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CalCars Frequently Asked Questions

Note: This page is overdue for an overhaul. Until then, for answers, we recommend you look at current FAQs from two partnering organizations that cover both PHEVs and all-electric vehicles: Electric Vehicles: Myths vs. Reality (10 short explanations from Sierra Club), FAQ-General Questions (over two dozen answers from Plug In American) and one from 2008, the plug-in-hybrid-faq we helped write (Climate Progress).

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 Environmental Effects and Benefits | Alternative Fuels | Batteries | PHEV Conversions | Other Questions

What Are Plug-In Hybrids (PHEVs)?
Please see our Plug-In Hybrids page
Where's the payback?
The costs and benefits of cars extend far beyond an individual driver to society as a whole. But when people talk about payback, they refer only to the net dollars to the driver. Because this question never comes up when people pay a premium for features like leather seats, we point out that millions of people want the "environmental feature".

Despite this, a 2003 EPRI study, assuming only $2/gallon gas, zero buying incentives, and a PHEV premium of $3-$5,000 more than standard hybrids, shows that the total lifetime cost of ownership for a PHEV will be lower than that of any other vehicle type -- so the payback will be there.

We also think that with more people realizing that global warming is our greatest challenge, and that evolving the transportation sector to zero-carbon via plug-in hybrids using electricity from renewable sources and third-generation biofuels may be our best strategy, the discussions about payback are a narrow answer to big questions. See our Global Warming page.
What do car companies say about PHEVs?
Here's our roundup of auto-maker comments in the media recently. We see evidence of evolving views.

Won't all these cars require us to build even more power plants?
Just the opposite. A January 2007
Pacific National Laboratory study shows that if we woke up tomorrow and all our vehicles could plug in, today's grid could support more than three-quarters of them charging at night without building a single power plant.
Don't PHEVs just shift pollution from gasoline cars to power plants?
Yes. But it's monumentally less pollution, even on the national (half-coal) grid. And it's easier to clean central power plants than millions of vehicles. And utilities are increasingly being mandated to increase their percentage of power from renewable sources. For more see our All About Plug-In Hybrids page.
Won't all these cars require us to build even more power plants?
Generally, they'll plug in at night. The Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) estimates that the current power grid could handle many tens of millions of cars plugging in at off-peak hours before we'd have any capacity issues [See EPRI article PDF].
What's Vehicle-to-Grid and why would I like it?
Vehicle-to-Grid (V2G) is the concept of using stored energy in a plug-in hybrid's (or electric car's) battery to send power to the electrical grid when necessary. When plugged in, hybrids with advanced controllers can announce their identity, location and storage capacity to the grid. The utility can then juggle small amounts of power back and forth to the cars' battery packs, helping the utility level its power from moment-to-moment, providing voltage regulation, spinning reserves and other functions. And if adopted on a widespread basis, V2G can help during peak loads -- in the middle of the day when energy demand is highest, usage of car energy can prevent utilities from turning on high-polluting "peaker" plants.

Studies estimate utilities might compensate car owners with $2,000-3,000 a year to "borrow" their storage capacity -- thereby helping to offset the incremental costs of plug-in hybrids. For more on plug-in hybrids and V2G, see CalCars Resources, University of Delaware V2G Research Center, and papers from a June 2005 conference in Seattle.
What do environmental groups think of PHEVs?
Friends of the Earth and Rainforest Action Network have been active, vocal proponents of PHEVs. While other national and international organizations have been supportive at government hearings, they haven't yet begun to advocate for PHEVs. Many continue to pay more attention to far-off hydrogen fuel cells than to this immediate solution. We welcome environmental groups' increasing interest in PHEVs.

Readers of this FAQ can encourage local chapters and national organizations to begin public activities educating and promoting PHEVs.

What's the deal with ethanol?
The enthusiasm for ethanol ("flex-fuel" cars use E85, which is 85% ethanol and 15% gasoline) is welcome. But it works best if we use plug-in hybrids to power most of our miles electrically. Otherwise we'll need more ethanol than we can make sustainably. A combination solution: increasingly renewable electricity as the primary fuel and ethanol as the range extender.
Isn't it misleading to talk about 100MPG and 500MPG cars?
We try to be careful to emphasize in the fine print that PHEVs can get over 100 miles/gallon of gasoline, PLUS electric costs of about 1-2 cents/mile. You get to 500MPG, when 80% of the liquid fuel used is biofuel, which quintuples the 100MPG gasoline number, so it's then gasoline PLUS electric PLUS liquid biofuel.
How do fuel cell cars fit into the picture?
Fuel cell cars should be plug-in hybrids so that the fuel cell is used only for extended range, and the fuel cell stack and hydrogen storage can be smaller. [See EnergyCS's Greg Hanssen's Hydrogen Bridges PDF] We believe, however, that the advantages of flex-fuel PHEVs (and, counting conversion efficiencies, the 4X energy storage advantage of batteries over fuel cells) mean that the commercialization of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles may never happen.
I love the idea of powering my car from solar power. How about putting PV cells on the roof of a PHEV?
A car's rooftop surface area is too small to make a significant contribution. Unless/until PV cells become more efficient, and are part of the original installation, they will seriously affect the car's aerodynamics and will be far less durable than metal. Photovoltaic arrays belong on stationary rooftops -- which is an excellent way to drive on solar power (roof > house > car).
How about a car-mounted wind-generator?
A car-mounted windmill would recover only a tiny amount of the energy spent to accelerate and keep the car moving and would significantly add to the vehicle's drag -- and is thus not a feasible option.

