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Perspective: Drive Star Conversion Program Could Cut US Oil Use in Half by 2020

Perspective by Felix Kramer, Founder, CalCars
Reprinted by invitation from the CalCars website

[Calling the recent weeks “one of the most emotionally difficult times for me as I’ve seen people with far more clout than I fail to make headway in changing the lackluster, dispiriting and immensely frustrating responses to the Gulf catastrophe,” CalCars founder Felix Kramer has written a pre-response to President Obama’s scheduled Tuesday night speech to the US about the catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico.]

Tuesday night, President Obama will speak to the nation about the Gulf catastrophe. In a pre-response to that speech, having successfully advocated for plug-in hybrids like the forthcoming Chevy Volt, we propose that the President follow that speech up with a “realistic and conservative” roadmap to halve our oil use in 10 years.

We outline a second speech by the President, starting with, “I am not willing to be the latest in a succession of Presidents telling you we’re going to end our addiction to oil. Finally, it’s time to begin. Oil is holding us all hostage, economically and physically. If terrorists had poisoned 40% of our wetlands and 25% of our fisheries, we wouldn’t ask, ‘How much will it cost to fight back?’ The good news? At last we have ways to get far within a few years, not over decades! And it will cost much less than you think.”

We know we eventually need to kick our addiction to costly, dangerous fossil fuels. “Realists” say that’s impossible for decades. We’ve believed them, fantasizing we’d avoid calamities, ignoring science that says we don’t have decades. Clearly, that hasn’t worked. Now are we still stuck maintaining our addiction with clean needles, or, best case, settling for methadone? What would detox and rehab look like?

We have a realistic transitional scenario that avoids an agonizing withdrawal. We need persuasive and inspiring leadership for it to happen. In the key area of transportation, we submit our Drive Star proposal. For $100 million in one year, we’ll demonstrate how to rapidly reduce use of oil in transportation with safe, warrantied retrofits of tens of millions gas-guzzlers. That will enable us in just ten years for $100 billion, much of which the federal government will get back, to cut US oil use in half, by seven million barrels a day.

Tuesday night President Obama will address our nation. He’ll start with the oil catastrophe. He’ll describe the heroic efforts to blunt its deadly blows to citizens’ communities and jobs, to businesses, wildlife, and the Gulf. He’ll express our hopes we can stop the gusher. He’ll talk about identifying the causes and compensating the victims.

When he proposes steps to improve oil industry safety, we hope he won’t say, “Let’s make sure this never happens again.” No one can make that promise. That’s why we need a second speech with a new strategy.

We’re now in the crisis CalCars knew, when we began in 2002, would some day arrive. (We expected it would come from higher prices or a supply disruption—we’ve all been surprised.) We’re looking around, asking, “How quickly can we start getting off oil?” We’re happy we’re well on our way with plug-in cars. We now have a sprinkling of promising companies working to get funded to convert gas-guzzlers. That said, we aim to put this solution on the map—only this time in weeks, not in the eight years it took to win on plug-in hybrids. For details on what we’ve called “The Big Fix” beyond the following, see—and we’ll continue adding back-up info at CalCars-News and elsewhere.

The missing piece we dream President Obama will follow up with is an emergency-response roadmap to a world where increasingly scarce and costly oil is used only when needed. We’ve written what we hope he’ll say in a second speech, adding the details he’ll give when he’s joined by business and technical experts at a briefing on Drive Star. Here’s our rough draft, which we’re releasing as we refine the concept—we moved up our plans when we learned about the Tuesday address. We ask our readers to help spread the word to thought-leaders and strategists everywhere. We ask organizations to move this realistic, conservative, and cost-effective approach to the top of their talking points and priorities.

How President Obama Can Announce Drive Star to Cut Oil Use in Half by 2020

Today we are under attack. Admiral Thad Allen describes a Gulf under siege. Oil is holding us all hostage, economically and physically. We are defending our land and sea, our jobs and communities, against a relentless enemy that’s already hit four states hard—so far. We don’t know what’s to come—or if, how, or when we can win. If terrorists had poisoned 40% of our wetlands and 25% of our fisheries, we wouldn’t ask, “How much will it cost to fight back?” We’d put tens of thousands of soldiers at risk and spend any amount to take out that enemy.

