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The Automobile’s Future

Courtesy of Tesla Motors Roadster electric car

Photo: Courtesy of Tesla Motors

An anonymous Texas engineer figured out how to activate the Prius button stateside, and that inspired California entrepreneur Felix Kramer to put out an online call for help in converting another Prius—one that could go farther. Electrical engineer Ron Gremban offered both his car and know-how. One-and-a-half years and one nickel-hydride battery later, they had a plug-in vehicle that could travel at least 20 emission-free miles—about the distance the average American drives per day. Its rear windshield reads: world’s first 100+ mpg plug-in prius.

Last year, Kramer took his own plug-in hybrid—the world’s eighth—to Washington, D.C., to show public officials that fuel efficiency could be doubled right now, without sacrificing safety or comfort. Until then, even most electric-vehicle enthusiasts had scoffed at any car that relied on gas. But Kramer proved, and publicized through his nonprofit campaign, California Cars Initiative (CalCars.org), that a vehicle could run on electricity as its primary power source, with a gasoline backup, instead of the other way around.

The electric cars manufactured in the 90’s under California’s Zero-Emission mandate had to rely on their own curbside and parking lot charging stations. The new electric vehicles and plug-in hybrids do not. In front of his house in Redwood City, Kramer plugs a yellow three-pronged connector attached to an extension cord into his Prius and puts the other end into an ordinary electric outlet in his garage. "I call it the fueling infrastructure of the future," he says. And the power plant of the future?He shows me his four-kilowatt rooftop solar system, the flat panels barely visible from his backyard. But solar-powered or not, any ordinary household has the capacity to recharge a plug-in hybrid’s battery. The cost, experts say, is a few cents per charge.

How long it takes to refill a car’s batteries depends in large part on the electricity coming out of a designated socket. Most household circuits are 120 volts and take six to eight hours to refill a car’s battery. A 220-volt circuit that runs an electric washer and dryer will recharge a battery in half that time. Fast rechargers are currently in development. One company, Phoenix Motorcars, in Rancho Cucamonga, California, will offer all-electric pickup trucks and SUV’s to business fleets next year, promising rapid chargers that can refill batteries in just 10 minutes.

So far, the only plug-in hybrids available to the public are hybrids that have been converted in very small shops. Seventy or so custom PHEV’s are now on the road. But before too long, there could be upwards of 800. New York State is converting 600 of the hybrids in its state fleet to plug-ins, and California businesses and local agencies are adding 100 more. That doesn’t count the private conversions going on or the plug-ins in development at such companies as Volvo, GM, and Ford. Toyota announced in August that it will be testing 10 newly redesigned plug-in Priuses in Japan.

If plug-in hybrids are the bridge to all-electric cars, then the bridge and the cars may arrive at the same time. Plug-ins will soon be less expensive to acquire and will far exceed the national gas-mileage average. But electric vehicles already out there get an energy equivalent of up to 130 mpg. Tesla Motors, maker of the widely heralded Tesla Roadster, says its car will have a range of more than 200 miles per charge. (A gas car can travel 300 to 400 miles on one tankful.)

Does all this mean a guilt-free road trip anytime soon? The answer to that question leans toward yes. Even on the highway, running on gas, plug-in hybrids will still have greater fuel efficiency. Flexible-fuel plug-in hybrids can run on gasoline or bio fuels (ethanol or biodiesel), the last mitigating our dependence on foreign oil while also lowering emissions.

When and if electric vehicles start to dominate, that will mean more stops for charging, perhaps, but also less money laid out along the way. Bryon Bliss of Phoenix Motorcars, which is now awaiting federal certification of its electric sports utility truck (SUT), predicts that filling stations will start out offering free rapid charges as a lure to get motorists to stop and shop in their stores. As more plug-ins and all-electrics go on the road, quick-charging stations will begin displacing gas pumps. Drivers could conceivably enter an era when, like the ATM’s that have wandered beyond banks, quick-charging stations will also be found at motels and hotels, parking lots, retail stores, you name it. In August, in fact, Tesla and Hyatt Hotels announced a partnership (Tesla investor Nicholas Pritzker, nephew of Hyatt’s founder, bought one of the company’s first cars). Hyatt plans to install chargers in its hotels that will take a car to full charge in 3½ hours or to a half-charge in 1½ hours. The company is basically saying, Come into Hyatt for lunch, plug in, and leave with a refilled "gas tank" that’ll take you another 100 miles. Stay overnight, and you’ll have a completely refilled battery.

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