Amberjac: The British PHEV Connection
By Bill Moore
Amberjac Projects' Simon Sheldon isn't daunted by the fact that compared to the North American market, there are far fewer Toyota Priuses available to convert to plug-in hybrids. He has the entire British and European market place available to him, for the time being, though there are other players like PML who are experimenting with the technology.
Sheldon's advantage is that his firm doesn't have to develop new technology since he has struck a deal with EnergyCS in California – one of the original pioneers in the field – to make use of their system to convert existing, late model Priuses to run longer on battery power, resulting in lower fuel consumption and carbon dioxide emissions.
“We use the same electronics... the same battery configuration. EnergyCS is supplying us with all the electronics and components,” he explained. His company then integrates it and installs it into the donor vehicle.
While doing the conversion is now relatively straightforward and well-understood, Sheldon's challenge is to find a sufficient number of cars to convert. Whereas there are around a quarter of a million Priuses on the road in North America – the bulk of which are candidates for conversion – he estimates there are only about 4,500 Priuses in the UK, a substantially smaller market.
“We aren't just looking at a domestic market. We are looking at a EU-wide market,” he told me. “There are quite a number of vehicles out there on the roads in the European Union, although the UK has the highest number of Priuses on the road.”
Sheldon said that doing Prius conversions to plug-in hybrids is only part of Amberjac's activities, which includes other types of hybrid and electric vehicle programs.
“For hybrid vehicles and electric vehicles, we have some unique ideas on how to attack those particular markets and give people and companies solutions they are looking for.”
He wouldn't discuss the nature of these programs other than to say his firm is working with one or more “OEMs” on these concepts. OEM usually refers to a major automaker but also can refer to Tier one suppliers who provide many of the parts that go into motor vehicles.
“I can't mention names for obvious confidentiality reasons,” he demurred.
I asked him what was involved in the conversion process and how long an owner might expect to be without a vehicle. Since the company is located in Lincolnshire, about 100 miles north of London, they'd have to arrange to get the car to Amberjac, at which point, the actual conversion would take about a day. However, Sheldon said that he would want to give the car a thorough shakedown to make sure everything was working properly before handing back over to the owner, a process that could take an additional couple days.
And the price? It's open to negotiation with each customer at the moment, he said. It largely depends on who the customer is and what they intend to do with the vehicle. He noted that one current customer wants to incorporate a fast-charging system in the vehicle, which Sheldon notes is a expensive development project in its own right. Other customers might be power companies who are interested in extensive data collection for research and planning purposes.
“The ultimate price the customer will pay will depend on his requirements.” He also pointed out that the base price of a Prius in the UK is about 70% higher than the same model in the U.S.A.
According to Sheldom, Amberjac has 10 vehicles lined up for conversion this Fall. About half his customers are wealthy individuals who are early adapters with an interest in the technology and a desire to help reduce Britain's dependence on oil.
Unlike the United States, which has seen a wellspring of support from grassroots organizations to the White House, there has been little similar support in the U.K. While the Blair government seems willing to spend money on fuel cell buses, it has until now, shown little interest in plug-in hybrids, which Sheldon believes is a faster way to reducing carbon dioxide emissions.
Beyond the Prius, Amberjac is also considering both Lexus hybrids as possible conversion candidates, but the company will need to see many more Priuses rolling out its doors in Lincolnshire, generating needed cash flow, before investing in the necessary R&D to tackle these systems.
The company is also developing a warranty on its system, the exact terms of which are still being worked out, so that owners will have some sense of comfort about their cars being able to be serviced. Sheldon noted that Amberjac's own plug-in Prius has had warranty work done on it by Toyota since the conversion without any problems or questions.
When asked about London's congestion charge, Sheldon explained that the standard Prius is already exempt, though the Lexus hybrids apparently are not. He said it would be interesting to see how the government would respond to them if they were plug-ins. Assuming the government exempted them, as well, this could be a interesting incentive for owners of these luxury hybrids. He added that not only is the 15GBP (US$27.85) charge expected to increase, but there is talk of implementing the system in other large UK cities.
A natural extension of its plug-in hybrid conversion would be to offer, akin to plans at Tesla, the option to also acquire solar panels or micro wind turbines with which to charge the vehicle, as well as take the home or office off the national power grid. Sheldon said the company is investigating this possibility starting with taking a local home in Lincolnshire off the power grid.
As we wrapped up the interview, I asked about the future possibility of vehicle-to-grid capabilities and Sheldon responded that such a research program is, in fact, in development by a UK university and that more will be said about it once funding has firmed up. He refers to it as a “distributed battery” system, but the concept is the same; using electric and plug-in hybrids to story electric power and feed it back into the grid when needed.
Readers in the UK and Europe can learn more about Amberjac Projects at www.pluginhybrid.com.
The complete audio of our discussion is available using either of the two MP3 Players in the right-hand column or by downloading the file to your computer for transfer to your favorite MP3 device. The URL links is: http://www.evworld.com/evworld_audio/simon_sheldon.mp3.