I am not willing to be the latest in a succession of Presidents telling you we’re going to end our addiction to oil. Finally, it’s time to begin. The good news? At last we have ways to get far within a few years, not over decades! And it will cost much less than you think. More about that in a moment.

We can’t continue ever-riskier experiments to get oil from remote locations. Even on land, getting oil from tar sands depletes water and other resources and doubles oil’s carbon footprint. And oil only seems cheap. Its impacts are increasingly unaffordable. And it’s going to get more expensive at the pump and at every step once it’s extracted from the ground. In the US, and around the world, giant transport ships, aging pipelines and sprawling refineries will continue to fail—and remain in the cross-hairs of terrorists—as long as they operate.

The only way to guarantee our victory—the most realistic solution—is to reduce national and world demand for petroleum. That’s surely a conservative strategy in the fullest sense of the word: protecting everything we value from change we can’t control. So tonight I’m announcing “Drive Star.” At last we will begin our recovery from fossil fuel addiction.

It’s a 21st-century equivalent of what we did in 1942. When our country was attacked at Pearl Harbor, no one believed we could build 30,000 planes and tanks in just one year. Well, America’s auto industry delivered over 100,000. And no one asked what it would cost. We just had to do it. That helped us become the world’s greatest industrial power. If we can again succeed like that, in a decade, we’ll look back and know that we got a great deal: safer, healthier, better lives, an economy no longer held hostage to petro-dictatorships and blindered, monopolistic companies, and a significant response to climate change.

Since our cars and trucks use almost two-thirds of the oil we buy, the quickest way to cut oil use is to free transportation from its grip. Over time, we can conserve by reducing the miles we drive. But it will take decades to shift most freight from trucks to trains, design walkable communities, shorten our commutes, and build better mass transit and high-speed rail networks.

Meanwhile, we all still need to drive all the time. It helps that the auto industry will be building more efficient new vehicles. And the first plug-in cars mass-produced in the USA in a century will go on sale this fall. That means we’ll be powering some miles with increasingly renewable electricity that isn't made from imported oil. But even these new plug-ins will show up too slowly to have a big impact on our oil consumption for two decades.

That’s too long to wait to improve energy security, protect our economy, and address climate change. Fortunately, if we just open our eyes, the practical answer is right in front of us. It’s under the hoods of the 250 million vehicles we drive today. Using existing technology, we can convert many of them into plug-in hybrids and electric vehicles.

We’ve already decided we’re going to fix already-built houses, offices and factories that waste energy. We’re about to enact the “Home Star” and “Building Star” programs—putting people to work on “Cash for Caulkers” retrofits that will make buildings more comfortable and cut owners’ fuel costs.

Since vehicles are also part of what we’ve built, with bipartisan support, we will enact a similar program: “Drive Star.” “Cash for Conversions” will start by fixing many of our 100 million trucks, vans, and buses. They now gulp down one third of the oil we use. About half of those big gas-guzzlers stay on the road a surprisingly long time: 15 to 35 years. That’s as long as many buildings, so they’re also worth a makeover. And these retrofits will also pay off, for their owners, their communities, and our nation. We already upgrade our computers. We can upgrade vehicles too.

Pioneering companies now have designs to turn gasoline- and diesel-powered vehicles into all-electrics or plug-in hybrids, depending on how they’re built and the range their drivers need. The US can lead in a new, profitable, global business opportunity. Retrofit technologies are already good enough to install in large vehicles. As batteries get cheaper and smaller, and motors get light enough to fit inside wheels, we’ll be able to upgrade smaller cars. We won’t need new power plants, since we have enough off-peak electricity to recharge as many retrofits as we can build. And magically, as more electricity comes from lower-carbon fuel sources, our cars will get cleaner as they get older!

While we’re fixing vehicles, we can also equip them with low-cost real-time MPG indicators that show us how to save money and still get to places quickly. We can add carbon filters to diesel trucks to get rid of black carbon—soot, which is another global health and climate problem. Our effort will inspire other startups to accelerate development of liquid fuels from algae and agricultural waste products. These zero-carbon biofuels plus lower-carbon natural gas will fuel plug-in hybrids when they drive beyond their electric commuting range. And to reach our goal of cutting oil use 50%, we’ll also need one other step: end the use of 15% of our oil for heating.

