By Sierra Hartman
A couple months ago I was walking out of Golden Gate Park onto Fulton around 8th Avenue. I stepped onto the sidewalk just in time to see a Prius roll by with a pair of giant antennae mounted on the roof. At first I thought it was just some kind of art-car getup, but then I realized the antennae was the same power pole doodad that MUNI buses use (I later learned they’re called “trolley poles”). Not only that, they were actually running along the overhead power cables for the 5 line. The driver cruised past with a high-pitched humming noise as I stood there thinking, “No. Fucking. Way.”
Two weeks ago I was in the Safeway parking lot at 16th and Bryant when I saw the driver again. This time I was on my motorcycle and happened to have my camera. I snapped a few shots as he passed the bus stop, then jumped on my bike and followed him east on 16th. I caught up to him a few blocks later at Kansas. Before I even dropped into first gear I could hear Foghat blaring out the windows, “Sloow riide, take it easy…”
I pulled up behind him and noticed his fantastically appropriate license plate: MUNI PWR. I sidled up next to the open driver’s side window and shouted over the music, “Hey, man! Are you actually running on the power lines with that thing?”
“You know it, dude! 150 miles of free energy courtesy of Mr. MTA!”
I instantly had a lot of questions and asked if we could talk. From his back pocket he fished out a business card that looked like it had been in there for a year.
“Can’t talk now, but yeah man, give me a call.”
All the card said was “Jon” with a phone number on the bottom. “All right, dude, MUNI’s coming,” he said, gesturing at the approaching bus behind us.
I went home and called him later that day. I asked if we could meet in person to talk more, and we set a time to meet at his place in the Outer Richmond.
I was excited to get a closer look at the car, but when I got to Jon’s building, there was a conspicuous lack of power cables and the car was nowhere to be found. He buzzed me up to his apartment and greeted me at the top of the stairs. He was a calmer, more stoic version of the wild-eyed character I met before, and after a minute or two of the standard first meeting chitchat, I asked where his car was.
“Oh, she’s got a special home.”
I asked what kind of special home, and he said with a grin that he was not at liberty to say.
“She wouldn't do too well out here in the avenues anyway. Once I come off the power lines I only have about two minutes of go time before the batteries quit. After that I gotta depend on the ol’ Chevrolegs. It’s usually fine for turning around or parking but it’s no bueno if I’m stuck at the bottom of a hill. As long as I plan ahead, though, the wires get me just about anywhere and everywhere I want to go. Except they get pretty pissed when I run on the light-rail lines on 3rd Street.”
Whenever I asked about how he came upon the trolley poles or his discovery of how they worked, he less than subtly evaded the question and changed the subject. I suspected he had some connection with MUNI, probably a former employee who somehow maintained access to a less-frequented storage facility. I’ve seen old streetcars and antique buses parked in big lots in Dogpatch and figured there must be facilities for the electric buses too.
I had a hundred questions aside from that, though, so the conversation went on regardless. I asked what the hardest part was in putting the whole thing together.
“The juice, man. The overhead power lines put out 600 volts at around 400 amps; plenty of “juice” to stop your heart and fry your extremities.” So how do you use an electrical system designed to propel a 30,000-lb. bus to run a 3,000-lb. Frankenhybrid?
“You just gotta siphon it off,” he said, as if it would all be so easy.
The NiMh battery that does the heavy lifting in a normal Prius puts out 273 volts at 6.5 amps. Jon uses up the excess power on a whole lot of resistors, full-time headlights, and a kick-ass stereo system. The more we talked, the more interesting he got. As it turned out, this wasn’t his first attempt at public transport piracy.
“A few years ago I modified an old VW Beetle to run on the cable car tracks, but they shut that one down real quick.”
The car I saw wasn’t even his first Prius. The first one was a 2003 model that apparently wasn’t built as robustly as the later ones.
“She just couldn’t handle the juice, man. I was driving up Van Ness one day and the roof unit started buzzing real loud. The whole engine compartment caught on fire and all the plastic under the hood started to melt. I kind of wish I would have saved it – it would have made a cool sculpture now that I think about it.”
I asked if he would consider making more if people offered up their hybrids for customization.
“Absolutely, though I wonder how long it would last. The few guys at MUNI who have caught up with me aren’t as impressed as you are. They haven’t figured out how to make it illegal yet, but I can only imagine that’d happen pretty quick if it became a ‘thing,’ you know? Still, if someone is down, I’m always up for another project.”
I got the impression that Jon’s car was more of a science experiment than a genius way to save money on gas, so I don’t know how many of these we’ll see buzzing around the city anytime soon. For anyone interested in volunteering their Prius for Munification, you can reach Jon at firstname.lastname@example.org. But for now, keep an eye out for Jon and his Franken-car on a bus route near you.