PLUG OK license plate's PHEV Interviews with Andy Frank & Felix Kramer
Mar 21, 2007 (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:'s Consumer Advice Editor Philip Reed run's the giant automotive website's Fuel Economy area -- see­fueleconomy. From a three-part series on PHEVs. Here are the first two, giving a good update and background on PHEVs. Coming soon is an interview with a GM executive, Tony Posawatz, about the company's Volt and Saturn Vue Green Line PHEVs. Read them here or at the URLs, with photos.

Will GM Win the Great Plug-In Hybrid Race? Part I: The father of the plug-in hybrid has his doubts­advice/­fueleconomy/­articles/­119753/­article.html By Philip Reed Date Posted 03-13-2007

--Dr. Andrew Frank with a Chevrolet Equinox he has converted to a plug-in hybrid. Frank is director of future automotive technology for the University of California at Davis. (Photo by Philip Reed) --The legwork for this article was done in the Lexus RX 400h, a hybrid that gets about 26 mpg on the open road. A plug-in hybrid has a larger battery pack, usually using lithium-ion batteries, and is recharged using standard household current. (Photo by Philip Reed) --Plug-in hybrids, such as this Toyota Prius conversion, get up to 100 mpg by driving most of the time in all-electric mode. (Photo by Philip Reed) --GM is proposing using the Saturn Vue Green Line as a platform for the first plug-in hybrid. It would have a 10-mile all-electric range. (Photo by Eric de los Prados) --The Chevrolet Volt was shown as a concept car at the 2007 Detroit Auto Show. It would have a 40-mile range with a 1.0-liter gas- or ethanol-fueled engine. (Photo courtesy of General Motors Corporation)

I'm driving up the California coast to visit two key players in the plug-in hybrid electric vehicle (PHEV) world. Appropriately, I am making this trip in a hybrid vehicle, the Lexus RX 400h SUV. It's not a plug-in hybrid - which could be recharged by household electricity or an onboard gas engine - but at least it saves fuel and reduces emissions. On this 800-mile trip I'll average 26 mpg. Not bad. But if I was driving a plug-in hybrid I could be getting 100-plus mpg.

A week earlier, in the State of the Union address, President Bush told the nation that we need to achieve energy independence by, in part, developing PHEVs. GM has already taken an exciting step in that direction, a kind of one-two punch. Not only did GM announce its intention to bring the Saturn Vue Green Line to market as a plug-in hybrid, but it also said it would develop the sleek and very cool, second-generation PHEV, the Chevrolet Volt.

When I first heard GM's announcements, my patriotic spirit soared. "Yes! We can do it!" I thought, fist pumping like Tiger Woods. "Detroit is going to win the plug-in hybrid race!"

But then memories of GM's EV1 debacle flooded my mind. Those electric cars were aggressively pulled back by GM and crushed as depicted in the documentary Who Killed the Electric Car?. Was Detroit really serious about putting another electric car - a plug-in electric car, at that - in the hands of Americans? Or would GM talk big and, once again, let the Japanese steal its lunch money?

That's why I began this hybrid journey - to put these questions to three people knowledgeable in the PHEV field. Who better to start with than the inventor of the plug-in hybrid, Andy Frank, director of future automotive technology for the University of California at Davis. I am also planning to speak with Felix Kramer, founder of, an activist promoter of plug-in technology, and Tony Posawatz, vehicle line director for the Chevrolet Volt and Saturn Vue Green Line hybrids.

The inventor of the plug-in hybrid

While research into plug-in hybrids is going on at many different automakers, Frank is the one who actually holds a patent for this technology. He applied for this patent in 1998 and received it in 1999 - at least a year before the first hybrid hit the market. In his laboratory-turned-chop-shop, Frank and his students have converted nine ordinary cars into plug-in hybrids that have logged tens of thousands of real-world miles while saving gas. In one such conversion he took a Chevrolet Suburban, removed the V8, put in a four-cylinder Saturn engine and loaded it up with an electric motor and lithium-ion batteries. It runs like a hot rod and gets about 100 mpg, Frank said.

