July 29, 2008
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BURLINGAME, CALIF. - Felix Kramer is in the right place, at the right time, hawking the right product.
As gasoline has risen to nearly $5 per gallon, Kramer's advocacy of plug-in hybrid electric cars has caught the public's--and automakers'--attention. Indeed, who wouldn't want a car that uses a fraction of the gas of traditional cars and twice the equivalent mileage of regular hybrid cars?
Through his nonprofit California Cars Initiative, Kramer, 59, is urging the auto industry to build a new generation of hybrid car that plugs into an electrical socket. These cars have an extra set of lithium ion batteries that act as a range extender for the electric motor. On an average 30-mile commute to work, for instance, the electric engine can handle the drive by itself; no gas is used. For the commute back home after work, the car can be plugged into a 110-volt outlet and charged up again.
Kramer's initiative, which he founded in Palo Alto, Calif., in 2002 (and is also known as Calcars.org), has converted about 12 hybrids, mostly Toyota Priuses, into plug-ins. There are approximately 200 hybrids converted to plug-ins across the world, Kramer says. The Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) says the battery technology necessary to power plug-ins has been available for several years and estimates that these hybrids could be mass-produced by 2010.
"I realized that cars really are the fulcrum of the economy," Kramer told Forbes.com at the Plug-In 2008 Conference in San Jose, Calif., last week. "If you can change cars, you can change many things. … It is the end of business as usual, and the car industry needs to figure out ways to build cars that are not using fossil fuels."
Automakers, which dismissed plug-in cars for years, have recently come around to them now that high gasoline prices have reduced demand for SUVs and other gas guzzlers. Indeed, General Motors has put its Hummer division on the block and is working on electric and electric hybrid vehicles, while Ford Motor is planning to make small cars at some of its truck manufacturing plants.
The carmakers, however, say they're supporting plug-in hybrids to help reduce petroleum consumption and pollution. GM spokesman Rob Peterson says the automaker and Kramer have the same goals. "He wants [plug-ins] for the same reason GM wants them--to get away from the use of petroleum and because they offer an environmental solution," Peterson says.
Toyota is developing plug-in Priuses that could launch in a trial phase in late 2009 or early 2010. The automaker is working with Panasonic to build a factory in Japan that produces lithium ion batteries.
In addition, there are an estimated 30 start-ups working on electric vehicles and their components. The Cleantech Group, which tracks investments in this space, says $273 million has been invested in lithium ion battery technology in the U.S. over the past three years.
The real challenge, Kramer says, is convincing automakers to build plug-ins on a large scale. Even though they agree that plug-in electric vehicles are a good idea, few have committed to mass production. "They're not convinced, or they are still in a business as usual mode," he says. "They don't understand that the world around them is changing and these things are going to have to happen."
Despite Kramer's criticisms, automakers and industry experts say he is a pioneer in spreading the gospel of plug-ins. "It wasn't until Felix came along that they got some traction, because he's a promoter," says Andy Frank, a mechanical engineering professor at the University of California, Davis, who built the first hybrid vehicle in 1972.
Mark Duvall, program manager of electric transportation at Palo Alto, Calif.-based EPRI, says Kramer has become synonymous with plug-ins. "If you want to find out the Daily Kos or the most prominent source of public info about plug-in hybrid electric vehicles, it's Calcars," he says.
Still, some experts warn that Kramer isn't an engineer. He claims that plug-ins can get 100 miles per gallon, but Frank says this is misleading and consumers should instead think about how much less gasoline they are using. "If a conventional car uses 700 gallons of gas per year, you could reduce that to 70 gallons per year in a plug-in electric hybrid vehicle," Frank says.
Kramer's activism dates back to the Vietnam War. In the 1970s, he founded a trade association that promoted solar and other types of renewable energy. He also ran a desktop publishing business to pay the bills. In 2001, Kramer sold his business and decided to focus on environmental issues full time.
He looked into fuel cell technology first, but quickly discovered it was a far-off reality. Plug-in hybrids, however, had near-term potential because the technology and infrastructure to support them is already available.
Kramer also has lots of help these days pushing plug-ins. Co-Op America, a nonprofit that promotes sustainable businesses, is promoting an "Adopt-a-Dealer" program that petitions auto dealers to also sell plug-in cars. Google.org, the Internet giant's philanthropic arm, is testing six plug-in vehicles in the company's corporate fleet and plans to include up to 100 vehicles. The City of Austin, Texas, is a founding member of Plug-In Partners, a coalition of businesses, city and state governments and utilities that are testing plug-in hybrids. And San Jose, Calif., just unveiled a few plug-in hybrid vehicle charging stations.
All these efforts, Kramer says, has "helped to create a grass-roots demand for a new product. It didn't come from a company or from the government, it came from people saying, 'This is what we want. Build it for us.' "