PLUG OK license plate
Wall St Jrnl: Who Wouldn't Want This? SF Chronicle: Ferrari of Hybrids
Aug 6, 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:

Last week, two top automotive journalists test drove PHEV Priuses, and both of them came out smiling and writing quotes that would sell lots of tickets if they were movie/theater or book blurbs!

We start with the SF Chronicle story (the fourth major story in San Francisco's leading paper in the past few weeks--see CalCars-News). Then we reproduce the Wall Street Journal story (which appears only in the online edition). It's by Joe White, the Journal's Pulitzer Prize-winning Detroit Bureau Chief. It includes a 3-minute video showing him plugging in, unplugging, driving, and talking about the implications of the car. We excerpt his final comment and include White's bio.

[NOTE: Felix Kramer will be mostly on vacation August 6-13, so unless it's urgent, please send email, and be patient about responses.]

Plug-in Prius turns heads -- Ferrari of hybrids Michael Taylor, Chronicle Auto Editor San Francisco Chronicle Monday, August 6, 2007 Page D - 1, the "Bay Area" Section of the­cgi-bin/­article.cgi?f=/­c/­a/­2007/­08/­06/­HYBRID.TMP

It looks pretty much like any other Toyota Prius, sitting in its Redwood City garage, but there is that telltale yellow industrial-strength power cord coming out of its tail and snaking around to a 120-volt electrical outlet.

Yes, this is one of the nation's few plug-in hybrids, and The Chronicle took a ride in it the other day to see what the future might look like.

The future, if Toyota and a few other car makers have anything to say about it, will see a lot more of these cars. Technological hurdles on the cost and efficiency of hybrid-car batteries will have to be overcome, but in the past couple of weeks, two major developments seemed to encourage the possibility that these cars may actually get built and sold to the public.

The Natural Resources Defense Council and the Electric Power Research Institute, an electrical power industry group, said widespread use of plug-in hybrids, which use little gasoline, would help the environment and reduce oil consumption.

Hybrids at UC

Less than a week later, Toyota said it would provide two factory-made Prius plug-in hybrids to the University of California -- at campuses in Berkeley and Irvine -- for a two-year test on U.S. roads.

The Chronicle's own test drive the other day showed that the plug-in Prius is much like the regular plugless one sold in Toyota showrooms, but with a few tantalizing exceptions. By far, the most arresting (or non-arresting) detail is when you start out driving the plug-in. The car is absolutely silent -- that's the electric motor -- but when you move down the street, it continues its silence (the regular Prius turns on its engine soon after takeoff).

By now, however, you're not caring about electric-this, gasoline-that. You are mesmerized by a dashboard-mounted instrument whose digital readout shows your gas mileage leaping from 54 mpg to 145 mpg to 421 mpg to 999 mpg, depending on how much of a lead foot you are.

Normal hybrid cars -- if such a vehicle can be called normal -- get down the road using a combination of electric motor and gasoline engine. In the Prius, the nation's most popular hybrid, the electric motor is powered by nickel metal hydride batteries. That car gets an average of 46 mpg, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

In the plug-in hybrid owned by Felix Kramer, here in Redwood City, those original batteries have been replaced by some 4,000 lithium-ion batteries, which are twice as powerful as the old batteries.

Kramer's car is the showpiece of his homegrown plug-in hybrid organization, the California Cars Initiative, a 5-year-old nonprofit that extols the virtues of plug-ins -- the car is emblazoned with decals touting its 100-mpg-plus capabilities.

The car, a 2004 model, was converted by Energy CS, in Monrovia (Los Angeles County) at a cost of about $15,000. Energy CS is one of a handful of firms in the United States and Canada converting Priuses in to plug-in hybrids.

Kramer loves to open the car's hatchback and show visitors the bright red board covering the batteries. Glued to the board are photos of Kramer at various enviro events -- here with Bill Clinton, there with Al Gore.

Kramer is evangelical in his bid to get people to know about these cars, and he has become well known through his public appearances and his Web site.

While we were tootling along Alameda de las Pulgas, Kramer's cell phone rang. He picked up, listened and then said politely that to get a full answer to the question, the caller should consult Kramer's Web site (

"How do I get one?"

"Most of the phone calls are, 'How do I get a plug-in hybrid?' " Kramer said. "The calls used to be, 'What is it?' Now they're, 'How do I get one?' or 'Why aren't the automakers making one?' "

In downtown Redwood City, the car, with its 100 mpg decals, gets noticed.

