Electric-Car Conversions: Do They Really Stand A Chance?

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Carnegie Mellon University's ChargeCar electric Honda Civic conversion

Carnegie Mellon University's ChargeCar electric Honda Civic conversion

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One of the first experiences many of today's electric car drivers had with EVs may well have been with a home-built conversion.

With comparatively few factory-built electric cars available until quite recently, conversions and low-volume production models were the only ways into electric vehicle ownership.

But with electric cars now filtering onto the market and several more to follow over the coming years, is there much call for conversions any more?

Professional conversions

There are of course two main conversion routes to take. One is to built a car yourself, in your garage, with parts you've bought off the shelf or salvaged from an old EV now past its prime.

The other is the professional conversion, where full kits are sold and fitted by companies in larger numbers, offering something along the lines of a proper production electric car, just without the carmaker's backing... or warranty.

There's certainly still appeal in the first method, for the same reasons modifying any car has appeal--to build a car exactly the way you want it. The market for an electric Miata or electric Volkswagen Bug may only be very small, but that's okay if the few people who absolutely love the idea can build it themselves.

Unfortunately, we're not so sure there's much call for the latter. Mother Nature Network reports on a new conversion by Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburg, which turns a regular 2001-2005 Honda Civic sedan into an electric vehicle.

Good, but not that good...

It's clearly a nice conversion, based on a car that's available in plentiful numbers on the used market.

The battery pack is only small, at 10.5 kilowatt-hours of lithium-ion cells. It sits in the spare tire well, and costs only $5,000. However, that's only enough for around 40 miles of range, which looks a little slim by the standards of modern production electric cars.

The conversion price doesn't make for pleasant reading either. Despite only $5,000 of battery pack going into the car, the full conversion cost is $24,000--and that doesn't count the cost of the car itself. Add that in (if you don't already own a 2001-2005 Civic that you'd like to convert) and you're getting on for $30,000, or more than you'd pay for a brand-new 2012 Nissan Leaf with tax credits taken into account.

At that sort of price, the 40-mile range looks inadequate and the appeal of a converted car really wanes.

It's not Cargenie Mellon's fault as such--it's simply an expensive process, and with low numbers of expected customers, the team can't improve the economies of scale.

Inherent problems

And that's the problem with conversions like the Civic--however good the work is, there aren't enough people interested to make the price tempting enough to make people interested--it's a vicious circle.

It looks like, for the time being at least, the majority of electric car sales will be mass-produced vehicles.

But we salute those who go down the conversion route--it may not make the most sense, but we certainly appreciate your pioneering spirit.

For more on Carnegie Mellon's ChargeCar Civic, check out the ChargeCar website.

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Comments (17)
  1. There are companies that offer mounting plates that allow the converter to connect their motor to an existing manual tranny, which pretty much completes the drivetrain. I would like to see
    (when battery prices are lower than right now) for a company to offer the power pack - batteries plus the wiring (12V outlet for
    the car's accesories) and cable for electric motor, along with an controller. Quite frankly, anyone whose ever replaced an engine would have no problem doing such a conversion - it mostly amounts to removing a whole lot of parts associated with the old drive train (exhaust system, fuel system, engine, etc.). You can buy electric motors with regen capability. But if I were to do this, I'd do it on a classic - Austin-Healey,etc

  2. I think electric conversions aren't all that differant from building hot rods. The only problem for electric conversions is that there are almost no purpose built electric drivetrain parts. I'm sure one day somebody is going to start marketing parts specifically for custom EVs, Rimac the company that produces the Concept 1 electric super car does sell electric drivetrain components, though I'm sure their prices must be massive.

  3. it makes a great high school student shop project though. Get a 10 year old civic donated, raise funds for the components and build an EV for the school to use as a runabout.

  4. Hmmmm.... So what do these 180 or so conversion shops do? Shut down based on your article?

    We have dedicated conversion parts on our web site. There's about 200 others of course. We also do a weekly video for about 110,000 of these guys.

    What do we tell them? Antony said "don't bother"?????

    Jack Rickard

  5. It's a pity you seem to be the only one who took the article out of context Jack, as everyone else seemed to get it.

    I've not called for anyone to "shut down" or "not bother". It's simply a general observation that with an increasing number of production electric cars on the roads, the call for expensive small-run conversions may dwindle.

    Frankly, it worries me that someone within the industry like yourself seems blissfully oblivious to the problems that strong, big-name competition could cause.

  6. Then you have two scenarios to pick from Antony. Either I'm just blissfully oblivious, or they don't pose ANY problems from the big name competition.

    All they can cause is further demand for vehicles. They've been making cars for 130 years, and we still have a very active custom car industry worldwide - complete with huge trade shows, thousands of vendors, and millions of participants.

