Will GM Win the Great Plug-In Hybrid Race?

Part II: Felix Kramer ? political change and grassroots conversions


  • Dr. Andrew Frank

    Dr. Andrew Frank

    Dr. Andrew Frank with a Chevrolet Equinox he has converted to a plug-in hybrid. Frank is director of future automotive technology for the University of California at Davis. | March 18, 2010

19 Photos

I'm in a coffee shop in San Mateo, California, waiting for plug-in hybrid advocate Felix Kramer, when my cell phone rings. He's outside and wants to know if I want to start by driving his modified plug-in Toyota Prius.

Behind the wheel, it is like any other Prius except the gas engine doesn't kick in. Eerily quiet, it's all-electric at speeds up to 35 mph, with a range of 25 miles. Kramer says when he drives locally, the gas engine doesn't come on at all. On the highway, for the first 100 miles, he gets 100 miles per gallon of gas. At night he plugs it in to a socket at his house to recharge.

Hmmm, let's think about that for a moment. No gas engine means no pollution from the tailpipe and no petro-dollars paid to foreign governments that hate us. And still, Kramer can get where he needs to go while carrying up to four passengers. Is this a preview of the future?

Kramer, founder of CalCars.org, hired EnergyCS to convert his 2004 Prius to a plug-in hybrid electric vehicle (PHEV). Now, the car is a rolling advertisement for plug-in technology. It has more stickers than a NASCAR racer. Plus, when he parks it he leaves a packet of flyers clipped to the side window with a sign inviting people to "Take One." You get the feeling that Kramer is on the job 24/7, trying to bring change to a world addicted to oil.

In fact, a feeling of change is already in the air. Our country's president, from an oil-rich family, has declared that we need to achieve energy independence and named plug-in technology as one road that will lead there. When GM announced development of not one, but two plug-in hybrids — the Chevrolet Volt and Saturn Vue Green Line hybrids, I began to feel something I hadn't experienced for a long time — hope. I was hopeful that good old U.S. homegrown technology would lead us out of the mess we've gotten ourselves into.

To learn more I borrowed our long-term test car, the Lexus RX 400h hybrid, and drove to Northern California, where I spoke with Dr. Andy Frank, the inventor of the modern plug-in hybrid, for Part I of this series. Today I'm speaking with Felix Kramer.

How significant was GM's announcement to build the Saturn Vue and the Chevy Volt? The combination [of the announcements] is seismic in the auto industry. It's the first time we have the largest automaker in the world saying our strategy is to move away from petroleum and electrify transportation. However they do it and however long it takes, that means everybody else in the auto industry now looks and says, "Maybe we need to do that, too."

What kind of pressure did CalCars put on GM to develop plug-in hybrids and do you think this made a difference? They've been watching what's been going on, and CalCars itself is only one of a lot of voices, and all those voices together — including Plug-In Partners, the legislators, the president talking with the automakers, seeing our [PHEV] cars on the road, newspaper articles and TV shows all over — I think that cumulatively has had a large effect on GM. And I think it resonated with people in the company [GM] who still dream about building cars they can feel good about.

Who have you been in contact with at GM and do you feel they are listening to you? We've met a number of their engineers and the people who are the interface between them and the world of sustainability and green businesses. We have good relationships with all those people. They've invited us to a number of their insider briefings and so forth. We haven't met Rick Wagoner but I hope to at some time.

How optimistic are you that the Vue will come to market? And when? I was really glad when they announced the two battery contractors and they said they would have prototypes this year. My biggest concern about GM remains the lack of a timetable. They should start now in getting good enough prototypes on the road and demonstration fleets on the road as soon as possible.

The Chevy Volt is a concept car. Do you think it will come to market? They say it is a concept car that is destined for production and I believe them.

