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'Green tuners' shifting to plug-in cars

Campaign pushes cars that store power in rechargeable batteries and run only on battery power for short trips. Photos: Car concepts get the green light

Russell Long already owns a pair of fuel-efficient hybrid cars--a Toyota Prius and a Honda Civic--but his dream car is not on the market yet: a zippy number he could plug in to recharge at night that would get over 100 miles per gallon.

Long, who founded the San Francisco-based Bluewater Network to reduce water pollution, is one of a growing number of environmentalists pushing auto companies to produce plug-in hybrids to reduce U.S. oil consumption and greenhouse gas emissions from auto traffic.

Futuristic car designs

This push is especially strong in California, whose tough regulations have encouraged the big automakers to test a range of alternatives to traditional gas engines, from hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles to cars that run on natural gas.

But the most active grassroots environmental campaign favors plug-in hybrids, which are like regular hybrids in that they have both electric and gas motors. But plug-in hybrids come with rechargeable battery packs that can be plugged into the wall for recharging. Such cars can run on battery power alone for short trips.

"It has the potential to reduce oil consumption by millions of barrels per day," said Long, who has lobbied General Motors and Ford Motor to get behind the technology. "If the question is 'What can we do in the short-term?' there is only one answer, and that's plug-in hybrids."

The auto industry, which has a history of resisting environmental regulations, is now looking to court both activists and the growing number of U.S. drivers who say they are willing to pay more for an alternative to a traditional gas-powered vehicle.

The Los Angeles Auto Show, which opens to the public on Friday, is becoming a major showcase for major automakers to display upcoming green vehicles in a market where they are likely to find the fastest and greatest acceptance.

This year, GM is using the LA Auto Show to draw attention to a pair of current-generation hybrids: the Saturn Aura and the Yukon SUV.

GM, BMW, Honda Motor and Nissan Motor will also show off hydrogen-powered vehicles.

But environmental activists like Long will be watching most closely for what the companies signal about their interest in plug-ins.

No automaker has yet committed to build a plug-in car, not even Toyota Motor Corp., whose Prius leads the market for current-generation hybrids.

Looking to jump start broader commercial interest, one San Francisco-area nonprofit group, CalCars, has helped build about 20 plug-ins since 2004 by hacking and tricking out the Prius.

The cars are outfitted with new lithium ion battery packs, which hold a charge longer than more common nickel metal hydride batteries.

In a parallel effort, a small California company, EnergyCS, is planning to convert new Prius models beginning next year at a cost of an additional $12,000 to consumers.

CalCars founder Felix Kramer said the goal would be to persuade big carmakers to switch to plug-in technology quickly.

"I'm kind of looking at this like Pearl Harbor, where the auto industry went from making cars and trucks to planes and tanks in just a year."

He said part of the appeal of the plug-in technology is its potential to reduce the U.S. reliance on oil shocks, since the cars would draw power partly from the electric grid.

But critics argue that, depending on how cleanly the electricity is generated, plug-in technology would just shift the source of pollution from the car to the power generator, which in some cases is fueled by coal.

Sherry Boschert, a member of the advocacy group Plug In America and author of a new book on plug-ins called "The Cars that Will Recharge America," said she worried development efforts could also be slowed by arguments about the technical limits of current batteries.

Some automakers have signaled that they would prefer to wait for the emerging class of lithium-ion car batteries to develop before pressing ahead with plug-ins, she said.

"These cars are doable today," she said. "At what point do you have to say that good is good enough."

For his part, Kramer said he was confident his effort was tapping into two divergent interest groups that have helped define popular culture in California--environmentalists and hot-rodders.

"All sorts of trends begin in California and certainly that's true for pollution controls" said Kramer. "But we also have a car culture here of tuners, which you know if you've seen 'The Fast and the Furious.' We're green tuners."