(Wired.com) -- A plug-and-play hybrid conversion for the Lincoln Town Car is helping the ubiquitous "black car" turn green.
XL Hybrids, a startup in Somerville, Massachusetts, has created a low-cost battery-powered electric motor that installs on a Lincoln Town Car in under six hours, boosting power by 20 horsepower and reducing fuel consumption 15 to 30 percent.
Given that real-world fuel economy in a Town Car seeing hardcore urban duty is 13 or 14 mpg, the hybrid conversion can pay for itself in fuel savings within 24 months, says co-founder Justin Ashton. No word yet on the per-unit cost, but expect payback time to shorten as fuel prices rise.
Ford sold over 10,000 Town Cars last year, with many of them going to livery operators who are not only struggling with fuel costs, but mandates from customers and city governments to go green.
According to Ashton, the project was designed with fleets in mind. "Before settling on an architecture, we got real-world data from fleets," he said. "Due to the extreme nature of their driving, their fuel bills are astronomical."
Though there are myriad reasons for greening a fleet of vehicles, XL pitched their technology straight at the wallet. "We want to reduce fuel consumption, but we know the only way to do that is by saving people money," Ashton said.
The conversion is simple enough and can be performed in shops fleets already use to service their vehicles. A small lithium-ion phosphate battery takes up about a quarter of the trunk's parcel shelf, leaving plenty of room for suitcases. The 20 hp electric motor and belt drive bolt on at the differential, and the car's engine management software is reprogrammed with software uploaded through the OBD II connector.
XL is a systems integrator they sourced parts from other suppliers, including Ashwoods so all parts are available off the shelf. The only additional maintenance for a hybrid vehicle is a replacement of a $20 rubber belt every 50,000 miles; Ashton said the car's original warranty remains valid after the conversion.
It's a mild hybrid conversion, as the cars will never run on electric power alone. The battery will power some accessories while the vehicle is switched off, but the system won't run air conditioning as its currently designed.
For XL, the Town Car is just the first in a long line of conversions. Ashton said the company expects to do the bulk of their conversions on vans and limousines. The goal is 10,000 conversions annually. They're still a long way from that, but the company plans to convert 500 vans for a fleet customer that can't yet be named, as both companies are still in negotiations.
Beyond being the company's first product, the hybrid system is a testbed for future technology because many of Town Car components are shared with Ford vans. The cars also are damn-near ubiquitous in any major city, making it easy to do some serious R&D.
"It's a great place to get data and a lot of miles as quickly as possible," Ashton said.
We took a spin in a hybrid Town Car and while tooling around Boston found it indistinguishable from every Town Car we've ever taken to or from an airport in the past. Unless you're looking at the car's undercarriage, nothing about it says "hybrid" though companies eager to tout green cred will surely change that. Inside, an LED display shows how much boost the electric motor is providing an addition that Ashton said was aimed at passengers, not the driver.
As we passed countless Priuses and Camry Hybrids with livery plates, Ashton pointed out the advantages of a converted Town Car, not the least of which are roominess, butter-soft seats and cavernous trunk. "There's a certain class of passenger that requires this," he said.
Fleet owners also love the ease of repairing a Town Car, plus the low cost of maintenance.
Perhaps the most attractive reason for fleets to convert existing cars, however, is they already own them. Upgrading an existing fleet is far cheaper than replacing it. Despite the looming demise of the Panther platform on which the Town Car is based, fleets will eke out every last mile before trading them in for newer models.
"These cars will be on the road for three to five years, no matter what you do," Ashton said. If owners can save money with a little added battery power, we expect to see Town Cars on the roads for years to come.
Subscribe to WIRED magazine for less than $1 an issue and get a FREE GIFT! Click here!
Copyright 2011 Wired.com.