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Electric conversion jolts Carnegie Mellon

By Kimberly Smith

The Pioneer

Photo by Lindsey Palmer


When Electric Vehicles—or EVs—first became available for sale in 2001, Illah Nourbakhsh did whatever he had to do to buy one, even if it meant driving to California to get it.

Nourbakhsh, a Robotics professor at Carnegie Mellon and a director of the University’s CreateLab, trucked across the country and came home with a Toyota RAV4 EV.  Twelve years later, the car is still on the road and working well.

“It’s never broken down, the batteries have never degraded,” he said. “It performs just as well today as it did the day I bought the car.”

Even though the price of an EV is still higher than the cost of a gas guzzling car, green enthusiasts are electrified that new conversion technology is being developed and charging stations are popping up throughout the region.

ChargeCar, a project within the CMU CreateLab, has been studying the technology of these cars with the help of grants from The Heinz Endowment and Bombardier, Inc. Students, researchers and interns work to convert gasoline cars to EVs to help study and promote this new niche product, said Nourbakhsh.

“People wonder if electric cars are competing with gasoline cars, and they aren’t,” said Nourbakhsh.“Electric cars are another niche of the transportation system just like bicycles and buses. So what electric cars will do [in the future], will become the ideal way to go short distances. There’s just no reason to turn on a gas car and make a whole lot of local pollution to drive five or ten miles to the grocery store. I think we’ll see lots of people with both types of cars – one that serves urban needs and one that serves long-distance needs.”

Fraser Kitchell, a 29-year-old CMU master’s student who works at ChargeCar, agrees with Nourbakhsh’s notion that the gasoline and CO2 emissions used for a short trip are unnecessary, not only because of the pollutants, but also for financial reasons.

“For short trips around the city, even for commercial vehicles, batteries make a lot of sense,” said Kitchell.  “For longer range trips, liquid fuels are still far superior.  Electricity as a

fuel is relatively cheap, so if your trips are short and you have time to recharge every night, batteries would pay off financially in the long run.”

The garage, located on Forbes Oakland, has been trying to develop inexpensive ways to make conversion kits for gas to electric cars.

The conversions are done on cars like Honda Civics—the motor and exhaust systems are taken out and replaced by the electric motors, batteries and controller boxes, according to Kitchell.

ChargeCar conversions have been costing $25,000-$30,000, which is pretty high for the actual conversion, but is also comparable to the rate at which manufacturers have been selling the vehicles.  While it’s been positive that they are using the correct technology and pricing is accurate, it’s also proving to be not as marketable as it was hoped, because the cost to convert is no less than the cost of buying, Kitchell said.

While the main focus of the garage is within completely electric motors, there is also some interest in natural gas cars from Kitchell.

“This is still an important area of research,” he said.  “Our findings don’t say anything bad about the industry as a whole. Basically, what we found is that we can’t do it cheaper than a professional, commercial company could—which is an optimistic finding, because there is a good market for it.”

There has also been an increase in seeing community members using more energy efficient cars, noted by both Nourbakhsh and Kitchell.

ChargeCar has several ports outside the garage that offer free charging to the public population with EVs, allowing them to maintain the cars and the batteries for an even lower cost.

Although community usage has been increasing, and enthusiasm for EVs are growing, there are still many misconceptions about the technology.

While the concerns of the industry—like the range of battery-life, recharge time, etc.— are very real, Kitchell said, the biggest misconception is the lack of a need to continue studying.

“The technology could get a lot better, very quickly, with more investments” he said. “That would eliminate the two biggest problems, charge time and range issues. My thoughts on the misconception that ‘it isn’t worth investing the resources and getting this technology up to speed,’ is that we should do it, it’s still a valuable technology.”


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