PITTSBURGH — That old Honda in your driveway — maybe it's in need of a valve job? Transform it with an electric conversion. A team at Carnegie Mellon University here in Pittsburgh has come up with an all-included kit to make your 2001-2005 Civic a zero-emission battery car. Converting an existing car instead of buying a new one is good for the planet, and the old beater will have a new lease on life.
Your mechanic can probably install the kit in two and a half days. It’s not a difficult job, and you can sell the used engine and transmission on Craigslist. That’s the good part. Now here’s the bad part. The conversion kit costs $24,000, plus the cost of the Civic (if you don't already have one). Your total bill is likely to come in at $30,000. And you’re not eligible for the $7,500 tax credit that new EV buyers get. In fact, buying a new Nissan Leaf is actually cheaper than converting a 7-year-old used Civic.
Conversions are likely to catch on first in the fleet market, where what matters most is the long-term cost of keeping vehicles on the road. I wish the economics of personal EV conversion worked out better because it makes sense on many levels.
As Felix Kramer of CalCars points out, waiting for the automakers to field new EVs is going to take a long time. “There will be an insignificant impact in terms of petroleum reduction from the new plug-in hybrids and electric vehicles for more than 15 years — even if they come in at a rate 10 times faster than hybrids came into the market,” Kramer said. “That’s because we have 250 million vehicles in the United States and 900 million in the world.” Kramer also points out that the cars already on the road have a lot of “embedded energy,” and that about 15 percent of the total energy used by a car or truck in its lifetime was expended to build it.
“We’re not manufacturers or price optimizers,” said Illah Nourbakhsh, who co-directs Carnegie Mellon’s ChargeCar project. “The cost would come down if we could buy 100 kits at a time.” Indeed they would. And that’s the central issue and Catch-22 here: The price comes down with volume, but the volume isn’t going to grow much with such a difficult cost of entry.
H. Ben Brown, a project scientist at Carnegie Mellon’s Robotics Institute and the other co-director of ChargeCar, told me the kit is comprehensive, including the electric motor, control electronics (including an electric heater and pumps), 10.5 kilowatt-hours of lithium batteries, a computer display unit that offers information on battery health, and all the adapters you’ll need to fit the parts into a Civic. You have to supply the car and find a mechanic to install it all — or do it yourself.
The pack isn’t huge, but it fits into the Civic’s spare tire well and costs only about $5,000, which is cheap for lithium. Charging takes 10 hours on 110-volt house current, but you could half that by installing a 240-volt garage unit. The team has converted a pair of Civics, and get approximately 40 miles of range from them.
“It’s difficult to get the price any lower,” said Brown. “On the positive side, your impact on the planet is small compared to that of building a new vehicle.”
Converting cars to electric could be a big business, and some companies, such as ALTe, have been trying to make it such. Michigan-based ALTe has developed a turn-key plug-in hybrid conversion for fleet and niche vehicles. For the Ford F-150, the most popular vehicle on American roads, they take out the inevitable V-8, and replace it with a four-cylinder engine, an average of 22-kilowatt-hour battery packs, and two 60-kilowatt electric motors. As with other plug-in hybrids, there is 25 to 40 miles of electric-only range. The company says there are 33 million light- and medium-duty trucks on the road, and converting them to plug-in hybrid results in an 80 to 200 percent fuel economy improvement.
Here's what the ALTe trucks look like on the road:
ALTe, founded by a trio of Tesla Motors refugees, focuses on converting 3- to 5-year-old Ford vehicles. The downside, as with Charge Car, is the price — an average of $30,000. The category is heating up, though, thanks to the entry of VIA Motors, which is focusing on plug-in hybrid conversions of large GM vans, trucks and SUVs. It says its price for converting a Silverado will be about $79,000 “in volume.” It really needs big orders to make it work, and it might get them, thanks to a tight relationship with GM (former Vice Chairman Bob Lutz, pictured above, is an advisor and spokesman).
Both VIA and ALTe are focusing on the fleet market — consumers might come later. VIA says that over eight years of typical ownership, you’ll save $23,000 with one of their 100-mpg conversions, and those are the kind of numbers that hit home with fleet managers. Actually, the more you drive, the more you’ll save.