Book sample: Plug-in Hybrids

Plug-in Hybrids: The Cars That Will Recharge America*

By Sherry Boschert (New Society Publishers, 2006)

Part 2: The Tech Squad

CalCars volunteers work on the first Prius conversion to a plug-in hybrid. From left: Felix Kramer; Marc Geller; Kevin Lyons, and Andrew Lawton. (Photo courtesy of CalCars.)

CalCars volunteers work on the first Prius conversion to a plug-in hybrid. From left: Felix Kramer; Marc Geller; Kevin Lyons, and Andrew Lawton. (Photo courtesy of CalCars.)

[Page 49 in printed book]

Chapter 3: Felix Flirts with Hydrogen

Felix Kramer took the piece of copper pipe and a hammer onto the driveway outside the crowded garage of Ron Gremban’s townhouse. The garage was too cramped for Kramer’s six-foot, two-inch frame, what with all the tools and random but useful pieces of materials and dozens of carefully labeled boxes and drawers full of parts and supplies. Plus, too many “cooks” crowded the space, stirred the pot they were focusing on – converting Gremban’s silver 2004 Toyota Prius into a plug-in hybrid. They would make it a Prius plus more batteries and a plug for recharging, so they dubbed it the PRIUS+.

Their modifications would allow the car to get 100 miles per gallon of gasoline plus a bit of cheap electricity. The PRIUS+ would show the world that these cars could be made today. If a bunch of hackers could do it in Gremban’s garage, surely Toyota or one of the other car companies could make much better plug-in hybrids now, instead of waiting for the holy grail of hydrogen fuel-cell cars that they all were promising.

The PRIUS+ would be an improvement, but there’s no denying what a great car they had to start from. Toyota had built an impressive product: complex; efficient, and low-polluting. It [Page 50 in printed book] seamlessly coordinated gasoline and electric drivetrains with an advanced computer control system. Kramer imagined how Toyota engineers might be aghast at what they now were attempting – messing with the management system, adding batteries and a charger.

The project would take engineering skill, a mind for electronics, and the know-how to write computer code to fool the Prius system. It would take someone who could scope out the right batteries and components, or hand-make the components if necessary. It would take someone who could troubleshoot dozens of mechanical, electrical, and computer glitches.

That someone was not Kramer.

He squinted in the sun outside the beige row of condos and knelt down to place the copper pipe on the warm black pavement. Holding it steady with one hand, he swung back the hammer, gave the pipe a good, hard whack, then kept on pounding. The ringing sounds of metal on metal echoed those from Marc Geller, who pounded another length of copper pipe next to Kramer on the driveway. Their job: smash those suckers flat. Then pick up another piece of pipe, and smash it flat too. And another.

Although Kramer was the founder and lead strategist of the California Cars Initiative, known as CalCars, he was happy today to be taking orders from CalCars’ lead technical coordinator, Ron Gremban. The two of them were the figureheads of CalCars, heading up a virtual community of engineers, entrepreneurs, and activists who had spent months preparing for this day. Gremban knew in his head what needed to happen and the basics of how to do most of it. He didn’t have a written list or instructions. When a volunteer was free, he offered a task. If the volunteer’s skills weren’t up to the task, he gently offered a simpler one.

Gremban had helped build an electric car once and worked for a short time in the 1970s for a small electric-car company, directing research and development. But that was decades ago. Since then he’d moved into software development and sales of solar energy systems. For this project, he relied on his research, his smarts, and an invaluable collection of electric-vehicle enthusiasts who communicated mainly by e-mail and Web postings. [Page 51 in printed book] They had worked out much of the plans and specifications online together. When the parts were delivered and the time came for action, Kramer posted a call in September 2004 to volunteers all over the San Francisco Bay Area to come by Gremban’s Corte Madera condo whenever they could help.

Volunteers showed up every day for two weeks, usually two or three a day. Only a few had specialized skills; mostly they just had enthusiasm. Their initiative and cleverness amazed Gremban. He didn’t have time to worry about whether they would succeed. “There was so much happening so fast that it had to happen organically,” he said.

