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Plug-in Hybrids: Buy it, or Build your Own

Plug-in Hybrids is a book, written by Sherry Boschert, and it's also a dream car - all the electricity, none of the so-called range anxiety - brought to life by electric car activists with wrenches.

Now, after the groundbreaking work of these CalCar activists, we have the option of buying PHEVs from the major automakers, having our Priuses and Insights converted to plug in, or you can even Build Your Own Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicle, thanks to a how-to book by Seth Leitman.

Plug-in Hybrids by Sherry Boschert

EV button

The Button: A little Plug-in History

When the 2004 Toyota Prius was released, and people managed to get one and take it home (these cars flew off the shelves, so to speak. Laying hands on one wasn't all that easy), they noticed a mysterious button on the dashboard that didn't seem to be attached to anything.

The dealerships didn't know anything about it.

Toyota wasn't talking.

So what's a Prius owner gonna do with a question nobody could answer? Go to the Internet, of course.

They quickly discovered that, except in America, pushing the mystery button allows you to drive your car entirely in "electric" mode. American Priuses didn't have this option, (and the picture you see here is of a "non-US" model) because supposedly you could cheat on your emissions test if you hit the switch and kill the gas engine. (Please. If you hit the switch and the engine died, the car proctologist could TELL from the lack of engine noise: end of test. Besides, what PRIUS is going to fail an emissions test, for heaven's sake? American Priuses didn't have the electric-only option because the American auto/oil industry lobbyists wouldn't have it.)


A couple of months later, some enterprising Texan engineer managed to reconnect the EV button on his Prius. Neat! Now, for short trips, he didn't have to use the gas motor at all, or if stuck in traffic or whatever. The gas engine recharged the batteries when it switched over.

battery space

About that same time, people started noticing how much space was available in that Prius for extra batteries. Our intrepid engineer found out he could get 50-some mpg by adding another battery. And then some of those past and present electric car drivers from CalCars and Plug-in America started asking themselves: What would happen if you just step over the line and, well, CONVERT the car to electric-optional drive, with PLENTY of battery like you really mean to drive a little without gas...

...and have the option of PLUGGING IN your Prius, just like an all-electric car?

Then, instead of getting 40 mpg, which is good, or 50mpg, which is better... could be getting 100 to 150 mpg!

I guess you can have it all.

The idea was pretty seductive.

The best part, the irresistible part, is that your range could then be very flexible. If you find yourself driving around town, then you could stick with "electric drive", and save yourself a bundle - not to mention saving a bundle of nasty carbon emissions and pollution, too!

But if you've used your batteries up and you've still got 75 miles to go... problem! Now you can just continue your journey in a reasonably fuel-efficient gas-guzzler. Um, gas-sipper, rather.

circuit board

Oh, well, there is ONE problem. The car won't LET you convert it, not without hacking the "brain". I should say, it COULD have been a problem, except that the people who tend to buy hybrids also tend to be the kind of people who might just be able to rewrite code...

...and it wasn't too long before that little problem was no longer a problem!

That small group of folks from CalCars and Plug-in America put down their pens and marching shoes for a minute and got to work building that plug-in Prius. That story alone is worth the price of the book.

There were lots of ups and downs, or it wouldn't be a story. In the end, they got the car built, and the mileage was as good as they'd anticipated; in fact, with some electric car driving skills, they did even better.

Now this sounds like the car that will convert all of us to electric, doesn't it?

Want one?

CalCars plug-in hybrid

The good news is that you can have a plug-in Prius today, but you're gonna have to have it built. You can't get one off the showroom floor that you can plug in, not today - although now that the activists have built a plug-in, the car companies can hardly whine that it can't be done! Expect to see, DEMAND to see them on the dealers lots in a few years.

Update 2011: Toyota is bringing out their first official Plug-in Prius in 2012.

At the moment, you can buy yourself a Prius - which gets 60mpg this year - and then get a conversion shop to put in a kit for you. The kits are around 10K, and the conversion itself will cost you another 5K. The Prius is about 22K. So for under 40 thousand, you've got yourself a plug-in.

If you want a plug-in hybrid conversion done for you, contact:

...just to name a few. For a complete and current list of who does and does not do plug-in hybrid conversions, see the CalCars website.

With any company you choose, as far as I know it's a bring-your-own-hybrid party. They don't sell the cars, just the conversion.

Plug-in Hybrids is a really good book, and if you haven't read it, get a copy - it's worth your money.

There's inside scoop from the people and events that brought you "Who Killed the Electric Car?", too. If the movie left you wanting to know the people a little better, you can find more about them in the book.

Build Your Own Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicle

build your own plug in hybrid book

Good news for those who want to build their own plug-in hybrid! There's a MANUAL for it called Build Your Own Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicle. Chapter 10 "...goes through the conversion process step by step with the assistance of a few conversion specialists." (p. 165)

"When you do it yourself," the book goes on to say, "any choice you wish to make for more speed, acceleration, or range is readily accommodated."

A word about the hybrid's warranty: It doesn't void the entire warranty to add batteries and plug in.

At the most, Mr. Leitman says, the mods will affect only the warranties specific pieces of the drivetrain you actually change when you convert: "...there is legal precedent for the conclusion that original auto warranties cannot be voided completely by modifications....typically, hybrid cars have four or five separate warranties." (p. 223)

Plug-in Hybrids from the Majors

The Chevy Volt is a perfectly respectable plug-in hybrid available at your local autoplex - hopefully - right now. (I say "hopefully" because they're a little slow to stock them all over the country, but you can go to your local Chevy dealer and ask.)

The Fisker Karma is a high-end (80k) plug-in hybrid available now. Very nice.

Look for more plug-ins in 2012!

fisker karma

Fisker Karma PHEV

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Chevy Volt

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