The needle moved another few notches toward electric cars this week when Ford Motor Company — in Washington looking for bailout money — said it would put new electric vehicles on the road by 2012. But across the country, there are a growing number of DIYers who aren’t waiting for the car manufacturers to get in gear. Instead, they’ve been converting their vehicles themselves.
You might have already heard of the CalCars folks in Northern California. Unimpressed with the Prius’ standard gas mileage, these guys have been converting the Toyotas into 100-mpg plug-in hybrids for years. But they’re not alone. A whole industry has emerged to help owners of all kinds of electric cars — and even regular gas-powered vehicles — make conversions to plug-ins and seriously boost their mileage. You’ve got 3Prong Power in Berkeley, Plug-in Conversions in San Diego, Hybrids-Plus in Boulder, and Pioneer Conversions outside of Chicago — just to name a few.
But if you’re feeling intrepid, you don’t necessarily need a pro to convert your car. Take these two guys in St. Louis, for example: one, a retired college professor, and the other a videographer — both members of the Gateway Electric Vehicle Club — converted a 1974 Porsche 914 and 1996 Ford Ranger respectively into fully functional plug-ins. So it takes seven hours to charge the Ranger with enough juice to send it 35 miles. But that works for the videographer’s wife — she uses it for her daily 12-mile commute. And the cost of the juice? 98 cents. They’re not alone. Gateway is one of over 50 chapters of the nationwide Electric Auto Assocation.
Then there’s this Connecticut-based Danish engineer who developed a system that can transform an ordinary compact car into an electric vehicle (the blue car, pictured above). The key to the breakthrough, said Ulrik Poulsen, was realizing that smaller cars don’t need that much energy to propel them along flat surfaces. The gas engine, which stays on board, will kick in only when the vehicle needs a little extra juice, like on startup or while going up hills. The 20-30 miles of battery-assisted power you get from a four-hour charge doesn’t initially sound like much — until, Poulsen says, you realize that’s more than 70% of U.S. drivers need for their daily travels.