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Transcript of EarthDay NPR Science Friday with CalCars' Felix Kramer
Apr 25, 2005 (From the CalCars-News archive)
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SHOW: Talk of the Nation

DATE: April 22, 2005


You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION/SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow.

By now, well, you probably know someone who drives a Toyota Prius or another hybrid car. If you listen to me, now you know somebody, 'cause I bought a Prius about--well, it's taken me six months' wait to get one. We finally got one. Actually, my wife's car; she doesn't let anybody near it, but that's another story. And while hybrid cars, running on electricity and gas, go a long way towards energy conservation, my next guest thinks we can do even better. So if you have a Prius, you may want to listen up, because his company has a conversion kit that beefs up the Prius' battery, allowing owners to plug the car directly into an electric outlet and basically turn their hybrid into an all-electric car. For some errands around town, for some mileages, you may never have to step on the gas, so to speak, for your daily commuting.

Two questions: Could this save the future? And how do I get one of those? Our number: 1 (800) 989-8255. Here to talk about where they may be available is Felix Kramer. He's the founder of the California Cars Initiative in Palo Alto, California. He joins me today from his office.

Welcome to the program, Mr. Kramer.

Mr. FELIX KRAMER (Founder, California Cars Initiative): Hi, Ira.

FLATOW: Hey, you know, I finally got my Prius. I'm feeling good about getting good gas mileage, driving a hybrid, getting over 40 miles a gallon. You say you can make my Prius into an all-electric car?

Mr. KRAMER: Well, people who have Priuses love them, and that's where we're coming out of. I want to clarify: We're a non-profit, not a company. And I don't want to over promise. We don't have a kit right now for you, but we hope next year we will. But we've proved that it works so far. We've got prototypes that have been built.

FLATOW: Tell me what it does, the kit.

Mr. KRAMER: Well, it's very simple, actually: takes the existing hybrid and it beefs it up. We call in green tuning or clean tuning. What we do is we add additional batteries, and as it happens, the '04 and '05 Prius have a very convenient spot under the deck so the batteries aren't even in the way, don't interfere with your luggage or anything. We add batteries and we add the ability to optionally plug into the grid, to the power grid. And what that means is that you're starting to substitute some of the gasoline, which is imported, dirty fuel, for domestic electricity, which is cleaner than gasoline and can be much cleaner, depending on the power of the grid.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Mr. KRAMER: So you get two benefits. And in terms of this program today, there's an enormous benefit in terms of the long-term transition to a carbon-free economy, because while--out here in California half of our greenhouse gas emissions come from transportation.

FLATOW: So you would allow--that would basically, I mean, allow me to drive my Prius--What?--30, 40, 50 miles, which is probably the average amount people drive on their batteries--drive totally on their battery, come home and plug it in.

Mr. KRAMER: That's essentially right. Your daily commute would be all electric, although with the Prius, because of the way it's designed, at higher speeds the engine goes on. So in later vehicles and in vehicles that car companies will design--which is what our goal is; we're not interested, really, in providing kits. We're interested in getting people excited about these cars and understanding there's this technology out there. In those cars, if you had a battery that had a 30-mile capability and your daily commute was 20 miles, like most people, you would drive every day and you'd come back and you'd plug it in with no more effort, really, than plugging in your cell phone, and then the next day you'd basically be leaving your garage with a full tank--in this case, a full battery. You'd go out and drive that day and you'd come back. If you go somewhere else and it's not convenient--it's a 110 plug. It's not a fancy plug and the charge is on board, but if you don't plug it in one day, the only downside is that now you're back to driving a great, clean hybrid car.

So what we have done is we have the best of two worlds. It's an all-electric vehicle, but it has the unlimited range of a hybrid. So the main objection that people had to electric vehicles disappears.

FLATOW: Do European Priuses already have an option like that, or is it...

