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VOL. 124 | NO. 1 | Friday, January 2, 2009

Squeezing More Miles Out of that Hybrid

By REBECCA SMITH | The Wall Street Journal

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At the Detroit auto show next month, one of the most highly anticipated new vehicles will be Toyota Motor Corp.'s third-generation Prius hybrid. It features a roomier interior and better gas mileage than the current model, the best-selling hybrid in the world.

But even these advancements aren't good enough for Daniel Sherwood and Paul Guzyk. The two green-minded mechanics have been modifying Toyota's Prius hybrids, which get an impressive 50 miles per gallon, and converting them into plug-in electric vehicles, doubling the fuel efficiency of a car that many people already see as the be-all of fuel economy. They can't wait to do the same to Toyota's newest Prius model.

Messrs. Sherwood and Guzyk are at the forefront of a small but growing automotive insurgency. While Toyota promises to deliver a factory-built, plug-in electric car by late 2009, and General Motors Corp. says it will bring its Chevy Volt plug-in car to market in 2010, impatient mechanics already are making them with off-the-shelf parts.

"I don't know if Toyota meant to do it, but they gave us a car that's easy to hack into and easy to improve," says Mr. Sherwood, an electrical engineer and co-owner with Mr. Guzyk of 3Prong Power Inc., which has set up shop in a defunct Cadillac dealership building in Berkeley, Calif. It charges about $7,000 for the conversions, one of several such shops in California doing such work.

An electric-powered car works essentially like a regular hybrid – it runs on batteries and has a gasoline engine as well. But electric-powered cars run longer in all-electric mode. Plus, they include an extension cord, so the batteries can be recharged by plugging the car into a 120-volt outlet. Beyond the Prius, some shops are converting the Ford Escape hybrid into a plug-in car.

To convert a Prius, the mechanics add a heavy tray of wheelchair batteries to a tool-storage space beneath the cargo deck at the back of the Prius hatchback. They strengthen the suspension, tweak the electronics and software and – voila! – the car that emerges from the shop is a plug-in hybrid, able to run as a pure electric before tapping its gasoline engine. Conversions take a couple days for a well-equipped garage with knowledgeable mechanics.

For some conversions, they are able to add lithium ion batteries that have four times the energy density of lead acid batteries, meaning they'll go four times as long between recharging or, at moderate speeds, before tapping the gasoline engine. Getting those batteries is difficult and, since they're expensive, it can double the cost of a conversion.

To be sure, demand for plug-ins has dropped along with gasoline prices in recent months, says Carolyn Coquillette, owner of Luscious Garage in San Francisco, another shop that does conversions. Low gas prices, along with car-conversion costs, mean it will take years for these Prius models to recoup the costs of the upgrades.

But price is not the point, converters say.

"My carbon footprint concerned me more," says Mary Goulart, an acupuncturist who got her Prius converted at 3Prong Power in October. She works six miles from her home in Berkeley, Calif., and is able to drive purely on electricity most days for her short commute.

Not all the converters are mechanics. Some are amateurs bewitched by the notion of electric transportation. Many people get technical information from a nonprofit advocacy group called the California Cars Initiative, or "CalCars," which evangelizes for electric vehicles and acts as a clearinghouse for news and information.

"We don't like what oil is doing to the world," says Chris Ewert, a 25-year-old resident of Wheaton, Ill., who did a home conversion with his brother, Andrew. "It makes some countries rich and other countries poor." With a little research, the Ewert brothers converted a 2004 Prius in their parents' garage two years ago, then converted a second car for their father – who kept asking to borrow the keys – more recently.

President-elect Barack Obama has proposed using tax credits and other incentives for consumers to encourage electric vehicles, though current incentives apply only to factory-built cars. There are several hundred plug-in cars on the road today, more than half in California, according to experts. Utilities have been among the most enthusiastic supporters and have been helping test prototypes for car makers. They also are working on grid integration issues to make sure the right support exists, such as recharging stations and discounted electric rates.

Some people don't think the infrastructure is in place to support the widespread use of plug-ins. "For plug-ins to be all encompassing and to replace basic hybrid technology, the electric grid would need to morph into something we don't have yet," says Jaycie Chitwood, Toyota's senior strategic planner for advanced technologies.

For Toyota, the conversion movement creates a headache. Officially, the company says it is neither for nor against conversions. But there are fears that problems with after-market conversions could sully enthusiasm for the factory-made plug-in Priuses it will offer fleet buyers in 2009. Toyota also frets about safety and liability issues, especially after a converted plug-in Prius caught fire in June. The incident is still under investigation, though the suspicion is that overheated lithium-ion batteries caused the fire. Whether the modifications void the warranty is unclear. Car makers like Toyota say they can void a warranty if the modifications are found to have done damage to the vehicle.

Caught in the middle are Toyota's dealerships. Hymotion 123 Systems Inc., a unit of battery-maker A123 Systems Inc. of Watertown, Mass., makes conversion kits and certified four Toyota dealerships nationwide to be installers. But at least one, Hollywood Toyota, withdrew last summer. Don Mushin, general manager, said he was told by Toyota executives that "it was probably not wise to go forward" due to liability concerns.

Many auto-industry experts and environmentalists see the plug-in car as a defining opportunity to reinvigorate the U.S. auto sector. Just this month, a group of U.S. technology companies formed a consortium to develop a U.S. manufacturing base for lithium ion batteries. The group intends to seek federal assistance to build a big manufacturing plant to make lithium ion battery cells for electric cars.

Andy Grove, retired chairman of Intel Corp. of Santa Clara, Calif., has emerged as a vocal advocate of dual-fuel vehicles and even has urged the computer-chip maker to branch into advanced battery manufacturing. Intel, through its venture-capital arm, says it has made small investments, but that it hasn't committed to doing anything more at this time. Mr. Grove says he thinks the U.S. needs dual-fuel vehicles for many reasons, including energy security.

Mr. Grove likens the grassroots conversion movement to "Rick Wagoner meets the Homebrew Computer Club" – a reference to GM's chairman and the legendary group of California computer enthusiasts – including Apple Computer Inc. founders Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, who got together in Silicon Valley in the late 1970s and helped launch the personal-computer revolution. In other words, he thinks the foment among enthusiasts is important to GM, Toyota and other auto makers working on their own factory plug-in cars.

"I have a strong belief that unless we really push, nothing significant is going to happen," he says.

For some people, the plug-in-car concept is so attractive they sweep away other considerations.

Dave Moore, 53, started down the electric-car path when he became worried about climate change. On the waiting list for an $85,000 Audi sports car, he decided to buy a Prius instead and got it converted to a plug-in car for about $10,000. He figures he has a green car for less than half what the Audi would have cost.

Mr. Moore's commute from Snohomish, Wash., south down Interstate 5 to Seattle often has sizable backups. At low speeds, he's able to run longer on electricity without using gasoline. When traffic slows, he says, "I'm the only happy guy on the road."

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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