The auto shop where Frank works is littered with dismembered engines, transmissions and other car parts. A Chevrolet Equinox is up on a hoist and his students are hard at work converting it to be a plug-in. One student says to me, "We aren't trying to reinvent the wheel. We just want to reinvent the car."

Though Frank has strong opinions, he doesn't seem like he has an axe to grind. He is relaxed and friendly, with an easy laugh. We spoke as we toured his auto shop, and then later over a cup of coffee in a local restaurant.

You described yourself as a hot-rodder. In high school I put a V12 Cadillac engine in a '36 Ford Phaeton.

So in a way you're doing the same thing now. Taking out powertrains and putting in new ones. Sure. (Laughs) It's a lifetime profession. The most important thing is having fun.

How significant is this announcement that GM made about the Saturn Vue and the Chevrolet Volt? If they are really serious, it's very significant. I'm not convinced about their seriousness yet. The Saturn Vue is probably more serious than the Chevy Volt. They've been forced by people like Felix [Kramer] and EnergyCS [a plug-in hybrid conversion company] to offer cars with a larger battery pack.

What are the chances that the Saturn Vue will come to market as a plug-in hybrid? My view is that they might just offer it [plug-in capability] as an option. And there's nothing wrong with that. But if you look at the advertising they aren't going to offer it with more than a 10-mile range.

Basically, when you increase the battery pack you are increasing the weight of the car. And you are increasing the weight balance of the car, if you design the car correctly. As you change the weight balance of the car you really should change the suspension, and they don't want to do that. It's too expensive. So if you keep the all-electric range to about 10 miles you can get away with keeping it the way it is.

If you had a plug-in hybrid with an all-electric range of 10 miles, would that be useful to people? My calculations show that a 10-mile range would save you about 30 percent of the gasoline over a regular hybrid. Emissions would go down as well. But you would be plugging in all the time. The whole objective of the plug-in hybrid is to offset the use of oil. The main objective we have in this country is to get off the oil diet as President Bush has said.

I hear people saying that plug-in hybrids can get 100 miles per gallon. Is that an accurate way to present their capabilities? Initially I didn't like that idea because it isn't really 100 mpg. It is ignoring something [in the calculation]. The way I like to explain it to people, you drive the first 60 miles all electrically and that's infinite miles per gallon. Then the gas engine kicks on and you go into "charge sustaining mode." That means you can drive from San Francisco to Washington, D.C. because you don't have [to plug back into the grid]. Really there should be two parameters in a plug-in hybrid. One is all-electric range and the other is the charge-sustaining fuel economy in miles per gallon. So if you use this way of measuring fuel economy, even the Chevy Suburban [converted by U.C. Davis to a plug-in hybrid] is getting about 100 mpg. And the Equinox [another U.C. Davis conversion] is getting about 200 miles per gallon. But [saying 100 miles per gallon] did get people's attention. And if you look at GM's Volt announcement they talk about getting 150 miles per gallon.

You took out a patent in 1999 for the plug-in hybrid. Are you the inventor of the plug-in hybrid? Yes. So to speak. People have called me the father of the plug-in hybrid. Maybe that's an appropriate term. Some people have said every hybrid is really a plug-in hybrid because you have to charge the batteries somewhere. But it's a little more complicated than that. The objective is to build a car that is really automatic, where a person only has to plug it in, just like your cell phone. Then, when you drive, the car automatically takes care of using gas or using electricity. That is the essence of the patent. You want it so it is seamless, you don't know if you are running on electricity or gas.

Back in 1998 when you applied for the patent there were no hybrids in the marketplace. What was it that gave you the idea for the plug-in hybrid? In 1970 was the first gas crisis. I was a professor at the University of Wisconsin. I got to thinking about how to improve fuel economy. I did some calculations that showed that if you designed it correctly you could get 100 miles per gallon even in a big car. But you have to find a way to store energy. If you successfully managed all the energy in a car you could, conceptually, get 100 miles per gallon. That was my objective. I built a hybrid car using all lead-acid batteries. And I quickly found out that wasn't going to work.

Lead-acid batteries were all that was available back then. Right. So I used three Caterpillar tractor batteries, about 450 pound of batteries. (Laughs) So it was clear that there were a lot of technologies that needed to be developed. Batteries was one of them. The transmission was another of them. There were no CVTs, except in Europe, the Van Dorn. But they were less than desirable.

