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Clean Cars Breakthrough

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Arianna Huffington has been talking about hybrid cars for a few years now...how they're such an important step for car companies, how much they benefit society. Way back in 2003, her Detroit Project for Fuel-Efficient Cars prompted thousands of Americans to contribute to broadcast ads saying American car companies could, with existing technology, take technology leadership.

Fast forward two years. Though we finally have Ford's hybrid Escape, the biggest news hasn't come from car companies, but from the grassroots. Engineers and environmentalists have "green-tuned" the Toyota Prius, turning it into an even stronger, more complete hybrid. These conversions, called "plug-in" or "gas-optional" hybrids (PHEVs or GO-HEVs) add bigger batteries that can be recharged from a regular 120-volt outlet. The key advantage of GO-HEVs: they're electric for your daily commute, but they retain a hybrid's full gasoline-powered range.

A few GO-HEVs have been built over the years by a University of California at Davis team, but until recently they were dismissed as something car companies would never produce. This year, DaimlerChrysler in Germany became the first big auto maker to agree to a prototype program, but for a van, not a consumer car. Some of us weren't willing to leave that alone.

When the nonprofit I founded, CalCars.org, did the first Prius conversion, getting over 100 miles per gallon of gasoline plus electricity, people started paying attention. Then a private company, EDrive Systems, jumped in and said they'd be selling installed retrofits next year. Journalists started noticing all this: Fareed Zakaria, Newsweek's International Editor, pointed out that if these vehicles were "flex-fuel" (80% powered by bio-fuels like cellulose ethanol), they'd get 500 miles on just one gallon of gasoline (plus biofuel and electricity). Then "geo-greens" jumped on the bandwagon, saying these cars could "set America free" from imported oil. A coalition including Reagan-era officials like Frank Gaffney and Gary Bauer, Clinton's CIA Director James Woolsey and the Natural Resources Defense Council -- a true "neocon-green alliance" -- all signed on to promote 500 MPG cars. For the first time, the words "plug-in hybrids" were spoken on the Senate floor. There's even Senator Barack Obama's Amendment 851 in the Energy Bill (now in House-Senate Conference).

You can read the story of the people behind the Prius conversions in last Sunday's Los Angeles Times Magazine cover story, by Dan Neil, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, whose recent comments critical of the leadership of General Motors led that company to pull its ads from that paper! It's the latest in a series of major articles in media like The New York Times, Business Week and Time (more at CalCars Kudos) showing that people now realize we could all be driving far cleaner cars real soon. It also turns out that getting cars off gasoline and onto the electric power is a great strategy to address global warming. Even on the half coal-powered national grid, we'll get significant benefits.

Our next step is figuring out how to incentivize car companies to build them. We're starting by organizing public fleet buyers, utility fleets and early adopters. And we're refining an ambitious idea: bring an attractive partnership offer [pdf] to a major car company. Keep watching this. It's a snowball that's gathering speed and momentum!