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Plug-In Hybrid at U.S.Capitol
Electro-Energy's plug-in hybrid Prius at recent appearance as the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C.

When Can I Buy a Plug-In Prius?

The latest word on plug-in hybrids straight from the 'horse's mouth'

By Forbes Bagatelle-Black

You have heard about plug-in retrofit kits for a Toyota Prius. You saw recent articles stating that Toyota plans to develop its own plug-in hybrid vehicle (PHEV). You are ready to buy a PHEV or to retrofit the Prius you already own. Questions race through your mind.

"Who is making these kits?"

"How much will they cost?"

And the most important question, "When will I be able to own a PHEV? When? When?! WHEN?!?!"

I posed this question, and others, to several experts in the field. Peter Nortman is President of EnergyCS, the California-based company that has been developing PHEV kits since 2001 . He is a PHEV expert by any standard, having spent many years working for electric-vehicle pioneer AeroVironment, Inc. before he founded EnergyCS.

Nortman is convinced that PHEVs can become a reality for mainstream consumers in the very near future. "The infrastructure investment requirement for PHEVs is much lower. The horizon to market for PHEVs is also much closer. The risks are lower to consumer and industry alike for early adoption of plug-in technology."

He describes the most recent Priuses retrofitted by EnergyCS as "early adopter prototypes." Several are being driven on a daily basis, accumulating mileage and proving the viability of the PHEV concept. In 2005, EnergyCS and Clean-Tech LLC (www.clean-tech.com) entered into joint venture. They created EDrive LLC, a company dedicated to manufacturing, marketing and distributing technologies created by EnergyCS. Greg Hanssen, VP of engineering at EnergyCS, is president of EDrive. Clean-Tech will be responsible for training and certifying installers in a network of locations across the United States.

A recent article in CNNMoney.com suggested that the EDrive retrofit kit would be on the market by December, 2006. However, when I asked Nortman how soon the retrofit kit would be available to the general public, his answer was cautious.

"As soon as possible," was the only response he would give.

Felix Kramer is another undisputed PHEV expert. He drives a plug-in Prius, retrofitted by EnergyCS, every day. Kramer is founder of CalCars (www.calcars.org), a group which "combines advocacy and technology development. Our primary goal is to get OEMs to build PHEVs, then push the technology."

CalCars has been promoting the development of PHEVs since 2002. Kramer is optimistic about the sales potential for PHEVs. When I asked him if he thought there is a market for PHEV retrofit kits from EDrive and the Canadian company Hymotion, he responded, "I think they will sell as many as they can build."

Like Nortman, Kramer was unwilling to estimate an exact date when PHEVs will be available to the public. He noted that EDrive has not committed to a specific release date, and added, "Hymotion has historically said they are targeting fleet sales, not direct sales to consumers."

He suggested that some technical issues still need to be addressed by EnergyCS and Hymotion. However, he feels such issues will be relatively easy to solve. The most difficult challenges will revolve around scaling up from prototype fabrication in a laboratory to full-scale manufacturing and professional installation in remote locations. Nortman had similar thoughts, "Developing production-ready kits from our current prototype designs will be like bridging the gap between a nice-fitting suit and a burlap sack."

He cited tooling costs as the biggest capital requirement, but also mentioned increased staffing requirements and elimination of rework as important considerations on the road to large-scale production.

Bottom line: Do not hold your breath waiting for a plug-in kit to become available in the next few months. However, if you are willing to wait a bit longer than that, the PHEV of your dreams can become a reality. On July 18, Jim Press, president of Toyota's North American operations said, "Make no mistake about it, hybrids are the technology of the future and they will play a starring role in the automotive industry in the 21st century."

He went on to outline Toyota's plan to create a plug-in hybrid which will "travel greater distances without using its gas engine. It will conserve more oil and slice smog and greenhouse gases to nearly imperceptible levels."

