June 19, 2006 | Post Archive
Greg Hanssen has no reason to be intimidated by rising gasoline prices. That's because his car gets 100 mpg, which he gleefully boasts on his custom California license plate. At a recent conference on hybrid vehicles, Hanssen impressed the auto engineers in attendance with his modified Toyota Prius.
The most shocking part about the modded hybrid is that it's a plug-in; something car engineers thought was a thing of the past. After electric cars failed due to "lack of demand" (according to big auto manufacturers), attention shifted to hydrogen fuel cells. But critics like Hanssen and company think that hydrogen-run vehicles are at least 15 to 20 years off, if they ever happen at all. That's why they're focusing on turning existing hybrids into plug-ins: it's an immediate solution for an immediate need, and it only costs around $12,000. Ouch. And given that the Prius already costs more than its non-hybridized siblings, plug-in hybrids aren’t likely to go mainstream anytime soon. Admittedly, Hanssen's company EnergyCS, is only looking to reach a niche market of environmentally-conscious early adopters...for now.
A standard Prius gets around 40 mpg and can run in pure-electric mode for a mile or so before it needs to switch back to gasoline. Hansen and his team learned that they could "trick" the Prius computer into accepting a bigger, lithium ion battery, rather than Nickel-Metal Hydride that comes from the factory. Hanssen's Prius thinks the battery is mostly charged all of the time, so the modified Prius can drive 30 miles in pure-electric mode before switching to gasoline. And like a regular Prius, the car won't switch into gasoline mode until it reaches higher speeds. The key difference is that the modified version continues to employ electric power, which handles 75 percent of the workload at 55 mph.
Hanssen and his company aren't the only ones doing impressive research and development with plug-in hybrids. Andrew Frank of UC Davis has been active in the development of hybrid technology for 30 years. His goal is to build a large hybrid vehicle capable of achieving 100 mpg. Currently, you'll find a modified Ford Explorer he's converted into a plug-in hybrid. He dropped the engine size down from 3.5 liter to 1.9 liter without losing any speed. The modified SUV is faster than a non-hybridized Explorer.
Most impressively, however, is that Frank gave a Mercury sedan a similar makeover and now the car gets 200 mpg. Stack that up against the average fuel economy of new American cars -- around 30 mpg -- and just try to keep your jaw off the floor. Rocket science? Maybe not. Undeniably awesome? You better believe it.