Someone picked up the stray aluminum strips in Gremban’s garage and made a box to house the batteries. Someone else cut plywood to fit under the battery box. They bent plastic for a plenum and installed fans to cool the batteries. They mounted contactors, lots of homemade circuit boards, a fuse block, and a terminal strip. In the driver’s compartment near the dashboard they drilled and installed an analogue meter that would help assess the PRIUS+ performance once it got going.  All the cables and connectors needed lugs put on their ends. There was a seemingly endless amount of point-to-point wiring needed for the coils and contactors and fans and other parts. The less-skilled volunteers made repeated runs to the local big-box hardware story for supplies.

They improvised when needed, wrapping aluminum foil around a toroid to form a Farraday cage to isolate it from electrical fields, and covering it with a plastic bag to isolate it further so that it wouldn’t short out something.

An online advisor with relatively recent experience converting a gasoline car to electric had warned Gremban that he’d need flexibility in the wiring between the batteries, or else the contacts would work loose due to the vibration while driving. The normal solution – cables – wouldn’t fit in the tight space of the Prius hatchback’s battery box and would be too much work anyway. Another solution – busbars – typically would be too rigid. That’s where the copper tubing came in handy. Flattened, bent, [Page 52 in printed book] and attached to the battery contacts, they had enough spring in them to absorb the vibrations.

Kramer, Geller, and Kevin Lyons pounded tube after tube of copper. Andrew Lawton took the flattened strips, bent them into busbars, and positioned them between the rows of batteries sitting in the back of the Prius above the spare-tire well and below the removable floorboard.

Kramer paused in his pounding to rest, and marveled at the five volunteers assembled here. This would go down in history as one of the largest meetings of Calcars’s members. A historian at heart, Kramer liked to think of his days as being full of historical significance to future citizens. There was some precedence for this – the Lawrence Felix Kramer Archive at Cornell University, his alma mater, includes a year’s worth of leaflets and buttons that he collected at college and during time he took off from school to do anti-Viet Nam War and anti-draft organizing.

The same impulses led him to save every e-mail in a complete CalCars archive and to make the whole endeavor as open-source as possible, sharing everything for free with anyone who might be interested. CalCars was a light, lean non-profit that achieved its goals primarily through electronic communications, virtual community, and “viral networking.”

[Page 53 in printed book] Kramer stood up and pushed his smudged glasses back up the bridge of his nose. Though he was a sometime-marathon runner and in good shape, crouching and hammering was hard work. He stepped into the shade of the garage and entered the side door to the condo, his head nearly even with the carpeted catwalk that Gremban had built for his kitties, trailing along the top of the wall from the garage, down a hall, and into the kitchen. Kramer poured himself a cold glass of water and looked out over the grassy creek bed beside the townhouse complex, framed by the sounds of rushing cars on the freeway nearby.

Water and cars. This whole thing, in a way, had started with water and cars.


Water is one part oxygen and two parts hydrogen. Hydrogen is attached to lots of elements in the universe but it doesn’t exist alone naturally. For ages, inventors have toyed with ways to pry hydrogen loose and use the extremely combustible gas as a fuel.

One of those hydrogen visionaries had been a role model for Kramer: Amory Lovins, founder of the environmental think tank The Rocky Mountain Institute, whose articles about alternative energy influenced Kramer’s thinking in the late 1970s. Twenty years later, Kramer, by then a successful entrepreneur, picked up a 1999 book co-authored by Lovins, Natural Capitalism. The authors posited a vast array of ecologically smart options available to businesses and devoted a whole chapter to describing the Hypercar, an ultralight, aerodynamic vehicle fueled by hybrid hydrogen-electric systems that emitted nothing but a trickle of water.

The idea caught Kramer’s fancy at just the right time; he was ready for a change in his life. One of the earliest desktop publishers in the 1980s, he wrote the first book about the field in 1990, self-produced and self-marketed, of course. That was the first time he sold a product that he believed in, and he learned how savvy marketing to user groups in the pre-Internet days could lead to sales. By 1994 he was doing Internet marketing of other people’s products.

