What Does it Take to Turn Any Vehicle into an EV? We Ask Seth Leitman, Author of "Build Your Own Electric Vehicle"

Book Cover: McGraw-Hill

Electric vehicles are a hot topic right now, but the problem is there really isn't much to choose from other than a handful of hybrids and NEVs (neighborhood electric vehicles). But did you know that for the price of a new, bottom of the barrel, no thrills or frills subcompact car, you could turn just about any vehicle into an EV?

We had the opportunity to speak with Seth Leitman, consulting editor of the Green Guru Guides, founder of Green Living Guy, and author of Build Your Own Electric Vehicle, and asked him exactly how someone with minimal armchair mechanical knowledge, ability, and tools could fabricate their own EV. We think you'll be happily surprised by some of his answers...Treehugger: Seth, could you tell us a bit about your background?
Seth Leitman: "It all really started with my Masters Degree in Comparative International Development at the Rockefeller College of Public Affairs and Policy (Part of SUNY Albany). My focus was international lending practices through the IMF and how it affected energy/environmental projects funded by the World Bank. This degree made understand that there was a need to change how those institutions coordinate efforts to develop innovative energy efficiency programs and projects.

Afterward, I worked in the NYS Senate for a year and then worked for the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA). There, I worked on green buildings (when everyone use to joke and ask, Hey is that the paint on the wall?). I also managed the Clean Fuel Bus Program for NY that funded over $100 million for alternative fueled vehicle buses. It was then that I began to appreciate electric drive with the Lockheed Martin hybrid electric drive trains that went into the buses in Manhattan. I really thought it was cool that off all the other alt fuels, by using hybrid buses were basically cleaner than any other alternative fueled bus.

Once my wife and I were having our first child, we moved to Westchester and I worked for the New York Power Authority (NYPA) which basically powers New York Subways, Metro North and Long Island Railroad trains which are all electric. While at NYPA, we teamed with many partners to create the NYPA/TH!NK Clean Commute Program TM which leased 100 electric vehicles in the NY Metro area; right after 9/11. I told someone recently that 9/11 gave me a real understanding to reduce our reliance on oil. I was so excited when the program was covered by USA Today, Associated Press, Reuters, New York Times, CNN, Good Morning America, the Today Show, and others. Today, this is still the largest electric vehicle station car program worldwide.

TH: What made you decide to write this book? What was the greatest driving force in the decision?
SL: Well, it was my editor, Just Bass. You see, I was asked to re-write this second edition of the book. The first edition was published by McGraw-Hill in 1993. Since then there have been changes to the technology available for conversions. There has also been some history for electric cars (as in the movie Who Killed The Electric Car?). I said yes after she first emailed me to ask.

TH: Could you give our readers a run down of exactly how an electric car is built from scratch?
SL: If I could be straightforward here, I am not a mechanic and never claimed to be. There is a source directory in the back of people that can help the billions of people like me that have a problem charging their own dead battery. So even though I have ridden many electric cars and used charging stations to charge them, I do have a problem with dead car batteries.

Seriously, what I have learned from this experience is that you take the engine out of the car and keep the transmission. Some of the conversion guys I know like the idea to connect the motor and adapter plate to the transmission. Someone recently noted to me though that the Tesla electric car doesn't even have a transmission/gear related system. However, I personally can conceptualize the motor to the transmission.

Anyway, you add a charger, electric motor, controller (controls speed and range) and batteries. Of course, there are gears, switches, pentometers (like a throttle), converters and other things that make an electric car work... For me, that is when I call the mechanic.

TH: Are there any cars in particular that make a good base model from which to start from?
SL: Volkswagen Bug, Ford Ranger, Honda Civic are really great. Also, there is a Nissan conversion in the book that is really cool too.

TH: How long would it take the typical armchair mechanic to accomplish such a task?
SL: About 120 hours or some people have done it in two weeks.

TH: About how much would it cost to build a basic model?
SL: If you have an old car ($3,000), parts ($6,500) and batteries ($3,000), plus labor ($3,000). $15,000 - $18,000. That can get you about 80-100 miles.

