As auto makers worldwide ramp up efforts to promote new and improved electric models, some engineers are spreading a less expensive message: with a little expertise, or at least the help of an expert, you can turn your own gas-fueled car into an electric vehicle.
In a course on electric car conversion at Skyline College in San Bruno, California, former military technician Jarom Vahai’s aim is to train his students to capitalize on the market for at-home car conversions. They should create and sell conversion kits, and perhaps even franchise conversion businesses, he says.
Vahai thinks that auto manufacturers are missing out on an opportunity to profit by marketing such kits, which would allow amateurs or small auto businesses to turn gas cars into electric on their own.
As it is, electric vehicle manufacturers can’t keep up with demand for their cars. Would-be consumers are forced to wait in line for up to six months for models that are produced on a limited basis.
Gas-to-electric conversions date back to at least 1979, but they’ve recently experienced a surge in demand. High gas prices and technological innovation have raised the appeal of conversions just as they have benefited traditional electric models. The ever-rising price of oil has highlighted the benefit of powering one’s commute with alternative energy. The technological advances, meanwhile, lie in two key areas: lithium battery power and direct current motor engineering.
Traditional lead acid batteries aren’t going anywhere fast: they’re still highly regarded by mechanics who favor their affordability and availability. But while inexpensive, about $10,000 less than lithium, they are limited; they have a range of only around 20 miles per charge. Perhaps most relevant to at-home converters, these batteries have a low energy-to-weight ratio. Their heft makes them difficult for amateur mechanics to maneuver.
“The lead acid batteries were so heavy,” Vahai says. “But if you pick up a lithium battery that holds the same charge, you can throw it around like a two pound weight.”
Meanwhile, the development of alternating current motors, as opposed to direct current, has opened the door to drivers seeking greater accelerating power and a more traditional driving experience. For years, the only option available was the direct current, or DC motor. Now, alternating current or AC motors have become more widely available, as engineers have realized that the alternating currents more efficiently use the energy the battery pack generates.
“For a lot of people who didn’t like electric cars, it was because the DC motors had a lot of limitations,” says Vahai. “The AC motors have a lot more power, and work a lot more like gas motors.”
Despite Vahai’s faith in the conversion market, some deny its profitability.
Eric Illowsky, an entrepreneur and the president of Electric Cars of New York, has performed numerous gas-to-electric conversions over the years. As committed as he is to his business, he wouldn’t recommend it.
“Not enough people are willing to pay what it takes to convert a vehicle and make a profit,” he says. It costs between $18,000 and $35,000 to convert a car, he says, and that’s just for parts. In order to cover labor costs, mechanics often have to charge almost as much as a brand new electric car would cost.
But at Grass Roots EV in Fort Pierce Florida, Audrey Martin and her partner Steve Clunn have had no trouble making a business out of it. They rely on those among the gas-averse who are unwilling to sacrifice style.
“The reason they’re wiling to pay me what they are is that my cars aren’t exactly like everything that comes out of GM, Chevy, Ford,” says Martin. “They get to choose their own car.”
“For example,” she says, “my company car is a 1967 Morris, all electric – try to find one of those on the market.”
Regardless of whether conversion businesses grow, or kits come to the market, the electric car will likely continue its ascent in the years to come.
For months, skyrocketing oil prices have spiked U.S. consumers’ anxiety over the country’s addiction to foreign oil, and kick started their search for an escape valve from that dependence.
Then, in the aftermath of the natural disasters in Japan, electric vehicles aced what seemed a practice quiz for the test the world will face when the oil spout runs dry. While gasoline shortages left other vehicles powerless, electric cars came to the rescue, ferrying supplies and workers around the cities.
Conversions may soon come to flood the market, or consumers may choose to largely purchase new models instead, but regardless of who ends up profiting, electric vehicles are powering up to give the auto establishment a shock.
View an interactive timeline of the evolution of electric vehicles here: