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May 01, 2004 EV World lead story

Plug It In, Plug It In...

By Bill Moore

Interview with CalCars founder, Felix Kramer on the California Cars plug-in hybrid initiative

"We think the time has come when car drivers can finally start to have an impact on the kind of cars that are produced," Felix Kramer, the founder of the California Cars Initiative or CalCars told me recently. Formed two years ago by a group of volunteers from the San Francisco Bay and Southern California areas, the goal of the initiative is to encourage the development of plug-in hybrid-electric cars.

But with the introduction of the 2004 model Toyota Prius, Kramer and colleagues think they may have discovered a short-cut to their objective. It's a switch that is on the dash of all new Priuses sold in Japan and Europe, but oddly, not in North America. It's that missing switch that may be the key to creating the first commercially-available plug-in hybrid, what CalCars considers the "next generation" of hybrid vehicles.

Moving Beyond Stealth Mode
What Kramer and other new Toyota Prius owners have discovered is that the car spends a lot of time, especially when creeping along in a traffic jam, in what they have come to call "Stealth Mode." This is when the car operates only on electric power with its IC engine turned off, operating much like a battery electric car. And while the battery pack is too small to offer any acceptable speed or range, the Japanese and European versions of the car have a switch on the dash that allows the driver to run the car in electric mode only for short distances up to one or two kilometers at less than 42 mph.

"There are a couple of dozen American cars now [that] have added the "EV Only" button," Kramer said, adding that complete instructions on how to do it can be found on the web site, as well as an archive of the online technical dialog.

"That got people thinking. As soon as they got the button going, they started saying 'Wouldn't it be great if we had a longer stealth mode, if we could go longer than a kilometer or two?'" That led to the inevitable conclusion that they needed more batteries.

"The same person [Wayne Brown] who figured out how to reverse-engineer the button has already added additional batteries to his Prius," Kramer explained. The result is a car that gets 10-20 mpg better fuel economy, he said.

The final step in turning the Prius into a grid-connected hybrid is finding a way to recharge the batteries, and according to Kramer, a number of people are at work on the problem, all, it must be noted, without the support or blessing of Toyota Motor Company. In fact, anyone undertaking the installation of the button, much less more batteries, risks voiding their warranty.

"Hypothetically, you'd have a five to fifteen mile range in this vehicle." He sees this as a way to not only let owners run local errands in electric-only mode but, more importantly, get people excited about the concept of plug-it-in hybrids.

Kramer agreed that given Toyota's prescient engineering culture, that the company probably is already looking at the plug-in hybrid concept, if it hasn't already built a secret prototype or two. He hopes that CalCar's efforts demonstrate to Toyota that there is, in fact, a market for these cars, at least in California where incomes and grid power mix appear to make this a viable pathway environmentally and economically.

But is there really a market?
Kramer is convinced there is, based on the level of response and enthusiasm he sees for what he calls the PRIUS+ concept. In addition, he noted that J.D. Powers and Associates reports that 35% of car buyers are interested in hybrid cars and 85% of hybrid car owners would pay more for their cars. To CalCars this represents an opportunity to sell the plug-in concept as a "feature" just like the Prius' GPS navigation system or its self-parking option. "People will pay more for features, some of which have no economic benefit, like leather seats or sun roofs," he said. "So we are pitching this the best car around, the next generation hybrid."

In order to move his initiative beyond its current "hacker" phase, Kramer hopes to convince a few Hollywood celebs or maybe Silicon Valley entrepreneurs to sponsor the necessary engineering and prototype development

Assuming he can bring on the people he wants, he estimates that the first series of conversions, which he calls "green tuning," will cost somewhere from $10,000 to $20,000. But for Kramer, this is just the beginning. He is looking beyond the Prius to Toyota's Highlander, its Lexus and Ford's Escape SUVs, which because they are larger vehicles, he believes can be "green tuned" into fully-highway capable plug-in hybrids.

He hopes that Toyota, whom he said has not only designed the best car in the world, but also respects their customers, will take note of the interest in the PRIUS+ and eventually offer their own version, taking their already world-class technology to the next level.

Details at How 'We Green-Tuned an 04 Prius To Become a Plug-In Hybrid)

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