In 2004, Felix Kramer gathered with a group of engineers and car junkies in a friend’s garage. Their goal: to make a hybrid car that would plug into the wall, giving it a greater ability to run on electricity.
The concept had been pioneered by University of California Davis professor Andrew Frank years before, and with the help of student teams, Frank had built several plug-in electric hybrid prototypes that were generating excitement among environmentalists, engineers, and car lovers. Now Kramer and his colleagues were gathered in the garage to see if they could make one themselves by converting a Toyota Prius to plug-in. They were joined long-distance by engineers from around the world, troubleshooting and giving advice via email.
The PRIUS+ team built the first conversion kit in Sept. 2004. (L-R) Ron Gremban, Felix Kramer, Marc Geller, Kevin Lyons, and Andrew Lawton.
Kramer had already had a long and diverse career before he found himself pounding copper tubes in his friend’s garage. One of the original desktop publishing innovators of the 1980s, Kramer used his computer skills to write a book about desktop publishing and start a Web development company. After selling the company in the 90s, Kramer, who was part of the first Earth Day in 1970, turned his attention to the environment. He spent time in several organizations working on energy and consumer issues, until he formed the California Cars Initiative, called CalCars for short, in 2002.
“We came up with the idea of a buyers club for cars,” recalls Kramer, ”You figure out what kind of car people want, and you organize people in support of that, and take that to carmakers. The decisions about what cars get made are made by a very narrow group of people, and we want to broaden that to car owners and buyers, citizens as a whole, because the cars we drive affect everyone in society on profound ways, so everyone should have a say.”
But before Kramer could organize consumers around the support of a specific vehicle, he had to do the research to find out which vehicles offered the most environmental benefit. Kramer and his colleagues flirted with the idea of promoting hydrogen-powered cars, but when it became obvious that clean hydrogen technology wasn’t going to be available anytime soon, they turned their sites to hybrid vehicles. Electric vehicle enthusiasts were thrilled by the 2004 Toyota Prius, which was equipped to run solely on battery-stored electricity in Japan, but not in the US. Prius owners across the country started adding extra batteries to the car to increase its electric range, and Kramer gathered together a group of experts to find a way to plug the Prius in.
The result was the PRIUS+, a plug-in hybrid electric vehicle that gets over 100 miles to the gallon, puts out half the greenhouse gas emissions of a conventional vehicle, and costs almost half as much per mile to drive.
Unfortunately, PHEVs aren’t currently being made by car manufacturers; so rather than organizing consumers through a buying club, Kramer is working with a wide array of allies to advocate for the widespread development and implementation of PHEV technology.
He takes the car around the country, demonstrating that the technology is available today. Kramer loves educating people about the vehicle, and has seen people responses to a plug-in car evolve from “What is this?” to “Why are carmakers holding back?”
Kramer’s answer to that last question is that “carmakers are slow to change, and make bad decisions all the time.” He hopes that demonstration cars like the PRIUS+, and other plug-in conversions underway by Hymotion and others will prove the viability of plug-in technology, motivating carmakers to stop dragging their feet. In Kramer’s vision of wild success, plug-in hybrids will become the standard automotive platform in the coming decades..