Is the work that you do here all research or are you working to bring about political change as well? I'm definitely trying to get the message out so I'll appear at the [California] Air Resources Board hearings. But I've appeared at the Air Resources Board so many times it almost sounds like I'm a broken record. Over the course of the last 10 years, because I've been adamant about moving toward using plug-in hybrids, people have begun to take notice. But one guy trying to move the world is kind of hard.

But a lot of things have happened in the last two years that might convince people it's time for a big change. We've had extreme gas spikes and a lot more attention being paid to global warming. I don't care what anyone says. Global warming is one of the more serious problems we have worldwide - this isn't limited to our country. I believe that we in the United States have an opportunity to show the rest of the world the way to go. And in a way, the plug-in hybrid is beginning to filter around the world.

Going back to GM's announcement, it could be the beneficiary of a lot of great publicity if it introduces a viable plug-in hybrid. GM got hit hard by the negative publicity from the movie Who Killed the Electric Car? But do you think it has learned from that experience? I think the announcement of the Chevy Volt is a direct result of Who Killed the Electric Car? They rushed that out. Knowing how the car companies work, there's all kinds of denial when it first comes out. But the guys at the top know what the heck's going on. They reacted. But the Volt was the platform for the old fuel-cell car. And the fuel-cell car is basically an electric car. So they replaced the fuel cell with a gas engine and - that's it. It was a quick and dirty way of taking the stuff they were doing [fuel-cell cars] - which isn't going to work anyway - and producing something that is going to get them a visual impact, some eye candy.

Is there anything technologically speaking that still needs to be proved about plug-in hybrid cars? I believe that GM is still not too serious about the whole plug-in hybrid business. And the reason I say that is because their transmission is basically a Toyota transmission, which means it is a transmission plus a transmission. It has two electric motors and two controls. So it's more expensive. In contrast, what we are building is a single motor and a single transmission, a CVT [continuously variable transmission]. So they aren't serious unless they look at what it takes to bring that cost down.

The technology we are developing will wind up with a transmission that is less than half the cost of any other hybrid and rival the cost of any other conventional transmission. The money we save in downsized engines and low-cost transmissions will offset the cost of the batteries.

Because lithium-ion batteries are expensive. Until the volumes get up they will always be expensive.

How much interaction do you have with the car companies? I've made presentations to GM and Ford. For example, I was just at Ford last January talking to their top executives. I made a presentation about plug-in hybrids and what they can do and the research that we're doing. The chief technology officer at Ford, after the presentation he said, "Well, Professor Frank, that's interesting. But what makes you think you have better technology than we have?" I said, "Why do you say that?" He said, "Look, you're only one guy and we have the best technology in the world. We hire people from MIT and Cal Tech. Why are you better than those guys?" What was I supposed to say? "You hired a bunch of dummies?" (Laughs)

Let's ask the most important question. Do you think that Detroit is basically uninterested in improving fuel economy in its cars? Fundamentally they are not. The reason why is that the cost of gasoline is not high enough. They believe they can still sell enough cars without making their product more fuel-efficient.

You don't seem bitter even though people attack you and don't listen to what you are doing. I get disappointed when car companies commit to a program and I find out that they're not sincere. The EV1 was an example of that. It performed great but if you didn't plan your trip you were in trouble. It was exactly the problem with a pure electric car. In that planning process you had to leave a lot of time for charging.

Part II: We go to San Mateo to talk with one of the leading advocates of plug-in hybrid technology, Felix Kramer, founder of and driver of a Prius plug-in.