[Page 54 in printed book] Kramer sold his desktop publishing business in 1997 when he and his wife, Rochelle Lefkowitz, and their son Josh moved to Northern California from New York City. Over the next four hears he built an online business,, a marketplace of Web developers. He raised $1 million in angel financing during the Silicon Valley boom years and sold the successful business in early 2001, just after the high-flying, high-tech economy went bust. It didn’t make him rich, but between that and a few profits from stock investments, he had the luxury of deciding just what he wanted to do next. For a time, at least, he could do whatever he wanted.

What called to him was one of his first loves – environmentalism. As a college student, he had experienced the first Earth Day in 1970. He realized early on that prices of goods in our economy don’t reflect their full cost because they seldom include the costs to the environment.

He became executive director of New York SunDay, part of a broader solar energy day with events around the country, during which President Carter put solar collectors on the White House. (President Ronald Reagan took them down, and President George W. Bush put them back up.) The small group behind New York SunDay created a professional-looking brochure for a solar trade show, with a picture on the cover of the massive U.S. Custom House (now the museum of American Indians) “to show that we were real. We didn’t have any exhibitors yet,” Kramer recalled. The brochure projected a vision and described how to make it real. “That’s been kind of my guiding principle ever since,” he said. “It has worked well to say to people, `Here’s where we want to be. Here’s what we aim to do. Here’s what we’ve got now.’”

Later he worked as executive director of a non-profit organization that merged environmental technology with urban social justice issues. In the Reagan era, as the price of oil dropped, support for alternative energy waned. Computers came on the scene, and Kramer wandered away from his environmental roots, at least professionally.

In 2001 he was a free man with some money, and here was the Hypercar (or at least the idea of it) being championed by one of [Page 55 in printed book] his heroes. “It was just amazing, and sounded like it was real,” he said. Surely now was the time to follow his heart and become a green entrepreneur. He approached Hypercar (which the Rocky Mountain Institute had spun off as a business) with the idea of taking advance orders for the car in California instead of simply waiting for the major automakers to become interested.

Kramer had another reason that year to follow his dreams. Ever since he was a teenager, he’d gradually been losing his hearing and developed tinnitus (ringing in the ears). Now things were getting much worse. Medical imaging showed an acoustic neuroma – a benign tumor on one ear canal. Before undergoing the lengthy, near-brain surgery to remove the tumor, he took a vacation to Europe with his family that he’d been postponing for years.

Surgeons said removing the tumor was like scraping peanut butter off a wet noodle. It left him with no hearing in one ear and wrecked much of his vestibular function, his sense of balance. Riding a bike or ice-skating became harder, but he still could run and ski.

It all made Kramer think hard about what he wanted to do. What he could do.

A year of discussions with Hypercar didn’t lead to much, so Kramer made an adjustment. He would start a business that would take orders for future delivery of the ultralight, fully optimized hydrogen fuel-cell cars and then hire Hypercar to make them. With co-sponsorship from Hypercar, he invited 75 engineers, environmentalists, and investors who were familiar with the Hypercar concept to a meeting at the knOwhere Store in Palo Alto, Calif., to found the California Car Company Initiative.

The concept of hydrogen fuel-cell cars was hot. “It enchanted me and a lot of other people,” Kramer said. The idea seemed appealing. Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe. The process would use electricity to strip hydrogen from its tight bond with other elements in natural gas or water. Later the hydrogen would be combined with oxygen on the electrode of a fuel cell in a car, generating electricity that would run the electric car. Out the tailpipe would come nothing but trickles of water.

[Page 56 in printed book] When scientists managed to cut the cost of a particular kind of fuel cell by nearly a factor of 10 in the early 1990s, they sparked a conflagration of interest in fuel-cell research, especially for transportation. Auto companies, oil companies, and new industries jumped on board. General Motors (GM), Honda, Toyota, Daimler Chrysler, Nissan, and Hyundai each began spending hundreds of millions of dollars on fuel-cell vehicle research and development.

