An introduction to the future of vehicle modification.
A note from Brian:
After one of our friends mentioned an interest in DIY EV conversions, we decided it was time to hit up our man in Tucson, Dave Hymers, to see if he was ready to get back behind the wheel as our resident DIY EV editor.
Dave used to drive a black, bugeye Subaru wagon. Then he built an electric go-kart. Then he built an electric Toyota HiLux pickup. When it comes to EVs, Dave knows what’s up. I asked if he could share some advice on building your own EV.
This is the first in a series.
Pros & Cons of DIY EV Ownership (Is it right for me?)
Why DIY electric?
Electric vehicles are STILL classified as having one or more of three common shortcomings—too expensive, short on range, or short on performance.
Today a used Nissan LEAF can be picked up for under $10k, so if you’re simply looking to tiptoe into the world of electric vehicles without too much fuss and no work, it is an option. Is it a cross country or even inter-city vehicle? Not really. Is it like one of those insane mode Teslas? No. But if you drive less than 100 miles in your day-to-day, it’s up to the job.
Being essentially commuter appliances, factory electrics might not have much in the way of nostalgic value or curb appeal either—all these things can be addressed with a custom DIY EV.
Anything can be an EV
Almost any vehicle on the road today can be converted to use batteries and a motor, imagination and budget willing of course. There are several companies in the US and Europe growing steadily by converting classics into EVs. Most also sell components so you can do likewise. If you are even moderately capable with a wrench, you can probably pull it off.
DIY electric vehicles are also a fantastic recycling opportunity that supports the aftermarket of the platform you choose. Why reinvent the wheel when you have a car you and your friends have already built a community around?
Keeping it real
Setting SMART goals and clear expectations for a project is always the hard part. The key challenge for DIY EV conversions is still range.
You’ll need to be comfortable with the idea you’re building and pouring hours and dollars into a vehicle that will likely only do about 100-150 miles. If that’s a deal breaker, there’s not much that can help. (Unless you’re building a very large or extremely efficient vehicle and have the money for Tesla-sized, ~60kwh+ batteries—a self-defeating prospect for most conversions.)
As you probably already know, range limitations can be addressed by using charging stations along your journey—just like a fuel station for a conventional vehicle. Charging infrastructure is relatively good in moderately sized towns and cities, but cross-country and inter-city charging can be spotty.
Download the PlugShare app on your phone to see what’s around you and the places you commonly go. If you’re interested in building a commuter electric, most likely you will simply charge at home and almost never use public charging, but it’s always nice to have options.
My own EV conversion
I own a DIY EV that has served me well with 60 miles of range to 25% depth of discharge, but its not like I didn’t have to adapt. Limiting spirited driving (taking it easy) and knowing destinations, routes and possible charging spots is something that’s always in the back of your mind.
Times have changed, technology marches onward, and batteries have gotten cheaper by the year, so my calculus is likely to be a bit more algabraic now, as most conversions can now afford the above mentioned 100+ mile ranges.
Later in this series, we’ll talk about performance considerations, building/driving strategies, and component selection in order to optimize range and performance.
Show me the money
A big plus for EV driving is obviously not buying gas. The cost per mile to run an EV can be significantly lower than a gasoline car. (Anywhere from 2-10 cents a mile depending on gas and electric rates).
Maintenance cost on a factory EV is also going to be very low. For a custom EV it could be a tick higher and that will be talked about later.
Another big plus for a DIY EV vs. factory is depreciation cost. If you pick a popular or classic car—at least for the moment—it will be quite rare when converted and you might squeak a resale profit if you’re proficient at quality work.
Roughly speaking, a moderate range conversion can run anywhere from $12k to $25k depending on goals. This would be for a vehicle with lithium batteries. We won’t discuss lead acid batteries going forward—they really don’t make sense today for any but the cheapest cheapskate—they are a weight and maintenance nightmare for the $3-4k you’ll save.
Home charger: Be your own filling station.
Depending on how comfortable you are with slow charge times you can get by using Level 1 EVSE (120V Electric Vehicle Service Equipment), a 7-8hr charge from 25-100% is common with this rate. All factory electric vehicles come with these devices so they can be picked up cheap used.
If you want to go beyond that, factor in the cost of an electrician installing either a 220V outlet or a wall mounted Level 2 EVSE. It will halve your charge time and usually come with features like internet logging and a delay timer.
Electricity can be dangerous, batteries even more so.
I would encourage anyone who wants to build an EV to read up on basic electrical theory and safety tips as part of an introduction. A fire extinguisher is highly recommended for any garage, if not for real use, for feelgood factor.
Are you likely to burn your house down with lithium batteries? No.
You’re much more likely to short a battery and cause a small short-lived fire while you are present than to encounter an overcharging situation at 3AM which will cause a pack melt-down and a remodel of half your house. Cell management and charger technology has come a long way in the last decade, with proper selection and setup, overcharging is rare.
More in-depth safety and designing for safety tips will be presented in the future, including cable protection, fusing, disconnects and fail safes.
Get charged up for this series!
The biggest factor in determining if a DIY EV is right for you is, once you’re on board with range restrictions, are you comfortable with risk taking and to have it all blow up in your face? Maybe getting left at the side of the road?
If you’ve ever built a project car before, those things might already have happened. Personally, I had never done anything more complex than oil changes, suspension, and brake work before I decided to take the plunge.
Despite a lot of skepticism, DIY electric vehicles can be robust, reliable, and fun vehicles. Today they are just starting to become widely known. With all the Tesla and other performance components floating around in the aftermarket, people are really waking up to just how fun they can be.
Come along on a fantastic voyage with us, as we talk shop and shit about DIY EVs.
We’re going to cover all the basics, from selecting a platform for your own conversion, to required hardware and how to choose the best components, to actually building your own DIY EV conversion, to next level topics like tuning and optimization to get the most from your project.
We’re gonna have a good time.