Hybrid Hacks and Toyota Yawns?

solarprius1.jpg Imagine if you could eke more mileage out of your Prius. If you’re like me, you’ve already tried. What if you could get a decadent 100mpg? More? A group of Prius owners in Japan are doing just that – by hacking their Priuses.

According to this CNN report, the record holder among an underground group called “Mileage Maniacs(Japanese language only) has managed to travel 1500 miles on a single tank of gas. That’s about 116mpg; I’m green with envy! Fortunately there is a similar push in the USA and Canada to feed the demand for more efficient cars. Numerous easter eggs , and hacks are available so an enterprising Prius owner can get more mileage. There’s even a solar company and those who will modify your car into an hybrid plug-in. Some plug-ins are already on the road. Voided warranty aside, extensive green modifications require a lot of green from the owner, ranging from a $40 kit to thousands of dollars.

Could Toyota capitalize on the R&D of its loyal customers? What’s their opinion on these modifications? Daniel Terdiman from CNet asked that exact question to Bill Kwong, a Toyota spokesman. Mr. Kwong replied, “The tech is out there for technicians. But we don’t encourage consumers to do that.” Perhaps it’s understandable if Toyota prefers to control innovations to its products. Legal issues come to mind, and not the type you might think. In Europe and Asia, Priuses can come with a button that allows drivers to ride exclusively on the battery. By temporarily disabling the engine, they can increase mileage. Mr. Kwong told CNet, “Toyota doesn’t offer the switch to electric mode because of U.S. laws mandating that it offer a minimum eight-year warranty for the car’s power system. Thus,” he said, “by disabling the switch, the company is able to ensure a longer battery life.”

But if companies like EDrive, the aforementioned Hymotion or CalCars.org are jumping the gun, it’s a wonder Toyota hasn’t teamed up with them to study the performance of plug-ins already on the road. What if they could hurry the release of the Plug-in Prius with a little collaboration? These fuel-saving modifications, and a cool reception from corporations, show consumers that car companies have more than MPG on their mind. Mass-producing a car internationally is no small feat, and the caution required can keep improved technology off the market for years. Vehicle hackers are not so much discovering new possibilities; they’re simply putting them to use sooner. Assuming that these hacks are safe and actually improve mileage, they hold the potential to capitalize on niche markets. Consumers who want to pay less at the pump don’t have to wait for corporations.

Enable EV mode with thisSince few of us will be able to afford trading in an old Prius for a new plug-in, perhaps hacks are a better alternative. Depending on the hack, your driving habits, and the cost of fuel, dropping a few thousand dollars to upgrade your car could be better than buying a whole new one. You’re breathing new life in a product rather than discarding it, and you support local companies who innovate existing technologies. Auto hacks are not exclusive to Toyota; the Prius just happens to be the most popular choice for green auto geeks.

BoingBoing and Treehugger both note that shifting the energy burden from oil to coal (plug-in hybrids would no doubt draw energy from coal power plants on the grid) would also reduce net CO2 emissions.

(Special Thanks to CNet for interview quotes from Bill Kwang)

(Images courtesy of http://www.solarelectricalvehicles.com/ and http://www.coastaletech.com/04prius.htm)

(For a more in depth look at plug-in hybrids, see this article)


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