Mr. KRAMER: Well, actually, that's very interesting, because it turns out that in Europe and Asia, there's a little button to the left of the steering wheel which is marked `EV,' and it gives you about a mile or two of electric-only range at low speeds if the battery is full. And that button doesn't appear in the United States, and people have speculated about why, but at the same time, Toyota is pouring millions of dollars into a campaign saying, `You don't have to plug it in.' And I understand why they're doing that; because people are confused about what a hybrid is. But our counterpoint to that is, `You get to plug it in.' And if you do, you get some major benefits.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And how difficult is it to do this? And two, are you voiding your Toyota warranty if you put this kit in?

Mr. KRAMER: There is actually a company that can--that will sell you a little kit to enable the EV button. It really is not very complicated. Anybody with a little bit of soldering experience could do it. The larger job, the batteries and the grid and so forth, that's a big job, and that's why we, as a non-profit, are not going to be doing it. We're expecting to cooperate with for-profit companies that will provide these kits sometime next year.

As far as the warranty, that's really up to Toyota. They've said that this will void the warranty. It's not clear whether that would void the warranty on the whole car, on the brakes and so forth, or simply on the components. And that's another reason why we think the early adopters, the high-profile people who we think will have these kits first, are going to be people who can afford to take that risk and could afford to be involved in a publicity issue with Toyota. Because we're doing this not for a little game or anything; we're doing this because we believe that plug-in hybrids, or gas-optional hybrids, GOHEVs, we call them--they're the future of the whole car industry. Because if you start with this kind of technology and you substitute for the electricity, then you've got a long ways to go.

But about a month ago, Newsweek's international editor, Fareed Zakaria, was talking about 500-mile-per-gallon cars. And the reason he was saying that is that first you substitute for electricity, and if you can clean the grid up, then the electricity becomes cleaner. And then second, on the other side of it, you can go to diesel, you can go to bio diesel, you can go to cellulose ethanol--you can go to carbon-neutral fuels for the range extension. At that point, you essentially have a 500-miles-per-gallon vehicle, and it's not overstating the case.

FLATOW: And so on your modified Prius, you add extra batteries?

Mr. KRAMER: Yes.

FLATOW: And are they, you know, the lead acid? Are they a special kind of battery? And...

Mr. KRAMER: So far there are two kinds. The first one we built just to prove it all out; used very cheap, indestructible bike batteries, lead acid, about a 10-mile range, and we proved it all out and we actually proved that, even though the electrical components are designed to work only at low speeds, they contribute real benefits at all speeds. And that was a key moment.

Then a Southern California company, Energy CS, they did a much more professional job and they used cutting-edge lithium ion batteries. And they--these are the kind of batteries that are in our wristwatches--not wristwatches; phones and...

FLATOW: Right.

Mr. KRAMER: ...cameras. And they're new and they're getting a 30-mile range.

FLATOW: Wow. 1 (800) 989-8255. Doug in Boston. Hi, Douglas.

DOUG (Caller): Hi. My question is the source of the energy for hybrids is still fossil fuels, is it not? Because the energy that you have to produce the electricity that you plug it in is going to be produced by some...

FLATOW: Coal-powered plant or something. Yeah.

DOUG: Coal-powered plant or something.

FLATOW: Felix? No?

DOUG: Is it really a savings in emissions?

Mr. KRAMER: A large savings. First of all, the existing Prius, even though people call it an electric-gasoline hybrid--all the power for the car comes from gasoline. It's actually more proper to think of it as a very efficient gasoline car that completely turns off at stoplights and captures the energy you would lose from regenerative braking. That's all a hybrid is. When you add the grid to it, then you open up a whole new world. And people say that electric vehicles are the only vehicles that can get cleaner as they get older, because the grid can get cleaner. And if you actually do a apples-to-apples comparison of a gasoline vehicle, using what the industry calls well-to-wheels emissions--that means all the way from extracting the fuel source, whatever it is, all the way to the tailpipe and the wheels--an electric vehicle on the national grid, which is 50 percent coal, is cleaner than a gasoline vehicle.

FLATOW: Hm. What about the other hybrids? We're seeing new hybrids come on all the time from different car makers.