Ladies and gentlemen, the eight hundred pound gorilla has officially entered the room. Toyota is not releasing any timeline for its PHEV effort, but many experts guess that development will be relatively quick. Kramer estimates that Toyota will release its first PHEV in two to three years. He is confident that there will be a robust market for retrofit kits during the window of time between now and then.

Nortman agrees, "I believe Toyota when they say they are going to do something, but daily life at EnergyCS has not changed since the announcement. There will be a retrofit market. Felix has been a great speaker for all of us for a long time, carrying the message of the benefits of plugging in to thousands of people."

Indeed, Toyota's announcement is the first step in fulfilling Kramer's most important goal. "If we get one thousand conversions on the road, we will have failed. We need to get the major auto companies to build electric cars."

CalCars is fighting to make PHEVs the automotive standard for the next phase of transportation development. In order to achieve this goal, the major auto manufacturers will need to adopt the technology wholeheartedly. Companies such as ElectroEnergy in Connecticut share this objective. They are preparing for a day in the near future when demand for PHEV batteries skyrockets. ElectroEnergy founder Martin Klein says, "We are bringing a new manufacturing center on line in Gainseville, Florida. This will allow us to ramp up production of both 'peaking power' batteries for acceleration and hill climbing and 'energy' batteries with larger capacity for extended-range driving."

ElectroEnergy recently completed its own version of a plug-in Toyota Prius, using the company's bipolar nickel metal hydride (NiMH) batteries for additional energy storage. As a publicly-traded company (stock symbol EEEI), ElectroEnergy's motivations for the PHEV project were different from those of privately-held EnergyCS. ElectroEnergy president Michael E. Reed explains, "The plug-in Prius project has been a great demonstration for partners and potential investors. It has been a good tool for business development, technological development and investor visibility."

ElectroEnergy started the Prius project after they connected with Ron Gremban, technology lead at CalCars. Reed recounts, "Ron did the electronics design hand-in-hand with EEEI engineers. We jointly designed software to 'fool' the Toyota control system into letting the car drive further than one mile in electric-only mode. EEEI provided the hands-on support. Ron provided invaluable technical expertise."

The end result, a plug-in Prius recently demonstrated to members of Congress, has given ElectroEnergy widespread visibility to transportation and energy interests. "We are currently in discussions with both EPRI and the department of energy regarding other electric vehicle projects," says Reed.

ElectroEnergy is actively negotiating with potential business partners as well, examining PHEV projects which would provide mutually-beneficial exposure. Reed declined to name specific companies, but he assured me, "Some will be announced in the near future."

Aggressive pursuit of these PHEV projects makes good business sense for ElectroEnergy. Their bipolar NiMH battery architecture can deliver high current in a simple, compact, lightweight package. The potential demand for PHEVs could make this sector ElectroEnergy's largest market. However, ElectoEnergy is not interested in mass-producing complete PHEVs. Their goal is to provide batteries to automotive companies and/or integrators who would build and sell the vehicles. The time horizon for such projects could stretch from several months in the future to several years.

Which brings us back to the original question. "When can I buy a plug-in Prius?"

The short answer is soon, but no one is willing to say just how soon. Those of you with a bit of patience and faith will probably be able to hold out for a few months or even years as the current players in the PHEV game sort things out. But what about help for folks with no patience whatsoever?

Good news! If you have significant skills in electro-mechanical assembly and a cavalier attitude toward your Prius warranty, you can build a plug-in Prius RIGHT NOW! EAA-PHEV.org is a website run by the Electric Auto Association - Plug In Hybrid Electric Vehicle group. The website contains discussion pages, mailing lists, and links to schematics and plans for building a plug-in Prius. Design expertise comes from technical powerhouses such as CalCars' Gremban. For as little as $3000, you could be driving a PHEV you assembled with your own hands. Talk about being part of the solution!

Times Article Viewed: 48024
Published: 07-Aug-2006

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