Electric vehicle rally in Palo Alto today

Observations from the EV rally sponsored by the Silicon Valley chapter of the Electric Automobile Association:

  • Required  background reading for the event is Plug-in Hybrids by Sherry Boschert. Mandatory movie is the documentary Who killed the electric car? which premiered last year.
  • There were a couple dozen different EV cars, as well as random other eco-friendly conversion projects which appeared to have nothing to do with electric propulsion, including a diesel Benz converted to run on vegetable oil.
  • The vehicles spanned the whole range from bicycles assisted by lightweight electric engines to fully electric scooters and motorcycles, a toy car modeled after a Hummer H3 chassis to several flat-bed trucks intended for hauling weight.
  • Similarly the state of the EV technology ranged from brand new Camry hybrids off the dealer lot still carrying the stickers, to production spec Sparrows to home-brew projects with their guts spilled out, resembling a Rube-Goldberg contraption, high-voltage wires going all over the place etc. No fuel-cell vehicles in attendance as far as this blogger could see.
  • CalCars had a significant presence with their plug-in hybrid conversions. There were two different examples, one a relatively “incremental” modification with additional lead-acid batteries and another with the all-out lithium-ion overhaul. Toyota being the conservative company it is, would likely view them as equally damning when it comes to voiding the warranty.
  • On the one hand, it’s great to see the tinkerer spirit well-and alive. Modding cars is part of American tradition, and if the 50s were about muscle cars, the contemporary frontier is making electric vehicles a reality well ahead of the mainstream automobile producers.  (It turns out one of the plug-in conversions was done in ~2 days by a group of amateurs during Maker fair.)
  • On the other hand, inquiring about what it takes to convert a Prius to plug-in shows that for the most part, EV still remains something of a hobbyist project. Most of the pure electric vehicles have serious limitations to their range, top speed or safety, by virtue of low curb weight in relation to the bloated SUVs they will be surrounded by on the road.
  • Similarly the conversion projects remain beyond the realm of feasible even for those willing to void their warranty in creative ways. Two extreme ends of scale are represented by an “open-source” DIY additional battery kit under $6K or full-service replacement by the more advanced lithium-ion cells similar to those powering laptops  for >$25K. (NiMH is in between according to one of the reps.) That this latter number exceeds the cost of a new Prius ought to give anyone a pause for concern. Add to that rumors of plug-in Prius in the works from Toyota for 2011-2012, it’s difficult to justify being an early adopter on this front.


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