by PHILIP G BAKER, February 02, 2009
We've all read about high mileage hybrid and electric cars of the future. General Motors is developing its Volt and Toyota expects to have an offering based on the Prius Hybrid in a few years. The hybrid Volt will be able to travel about 40 miles using only its batteries and then make use of its gasoline engine. Prius will likely add more battery power to reduce gasoline consumption.
But a Poway company, Plug-In Conversions Corp (PIC), has a practical solution that's available now. It's developed a conversion kit for the Toyota Prius that adds an additional battery pack and an electronic control unit that works in conjunction with Prius' existing batteries and electronics.
The $12,500 kit can be installed in about a day by PIC or by one of its authorized installers across the country. The additional batteries are about the size of a large suitcase and fit where the spare tire is now located under the rear floor. The car looks exactly like an existing hybrid except for a receptacle on the left rear bumper. That's where you plug in a cord for charging at night using a regular 110V outlet.
A standard Prius runs on a combination of a gasoline engine and batteries, depending on the power required. At startup just the batteries are used and as more power is needed the engine engages. Typical mileage of a standard Prius is about 47 mpg with a range of about 500 miles. The normal Prius does not have a plug; the battery is charged using the gasoline engine.
The converted Prius will provide an all-electric range of about 25 miles of driving at speeds up to 34 mph without consuming any gasoline. At higher speeds, the gasoline engine supplements the batteries and gets 60-90 mpg for the next 30-40 miles. After that the automobile will operate just like a normal Prius and get the original factory mileage and range.
Kim Adelman, a former software engineer, founded the company. Adelman has been working for many years on finding a practical solution to minimize fuel consumption and reduce reliance on imported oil. He's owned a number of hybrids, but he told me none has offered the performance, reliability and mileage of a converted Prius.
While his battery conversion results in cutting gasoline consumption by 50 percent or more, saving money for Adelman is secondary to the positive impact it has on the environment and foreign oil. Payback of the battery is about 10 years or less as gasoline exceeds $5 per gallon. Adelman has gone even further, by using solar panels at home to provide electricity to charge his batteries. So essentially he's running his car off of the sun's energy.
I asked him why we're not seeing the automotive companies offering a product like this. He explained that automotive manufactures have had difficulty obtaining Nickel Metal Hydride batteries (currently the batteries with the best combination of efficiency and safety) in the volumes they need for new cars, because the major battery suppliers, such as Panasonic, have been restricted from selling them due to patents held by Chevron-Texaco.
But Gold Peak, the largest battery manufacturer in Asia, has been able to sell its NiMH batteries to Adelman without these same restrictions, due to an agreement it has with the original patent holder, before Chevron bought the patents. Gold Peak has recently taken an equity stake in his company.
I test drove a converted Prius and used it on full-electric power. It was peppy and eerily silent. As I accelerated past 34 mpg the engine engaged smoothly. Adelman uses the car for commuting between his home and office, less than ten miles, and charges it each night. He fills up the 11-gallon gas tank about once a month.
Adelman explained that because he does not alter Toyota's design, just augments it, the car's warranty is not affected. In fact, Toyota has recently begun a program to sell used Prius' for conversion.
As so often happens, something so new often runs into government regulators. While California is recognized a leader in supporting efforts to reduce hydrocarbon emissions, the California Air Resources Board (CARB), dropped a bombshell that could have impacted companies like Adelman's.
According to Hybridcars.com, "CARB is concerned about potential increases in smog-related emissions from the converted vehicles. Air resources board engineers are recommending that plug-in hybrids undergo extensive cold-start emissions and gasoline-evaporation testing. According to agency documents, the tests could cost between $20,000 and $125,000 depending on the number of vehicles that CARB requests be tested by each company. "
This would put companies like Adelman's out of business. Fortunately the board, led by Chairman Mary Nichols, just delayed in adopting the proposed regulations and directed the CARB staff to come up with more realistic regulations.
For more information, check out Plug-In Conversions' Web site at pluginconversions.com. The future is now and it's in our backyard.