Plug-In Hybrid Kits: A Hobby No More

By Bill Moore

Posted: 31 Aug 2009

When Greg Hanssen and Peter Nortman showed me their newly completed Prius conversion back in the Spring of 2005, it was, essentially, the first of its kind. There had been a few primitive attempts to attach lead acid batteries to earlier Prius hybrids, but no one had tried something this sophisticated.

While the team of Hanssen and Nortman would go their separate ways, the technology they fostered helped pave the way towards vehicles like the Chevy Volt and Fisker Karma. It also opened the door to a handful of entrepreneurs who took up where the two had left off, offering increasingly sophisticated packages that would also include the Ford Escape Hybrid, as well as the second generation Toyota Prius, spawning a high-tech cottage industry of sorts whose offerings run the price spectrum from a few thousand to upwards of $13,000 and more.

Earlier this year, in anticipation of more players, from manufacturers to installers, entering the fray, California's Air Resources Board (CARB) Staff proposed a regulatory framework that even its board members recognized was premature given the clearly nascent nature of the industry where installations are counted in the dozens within the state and maybe hundreds nationally.

Now CARB's Staff is back with a revised set to rules to govern the handful of manufacturers and installer in the state. In reading over their proposed regulations, it is clear that ARB's Staff means business, and on reflection that will be a good thing both for consumers and the manufacturers and their installers, bringing order to what has been a technological free-for-all.

What Staff is proposing is a set to policies and procedures that seeks to prevent slipshod products and services finding their way into converted Priuses, Escapes and related hybrid vehicles operated within the State. Because of their Integrated Motor Assist architecture, Honda hybrids cannot be converted to what ARB calls "Off-Vehicle Charge Capable Conversion Systems." The hybrid vehicle's battery has to be able to be charged from an external source other than the car's integrated motor/generator, which Honda's cannot. At present only Ford and Toyota hybrid systems offer this capability. This is because they alone can move under electric power only. (GM's Two-Mode system does as well, but to my knowledge, no one has sought to modify their system, probably because so few have been sold compared to Ford and especially Toyota hybrids, the latter in their hundreds of thousands.)

Of interest to you, the consumer -- assuming you live in California, where the proposed regulations would apply -- is the proposal's warranty requirements. Chief among these is the equivalent of the physician's oath to "do no harm." Regardless of the battery type or electronic configuration, no system or installation shall cause damage "to any part of the converted vehicle." In short, it is not allowed to change the vehicle's emissions, performance or handling.

Further the plug-in system manufacturer shall assume the full repair and replacement costs -- including diagnostics, labor and parts -- on the converted vehicle "that is due to a defect in the conversion system." The manufacturer then has to provide this coverage to the original conversion customer and all subsequent owners of that vehicle for five years or 75,000 miles, whichever comes first, or what's left of the original manufacturer (Toyota or Ford, in most cases) warranty, whichever is longer.

The system installer is also required to make certain warrants under the proposed ARB rules, which appear designed to cull out the incompetent and unscrupulous. If you want to go into the plug-in kit installation business in California, you'd better be prepared for the consequences if you screw up.

For starters, installers must warrant to each and every person paying for the installation, as well as all subsequent vehicle owners, that the system conforms to ARB requirements and that no part of the converted vehicles will be damaged because the installation might have been done incorrectly. Additionally, the installer is only allowed to install those systems that have been previously certified by ARB. Should the installation or system cause the vehicle to not meet ARB emissions standards, the installer has to pay for any tampering fines the vehicle owner and all subsequent owners might incur for a period 3 years or 50,000 miles. As with the manufacturer, the installer has to bear all costs of any repairs that might arise from a faulty installation. The installer has to provide ARB with a copy of the warranty prior to engaging in any installations.

It seems apparent that the purpose behind these measures is to make sure only professionally engineered products find their way into California's hybrids. While they appear fairly intimidating from the perspective of a tiny start-up business operating out of the proverbial garage, it should have the effect of weeding out poorly designed technology, as well as fostering stronger collaborative initiatives, all of which will ultimately benefit everyone, while allowing a reasonable amount of latitude for the little guy.

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