Converting Standard Cars to Plug-in Hybrids? Unlikely.

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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.


  • Bryce

    Linux would be a bad example of how to “open source” automotive technology. Last time I checked, Linux held 0.75% of the operating system market. Less than one percent is not something to build a business model after. Lets let the car companies deal with cars, and the computer companies deal with computers.

  • Dude

    Bryce, Although linex holds a small amount of the market its because they are not advertised like Microsoft and Apple, windows hit big because of advertising not reliability like Apples OSX and previous versions, it takes nerd to make a something good, but it takes a nerd with an ad in the clasifieds to sell that something

  • Bryce

    which supports my point, are these guys going to have a big marketing budget…..nope. Which means it is slim to none to go mainstream which will make it difficult for it get booming.

  • kerry bradshaw

    The “open source” confusion reminded me of the silly “cell phone” anaogy that Agassi employs to try to con the folks into believing his Project Better Place makes any economic (or evironmental) sense. I notice that all his economic comparisons involve $8 gasoline – he doesn’t compare his system to plug-ins, which can clean his clock and don’t require his enormous monopolistic trillion dollar frastructure

  • RandalH

    I don’t believe that the open source analogy works in this case. And I don’t think it makes sense to retrofit old cars with this technology. I do, however, think that we could benefit instead from the PC hardware analogy, whereby cars, particularly serial hybrids, could have a standard power bus, a standard information bus, and interchangeable components. My car could be in commuter configuration as a straight EV, having a large battery pack and electric hub motors at the wheels. If I want to change to a long-distance vacation mode, I remove the large battery pack and drop in a smaller battery pack and a motor/fuel tank/generator combo (perhaps as a rental). If I want to convert from gasoline to natural gas, I drop in different fuel tank/motor combo, etc. This much convertibility is probably extreme and likely not practical. But surely cars could benefit from some degree of standardization and modularization. I think that may be one of the greatest benefits of the serial hybrid concept, where there is a much looser coupling of components.

  • Bryce

    What you are talking about is a series hybrid (not a serial hybrid) and it is what GM is doing with the Volt. The Volt can be a fuel cell vehicle one day and a regular combustion engine the next. Whatever you wish the range extender to be, it shall be. Maybe not diesel though, seeing as that is not particulary popular here in North America.

  • RandalH

    Bryce: Thanks for the correction. I’ve seen the Volt called “serial” and “series” hybrid even within the same article. Most articles seem to use the terms interchangeably, and even on this site, the subtext to the link that explains hybrid technology:

    “Are all hybrids created equal? Get a grasp on the definitions: full hybrid, mild hybrid, plug-in hybrid, parallel hybrid and serial hybrid…”

    Yet, on the page linked to, only the word series is used. I’d love to see a link that explains the true difference.

  • Bryce

    the difference is there is no such thing as “serial” hybrid. It is just someone who doesn’t understand that it is called series hybrid. Are you asking what the difference is between a series and a parallel hybrid???

  • RandalH

    Bryce: No. I understand that difference. But if you google series and serial hybrid you’ll find the words used interchangeably in many if not most articles and on Wikipedia (truly the source of all knowledge). Also, the first definition of serial is “arranged in a series”. So, I guess it’s easy to confuse the terms.

  • GR

    It would be nice though to see some of those people with their gas hogs take their money and convert them to green cars. Those cars have the most space in their engines to add batteries as well as the most room for improvement in terms of MPG/CPM (cost per mile).

    Maybe one day we’ll see a converted plug-in hybrid Hummer on the streets…

  • hybrids all the way

    this is unlikely but is more feesible than Al Gores plan and the auto makers have more reason to make plug ins since thats one of the easiest ways to increase fuel economy without charging a fortune like with diesel engines and some hybrid cars

  • afinn

    I think the idea of using some kind of open source thinking to get a fast development of hybrids is great! Instead of car companies developing the same technology by themselves and make okey hybrids they could co-operate to make great hybrids. They wouldn’t have to invent the wheel over and over again. They could use more effort on optimising the product.

    Btw, I think mac os x is based on OPEN Bsd. And it’s amazing how good open software usually is.