When they’re mass-produced, conversions will cost under $10-$15,000. That’s a lot for anyone with an old car to pay up front. Retrofitters can partner with energy service companies to finance those costs, backed by federal loan guarantees. Payback will come because an electric mile is up to five times cheaper than a petroleum mile. So these retrofits will cost less to drive right away, benefitting public, military, and private fleets, and individual drivers.

We’ll add targeted incentives to jump-start this successor to the $4,500 “Cash for Clunkers” program. Right now, buyers of new plug-in cars get up to $7,500 in tax credits. For the first five million vehicles, we’ll match that for retrofit gas-guzzlers that displace an equivalent amount of oil and are in shape to last 10 more years. As high-volume production brings down their price, we can taper down the incentive over a second five million.

$100 billion on retrofit loan guarantees and incentives is a lot of money. Before we go all in, we’ll start with a $100 million program that entrepreneurs call “proof of concept.” But let’s realize: defending our nation is never cheap. We’ve spent ten times that hundred billion on wars since 9/11. A plan to convert vehicles has to look beyond the immediate payback to take into account the real costs and damages we’ll avert.

Every day, we just hand over a billion dollars to foreign oil suppliers. Drive Star will turn out to be a bargain. For less than we pay for three months of foreign oil, we will catalyze quick retrofits of over 50 million vehicles.

After our one-year test, in summer 2011, we’ll be ready to create a powerful new US conversion industry. In communities everywhere, tens of thousands of Americans will have important, well-paid jobs fixing vehicles in commercial garages—and in boarded-up auto plants. Meanwhile, carmakers and dealers that sell high-efficiency and plug-in cars will, for the first time, get a new revenue stream from upgrading vehicles they've already sold.

Drive Star will prove that converting vehicles is profitable. A few startups already make that case, and we expect big news from some of them later this year. We'll enlist more companies to join this new age of automotive innovation.

We Americans love to race. Since Charles Lindbergh won a $25,000 prize for his first transatlantic flight, we’ve seen again and again how competition sparks innovation. We’ve just sponsored a $4 billion “Race to the Top” for our schools. And ongoing public and private contests in space and science show that creative inventors, engineers and entrepreneurs can take giant leaps.

Drive Star starts with a modest but ambitious $100 million challenge: Design a way to convert a popular vehicle. Make it affordable, safe, drivable, eligible for certification and warranty, and installable in high volumes. We’ll pre-fund your prototypes. We’re in a hurry, so deliver your test vehicles in six months. Our judges will come from the Departments of Energy and Transportation, the Environmental Protection Agency, groups like the Society of Automotive Engineers, the X Prize Foundation, Cleantech Open, the Specialty Equipment Manufacturers Association, and carmakers and suppliers. We’ll recruit mentors to validate your business plans, identify suppliers, and connect partners.

Early next year, we’ll convene a kickoff summit in Michigan for conversion companies, car and component makers, lenders, fleet owners, and drivers to begin a national rollout of the best solutions.

Drive Star is our opportunity to lead the world in a new direction, as US companies export and license our solutions and work with suppliers, manufacturers and installers to fix vehicles everywhere. Because oil is a global fuel, our solution must spread internationally or we’ll just transfer the fossil fuel risks to the air, water and economies at locations from which they will still threaten everything that lives on our planet.

Every generation is called to step forward. One of our biggest challenges is to clean up our oil mess—and we can meet that challenge. We have cleaner, cheaper, safer ways to drive everywhere. With Drive Star, we have the motivation, the technology, and the resources to cut our oil use in half in ten years . Yes, we can take the first step!


Herm Perez

More practical would be to make ALL cars capable of using E85 AND M85, and more tax credits for vehicles using NG, including long distance trucks. Also spend a few billion on public chargers of BEVs. Research wireless power transfer for charging BEVs also.

In a few years this would give a portion of the fleet the ability to run on alternate fuels if oil keeps going up in price. Its a good insurance type of thing..


