PLUG OK license plate
LA Times story-re-run: in Newsday/Miami Herald/
Oct 12, 2005 (From the CalCars-News archive)
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More newspapers are picking up versions of the John O'Dell story that ran June 25, now circulating on the LA Times News Service.

Newsday, Monday, Oct. 10, 2005
Hybrids plug-in for more miles Miami Herald, Sat, Oct. 08, 2005 How to plug in consumers to more efficient hybrids Longview, WA Daily News, Oct 08, 2005 Plug-in hybrids gains momentum

Toyota Motor Corp. boasts that its best-selling Prius gas-electric hybrid doesn't have to be plugged in.

A growing group of fuel-economy minded car buffs are asking "why not?"

By dramatically increasing the size and power of the batteries in a Prius and recharging them overnight through an electric plug-in outlet at home, a customized hybrid can get more than 100 miles per gallon of gas. "We want to get people thinking of (plug-ins) as a real alternative" in our long-term energy plan, said Felix Kramer, founder of, a Palo Alto, Calif.-advocacy group.

The idea of plug-in hybrids is generating buzz in energy circles because of the work of a start-up Monrovia, Calif., company, Electric Control Systems Engineering. The company bought a Prius and converted it with its own system.

Co-owner Greg Hanssen now tools around southern California in a bright blue Prius prototype. The car can deliver 150 to 180 mpg for up to 35 miles of low-speed, around-town driving, and can average 70-100 mpg on longer trips at higher speeds.

The South Coast Air Quality Management District recently gave the company $130,000 to build four plug-in Priuses that will be tested in several car fleets.

In a regular Prius, a small battery is charged by the vehicle's own gas engine and with electricity produced by the brakes. The all-electric operation is fairly limited because the Prius uses its gas engine except at very low speeds. Most Prius owners get fuel economy of 45 to 55 miles per gallon.

However, Energy Control Systems' design tricks the Prius' computer into thinking its batteries are always fully charged, so it uses the electric motor to try to drain them before switching to the gas engine.

Hanssen can drive his Prius in an all-electric mode for 35 miles at up to 35 miles per hour. And when the gas engine does kick in, it burns far less gas than in a standard Prius. By babying the accelerator, he claims he can often run in electric mode on the freeway at 55 miles per hour, he said.

The extra batteries in the prototype weigh 180 pounds, and they use up most of the storage space under the rear cargo area --so there no room spare tire.

Next year, Energy Control Systems and its partner hope to begin converting customers' stock Prius hybrids to plug-ins. Initially, the cost will be about $12,000 after the customer buys the Prius, Hanssen said.

There are plenty of problems to overcome, though, before plug-in hybrids show up at mainstream dealerships. Automakers worry about the extra battery weight and extra cost from the super-sized batteries, and have doubts that consumers will bother to charge the vehicle every night.

And Toyota, which expects to sell 110,000 Priuses in the United States this year, warned that converting the car to a plug-in system will void its warranty. Still, Toyota spokeswoman Cindy Knight said, "We are watching (plug-in designs) with interest. It is probably within the range of solutions we would consider" eventually as an alternate energy power-plant design.

The nascent plug-in hybrid movement is also gaining some traction in Congress. In the early summer, several senators introduced the topic as the national debate continues over foreign oil dependency and soaring gasoline prices continues. Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., said high-mileage plug-ins provided "extraordinary hope" to reduce the nation's insatiable appetite for oil.

DamilerCrysler is also working with the Electric Power Research Institute to develop a prototype plug-in hybrid version of its Dodge Sprinter delivery van.

"We are all aiming for the same goal," said Hanssen. "We want to persuade regulators, and automakers, that plug-in hybrids will work."

Hanssen, 38, and his partner, Pete Nortman, 48, are electrical engineers who got their start in the electric vehicle movement. Their four-year-old company has six employees, and Hanssen said they pay the bills from developing electrical high-voltage management systems for various clients, including a hybrid locomotive manufacturer.

But the plug-in Prius is their principal claim to fame.

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