Lunch at Buck's

By Bill Moore

Posted: 18 Sep 2011

Ever heard of Buck's?

It's a restaurant in the village of Woodside, in the hills overlooking Silicon Valley. Although I've been told it's a regular lunch-time hangout for dreamers and schemers intent on creating or funding the next Google, a lot of folks even in the Bay area haven't heard of it either. When I ask, their blank expressions quickly telegraph their incomprehension. On reflection, I suppose that's a good thing in a way. If more people knew about it, it'd be hard to get into for a quick lunch. It's where I am to meet up with Felix Kramer after I arrive in San Francisco and pick up the Toyota press fleet car I will be driving: a Lexus CT200h.

Felix is a lot like Buck's. He's largely known only within the closed circle of electric car cognoscenti. He's tall, lanky, wears rimmed glasses, has wavy, graying hair, and speaks still with a clipped, quick, native New Yorker accent. He and his wife are transplants, having moved to the San Francisco peninsula some 14 years ago, he told me, as we sat at the back of Buck's, he eating fried eggplant and me, a turkey and bacon club sandwich.

We have known each other for many years, having been drawn together by our shared passion for a more sustainable world, especially in the arena of electric cars. Where I have concentrated my efforts on the emerging digital world linked by the Internet, Felix took a more bricks and mortar approach, taking an active hand in help implement cutting-edge EV technology, forming coalitions, actively lobbying industry and government, taking his message to the very Halls of Congress in Washington, D.C. Where EV World wields a broad brush that covers a panoply of green technologies, Felix and his cohorts at the California Cars Initiative, or CalCars, adapted a very focused approach: the creation of the plug-in hybrid.

A Serendipitous Discovery

When it first came out, owners in North America discovered the 2004 model Prius offered in both Japan and Europe had an EV mode button on the dash, which when engaged, let the car operate only on its electric motor for a couple kilometers as long as there was plenty of charge in the battery pack and they didn't go more than 34 mph. In effect, their compatriots in Japan and Europe could drive the Prius, if only briefly, as an electric car. The US model had a plastic plug where the button should have been. Logically, the Americans responded, Where's our EV button? Needless to say, it didn't take long for someone to come up with a modification to install the missing button.

It didn't long after the button episode that a few early owners of second generation Toyota Priuses also discovered that it was possible to add some additional batteries (they used simple lead acid batteries to begin with) to the hybrid's 1.3kWh nickel metal hydride pack and effectively extended its electric-only range. Now, they envisioned, they could have their "cake and eat it too" in the form of an electric car that was also a hybrid.

The chronology here is important because it is about this time that General Motors recalled and crushed the EV1, as had other major carmakers subject to California's so-called Zero Emission Vehicle mandate. A lot of the first people to buy those Priuses were the same ones GM had disappointed, to put it mildly. Although the re-designed and re-engineered Prius was seen by purists as a distasteful compromise, it was better than having no electric car at all, and in 2004 that looked like a distinct possibility. Meanwhile about this same time, two young entrepreneurs in nearby San Carlos were quietly hatching a scheme to revive the dream of the electric car using the much-loved Lotus Elise as their starting point. They would name the company in honor of the brilliant, but eccentric inventor, Nicola Tesla. Their names: Martin Eberhard and Marc Tarpenning.

The serendipitous discovery that with a bit of hacking and hardware you could convert the Prius into a quasi-electric car became too tempting a prospect for the California conspirators. They could turn Toyota's plug-less oil burner into a solar-powered plug-in. While many actors took part in the unfolding drama from Ron Gremban to Peter Nortman and Greg Hanssen to Kim Adelman and others, it was Felix who became the public face of the movement.

Now as we sat in Buck's some seven years later, we both realize the campaign largely has been won. Parked outside is Felix's Nissan LEAF all-electric car. He and his wife also own a Chevrolet Volt electric hybrid. Both cars have plugs, requiring little (the Volt) or no (the LEAF) gasoline. What began in a hobbyist's garage in the Bay area by connecting some lead batteries to a Prius, culminated yesterday at Craneway Pavilion across the Bay in Richmond, California with the official introduction to the media of Toyota's own version of what CalCars and others began: the 2012 Prius PHV, an officially sanctioned Prius with a plug. Instead of lead, the PHV is equipped with lithium batteries. Instead of a couple kilometers at 34 mph, their version will travel 15 miles at 62 mph; while taking only 3-4 hours to recharge on common household current.

As fascinating as this much-heralded event might seem to some, it's hardly new or news. Kramer's own plug-in Prius, which he has since sold, has been doing this for years now, as have others, including my wife's Plug In Conversions Corporation-converted 2009 Prius. The fact that Toyota "saw the light" after all these years (they actually began developing their own prototype plug-ins in the 2008-2009 time frame), can be attributed, in my view, to the efforts of CalCars and the engineers and entrepreneurs they inspired. When both of us became this quixotic quest, both of us drove hybrids. Today we both drive plug ins.

As the lunch hour wanes, Felix actually is talking of getting rid of at least one of his cars, not because he is unhappy with them or can't afford them. He and his wife have bought a small 1930s Spanish- style bungalow in Berkeley that they are renovating. He excitedly tells me it's just a mile from the campus and seven blocks from a BART station. It's also in walking distance to a great variety of restaurants and the weekly farmers market. The Kramers are down-sizing from their 2,700 square foot home in Redwood City and going even greener: the house will have solar panels to power one of the cars -- he hasn't decided yet which one to keep. We even chat about his wish to develop shared communities where 8-10 families live in small, sustainable homes built around a commons where resources like workout equipment and meals -- if you're so inclined -- can be shared. That, he thinks is the future.

It's time for me to head to my appointment at Zero Motorcycles in Scotts Valley, 45 minutes away. As he heads towards the door, Felix notices two guys sitting in a corner booth at the front of Buck's.

"That's the founders of Tesla," he says. Sure enough, there sat Martin Eberhard and Marc Tarpenning eating hamburgers. Neither is directly involved in the electric car company they started about the time Felix was organizing CalCars, but between the three of them -- and the unsung heros behind them -- they have helped change the world. But that's what lunch times are like at Buck's.

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