Electric Dreams: Plug-in Cars Picking Up Speed and Credibility

The push for zero-emission vehicles is becoming stronger as the US Congress, European Commission and local authorities around the world prepare legislation to force carmakers to make their vehicles cleaner and more fuel-efficient.

Published: 08-Jan-2008

The place is Buck’s of Woodside, a Silicon Valley café whose slogan is “flapjacks and tomfoolery”. Executives from the area’s technology and venture capital companies frequent the whimsically decorated restaurant, alongside characters clearly inspired by California’s 1960s counterculture. Felix Kramer, an entrepreneur-turned-environmental activist, is expounding on his favourite topic: electric cars, and the big carmakers’ reluctance to build them commercially until they are cheaper and more reliable. “If the cell phone companies had said they wouldn’t make them because they weighed as much as a brick and would cost $1,000, we wouldn’t have them now,” he declares. “It’s arrogant to say you won’t build the version 1.0 car until it’s perfect.”

Mr Kramer’s pressure group, the Palo Alto-based California Cars Initiative (CalCars), has been taking matters into its own hands. The non-profit group dispenses advice on retrofitting Toyota Prius cars to convert them into plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs), which are capable of driving longer distances on battery power than conventional hybrid cars.

Toyota and General Motors, the world’s two biggest carmakers, are themselves testing plug-in vehicles but delaying their commercial launch, mainly due to snags in developing the lithium-ion batteries needed to power them. Mr Kramer already drives a Prius converted into a PHEV, painted with the inscription: “This Plug-In Hybrid gets 100+ MPG”. Outside the restaurant, someone has left an earnest note on his windscreen: “Do you know where I can buy batteries for hybrids or PHEVs?”

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