PLUG OK license plate
NYTimes Auto Section on Electro Energy/CalCars PRIUS+
Mar 31, 2006 (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.
Want more? Become a subscriber to CalCars-News:

Here's a sneak preview of an article about the Electro Energy/CalCars PRIUS+ that's in late stages of development using industry-standard Nickel-Metal Hybrid batteries (see October 2005 announcement­group/­calcars-news/­message/­175). The article will be in the free-standing Autos section of The Sunday New York Times in the NY Metro area; in the back of the Sports section in the national edition (that's because people care most about sports, then about cars).

This story appears as a sidebar to a longer story comparing the new Camry and Accord hybrids, both written by Jim Motavalli (editor of E The Environmental Magazine and author in 2001 of "Forward Drive: The Race to Build 'Clean' Cars for the Future." We've included that article below as well. Motavalli wanted to talk about what's beyond the current generation of hybrids, so we agreed to show him the only plug-in hybrid in the NY metro area, even though it was not yet ready for prime time. As he points out, the engineering of a conversion is not trivial, and we have to live within limitations that will not exist when car companies do it on their own! We have the car working, but are still debugging.

Look for a new version of our Conversions Fact Sheet (previously called PRIUS+ Fact Sheet when we were the only ones doing conversions), including technical data on this car, and at­conversions-factsheet.pdf or at­downloads.html.­preview/­2006/­04/­02/­automobiles/­1125003312529.html?8tpf&emc=tpf
The Quest for a Plugged-In Prius
Published: April 2, 2006
CAPTION: James Landi, left, and Chris Jaeger
reprogramming a Prius to run less on gas.

JAMES LANDI, engineering manager at Electro Energy, rolled back the trunk carpet in his company's modified Toyota Prius to reveal two accessories you won't find on a production version of the hybrid car: a plug-in battery charger and a larger-than-stock battery pack capable of storing six kilowatt-hours of electricity.

You can't plug in a regular Prius, of course, or any other hybrid on the market. But even six years after hybrids went on sale, the plug-in misconception is common.

To confuse consumers even more, here come hybrids that can be plugged in. Developed by small companies like Electro Energy, Hymotion and EDrive Systems, they are usually based on the Prius and exploit that car's ability to run solely on battery power. While a stock Prius can go only a couple of miles on batteries, larger (or auxiliary) battery packs let plug-in versions stretch their all-electric range to 20 miles or more.

Automakers are wary of the added weight, cost and complexity, but they are willing to listen, because a hybrid that could complete short commutes on its battery charge alone could achieve the equivalent of more than 100 m.p.g.

Electro Energy, a battery company here, developed its Prius prototype in partnership with a nonprofit group, the California Cars Initiative (, founded by a plug-in enthusiast, Felix Kramer. "For us, conversions are a strategy," he said. "They're designed to get people excited about what the engineers can do."

Plug-in hybrids are gaining attention from market-building campaigns by the likes of Plug-In Partners, an umbrella organization of utilities, environmental groups and local governments that is pressuring automakers to make such cars. "Plug-in hybrids are totally available and ready to be manufactured," said Jennifer Krill, zero emissions campaign director for the Rainforest Action Network.

But automakers are less enthusiastic. "We think plug-in hybrids are an interesting concept, but the batteries aren't ready," said David Hermance, Toyota's executive engineer for advanced technology vehicles.

Countering that assertion is Dr. Andrew Frank, a mechanical engineering professor at the University of California, Davis, who has built several plug-in hybrid prototypes with his students. He says such a car can travel 60 miles on electric power alone, using a 350-pound lithium-ion battery pack that is currently available and would last, he says, 150,000 miles.

Toyota may have built plug-in hybrids on its own, but it isn't showing them. Nor has it cooperated with companies like Electro Energy that use the Prius as a base. That poses a big problem for engineers who, in effect, have to work around a sophisticated computer that wants to switch on the car's gas engine. "You're limited to what you can do if you don't have the source code," Mr. Hermance of Toyota conceded. "You have to try and trick the computer."