Alcohols and NG just put off the reckoning a few years, then you've got the same crisis only worse. Moving freight to rail and shifting to electric shrink the problem at the source.


This article proposes positive actions that seem so needed and necessary for the public good -- kind of like providing universal, no fear, health care in a land of "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" - before invading and occupying other countries for decades.

But this President can't do it alone. He faces Senators and lobbies whose base clearly isn't "the haves, or the have not's, but the HAVE MORES".

Million and billion dollar a year compensated 'representatives', 'healthcare', oil, ___ .. CEO's/managers like the money and the laws it buys.

Closely read the 'Patriot Act' and know for certain that being called "the T.. word" will deteriorate your lifestyle much faster than polluting everyone's future..


The conversion to FFV costs much less than conversion to HEV/PHEV. We need to start reducing oil consumption NOW and not decades from now. M85 can be made from NG and biomass. Cellulose E85 can be brought online over time. This does not slow nor eliminate HEV/PHEV transitions, but allows us to do it at the new car level and not try to convert old cars.

I agree with Herm, even trucks running diesel/CNG would help. There is a lot of shale NG coming online in Louisiana, Pennsylvania and Ohio. We will have enough for decades, which will allow us to transition with less disruption. During a recovery, we do not want to face a forced major shift in the way our economy works, but do it on our own terms under our own control over time.


I have to give this guy credit, he thinks big. He's also accurately pegged Obama as someone who will pour money into any rathole that can be labeled 'stimulus' or 'green' - or both.

But seriously, $10K to $15K for a conversion that will make the vehicle unserviceable by the original manufacturer, reduce range and performance, and otherwise screw the hell out of the car? Sounds like a winner to me!


I don't think the conversions would make the cars worse, but they would probably invalidate the warranty.
However, trying to get people to spend 10K to increase the efficiency of their cars while gasoline is cheap is a non-starter (even with rebates).

You will have to cause the price of gasoline to increase before people actually take action. Some people (the kind which read this blog) might do it for its own sake - to "get a better number" (for mpg) as it were - but most people will look at the economics and say forget it. The best way to do this is to tax fuel (you could call it a clean up tax if you liked). People won't die - look at the level of gasoline taxation in Europe, they will just switch to smaller/ more efficient cars when the time comes.

You could spend some of the tax on rebates for very high mpg (or low Co2) cars at purchase time (irrespective of the car type).

The question is - is it better to get people to replace their cars with more efficient versions, or to upgrade them.

I would say replace, but you have to admire his vision and scale.


The problem may have to be attacked 10 different ways at the same time if we want to reduce oil (and all other liquid fuels) consumption by 50% in the next ten years.

1) Retrofitting 50 to 100 million existing buses, long and short haul heavy trucks, city delivery trucks, pick-ups and other large gas guzzlers could be done in 10 years.

2) Selectively retrofitting existing locomotives, ships, aircraft, pleasure boats etc. Electrify 20,000 Km of rails in the next 10 years and build 2,000+ electric locomotives.

3) Up-date CAFE standards from 35 pmg to 50+ mpg for 2016/17 and 60+ mpg for 2020/21. That would force manufacturers to produce more efficient ICE and specially more HEVs, PHEVs and BEVs. Fines could be proportional to fuel over-usage. Of course, all fines would be past on to future buyers as it should.

4) Introducing special programs to electrify taxis, city buses, delivery vehicles, lawn mowers and tractors, pleasure boats, etc.

5) Use progressive Malus-Bonus approach to promote the purchase of fuel efficient vehicles and reduce the purchase of gas guzzlers.

Something like $500 B/yr to $1000 B/year for the next 10 years could do a lot.


Financing the above programs could be done (in part) by phasing out the Irak and Afgan wars within the next 24/36 months or so. Ground transport electrification and retrofit programs could easily replace those war programs while creating more jobs and saving lives.


A 10% oil import fee should bring in more than enough for transition costs.


Problem is, we're running trillion dollar-plus deficits right now; 'phasing out' a couple of wars won't free up any money, it'll merely make the money hole less deep.

