A small company in Raleigh, N.C., has spent the past year trying to solve the nation's energy crisis one car at a time. - The cluttered Advanced Vehicle Research Center garage, tucked in an office park, can accommodate two Toyota Priuses. Lately, the bay stays full. In less than four hours, the mechanics at the garage can outfit a Prius with a second battery pack. It emerges as a hybrid that can plug into a wall outlet to recharge.
The result: A car that breaks a once-unimaginable fuel-efficiency barrier and delivers 100 mpg. The spare battery costs less than 75 cents to charge and gives the plug-in Prius about a 35-mile range solely on electric power, making gasoline optional on short commutes.
AVRC is one of a handful of companies that converts the Prius or other hybrids into plug-in hybrids, doubling their gas mileage. The shop sees demand mostly from corporate customers with fleets of cars.
The center's small crew - founder and president Richard Dell, a former IBM project manager, plus two auto mechanics - can retrofit three Prius orders a day. Toyota does not authorize or endorse these conversions, and has its own Prius plug-in in the works. But enthusiasts aren't waiting. Anyone who can spare $10,400 can get a Prius conversion.
Dell's company works with A123 Systems, a Massachusetts business that makes lithium ion batteries. The Raleigh shop is one of eight nationwide authorized to install A123 batteries. Recently, A123 certified Dell's shop to do plug-in conversions for individuals. Last month, his crew converted its first privately owned Prius, for a customer in Florida.
"All my life I've wanted to do something for the environment," said Fran Sullivan-Fahs of Tallahassee. "I really like giving average folks hope that something can and is being done to help with . . .the pollution problems that we have faced and will face."
How the conversions work
- A converted plug-in Prius is identical in appearance to a standard hybrid model. The second battery pack is hidden in the spare-tire well. It's similar to batteries used in cell phones and power tools, but it is as large as a suitcase and as heavy as an adult passenger.
- A black cover on the rear bumper conceals the plug, which works with a conventional wall outlet to recharge the extra battery. Charging the battery three hours costs less than 75 cents and gives the car a range of about 35 miles on electric power.
- Once modified, the Prius draws power from the A123 battery first. When that battery is depleted, the Prius reverts to standard hybrid mode, relying on its gas engine and regenerative braking to charge the car's standard nickel-metal hydride battery.
- The converted Prius can run in all-electric mode or in hybrid mode.