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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Here in California, state officials are pushing a new high-mileage car called a plug-in hybrid. Today's hybrid cars run mostly on gasoline, but plug-in hybrids use mostly battery power. You can't buy a plug-in hybrid yet - the big automakers are still working on the technology. NPR's Carrie Kahn has this report on a Southern California engineer who's trying to get a head start.

CARRIE KAHN: Peter Nortman says he has a love/hate relationship with cars. As a kid, he loved to tinker with them, but as an adult he hates what they do to the environment. A few years ago, he started tinkering with the Toyota Prius in his garage in the Southern California suburb of Monrovia.

Mr. PETER NORTMAN (Engineer): Actually, it was three guys and two garages in Monrovia.

KAHN: Out of those garages, Nortman's engineering company was born. He and his engineers have converted locomotives to run on rechargeable batteries and are even trying to make a battery-powered 18-wheeler.

But their main focus is taking a Prius hybrid, which normally gets just under 50 miles a gallon, and turning it into a plug-in car that runs the majority of the time on electricity.

(Soundbite of clicking)

KAHN: That's all you hear when you turn it on. Nortman has removed the manufacturer's battery from the Prius and replaced it with a lithium ion pack three times the size. It takes up the whole trunk of the car. Then he drills a hole in the back fender for the electrical plug. At night he plugs it into a standard outlet to charge. On a test drive through the tree-lined streets of Monrovia, Nortman shows off.

Mr. NORTMAN: We're in the high-rent district now. We're driving up a really steep hill now, and I just wanted to show you we're going all electric here, up the hill. But if we wanted to, I could push really hard, turn on the gas engine...

KAHN: Nortman steps on the pedal, and for the first time in our tour the car is running just on gasoline.

Mr. NORTMAN: It just kicks in. We could drive all-electric, or we could have real high performance with the gasoline.

KAHN: After a five-mile spin about town, we head back to the warehouse.

Mr. NORTMAN: On our trip we just drove five miles, we just got 340 miles per gallon.

Nortman says when you factor in longer commutes with freeway driving, his Prius averages 100 miles per gallon.

For now, the conversion cost, more than $10,000 a car, is prohibitive. Nortman says that cost would come down with mass production. So what's it worth to California drivers facing $4 a gallon gasoline to get 100 miles a gallon?

Mr. SCOTT HAAS (Prius Owner): Um, probably $2,000.

KAHN: Scott Haas has just bought his standard Prius hybrid last month.

Mr. HAAS: As gas goes up, you know, it changes the equation.

KAHN: So if there's a market for a dependable plug-in hybrid now, and a small California engineering firm can build them, why can't the big automakers produce them? They say they're close, but the technology still isn't ready for prime time.

California air regulators disagree, and at a public hearing last month they ordered six major car companies to produce nearly 60,000 plug-ins for the state's consumers by 2014.

Engineering professor Peter Sperling sits on the California state air resources board.

Mr. PETER SPERLING (California State Air Resources Board): What California is doing is taking leadership in telling the car companies they've got to get started now.

KAHN: The two companies closest to making California's goal, Toyota and GM, say they hope to have prototypes out in a couple of years, but say that meeting the state's goal of 60,000 plug-ins will be a stretch. Carrie Kahn, NPR News.

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