In a windowless workshop near the county landfill, a small Raleigh company has spent the past year trying to solve the nation's energy crisis one car at a time.
The cluttered Advanced Vehicle Research Center garage can accommodate two Toyota Priuses. Lately, the bay stays full. Demand keeps the cars rolling in for a makeover some say will become standard as the car industry weans itself off gasoline.
In less than four hours, the mechanics can outfit a Prius with a second battery pack. It emerges as a hybrid that can plug into a wall outlet to recharge like a cell phone.
The result: A car that breaks a once-unimaginable fuel efficiency barrier and delivers 100 miles per gallon.
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The spare battery costs less than 75 cents to charge and gives the plug-in Prius about a 35-mile range solely on electric power, making gasoline optional on short commutes. Retrofitting Priuses has become a full-time occupation for the Advanced Vehicle Research Center.
The Advanced Vehicle Research Center is one of a handful of companies that converts the Prius or other hybrids into plug-in hybrids, doubling their gas mileage.
The auto center sees demand mostly from corporate customers with fleets of cars, but recently converted its first car for a private consumer.
The center's small crew – founder and president Richard Dell, a former IBM project manager, plus two auto mechanics – can retrofit three vehicles a day.
Toyota does not authorize or endorse these conversions, and has its own Prius plug-in in the works. But plug-in hybrids aren't expected to be available commercially until 2010 in this country.
Enthusiasts aren't waiting, and with outfits such as Advanced Vehicle Research Center – as well as Charlotte Energy Solutions and custom installers in other states – they don't have to. Anyone who owns a Prius and can spare $10,400 can get a custom conversion.
By the end of the year, Advanced Vehicle Research Center expects to have at least 30 such plug-ins on the road, including 20 in this state.