A growing group of electric vehicle enthusiasts are bypassing manufacturers and converting their own petrol-fuelled cars to run as electric.
According to the Australian Electric Vehicle Association (AEVA), there are at least 300 home-built electric vehicles around the country, with interest growing rapidly.
It said the cars were a cheaper alternative to buying an electric car outright and did not require specialised expertise to convert.
But an engineering expert has warned there are significant safety risks in fitting batteries into cars — with potentially fatal consequences — and it should be attempted only by people with appropriate expertise.
Photo: It took Mr Richards a few months and about $35,000 to convert his petrol-fuelled ute to run as an electric car. (ABC Tropical North: Sophie Meixner)
‘Well and truly paid for itself’
North Queensland teacher Trevor Richards converted his 2000 model Toyota Hilux to run on electricity in 2007 and has been using it as his primary car since then.
The Hilux, which is registered and roadworthy, was stripped of its petrol components and fitted with electric parts over the course of a few months.
The car is charged for free at home using off-grid solar, or at free electric charging stations up and down the Queensland coast.
Photo: Converted electric cars go through the same registration and roadworthy process as any other retrofitted vehicle. (ABC Tropical North: Sophie Meixner)
“This is my primary car, it goes everywhere, this one,” he said.
“We just drive from one town to the next and charge again, drive to the next town and charge again.
“If I charge from a public charge point I can charge it in two hours, if I charge from my own solar I can do it in two hours, if I’m charging from a standard wall outlet it will take me about eight hours.”
He spent about $35,000 converting the Hilux to electric but believes the amount he’s saved on fuel means the car has “well and truly paid for itself”.
“This is now 11 years as electric drive, this ute, and … the kind of savings I’ve had, just in fuel alone, is more than $40,000,” he said.
“The battery pack I’ve got in there is $23,000, so most of the electric stuff is not that much [money], but batteries are the biggest expense.
“But that battery pack is going to give me more than 10 years of use and it’s going to be about 5 cents a kilometre for battery costs, so it’s way cheaper than petrol.”
Photo: Mr Richards became interested in electric vehicles for the cost savings and because the smell of petrol fumes made him ill. (ABC Tropical North: Sophie Meixner)
Converting vintage cars
The AEVA’s Queensland branch chairman Graeme Manietta said he had noticed a surge in interest from people investigating how to home-build their own electric vehicles.
“As time progresses we found more and more people wanting to do this,” he said.
“The main reason they want to do it is because, (a) it’s cheaper than buying an off-the-shelf unit, and (b) they’ve got something unique, so they might pick an older vehicle or maybe a classic and they will convert that to electric.
“People are putting down the money to buy the components to do the conversions themselves or employ someone else to do it for them.”
He said many electric vehicle enthusiasts could not afford the output for a Tesla or another manufactured vehicle.
“If you really want an electric car and you can’t afford $50,000-$240,000 for some of the cars, this would be a good alternative as you’d probably spend somewhere around $16,000-$25,000 and you’d have a pretty decent electric vehicle,” he said.
Photo: For the past four years Mr Richards’ new project has been building a three-wheeled electric trike from scratch. (ABC Tropical North: Sophie Meixner)
“The other part of it is you have an ‘I made it’ mentality and there’s a lot of pride that goes along with boasting to your mates that you’ve converted your car to electric.
“I think there’s a certain amount of personal pride in doing a conversion.”
Mr Manietta, who runs a mechanical workshop, has home-converted two of his own family cars to electric and charges them using solar power at his home and business.
He said the process was becoming much easier and estimated there were several hundred home-built cars in Australia today.
Photo: Although his Hilux is nearing 18 years old, Mr Richards says it requires little service and maintenance and he has no plans to replace it. (ABC Tropical North: Sophie Meixner)
“It’s really not that difficult nowadays, the components are much easier, much friendlier to use.
“You don’t need a great deal of electrical knowledge, [but you need] a basic understanding of computer programs, because you might have to do a little bit of programming on your controllers, your charge circuits, but that’s not as difficult as I just made it sound — and secondly [you need] fabrication experience.”
He estimated he had fielded about 25 requests in the past 12 months for help in converting cars, and 10-15 a year in the past few years.
‘You’ve got to be aware of the risks’
Jake Whitehead from the UQ School of Engineering said while the growing interest in electric vehicles was “exciting”, there were risks involved with retrofitting any vehicle.
“The added risk with electric vehicles is obviously they have a battery which has quite a high current and voltage which has the potential to seriously injure or potentially kill you,” he said.
“As with everything, when you’re doing these hobbyist activities, you’ve got to be aware of the risks involved and that there is a cost.
“I don’t think this is something that anyone can do and I don’t think economically or financially it will stack up just for the average person to go and do.
“It makes more sense if you have some kind of vintage or classic car that you want to retrofit.”
Dr Whitehead said it was important anybody interested had an appropriate background as an electrician or an electrical engineer and consulted relevant groups to obtain expertise.
Photo: Mr Richards anticipates the ‘T-REV’ trike will soon be registered and roadworthy. (ABC Tropical North: Sophie Meixner)
“If someone’s thinking this might be a cheap way to get an electric vehicle I would say it isn’t, unfortunately,” he said.
“But the great news is we’ve got a lot of new electric vehicles coming into the market in the next 12-24 months.
“Hopefully by governments and fleets adopting these new technologies early, we can see these vehicles coming into the secondhand market and becoming more affordable.”
More electric experts needed
Dr Whitehead said the growing interest should be an important signal to governments to ensure the next generation of mechanics were trained with the skills to fit and service electric vehicles.
“With these vehicles completely changing in terms of their makeup, our old skills in terms of internal combustion engines won’t be relevant,” he said.
“So there’s a place for new training for electrically-equipped mechanics that are going to be able to deal with these vehicles.
“I think it’s really exciting that people are so positive about this new technology that has so many benefits for our country.”