The U.S. government isn't going to be in any position to finance any initiative of this type until it gets its financial house in order. Besides winding down the wars, it will have to reform entitlement spending, military procurement, social programs, and a dozen other things...each of which may be a bigger task politically than converting millions of cars into golf carts.

Maybe twenty years from now, if we're still around and the Chinese haven't repossessed the country, we can talk about a project like this. By that time, of course, the market will probably have solved the problem on its own.


It's wise to convert existing vehicles. The bodies of next year models won't change that much. PHEVs seem the most applicable technology.

We should aim for a 10-20 mile battery-only driving range rather than the Volt's 40 miles or the 100 mile driving range of BEVs.

We drive too much, period. With this lesser electric driving range, the more trips evolve which can be made without having to drive; the more walking and bicycling become possible, and the more mass transit can be arranged.

With a plug-in hybrid, households gain the choice whether to drive or cut utility bills; the means to more closely monitor overall energy consumption; the means to survive emergency grid failure. Rooftop photovoltiac panels are more perfectly matched to the smaller battery of PHEVs, bringing their cost as well as the battery cost down.

No kudos to GM for the overpriced luxury Volt. And in-wheel electric motors seem vulnerable to maintenance problems. Dealing with Capitalism's Catch 22 is a related problem suitably dealt with as in 1942 - Wall Street crooks offered a Get out of jail free card in exchange for Jingo Jobs against the Japs.


Retrofits would only be done by a few enthusiasts unless they come from the manufacturers and are handled by regular dealers and repair shops--and gasoline prices have to be high enough to be a sufficient motivation. A gradually-increasing gasoline tax would be the easiest way to move EVs and PHEVs along. But if we did have a sudden shock in the price or availability of gasoline, having a viable retrofit industry would be a lifesaver. It seems a shame to waste all those perfectly good cars because their drivetrains need to be replaced, but the older cars are too heavy to be of much use with the available EV drivetrains and batteries--the range is too low. From that point of view, it makes sense for EVs to be originally designed for that purpose.



The retrofit program does not curtail the accelerated transition to electrified vehicles. On the contrary, it would stimulate and reduce the initial cost of batteries and electrified vehicles.

Not all existing gas guzzlers have to be retrofitted. Yearly fuel usage have to be considered. The top 20% to 30% heavy fuel consumers would have priority. The size of the subsidy could be based on fuel saved by retrofitting.

Of course a progressive fossil fuel tax or fuel import duty could finance the major portion of the program but how many voters would agree? A selective progressive Fed sale tax could also do it. As we live longer, extending the time worked to get a full pension or social benefits by 5 years over a 10 year period would also help. Many European countries have started to do it.


Have a look at the Poulsen hybrid for an example of a PHEV retrofit:

$8,600 for 4.3kwh conversion.

Poulsen points out that for a PHEV an electric motor any larger than 20HP is overkill:

"a traditional car getting e.g. 30 miles per gallon utilizes only 20 horsepower on the average and closer to 10 HP while running at a steady 60 mph on a level road. A battery bank with for example 4 kilowatt hours of useable energy can support 10 HP in 33 minutes and 20 HP in only 16 minutes, leading to the conclusion that an electric motor any larger than 20HP is overkill. In the case of a PHEV it would be redundant to have two power systems both able to deal with short-term peak loads. Acceleration and hill-climbing can be handled by a power train like that of a sensibly designed conventional car, and the ideal PHEV can then be created by adding a relatively low power electric motor to serve independently or in "blended mode" adding torque and saving fuel during the daily commute."

Herm Perez

"Alcohols and NG just put off the reckoning a few years, then you've got the same crisis only worse."

We have lots of coal to make alcohols from, and even make NG from coal if that runs out which seem not likely any time soon.. but yes electric is the only sane long term solution. In any case we probably have enough of those fossil fuels to last for hundreds of years until we transitions to BEVs.

ALTe is proposing converting 5 year old fleet vehicles with a new 2.0l GM Ecotec serial configuration with a lithium pack, the fleet operators get a new powertrain warranty and substantial fuel savings over V8s and so on, supposedly they got an order to convert 3000 airport shuttle buses for Gulfstream Coach.