    But to be cynical, I think car companies wouldn’t adapt open source thinking because of corporate greed.

  • Bryce

    corporate greed……or those silly things called capitalism and market share.

  • afinn

    Maby, capitalism and market share is overrated.

    Maby american car companies togheter could grow if they worked togheter. They could have some internal “open source” concept.

  • Anonymous

    Didn’t really need this article to know this was unlikely.

  • Need2Change

    About 6 months ago, I read about a company in England that was planning to offer the conversion. It works only with front wheel drive vehicles. The electric motor is attached to the read wheels. Seemed like a good idea to me.

    They were estimating a $8K-$10K price including labor. It was not a plug-in and it did not have regenerative brakes. It was unclear whether the ICE would shutoff automatically, but it did have a switch to operate totally in electric mode, but normally it just helps the ICE. Another shortcoming was that the batteries typically were placed in the trunk.

    They claimed about a 20% increase in mileage. I have a 2003 Chrysler 300 M Special that I love (leather, Sirius, Nav, great ride, great space, great brakes, etc.) It also gets OK mileage– about 21-23. It gets about 26-27 on the highway.

    A 20% increase would bring overall mileage to 25-28, and highway to 31-34–about the same as a Ford Focus, Mazda 3, Honda Civic, or similar car, and I like my 300 M much more than an ecobox.

    Another plus is that it helps acceleration.

    So, $10K appears to be a reasonable option to trading in my 300M and buying a $18K Honda Civic. However, I admit that I’ll never have $10K in gasoline savings unless gas increases to above $6/gallon.

  • domboy

    Interesting that the Poulsen Hybrid is show on a VW Jetta TDI (diesel). I wonder what kind of millage increase they are getting, as this Jetta can average 45mpg already (50mpg highway). I’d be interested in this system, as it means I could have my cake (my VW TDI with manual transmission) and eat it too (have a hybrid). I’m one of those people that is unimpressed by the current hybrid offerings. They have appliance written all over them, and NONE are available with a manual transmission (yes I know the early Civic and Insight were, but they’re gone), which I greatly prefer to an autotragic transmission (CVT included).

  • domboy

    Another comment – the Poulsen Hybrid system actually looks decent, maybe even attractive, but the other system (pusher wheel) looks outright ridiculous!! But then again, many people think the Prius is ugly, so maybe looks don’t matter as much if fuel efficiency is the goal…

  • ECD4ME

    attempting to add plug in hybrid tech to a non hybrid car seems impractical. Design features like regen brakes, electric ac and power steering are needed to make one acceptable and these would be very difficult to retro fit to a vehicle not designed for them. Its going to take a few years for the Auto companies to turn out plug ins, like it or not. And how practical is a 5-10K cost increment? Its nice if Ed Begly buys one but its just not accessible to the average American. They’ll have to be designed and mass produced from the ground up to be affordable.

  • Need2Change

    The conversion makes economic sense, if the $30K Honda Accord that you bought two years earilier has a tradein value of $5K because the price of gasoline is over $7/gallon and there’s comparable new cars that get 50 to 60 mpg. This scenario could happen in 2011.

  • Bryce

    yea, screw that capitalism thing affin! We don’t need it. We will just go to a command economy and let one government bureau decide how many toothbrushes we can make.

    On another note, several automakers did work together on developing the 2 mode hybrid system. (I think it was GM, Chrysler, and VW….or BMW, not sure.)

  • ex-EV1 driver

    When Andy Grove opens up the design for the chips that HE makes his money from, I’ll take his advice on the benefits of going with “open-source”.
    In the mean time, I’ll put my faith in Tesla and other entrepreneurs to actually solve our energy problems.

  • Bryce

    amen to that!

  • Paul Barthle

    Lowriders, hot rods, stretch limos; all production vehicles hacked by somebody first. I would like to see a front wheel drive vehicle converted to a Hybrid with wheel motors on the rear axle and an ice bear type electric a/c. Hypermilers unite! Make it a hobby first and an industry may well grow out of it.

  • Bryce

    thats how industries start. : ) Oddly enough.