Mr. KRAMER: Well, that's really interesting. Toyota's Hybrid Synergy Drive that is going into the Lexus and the Highlander is essentially the same technology as in the Prius, and we believe that those cars can be converted in the same way. And we also, more importantly, perhaps, believe that Toyota and other hybrid companies could convert them. And what we're actually saying is that some car company--maybe it's not Toyota; it may be another company--could jump ahead of everybody else to this next solution, and it's a way to save a car company or revive it by getting people excited about cleaner, more powerful cars.

FLATOW: Maybe GM is listening.

Mr. KRAMER: I hope so. I hope someone is. We're talking--we're not talking to the car companies yet, but...


Mr. KRAMER: ...we're trying to get people excited about this technology.

FLATOW: I saw an article on the Web that said that the US Army may be converting some of their Humvees.

Mr. KRAMER: The Army, interestingly enough, has an enormous interest in this. I've seen numbers that say that the cost to deliver a gallon of diesel fuel to the battlefield is between 70 and $700. So that's one issue. The second issue is the Army needs power out there, and if it can have power from a parked vehicle that isn't producing any heat and, therefore, isn't a heat target--they're up in all sorts of ways. So they actually have a Humvee under development.

FLATOW: And you just hope--so, in effect, you're trying to show that this can be done cheaply and easily.

Mr. KRAMER: Yeah. Hopefully...

FLATOW: And hopefully other people will jump on the bandwagon.

Mr. KRAMER: We think the car companies could build plug-in hybrids for 2 or $3,000 more than hybrids, and over the lifetime of the vehicle, that would be a net positive. If we build it, you'll never pay back the cost of it.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. 1 (800) 989-8255 is our number. Let's go to Andrew in Berkeley. Hi, Andrew.

ANDREW (Caller): Hi. How're you doing?

FLATOW: Hi. Go ahead.

ANDREW: I actually just bought a new Honda Civic hybrid, and I was wondering if there was going to be any modifications available for that.

Mr. KRAMER: It's a little harder on the Hondas, because whenever the electric motor is on, the gasoline engine is on as well. So they've developed a different system. They don't have this electric-only mode. Makes it harder. It's not inconceivable, but we're not at all focusing on that. The Escape is possible...

FLATOW: All right.

Mr. KRAMER: ...the Ford Escape.

FLATOW: Thanks for calling. Let's go to--is it David in Portland? Hi, David.

DAVID (Caller): Hi there.

FLATOW: Hi. Quickly.

DAVID: I've got two Gem cars that I use for pizza delivery out here in Portland, Oregon, and I just got a letter yesterday from my insurance company saying that they won't insure the cars anymore. And there's a difficulty when you move outside the box. There's not the infrastructure that goes along with it. You know, the insurance companies--I've called pretty much all of them, and no one will touch, commercially, my electric cars out here for pizza delivery.

FLATOW: Well, tell us what that car is.

DAVID: It's similar in size to a golf cart, but it's got a hood, lights, windshield wipers, seat belts, and you plug it in. It's not--it's pure electric. And it's classified as a low-speed vehicle. And you...

Mr. KRAMER: It's a neighborhood.

DAVID: It's for neighborhoods.


DAVID: It's the perfect application, what I'm using it for, because it's--pizza deliveries are basically a mile or two miles...

FLATOW: Right.

DAVID: ...and that's exactly when combustion engines are the most polluting.

FLATOW: OK, hang on. Let me get an answer, but first...

DAVID: Yeah.

FLATOW: ...remind everybody that I'm Ira Flatow and this is TALK OF THE NATION/SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.

Mr. KRAMER: That's a neighborhood electric vehicle, and the Gem company was bought by DaimlerChrysler, and I'm really surprised that you would have trouble. I think people should be asking DaimlerChrysler for some help on that. And that's a fine, pure electric vehicle for low speeds. Our focus is on mainstream vehicles. One of the big strengths of hybrids is that the car companies can say to people, `You can just drive this like a regular car.' And we expect that plug-in hybrids will be the same thing. You just drive it like a regular car. Don't think about anything. You've got this unlimited range. You plug it in at night. You don't worry about plugging it at lunchtime or whether you're going to run out of juice on the road somewhere, and you may not even need any special dials other than an indicator and, you know--a small indicator.

