Plugged in: Electric Cars on the Rise

In WWNK 5/24/04, we ran the article "Golf Carts Hit The Streets," in which we discussed how to make the little whizzers legal to use off the links. Thousands of upgraded electric carts are now driven on public roads by people who enjoy running errands without using any gasoline. But with a 25-mph speed limit, a 20-mile range, and room for only two people, "town carts" have not found widespread acceptance.

What we really need is a full-sized electric vehicle (EV) able to travel 50 - 80 miles at normal urban speeds. Although several automakers have produced such cars to test the concept, none have been mass marketed. The closest we have are the new hybrids from Toyota and Honda that are driven by electric motors powered by batteries. However, the hybrids also need gas engines to keep the batteries charged. Without gas, the hybrids won't go.

But, some electric-vehicle buffs reasoned, if hybrids have electric motors and batteries, it ought to be possible to make them run on electricity alone. After a little research, they learned the engineers at Toyota included the necessary circuits in the car's computer. With the addition of a 110-volt charger and a bigger battery, the Prius could be a gas-optional car, at least for 60 miles or so. Such an EV would easily meet the needs of most Americans.

Unfortunately, at some point in planning the Prius, Toyota decided not to include an extra battery and a charger because they would have added considerably to the car's cost. Additionally, Toyota's marketing people told management, Americans don't want a car they need to plug in. As if we would rather go to the gas station.

Toyota did, however, decide to offer some Prius buyers half a loaf. Several Prius models sold in Europe and Asia have an "EV" button on the dashboard that allows the car to function as an electric-only vehicle. The car will only go a mile or so with the standard battery and it can't be recharged with household power. However, the EV feature will get a driver on the way each morning without waking up the family.

If short-range use is all you need from an EV, you can buy the switch and install it yourself. But don't expect to get it from a Toyota dealer in the U.S. They don't have them and may even tell you there is no such thing. However, you can buy what you need from Coastal Electronic Technologies http://www.coastaletech.com/electric_only_mode.htm for $45 plus S&H. Be advised, though, installing the switch incorrectly could fry your car's computer. Most people would be wise to have an auto electric shop do the work.

When engineers at Energy Control Systems (Energy CS) in California learned the Prius was designed with EV capabilities in mind, they teamed up with Clean Tech in Los Angeles to finish what Toyota started. The two firms created EDrive Systems http://www.edrivesystems.com/, a company that installs the necessary chargers and oversized batteries in Prius cars. The result is what EDrive calls the "Prius Plus" (Prius+), a car that doesn't need gas if it's driven less than 60 miles a day at 42 miles an hour or less. Instead, a Prius+ is plugged in each night for a "fill-up." Comparing gas and electricity costs shows a Prius+ used as an EV gets the equivalent of 100 - 120 mpg.

One nice feature of the Prius+ is the gas engine remains on standby when you switch the car to EV mode. If you run out of juice during the day, or you need to travel at full highway speeds, the engine will start automatically and the Prius+ will operate normally. Having the gasoline engine backup should make the car much more appealing to consumers who might be reluctant to rely upon an electric-only vehicle.

Currently, each Prius+ conversion must be done individually by EDrive Systems. However, the company expects to have upgrade kits available for the public next year.

If you don't want to wait for an EV, and you are an accomplished tinkerer, you can make a Prius+ yourself using instructions from the California Cars Initiative (CalCars) http://calcars.org/. CalCars' biggest contribution, however, is pressuring automakers to bring out EV models. To smooth the way, the organization is urging lawmakers to provide the appropriate incentives.

So far, the EV car movement is focusing on the Toyota Prius because it's the easiest to convert to gas-optional operation. Hybrids made by Honda, Ford, Lexus, and Nissan will be next. Eventually, most hybrids should have the EV option, either from the factory or through aftermarket conversions.

For more information about electric vehicles, contact EV World http://www.evworld.com/, which is becoming the focal point for the new technology and its supporters.

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Posted 07-19-2005 2:23 PM by Doug Casey
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