A man who gave his first name as Blake (no last name, please) said of the Prius, "I think they're great if you drive a lot. I pretty much ride a bicycle, walk, take Caltrain."

Blake's companion, Jim Zaccanti, from Darby, Mont., when asked whether he would buy one of these cars, said, "It's not worth it. I could buy 20 years' worth of gas for that."

Back at Kramer's house, he took a look at the "control displacement unit" on the dashboard to determine the car's overall mileage during our outing.

"A bit over 122 miles per gallon," he said with a smile. Then he got out of the car and plugged it back into the wall.

Plugging In to the Future
Getting 100 Miles Per Gallon While Driving to Work In a Modified Toyota Prius
August 6, 2007 Online Wall Street Journal joseph.white@....­article/­SB118615445855287424.html?mod=hps_us_inside_to

I drove to work one day last week in a prototype car that is either a harbinger of a far more fuel-efficient future, or another in a long line of technological insurgencies that will fail in the end to crack the auto industry's century-old status quo.

The car was a Toyota Prius modified, by the addition of a 72.5 kilogram (160 pound) lithium-ion battery pack, into a so-called plug-in hybrid capable of operating for as many as 40 miles almost entirely on electric power alone. The battery pack is a product of Massachusetts-based A123 Systems and its recently acquired Hymotion Inc. subsidiary.

Here's how my drive to work went. I walked out of the house to where the Prius was parked, close enough to my garage so that I could run an extension cord from the wall outlet to a three-prong plug installed in the car's rear bumper.

I'd plugged in the car the night before, and by morning the lithium-ion batteries installed in the trunk were charged up. I stuck a plastic key fob into a slot in the dash, hit the "Power" button -- and then hit it again, because I couldn't tell if the car was on. There was no engine noise.

Once I had the on-off business sorted out, I put the car in drive and silently rolled out into the street. And I continued to roll on electric power. In a normal Prius, the gasoline engine kicks in once you get past walking speed. In this car, the extra batteries allowed me to keep rolling in electric-only mode at highway speeds. The company estimates the electricity cost of an overnight charge to be around 75 cents for 50 extra miles.

As I dodged fellow citizens in their last-century gas-only SUVs, I snuck glances at the Prius's information screen, which displayed my fuel consumption and the flow of power from the batteries and the gasoline engine. For most of my roughly 20-mile trip to the office, I appeared to be on electric-only power. Accelerating to merge with traffic, and avoid becoming a high-tech oil spot under a semi, I engaged the gasoline motor. But cruising was all-electric -- and according to the Prius's on board fuel consumption computer, I was cruising at 100 miles to the gallon. The only awareness I had of the power generation hand-offs between the gas engine and the lithium-ion batteries, or the lithium-ion batteries and the Prius's factory-installed nickel-metal hydride battery system was the videogame display in the dashboard screen.

My reaction to this experience, drawing on 20 years of covering the auto business, was: "Wow! Who wouldn't want this?"

It's the questions that come next that have been a problem for the auto industry: What does it really cost? Is it reliable? What about the warranty? (Toyota's stance on that last question is that anyone who modifies the Prius into a plug-in voids the warranty.)

Not so long ago, it looked as though the industry's big dogs weren't confident they had good answers for those questions in the near term. Electric cars have foundered since the industry's earliest days on the rocks of cost, reliability and range. Plug-ins have range, but with current battery technology they didn't appear to have mass-market levels of cost or reliability.

GM earlier this year made a splash with a prototype of a plug-in called the Chevrolet Volt -- but stressed that the batteries to make the Volt real hadn't been invented yet. Skeptics, me included, wondered where was the beef?

Lithium-ion battery technology can handle the cycles of charging and discharging required for a plug-in better than nickel-metal hydride batteries. It's used now in small power tools and laptops. But lithium-ion battery also has what's referred to as "heat management" issues. That means fire, Scarecrow. The recent spate of publicity about lithium-ion laptop batteries bursting into flame has only made resolving this issue more urgent.

The A123 Prius conversion kit is just one sign of the increasing optimism within the automotive and enviro-tech communities that the battery technology required to deliver a reliable plug-in or electric vehicle could be ready sooner than once thought. Last week, about 30 groups entered the Automotive X Prize competition, which plans to offer a multimillion dollar reward to entrants who can build a marketable, 100 mile-per-gallon car and compete in races scheduled for 2009. Meanwhile, several companies, such as Tesla Motors of California, are drumming up interest in electric vehicles.

