Local tests electric hybrid
Shop students get peek at new technology
Friday, Dec. 31, 2010
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Staff photo by EMILY BARNES
Mark Czajka, left, chairman of the Charles County Technology Council, talks to students about the plug-in electric Toyota Prius at North Point High School in Waldorf earlier this month.
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For six weeks, what might be the future of fuel-efficient vehicles was tooling around Charles County, running errands and taking people to work. Now, it's moved on.
Toyota lent a prototype of its Prius plug-in hybrid to Mark Czajka, chairman and acting president of the Charles County Technology Council, for testing under normal conditions. While he had it, he drove it to his job in Washington, D.C., and showed it to merchants, students and anyone who was interested.
The prototype is different from previous Prius models because it can be plugged in and charged electrically, though its all-electric range is only 13 miles, according to information provided by Toyota. After that, it burns gasoline to power an electric motor like conventional hybrid vehicles.
On short trips, the car would get between 75 and 99 miles per gallon of gasoline, Czajka said, but on longer trips its mileage dropped to 45 or 50 miles per gallon, more in line with a "regular" Prius.
The car will debut commercially in the 2012 model year, according to Toyota. Right now, 600 test vehicles are distributed worldwide, including 150 in the United States, said Toyota spokeswoman Mira Sleilati. The test program began in late 2009 and will continue until the car goes to market.
The lack of public charging infrastructure is a barrier to the purchase of electric cars, Czajka said, and convincing companies to install chargers isn't easy.
"I think the infrastructure is still very important. If people see something sitting in front of a building and say, What's that?' it's, Oh, that's where you can plug your car in.' It's a chicken and an egg thing: They might be willing to buy a car because there's more places in the county to plug them in," Czajka said. But many local merchants are controlled by large corporations and don't have the authority to install chargers on their own, or may not even understand what they're for, he said.
Czajka is a strong proponent of electric technology, and currently owns a conventional Prius. Even so, he isn't planning to run out and buy a Prius plug-in hybrid anytime soon, at least not if the version that goes to market is the same as the test model. It was too simple for his taste.
"The [all-electric Nissan] Volt was much more impressive inside, much more expensive, so if you're looking for a car that's a basic vehicle that can get you a lot of miles this [Prius] is a car for you. Would I buy it personally? I think they'd have to make a few little improvements to it," Czajka said, including extending its electric range and making the cabin more comfortable.
Czajka got his chance for a test run through the Electric Vehicle Initiative Baltimore-Washington, which is promoting the installation of electric vehicle chargers in the area, as well as the use of electric cars.
"Toyota asked about test drivers and through Autoflex, which is a bulk electric vehicle fleet manager, BEVI was able to be one of the first entities involved in the test drive," said Jill Sorensen, executive director of BEVI. The nonprofit has been working with several organizations to promote the Prius and other electric prototypes, but "Mark's involved with that, and doing a terrific job talking with hotels, shopping malls and different merchants about the installation of electric vehicle charging stations."
Next in line, he hopes, for a Prius test run is Carlos Montague, president and CEO of Port Tobacco Consulting in La Plata. He's signed up but hasn't heard back yet.
"Our company tries to be very, very environmentally responsible…. We try to instill that same responsibility in our employees. The next car, the next company car, whenever it may be, will be either all-electric, a plug-in hybrid or something like that, to set a good example. Because honestly what we're driving right now is something of a pig. A Range Rover," Montague said.
But like Czajka, Montague has his eyes on something more upscale than purely practical.
"My business partner and I go to the Detroit Auto Show every year on their industry day … We're more luxury-minded" like the Tesla Model S, Montague said. "I'm more the flashy type, the luxury type than the commuter type."