Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Car owners modify popular hybrid

Inside Bay Area
By Jessica Hilberman, CONTRIBUTOR
September 6, 2006

THE PRIUS has revolutionized the way Americans think about gas mileage. In just a few years, we went from being the country of the Hummer to a country where smaller, more efficient cars are suddenly all the rage.

In the Bay Area, people wait months to get a hybrid, dreaming all the while of cutting their fill-ups and zipping through the carpool lane. And some dream of all the changes they'll make after it arrives.

They are Prius hackers. John Davi is one of them.

Communications director for the CalCars Initiative, an advocacy group working to promote adoption of non-polluting automotive technologies, Davi's professional life revolves around bettering Prius gas mileage to more than 100 miles per gallon; it's done by adding a bank of batteries to existing cars.

Based in Palo Alto, CalCars' goal is to get just one U.S. automaker to sign onto making so-called "Plug-In Priuses" — Priuses that get 100 miles to the gallon.

"All we do is put more batteries into existing Priuses and add a plug," says Davi, of Palo Alto.

The idea is simple: Add batteries in the Prius' trunk so that it's able to run mostly on electric power. In effect, CalCars wants to see electric cars with a gas-power backup, rather than gas-powered, sometimes-electric vehicles.

The idea is catching on. Though there are only about 12 plug-in hybrids in the world now, at least two companies are planning on marketing kits that would allow Prius owners to add batteries and convert their own cars.

The first is due out this fall, spurred on by interest in a plug-in conversion performed at the Maker Faire in San Mateo in April. Over the course of the weekend, CalCars worked with volunteers to transform an average Prius to a super, 100 mile-per-gallon commuter-dream car.

They did it to send a message to automakers.

"We wanted to show Toyota and Ford that the batteries in their

current hybrid can be used to make it work," Davi says. "If a bunch of backyard engineers can do this over a weekend, why can't the car makers?"

In answer to his own question, Davi says, "The only reason they don't want to plug in right now is that they don't know they can."

The goal of the Maker Faire conversion, CalCars' third, was to show the automakers the possibility of plug-in hybrids.

Of course there is a catch. Davi admits that dramatically modifying a Prius could void the warranty, and a Toyota spokeswoman concurs. Any modification that affects battery life voids the warranty, according to Mira Sleilati.

But Sleilati also says Toyota is "exploring opportunities for plug-ins down the road, as advances in battery technologies are researched and developed."

That's good news for CalCars, which may be nearing its goal in getting an automaker to sign on to plug-ins.

But while plugging in costs a few thousand dollars and is still in its infancy, other Prius modifications are growing in popularity. They are as elaborate as installing a MacMini computer with a touchscreen in the dashboard (a serious hack) and as basic as learning to shut off the interior, some argue annoying, beeping the car makes when it's backing up.



of the most common hacks people are making is adding something called the EV button to their cars. It's pretty easy — the Prius is already set up to run on all-electric power for a few miles, but because of complicated emissions standards, the EV button is not a factory option in the U.S.

However, savvy drivers can have a European or Japanese friend send one from abroad and install it themselves, or they can turn to the Internet.

That's what Stephen McGrogan did. An electrical engineer from Pleasanton, McGrogan bought his white 2004 Prius to save money on his long commute and he quickly fell for the car.

"It's beautifully designed," he says. "It's very well-appointed in terms of cup holders and the sound system. Very quiet of course, rides well. It's a very usable car."

McGrogan uses his Prius to haul wood and loves the flat-folding seats.

Yes, and he can go 520 miles on less than 10 gallons of gas.

McGrogan's first experience with after-market Prius gear was with a bike rack. It's hard to put traditional bike racks on the hatchback, so he ordered a special Prius rack from Coastal Electronic Technologies. (Davi calls it the "everything you wanted to hack about your Prius but were afraid to ask" store.)

Enamored with this purchase, McGrogan decided to try his hand at real hack.

He teamed up with his son David to install an EV button. It was easy.

He says, "It was fun. I held papers and he did it. It's just pulling out a couple of connectors."

EV mode cuts down on noise in the community, says McGrogan. When he drives down the street to church, he doesn't have to wait for the Prius to go through its uninterruptible warm-up cycle; he circumvents it and keeps the car in all-electric mode where there's no engine noise and no gas used.

While McGrogan sees the EV button as a boon for convenience, Davi points out that it's good for the environment, too. "Start-up is the most polluting part of the engine cycle," he says. "Electric mode is useful for short distances, and you can keep the engine off when it would otherwise make more pollution."

So is the EV button a good substitute for the plug-in Prius? No, says Davi. "The button is nowhere close" to as effective as the plug-in cars he envisions taking over the road. "The EV button is great. It's a fun gadget," he says, but it's "not a victory."

Meanwhile, McGrogan has more plans for his Prius. He says, "Newer Priuses have a sound jack. I would like an option that does that, but the kit hasn't come yet."

So he waits, just as Davi waits for the big automakers to recognize that they're already building the car of the future — it just needs a couple of modifications.

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