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Plugging Away: Felix Kramer's CalCars Initiative

by Hope Katz Gibbs
Social Technologies
Change)Waves newsletter
Premier Issue / Fall 2007

If you saw Felix Kramer zipping around the roads of Palo Alto, California, in his white plug-in Toyota Prius, you might guess the founder of California Cars Initiative
www.CalCars.org prides himself on being an early adopter.

In the last 30 years, Kramer has launched a handful of what he calls “first ever” companies, and invested much of the profits in CalCars, an organization of entrepreneurs, engineers, environmentalists, and consumers launched in 2002. Its mission: to convince the world’s largest car builders to manufacture autos that plug into the wall and use even less gas than today’s hybrid cars.

Kramer admits that it isn’t cheap to convert a hybrid to a Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicle (PHEV). He paid $15,000 to turn his top-of-the-tine $26,000 Prius hybrid into a plug-in. But once carmakers start mass-producing PHEVS, he predicts, the incremental cost will drop to $3,000-$5,000 above that of a standard hybrid.

He believes consumer interest is enormous. “It isn’t just individuals who think plug-ins are a good idea,” Kramer says. “Dozens of community and corporate leaders and legislators from across the country have drafted legislation to provide production and buyer incentives. The issue is when the carmakers will jump on the bandwagon.”

HOW PLUG-INS WORK

According to the CalCars website, a PHEV is essentially “a hybrid car with an extension cord.” Kramer can recharge his plug-in hybrid’s aftermarket lithium-ion battery at home just by plugging it into a normal 120-volt outlet for six to eight hours each night. The fuel tank is filled at the gas station, just as with any car-but the beauty of the plug-in ties in the fact that gas is not used on all trips.

For example, on short local trips-20 to 30 miles-the car runs as an electric vehicle, never engaging the internal combustion engine. But because it has a gas tank, it offers a range of hundreds of miles just like any other car, eliminating one of the chief complaints against electric vehicles.

In fact, Kramer’s fuel efficiency is roughly double what a standard hybrid gets today. During one 1,034-mile stretch, the car used only 9.67 gallons of gas, getting him about 107 miles per gallon of gas.

While 107 miles per gallon is great, Kramer suggests the real payback extends far beyond the individual driver to society as a whole.

“By displacing carbon fuels with electricity you have three benefits: lower costs (under $1 per gallon in many cases), lower C02 emissions, and reduced dependency on oil,” he explains. “Plus, I think the US car industry has the potential to revive itself by building much more advanced cars.”

And finally, he says, electrifying transportation makes utilities more efficient. “They can set[ their excess night-time power to people who charge cars in the off-hours,” he explains.

THE ROAD AHEAD

Talking to Kramer, you get the sense that things are looking up for plug-in hybrids, despite the fact that a mere 51 converted plug-ins are on the road today in the US, Canada, and Europe.

But if the Cornell graduate has anything to do with it, more than 10,000 plug-ins
will be on the world’s highways in the next few years. The best-case timeline for plug-in development, he says, would yield demonstration vehicles in 2008, low-volume production in 2009, and mass production by 2010. Then by 2011, there wilt be more efficient “optimized” PHEVS.

Already, some big companies are behind the movement, including Google.org, the philanthropic arm of Internet giant Google. In June 2007, it launched a new initiative called
RechargelT.org, a program that seeks to reduce greenhouse emissions and oil dependence by promoting plug-in hybrids.

As part of this initiative, Google awarded $1 million in grants to advance plug-in development and commercialization to six organizations—including CalCars, which got $200,000 to support public education about plug-ins. Google is also adding plug-ins to its corporate fleet, and plans to invest another $10 million in plug-in technologies.

SPEED BUMPS

How are carmakers responding to the
development of plug-ins and Kramer’s CalCars campaign?

“They say they are waiting for better batteries, which could be lithium-ion or nickel-metal hydride, but I believe they are making the perfect the enemy of the good,” he says. “I am confident we could have good enough plug-in hybrids now, knowing there will be better batteries in
the future. I honestly think they should just get the process started.”

Kramer is working hard to do just that by convincing power brokers to put demonstration fleets of “good enough” PHEVs in the hands of other early adopters. For instance, New York Governor George Pataki allocated $10 million to turn 600 Priuses, part of the state fleet, into plug-in hybrids.

Kramer is also keeping the public apprised of where carmakers stand on the issue by dedicating part of the Cal-Cars website to statements in the press made by DaimlerChrysler, Ford, GM, Honda, Nissan, and Toyota (www.calcars.org/carmakers.html).

Consider this comment made April 27, 2007 by Jim Press, president of Toyota Motor North America in an interview with AutoObserver.com: “Ten years from now your children wit[ be driving a plug-in hybrid powered by diesel, ethanol blended fuel.”

Kramer’s take: “Today’s global climate and geopolitical challenges don’t give us 10 years of breathing room. We need to act now.” For more:
www.Calcars.org.

HOW TO GET A PLUG-IN HYBRID

What: The easiest hybrids to convert are the 2004-2007 models of the Toyota
Prius and Ford Escape.

Warranties: Kramer says there is legal precedent that original auto warranties cannot be voided completely by after-market modifications-but warns that it isn’t clear what dealers will do until people start bringing converted cars in for service.

Where: Information on several aftermarket conversion sources are available on the CalCars website, including:

• Hybrids-Plus, www.hybrids-ptus.com, Boulder, CO
• Hymotion, www.hymotion.com, Concord, Ontario
• Amberjac Systems, www.amberjacprojects.com, UK

Note: CalCars supports conversion programs, but is clear on its website that it is a nonprofit and does not benefit financially from the conversions.

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"I get by with a little help from my friends," says Hope, who gives special thanks to:

• MICHAEL GIBBS, website illustration and design: www.michaelgibbs.com
• MAX KUKOY, website development: www.maxwebworks.com
• STEVE BARRETT, portrait of Hope on Bio page: www.stevebarrettphotography.com

Contact HOPE KATZ GIBBS by phone [703-346-6975] or email.

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