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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