In 1997 German automaker Daimler-Benz declared that it would start selling a minimum of 100,000 hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles by 2005.[1] Ford claimed it would have a prototype to show by 2000. Later in 1997, Ford formed a joint venture with Daimler-Benz and Ballard Power Systems, saying they expected to have fuel-cell vehicles on the road by 2004. After the 1998 merger that produced DaimlerChrysler, the company revised its estimates to 40,000 fuel-cell vehicles in 2004 and 100,000 in 2006. In November 2000, DaimlerChrysler unveiled its NECAR 5 fuel-cell vehicle. Spokesmen admitted the fuel cell still was in the development stage but felt it could be competitive with the internal combustion engine in a few years.[2]

In July 2000, GM introduced a prototype fuel-cell vehicle called the HydroGen1 and predicted it would be competitive in showrooms by 2004. GM and Toyota announced that they would work together on hydrogen fuel-cell research, and Honda said it was spending millions of dollars to develop its own fuel-cell vehicles. Ford, DaimlerChrysler, and Ballard teamed up with oil companies Texaco, ARCO, and Shell and the State of California to form “The California Fuel Cell Partnership: Driving for the Future,” which still exists today.

In his 2003 State of the Union address, President George W. Bush proposed funding $1.2 billion in research on “clean, hydrogen-powered automobiles.” Two months later, the California Air Resources Board (CARB) chose the promises of future hydrogen-powered cars over the reality of electric cars and essentially took the “zero” out of the Zero Emissions Vehicles Mandate.

CARB’s Alan Lloyd preferred to switch rather than fight the car companies. “They’re all working on fuel-cell vehicles. And [Page 57 in printed book] that didn’t happen with battery electrics. So, to me, that is the huge difference,” he later would tell filmmakers.[3]

GM officials in August of 2003 argued that changes in federal fuel-efficiency regulations should be delayed because the promise of hydrogen cars was about to be fulfilled. By 2004, the GM-Toyota cooperation on fuel cells had dissolved, and Toyota all but abandoned the hydrogen scenario, while saying in public that it was keeping all options open.

Toyota’s spokesman Bill Reinert admitted in media interviews that “the cars have a limited range, the durability of the cars isn’t so very good, and they don’t do well in cold weather. Other than that, they’re great.” For saying that it might be 20 to 30 years before consumers could go to a dealer and get one, he took flak from federal and state officials and people in the hydrogen industry. “Just because a lot of people want it to work is no guarantee,” Reinert said.


Toyota had banked primarily on hybrids, so disparaging statements about hydrogen could be tinged with self-interest. But the company was far from alone in waving warning flags about hydrogen hype.

Joseph J. Romm, a former energy official in the Clinton administration, posits five “miracles” that must take place for hydrogen fuel-cell cars to be competitive. The cars cost about $1 million each, so that’s got to drop. Because hydrogen is so light, there is no known material that can hold enough of the gas, even if condensed under pressure, to give a car the kind of range consumers want, so designing on-board storage seems impossible. The cost of making hydrogen would need to decrease by at least two- or three-fold, probably more. Tens of thousands of expensive hydrogen fueling stations would need to be erected before anyone knows whether the cars will succeed on the marketplace. And competing car technologies must not look like better options than hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles.

Plug-in hybrid technology already seems superior to hydrogen fuel-cell cars on a number of levels and is available sooner, he adds.

[Page 58 in printed book] Romm served in the Department of Energy during a nearly 10-fold buildup in funding for research on hydrogen fuel cells from 1993 to 1998. Research advances steadily reduced the cost of fuel cells, but they remained extremely expensive, and the other limitations of hydrogen-powered transportation couldn’t be ignored. By 2004 Romm was touring to promote his book The Hype About Hydrogen: Fact and Fiction in the Race to Save the Climate (Island Press, 2004) and decrying the huge amounts of money being squandered on hydrogen programs instead of funding plug-in hybrids and other technologies that could make a difference much sooner.

Romm has called the hydrogen scenario “one of the biggest blunders in the history of the automotive industry.”

Hydrogen is the tiniest and leakiest of gas molecules and much more flammable than natural gas or gasoline. Cellphones can ignite a hydrogen fire, which burns almost invisibly. People have been known to walk into hydrogen fires because they don’t see them.

