The reason has to do with how batteries work -- and a major technical challenge for automakers.
Batteries are good at storing energy, but they degrade if they have to take on, or release, too much power too quickly. To deal with that degradation, automakers stuff cars with larger batteries, but that adds cost and weight.
Unlike batteries, supercapacitors are built for abuse: They can take a huge charge and discharge, thousands of times, without losing a step.
They're not so good at holding a charge, Nourbakhsh says, so the team decided to pair one with a battery.
Those Pittsburgh hills and traffic lights? They become energy savers.
"When you're stopping, all the current gets dumped into the capacitor, therefore saving the energy so that you can reuse it, rather than going into the battery, because putting it into the battery costs battery life," he says.
As the argument goes, if one knows exactly how someone drives, it's possible to come up with the perfect-size battery and supercapacitor for that driver.
At www.chargecar.org, the group is asking Web surfers to share information on their commutes in gasoline cars, including every highway ride and stop at Starbucks.
A $10,000 price tag
Nourbakhsh and his team are at work on a computer program that can predict where a driver speeds up, hits traffic and pauses for doughnuts -- all to make a battery system that's the perfect size.
Over time, this program could even learn more about the driver, firing up the capacitor or battery at precisely the right times to get her to work.
Nourbakhsh says a regular battery may cost $8,000, but adding a $1,000 capacitor to handle the sudden charges means the battery doesn't need to be as big, so the combo may cost only $2,000.
The total price of conversion? ChargeCar is targeting a $10,000 tag.
Paul Scott, vice president of advocacy group Plug-in America, said such a system could be the "magic bullet" of energy storage in cars, since it balances capacity and power.
Capacitors have already drawn interest from researchers, engineers and even some of the automakers. A spokesman for Toyota said, however, that the company has placed more focus on other electric technologies because it found capacitors too costly.
Scott panned the idea of designing electric cars mainly geared to the commute. "Everybody I know drives a car a lot of different ways," not just for commuting but also for going to the movies or visiting friends, he said.
Mechanics say this is the future
"If you optimize a car for just one specific task, it may not work as well for other tasks," he said.
Nourbakhsh said the car doesn't have to spend its last electron at the office -- it's possible to design "headroom" for a specific commute while still being efficient and saving on cost.
"But the point is, for the thing you do most frequently -- that you spend the most energy on -- let's have it be super-efficient at that," he said in an e-mail.
Some families might choose to have a ChargeCar and reserve a gasoline car for longer trips, said Leland Thorpe, a master's student at Carnegie Mellon who's on the ChargeCar team.
The project is recruiting local companies to sponsor the first wave of car conversions. Nourbakhsh says that would be a uniquely Pittsburgh solution, as companies "green" their reputations and Pittsburghers do the work in auto shops.
Even if electric cars catch on in Pittsburgh, Wichrowski, the manager of Baum Boulevard Automotive, isn't worried about having to lay off mechanics.
"Every hybrid car that we have also has conventional brakes, conventional exhaust, other things that you really need to do to have a regular car," he said as customers milled in and out of the shop. "They just have an added layer of the hybrid system bolted into the car somewhere."