Engaging Journeys, Engaged Journalism

Is It Time (Yet) for Electric Cars?

Why the Electric Car?

Gasoline-powered cars stink. Just ask Chuck Alldrin. That’s no philosophical or political judgment. It’s simply an observation. It wasn’t until Alldrin started driving electric cars that he noticed how bad other cars smell. “You just don’t think of it,” he says. “You don’t notice that the car in front of you stinks, because your own car does too.”

It’s early autumn in Chico, a breezy blur of green lawns, brassy leaves, and cool blue sky. Alldrin is at the wheel of his all-electric 2002 Toyota RAV4 EV and we’re joyriding down West Lindo. He taps the “gas” and the silver Toyota zips down an open stretch. Alldrin backs off and the car whispers around the tight turns, as stealthy, sure, and silent as a cat.

The low hum of rubber on road is the only sound the car makes—because there is no engine, only a controller (“the silver black box”) and big-time nickel metal hydride batteries for storing electricity that are tucked away in the chassis. There are virtually no moving parts, other than wheels, windshield wipers, and brakes. Aside from occasionally checking wiper and brake fluid, the owner’s manual recommends rotating the tires every 6,000 miles. Maintaining a vehicle doesn’t get much simpler than that. As for the batteries, they’re designed to last 150,000 to 200,000 miles, in many cases the entire life of the car.

The all-electric Toyota RAV4, a very rare vehicle (photo courtesy kqedquest)

The all-electric Toyota RAV4, a very rare vehicle (photo courtesy kqedquest)

It makes sense that Chuck Alldrin would end up owning a total of five electric vehicles, or EVs, including the Chevy Volt he bought several years ago. (His first electric car, no longer in the family, was an antique Fiat 600 he converted to electricity himself and kept running until he could no longer find basic parts.) Given his forward-looking tendencies, his wife Peggy often says he was born 20 years ahead of his time. Depending on how you count, though, Chuck Alldrin may actually have been born about 50 years too soon. Not that he’s complaining either way.

“I’m always thinking outside the box,” he says. “The worst thing you can say to me is ‘You can’t do that.’ There are so many ways of doing things. And it’s rewarding to see so many of the things I’ve done now starting to become mainstream.”

Educated in aeronautics and electronics, Alldrin has worked variously as a commercial pilot, flight instructor, airline mechanic, and crop duster. In the 1960s and 1970s alternative energy in all its forms captured his imagination, which led Alldrin, now semi-retired, to establish his own solar installation business, Energy Alternatives.

Chuck Alldrin’s home and workshop are solar-powered, of course, and he also powers his electric cars from the sun’s energy. “With electric cars, you can actually make your own fuel,” he points out. “You just can’t do that with gas-powered cars.”

The Miracle of Electric Cars

Alldrin is happy to share his enthusiasm for what he considers intelligent technology. When the documentary film Who Killed the Electric Car? was screened at the Pageant Theatre in Chico some years ago, Alldrin and his friend Tom Dowling of Folsom parked their Toyota RAV4 EVs out front to demonstrate first-hand the simple genius of EVs, the cars the oil companies and automakers didn’t want Americans to have.

Carmakers, oil companies, and even politicians are changing their tune when it comes to electric vehicles, but things were quite different even a few years ago, when Who Killed the Electric Car? debuted.

The Mini E184-1 (photo courtesy giantquesadilla)

The Mini E184-1 (photo courtesy giantquesadilla)

That EVs even exist in America is almost a miracle, the film points out, because General Motors and other car companies made a concerted effort to destroy them, and to quash public demand for viable technologies. (See Who Killed the Early EVs? next week, for some of the shocking details.) With the end of the oil economy clearly coming fast (though not as fast as predicted even a few years ago) proponents of electric cars point out that the essential infrastructure they require—roads, highways, and the electric power grid—already exist. Yet until quite recently the political winds were pushing hydrogen-powered vehicles, which are considerably less fuel efficient and assume hydrogen generating and storage technologies that don’t yet exist.

All things considered, it’s also something of a miracle that Chuck Alldrin has his Toyota RAV4 EV.

In 2002, after General Motors recalled all of its leased EV1 electric vehicle prototypes and crushed them, Alldrin and other members of the Electric Auto Association heard through the electric-vehicle grapevine that Toyota was willing to sell some of its electric RAV4s, also previously made available to the public only by lease.

In November 2002 Alldrin test-drove a dealer demo in Davis with just 104 miles on it. As a used car it was priced at $43,000 ($33,000 after rebate), and he debated whether to buy it or wait for the 2003 model. In the end he decided “a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush” and bought the 2002 model.

That turned out to be a smart move. Just three weeks later, Toyota announced its decision to stop producing the electric car altogether. Only 340 all-electric RAV4 EVs are privately owned today, and one of them is Chuck Alldrin’s.

