Robotics Professor Converts Honda Civics To Electric

February 20, 2011

A robotics professor in Pittsburgh has designed a kit for the Honda Civic. It doesn't transform it into an exotic looking supercar, but it can make it run on electricity. Illah Nourbakhsh has been working with Baum Blvd. Automotive in the Pittsburgh suburb of Oakland and has pretty much worked out the kinks on the conversion process--except for two.

The 40-year-old professor, who has been driving on electricity since 2000, has used one of the shop's technicians several days a week to develop the retrofit process. The "laboratory" is the Electric Garage at Carnegie Mellon University, where the project has progressed to the point that Chuck Wichrowski's shop will be ready to begin conversions for customers within a few months.

Oh yes, the hiccups in the design. The Charge Car's range is 40 miles (the 2011 Nissan Leaf can do up to 100 miles), and the charging process takes 10 hours, which is two hours longer than the Leaf takes.

But the overall cost of the conversion, including parts and labor, comes in at $14,000--which is $18,500 cheaper than a new Nissan electric car (before applying any incentives like tax credits or purchase rebates).

The demographics of the Pittsburgh commuter may overcome the shorter distance that the Charge Car can run when fully charged. Studies done by the team found that the average round trip for 80 percent of Pittsburgh area residents is only 12 miles.

Nourbakhsh told the Pittsburgh Tribune Review that his aim is a "bottom-up electric car explosion in Pittsburgh." The emphasis would be on local residents using qualified local shops to remove the old superfluous systems (engine, fuel, cooling and exhaust) and then install an electric motor in the engine compartment, a lithium-ion battery pack in the trunk, and a computer in the dashboard.

CMU is planning to refine the process and then interest a private company to manufacture and market the kits. Initially, they would only include the Honda Civic retrofit, but later they could be adapted to almost any vehicle. Cars could have a reincarnation of sorts-- born on gas and coming back as electric cars.

The professor has run a prototype at 75 mph while negotiating a challenging grade without incident, and indicated that the vehicle performed well in winter when continually charged.

Three models have been developed to date. They have experienced few mechanical problems, which means that repair data for the conversions is minimal. If the professor's experience with his own electric car is indicative of the electric-vehicle fleet as a whole, repair shops should be concerned. He said that in 11 years, his only repair need was to replace brake pads--once.

"We expect the maintenance costs will be a tiny fraction of the maintenance costs you have on a regular car," he said.

[Pittsburgh Live]

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