RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
The U.S. Department of Energy is testing plug-in hybrid cars across the country. Some results are in and they're not nearly as good as expected. While federal lab tests showed the cars can get more than 150 miles per gallon in road tests, they only got 51 miles per gallon. Phyllis Fletcher from member station KUOW in Seattle reports.
PHYLLIS FLETCHER: Just ask electric car enthusiast Susan Fahenstock. She owns the Green Car Company. Her shop converted 14 Priuses into plug-in hybrids for the federal test in the Seattle area. She is unfazed by the 51-mile-per-gallon results.
Ms. SUSAN FAHENSTOCK (Owner, The Green Car Company): There's nothing wrong with the technology. It's the driver that has to care enough, they have to be trained, and it's a very simple training on what they have.
FLETCHER: See, here's the thing. In the current pilot project, the Department of Energy specifically wanted drivers who weren't trained on how to drive a plug-in car. In the Seattle area test, the drivers are just employees of local governments and public utilities.
Ms. FAHENSTOCK: Now, if you buy it yourself, you'll care enough to get 100 miles per gallon.
FLETCHER: You'll care enough to choose a route that has lower speeds and fewer hills, and to go easy on the gas pedal.
Ms. FAHENSTOCK: Gradually accelerate. You don't want to see orange on the screen.
FLETCHER: Fahenstock says anyone can learn it. She let me test drive a plug-in Prius.
Ms. FAHENSTOCK: Uhhp - you see that heavy foot right there? You just got the gas motor to come on at 20 miles an hour.
FLETCHER: A total no-no, if you want to get the most miles per gallon. You want to rely on the battery and keep the gas motor off. At 20 miles an hour, there's no reason for it to kick in.
Ms. FAHENSTOCK: Unless you have a heavy foot.
FLETCHER: Which apparently I do.
Ms. FAHENSTOCK: You punched it again.
FLETCHER: I heard a lot of that.
Ms. FAHENSTOCK: There is no need to just kind of punch it, it'll go. You're really not going to get to your destination any sooner. Why do you need to accelerate so quickly?
(Soundbite of grunting)
Ms. FAHENSTOCK: Pretend there's like an egg underneath your foot, and if you hit it too hard you're going to crack the egg. Don't feel, like, pressured by the cars around you. There's no peer pressure.
FLETCHER: No peer pressure. But what about the freeway? Chris Wyle works for the city of Seattle. He took me for a ride in one of the plug-in cars.
Mr. CHRIS WYLE: So I'll try not to respond to this person, coming right up on my tail.
(Soundbite of laughter)
FLETCHER: He merged onto the freeway at 45 miles per hour. He stayed at that speed several seconds longer than most people probably would. And it was one of those merges where you enter onto the fast lane. Wyle felt the pressure.
Mr. WYLE: Well, it made me want to accelerate a little bit more. There's a lot of pressure out here on the highways to keep up.
FLETCHER: And it's not always safe to resist that pressure. Wyle says it's all about striking a balance. You want to drive fast enough that people won't hit you, but accelerate slowly enough to take advantage of the battery.
We went up one of the most notoriously steep hills in Seattle. And we had that freeway acceleration to deal with. And it was 45 degrees - cooler weather makes it harder for the battery to kick in, but still…
Mr. WYLE: We got 85 miles per gallon, for an entire trip.
FLETCHER: That's a lot better than the average in the federal test, but not as good as hyper milers, people who compete on message boards to get the most miles per gallon. They know all the stuff Fahenstock and Wyle know. They make snarky comments about the drivers in the federal tests. But maybe not next time. The Department of Energy is writing up a short manual for test participants, who want to learn how to get the most of a plug-in hybrid car.
And they're starting another test project in California, where the drivers will volunteer. A DOE spokesman predicts those drivers will be plug-in car enthusiasts and that the test will have much better results.
For NPR News, I'm Phyllis Fletcher, in Seattle.
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