To see the future of the American automobile, take a spin down to Corte Madera, California, and introduce yourself to the CalCars boys.
This group of rebels met one sunny day in April 2004 in the garage of a typical condominium ten miles north of the Golden Gate, determined to roll out a car that could be “fueled” by plugging it into a wall at night with a standard extension cord and run on gas when needed. It was a Toyota Prius when they started and a symbol of an American revolution in automobiles when they finished.
The group was led by Felix Kramer, an entrepreneur who had an idea as big as his mustache. In 2003, after selling his Internet start-up, he cast about for his next adventure and landed on an audacious quest: to revolutionize the auto industry.
He knew that gas-powered, internal combustion cars were destroying the atmosphere and deepening our addiction to oil, and that things had to change. He stumbled on the work of Andy Frank at the University of California at Davis and Bob Graham at the Electric Power Research Institute. They are brilliant inventors who had radically re-thought how to power a car and created a blueprint for the first hybrid you could charge on the grid. Kramer decided to build a mass market for this change.
“Our whole auto configuration was decided by just a very few people, a handful of big auto company execs and the government. They had fouled up,” he said. “It was time to expand the number of Americans who had a hand in this future. So I decided to build a large group of folks who would demand the production of a clean, efficient car. To do that, I knew we had to first build such a car. So that’s exactly what we did.”
A multi-talented group of innovators answered Kramer's Internet call. They met in a garage owned by one of the new members of the team. Then they put the Internet to work to generate “open source” ideas they could incorporate into the design. Two years and a thousand feet of wire later they had converted a 2004 Prius into a car capable of driving on nothing but electricity from the garage wall jack for its first twenty-five miles each day. Kramer's plug-in may be the first car ever built “over the Internet.”
Secret SwitchIt was not an easy project. They succeeded only after discovering a secret switch that had literally been hidden in the American version of the Prius hybrid, which allowed the car to run in an all-electric mode, never relying on the gasoline engine. That discovery triggered Felix’s revelation that if he could boost the battery capacity, he could create a hybrid with monstrous mileage. So they went to work with a collection of tools, $700 worth of old nickel hydride batteries, and a growing collection of car enthusiasts who hovered around the garage at all hours.
When they finally drove their number out of the driveway and down the street in September 2004, Kramer felt justifiable pride. “All kinds of people want this kind of car: people like generals who care about security; environmentalists who care about the planet; and municipalities who care about cost.
“But it seems the last people in the world to ‘get it’ are the big car companies,” Kramer added. “Now that our CalCars cars are on the road, and these cars are being built in various places around the country, our vision is going to force changes. That is now happening.”
Plug-in, Second GenerationIt sure is. Kramer now has been tooling around California for 15,000 happy miles in his second-generation plug-in. It uses lithium ion batteries, gets a hundred miles per gallon of gas, and costs one cent a mile to run. Compare that to nine cents a mile to fuel a typical car with just gas. It is a miser of a car.
Kramer owns the first plug-in hybrid ever commercially sold in America. Plug-in hybrids are not yet rolling off assembly lines, but custom conversions like Kramer’s — built by EnergyCS, a small start-up in California that is beginning to make plug-in conversions available to the public — are being sought by an ever-growing market. Many more will follow.
Kramer takes joy in the car’s simplicity. He plugs a 19-inch cord in the rear bumper into a standard extension cord in his garage at night. Tooling around town, he is in all-electric mode for the first twenty-five quiet miles, covering the majority of his commutes gasoline free. He delights when he goes into forums of energy experts and shows them the little cord he uses.
What’s more, Kramer can smile as he drives, because with every mile he is saving CO2 emissions. He says, “When the car is in all-electric mode, it is putting out 60 percent less CO2 than a normal gas car, even taking into consideration all the CO2 coming out of the stacks of the plants that generate the electricity. Even if we never improve our electrical grid a bit, and even if people drive way more than the batteries can hold, some studies have shown this car can reduce CO2 by 36 percent. This is the best thing on the global warming front going.”
As an added bonus, Kramer’s wonder car has an attribute no mortal and few machines can claim—it gets better with age. “The electrical grid feeding my car is going to get cleaner over time,” he explains. “Instead of burning coal that releases carbon, we will be relying more and more on wind power, solar power, and geothermal. So the fuel—electricity—driving my car is going to get cleaner every year. How many cars do you know that get better the longer they are on the road?”
What About Detroit?Can Detroit deliver anything comparable?
We asked Tom and Ray Magliozzi, better known as Click and Clack, the Tappet Brothers, stars of the nationally syndicated radio talk show Car Talk. Their opinions are not exactly nuanced: “For thirty years now the companies have put everything they had into more power instead of more efficiency.”
Ray, who has a degree from MIT—as does Tom—and now runs Ray’s Garage in Cambridge, Massachusetts, elaborates: “The technology has been incredible, but it’s all about power. If the companies had put into efficiency what they have put into power, we would be driving cars getting sixty miles per gallon now. They have done fuel injection and computer-controlled engines but have not put those gains into efficiency. Any high schooler could have done better if they had wanted to.”
Indeed, Detroit cannot lead the way into the future by tinkering at the margins of its old business model. Nor can it get away with disingenuous promises of cleaner cars and ad campaigns that show gas-guzzling SUVs bringing us closer to nature. It will have to adopt the same spirit of innovation as Felix Kramer and his plug-in crew.
With General Motors now poised to release the plug-in hybrid electric Volt, it just might be that the revolution Kramer sought to provoke is starting to take hold. Only time will tell if the big three are ready to get serious about radical new designs that break our addiction to oil. But the technology is fast approaching that can help US auto companies make the leap beyond the small efficiency gains that have dominated recent fights, and finally launch us into a future of clean and efficient energy.
A National Security BenefitWhen plug-in technology is combined with a flex-fuel engine that can burn gas or biofuels, it can actually get vastly higher mileage per gallon of gas. Even without using biofuels, it reduces our dependence on foreign fuel, because 97 percent of the electricity it consumes is produced from domestic energy sources. Kramer’s car is virtually free of Saudi Arabian influence.
Excitement for hybrids is not confined to the road. Utilities salivate over the prospect of turning the storage capacity of plug-in batteries into an adjunct to the electrical grid. Power plants may soon be able to feed their juice into our car batteries at night when demand is lowest, using base electric load more efficiently and storing energy in our cars while they are parked for use during the day. In this way, our cars may one day serve to level out electrical supply and demand on the grid as we slumber.
Roger Duncan, vice president of Austin Energy, a Texas utility, is working to make plug-ins a regular feature of the grid. He has organized a massive national grassroots initiative called Plug-In Partners, which has demonstrated the demand for these cars with pledges from literally hundreds of cities, businesses, and non-profits from Chicago to Phoenix, from California Edison to the U.S. PIRGs (Public Interest Research Groups). Chicago is retrofitting 850 plug-in hybrids, and New York State is converting the 600 hybrids in its fleet to plug-ins.2 Several companies are already converting hybrids for commercial sale using the ideas of these pioneers.
A garage gave birth to Hewlett-Packard and the electronic age, not to mention rock and roll and the modern entertainment industry. A garage may also have given birth to the future of personal transportation and the age of the plug-in car.