Interview: Plug-in Hybrid Pioneer on Receiving Chevy Volt

By · December 23, 2010

Felix Kramer and Andy Frank

Felix Kramer receiving his Volt at Novato Chevrolet. He's with Dr. Andy Frank, the engineer who is widely considered the father of the modern plug-in hybrid. Frank also took ownership of a new Chevy Volt this week.

More than eight years ago, Felix Kramer embarked on a quixotic journey to convince the global auto industry to produce plug-in hybrids that run primarily on electricity. Since that time, he has tirelessly promoted the cause—through the CalCars non-profit organization (which he co-founded), active political advocacy, and deft media campaigns.

Yesterday, the Chevy dealership in Novato, Calif., handed over the keys of a 2011 Chevrolet Volt to Felix Kramer—signaling a victory not only for Kramer, but many of his partners, colleagues and supporters.

I spoke with Kramer this morning about the experience of getting the Volt, and what lies ahead.

How have the first few miles of driving the Chevy Volt been?

Felix Kramer and Ron Gremban

Kramer, with Ron Gremban, the technical lead of CalCars. He led the project to convert a Toyota Prius into a plug-in hybrid in 2004 in his garage. Gremban is also the proud owner of a new Chevy Volt.

It’s been wonderful and kind of unreal. The reality hasn’t sunk in that they’ve actually built this car. In driving it, I said this is my car. And I kept saying that to myself. This is not just something I’m thinking about or testing out. This is a car that I have, and thousands of other people are going to be driving.

What’s been the biggest lesson you’ve learned over the past eight years in promoting plug-in hybrids?

You have to keep trying. If you know something is what you want and is right, you just have to keep at it. You can’t pay attention to all the people who say stop, or don’t try, or you can’t do this. It was my experience when I did a start-up, and it was my experience as an anti-Vietnam War activist. If you believe in something, you just have to give it everything you got.

What impact will it have on mitigating climate change to have factory built plug-in hybrids on the road?

It starts us on the path of taking this giant global industry and turning it around. It’s a big start. We are starting to produce vehicles that solve the emissions problem in one giant industrial sector. If we can electrify our vehicles and clean the grid, then greenhouse gas emissions from transportation will start to go away.

Is your campaign done?

The first campaign to get mass production of plug-in hybrids is done. The continuing campaign to ensure their successful commercialization is underway. And the effort to try to create a convinced active global constituency for [plug-in hybrid] conversions is just beginning.

Your campaign started eight years ago. What will U.S. roads look like eight years from now?

The mix of vehicles in the market nationally will be sort of like what we see in California today, with a lot of hybrids. In California, when you see two or three Priuses parked next to each other, you don’t say, ‘Wow, Isn’t that amazing?” That’s starting to look normal.

Also, we’ll see enough plug-in vehicles around that we won’t wave at each other, like we used to when we first had hybrids.

What will you be driving in eight years?

The next-generation of the Volt and a Nissan LEAF. Or maybe we’ll be down to one car, and take a lot more mass transit and rent a car when we need it.

If you could wave a magic wand, what other cars would you want to see on the roads at that time?

By 2020, I’d like every single new car on the road fueled by electricity and renewable liquid fuels.

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