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CalCars’ First Prius Conversion Destroyed in Fire

CalCars’ first Prius, converted to plug in by advocates in 2004, updated in 2010 with a commercial system, was destroyed in a fire on Wednesday. It’s a sad end for a vehicle that gave hundreds of public officials their first opportunities to drive electric and helped inspire a campaign that brought us the Chevy Volt, the Prius Plug-in and other plug-in hybrids and extended-range electric vehicles. It’s also a huge personal setback for its owner, Ron Gremban, CalCars Technology Lead.

The New York Times story below, by Bradley Berman, founder of HybridCars.com and PlugInCars.com, explains the situation. Because of the extent of the damage, there’s much we don’t know and may never know about the cause of the fire. Here are a few preliminary broad points:

It’s fortunate that no humans were injured, especially Ron’s partner, Lynne McAllister, who discovered the fire and notified the fire department; it’s very sad that one of their cats died and the other is missing. And the damage to their home is a heavy financial setback from Ron and Lynne.
This incident has NO implications for mass-produced plug-in vehicles. Ron’s car used nickel-metal hydride batteries, the same battery type used in the original Prius and in other conventional hybrids for the past 15 years. Today’s production PEVs use lithium-ion batteries. This commercial conversion did not use the current industry-standard J-plug found in all the fully validated and tested cordsets in production vehicles.
What happened can be put in perspective when compared to the internal combustion industry’s record, chronicled by the National Fire Protection Association: from 2003-2007, an annual average of 287,000 vehicle fires, 480 civilian deaths, and $1.3 billion in direct property damage. http://www.nfpa.org/­categoryList.asp?categoryID=1123
In 2004-2005, our message was that amateurs and engineers working in a garage could show how we could have cars that plug in NOW, with batteries that were “good enough to get started” and would improve. We encouraged the media and the public to imagine how much better and safer they would be when mass-produced by automakers. These conversions drove home the benefits to drivers, the economy, the auto industry, the environment, and national security. (This story is well told in early news stories http://www.calcars.org/­kudos.html and http://www.calcars.org/­early-news.html , and chapters in dozens of books, especially in Sherry Boschert’s “Plug-In Hybrids, the Cars that Will Recharge America” http://www.calcars.org/­books.html .)
This first conversion and many dozens more completed through our Open Source Prius+ project proudly announced that they got “100+MPG” of gasoline, plus a few cents a mile of “cleaner, cheaper, domestically produced” electricity. They and about 1,000 other conversions by small companies had a giant impact. They helped reach the goals of CalCars, the Electric Auto Association, Plug In America, and others: raising awareness, getting opinion leaders the opportunity to experience driving electric, and encouraging carmakers to mass-produce all types of plug-in vehicles.
80,000 plug-in cars have been sold since the end of 2010 http://www.electricdrive.org/­index.php?ht=d/­sp/­i/­20952/­pid/­20952 . And it’s been clear for some time that the era of small-scale hybrid conversions was drawing to a close. We still hope that more companies will jump into a larger opportunity — converting tens of millions of internal combustion engines to plug in, an idea we promoted heavily from 2009-2011 http://www.calcars.org/­ice-conversions.html . And we still have much to do to bring PEVs into the mainstream, through DrivingElectric.org and other efforts supported by CalCars, EAA, PIA and allies.
Finally, about Ron. He’s a talented and resourceful engineer, a good writer, and a smart strategist. CalCars, founded in 2002, got its most important jump-start when he came on in 2004 and led the conversion project and many subsequent programs. He devoted his life to this effort from then until he got his Chevy Volt at the end of 2010. Due to budget constraints at CalCars, he was largely a volunteer. Ron’s costs in rebuilding his home and replacing damaged possessions and his car will not be fully covered by insurance. We have already received inquiries from people who would like to help. If you would like to donate directly, please reply to this message or write to sponsor (at) calcars.org .

Thanks for all the support and help this community has provided over the years.
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