Students at Roanoke College are restoring a 1939 Pontiac Silver Streak. It's a great story because they're turning it into an electric car. That's the great thing about EVs; you can put batteries in just about anything, including a pre-war classic.
The college bought the car for $1,500 from Oliver's Garage in Blacksburg, Virginia. It was used by the Greenbrier, a West Virginia resort, "to transport the rich and famous to the hotel after they arrived to the area by train." Now it's going to be a people's car. "This project shows we can move forward and be green," said Eric Lefevers, president of RC Electric, the college club that's building the new/old car.
The first step was stripping the car down and sandblasting it. Next they painted it in the school color, burgundy red. The next step is to take out the engine and install an electric motor and power electronics, using a conversion kit.
You probably thought this whole column would be about that, but no. I'm cleverly using the students as a hook to talk about the issue of conversion itself. I was out in Pittsburgh recently, and intrigued to discover that Carnegie Mellon is offering a $24,000 conversion kit to transform the ubiquitous 2001-2005 Honda Civic to a battery car.
The good thing about converting existing cars is you take a gas engine off the road. We've got hundreds of millions of vehicles ripe for conversion. The resulting EV will be great for the planet, not so great for your wallet. As they say on Marketplace, let's do the numbers: Your mechanic can probably install the kit in two and a half days. It's not a difficult job, and you can sell the used engine and transmission on Craigslist.
That's the good part. Now here's the bad part. The conversion kit costs $24,000, plus the cost of the Civic (if you don't already have one). Your total bill is likely to come in at $30,000. And you're not eligible for the $7,500 tax credit that new EV buyers get. In fact, buying a new Nissan Leaf is actually cheaper than converting a 7-year-old used Civic.
Conversions are likely to catch on first in the fleet market, where what matters most is the long-term cost of keeping vehicles on the road. I just got off the phone with Steve Burns, who's the president of Cincinnati's Amp Electric Vehicles, which converts the Jeep Grand Cherokee and the Mercedes ML350 SUVs. The payback on those will take consumers a while, too, but the equation is better for the fleet vehicles that Amp plans to convert.
For instance, Amp is working on a pilot project to convert a pair of 700-cubic-foot, 14,000-pound step vans for FedEx Express. The economics are likely to work out pretty well, especially since the standard vans are diesels that get six or seven miles per gallon. The conversion with either an 80-kilowatt-hour battery pack is about $50,000 (double what they get for an SUV). But FedEx trucks are on the road all the time, so the fuel savings are likely to meet the conversion price in just four or five years.
FedEx has 9,000 fleet vehicles that would work well for conversions. "That's the order I want," said Burns. Right, thousands of conversions instead of two. The planet would notice that.
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