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CalCars' First Prius Conversion Destroyed in Fire
Mar 7, 2013 (From the CalCars-News archive)
CalCars-News
This posting originally appeared at CalCars-News, our newsletter of breaking CalCars and plug-in hybrid news. View the original posting here.
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CalCars' first Prius, converted to plug in by advocates in 2004, updated in 2010 with a commercial system, was destroyed in a fire on Wednesday. It's a sad end for a vehicle that gave hundreds of public officials their first opportunities to drive electric and helped inspire a campaign that brought us the Chevy Volt, the Prius Plug-in and other plug-in hybrids and extended-range electric vehicles. It's also a huge personal setback for its owner, Ron Gremban, CalCars Technology Lead.

The New York Times story below, by Bradley Berman, founder of HybridCars.com and PlugInCars.com, explains the situation. Because of the extent of the damage, there's much we don't know and may never know about the cause of the fire. Here are a few preliminary broad points:

  • It's fortunate that no humans were injured, especially Ron's partner, Lynne McAllister, who discovered the fire and notified the fire department; it's very sad that one of their cats died and the other is missing. And the damage to their home is a heavy financial setback from Ron and Lynne.
  • This incident has NO implications for mass-produced plug-in vehicles. Ron's car used nickel-metal hydride batteries, the same battery type used in the original Prius and in other conventional hybrids for the past 15 years. Today's production PEVs use lithium-ion batteries. This commercial conversion did not use the current industry-standard J-plug found in all the fully validated and tested cordsets in production vehicles.
  • What happened can be put in perspective when compared to the internal combustion industry's record, chronicled by the National Fire Protection Association: from 2003-2007, an annual average of 287,000 vehicle fires, 480 civilian deaths, and $1.3 billion in direct property damage. http://www.nfpa.org/­categoryList.asp?categoryID=1123
  • In 2004-2005, our message was that amateurs and engineers working in a garage could show how we could have cars that plug in NOW, with batteries that were "good enough to get started" and would improve. We encouraged the media and the public to imagine how much better and safer they would be when mass-produced by automakers. These conversions drove home the benefits to drivers, the economy, the auto industry, the environment, and national security. (This story is well told in early news stories http://www.calcars.org/­kudos.html and http://www.calcars.org/­early-news.html , and chapters in dozens of books, especially in Sherry Boschert's "Plug-In Hybrids, the Cars that Will Recharge America" http://www.calcars.org/­books.html .)
  • This first conversion and many dozens more completed through our Open Source Prius+ project proudly announced that they got "100+MPG" of gasoline, plus a few cents a mile of "cleaner, cheaper, domestically produced" electricity. They and about 1,000 other conversions by small companies had a giant impact. They helped reach the goals of CalCars, the Electric Auto Association, Plug In America, and others: raising awareness, getting opinion leaders the opportunity to experience driving electric, and encouraging carmakers to mass-produce all types of plug-in vehicles.
  • 80,000 plug-in cars have been sold since the end of 2010 http://www.electricdrive.org/­index.php?ht=d/­sp/­i/­20952/­pid/­20952 . And it's been clear for some time that the era of small-scale hybrid conversions was drawing to a close. We still hope that more companies will jump into a larger opportunity -- converting tens of millions of internal combustion engines to plug in, an idea we promoted heavily from 2009-2011 http://www.calcars.org/­ice-conversions.html . And we still have much to do to bring PEVs into the mainstream, through DrivingElectric.org and other efforts supported by CalCars, EAA, PIA and allies.
  • Finally, about Ron. He's a talented and resourceful engineer, a good writer, and a smart strategist. CalCars, founded in 2002, got its most important jump-start when he came on in 2004 and led the conversion project and many subsequent programs. He devoted his life to this effort from then until he got his Chevy Volt at the end of 2010. Due to budget constraints at CalCars, he was largely a volunteer. Ron's costs in rebuilding his home and replacing damaged possessions and his car will not be fully covered by insurance. We have already received inquiries from people who would like to help. If you would like to donate directly, you can contribute via PayPal (even if you don't have a PayPal account, you can use a credit card) to gremban@forsites.com.

Thanks for all the support and help this community has provided over the years.

http://wheels.blogs.nytimes.com/­2013/­03/­07/­fire-destroys-a-pioneering-plug-in-pr\ ius-conversion/

March 7, 2013, 6:00 PM

Fire Destroys a Pioneering Plug-In Prius Conversion By BRADLEY BERMAN

A 2004 Toyota Prius that had been converted to run on grid-supplied electricity caught fire at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday night in Corte Madera, Calif., according to The Marin Independent Journal and other Bay Area news outlets. Nobody was hurt, but the fire killed a cat and caused about $250,000 worth of damage to the owner's condominium.

The cause of the fire was unknown.

The vehicle, which had about 50,000 miles on the odometer and was owned by Ron Grembam, played a crucial part in the history of plug-in electric vehicles. In 2004, Mr. Grembam said, it was converted to use a plug -- and an added battery pack larger than the one provided as standard by Toyota so that it could run for a number of miles purely on electricity. At the time of the conversion, Toyota and other automakers were not making plug-in hybrid cars and expressed doubt about the technical and market viability of the technology.

"The message we had from the start was that if a group of amateurs and engineers could make the technology work in a garage, then the major automakers could make it much better and safer," said Felix Kramer, the founder of CalCars, the plug-in car advocacy group that organized the conversion and a subsequent campaign to get car companies to produce electric cars and plug-in hybrids. In an interview Thursday, Mr. Kramer added, "This unfortunate fire unequivocally has nothing to do with today's production plug-in hybrids."

Nearly 40,000 plug-in hybrid vehicles were sold in the United States in 2012. The market includes the Chevrolet Volt, Toyota Prius Plug-in Hybrid, Ford C-Max Energi and Fisker Karma. Honda and Ford will introduce new plug-in hybrids this year.

Mr. Grembam, who is also associated with CalCars, could not explain the cause of the fire, which had occurred while the vehicle was being charged. "It's not obvious," he said. "The car exploded and apparently destroyed all the evidence." The vehicle was using a $5,000 Brusa charger plugged into a 120-volt outlet and was able to pull only about eight amps, Mr. Grembam said. "That shouldn't be enough to overheat the battery pack. That deepens the mystery."

The fire was controlled in about 30 minutes. The exact cause is being investigated by the Corte Madera Fire Department, Mr. Grembam said.

The Prius was originally converted by CalCars to use grid-supplied electricity in 2004. In 2010, the vehicle's plug-in system was replaced by equipment supplied by the Plug-In Conversions Corporation of Poway, Calif., near San Diego. In the conversion, the existing batteries were replaced with a 6.1-kilowatt-hour nickel-metal-hydride pack, as well as a charger, control electronics and a plug. The conversion was intended to increase fuel efficiency above 100 miles per gallon. Since 2008, Plug-in Conversions has performed about 70 without any problems, said Kim Adelman, the company's chief executive.

Mr. Grembam said: "This incident very well might make a dent in aftermarket conversions. It would give anybody pause. But I'm hoping it doesn't affect the market for O.E.M. plug-in vehicles."

He said that major car manufacturers use large teams of engineers to make sure every safety factor is considered, but it's more challenging with one person or a small team. "It's possible for things to get missed," he said.

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