Converting Your Car to an Electric Vehicle

1980s Volvo sedan on a road in the forest
Jim Basio / Unsplash

Gasoline-powered cars. They are perhaps the most inefficient device that many of us use daily. We really should all be driving electric vehicles (or none at all). The internal combustion engine is inefficient in term of pollution, gas costs and maintenance costs. But, as you may have heard, there are no electric vehicles available today that resemble conventional cars or trucks. Companies like Phoenix Motorcars, Tesla Motors, Commuter Cars and Miles Automotive Group and ZAP are coming close, but you still can't plunk down some cash and buy an electric car from them today.

Purchasing Electric Vehicles

The only type of electric cars that can be purchased are NEVs (Neighbor Electric Vehicles), which usually have a top speed of about 25 MPH. But wait -- there are still a couple ways to acquire a working electric car right now. One option is to buy a used vehicle that somebody else has converted to an electric vehicle. You can search for use electric vehicles on sites like Craig's List, eBay, or EVFinder. For more advice on buying an used electric car, I would refer you to Shari Prange's recent article "Finding and Buying A Used Electric Vehicle" (PDF FIle) in Home Power Magazine No 119.

But these used electric cars are certainly limited in their availability, especially if you don't live on the West Coast. So may wish to take a plunge and do an electric conversion yourself.

Electric Conversion

Basically, electric conversion involves removing the entire internal combustion engine from a vehicle, installing an electric motor in its place, and also adding a large bank of batteries. A conversion will cost you about $6000 in parts, and about $1000-$3000 for batteries and installation. But, for all this expense, you'll get a zero-emissions vehicle that costs only a few cents per mile to run. Your electric car will also be more reliable and require much less maintenance that a conventional one. Remember that gas-powered cars cost the owner about $1800 per year on average for fuel costs alone, and there is the addition expense of engine maintenance and oil changes. Electric cars have a better resell values, and are more reliable overall because there are fewer parts to fail. Most of the components are solid-state electronics with no moving parts. The engine of an electric car has a virtually infinite lifespan — the components will probably outlast the chassis. The only real expense is the batteries, which will need to be replaced about every 3 to 4 years. You can expect your converted vehicle to have a range of 60-80 miles, a top speed of 50-90 MPH, and good acceleration capabilities. It will take about 6-12 hours to completely recharge the car. All of these factors will vary, based on the weight of the car you convert, and the type of engine and batteries you install.

Best Types of Cars to Convert

So, what type of car is the best candidate for an electric conversion? A light car (2000-3000 lbs. curb weight) with a manual transmission. You want a light vehicle because heavy ones severely restrict the range of the electric engine. Automatic transmissions use up too much power because they require the engine to be constantly idling. As far as body style, you need something that can hold all the batteries you'll be installing. Michael Brown, author of Convert It, recommends a car that is light and roomy like a Rabbit, Civic, Sentra, Escort or light pickup truck. The ideal donor car has a good body and interior, sound transmission, but a dead engine.

For electric cars, the best type of driving is an area that is not too hilly and not too cold. Hills obviously put a larger burden on the engine, and thus reduce its range. Cold weather will also reduce performance, but there are many happy electric car owners who live in Canada and Alaska.

There are two types of electric conversions kits available: custom kits that are tailored to a specific vehicles models, and universal kits that can be installed in a variety of vehicles. Universal kits contain all the essential drive-system components but rely on the builder to create custom parts like battery racks or boxes. Custom kits include the entire drive system and battery racks and boxes, customized to suit a particular model. For example, a company called Canadian Electric Vehicles provides kits to convert Chevy S10 trucks, Geo Metros and Dodge Neons. Another company, Electro Automotive, provides kits to convert Volkswagen Rabbits and Porsche 914s.

Here's a brief history of electric cars.

Here are some online forums about electric conversions: Electric Vehicle Discussion List, DIY Electric Car Forums, EVWorld.