The end of the year approaches and I want to reflect back on the projects and lessons of the last eight months. I’m proud of the progress that I’ve made as a researcher, designer, fabricator, and as a communicator. Not everything has worked out easily this year and several things haven’t worked out at all, but in general, my consistent effort has awarded me a general progression towards my physical and mental goals.
At the beginning of the year I was concerned solely with creating an electric car that would wow my audience, get me job offers, or smash efficiency records. I wanted to prove myself to the world and also to myself. I quickly realized that building an electric conversion that was anything more than run-of-the-mill was a daunting task because of time and budget constraints. High power and well-made components that are sold to people who do their own electric vehicle conversion are expensive. Running the numbers, I found that I was looking at 10-15 thousand dollars in parts and batteries. I was hopeful that I would be able to raise this money with grants, working, begging, and crowd-source funding, but as I started school it became clear that granting opportunities were more limited this year than in the past and that I didn’t have the time to make the extra money.
At this point I realized I needed to find a cheaper solution. I started thinking about all the other people who can’t spend 10-15k on a car (let alone a year of time). Electric cars have an entry price of $25k. They are a wealthy person’s transportation. But they are also cost saving compared to a gasoline car. I got the idea that I might be able to figure out a reliable way to convert a specific car to electric with a really cheap system and make EVs available to people for way less than $25k. Could it be possible? Turns out that with labor it probably wouldn’t be and it wouldn’t be a very safe car either. I mention safety because I’m using an older car as my donor vehicle. It doesn’t have power steering, power brakes, or air-bags. Converting newer cars becomes more complex, expensive and heavy (efficiency is one of the main things I was going for, so these extras are hard to reconcile).
So I went cheap. Early into the year I bought a used motor and controller out of an electric smart car. The system was software locked but the seller told me his business was working on a fix and so were a few other people. I bought the motor/controller for $250 and this amazing “deal” is what spawned the idea for my project moving forward. There are thousands of these motors for sale at prices like this. None of them work now, but soon they will be “hacked” and they will be usable by people like me. A motor and controller are a large cost in an EV conversion. Buying this motor/controller I lowered this cost thousands of dollars. That’s awesome. I thought to myself, this idea about affordable electric cars with used parts has some validity to it after all! Yay.
Then months went by and I stayed up to date with the various people trying to hack the smart car system. I designed and fabricated the hardware of the system with the assumption that it would work and it would work in time for me to show off my intelligent gamble. No go. It’s still being worked on and it turns out that it’s a few people working on it during weekends. The company that sold it to me has done no work on the system. Thanks EV West. Some regrets there. BUT! The idea has not been disproven. I just can’t prove it yet.
A month ago I gave up on the Smart car system after finishing the hardware and learning a lot about CNC milling, solid works and a host of other cools tools. At that time I switched gears quickly. I bought used parts that I could use for a very simple and low-power conversion. These parts are cheap, out-dated and vulnerable to water and grit (that’s pretty dumb for a car). Well, I’m fixated on getting the wheels to spin so I built all new hardware and bought batteries out of a wrecked Chevy Volt. These batteries were so inexpensive that it renewed my hope in the reuse aspect of my project. I am in the process of re-wiring them into a lower voltage configuration to test my conversion. I still hope to re-build the car with the SmartCar system once it has been unlocked. I still have the hardware so it will be as easy as pulling the existing stuff, dropping it in, bolting it up and remounting the batteries wherever they fit.
Looking back I realize what I gamble I took on the Smart Car system, but I’m not entirely unhappy that I did it. That gamble opened up the entire world of OEM parts (Original Equipment Manufacturing). Red necks and hill-billies have been taking truck parts out of junkyards for decades and squeezing the last bits of life out of them. That’s brilliant and ecologically awesome. This trend is decreasing as vehicles and their parts become more computerized, less interchangeable and generally more difficult to work on. Although I recognize that new cars are safer than their older counterparts I resent the trend that makes it so hard to fix a car yourself.
By the way, I’m back in the tent till the end of the school year.