Electro Energy's Prius incorporates a charge circuit designed to do just that - to fool the computer into staying in all-electric mode. Unfortunately, in a test drive around Danbury, the circuit refused to engage. A quick pit stop revealed that the pressure switch connector had fallen off, prompting quick remedial action.

Back on the road, the all-electric mode engaged but repeatedly failed after a few seconds, forcing the engineers to conclude that it was being defeated by a combination of steep road grades and state-of-charge factors.

The team, with this writer at the wheel, managed three or four miles in all-electric mode, but any Prius owner could go half that far by moving slowly and avoiding hills.

A plug-in hybrid designed by an auto manufacturer would obviously have many advantages, starting with a properly programmed computer. All the Prius prototypes switch on their gasoline engines at 35 m.p.h., simply because defeating that function would require hacking the onboard computer and rewriting crucial lines of code. If any hybrid carmaker allows itself to be wooed and won over by the plug-in advocates, that problem will disappear on the honeymoon.­preview/­2006/­04/­02/­automobiles/­1125003312550.html?8tpf&emc=tpf

The New York Times
April 2, 2006
Behind the Wheel
Honda Accord and Toyota Camry: Hybrids for Ozzie and Harriet

RELIABLE, practical and popular, the Honda Accord and Toyota Camry are as mainstream as white bread and as exciting as mom's meatloaf. But hybrid technology has transformed versions of these family cars from conservative appliances into cutting-edge green machines.

Having redesigned the Camry for 2007, Toyota joins Honda in offering a midsize sedan with a hybrid gas-electric powertrain. Honda, meanwhile, has freshened and mildly restyled its Accords, including the hybrid.

While both cars wear hybrid labels, Toyota's approach is markedly different.

The Accord was the first hybrid built around a V-6 gasoline engine, and it has emphasized performance over economy - as have the Toyota Highlander Hybrid and Lexus RX 400h that came later, also with V-6's. But in the Camry Hybrid, Toyota uses a four-cylinder engine, which it paired with an electric motor more powerful than Honda's. The Camry can be expected to attain significantly higher mileage, especially in city traffic.

The Accord Hybrid arrived in late 2004. While it carried a fuel economy rating of 29 m.p.g. in town and 37 on the highway - respectable but hardly breathtaking - it was also quicker than the conventional Accord with a V-6. The hybrid's 3-liter engine produced 240 horsepower, plus 16 from the electric motor. (The horsepower figure has since been revised to a total of 253 because of a shift in how the number is calculated.) Half of the cylinders shut down when power demand is low (below 3,500 rpm), turning the 6 into a 3.

At a price of $29,990, the original Accord Hybrid cost some $3,500 more than the similarly equipped EX V-6 model. It lacked both a spare tire - there was an air compressor and a can of sealant instead - and a sunroof, both sacrificed to save weight. While Honda expected to sell 20,000 a year, cumulative 15-month sales through February totaled just 19,021.

For 2006, the improved Accord Hybrid added the moonroof and a temporary spare - and gained 85 pounds. That pushed the car into a higher weight class for E.P.A. testing and reduced the mileage rating to 25/34. In the real world, an owner is unlikely to notice the drop, since new underbody panels make the car more aerodynamic.

Other additions include a standard electronic stability control, L.E.D. taillights, a rear spoiler, new alloy wheels and heated outside mirrors with built-in turn signals. The price is now $31,540 including shipping - or $33,540 with a navigation system.

The Accord Hybrid uses its small electric motor mostly for added boost, but the Camry actually runs on batteries alone at low speeds. Toyota's approach is different in other ways, too. Instead of a sizable V-6, it has a 2.4-liter 4-cylinder engine rated at 147 horsepower. But the Camry's electric motor contributes more than the Accord's.

The Camry reaches 60 m.p.h. in 8.9 seconds, a decent showing that nonetheless pales before the zippy Accord's 6.9 seconds.

