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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!



We drive too much, period. Thus, the PHEV drivetrain offers the most for the least. NiMh battery packs become practical with PHEV; heavier than Lithium-ion but not too heavy. Doubling battery pack size to achieve 40-mile all-electric driving range would preclude NiMh in most applications. We should not ignore that NiMh battery technology is road tested to reliably deep-discharge 100,000+ miles. Advocating solely Lithium-ion is like advocating hydrogen fuel cell - limiting our options.

Retrofitting should become the norm. The less we drive, the more years cars will last. They'll still need regular maintenance, but production of new cars will decrease. The era of the automobile is over.


You could take a BMW 318 and replace the transmission with a traction motor and the clutch/flywheel with a pancake alternator. Put the batteries and controller behind the back seat in the trunk and you have a Volt like range extended EV.

This might cost $30,000 and you have a ten year old car with an upgrade. It might get 40 mpg instead of 20 mph, but it would still be an old car with and expensive upgrade. M85/FFV costs less than $1000 on the same car and uses 80% less gasoline.


ai_win: Locals have never allowed large mining operations. The only exception is the massive production of hard drugs to weaken infidels and finance whatever they are trying to do..

Mining companies would have an extreme hard time to operate there.

Canada is a much safer place.


The way to get americans moving like fatguys after a cheeto is to offer them something FREE in exchange for their old crap.

Offer a special low cost cut down version of various cheap to make cars FREE in exchange for peoples old clunkers. No loans to worry about no worries at all just a free car.

After all if your upgrading from a 20 year old klunker with a bad engine it doesnt matter to you if your new car is a 1-1.2 liter engined cut down version of a current car its still alot better then your hunk of junk and its FREE. It will enable to you go for anouther 10 15 years without car payments to worry about and with a car that no longer smells of whatever died back in the summer of 82.

And it sure as hell will cut our oil use fast.

Roger Pham

Let's analyze this, Wintermane!
Let's say, replacing 50 millions gas-guzzling and polluting clunkers with the same number of 1.5-liter economy cars at ~$10,000 USD apiece. The price tag will come to 50 billions USD. This is but a few months' worth of military cost of Iraq and Aghanistan operations, aka the "oil war".

Well and good, but how can you ensure that those people will drive those economy cars? They may well get those cars for free, and sell them to skinny college-bound kids to get used and cheap bigger and more comfy vehicles! After all, those "fatguys after a cheeto" don't fit too well inside a 1.5-liter econobox.

But perhaps the government can limit the engine displacement based on vehicle footprint or volume of internal space. For example, a vehicle with 100 cubic feet of internal space is only allowed engine of up to 1.5 liter displacement. Those small engines will be much more efficient than larger 2.5 liter-3.5 liter engines for the same size of vehicles. Elsewhere in the world, cars with large engines are severely taxed. To improve performance, the mfg's will have to make the car lighter and/or pump up the engine with turbocharger, for those with money who can afford to pay for higher performance.


Actually 50 million times $10,000 is $500 billion, but that is half of what we have spent in Iraq so far. The kind of rules you outline would be considered Soviet nannyism and would never be tolerated by those right wing truck driving psuedo macho types in search of those Cheetos.


Another way would be with a progressive 10-20 year aggressive malus-bonus program. A bonus (up to 50% of purchase price + sending a gas guzzler to the srap yard) for greener cars with fuel economy from 50 mpg to 200 mpg. A malus (up to 50% of purchase price) on gas guzzlers with fuel consumption from 5 mpg to 50 mpg. This program should be budget neutral. It does not have to use any public funds.

Many of us would buy a Nissan Leaf @ $16K; a GM Volt @ $20K; a Prius II @ $14K, a Ford Hybrid @ 15K etc.

Those of us who insist on driving gas guzzlers would have to pay ($5K to $20K) more up front + higher gas price.


That would restrict the "freedom" of some people to be wasteful. It would be considered socialism and they will have NONE of that!


id target 2 million a year and realy it doesnt matter what happens as loing as the klunkers get crushed and the used car market fills with high milage cheap cars instead of low milage crapmobiles.


Here's what will actually happen:
Those who are basing their view of the future on gas prices not spiking to outrageous levels over the next five to ten years are going to wait to the last minute then find they cannot afford anything. Neither upgrading their vehicle nor replacing it.

So what will happen?
They will stop driving and some enterprising individuals will start new bus companies and the car-dispossed will have to take the bus.


Not likely. What WILL happen is people will conserve thier money until they are SURE they need to jump and then jump whatever way they choose at that moment.

For the next 10 years its HIGHLY doubtful gas prices could spike above 7 bucks a gallon in the us mainly because alot of idling production would start back up around 5-6 and because alot of 3rd world nations would fail to be able to buy any oil at all well before then freeing up supply.


Summer of 2008 brought $4 gasoline, which appeared to be a barrier. At that level, people reconsidered their decisions and options. Like a frog in warmer water, if it increases gradually, it is hardly noticed. The $3 to $4 gas climb was more rapid and it put a ripple in the force.

Ruben Bernardino

I believe there is no silver bullet although I do respect the ingenuity of the ideas proposed here and passion behind them. I do not mean to be disrespectful but stating the US vehicle fleet green is a complex challenge that requires a not less complex study and solution which will require a life cycle assessment sustainability approach. We will most likely need the power of computer simulations not unlike the ones used in climate or bacterial growth predictions. It may require nothing short of this effort to guarantee a certain degree of confidence the candidates solutions. There are many variables and premises we need as input into this model analysis. One that comes to mind now is realistically what is the life of the vehicles both those to be replaced as well as their greener alternative fuel or retrofitted replacements, or what is the annual life cost of this whole range of vehicles from clunkers to the-state-of-the-art GM Volts. Besides these vehicle-based variables, we need to look at least at the major drivers, trends and scenarios on the fuel side and what about emergent population and consumer trends? There are many more socio-economic, political and environmental considerations. Please let me know if you have seen such a study. At the same I believe the solution will be multidisciplinary and will include phasing out sprawl through efficient land use integrating housing, work, retail, recreation, transit and other city services which reduce or eliminate the need for driving. This migration will be catalyzed willingly or not by an irreversible and accelerating rise in oil price which will ultimately force us to kick the oil addiction that is helping us slowly kill the most precious item we may ever have, our natural life-sustaining system.

Roger Pham

Thanks, Ruben for your input.

Pilot projects are more practical than computer simulation.

HEV conversion for the mass will be more practical than PHEV conversion due to the limited supply of batteries.

In countries like Cuba, a car is kept running for 50-60 years or longer...More environmental friendly to upgrade engine and drive train and keep an old car running than building new cars.

Money spent to for HEV conversion is not money wasted, but an investment in energy security and and in cleaner environment. Most of the money spent will be recouped from the savings in gasoline cost and repair cost. HEV's like the Prius have proven to be far more reliable in comparison to comparable conventional cars.

There is no time to be wasted on studies. Let's do it!!! We need more fuel-efficient cars like yesterday...

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