You might be able to convert a car for $15,000, but you end up with a 10 year payback and a 15 year old car. The older a car gets, the more maintenance. With all the makes, models and years, even if you restricted it to the most popular, I can not see a cost effective path.


SJC, I doubt that FFV is cheaper after the cost of alcohol subsidies is included. Most US alcohol is derived from natural gas (either directly or for distillation), so if we have another crunch there it leaves us screwed every which way.

Hybrid is the technology of the late 20th century; PHEV is a technology which has arrived. PHEV can run on anything from natural gas to coal to splitting atoms to wind to falling water to... fuel oil or burning corn cobs. It's the ultimate flex-fuel car. Starting to build them now means finally having energy security for the transport sector.

I don't see much potential in retrofits, except maybe if someone finds a way to build an in-wheel motor which can be slapped onto a replacement rear axle for FWD cars. What you'd really want is to replace the transmission's torque converter with a motor-generator, like the Prius. However, the combination of engineering and labor costs probably make this uneconomic even if the vehicle is free.

Roger Pham

Felix Kramer is thinking in the right direction. But instead of PHEV the car, why not just HEV it? HEV like the Prius can double the gas mileage of a comparable car.

Replace the rear axle with one that contains a modest electric motor and a modest battery pack (HEV-size). The ICE is only used when higher power or torque is required. The ICE should get a new valve cam and higher compression ratio to make it run Atkinson cycle. Transmission can be modified to lug the engine a little bit more, if this is cost-effective. Otherwise, the electric motor will provide motive power and regenerative braking when demand from the ICE has slacken. Add on an electric AC if the customer cares for it.
Bingo, HEV conversion for a lot less than PHEV conversion!


"alcohol subsidies"

There are NO subsidies for M85. Methanol is $1 per gallon and needs no subsidy. Believe what you want, but there are many people that see things my way.


Roger, if dropping a transmission is expensive, rebuilding engines from the ground up is prohibitive.

SJC, MeOH wouldn't stay that way if demand rose to even a fraction of US gasoline consumption. Look at national energy use in gas vs. oil, and figure in conversion losses. NG was $8/mmBTU not long ago, and could easily hit that again.

Roger Pham

No need to rebuild the engine from the ground up. Just need a new high-compression head with new cams, heavy-duty starter, and new engine control module programmed for HEV operation.

The HEV modification will cost thousands of dollars, but can turn an older car into like-new condition with new timing belts, new head with new cam shafts and new valves, etc...and new starter and new rear axle, new batteries, new electrical system, etc.

Much better resale values, a very good investment indeed, when most and may be all of this investment will be made up for by lower fuel cost, and why not, new tax incentives as a new national strategic plan for energy independency and environmental protection.


Actually Afghanistan may turn out to be more of a solution than a problem. It has $1 trillion in untouched mineral deposits and among the minerals found in abundance are rare earth elements utilized in many green technologies and lithium, which is the key ingredient in batteries for electric vehicles.


At least, now we have "The Gulf - where we can gas our SUV's on the beach."


As E-P said, mass produced in-wheel e-motors (for rear wheels of front wheel drive vehicles) + a mid-size (good for 20 Km?) battery + controls could be a quick and cheap way to retrofit most ICE gas guzzler.

Roger Pham

Actually, E-P's idea of replacing the torque converter with an electric motor is better, quicker and cheaper. I'd say, also replacing the engine's alternator and starter with a more potent generator/starter. Then, at low speeds, the engine will drive the generator to power the motor in serial mode, and with more speeds, the engine will be clutched directly to the transmission, turning it into a parallel HEV. The transmission otherwise will be the same, capable of augmenting the torque of the motor, allowing a smaller motor to be used.

But, if cost effective, the final drive gear of the transmission can be a little higher, lugging the engine a little bit more to improve highway gas mileage, since the motor can provide torque boost when acceleration is required.

The OEM's and the car dealers will be coaxed into providing the HEV modification, allowing extended warranty for newly installed components. Imagine a car already with 70-90 thousand miles but otherwise good interior and chassis will be extended to run another 150,000 miles as an HEV!! During that 150,000 miles as an HEV, the money saved on fuel cost alone can run from $7,000 to $10,000 USD. Thousands of gallons of gasoline will also be saved.

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