Charge Me Up

Before he bought his Chevy Volt, Chuck Alldrin didn’t hesitate to tell you that the all-electric RAV4 was the best car he’s ever owned. It’s powerful, reliable, energy efficient, virtually nonpolluting, and has a range of about 120 miles before it needs to be recharged, though over time that distance does slowly decline as the battery ages. As for “fuel” costs, it’s about $2 to $4 to recharge a fully electric vehicle by plugging it into one’s own garage or house overnight, which works out to about 3 or 4 cents per mile.

Electric vehicle owners can’t “fuel up” just anywhere, obviously, so at this point taking a trip out of town does take some strategic planning—pulling out maps and plotting routes that include preferred charging stations. (In a pinch, just about any RV park will do.) The Electric Auto Association, of which Alldrin is a proud member, has compiled a comprehensive list of favored charging stops throughout the country, and works to regularly expand the electric car infrastructure in the U.S.

“Every trip is an adventure,” Alldrin says—not because it’s difficult, inconvenient, or expensive to charge one’s car, but because factoring charge time into travel plans creates opportunities to explore new communities and attractions. “Like the olden days,” Alldrin points out, “traveling more slowly means you have to stop and smell the roses.”

The Nissan Leaf, a sophisticated electric car with a range (about 100 miles per charge) adequate for work commutes (photo courtesy Trevor)

The Nissan Leaf, a sophisticated electric car with a range (about 100 miles per charge) adequate for work commutes (photo courtesy Trevor)

The new Chevy Volt, though, is a game-changer for Alldrin. A plug-in hybrid with a strictly-electric range of 40 or more miles, the Volt also has a gas-powered engine that fires up to recharge the batteries when needed—extending the car’s range to 300 miles or so, making it a very convenient vehicle for long trips as well as short ones.

Go Out and Make One of Your Own?

Back in the day, before the Boomers got so gray and geezerly, 1960s’ media icon Scoop Nisker used to tell ’em—and sometimes still does, on the Bay Area’s KFOG Morning Show Occasional Scoop radio program—and I quote: “If you don’t like the news, go out and make some of your own.”

Maybe it’s time to take some inspiration from Scoop. If you don’t like the cars the big auto companies are offering these days, go out and make some of your own.

Converting a small car or truck from gas to electric power is not that simple, though. It takes some mechanical ability, quite a bit of time and money to boot—probably about $7,000 to $10,000, according to Chuck Alldrin. And he should know. Alldrin has done a number of EV conversions, including a Chevy S-10 truck.

For starters, you’ll need a suitable “donor vehicle,” something reasonably small and light with a sound body and running system. A small or mid-sized car is ideal—the Volkswagen Rabbit has been particularly popular for conversions—or a small pickup.

“You definitely don’t want a junker, or an old car,” Alldrin says, “because you’ll want to be able to get basic parts for many years to come. It’s like a heart transplant. It won’t be worth doing if the body’s falling apart.”

Generally speaking, most conversion cars don’t have the range of manufactured electric vehicles (EVs), averaging 40 to 50 miles between charges. But they have the other advantages of larger commercial EVs, easily reaching speeds of 60 to 70 miles per hour and costing 3 or 4 cents per mile to operate. They’re also pollution free and almost maintenance free.

Used to be you had to have a sense of humor to drive an electric car. But now, in addition to slick mass-market models, youcan make your own. (photo courtesy szczel)

Used to be you had to have a sense of humor to drive an electric car. But now, in addition to slick mass-market models, you can go out and make one of your own. (photo courtesy szczel)

The batteries—an array of standard golf cart batteries, easily available, is cheapest—need to be replaced every 15,000 to 30,000 miles. Because most people primarily drive their EVs around town, just 5,000 or 6,000 miles per year, that means batteries will last three to five years.

But you can also use state-of-the-art lithium-ion phosphate batteries like Jack Rickard and Brian Noto of webcast EVTV in Cape Girardeau, Missouri. Every Friday these two boys with big-boy toys—dig that 1957 Porsche Speedster!—offer detailed hands-on instruction on some of the fine points of EV conversion. Check out the complete EVTV how-to video archive.

Another approach, much simpler—and fairly inexpensive if you already have a Toyota Prius hybrid—is converting it to a plug-in EV hybrid with the help of a kit, which will cost you somewhere between $2,000 and $3,500. (If you don’t already have a Prius you can now buy a plug-in version.) The helpful Electric Auto Association offers more info about this and other timely topics.

So if you don’t like your gas-powered car, go out and make it into an EV—and also make some of your own energy independence.

“Conversion cars are like my RAV4,” Alldrin says. “You just plug them into your house and charge them up overnight. They’ll never see a gas station.”

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