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Will You Be a Convert?

August 14th, 2009

I recently read an article at gas2.0, written by Felix Cramer, founder of CalCars, describing how the auto-industry could be “fixed” and the electrification of our country’s automobile fleet could be accelerated through the conversion of existing vehicles to electric drive.  In order for this to happen, Felix explains that auto-makers (and everyone else involved) must view cars as upgradeable platforms, akin to the computer industry, rather than “sell-it-and-forget-it” appliances.  The article raises some good points, but I just don’t see electric conversions (either aftermarket or OEM-sanctioned) having that much of an impact.  (And I must add: I have immense respect for Mr. Cramer, who has done more to promote the electrification of the automobile than perhaps anyone else!)

Photo by William Gale Gedney, 1964Currently, EV conversions are largely the domain of DIY’ers who have some spare time and wish to spend it in the garage.  For most vehicles, a complete kit can be purchased, and the conversion process is fairly straightforward – some of the most well-done conversions I’ve seen have been done by groups of high-school students! (The hard part is figuring out where to put all the batteries.)  The end result (with varying degress of success) is usually a commuter-vehicle that gets the owner to and from work with a nightly charge, and a rolling advertisement for the viability of electric vehicles.  Quite often, however, these vehicles require a tad more attention from the owner than most consumers are used to.  (We can’t really expect Aunt Edna to pay attention to the voltages of 72 individual battery cells…)

A few entrepreneurs have stepped up to provide more turn-key solutions for electric vehicles, and even hybridized vehicles (which are beyond the realm of most DIY’ers).  But what Felix envisions is the OEM-sanctioned large-scale conversion of a signifcant portion of the vehicles on the road.  His vision makes a good deal of sense, but I’m skeptical that auto-makers would wish to be involved in such an effort.  It’s not their core business.  As Felix describes, it would take a different mind-set from automakers, but I see this being too big of a leap for an industry that is historically reluctant to take even small steps.  (Dammit, I’m usually an optimist about this stuff!)

Unfortunately, without OEM participation, the conversion industry may remain a niche one. The hurdles to design, build, validate, and certify automotive systems are just too great for most smaller companies to overcome.  And (cynically), I see consumers as being too fickle to want to retrofit Ol’ Trusty and keep driving it around.  I mean, look at the number of people who lease vehicles so that they can (a) drive a car they otherwise couldn’t afford and (b) get something new every few years.  (…Anybody know that number?…)  Felix suggests starting with fleet vehicles – especially the U.S. government’s fleet – to get this new business model moving, which may circumvent consumers’ whimsies to some degree.  (Really, if you want a new car after 3 years, maybe you should have thought a little harder about the last car you got…)

Most would agree that vehicle electrification is imminent, though the pace at which it will happen is anybody’s guess.  Conversions of existing vehicles could certainly impact that pace, but it remains to be seen to what degree.  In any case, Felix’s thinking is exactly the type of entrepreneurial brainstorming of new business models that we need!

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