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Prius Plus

Whew, not some crazy electric hippie car, this one's practical! And it does all the thinking for you.

By Novella Carpenter

You know when someone tells you not to do something, you suddenly really want to do that forbidden thing?

Well, that's happening to me right now. It has all the elements of an alternative-vehicle gal's dream: team tinkering, open-source plans and electric vehicles. But I'm not supposed to hype it! What if I just mention it, tell you not to get your hopes up, OK?

Here goes. A group of people in Northern California who shall go unnamed are building a homemade plug-in Toyota Prius. Considering the rabid demand for the popular hybrid vehicle, and the high cost (around $20,000), one might think this group of tinkerers is crazy to mess with the automaker's winning formula. The hybrid Prius averages 55 miles per gallon, seats five and has ultralow emissions. It was voted car of 2004 by Motor Trend magazine, which trumpeted, "Having completed weeks of testing and over-the-road evaluations, our editors agree that, in this year's highly diverse and competitive field, one entry shines more brilliantly than any other. The all-new Toyota Prius, a roomy, feature-packed, and user-friendly gas/electric hybrid."

Motor Trend is usually read by tire-burning hot rodders, and the editors even seemed chagrined about choosing an "eco car" as their car of the year, fearing the wrath of letter writers who would call them a bunch of tree huggers. But gearheads like technology, and the Prius has got that, especially with the Hybrid Synergy Drive, which allows it to use its electric motor at speeds under 40 mph, then shift seamlessly into gas mode for more power at higher speeds. One of the benefits of hybrids, according to dealer listings, is that there is "no plug-in required."

Not some crazy electric hippie car, this one's practical! And it does all the thinking for you.

However, one person, our unrecognized hero, noticed that all new Priuses in Japan and Europe have a button on the dash that allows the driver to switch the car to run in electric mode only for short distances (one or two miles at less than 42 mph). Since these conditions happen more often than we like to think--remember that last time you were in a traffic jam, oh, two hours ago?--our tinkerer realized that if he added more batteries, he could get more than one to two miles on EV mode, and he would essentially have the perfect electric car. Once it had exhausted its usual electric car range of around 60 miles, the gas engine could kick in to boost the car's range. We're talking 100 miles per gallon. And! What if you plugged the car into a solar source? Total green machine. Basically, the Prius could become the car electric vehicle lovers have always wanted!

Many people think the plug-in hybrid is already in the works at Toyota. On a show about the Prius, NPR interviewed Robert Graham and Mark Duvall from the Electric Power Research Institute; both believe it is being developed. Our group of DIYers is planning to do things a little differently than Toyota. They will host a Yahoo group devoted to the Prius plug-in hybrid conversion, and plan to keep the instructions open source. This way no individual owns any resulting intellectual property, which allows anyone brave enough to take on the conversion for free (not including parts of course) and with much support from fellow well-wishers.

The best news is, they've actually built the thing! The bugs have been removed from the system, and now the designers are doing extensive quality testing and collecting performance data. Until then, I've been told (warned?), "As for an interview, I'm very much a person who doesn't believe in overpromising or hyping. Yes, we have the bugs out, but we've only begun to collect the performance data I mentioned in my previous comments, so while I'm happy to answer questions, we're not ready to have a full-scale interview/demo." Hrmph. So practical! So logical! So even-keeled! What a change from the usual California wild hair crowd. Gotta respect that.


Who is that masked man? I'll never tell! Email me at novellacarpenter@yahoo.com.

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From the January 19-26, 2005 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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