Wednesday, long-time advocates of PHEVs (Plug-In Hybrid Electric Vehicles) took ownership of a pair of Chevy Volts – world’s first mass-produced plug-in hybrid. The celebration marked the climax of a long and successful campaign for Felix Kramer, CalCars.org founder and the world’s first consumer owner of a PHEV, along with Ron Gremban, the other full-time CalCars.org worker.

In the below photo, the Volt is eerily silent while backing up inside the Novato California Chevrolet dealership. This small town dealer was allocated twelve cars and all were pre-sold. General Motors (GM) is only building ten thousand Chevy Volt units this year and they are all sold.

The new Chevy Volt PHEV (GM calls it an extended range electric vehicle or EREV) has been winning awards everywhere. It’s the first consumer vehicle whose local miles can be electric, chargeable at 120 Volts, while it can drive across the country anytime. Every aspect of the Volt is computer controlled with the latest in driver comforts and information delivery systems.

General Electric (GE) will buy 25,000 electric vehicles for its fleet through 2015 in the largest-ever purchase of electric cars. They will start with the purchase of 12,000 Chevy Volts in 2011. The conglomerate said it will "add other vehicles as manufacturers expand their electric vehicle profiles."

GE’s purchase is a far cry from when Kramer and Gremban modified a first generation Toyota Prius to become a PHEV. Then, everybody who was an expert on cars had a lot of reasons about why PHEVs would not sell to the public.

Felix Kramer’s history with PHEVs is worth retelling to put into perspective the event we attended. In 2001, Kramer sold his small Internet company and was looking for something to do.

He said, "I was blown away by the Rocky Mountain Institute’s vision of 99 MPG vehicles. I went to Aspen and began discussions about new ways to advance that project."

In 2002, Kramer met many of the Silicon Valley "entrepreneurs, environmentalists, engineers, and EV (electric Vehicle) advocates who’ve helped us immeasurably ever since."

They formed what is now known as CalCars.org.

Next, Kramer saw his first PHEV at the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) and realized today’s technology could get things started. Then, Professor Andy Frank, the Father of the modern PHEVs, came into the picture. Frank has always been easily approachable and generous with his time and knowledge.

Professor Frank and his students at University of California, Davis had been rebuilding vehicles into PHEVs for nearly thirty years. The problem always was cost. Over $100,000 to rebuild a standard automobile into a one-off electric powered street drivable PHEV test vehicle.

Kramer took the big step of buying one of the first Toyota Prius hybrids in late 2003. He started adding batteries and a charging system to that car to make it a prototype. The car was such a success that a back yard cottage industry was born which modified the Prius into a PHEV. Today, there are many commercial specialty shops that will convert your Prius into a 100 MPG PHEV with amazing performance.

What followed was persuading the politicians, bureaucrats, automotive writers. editors, and all the other naysayers that it could be done. CalCars.org took the extraordinary step of flying their modified Prius PHEV to Washington DC. This was the first time a plug-in hybrid was seen in public in the nation’s capitol. The national press jumped on the bandwagon, and suddenly it was cool to be a politician talking about electric cars.

We have only briefly covered the eight years of hard work, learning what worked and didn’t work in re-engineering various Prius project cars. By the way, everything about CalCars.org is open source with volunteers helping each other. An untold number of man-years has gone into building cars and telling their PHEV story.

Since 2006, CalCars.org has organized open-to-the-public conversion events by volunteer teams at five Maker Faires. That helped bring in high-power advocates like the Silicon Valley Leadership Group. They attracted the attention of Google, which supported them, assembled the first employee PHEV fleet, and brought in Enterprise Car Rental.

Environmentalists were slow to embrace the PHEV and EV. They were betting on the ‘silver bullet’ of Governor Schwarzenegger’s mythical Hydrogen Highway. This author has extensively researched hydrogen fuel cell technology and written about the California Fuel Cell Partnership and their one-off, multi-million-dollar engineering prototype vehicles.

