Who's Killing the Plug-In Hybrid? 

The same state agency that drove the electric car off a cliff is now poised to wreck a new Berkeley company that triples the gas mileage of a Toyota Prius.

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But if the air resources board approves the new regulations next week, those prices could rise dramatically. Or the businesses themselves may simply cease to exist.

So why are plug-in hybrids potentially harmful to the planet? Air resources board officials are concerned about two potential problems that could increase smog emissions in some conversion systems. The first has to do with the car's catalytic converter. Located underneath the car, between the engine and the tailpipe, the catalytic converter cleans the emissions that spew out of the engine before they're released into the air. Catalytic converters, along with so-called leak-proof emissions systems, are the primary reason why today's cars are so much cleaner than those of several decades ago.

But catalytic converters only work well when they're warm, and they warm up when the engine turns on. Consequently, gasoline-power vehicles pollute the most when the engine is first turned on in the morning after being off for many hours. This high-pollution moment is referred to as a cold start. A regular car or hybrid typically has only one or two cold starts a day. However, it's possible for plug-in hybrids to have several of these high-pollution moments in a single afternoon of driving. The gasoline engine might click on several different times when driving around town — whenever the car exceeds 34 mph or the driver hits the gas pedal too hard. "The potential exists to significantly increase emissions," explained John Swanton, an air pollution specialist for the air resources board.

The other potential problem with plug-in hybrids involves unburned gasoline vapors — a real threat to air quality. When gasoline-powered vehicles are turned off, some of the fuel in the gas tank evaporates. These vapors are stored in an adjacent canister built to hold up to three days worth of vapors. If you leave your car's engine turned off for more than three days, the canister overflows and the vapors leak into the air and cause pollution. But if you turn your car on before the three days are up, the canister vents the vapors through the engine, allowing the catalytic converter to clean the emissions before they come out of the tailpipe.

Most people typically don't keep their cars turned off for more than three days. But with a plug-in hybrid, it's possible for the gasoline engine to not turn on for days or even weeks at a time. That's especially true if drivers never hop on the freeway and don't otherwise exceed 34 mph. As a result, it's possible for plug-in hybrids to spew gasoline vapors out of the vapor canister on an almost-constant basis, turning a Prius into a gross polluter.

Consequently, air resources board engineers are recommending that plug-in hybrids undergo extensive cold-start emissions and gasoline-evaporation testing. According to agency documents, the tests likely will cost about $20,000 to $25,000 per vehicle. Swanton said in an interview that the board may only require that one vehicle be tested, but the agency's own documents state that the board may force companies to submit up to five test vehicles, meaning the total test costs could amount to $100,000 to $125,000.

Such tests would be prohibitively costly for small startups like 3Prong Power. They also appear to be somewhat capricious. Swanton said the agency's concerns stem in part from testing by at least one major auto manufacturer, which found significant pollution problems in cold-start emissions testing of its own plug-in hybrid prototypes. But the test results "are confidential," because they're considered trade secrets, he said. In other words, a state agency is about to adopt new regulations that could cause some companies to go bankrupt based on testing results that allegedly reveal a problem that it won't reveal publicly. "It's ridiculous," said Robb Protheroe, owner of Plug-In Supply. "So you're going to have a government agency producing regulations based on confidential data? It should be transparent."

Protheroe also pointed out that California is literally strewn with new and used car lots full of vehicles that don't get turned on for weeks, or months, at a time. If air resources board engineers are correct, then tens of thousands of these cars are constantly spewing unburned gasoline vapors into the air, doing far more damage than the relatively small number of hybrids that have been converted to plug-ins. "Why don't they ask the dealers to go out and start their cars every third day?" Protheroe asked.

It turns out, however, that the argument over emissions and evaporative testing is mostly academic. Last year, a Massachusetts-based plug-in hybrid conversion company passed the air resources board tests easily. The company, A123 Systems, which makes the Hymotion lithium battery supplied by Pat's Garage in San Francisco and A+ Japanese Auto Repair in San Carlos, found a simple solution for the cold starts and unburned gasoline vapors problems. They just make sure the Prius' gasoline engine turns on when you start your car. That way, the catalytic converter warms up and the evaporation canisters are vented, explained Pat Cadam, owner of Pat's Garage. It's counterintuitive, but it works. It turns out that you have to turn on the gasoline engine and burn gasoline in your mostly electric car to make it more eco-friendly.

Because of this breakthrough, Sherwood and Guzyk of 3Prong Power aren't worried about passing the tests. It's an easy software adjustment for them to tell the Prius' gas engine to turn on whenever the car starts. But they say they still can't afford the expensive testing. Nor can they afford the extensive warranty requirements the board is expected to pass next week.

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