The only fossil fuel-free scenario for a hydrogen economy depends on using electricity from renewable sources to separate water into hydrogen and oxygen by electrolysis, an extremely energy-intensive process. It would require as much electricity as was sold in all of 2004 in the United States to make enough hydrogen to power half of the U.S. vehicles in 2025.[4]

The basic inefficiency of hydrogen vehicles is simple to describe. Here’s the loop for an electric car: Electricity is stored in batteries, then used to power the car. Here’s the loop for a hydrogen car: Electricity is used to extract the hydrogen, which is combined with oxygen on board the car to make electricity, which then powers what basically is an electric car.

Multiple analyses report that three or four times as much electricity is needed to run a car on hydrogen compared with using the electricity directly in an electric car to go the same distance. That’s because after using electricity to create hydrogen through electrolysis, transporting the hydrogen, pumping it, and converting it back to electricity in a fuel cell, only 20%-25% of the original electricity reaches the motor, Romm explained.[5] In an [Page 59 in printed book] electric car, 75%-80% of the original electricity reaches the motor after transmission through the electrical grid, charging the car’s batteries and discharging the batteries. Electric cars and plug-in hybrids should be able to run in electric mode three to four times the distance of a hydrogen fuel-cell car on the same amount of electricity.

One study calculated a smaller difference and says that if wind power is used to generate electricity, 60% more windmills would be needed to run a car on hydrogen compared with running an electric car.[6]

Whether the difference is 60% or 300%-400%, using the electricity directly in electric vehicles and plug-in hybrids makes more sense than squandering it on hydrogen production. Why build 160-400 windmills when 100 would suffice?

For example, the Canadian province of Manitoba gets nearly all of its electricity from renewables, mainly from hydroelectric dams. The existing power capacity at night there already is sufficient to power all vehicles in the province if they were battery-electric, but hydrogen cars would require the building of two more large dams producing over 1,000 mW each, Manitoba Hydro’s Ed Innes said at a 2005 meeting of the Electric Drive Transportation Association.

AC Propulsion, a Southern California research and design company for electric vehicles, compared the 2003 Honda FCX fuel-cell vehicle (a sedan) with the 2003 Toyota RAV4-EV electric SUV (a compact SUV). To go one mile, the Honda FCX requires 1.2 kWh of electricity, while the RAV4-EV needs only 0.3kWh, making the electric SUV four times more efficient than the fuel-cell car.

Fuel-cell vehicles won’t necessarily reduce greenhouse gas emissions, either. AC Propulsion’s Alec Brooks (now with AeroVironment) compared the Honda FCX to the conventional Honda Civic gasoline car. Assuming that 33% of the electricity used to make the hydrogen comes from new sources of emission-free renewable energy (like solar or wind power) and the rest comes from the relatively clean California electricity grid, the Honda FCX still would produce more global-warming gases than [Page 60 in printed book] would the gasoline Honda Civic: 341 grams of carbon dioxide per mile with hydrogen versus 321 grams per mile with gasoline.

The renewable energy used to make hydrogen would have a better environmental impact if instead it was fed to the grid to reduce the need for energy from less-clean sources and the associated power plant emissions. Brooks’ analysis suggests that if we combine this reduction in emissions with the amount of emissions produced by the gasoline Civic, the overall carbon dioxide per mile would be lowered to 153 grams per mile. Replace the Civic with a Prius hybrid in that scenario, and the carbon dioxide total drops to 30 grams per mile.

The numbers get into the negative range when substituting electric-drive cars for the Civic. Feeding the renewable energy to the grid and driving a plug-in Prius would result in an overall decrease of 6 grams per mile of carbon dioxide because more emissions are avoided from the grid than are produced by the car. Send the renewable energy to the grid and drive a Toyota RAV4-EV, which has no emissions, and 27 grams per mile of carbon dioxide are avoided.

Using renewable energy to reduce the need for coal-fired electricity would prevent three times as many greenhouse gases as using the renewable energy to run cars on hydrogen fuel cells, a study by the Institute for Lifecycle Environmental Assessment concluded.[7] The number of solar panels needed to power a hydrogen fuel-cell car for a day could power an electric car plus run a house for a day if the electricity is fed to the grid, AC Propulsion estimated.

