If you’ve ever wished you could convert your old gasoline-burner into a battery-powered electric car, but don’t have time to do the project yourself, then take heart.
Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) is sponsoring the ChargeCar Electric Vehicle Conversion Project, which could one day make it possible for you to drive your old car to a service station on a Tuesday, and then pick it up as a full-fledged electric vehicle on a Friday.
CMU researchers say they cooked up the idea because they want to make a statement about the value of electric cars. “We want to send a message that electric cars are real, and they don’t need to go 300 miles to be useful,” notes Ben Brown, a project scientist at the university’s Robotics Institute. “That’s an important message that the public doesn’t quite get yet.”
Researchers at the university say they’ve worked out a way to convert a gas-burning Honda Civic into a short-range electric car. Their electric Civic uses a 10-kWh lithium-iron-phosphate battery and gets about 40 miles to a charge. They envision it as an affordable, around-town, get-to-work-and-back type of vehicle.
The key aspect of the project is the scientists’ effort to modularize the conversion process. They’re working with suppliers who they hope will fabricate and assemble modular battery packs, electronic control boxes, motor adapters, in-dash display units and other major components. Ultimately, they hope that garages around the country will one day be able to take those modules and convert gas-burning vehicles into pure EVs in two or three days.
“It would take the average backyard mechanic months or even years to figure out how to make all these changes – cutting the sheet metal, installing the battery pack, moving the power steering pump, getting the heater to work and doing all the other little details,” Brown says. “We’ve tried to take the work out of all those details and modularize everything.”
The Robotics Institute has thus far produced one prototype – a 2002 Civic EX four-door sedan. It employs a 35-HP electric motor and 33 lithium-iron-phosphate batteries. The researchers are working with garages around Pittsburgh to do “a few dozen” more conversions, but ultimately CMU plans to hand the project off to private industry.
As of right now, conversions aren’t cheap. Brown is telling interested parties that it will cost about $20,000 to convert their cars, but he believes those costs will drop as conversion volumes rise.
“It doesn’t sound very affordable at $20,000, but if you look at new electric cars, it’s still a lot less than a new Nissan Leaf or Chevy Volt,” Brown says.
The goal, Brown says, is to show that electric cars can be affordable, particularly if they don’t use giant 40-kWh battery packs that cost more than $20,000. Brown says CMU’s converted Civic uses a battery pack and battery management system that cost $5,000 together.
“We’re not trying to solve all the problems of the electric car; we’re just trying to fill a niche,” he says. “And we think we can find a niche with a very simple vehicle that can be taken home and plugged into the 120V outlet in your garage.”