Tony Posawatz, the vehicle line director for GM's plug-in hybrid Chevrolet Volt and other vehicles using GM's E-Flex electric-vehicle technology, says he expects to get battery packs by the end of this year from suppliers who believe they have what it takes to meet GM's criteria for a safe, reliable and cost-effective plug-in hybrid. A123 is part of one group along with Continental AG. Another involves big Korean battery maker LG Chem.

"We are encouraged," Mr. Posawatz says of the developments in battery technology. GM is still aiming to have a production version of the Volt ready to roll by late 2010, provided the batteries are ready, too, he says. GM has also said it wants to make a plug-in version of its Saturn VUE compact SUV.

Mr. Posawatz won't say the Volt by 2010 is now a sure thing, but with a telephonic wink to the naysayers, he says developments such as the A123 Prius conversion system are "indicators telling you that from a technological perspective it's not that far off."

Toyota, meanwhile, earlier this month took another step closer to the plug-in camp by announcing it will start offering prototype plug-in Priuses for testing in the U.S. and Japan.

Plug-in advocates will say, we told you so. While GM and Toyota ramp up their rival plug-in programs, consumers will get a chance to vote with their wallets on whether plug-in technology makes sense.

Ric Fulop, an A123 founder and vice president of marketing and business development, says his company is on track to offer by early next year lithium-ion plug-in conversion systems similar to the one I tested to Toyota Prius owners and hybrid Ford Escape owners. Initial numbers will be relatively low, he said. "If we sold 1,000 next year that's a big start."

Prices aren't set yet, but it's likely a system that can extend the electric-only range of a Prius by 40 miles will cost about $10,000. A 20-mile system will cost about half that, he says. The company is working to get tax breaks to offset those costs, and Mr. Fulop says A123 is trying to convince Toyota to ease the hostile stand on warranty coverage. (A Toyota spokeswoman says she's unaware of any discussions on the issue.)

As for the Volt, Mr. Fulop says, "it totally can happen."

[Eyes on the Road forum]­viewtopic.php?t=675 (We submitted comments)
Readers, over to you....Share your opinions.

CAPTION TO 2:43 MINUTE VIDEO: WSJ's Joe White tests a Toyota Prius modified by a lithium-ion battery pack, to see if it can operate for 40 miles almost entirely on electric power. The text of the video concludes: Over the next couple of years, it's pretty likely you're going to see manufacturers, particularly GM and Toyota, start to put plug-in hybrids on the road. Final thought for the carmakers would be that whoever gets there first can probably score a lot of points in the industry's technology image war, and that could be worth billions to the car company that gets it right.

Joe White writes Eyes on the Road every Monday for the Online Journal. His column offers readers insight into the top consumer issues in the automotive industry, ranging from car pricing to safety to the latest gadgets. Joe is the Detroit bureau chief for The Wall Street Journal, and has worked for the Journal since 1987. For most of that time, he has covered the auto industry from Detroit. In 1993, Joe and then-Detroit Bureau Chief Paul Ingrassia shared a Pulitzer Prize for beat reporting for their coverage of management turmoil at General Motors. Paul and Joe co-authored a 1994 book about the American auto industry in the 1980s and 1990s, "Comeback: The Fall and Rise of the American Automobile Industry." Joe also contributes new-car reviews to Smart Money magazine. A graduate of Harvard University, he lives with his family outside Detroit and commutes in a 2004 Subaru WRX.

NOTE: One point that often comes up: CalCars' signs promoting 100+MPG get everyone's attention. When we can explain at length, to journalists or on handouts, we point out the asterisk: "plus electricity--a penny or two a mile." It's a bit subtle. Of course, PHEVs driving locally use less gas because they mainly use electric motors instead of gasoline engines. But their biggest benefit goes beyond "efficient gasoline cars" because they DISPLACE gasoline with cheaper, cleaner, domestic electricity.

For those interested in the real number behind 100+MPG, we calculate that if you combine the two energy sources, you get around 85 "MPGE (miles-per-gallon-equivalent). In the future, by using other technologies to use stronger but lighter weight composite materials, both the 100+MPG and the 85 MPGE numbers can both increase much further.

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