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Battery Powered

By Jonathan Blum

Paul Guzyk and Daniel Sherwood are computer geeks who co-founded 3Prong Power, a Berkeley-based business that transforms standard Toyota (TM) Priuses into all-electric green machines.

In 1999 Guzyk sold his share of InfoHouse, a New York City-based Internet services business, and relocated to California. There he rediscovered an old passion for cars after tinkering with a Prius. He found that in many ways the Toyota hybrid was more like a computer than an automobile. Notably, it ran on recognizable computer standards similar to those found in an office network.

"I found that modifying the Prius is like getting your computer to do what you want it to do," says Guzyk, 44.

In 2006 he was introduced to fellow Prius tinkerer Sherwood, 34. Together they gave a 2004 model an all-electric makeover. First, they installed a bank of Prius batteries they had salvaged from a junkyard. That didn't work well, so they tried traditional lead-acid batteries, used in electric wheelchairs, which did the trick.

Next, they developed software that programmed the Prius to run only on its newly enlarged battery pack. Unlike the one in an unmodified Prius, the car's internal-combustion engine doesn't fire up -- and burn gas. Presto: instant electric car, albeit one with a range of only about 25 miles.

Being in Berkeley, where there are Priuses on every block, the two realized that there was a real business in treating the world's best-selling hybrid automobile as an upgradable gadget. In 2007, they launched their startup in a former Cadillac dealership with less than $100,000 of their own money. Since then they've added six employees and now expect to do 500 conversions, or some 40 a month, through 2010; at $4,500 per job, that works out to about $2.2 million in annual sales.

Critics worry that many unknowns loom in treating cars as electronic devices. Carter Brown, CEO of Boulder Electric Vehicle, in Colorado, warns that aftermarket upgrades create a variety of problems, including warranty, safety and liability issues. For example, who's to blame if a "hacked" car malfunctions and is involved in an accident: the manufacturer, the driver or the firm that altered the car's operating system?

"We opted to build our electric truck from scratch for just that reason," says Brown. "Engineering batteries is tough enough without having to deal with an uncertain history on a particular car."

Guzyk responds that a 3Prong-altered car is as safe as any automobile and notes that his firm's upgrade doesn't affect the gas engine; if the battery pack fails, the engine will start -- as long as there's gas in the tank.

"We can't see any reason to be concerned, with all the safeguards in the car," says Guzyk. "Plus, the people who buy this understand the product. They are willing to be on the leading edge."

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