BIG PICTURE: FROM DEMO TO ADOPTION
The sooner we can accelerate the availability of prototype plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs), the better we can support those working to get car makers to build them. One way to do this is to hitch the enthusiasm of passionate hybrid owners to the market momentum of the fast-selling Prius. We propose leveraging the support of already organized hybrid owners to convert a few 2004 Priuses. PRIUS+ will become PHEVs with an electric range of 5-20+ miles at up to 35 miles/hour. (Of course they will retain their 500+ mile highway-speed range in HEV mode, and the batteries improve performance at all speeds.) The benefit: a substantial portion of the miles driven by PRIUS+ cars will no longer be fueled by gasoline.
This idea's key new component is the realization that turning a great car into a partial PHEV is the fastest route to building interest in full passenger PHEVs with a 20+ mile electric range at highway speeds.
We aim to get Toyota to embrace this effort, and we hope to encourage other carmakers to follow with their own PHEVs. We don't take the challenge lightly -- especially since Toyota has adopted "You don't have to plug it in" as a Prius tagline. Creating a new accommodation will require a high sensitivity; it will be helped both by building effective alliances with many agencies and institutions, and by taking aggressive steps to build an irresistible car-buyer force. If successful, this will be a historic milestone for consumers demonstrating a new market opportunity and transforming a "big-ticket" product.
The conversion involves adding batteries and enabling 110-volt charging. Our initial technical principle is that our changes must appear "transparent" to the electronic controller, so the conversion can be done without tinkering with Toyota's software. (We're getting technical advice from people who have analyzed the way Toyota's Hybrid Synergy Drive charges batteries. In the time-honored tradition of "car tuners," experimenting engineers began by adding batteries to an '04 Prius and enabled the "EV-only" button that Toyota designed but made available only in Europe and Japan.)
We have started, for "proof of concept," by temporarily modifying one vehicle. Next, we will work with a battery manufacturer (an American or perhaps a Korean or Chinese company motivated to gain entry to the growing hybrid battery market). Taking the best ideas from a large range of experts, we will replace the existing battery with a customized higher-energy nickel-metal hydride pack, rechargeable from a 110-volt outlet. (We will use the existing battery space plus the unused area above the spare tire, while the tire remains accessible). We will install and test this pack on one vehicle, and follow it with a second vehicle using even higher-capacity lithium-ion batteries.
(If you know one or more celebrities or entrepreneurs who can contribute to bring the experts together and get the ball rolling, see the specifics at Steps To Get the Even Better Priuses We Dream About.)
During this time, we will engage the project on four other tracks:
1. We will solicit PRIUS+ orders from celebrities, entrepreneurs and other early adopters. We're offering them the cleanest, most practical, high quality international brand car available -- the same criteria many used to buy their current Priuses. And they are in the position, as few others are, to be able to spend up to $10-20K (depending on how many we build)-- and to accept that unauthorized modifications may void the car warranty. We'll also work to interest institutions in a small mini-fleet order.
Once we have these high-profile supporters, we will arrange for an exclusive "inside the home-grown campaign to improve the Prius" report by a national automotive journalist as the kickoff for a sustained public relations effort to gain attention to our initiative. By this time, we expect journalists may have already begun covering some of the individual experimental conversions as well.
2. We will gain support from Prius (and other hybrid) owners. Building on the existing online structures (over 10,000 registered members of the main Prius Yahoo Groups, where postings have been reflecting a growing awareness of PHEVs), we will coordinate campaign activities to emphasize the levels of interest in the initiative. We'll establish a clearinghouse for information and performance data both for our conversions and for modifications by others.
Looking ahead to document demand for an official Toyota PRIUS+, we will poll buyers' interest at different price points. We will begin to create waiting lists and perhaps mechanisms for hybrid owners to "trade up" to Toyota-supported PRIUS+ at a pre-subsidy cost that, if done by Toyota, could be $4-8K, and would probably have a significantly greater EV range.
While starting on a state/regional level, later we may organize owners by dealer, through whom they can channel requests for the vehicle. We may create local Prius events, such as "Prius Plus Parades," locally (and if it becomes necessary, in and around Toyota's US headquarters in Torrance, near Los Angeles). Possible slogans: "I love my Prius; please make it pluggable," "Prius -- Free Us," "You don't have to plug it in -- but you can," or "I want Toyota's best SUV -- I'll pay for a pluggable Highlander."
3. We will engage in an increasingly intensive effort through carefully chosen channels in the US and Japan, first to officially inform Toyota of the progress of our effort, and second to gain the company's cooperation on successive levels. Initially, we hope to be able to convert vehicles in a way that does not automatically void some or all components of their essential new car warranties.
Then we will try to persuade Toyota to sponsor the conversions through its dealer network. And we will urge Toyota to consider pluggable versions of the Lexus RX and Highlander SUV hybrids announced for 2004. (Both have far more powerful electric components than Prius, more space for batteries -- which could lower their centers of gravity -- and could become fully highway-capable PHEVs.) The more we succeed in involving owners, demonstrating buyer interest and attracting media attention, the better our ability to demonstrate to Toyota their opportunity to get in front of a powerful grass-roots effort that otherwise could have the potential to dilute their customers' high loyalty to Toyota.
4. Finally, we will attract a range of other agencies and institutions as partners. We will ask national and statewide environmental groups to endorse or adopt the project to encourage many car makers to build next-generation hybrids (which could exist as part of the California Cars Initiative or as a separate "PRIUS+ Initiative," but ideally as a sponsored project of one or more established, reputable nonprofit groups). We will seek from the California Air Resources Board a favorable credits category for neighborhood PHEVs that will incentivize car makers. We will invite foundations and others to support the effort and perhaps set up funding mechanisms to offer rebates supplementing the diminishing federal tax deduction for the first large wave of conversion customers.
Do you think PRIUS+ can inspire people to stretch the rules of the car business, breaking the logjam? Do you have ideas? We want to hear your views and get you involved. And if you can connect us with individual or group PRIUS+ sponsors, not limited to Californians, contact us: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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