Ten years ago, Jonathan Sawyer wanted an all-electric car badly enough to lease a General Motors EV1 from his sister’s address in Arizona, one of the few states where GM marketed the car. He smuggled it into his hometown of Boulder, Colo., on the back of a flatbed, and periodically returned it to Tempe, Ariz., for maintenance the same way—until his dealer refused to service it, noting that his radio presets weren’t local, the car’s garage-door opener was useless in his sister’s carport, and a photo of his EV1 had appeared in a Boulder newspaper.
Later, relations with GM improved; Sawyer even got the company to lease him two more EV1s in Colorado when Arizona demand proved low. But that low demand gave him an insight: if even environmentalists in Boulder weren’t going for EV1s, what hope did the car have in the mass market? GM was probably right, he reluctantly concluded, when the company apparently decided in 2003 that the market wasn’t ready for a two-seater with a 110-kilometer (70-mile) range and an 8-hour recharge time.
Now Sawyer is one of the first people in the world to own a car conceived and designed precisely to overcome the range problem: a plug-in hybrid electric vehicle, or PHEV. An electrical engineer by training and cofounder of FreeWave Technologies, a start-up that makes radio-telemetry equipment, Sawyer has pursued new and alternative technologies for years. His house has both photovoltaic panels and a wind turbine. Before the PHEV, his main ride about town was an all-electric Toyota RAV4 EV. So last year, the 52-year-old single father of two school-age daughters (Allison, 12, and Melanie, 10) opted for the state of the art in automotive environmentalism.
In October, Sawyer paid US $25 000 for a brand-new black 2008 Toyota Prius. But compared with his RAV4 EV, it was a gas guzzler, going only 1 or 2 km electrically before switching on its internal combustion engine. So Sawyer wrote a check for the car, then drove it directly to Hybrids Plus [see our sidebar, “Getting on the Grid”], also in Boulder, where he wrote another check, for $32 000—to have his shiny new Prius converted into a PHEV. (The radio-telemetry business has been very good to Sawyer.)
A plug-in conversion service either replaces the car’s original battery pack with one having far higher energy capacity, as Hybrids Plus does, or supplements it, as many other conversion companies do. The car can then travel, in this case, up to 50 km in all-electric mode without switching on the engine. The conversion also adds a charging system that lets an owner recharge that pack by plugging into a standard household electrical outlet.
For trips beyond the 50-km pure-EV range, the vehicle carries its own recharging system—the car’s original gas-powered engine. The converted car consumes much less fuel than a standard hybrid. A PHEV’s mileage varies with differing driving styles and geography, but plug-in owners like to quote figures like 3.4 to 2.9 liters per 100 km (70 to 80 miles per gallon). PHEVs running in electric mode cost far less to operate—at a typical cost for nighttime grid electricity, roughly $0.02 per mile, against roughly $0.14 per mile for gasoline-fueled travel.