3prongpower

The world is waiting for the major car companies to offer electric vehicles. But you — you are accustomed to instant gratification. This is America, after all, and you want to plug-in now.

Well, you don’t have to wait for the Big Three to get out of their corporate jets and get to work. You can go with a get-around-towner like the ZAP or the Zenn. Or, you can go with one of the conversion companies which will take your Prius and turn it into a plug-in hybrid.

How well do the converted Priuses work? My friend Daniel Sherwood of 3Prong Power loaned me one to find out (full disclosure: Daniel’s partner — as in life partner, not business partner — is my colleague Claudia at Vote Solar).

The version I drove was powered by 20 lead-acid batteries, installed under a lucite cover in the spare-tire well. These provide 4.8 kWh of juice, enough for 10 to 12 miles of all-electric range. Future versions will have lithium-ion batteries — with power for 30 to 40 miles in all-electric mode.

So what was it like to drive? Well, pretty much like a regular Prius. Only quieter and better for America. When you start it, the engine cycles through a warm-up — it’s a California Air Resources Board requirement to warm up the catalytic converter. Hit the gas electric pedal, and you zip forward in electric mode, up to 34 mph or 10 miles, whichever comes first. For higher speeds and longer miles, the gas and electric engine work together, just like a normal Prius.

If you want to go faster than 34 mph in all-electric, 3Prong installed an engine kill-switch which forces an all electric mode up to 50 mph. Careful, though: if you run low on juice you have to park the vehicle and reboot the software to get the gas engine running again. So, perhaps the Bay Bridge is not the place to go all electric (sorry guys!). I was able to stay all electric for my in-town errands, no problem.

The interface is pretty much the same as a regular Prius, with an optional ‘geek-mode’ on the in-dash screen that shows some raw data on battery and engine performance.

At night, you just plug it in. Four hours on your regular 110V socket — a fill-up for less than 60 cents.

If you are in the Bay Area and want to check one out for yourself, 3Prong is having a launch party on Friday eve, at GreenMotors in Berkeley. Free beer, so bring a designated (electric) driver.