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E-news Online July 2010

U.Va. Engineering Students Convert Gas Cars into Electric Vehicles

By Brandon Shulleeta

ride forward
Photo by Megan Lovett
Adjunct faculty member James Durand, engineering student Philip Richardson (left) and high school volunteer James Doernberg convert old cars such as this 1993 Honda Accord into electric battery powered vehicles through the “Ride Forward” course.

This article originally appeared in the Daily Progress.

University of Virginia engineering students are converting used gasoline vehicles into electric automobiles — work professors hope will soon have the masses traveling cheaper, with less environmental damage.

The students are converting the vehicles as part of a hands-on engineering course, and two professors hope the research will help them jumpstart a vehicle conversion business formed in Charlottesville.

“There aren’t too many courses anymore where students get to build something,” UVa adjunct professor James Durand said of the course project known as “Ride Forward.”

But the aerospace and mechanical engineering professor and his colleague, David L. Slutzky, an urban and environmental planning professor, hope their research will lead to a new business.

“I’m not doing this for the money, per se — I’d like to make some money out of it. That would be great, and I think the potential is there — but we’re doing this because we think it needs to be done, and it’s interesting and we think it’s good for the environment,” Slutzky said of the business plan. 

Durand added that it’s beneficial to have students work to create a profitable model.

“If you don’t have something that is produced and sold in the marketplace, you haven’t really accomplished anything,” Durand said.

The men believe they’re on the forefront of a movement that will transform how people get from point A to point B. Not only are the vehicles less environmentally damaging than their gas-powered brethren, they could lower drivers’ costs and help the U.S. become less dependent on oil from foreign countries, Durand argues.

In the past couple of years, the Ride Forward program has converted a Honda Accord into an electric vehicle. The professors and students are in the process of converting a Ford Ranger, a government-owned vehicle, a Porsche and a Subaru.

“Each car we do, we learn more,” said Slutzky, a former member of the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors.

The course is working to decrease the cost of converting the vehicles, stretch the miles a vehicle can drive before the battery needs recharging and also find ways to create a system that would allow the vehicles to be used for long trips.

The course is converting vehicles that can travel for differing distances before a recharge is needed, ranging from 40 miles to 90 miles, depending on the batteries used and other vehicle components. The students are exploring various ways to recharge batteries, including small recharge stations that can be placed in people’s own garages, as well as businesses that could have quick charge stations.

Recharging could potentially take only a few minutes and would be far cheaper than gasoline.

“There are a couple of challenges we have to overcome,” Slutzky said. “People like my wife say, ‘Well, what if I want to drive to Ohio? I can’t do that in your car. It doesn’t have enough range.’” 

Another possible option is retrofitting the vehicles to use fuel from propane tanks for long trips. Slutzky estimates that a 10-gallon tank could carry a vehicle another 200 miles.

However, a large sect of the population mostly uses vehicles for short trips, Slutzky contends.

“I happen to believe that there’s a sizable market of people who will be happy to own an electric vehicles that’s all electric, gets them 50 to 60 miles per charge, knowing they’re not going to need it more than that. … And if the suitcases come [out and] they’ve got to go somewhere, they’ll either use the other car in the household or rent a car for a day or two or they’ll take transit.”

The professors also plan to push for larger federal tax credits for electric vehicle conversions. 

Durand said there’s a federal tax credit of $4,500 for converting gas vehicles to electric. There’s a $7,000 credit for creating a new electric vehicle. He’s hoping that the U.S. Congress will up the conversion credit to $7,000.

The Ride Forward project is converting the Albemarle County vehicle for $15,000. However, Durand said that battery technology is improving rapidly, bringing costs down and efficiency up.

“What we believe will happen is that we can get the cost of the conversion on the drive train side, including labor, down to $3,000 to $5,000 within a year or two,” Slutzky said. The cost of a battery would be thousands more, depending on the battery type, but Durand and Slutzky are considering various plans to have buyers pay virtually nothing up front and save money long term.

RideForward’s work is made possible in part by generous funding from Linwood A. “Chip” Lacy Jr. (ChE ’67, Darden ’69). Lacy’s gift of $2.5 million to the U.Va. Engineering School includes $500,000 for program support and equipment for the Experiential Learning Program and $1 million toward construction of a building to house engineering student projects. His gift is transforming the Engineering School’s ability to offer robust experiential learning experiences, such as RideForward, which are vital in the education of engineers.