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Wave Magazine: Pimp My Prius
Nov 3, 2005 (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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Along with 2006 Hybrid buyer's guide, The Wave Magazine, a weekly from San Jose, CA, ran a feature,

Pimp My Prius

When car companies scrapped their electric-car pilot programs and hopped on the hybrid bandwagon, it didn't take long for Silicon Valley techies to figure out how to make hybrids even greener. California Cars Initiative (, a Palo Alto-based nonprofit, is part of a small but growing movement to pimp hybrids with bigger batteries so they can be plugged in to charge up, getting more than 100 miles per gallon.

Calcars calls them "plug-in hybrid electric vehicles," or PHEVs, but it's easier to think of them as Toyota Priuses that can be recharged like giant cell phones. Felix Kramer, founder of Calcars, believes plug-ins are the next logical step in the evolution of hybrids.

"It's like having a second small fuel tank in your car," Kramer told The Wave. "You fill it at home by plugging it into the socket at night - and it gives you transportation around town for the equivalent of less than $1 a gallon."

Calcars is on a mission to get car companies to build PHEVs. The benefits are obvious. "They combine the best features of electric cars and hybrids. Recharge nightly and you'll rarely need gas - for instance, if your batteries have a 25-mile range and your daily round-trip commute is 20 miles, you'll drive gasoline-free," Kramer explains. "If you forget to plug in or you go on a long trip, you have the gasoline engine's extended range and you're back to driving a pretty clean, efficient hybrid."

To critics who say they are merely shifting the pollution from tailpipes to coal-dependent electricity plants, research refutes this. California's power grid relies only 20 percent on coal. Even on the half-coal U.S. grid, studies done by national labs showed an electric vehicle produces at least 45 percent less in greenhouse gases than a gasoline car. "The people who are saying it's no cleaner - that you're just substituting one crummy fuel for another - they're relying on old information or misinformation," Kramer adds.

Calcars also estimates that carmakers could sell mass-produced small PHEVs for just $3,000 more than regular hybrids. But Toyota and other companies are not sold on the idea, citing reasons like cost, convenience and the safety of plug-in hybrids. David Cole, chairman of the Michigan-based Center for Automotive Research, thinks it boils down to economics. "The primary reason is the size of the battery required. The battery for the current hybrids is large and very expensive and must be several times larger to achieve much energy storage from the grid," he told The Wave. "I believe that until we can find better, less expensive batteries that plug-in hybrids will have a tough time gaining acceptance. There is no question that they would work, but the economics are a problem."

Nonetheless, plug-in hybrids have gained high-level endorsements from the likes of former CIA director James Woolsey and Frank Gaffney, President Reagan's undersecretary of defense. Both are members of Set America Free, a group that wants the government to spend $12 billion over four years on plug-in hybrids, alternative fuels and other measures to reduce foreign oil dependence. The city of Austin, Texas also recently launched "Plug-In Austin," a community-wide campaign to promote the mass production of plug-in hybrid vehicles.

Until automakers get the hint and start cranking out plug-ins, hybrid owners who want a greener option will have to count on Los Angeles-based Edrive Systems, a company that plans early next year to offer an aftermarket kit that converts a Toyota Prius into a PHEV for an estimated $10,000 to $12,000. The tradeoff? It adds 180 pounds, leaves no room for a spare tire and potentially voids your Toyota warranty.

The DIY route is not for novice garage tinkerers, Kramer warns. You could electrocute yourself. "That's why we've been very careful to advise people not to do it unless they know what they are doing and do it as part of a group." The good news is: The national Electric Auto Association (, with chapters in Silicon Valley, announced on Oct. 25 the formation of a special interest group for PHEVs ( to help folks with advanced technical skills make their own hybrid-to-plug-in conversions.

Should automakers make the switch to plug-in hybrids? Email us at thebuzz@... or call the anonymous Buzz hotline at (408) 467-3255.

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