In 2003 electric-vehicle activist Mike Kane calculated the number of solar panels needed to make electricity for an electric Honda EV Plus driving 75 miles per day. He compared that with panels needed to power a Stuart Energy Hydrogen generator to run a Honda FCX fuel-cell car the same distance. (The two cars have the same body type.) Solar panels for the electric vehicle would cost $33,600 and fill 450 square feet, meaning they would fit on the roof of an average home. Panels for the fuel-cell vehicle would cost $81,600 and fill 1,100 square feet, too expensive and too large for the average homeowner.

[Page 61 in printed book] Then there’s the unimaginable expense of a hydrogen economy. Building enough infrastructure to service 40% of U.S. cars, light trucks, and SUVs would cost more than $500 billion, even with improved technology, one study estimated.[8] A hydrogen economy could require $2 trillion to $3 trillion just for the new pipelines to hold the hydrogen, suggested Surya Prakash, professor of chemistry at the University of Southern California.[9] Hydrogen fuel for just 2% of U.S. cars would cost $20 billion, one oil company estimated.[10]

Some 50 million tons of hydrogen now is produced worldwide for industrial uses each year, so there already is some infrastructure, Larry D. Burns, GM’s director of strategic planning, noted in 2005. To construct 12,000 hydrogen filling stations in the 100 largest U.S. cities would cost $12 billion, or $1 million per station, he estimated.[11]

In the best-case scenario, it will take decades to transition to a hydrogen economy, which might bring only minor reductions in carbon dioxide emissions and oil imports during the next 25 years, a National Academy of Sciences panel concluded in 2004.[12]

Despite the enthusiastic hype for hydrogen, the obvious obstacles are beginning to change some minds. By early 2006, some government officials were starting to speak truth to hydrogen, even in the presence of President Bush. Asked to describe the feasibility of hydrogen-powered transportation during a presidential visit to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, the lab’s Dale Gardner responded, “It’s going to be out in the middle of the century. It’s not going to be something that’s going to happen in the next 15 or 20 years.”


Some of the people who joined Kramer at the KnOwhere Store in July of 2002 already had a sense that the hydrogen scenario might be running on hype. They gave him two key pieces of advice: Make CalCars a non-profit instead of a for-profit organization, and don’t bet on something so far out in the future, something so dependent on unproven technology as hydrogen fuel cells. They counseled him to focus on hybrids. Kramer listened. He dropped [Page 62 in printed book] “Company” and renamed the organization the California Cars Initiative (CalCars), and started looking for something to promote that was near-term, not decades away.

He was nothing if not pragmatic. Kramer had lived without a car easily for 25 years in New York, but when he came to California, he needed two cars — a sedan and a minivan for himself and his family. He checked the top sellers and bought a Toyota Camry and a Dodge Caravan.

A few years later, he saw GM’s EV1 electric car but wasn’t tempted to lease one. He liked the car but didn’t think it had much of a future. “I always thought electric vehicles were never going to go anywhere because Americans were never going to go for a car that didn’t have a longer range. All the advertising was about freedom,” Kramer says.

In late 2001 an acquaintance invited him to visit the Palo Alto-based Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) for a special event featuring the EV1 and a prototype plug-in hybrid converted from a Chevrolet Suburban SUV by a professor at the University of California, Davis.

Seeing and riding in the plug-in Suburban was a “Eureka!” moment for Kramer. “I was just amazed,” he recalled. Here was the entirely pragmatic compromise between hybrids and electric vehicles, a car that could run the first 60 miles on electricity but had a downsized internal combustion engine to provide insurance for long-distance driving.

CalCars began laying plans to convert a compact SUV into a plug-in hybrid, starting from either a Hyundai Santa Fe or a Toyota RAV4 (both compact SUVs that also had been built as electric vehicles). Kramer rejected the idea of modifying a Prius after reading articles by Toyota engineers emphasizing the impracticality of converting the first U.S. Prius model to be a plug-in. There wasn’t room for the batteries, they said, and the electrical components were sized to run only at low speeds.

