Toyota Prius cruises around Charleston at 100 mpg 

A Three-Dollar Tour

Driving to New York on two tanks of fuel? Three fuel stops to California? It seems too good to be true, and it is. But the possibility of 100 miles per gallon on your daily commute is now a reality.

Jim Poch is the owner of a Toyota Prius that's been upfitted with a lithium-ion battery, boosting the car's fuel economy way beyond a "traditional" hybrid. He's been getting lots of press around Charleston lately for his lean and mean green machine. Maybe you've even seen the sporty white car, with its "100+ mpg" sticker and electrical socket on the trunk. While a car that maintains that kind of fuel efficiency all the way to New York is still piecing itself together in a scientist's brain, the technology to achieve 100 mpg for short trips (a.k.a. your regular commute to work) is alive and well.

The idea is simple: Take a hybrid, which already shares juice from gasoline and a battery to get around 50 mpg, and add a second, bigger battery to back up the little one. Then add a plug so you can charge it overnight, in addition to the self-charging that occurs while it's running. For the first 30 miles you drive after a four-hour charge, you're cruising at 100 mpg, and after that it's still a solid 50 mpg.

Our math skills aren't as good as our verbal skills, but we figure that means you'll get around 67 miles out of a gallon of gas. Even with gas pushing $3 these days, that sounds like it might be time to reinstate the Sunday drive.

Last year, Poch founded the Plug-In Hybrid Coalition of the Carolinas to promote the new technology. He bought a Prius, had it upfitted, and secured sponsorships from SCE&G, Duke Power, and Progress Energy. He's made plugging the plug-in his full-time job and was more than stoked to take us for a "one-gallon spin."

Poch came by the City Paper offices last Thursday morning after dropping his son off at school on Daniel Island to take us on a one-gallon, $3 tour of the town. After showing off the battery, which fits like a spare tire under the trunk and fills up in five kilowatt hours, or 45 pennies worth of coal-juice (wind, someday soon?), we loaded up and headed down Morrison Drive toward Calhoun Street.

On its console, the super-hybrid is outfitted with a screen that shows where the power's coming from — yellow when it's electricity, orange when it's gas, and blue when the system is storing the power otherwise lost while you brake. It also gives fuel efficiency, which hovered around the max of 99.9 mpg for that first 10 miles, indicating we may have been pushing well beyond 100.

"If you forget to plug it in, you can still drive it," says Poch. "But now that I'm driving this all the time, it's almost a sport to see how little gas I can use. At stoplights, the engine cuts off, and I'm not emitting any pollution. There's still a truck sitting next to me though, belching out stuff I've got to breathe."

While it would have been a moment of zen indeed, we never pulled up next to another hybrid during our ride, but there were trucks aplenty. From downtown, the quiet engine breezed us over the Cooper River to Mt. Pleasant, where Jim needed to drop videos off at Blockbuster. From there we hopped on I-526 all the way to West Ashley, where I had a coupon for some enviro-friendly (i.e. "fancy pants") dog food at Superpetz on Sam Ritt.

Then it was lunchtime, so in keeping with the theme we hit up the Daily Dose on James Island for some organic veggie grub.

"We're really pushing plug-ins to utility companies, even big coal, because it's so much easier to regulate and clean 1,000 smokestacks than 100 million cars out on the road," says Poch, through a mouthful of burrito. "This technology can really make the air cleaner for our children."

Even though electricity isn't a perfect alternative to fossil fuels, especially in the coal-hungry Lowcountry, the benefits far outweigh any counter pollution. The Natural Resources Defense Council estimates that full conversion to plug-in hybrids in the U.S. would eliminate 450 million metric tons of greenhouse gases. An added benefit is that cars generally charge at night, during off-peak hours when utilities have power to spare.

"Government studies have shown our nation has enough off-peak electricity to power 84 percent of the nation's passenger and light-duty truck fleet," said SCE&G's general manager of corporate planning Bob Long, in a prepared statement to support Poch. His utility jumped at the opportunity to sponsor him, and during our ride we actually used their car — Poch's was in the shop getting some regular maintenance.

Fifty percent of Americans commute less than 25 miles a day, meaning they'd always get 100 mpg with a plug-in hybrid. With an 11-gallon tank, that'd mean filling up every 44 days. Although it seems like demand would be high, car companies haven't been quick to push the plug-ins: only 76 cars exist nationwide.

Chevrolet and Toyota both have plans to market plug-ins by 2010, but they're cutting costs by souping up their nickel battery instead of using lithium, so 100 mpg still won't be the norm. Poch says that if it's done in bulk, the lithium upgrade can be done for between two and three grand (his was $13K by itself, plus the cost of the hybrid). The do-it-yourself option remains, but you'll most likely void your warranty in the process.

Poch also blames the slow progress on automakers looking at "sales quarters instead of decades," and realizes the profit margin is smaller so it's easy to say "why bother?"

"We've got this technology today, and any bugs are very quickly being worked out," Poch says. "I understand some hesitation, but it's ready. Why don't we have more of these out there?"

After our lunch, it was just a quick ride down the connector and back to City Paper headquarters. Our 70-mile trip would have cost me about $10 in my Volkswagen, and over three times the gallon we burned to circle Charleston. It's like getting a free (organic) burrito just for running errands.

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