  • Douglas Hvistendahl

    While looking forward to plug-ins (see Electrocharger), we should do what we can now. A lubrication enhancer (slick 50) is giving me about 9% improvement in mileage, CA-40, a fuel enhancer, adds an additional 6%. I know there are others out there, too.

  • Athonymous

    Perhaps I’m just an idiot, but it seems to me that it wouldn’t take much to swap out the rear axle of a larger front-wheel drive vehicle (like a minivan) with the axle and differential of a rear-wheel drive vehicle (like a pickup truck). Mount an AC motor on the differential input, and you’ve got plenty of room for batteries and motor controller on the floor of the vehicle.

    Linking it all together could be as simple as manually controlling the rear-wheel electric drive, or as complicated as integrating with the onboard GPS system to optimize the power profile for the day’s journey.

  • Ant

    There is already a Finnish project (calling itself eCars Now) underway to convert Toyota Corollas into plug-in hybrids. Reuters wrote about the project recently (see http://www.reuters.com/article/environmentNews/idUSL1870916120080723?sp=true). They are working in the “open source spirit” that Andy Grove was talking about, documenting progress and making information available to similar project, which they hope will arise around the globe. Apparently, a sister project has since then started in Denmark. The project’s pages (at http://www.sahkoautot.fi/eng) still seem to have only basic information in English, but interested people could always use Google Translate to browse their forums with more technical details. The accuracy of translation form Finnish seems to be quite horrible, though.

  • Wetdog

    Yes, it CAN be done. Yes, there are tinkerers and car enthusiasts that probably WILL do it. Yes, there were computer geeks who started out in the old days that way. There were even hot rodders in the 40′s and 50′s who started out that way.

    There always are the die hard enthusiasts in any technology or sport you care to name. But they are always just a niche, a dedicated and fanatic niche to be sure, but still a niche.

    They may come up with designs, innovations, or new ideas that can have a big influence. But in the final analysis, they are not the market. I doubt you’d ever get ten million of them. It would be fun to try. I’d get a big kick out of going to some shows to see what they’ve produced.

    Still, and just like computers, it won’t take off till things are mass produced. And can be quickly and easily mastered by the average person, or even a dummy like me.

    I like hybrid technology and think it offers some real design and innovation possiblities with the freedom of electric power, the power/weight ratio of ethanol tuned engines and electronic controls that plug in. It could be possible to make a vehicle with a flatbed drivetrain/transmission and a cabin that would mount on a rail system and be interchangable. The expensive mechanical/electrical/control parts on the chassis, and the cabin/exterior interchangable. Sports car during the week, SUV on the weekend. Luxury car during the week, pickup on the weekend. Transformers. Buy one chassis/drivetrain and two cabins, cheaper than two seperate vehicles. Or rent a different cabin if you only need it a little while.

    My choice for the mass market is still biofuels and conventional vehicles in diesel or flex fuel. Minimal expense, minimal change. Full use of current infrastructure. You’d end up with mostly conventional vehicles on the road—with a smaller but significant number of hybrid transformers. No different than the current mix of vehicle types, mostly middle to lower end cost vehicles, and some higher end luxury or sporty models.

  • fkramer@calcars.org

    There’s a lot more to be said about this…CalCars will be reporting more details about Andy Grove’s speech last week at Plug-In 2008….meanwhile, one of the commpanies, Hybrid Electric Vehicles Technologies of Chicago, brought its Ford F-150 PHEV–now expensive as you’d expect but perhaps in large volumes affordable. See http://www.hevt.com .

    The point is that we not only need new carmakers to build PHEVs but we need to do something about hundreds of millions of cars already on the road that will be running for decades more.And we expect that public subsidies for these gas-guzzlers will be available as well as for new gas-sippers.

    – Felix Kramer, Founder, The California Cars Initiative http://www.calcars.org

  • Bill Wilson

    Linux has over 90% of the large server market. see top500.org.
    All android and apple devices use linux at their core.
    Nearly all the web servers in the world run Linux.
    Nearly all network switches etc run a Linux Kernel.
    China & India use Linux extensively at the desktop level.
    Google with a billion hits per day, Facebook twitter…..
    I could go on
    Linux is in the majority