Will GM Win the Great Plug-In Hybrid Race? Part II: Felix Kramer - political change and grassroots conversions By Philip Reed­advice/­fueleconomy/­articles/­119910/­article.html

--Converting a Prius to a plug-in in September 2004, starting with a low-cost lead-acid battery pack. Pictured are (left to right) Ron Gremban, Felix Kramer, Marc Geller, Kevin Lyons and Andrew Lawton. (Photo courtesy of --Maria Shriver at pre-inaugural "Leading the Green Dream" event with CalCars Founder Felix Kramer in Sacramento, California: January 2007. (Photo courtesy of --This display panel on a plug-in Prius shows that it went 1,034 miles on a tank of gas, averaging 107 mpg. (Photo courtesy of --Plug-in hybrids, such as this Toyota Prius conversion, get up to 100 mpg by driving most of the time in all-electric mode. (Photo by Philip Reed) --The legwork for this article was done in the Lexus RX 400h, a hybrid that gets about 26 mpg on the open road. A plug-in hybrid has a larger battery pack, usually using lithium-ion batteries, and is recharged using standard household current. (Photo by Philip Reed)

I'm in a coffee shop in San Mateo, California, waiting for plug-in hybrid advocate Felix Kramer, when my cell phone rings. He's outside and wants to know if I want to start by driving his modified plug-in Toyota Prius.

Behind the wheel, it is like any other Prius except the gas engine doesn't kick in. Eerily quiet, it's all-electric at speeds up to 35 mph, with a range of 25 miles. Kramer says when he drives locally, the gas engine doesn't come on at all. On the highway, for the first 100 miles, he gets 100 miles per gallon of gas. At night he plugs it in to a socket at his house to recharge.

Hmmm, let's think about that for a moment. No gas engine means no pollution from the tailpipe and no petro-dollars paid to foreign governments that hate us. And still, Kramer can get where he needs to go while carrying up to four passengers. Is this a preview of the future?

Kramer, founder of, hired EnergyCS to convert his 2004 Prius to a plug-in hybrid electric vehicle (PHEV). Now, the car is a rolling advertisement for plug-in technology. It has more stickers than a NASCAR racer. Plus, when he parks it he leaves a packet of flyers clipped to the side window with a sign inviting people to "Take One." You get the feeling that Kramer is on the job 24/7, trying to bring change to a world addicted to oil.

In fact, a feeling of change is already in the air. Our country's president, from an oil-rich family, has declared that we need to achieve energy independence and named plug-in technology as one road that will lead there. When GM announced development of not one, but two plug-in hybrids - the Chevrolet Volt and Saturn Vue Green Line hybrids, I began to feel something I hadn't experienced for a long time - hope. I was hopeful that good old U.S. homegrown technology would lead us out of the mess we've gotten ourselves into.

To learn more I borrowed our long-term test car, the Lexus RX 400h hybrid, and drove to Northern California, where I spoke with Dr. Andy Frank, the inventor of the modern plug-in hybrid, for Part I of this series. Today I'm speaking with Felix Kramer.

How significant was GM's announcement to build the Saturn Vue and the Chevy Volt? The combination [of the announcements] is seismic in the auto industry. It's the first time we have the largest automaker in the world saying our strategy is to move away from petroleum and electrify transportation. However they do it and however long it takes, that means everybody else in the auto industry now looks and says, "Maybe we need to do that, too."

What kind of pressure did CalCars put on GM to develop plug-in hybrids and do you think this made a difference? They've been watching what's been going on, and CalCars itself is only one of a lot of voices, and all those voices together - including Plug-In Partners, the legislators, the president talking with the automakers, seeing our [PHEV] cars on the road, newspaper articles and TV shows all over - I think that cumulatively has had a large effect on GM. And I think it resonated with people in the company [GM] who still dream about building cars they can feel good about.

Who have you been in contact with at GM and do you feel they are listening to you? We've met a number of their engineers and the people who are the interface between them and the world of sustainability and green businesses. We have good relationships with all those people. They've invited us to a number of their insider briefings and so forth. We haven't met Rick Wagoner but I hope to at some time.

How optimistic are you that the Vue will come to market? And when? I was really glad when they announced the two battery contractors and they said they would have prototypes this year. My biggest concern about GM remains the lack of a timetable. They should start now in getting good enough prototypes on the road and demonstration fleets on the road as soon as possible.

The Chevy Volt is a concept car. Do you think it will come to market? They say it is a concept car that is destined for production and I believe them.

