means for California, national, and worldwide reductions in oil consumption and transportation greenhouse gas emissions for the next two decades.

Though of course no one got everything they wanted, the board did modify their staff's latest proposal in two ways very helpful to conversion businesses before accepting it. I, along with several conversion kit companies, testified. Two people from 3Prong Power spoke, about the big picture and about how the pollution potential of larger than staff-recommended numbers of Tier 1 and 2 conversions could be minimized by retrofitting them to Tier 3 once the manufacturer has received a Tier 3 certification.

A main point of my testimony was that HEV-to-PHEV conversions are important not only for all the usual reasons, but also because they presage the coming ICE-to-PHEV conversions that have the prospect of ramping up to significantly reduce the oil consumption of the nation's existing fleet of 250 million light vehicles far sooner than we can possibly replace them with new plug-in vehicles.

John White of Hymotion responded, when asked, that they currently have around 480 conversions in California, but that they have 3,800 more orders as well as potentially tens of thousands of more yet as part of the stimulus package's 'Clean Cities' program, which requires CARB to act immediately because those conversions must be certified by California or the federal government, which doesn't yet have a certification program at all. This forced the board's hand in acting immediately.

Though the board acted directly only upon Hymotion's testimony to decrease the warranty requirement for a supplemental conversion battery from 10 to 5 years, I believe everyone's efforts were of value. The other change the board made was to increase the number of conversions that could be sold under the laxest Tier 1 rules from just 10 to 50. Tier 2 is then vehicle #51-100, after which full testing, warranty, and durability assurance requirements apply.

COMMENTS FROM COMPANIES we gathered since the ruling:

  • LUSCIOUS GARAGE (hybrid service and PHEV installations) Carolyn Coquillette wrote: Luscious Garage recognizes the Air Resources Board for its participation in the plug-in hybrid movement, promoting the technology's march from demonstration to production, and protecting Californians against conventional criteria pollutants as well as carbon dioxide.
  • POULSEN HYBRID (ICE-to-PHEV conversion company) Frank Kuchinski wrote: The plug-in hybrid conversion industry wants to be a part of President Obama's goal of putting one million plug-in hybrids on the road by 2015. In the future, regulations for ICE conversions need to be balanced so that this goal is obtainable.
  • 3PRONG POWER (aftermarket conversion company) excerpt from its letter to its mailing list: After we testified, the CARB board voted on our suggestion to increase the Tier I cap to 100 vehicles and ended up with a split vote, 4 - 4, which meant the measure did not pass. But then there was a second vote, on increasing the Tier I cap to 50 vehicles. This one did pass, on a 6 - 2 vote in our favor. Even though 50 is not all we asked for, it will allow us to continue offering Plug In Hybrid conversions in California while we raise the resources to complete the full laboratory emissions testing. It is extremely rare for the Air Resources Board to grant this type of concession; in fact, it might be the first time in history. We are very pleased that the CARB board recognized the unique potential of Plug In Hybrids and was willing to allow for unprecedented flexibility in their certification process, to encourage small, innovative California businesses such as ours.

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