How long will batteries last and what will replacements cost?
The standard Prius Panasonic batteries now have a replacement cost under $3,000; they're waranteed for
100,000-150,000 miles in different states. By then, they'll probably cost well under $1,000. We can extrapolate similar trends for PHEV batteries.

We can also extrapolate some data from experience with the RAV4EV all-electric vehicles. Though the Ni-MH batteries were originally warranteed for 75,000 miles, these cars have routinely exceed 120,000 miles and are still going strong.
Are the batteries recyclable?
Toyota's Nickel-Metal Hydride batteries are considered "non-hazardous waste" [See "high voltage electrical systems"]. Toyota has had a battery recycling program since 1998 and even offers dealers a $200 bounty to ensure batteries aren't just thrown away (described at end of linked document). Lithium-Ion batteries share many characteristics with NiMH.
What about battery safety? I've heard lithium-ion batteries can be dangerous if they overheat.
Please see the related article Are Hybrid Batteries Toxic?

Nickel-metal hydride batteries, proven for many years in hybrids to be safe, could go into PHEVs today -- they would be designed more like the ones Toyota put in its 2002 RAV4 EV compact all-electric SUV than like current hybrid batteries. (Engineers' note: hybrids need "power batteries," PHEVs need "energy batteries.")

The performance, longevity and safety of lithium-ion batteries are improving rapidly. The EPRI says lithium-ion batteries are ready now. DaimlerChrysler is using them in some of its prototype PHEV Sprinter commercial vans. And the Valence Technology li-ion batteries in the EDrive Systems Prius conversions include a phosphate additive that makes it nearly impossible for them to burn or explode.

What cars can be converted to PHEVs?
As of 2009, there is at least one conversion kit available for any Prius, and to a limited extent, the Ford Escape/Mercury Mariner Hybrids. See our
How to Get a PHEV page for more information. Older "Classic" Priuses lack the low-speed electric-only mode and the battery storage space that makes this possible. Honda Insight, Civic and Accord use an entirely different design: the electric motor never runs without the gasoline engine running at the same time. The 2006 Civic Hybrid, though it can theoretically drive solely on electric power, has too small an electric motor to effectively power the car by itself. [See Car and Driver's review]

Other hybrids, including the Toyota Highlander and Lexus 400h, are possible future candidates. We are increasingly focused on conversions of gasoline-only vehicles (i.e., non-hybrid ICEs to PHEVs).
What's the relationship between CalCars and after-market conversion companies?
We're non-profit; they're private companies. We work to gain attention for their pioneering efforts to "commercialize" (bring to market) PHEVs. In addition to our advocacy work and efforts to incentivize automakers, CalCars continue to pursue technical development and to explore using different batteries and other components.
When can I convert my Prius?
See our How to Get a PHEV page for detailed information on PHEV buying options.
Will a conversion void my warranty?
Companies could decide that conversions void some or part of your car or hybrid system warranty—unless they worry that will tarnish its green image. We won't know how dealers will respond to service requests until we start driving converted cars. However, there is a legal precedent set by aftermarket modifiers arguing that original auto warranties cannot be voided completely by modifications, and that only the part(s) affected by retrofit will have their warranties voided.
How do I find out more about Prius conversions in general?
The key information is found in links at the top of our PRIUS+ page: the 2006 version of our Fact Sheet, links to pages with photos, etc., and at CalCars-News.
What's next for CalCars in technology and conversions?
See our 2007 Goals and 2006 Report.
How can I get an all-electric vehicle?
Until recently, you could not buy a new highway-capable production electric vehicle in the U.S. -- but they are starting to come back. EVs are returning to the market along with PHEVs. See the Plug In America Vehicle Tracker for the latest. You may be able to buy a RAV4 EV at eBay (if you think Prius resale values are high, wait until you see $40K prices for these precious cars).There are also do-it-yourself conversions and places online where EV owners and fans congregate.
Why are there so many different names for these vehicles?
At various times, they've been called grid-connected, hybrids, full or strong hybrids, electric, pluggable, griddable, EREV (extended range electric vehicles) and many others. In the past five years, the most prevalent name has been plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs). Objections come from those who say that this is inaccurate, since the vehicles do require liquid fuel (currently gasoline). We probably won't have a universal name for them until an automaker spends millions of dollars on focus groups and marketing studies.

So for now we're sticking with PHEV.
How can I help?
See how you can help at Actions. Better yet, make a tax-deductible contribution. Give more than $25 and get this bumper sticker:

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