Felton, CA – Daniel Marcom tests the limits of a 1984 VW Rabbit as he drives it up one of the winding and hilly roads in the Santa Cruz Mountains. "I like the smoothness, but the lack of power, I'd have to do something about that," said Marcom. With three people in the car, the speed maxes out at just 45 miles per hour. It's about what Marcom expected. This all-electric car was built for in-town driving.
Just days ago, Marcom and ten other students converted the Rabbit and another gas car to electric in a hands-on workshop. The cars have electric motors and run on the same batteries used in golf carts, except these cars use about eighteen of those batteries. Mike Brown teaches the workshop with his wife Shari Prange. Their company, Electro Automotive, has been in the electric car conversion business since 1979. In addition to teaching this class, they sell the parts and instruction manuals for conversions. "The market we've focused on is the grocery-getter. The job, the mission statement or the job description for that gold Rabbit out there is it had to haul four adults and a load of groceries," said Brown.
The short-commute market is a natural fit for electric car conversions because these cars do have limitations, the biggest being how far the car can go on one battery charge. Shari Prange says range can vary from 20 miles to 100 plus; it depends on the car and its amenities. "If you're using accessories like air conditioning, or if you've got four-wheel drive, that's gonna use more energy. If you want a really hot acceleration car, that's using more energy just like it's using more gas. It's usually balancing range against something else," said Prange.
That's the challenge a business like Electro Automotive will face from the emerging commercial market. Bill Moore publishes the online electric vehicle magazine EV World. He says what the Nissan Leaf will have over gas conversions is it was built to be an electric car. "This thing is going to drive just like any car if you got into a comparably sized Nissan Versa or any of those comparable cars in that class it's going to have any features that you would expect in a conventional gasoline car. The only limit, it's only going to go as far as the batteries can carry it," said Moore. Nissan puts the range of the Leaf at 100 miles.
Back in the Electro Automotive workshop, Marcom says he considered the Leaf, but he'd rather build his own. "This way I could probably modify it exactly the way I want it," said Marcom. As he works on this conversion, he says he'll take these skills back home to Hawaii where he'll convert a Porsche. Unlike the Rabbit, he'll build his car to have a top speed of 100 miles per hour. He expects the conversion to cost him about $20,000, though some DIY conversions can be done for as little as $9000. "It's not about saving money, it's about having electric vehicle for my enjoyment as well as doing good for the environment," said Marcom.
Shari and Mike know the growing electric car market can take a bite out of their business, but it can also help their business grow because it increases awareness. "Just the fact that they've announced it legitimizes the concept. We're no longer a bunch of hairball freaks on the fringe," said Prange. And while major manufacturers may not say so, EV World's Bill Moore credits the fringe electric car enthusiasts for keeping the technology alive and says that's what got us to this point today.