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The 100-mpg car is coming = highest-ranked story at
Jul 20, 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.
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This roundup devotes most of its attention to that endlessly intriguing and frustrating question: how and when can individuals get PHEVs? (We keep a short summary of the options updated at­howtoget.html). Interestingly, MSN asks its readers to rate articles, and about 12 hours after being posted, at 4.08 out of 5, this article is #1 on the list at­Commentary/­ByRating/­TopRated.aspx. (Though as a new entry, it has only 294 users compared to 6,782 for the next-highest story at 3.51 of 5. The site takes the elementary anti-ballot-box stuffing step of preventing any individual from voting twice.) News and Op-Eds on PHEVs and CalCars have been among the "most emailed" repeatedly at The New York Times.­SavingandDebt/­SaveonaCar/­The100mpgCarIsComing.aspx MSN Money July 19, 2006 The 100-mpg car is coming

In fact, for some shade-tree mechanics, it's already here. But now big automakers have announced plans to soup up their hybrids, too.

Toyota said Tuesday said it would offer a gasoline-electric hybrid with bigger batteries that could be recharged at any outlet, further stretching the gasoline the car uses. Though production is years away, experimental models built by independent mechanics have already demonstrated 100 mpg results.

"Make no mistake about it, hybrids are the technology of the future, and they will play a starring role in the automotive industry in the 21st century," Jim Press, president of Toyota's North American subsidiary, told the National Press Club.

Even though the addition of bigger trucks and sport-utilities has brought its corporate average fuel economy down from 26 mpg in 1987 to 24 mpg today, according to EPA figures released this week, Toyota is the undisputed leader in hybrid technology. Press said Toyota has "sold more U.S. hybrids so far this year than Cadillac, Buick or Mercedes-Benz has sold cars."

The company's Prius model is the best-selling hybrid model in the U.S., with 73% of the small but rapidly growing market it shares with Honda and Ford. Daimler-Chrysler and GM are experimenting with plug-in hybrids as well. But in this case, all are merely following the lead of dozens of backyard tinkerers. Available now, if you do it yourself Though the 100 mpg car sounds like a myth, it turns out that such vehicles do exist -- only they're built in your neighbor's garage, not a giant production plant.

Known as plug-in hybrid-electric vehicles (aka PHEVs, or grid-connected hybrids), they're basically Priuses or similar hybrids that have been equipped with extra batteries so that they rarely use their gasoline engines at all. They get plugged into a wall socket at day's end.

Here's the rub, though: Transforming your Prius or other hybrid into one of these gas-sipping wonders is no simple feat. Nor is it cheap. And buying a brand-new plug-in off a showroom floor? Impossible, at least for now.

"People are salivating for plug-ins," says Bradley Berman, editor of the site "Once you start driving a hybrid -- and now we're only about a year and a half from having a million hybrids on U.S. roads -- and you start realizing all of the benefits, and start to experience the silence of the all-electric mode. ... You want to extend that. And that's what plug-ins represent."

How it works A hybrid vehicle today like a Prius has both a gasoline engine and a battery, which is fed by the braking energy produced by the car. The car doesn't get plugged in -- in fact, it can't be plugged in.

A plug-in hybrid keeps those components, but essentially gets an extra fuel tank, in the form of an added battery bank (plus some changes to accommodate it.) that allows the car to run exclusively off battery power for most driving. We're not talking big distances gained here -- a range of up to about 30 miles at slower, city speeds, depending on the batteries used. That may not sound like much. But "there have been numerous studies that peg the average American driver's daily vehicle use at between 25 and 30 miles," says Pete Nortman, president of EnergyCS, one of just a few companies that's at work on plug-in conversion kits.

A plug-in hybrid doesn't sloooow down when its charge runs low. (That wouldn't be a very useful car, would it?) Instead, the vehicle simply slips into its hybrid mode, using both gasoline and electricity. And it does all of this automatically; the driver never notices.

The benefits of a plug-in Felix Kramer, founder of the California Cars Initiative, a nonprofit group that promotes the use of high-efficiency, low-emission cars, owns the first consumer plug-in in North America - a Prius equipped with high-end, lithium-ion batteries.

Not surprisingly, he loves it. "Many days I use no gasoline, because I go at neighborhood speeds for under 30 miles, and I'm just all-electric all day," he says. "And that means it's quiet.

"I resent when the gasoline engine comes on," Kramer adds. At speeds over 34 mph in the Toyota, the gasoline engine kicks in. Even so, "At 55 mph, 60% to 70% of the power can come from electricity," he says, so the machine is still saving gas.

And the mileage? "At highway speeds, you can easily get over 100 mpg, plus electricity." Other plug-in owners offer up similar results.

"I used to fill up every 400 miles or so," he says of life with a regular Prius, "and now I fill up every 800 miles or so." His car is emblazoned with the words "100+MPG." "I have a lot of conversations at the gas station," he says.

Since they're usually plugged in at night, when electricity rates are lowest, advocates estimate that it costs less than $1 per gallon to replenish a plug-in hybrid. If gasoline costs $3 a gallon, driving most gasoline cars costs roughly 8 to 20 cents per mile, CalCars estimates. The cost of a plug-in hybrid for local travel and commuting drops to 2 to 4 cents per mile, the group says.