Kramer went back to EPRI to talk with staff who headed up the industry research group’s efforts around plug-in hybrids. EPRI had been a booster of electric vehicles in the 1990s, but its transportation division had shifted focus in 2000 in reaction to [Page 63 in printed book] automakers’ staunch opposition to the Zero-Emission Vehicle (ZEV) Mandate. EPRI felt it couldn’t justify spending the electrical utilities’s money on a product that wasn’t’ going to be built. Instead it formed the Hybrid Electric Vehicle Working Group to lay the groundwork for plug-in hybrids. The Working Group – comprised of representatives from the auto industry, electrical utilities, U.S. Department of Energy, California Energy Commission, and university researchers – conducted several key studies that reported on the feasibility, benefits, and costs of plug-in hybrids.

The EPRI folks didn’t quite know what to make of Kramer. Who was he, anyway? EPRI’s main focus was on getting the automakers and state and federal governments to adopt plug-in hybrids. It wasn’t interested in conversions, and Kramer’s ideas of approaching other constituencies besides major automakers didn’t mesh with EPRI’s strategy. The EPRI staff was cordial but cool.

They did, however, invite him to what turned out to be the last meeting of the Hybrid Electric Vehicle Working Group. There Kramer asked a question of Toyota’s chief hybrid engineer, Dave Hermance, and his answer threw Kramer for a loop.

Kramer had learned a big fancy word in talking with car people – “homologation.” It encompasses all the processes needed to get government approval for a car: the crash testing; emissions testing, and meeting government specifications for all facets of the car down to the location of the interior light bulbs. The time-consuming homologation can cost auto companies tens or even hundreds of millions of dollars for each new car and is a factor that inhibits new competitors to the established automakers. Homologation for a car that’s really a conversion of an existing car can be simpler, because only certain steps need to be repeated.

Kramer asked Hermance how long it would take Toyota to complete homologation if the company made a plug-in version of one of its hybrids. His answer: Less than a year.

Clearly, plug-in hybrids could be on the road soon if the major automakers simply chose to make them. Kramer began [Page 64 in printed book] monitoring the online Prius discussion groups. When he learned that the 2004 Prius would include a hatchback, a more power electric motor (50 kW instead of 30 kW), and smaller but more powerful nickel-metal hydride (NiMH) batteries (1,300 W/kg instead of 1,100 W/kg), he pulled every string that he could at local dealers to get on the waiting list for one of the new cars. He also ordered a custom license plate: PLUG OK.

The arrival in late 2003 of the 2004 Prius electrified the listserv postings. This second-generation U.S. model would seal the car’s status as the hybrid to beat. It became the hottest car around, generating mountains of publicity that gave Toyota a green aura. For more than a year it topped The Wall Street Journal’s “Days on the Lot” list, reflecting how quickly the cars flew off dealers’s lots.

The first thing that many owners did with the new Prius was to open it up to see how it was built. They found plenty of space for extra batteries. “It was staring you right in the face,” Kramer said.

And then there was the button. Within days of the first 2004 models being sold, American drivers noticed a blank button on the dashboard that didn’t seem to do anything. The operating manual didn’t explain it. The online Prius discussion groups learned from drivers outside the United States that the button functioned in the cars sold in Europe and Japan as an “EV mode” button, allowing the car to run as an electric vehicle for a short distance. Toyota made the button inoperable in the United States because it created a problem with government regulators who knew that current smog tests couldn’t accurately measure emissions from a car that could run on electricity alone at the push of a button. Devising an agreeable emissions-testing system would take time, so Toyota disabled the button to allow sales to proceed in the meantime.

By early 2004 a Texas engineer had wired his button back to life, and the buzz on the listservs ramped up. He added a 7.2-Ah lead-acid battery in parallel with the hybrid’s NiMH battery. It allowed him to drive more than 2 miles on electricity alone. On one cold Sunday morning (34 degrees F.), he drove a mile to the store, chatted for 45 minutes, drove a mile home, and then 5 hours [Page 65 in printed book] later drove 17 miles to church. With those kinds of short trips, normally he would get about 41 miles per gallon, but with the new setup he got 53 miles per gallon, a 32% improvement in efficiency, and avoided two out of three cold starts to the internal combustion engine. (Starting a cold engine is a prime source of pollution.) “I am so ecstatic about the possibilities here!” he wrote.