FLATOW: Well, will the kids be available anywhere on the East Coast, too?

Mr. KRAMER: That's all to be determined. The--at least one company is interested in doing it and spreading it all over, but they're going to start conservatively and slowly and then expand from there. If people get as excited as we hope about this, we think--I've already had dozens of people write me since articles in The New York Times and BusinessWeek. They contact and they say, you know, `We want to be your regional representatives. We want to help build this. We want to help sell these cars.' People are really waiting for something, and this--you know, in the context of today's hour, people need something that helps--that gives them something to do. And we think that plug-in hybrids are just a really key component of a whole larger vision. If you had zero-emission vehicles that are powered by a grid that's powered by solar and wind, and the biofuel at that point, you've just gotten a whole part of the economy off carbon.

FLATOW: And how much potential do you think there is for miles per gallon? I mean, batterywise--you put extra batteries in, how many--could you get a hundred miles per gallon, or more than that?

Mr. KRAMER: Over a hundred.

FLATOW: Over a hundred.

Mr. KRAMER: Yeah. Plus the cost of electricity--let's not forget that.

FLATOW: Right.

Mr. KRAMER: But still...

FLATOW: And you would just have to plug it in overnight? That would be fast enough?

Mr. KRAMER: That's right.

FLATOW: And you wouldn't--you know, because, as you say, the car companies are so fearful of saying--they've spent millions of dollars saying, `This is not a plug-in car,' and now you've just said, `Yes, it is.'

Mr. KRAMER: Well, maybe this the role of grassroots people sometimes, to say, `Wake up.' The buyers here have some wisdom. There's actually 10,000 Prius owners who are online in user groups and discussion areas, and they talk to each other constantly about what they love about their cars, and they're actually turning into a market force. And the car companies watch those groups and they get information from them. And we come out of that environment of engineers and active buyers and motivated people who say, `Why should just the government and car companies decide what kind of cars are produced in America? How about listening to some other people, notably car owners and citizens as a whole?' You know, in political terms, the problem with hybrids is that the benefits--some of the benefits go to the individual, but the larger part of the benefits go to society as a whole. So how's that going to be compensated?

FLATOW: How--why can't I get your kit and take it to my local mechanic and say, `Can you figure out'--or with adequate instructions--`how to put it in my car?'

Mr. KRAMER: Well, you'd have to have a good source of batteries and you'd have to have some of the electronics and so forth. And so, you know, our expectation is that this is--when--we call it a kit; we mean an installed kit, meaning you drive in one day, and then you drive out the next day with everything installed, and you have a warranty for the additional components from the installer. And so--and that's a possibility that can be franchised or licensed nationally and internationally.

FLATOW: And let's say there are car dealers or there are mechanics who are listening to us and they say, `I'd like to be a distributor for that kit' or `I'd like to be the installer.' How do they become one?

Mr. KRAMER: Well, I would say, at the moment, sit tight. Get on the newsletter to get the latest information, and then when we're a little further along you can contact us or the people who are working with us on this. And I would say, you know, our goal is to have the car companies put us out of business. We would love people to come up with even better solutions than we have, and most of all, we would love at least one car company to deliver an SUV and a sedan that are plug-in hybrids. Actually, DaimlerChrysler has finally embarked on the first prototype development program, where they're doing 15-passenger vans, the first plug-in hybrids by a major auto maker.

FLATOW: All right. All right. We're going to have to keep following you, Felix. Thanks for taking time to talk with us.

Mr. KRAMER: Thanks so much.

FLATOW: Felix Kramer, founder of the California Cars Initiative in Palo Alto, California.


FLATOW: Surf over to our Web site at, where you can find free curricula. Press on the Teachers button; you get free teaching materials we make with SCIENCE FRIDAY. Also, you can download and Podcast, now, SCIENCE FRIDAY. Download it also to your Audible player or listen on RealAudio. And if you want more information about what we've talked about and didn't have your pencil sharp, it's all there.

I'm Ira Flatow in New York.

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