Do you feel other automakers will see what GM is doing and follow suit? We have the first plug-in automotive race. GM is in the starting gate and the others are coming into the starting gate. First of all we have GM and Toyota both saying they want to be first. And that means by definition there is going to be a race. We have Ford saying they are keenly interested. We even have the biggest skeptic, Honda, saying they are evaluating plug-in hybrids now. And we have Malcolm Bricklin [who introduced Subaru to North America] saying he wants to do it in two years in China.

Is this the year when the plug-in breaks from the pack of alternative transportation options? I think there has been a major change of consciousness that began in '06 and will continue this year. The president talked about them in his State of the Union address. We're expecting a lot of activity on Capitol Hill. There were bills introduced last year but this year we think they will be passed. There is the DRIVE Act, a bipartisan and bicameral bill, which you usually don't see. They designed it that way so the president can sign it. I think there will be a lot of movement on that. And, if CalCars has the resources to do what we want to do, we will try to get GM to commit to production and commit to production fleets. And we hope to get more carmakers to do the same thing this year.

CalCars will soon be involved in converting hybrids to PHEVs. Can you describe this program and what you hope to accomplish with it? We are starting by doing four prototypes, two Priuses and two [Ford] Escape [Hybrids] with lithium-ion batteries. We expect to go from that, very rapidly, to a production program to hopefully do hundreds of vehicles of both types as soon as possible. We are doing this because there is a large unmet demand and we have worked closely with three aftermarket [plug-in hybrid] conversion companies. But it [the conversion process] has been too slow. The utilities and government agencies and the early adopters are jumping up and down and saying, "We want to try it, we want to experience it." So we want to meet that demand. So for us, conversion remains completely a strategy. The end point is to get carmakers to build plug-in hybrids. So we will build the prototypes at CalCars.org. But then to do the production vehicles we will start a company or partner with an existing company. This will still be strategic to getting car companies to build them, rather than to building a car company.

Is there something technical you hope to prove by putting more prototype plug-in hybrids on the road? The more prototypes we put on the road, the more we'll learn what works and what doesn't. There are many ways to optimize plug-in hybrid designs, and carmakers can do the best job at all of that. But they can learn what people want from our experience. Plug-in hybrids are ideal for customization. For example, if you live on top of a mountain, you don't want to fully charge your car at night [because you can recharge on the way down the mountain in the morning via regenerative braking]. If your plug-in hybrid computer can talk to your navigation system and it knows how much energy is left, it can decide if you are close to your final destination for the day [and deplete the battery knowing it will soon be recharged from the power grid]. Innovation in the car industry is going to be about customization, and we'd love to do some of that.

What do you estimate it will cost an individual to convert their car to a plug-in hybrid? OK, that's the EAA-PHEV Do It Yourself Project project, different than the company we just described. It's Open-Source style, with lead acid batteries. Anyone who owns 2004-'07 Prius — even if they have no technical background — we will hook them up with an electrician or engineer, and the two of them, in a vacation week, will get all the components they need and convert their car using lead acid batteries for under $5,000 or $6,000. That will give them a car that will give them an environmental feature. They won't get a quick payback, but they will get an environmental feature.

So you are talking about a kit and do-it-yourself plans. Yes. Exactly. It would be a 10-mile all-electric or 20-mile mixed driving per day.

Can you gauge the American public's desire to become energy independent? What's strong about plug-in hybrids is that there are three streams of interest. The first is people who are concerned about energy independence. The second is concern about global warming and greenhouse gases. And the third is saving money and being concerned about the health of the auto industry. Plug-in hybrids provide a solution to all three.

American automakers have been amazingly resistant to change. In your opinion, why is this? All automakers are resistant to change. They do what they understand. They also make mistakes often and only occasionally hit the jackpot.

Can you describe a typical day working on the CalCars mission? I have a largely electronic existence. Yesterday I had to write something down and fax it to someone, which reminded me that most of what I do is on the phone and by e-mail. I work out of my home. My work day is pretty continuous. I get e-mail news alerts 24 hours a day. CalCars is a largely virtual network: The only big meetings are public forums. And I have to say that it is all immensely satisfying. I've been more effective on this than anything else I've ever done before in my life.

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