Soon after, others adapted his instructions into an online manual that Kramer helped polish and hosted on the CalCars website with photos and instructions for enabling the Prius EV button. Some Prius owners went as far as ordering the original part from Japan so that “EV” would light up on the button when the electric-only mode was on. People started adding batteries. Kramer and others began advocating for the addition of a plug. In April 2004 CalCars formally announced its plans to convert a Prius to a PRIUS+.

Ron Gremban read about CalCars’ plans in the online journal EV World and joined in. For Kramer, Gremban was the right person in the right place at the right time. Gremban lived an hour’s drive north of Kramer in the San Francisco Bay Area. Gremban had the skills and enough free time to handle the technical end of things. He too had been thinking of converting a Prius. “I enticed him to get involved more and more, to his pleasure and regret,” Kramer said.

During its first three years of existence, supported by a few grants and many small donations to keep the organization going, Kramer and Gremban seldom drew a salary, donating their time in the belief that the project could change the world and might eventually make them a living.

For Gremban as well as Kramer, this was a returning to his roots, in a sense.  He and two classmates at the California Institute of Technology were the first people to drive across the United States in an electric vehicle, in the summer of 1968. Led by Wally Rippel, now with AeroVironment, the team won the race in a converted Volkswagen microbus, beating a team from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology driving a converted Chevrolet Corvair. Both cars broke down along the way, but the [Page 66 in printed book] VW team repaired their vehicle and crossed the finish line under electric power after nine days on the road.

Now Gremban had a Prius to play with. “This is a much better car,” he said happily. With modern batteries, computer skills, and the Prius hybrid platform, he felt confident that they could make an exceptional car to demonstrate what the car companies could be offering to customers, if only they would.

In the next two years, the plug-in Prius that Kramer and Gremban and the tiny CalCars crew worked on that day would be featured in stories that appeared in all the major media, generating months and months of coverage. By February of 2006, a photo of Gremban’s car with its GAS OPT plate peeking out from the tight fit of his garage would grace the White House website. President George W. Bush – a former oil man who let petroleum industry lobbyists craft his energy policy and who embraced the hydrogen hype – would hit the road giving speech after speech praising the coming of plug-in hybrids.

The car would capture the public’s imagination. But first they had to build it.

The first PRIUS+ in Ron Gremban's garage, as it appeared on the White House website. (Photo courtesy of CalCars.)

The first PRIUS+ in Ron Gremban’s garage, as it appeared on the White House website. (Photo courtesy of CalCars.)



[1] Jack Doyle, Taken for a Ride. Four Walls Eight Windows, 2000, pp. 421-429.

[2] Judy Anderson and Curtis D. Anderson, Electric and Hybrid Cars. McFarland & Company, 2005, p. 51.

[3] Chris Paine, Who Killed the Electric Car? Film, 90 minutes. Plinyminor and Dean Devlin’s Electric Entertainment, 2006.

[4] Joseph Romm, “Reviewing the Hydrogen Fuel and Freedom-CAR Initiatives,” testimony before the House Science Committee, March 3, 2004.

[5] Joseph J. Romm and Andrew A. Frank, “Hybrid Vehicles Gain Traction,” Scientific American, April 2006, pp. 72-79.

[6] Patrick Mazza and Roel Hammerschlag, “Carrying the Energy Future: Comparing Hydrogen and Electricity for Transmission, Storage and Transportation,” Institute for Lifecycle Environmental Assessment, June 2004.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Joseph Romm, “Reviewing the Hydrogen Fuel and Freedom-CAR Initiatives,” testimony before the House Science Committee, March 3, 2004.

[9] Richard A. Lovett, “Addicted to Oil: How Can U.S. Fulfill Bush Pledge?” National Geographic News, Feb. 14, 2006.

[10] Bill Moore, “Is the Bloom off the Hydrogen Rose?” EV World blog, Dec. 10, 2005.

[11] “Point/Counterpoint,” online debate; Joseph Romm referenced a 2003 study by Royal Dutch/Shell.

[12] Larry Burns, “Hydrogen Gas,” Jonathan Fahey,, April 25, 2005.

* Copyright 2006 by Sherry Boschert. All rights reserved. No use or duplication of this material is allowed without permission. Contact Boschert at