What shut off my interest in hydrogen technology was when one of their lead technicians confided he had built a battery electric conversion of an older car. He said he had about $5,000 in his backyard project which he built. The car he retrofitted had performance and range equal to the first-generation hydrogen fuel cell cars

Wednesday’s keynote speaker at the Chevy Volt presentation was Professor Andy Frank, pictured on the left, who has retired from UC-Davis. Professor Frank is now Chief Technology Officer (CTO) at Efficient Drive Trains.

Frank holds world records in fuel economy, has designed nine generations of PHEVs, is a four-time winner of USDOE Advanced Vehicle Design competitions, holds over thirty patents, and is recognized by Congress for his leadership in the field of plug-in electric vehicle technology.

Frank started by explaining that the technology behind a battery electric car, from the battery to the wheels, is about 75 to 85 percent efficient. A car powered by an internal combustion engine, from a gas tank to wheels, is about 16 to 20 percent efficient.

The world is running out of oil and America imports 65 percent of its oil. Marin County residents, where Novato Chevrolet is located, spend $435 million per year on gasoline.

Kramer and Frank emphasized that as the American passenger vehicle fleet stops using gasoline and diesel engines, the environment becomes less polluted. Plus, there is a decrease in the expenses of everyone who drives a gasoline powered vehicle when they switch to PHEVs.


Vehicles are the source for 40 percent of the greenhouse gasses produced in America.

Frank explained why the Chevy Volt is important in changing the public perception about PHEVs. On Tuesday evening, he picked up his Chevy Volt in Davis, California and figured he will reduce his gasoline purchase from over 450 gallons a year to less than 60 gallons per year. At this week’s price in Northern California for unleaded 87 octane regular of $3.26 per gallon, that will save over $1,300 in the first year.

If everyone in Marin County were to suddenly switch to Chevy Volts, that would save almost $330 million in the first year.

In the article 6 Myths Every Investor Should Know About Electric Cars, the author says in part:

Myth 3. Electric cars are no less pollutive than conventional vehicles because most of our electricity is generated from coal.

In a 2006 DOE report, researchers noted although most of today’s power plants emit greenhouse gases with electric vehicles, the overall levels of greenhouse gas emissions would be reduced because the entire process of moving a car one mile is more efficient using electricity than producing gasoline and burning it in a car’s engine.

Also worth noting is that as many of our older coal-fired power plants retire, new solar, wind, and geothermal operations will pick up some of the slack, thereby increasing the amount of clean energy being sent to the grid.

Myth 4. Our grid can’t handle it.

According to a 2007 study conducted by the Pacific Northwest Laboratory, if every vehicle on the road was a plug-in electric vehicle, today’s grid could support more than 75 percent of them charging at night without adding a single power plant.

It is highly unlikely that any of us will see a 100 percent penetration of electric vehicles in our lifetimes. And while many in Washington want to tempt us with the promise of ten percent penetration in ten years, it is likely that within the next ten years, less than five percent of the vehicles on the nation’s highways will be electric.

So the fear of our outdated grid being unable to handle an influx of electric cars is overblown.

Myth 5. Electric cars are not as energy efficient as gasoline-powered cars.

According to the DOE, about 20 percent of the energy from the fuel you put in your tank actually gets used to move your car or run accessories; the remainder is lost to engine and driveline inefficiencies and idling.

Electric drive systems, however, see about 75 percent or more of the energy from a battery reaching the wheels. So even with transmission and distribution losses (as someone had mentioned last week), electric cars still come out ahead…

Frank said in 2007 on a Public Broadcasting System documentary:

The danger is the magic bullet notion gives people false hope. And, in the meantime, people believe they can continue living the way they’re currently living. The trouble with that philosophy is we don’t have time to wait anymore. The plug-in hybrid’s ready for prime time.

Frank is now the owner of, and driving, an American-made PHEV.

Andy Frank, Ron Gremban, and Felix Kramer all pointed to the awards the Chevy Volt has received including Motor Trend magazine naming the Chevrolet Volt its 2011 Car of the Year.

The Motor Trend article gives an in-depth analysis of the car. These men have helped build and explain the new technology that will change the air we breath and help keep money in our pockets. They have started a major change in the way the American public views transportation.