Do you feel other automakers will see what GM is doing and follow suit? We have the first plug-in automotive race. GM is in the starting gate and the others are coming into the starting gate. First of all we have GM and Toyota both saying they want to be first. And that means by definition there is going to be a race. We have Ford saying they are keenly interested. We even have the biggest skeptic, Honda, saying they are evaluating plug-in hybrids now. And we have Malcolm Bricklin [who introduced Subaru to North America] saying he wants to do it in two years in China.

Is this the year when the plug-in breaks from the pack of alternative transportation options? I think there has been a major change of consciousness that began in '06 and will continue this year. The president talked about them in his State of the Union address. We're expecting a lot of activity on Capitol Hill. There were bills introduced last year but this year we think they will be passed. There is the DRIVE Act, a bipartisan and bicameral bill, which you usually don't see. They designed it that way so the president can sign it. I think there will be a lot of movement on that. And, if CalCars has the resources to do what we want to do, we will try to get GM to commit to production and commit to production fleets. And we hope to get more carmakers to do the same thing this year.

CalCars will soon be involved in converting hybrids to PHEVs. Can you describe this program and what you hope to accomplish with it? We are starting by doing four prototypes, two Priuses and two [Ford] Escape [Hybrids] with lithium-ion batteries. We expect to go from that, very rapidly, to a production program to hopefully do hundreds of vehicles of both types as soon as possible. We are doing this because there is a large unmet demand and we have worked closely with three aftermarket [plug-in hybrid] conversion companies. But it [the conversion process] has been too slow. The utilities and government agencies and the early adopters are jumping up and down and saying, "We want to try it, we want to experience it." So we want to meet that demand. So for us, conversion remains completely a strategy. The end point is to get carmakers to build plug-in hybrids. So we will build the prototypes at But then to do the production vehicles we will start a company or partner with an existing company. This will still be strategic to getting car companies to build them, rather than to building a car company.

Is there something technical you hope to prove by putting more prototype plug-in hybrids on the road? The more prototypes we put on the road, the more we'll learn what works and what doesn't. There are many ways to optimize plug-in hybrid designs, and carmakers can do the best job at all of that. But they can learn what people want from our experience. Plug-in hybrids are ideal for customization. For example, if you live on top of a mountain, you don't want to fully charge your car at night [because you can recharge on the way down the mountain in the morning via regenerative braking]. If your plug-in hybrid computer can talk to your navigation system and it knows how much energy is left, it can decide if you are close to your final destination for the day [and deplete the battery knowing it will soon be recharged from the power grid]. Innovation in the car industry is going to be about customization, and we'd love to do some of that.

What do you estimate it will cost an individual to convert their car to a plug-in hybrid? [NOTE FROM FELIX: The following describes the "Do-It-Yourself" program we're involved with at distinct from the company discussed above.] Anyone who owns a 2004-'07 Prius - even if they have no technical background - we will hook them up with an electrician or engineer, and the two of them, in a vacation week, will get all the components they need and convert their car using lead acid batteries for under $5,000 or $6,000. That will give them a car that will give them an environmental feature. They won't get a quick payback, but they will get an environmental feature.

So you are talking about a kit and do-it-yourself plans. Yes. Exactly. It would be a 10-mile all-electric or 20-mile mixed driving per day.

Can you gauge the American public's desire to become energy independent? What's strong about plug-in hybrids is that there are three streams of interest. The first is people who are concerned about energy independence. The second is concern about global warming and greenhouse gases. And the third is saving money and being concerned about the health of the auto industry. Plug-in hybrids provide a solution to all three.

American automakers have been amazingly resistant to change. In your opinion, why is this? All automakers are resistant to change. They do what they understand. They also make mistakes often and only occasionally hit the jackpot.

Can you describe a typical day working on the CalCars mission? I have a largely electronic existence. Yesterday I had to write something down and fax it to someone, which reminded me that most of what I do is on the phone and by e-mail. I work out of my home. My work day is pretty continuous. I get e-mail news alerts 24 hours a day. CalCars is a largely virtual network: The only big meetings are public forums. And I have to say that it is all immensely satisfying. I've been more effective on this than anything else I've ever done before in my life.

Part III: We talk with the man in the hot seat, GM's Tony Posawatz, vehicle line director for the Volt and Saturn Vue Green Line, about production dates and technology updates.

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