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Plug-in Priuses get grilled

June 28, 2008|Martin Zimmerman

The last thing backers of plug-in hybrid vehicles needed was the sight of a modified Toyota Prius powered by the cutting-edge technology sitting in flames beside the road.

That's exactly what they got this month, when a plug-in Prius operated by a South Carolina electric cooperative caught fire and was burned to the automotive equivalent of "well done."

No one was injured in the blaze, which apparently started when sparks from loose connections in the car's battery compartment ignited some upholstery.

In its unmodified, off- the-showroom-floor state, the Prius is a "traditional" hybrid -- powered by both an electric motor and a gasoline engine.

A plug-in version of the car powered by lithium ion batteries -- which could go farther on electric power and could be recharged between trips -- isn't expected from Toyota Motor Corp. until 2010 at the earliest.

In the meantime, a variety of after-market companies are converting stock Priuses to plug-ins at a cost of about $7,000 to more than $20,000.

Hybrids Plus of Boulder, Colo., converted the Prius that went up in flames.

The car was one of 10 plug-ins acquired by the National Rural Electric Cooperative Assn. of Arlington, Va., and distributed to member utilities for field testing.

"We really just want to see how these things work," project manager Andrew Cotter said.

The cooperatives' fleet of plug-ins was taken off the road while an investigation was conducted by an outside firm. The report, issued Friday, said the batteries themselves weren't at fault.

Carl Lawrence, chief executive of Hybrids Plus, said the incident was caused by "an assembly problem."

That came as a relief to backers of plug-in technology. Lithium ion batteries have been under a cloud since a series of recalls two years ago related to fires in laptop computers and other devices.

"I was worried that this would turn into a major incident, but actually most people seem to understand that this was an incident that didn't involve the batteries," said Felix Kramer, founder of CalCars.org, a Palo Alto-based advocacy group. "In fact, the batteries came out of it looking very good."

There are at least 150 plug-in hybrid conversions on the road, Kramer said, perhaps half of them in California.

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