Last week, Toyota announced that Camry Hybrid prices would start at $26,480, giving the car a $5,000 edge over the Accord.

The Accord comes loaded - a navigation system is one of the few options - and the Camry Hybrid is nearly as well equipped as the similarly priced top-of-the-line XLE, from its Bluetooth-compatible audio system (which includes a six-CD changer and can also play your MP3 files and dock your iPod) to its dual-zone climate control. The Accord throws in the sunroof and leather upholstery. The Camry counters with a split folding rear seat - a neat trick, considering how much of the trunk was sacrificed to accommodate the battery pack (30 percent, versus 18 percent in the Accord).

The Camry's economy edge is significant, with an E.P.A. rating of 40 m.p.g. in the city and 38 on the highway. According to the trip computer, my performance varied: I drove the Camry 269 mostly highway miles, achieving a "personal best" of 39.3 m.p.g. and an average of 31.7. By happenstance, I was the first journalist in the Northeast to drive both the Camry Hybrid and the freshened Accord Hybrid. The Accord test car came with only 125 miles on the odometer, and that may account for my poor indicated mileage: in 192 miles of mixed driving, I averaged 20.8 m.p.g. On a second tank of gas, it did much better, achieving 28 m.p.g.

While Honda's Integrated Motor Assist system emphasizes performance, Toyota's Hybrid Synergy Drive stresses economy. Yet on the road, the cars are not as different as those labels might indicate.

The Accord is moderately luxurious inside. A green "Eco" light indicates economy of 25 m.p.g. or more, usually a sign that three cylinders have shut down. The Honda's acceleration edge is obvious, and the extra power will bring out your inner Mario Andretti. The switch from six to three cylinders and back is nearly imperceptible; the slightly rougher engine note is, in fact, masked by the Accord's ingenious noise-canceling technology and "active" engine mounts, which anticipate and counter vibration.

The Honda's ride is stiffer, which should help it handle the extra power. Big bumps can jar its composure.

The Camry handles better than the Accord, with pin-sharp, well-weighted steering and a suspension that absorbs rough terrain without allowing much body lean. It also has slightly more rear leg and shoulder room.

While the Camry feels spacious, it is smaller in some measures of headroom, legroom and cargo volume than the less expensive Prius.

Both the Camry and Accord are emissions champs, scoring as AT-PZEV's ("advanced technology partial zero emission vehicles") under California's arcane rating system. The only cars that are cleaner are those that run on batteries alone.

Toyota also has an edge in styling with the fresher, sleeker look it shares with all '07 Camrys.

Toyota really wants you to know you're in a hybrid. A huge real-time fuel consumption gauge sits where you'd expect a tachometer to be. Set into the speedometer is a graphic display, carried over from the Prius, in which arrows show whether the car is running on its gas engine, its electric motor or both.

An "Eco" button uses several subterfuges, like limiting energy used by the air-conditioner, to enable greater use of the "auto stop" feature that shuts off the gas engine at stoplights.

The Camry that I drove was a preproduction car that came with a note stating that it might not meet factory standards. So my 9-year-old took it in stride when an inside door handle came off in her hands.

But even with parts falling off, the Camry won handily over the Accord, in my view. Still, both are good cars. Are they also good values when compared with conventional vehicles?

Consumer Reports dropped a bomb in its April auto issue by predicting that none of the six hybrids it tested would recover their price premiums within five years of ownership. The magazine did not test the Camry Hybrid, but said the Accord Hybrid would cost a whopping $10,250 more to own over five years than a comparable EX model, and the Prius would cost $5,250 more to own than a Corolla LE.

A few days after the magazine reached subscribers, however, the editors announced that they had overstated the hybrids' depreciation costs, and they revised the figures. Now, provided the Prius could qualify for federal tax credits, the magazine said it would actually save its owner $406 over five years. The Accord owner would still be in the hole, but for $4,263 instead of $10,250.

Copyright 2003-09 California Cars Initiative, an activity of the International Humanities Center | Site Map