Converting Standard Cars to Plug-in Hybrids? Unlikely.

By · July 31, 2008

Last week, former Intel CEO Andy Grove joined a growing number of Silicon Valley executives offering solutions to America’s transportation and energy problems. Grove, the legendary leader who transformed Intel from obscure memory chip manufacturer to microprocessor titan, called for a massive effort to put 10 million plug-in hybrids on the roads in the next four years.

Grove’s plan is simple: Harness the ingenuity of America’s entrepreneurs to convert a sizable chunk of America’s existing gas guzzlers to plug-in hybrids, offer tax credits to make these conversions affordable, and give away electricity to fuel those vehicles. Noting parallels with the computer industry, Grove pointed out that the computing boom began with tinkers who assembled their own PCs and wrote their own programs, much like the garage mechanics and small firms doing plug-in conversions today.

Grove offered additional advice to the auto industry: Forget about competing with one another to develop the best electric vehicle technology. Instead, make plug-in hybrids and electric vehicle designs “open source.” The designs would be accessible to everyone, employing the same model that has made software operating systems such as Linux so popular.

The automotive industry could always benefit from some fresh thinking, and Grove has the best of intentions. But his comments illustrated how an expert in one industry—even one that was Time magazine’s “Man of the Year”—can reveal himself as a novice in another. Converting conventional vehicles to plug-in hybrids is indeed possible, but making those conversions affordable, reliable, and safe on any kind of scale is another story.

Today’s Prius-based plug-in conversions get amazing mileage, but they also have suffered from a host of issues, including charger failures, rapid battery degradation, and the occasional vehicle fire. These conversions are also expensive, ranging from $10,000 to $30,000 per vehicle—although the price seems to be coming down. Plug-In Supply Inc., based in Petaluma, Calif., recently unveiled a plug-in conversion kit selling for $5,000. Installation not included.

New companies are emerging with conversions for conventional non-hybrid vehicles, but these solutions are even less proven. In a “through-the-road” conversion, available from Poulsen Hybrid in Shelton, Conn., electric motors are externally mounted on two wheels. Another startup is offering an Automotive Vehicle Pusher, a giant wheel mounted on the rear bumper to propel the vehicle under electric power.

Plug-in hybrid conversions will have to be reasonably priced to make financial sense for drivers. Assuming utilities don’t give away electricity for free, drivers of large vehicles like the Chevrolet Suburban who convert their vehicles will save about $2,500 per year at today’s gas prices. Not bad, but how many consumers will accept the odd-looking external equipment? And how many problems will drivers endure as bugs get worked out of the new conversion systems?

Hybrids like the Prius have taught us—once again—that cars are about much more than economics. What a car says about us has as much impact on our buying decisions as how that car affects our wallets. So if converting a vehicle is seen as the next big “green” thing to do, it may take off. But mounting a big wheel on the back of your pickup truck is not likely to have the same caché as driving a factory-made hybrid.

However, it would be ironic if these "regular-car-to-plugin-hybrid" conversions did become popular. Just as auto companies are preparing to put more efficient products in the showroom, Americans would be hanging on to their guzzlers a bit longer.

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