Converting hybrid vehicles — particularly the Prius and Ford Escape — into plug-in hybrids has become a profitable niche industry for a few specialty companies. But the net impact of this new mini-industry has been much greater by influencing consumer and industry opinions. Promoting the technical feasibility of PHEVs has been a significant factor in the auto manufacturers’ decision to develop the dozens of plug-in and all-electric vehicles now scheduled for delivery in the next five years.
But the earliest and strongest voice promoting PHEVs isn’t happy with that limited success. Felix Kramer, the founder of CalCars.org, says that getting to a million electrified vehicles by 2015 won’t do nearly enough to address climate change and energy independence, and now he’s setting his sights on electrifying internal combustion engine vehicles. He’s clearly on to something.
CalCar’s new “Big Fix” initiative wants to electrify some of the biggest emitters and gas-wasters — pickup trucks, SUVs and vans (PSVs). When used in delivery routes that are often well under 40 miles per day, they spend much of their time starting, stopping, and idling, and get among the worst MPG ratings around. Converting one of these vehicles to a PHEV or EV will reduce fuel consumption and emissions to a much greater degree than trading in a Sebring for a Prius.
PSVs, most notably the Ford F-150, have been among the top sellers for more than a decade, creating an inventory of millions of vehicles that could be converted. They also have much more space for battery packs, which makes for a simpler conversion than a compact car. Former Intel CEO Andy Grove and electric vehicle guru Andy Frank are fully on board, lending their considerable credibility to the idea.
The Japanese postal service has already begun converting its fleet of vehicles to EVs, and the U.S. Postal Service wants to do the same with more than 140,000 of its delivery vehicles. The cash-starved agency could save millions per year if the federal government decides to provide assistance, which would be more sustainable than a bailout.
The biggest impediments are the cost and potential resistance from the auto industry. The battery cost can be upwards of $20,000, making for a slow payback period if gasoline stays around $3 a gallon. The economics will improve over time, especially if conversion kits are produced in volume and battery manufacturing ramps up as the technology evolves.
But the harder sell will be convincing the auto industry that keeping vehicles on the road instead of buying new vehicles is a good thing, and that they should be a part of that business. Upgrading existing PSVs could be a multi-billion dollar business, extending the life of vehicles and preserving the energy cost sunk into building them. While Ford, GM and Chrylsler are best-suited to engineer conversions, this mass rethinking of the companies would be an even bigger shift than the current change to becoming manufacturers of PHEVs and EVs.
Convincing fleet operators to convert will likely be easier than the consumers, legislators and car companies needed to make it happen. It’s not impossible, but it will take an extensive and well-orchestrated effort.