Tweaked hybrid gets 80 miles per gallon
By Tim Molloy Associated Press
CORTE MADERA, Calif. -- Politicians and automakers say a car that can both
reduce greenhouse gases and free America from its reliance on foreign oil
is years or even decades away.
Ron Gremban says such a car is parked in his garage.
It looks like a typical Toyota Prius hybrid, but in the trunk sits an 80
miles-per-gallon secret -- a stack of 18 brick-size batteries that boosts
the car's high mileage with an extra electrical charge so it can burn even
Gremban, an electrical engineer and committed environmentalist, spent
several months and $3,000 tinkering with his car.
Like all hybrids, his Prius increases fuel efficiency by harnessing small
amounts of electricity generated during braking and coasting. The extra
batteries let him store extra power by plugging the car into a wall outlet
at his home in this San Francisco suburb -- all for about a quarter.
He's part of a small but growing movement. "Plug-in" hybrids aren't yet
cost-efficient, but some of the dozen known experimental models have
gotten up to 250 mpg.
They have support not only from environmentalists but also from
conservative foreign-policy hawks who insist Americans fuel terrorism
through their gas guzzling.
And while the technology has existed for three decades, automakers are
beginning to take notice, too.
So far, DaimlerChrysler AG is the only company that has committed to
building its own plug-in hybrids, quietly pledging to make up to 40 vans
for U.S. companies. But Toyota Motor Corp. officials who initially frowned
on people altering their cars now say they may be able to learn from them.
"They're like the hot rodders of yesterday who did everything to soup up
their cars. It was all about horsepower and bling-bling, lots of chrome
and accessories," said Cindy Knight, a Toyota spokeswoman. "Maybe the hot
rodders of tomorrow are the people who want to get in there and see what
they can do about increasing fuel economy."
The extra batteries let Gremban drive for 20 miles with a 50-50 mix of gas
and electricity. Even after the car runs out of power from the batteries
and switches to the standard hybrid mode, it gets the typical Prius fuel
efficiency of around 45 mpg. As long as Gremban doesn't drive too far in a
day, he says, he gets 80 mpg.
"The value of plug-in hybrids is they can dramatically reduce gasoline
usage for the first few miles every day," Gremban said. "The average for
people's usage of a car is somewhere around 30 to 40 miles per day. During
that kind of driving, the plug-in hybrid can make a dramatic difference."
Backers of plug-in hybrids acknowledge that the electricity to boost their
cars generally comes from fossil fuels that create greenhouse gases, but
they say that process still produces far less pollution than oil. They
also note that electricity could be generated cleanly from solar power.
Gremban rigged his car to promote the nonprofit CalCars Initiative, a San
Francisco Bay area-based volunteer effort that argues automakers could
mass produce plug-in hybrids at a reasonable price.
But Toyota and other car companies say they are worried about the cost,
convenience and safety of plug-in hybrids -- and note that consumers
haven't embraced all-electric cars because of the inconvenience of
recharging them like giant cell phones.
Automakers have spent millions of dollars telling motorists that hybrids
don't need to be plugged in, and don't want to confuse the message.
Nonetheless, plug-in hybrids are starting to get the backing of prominent
hawks like former CIA Director James Woolsey and Frank Gaffney, President
Reagan's undersecretary of defense. They have joined Set America Free, a
group that wants the government to spend $12 billion over four years on
plug-in hybrids, alternative fuels and other measures to reduce foreign
Gaffney, who heads the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Security Policy,
said Americans would embrace plug-ins if they understood arguments from
him and others who say gasoline contributes to oil-rich Middle Eastern
governments that support terrorism.
"The more we are consuming oil that either comes from places that are bent
on our destruction or helping those who are ... the more we are enabling
those who are trying to kill us," Gaffney said.
DaimlerChrysler spokesman Nick Cappa said plug-in hybrids are ideal for
companies with fleets of vehicles that can be recharged at a central
location at night. He declined to name the companies buying the vehicles
and said he did not know the vehicles' mileage or cost, or when they would
be available. On the Net:
CalCars Initiative: calcars.org
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