And as for pollution, proponents of plug-ins also say that even with a national power grid that's fueled in great part by coal, plug-ins are still better for the environment than straight gasoline cars.

The downsides Intrigued? You should also know that there are some drawbacks right now, too.

1. First, you've got to buy a hybrid. Transforming your old TransAm isn't an option. You'll pay a premium for hybrid technology, of course, and there are sometimes waiting lists for cars like the Prius and Camry Hybrid. (A Prius is the main conversion car.)

2. Then you've got to violate the warranty. "In order to get a plug-in now you have to basically void your warranty," says's Berman. Manufacturers say plug-in modifications nullify the powertrain warranty, so owners take a considerable risk.

3. The conversion isn't cheap. It costs anywhere from about $3,000 to around $12,000 to convert a vehicle.

4. And you've got to do it yourself. With the considerable attention plug-ins are getting, it's easy to forget that there are only about two dozen now in use. "There are plenty of plain ordinary citizens wanting to do it; there's no one to do it for them, yet," says Steven Lough, president of the Seattle Electric Vehicle Association.

Want to be first on your block? If you want to be first on your block to boast a PHEV, it will take some perseverance, patience and some coin. Your options:

The Option: Toronto-based Hymotion, is the for-profit operation that's closest to bringing a "conversion kit" to market. The kit, whose main component is a 150-pound, 16-inch-by-33-inch box of lithium-ion batteries that fits in place of the spare tire, will be able to be fitted to either a Prius or a Ford Escape Hybrid in less than two hours, says co-founder and President Ricardo Bazzarella. The company is working on converter kits for other hybrids, too.

Hymotion says its users will be able to drive 30 miles in full electric mode if they are driving under 50mph. The vehicle simply reverts to its hybrid properties when that charge expires, says Bazzarella.

When Available: "We're shipping product right now to fleets," says Bazzarella. "We're shooting for October" to have something available for consumer use, he says. "There are a lot of people who have already put their names on the list," Bazzarella adds. "When gas prices get high, people call."

Cost: The company's goal is to get the product to $9,500, installed, for the consumer.

The Option: Keep an eye on a Monrovia, Calif.'s EnergyCS and its offshoot, EDrive Systems, The technology is similar to Hymotion's, a lithium-ion battery pack that boosts the range of existing hybrids. President Pete Nortman says the product could deliver about 30 miles of all-electric driving at low, around-town speeds. "It's a commuter vehicle," he says. And even if a driver exceeds the speed that electricity can supply on its own, the booster battery is always helping, so "No matter how fast you're going, it's always working to use the least amount of energy to go a mile." If driven carefully, a vehicle could get far beyond 100 mpg.

When Available: The company had hoped to have something available this year, but has since backed off on an exact date. "We are doing a lot of testing at this point and evaluation both on the battery side and with our prototype test fleet, which is 10 vehicles" in use by agencies such as California's South Coast Air Quality Management District, says Nortman.

Cost: Right now, the conversion would cost about $12,000. "The battery is by far the large cost driver," says Nortman. "Battery costs will go down significantly with increasing volumes."

"At $3 a gallon you're not going to pay for the cost of the battery in your car's lifetime," Nortman concedes. "But it's a different-feeling car," he adds of the "stealth{" electric ride. "It's a choice for the earliest adopters, people who aren't going to wait five to 10 years for an (automaker) to do something, but they want to make a statement today, and they want to start making a difference now."

The Option: Feeling handy? You could tackle a do-it-yourself conversion - with a little help from your friends at your local electric automobile club.

"If you're technically minded and familiar with high-voltage systems and not worried about the warranty being voided, then you should be perfectly capable of doing a conversion yourself," says Ryan Fulcher, a 30-year-old, self-described "high-tech hippie" from Federal Way, Wash., who as of this spring is proud owner of a plug-in Prius. "We're all using off-the-shelf components."

CalCars founder Kramer adds, "Any Prius owner who has no technical knowledge needs to hook up with an engineer or electrician comfortable working with high voltage. Between the two of them they should be able to do this in a vacation week."

"Our do-it-yourself, open-source style is still in development," Kramer adds.

Those interested in tackling this pretty in-depth challenge should hook up with the Electric Auto Association, which has chapters in more than a dozen states and in Canada.

When Available: Available now, sort of. Components are available, and the knowhow -- but, curiously, almost no one is actually doing it.

Cost: For about $3,000, says Fulcher, owners who put in their own labor can install lead-acid batteries that give a car about a 10-mile electric-only charge, before the car's hybrid power takes over. Plug-in owner Fulcher is experimenting with a high-powered battery charger from a small company that can give those quick-draining batteries a full recharge from a wall outlet in about 30 minutes.

"Our goal is to have a $3,000 kit," CalCars' Kramer says. (That number, coincidentally, is also what many plug-in evangelists think that the technology would cost for Toyota to add to its hybrids.)

Christopher Solomon is a free-lance writer in Seattle. A former reporter for The Seattle Times, he writes regularly for The New York Times, and has written for Outside magazine, Ski and Skiing magazines and Men's Journal. His work will appear in 2006 Best American Travel Writing.

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