    But your world causes you to get a little ahead of yourself. The OEM cars are entirely press releases. They virtually don't HAVE any cars.

    The Leaf and the Volt are abject total marketing failures by ANY reasonable measure. Far too much of a price premium.

    The Ford and iMiev are just coming online in numbers approaching the DOZENS. What problems?

  7. I "got it" just fine. I think you kind of missed the clue. The DIY custom e-car thing is exploding - right now. The OEM thing actually IS a little bit of a setback. That is because they are FAILING so broadly. That gives all e-cars the black eye. They built the wrong car for the wrong buyers.

    You will be further surprised to learn, that over half of our viewers that ARE building cars, already have a Leaf or a Volt or a Tesla. You see, the low hanging fruit the OEM's DID sell to are the SAME guys that have been intensely interested in electric cars all along.

    There is a clueless element here - and it encompasses most of the OEM's, and apparently yourself as well.

    We're doing great. We wish THEY would do great too.


  8. @Jack: Let's make a bet. By the end of 2015, I bet that there will be 1 million or more plug-in vehicles on the road built from scratch major automakers--and fewer than 100,000 from converters. Would you take that bet?

  9. I certainly will. I would say there will be fewer than 100,000 from converters, and very possibly fewer than that from OEMs. That is BEV's. I have no interest at all in hybrids.

  10. I'll say again - it worries me that you're unable to see far enough into the future to understand that conversions may face severe competition. I hope for your sake that we're wrong and that conversions thrive, but reciting first-year sales figures of a disruptive technology and declaring them a failure is incredibly short-sighted.

    First-year figures for EVs was better than it was for hybrids. And Toyota has just sold its four-millionth.

    Your next comment, "The DIY custom e-car thing is exploding - right now" could prove rather prophetic. What works well in the "right now" doesn't necessarily have any bearing on the future.

  11. I've kind of got a long history of calling them right on technology Antony. Be not worried.

    On the other hand, I've been watching YOU guys with reports of millions of OEM electric cars "right around the corner" for four years now. That you miss badly, repeatedly, and without ever stopping to question your very dismal record of prophesy is not precisely worrying. But it is comical and most entertaining.

    Essentially ALL the startups you have reported in SUCH glowing terms have failed utterly. And to watch GM predict 110,000 vehicles a year, and YOU faithfully report the revision to 60,000 as an INCREASE and then duly report they "just missed" their prediction of 10,000 has just been a hoot. Nissan also in the hundreds still I see.

  12. @Jack: First, this site hasn't EXISTED for four years. GCR first started daily reporting in early 2009.

    Second, please point me to reports of 'millions of OEM electric cars "right around the corner" ' on this site.

    Third, yep, we report on startups. There's a large audience for that coverage. And we get repeatedly slammed for being too pessimistic about their chances. So if you think we're too glowing, we're probably gauging it just about right [chuckle].

    Fourth, when did GM predict 110K vehicles per year? Citation, please? Before it stopped predicting volumes, GM said 10K Volts in 2011 & 60K for 2012; they hit about 7.5K (in U.S. sales) for 2011. We expect perhaps 20K-30K this year.

  13. I had my diy Electric Go Kart on display at Summernats (Australia's biggest horse power party with lots of modified cars) and it attracted lots of positive attention than the i-MiEV parked next to my go kart ( http://electriccarconversionblog.com/summernats-2012-sunday-and-overall-report-from-electric-car-conversion-blog-s-perspective ). A number of people who liked my go kart typically had modified V8 cars or an interest in them. Many of them expressed an interested in building high performance Electric Cars in the future.

    Whether they do an Electric Car Conversion or in the future pick up an OEM and modify it, in my opinion the custom e-car will grow.

  14. There are more comments in this thread
  15. What are the specs of the electric motor, controller and charger you get for the $24,000? What is the performance like of the converted Civic?

  16. Wide spread manufacturing of EV's by existing automakers will reduce demand and most likely end the bussiness fr most EV conversion shops. Especially if manufacture offer better warrenties and and range than the aftermarket converters can.

  17. I tend to agree that it makes little sense to put $24k worth of electric drivetrain into a used Honda Civic.

    Instead of trying to make a cheap grocery getter or commuter car, breathe new life into an older classic car with an emphasis on performance rather than range. It still costs $0.03/mile in electricity to drive, but its a helluva lot more fun and all questions as to whether its worth it or not vanish as soon as you floor the accelerator pedal.

    Look up Rebirth Auto's 1978 Porsche 911 conversion, or EV West's 1995 BMW M3 conversion (which is competing in the Pike's Peak Hill Climb this summer), for examples of conversions that make sense by not trying to make sense...

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