TH: Are there any parts that would be particularly difficult to come across?
SL:Great question, I want to show you both sides to these two hurdles."

1) Controllers
Controllers are hard due to the 2000 amp controller from Zilla was recently put on hold till about February - March. Also, the AC propulsion controllers are the best out there but more expensive than Zilla or other brands.

However, there are controllers that are easier to get that would work just as fine and are readily available. The issue with 2000 amp controllers is you get speed and hard torque. 650 amp ones get you a 60 - 65 mile per hour top speed (maybe at that). However, most commutes don't need more than that, right?

Picture of the electric motor controller and charger placed in the back of a Porsche 911. Components for the Porsche thanks to Paul Liddle at EV Porsche.

Look, I know that speed is important to the American essence of a car 0-60 in nothing. I get it. To get to 65 mph will be quicker with electric cars due to only a controller and motor working with batteries to push that car. Yet people want 100 miles per hour and speed and range. At this time, it comes with a price, but it shouldn't have to with our economy and the need for electric cars.

2) Batteries
That is the biggest one out there. You see to get 300 miles you need lithium iron phosphate or lithium iron for between $20-$40k (depending on the vendor and specs). On the other side, that price is down. In addition, there are companies that have lead acid and generate the range of the nickel based technology (120-150 miles). Furthermore, there is technology that can get us 600 miles on a charge. Those batteries are not out there but could come one day if need.

Right now though we can get good electric cars on the road with good lead acid batteries until the price for better batteries comes down. There are good signs that cost is coming down. Just look at power electronics (cell phones, power tools). They have advanced technologies that can soon be in cars!!

TH: What kinds of experience and tools would someone need to accomplish this build?
SL: The person who is a car tinkerer, do-It-yourself type or mechanic should do it. Also, the person that just wants to take a car and make it electric also has a tool: the will.

TH: If one of readers was interested in this project, what kinds of things would you recommend they do in order to get started?
SL:Read the source directory in the back after they are done reading the book. There are conversion companies, specialists, parts, Electric Auto Association clubs, other organizations and things to learn about electric cars. That will give you the greatest tools to build an electric vehicle.

TH: Do you have any similar subject books or seminars on the horizon that you could tell us about?
SL: Based on the current success of the book, I am now a consulting editor to McGraw-Hill on a line of books called the Green Guru Guides. They are also Do-It-Yourself cool, easy style books to Green yourself and your home. In the first round of books, I am also writing a book called Build Your Own Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicle to be released in 2009.

TH: Just out of curiosity, did you notice an up sweep in book sales as the price of gas was rising earlier in the year?
SL: Some would think that. Since oil is such a volatile commodity, we see constant sales of the book. Coming back full circle, we now see the lowest oil prices today and we saw the highest oil prices in July-August. Now, we have oil production cuts being implemented by OPEC. Plus, they now have a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) from Russia to join in on the cuts. The big three factors always regarding electric cars that could possibly help the Big Three (I hope) get out of this mess:

1) The Environment and Climate Change
We all know about how that is a constant.

2) Energy Costs
Electric cars cost pennies to charge. Also, for hopefully another opportunity to talk about electric cars with you is Vehicle-to-Grid (V2G). This is when the batteries (energy storage) of your car become a reverse meter on your energy costs; when you charge it at the train, bus stations or work during the day.

Those times when you are plugged in, the utilities take energy from your car at 15 minute intervals; then they recharge the car again. Now you get a credit on your energy bill and pay hopefully next to nothing for power. What an amazing cut in energy costs for everyone!

3) Economic Issues Facing us Today
Car company bailouts should inevitably be directed (and I believe can) toward every car being electric drive of some sort of another. While I am an EV purist and will always be, this move would give an immediate boost for green jobs, real jobs. This could only help our discussion for automotive jobs, green jobs and the entire industry.

More on electric vehicles
Electric Vehicles: To Drive or Not to Drive?
Plug-in Hybrid and Electric Vehicle Owners Struggle to Find Places to Charge Up
28 States To Get Smartlet Electric Vehicle Charging Station Distributors, Entire US + Canada Early Next Year

Tags: Driving | Electric Cars | Electric Vehicles | Transportation