How to build an electric car, REALLY

by Ben N on May 3, 2013

The Electro-Metro

One of the most questions I get is “How do I build an electric car?”

Um, could you be a little more specific? That’s a bit like asking “How do I build a house” or “How do we put a man on the moon?”

Well, it’s a lot of small steps… So, why don’t you follow my footsteps for a minute, and see if together, we can make One Giant Leap for EV-kind!

When I started working on an electric car, I felt like I really had no idea what I was doing. OK, I had SOME clue. I had already built the Electric Motorcycle and had a basic understanding of motors, batteries, and controllers, but a car sure was a “step-up” with more wheels, bigger motor, more batteries, and trying to figure out issues of power brakes, heat, and other things needed on a car, but not a cycle.

The first thing that I did when I decided to build an electric car was to TELL EVERYONE I WAS GOING TO BUILD AN ELECTRIC CAR. This did two things. For one, it was good encouragement for me to really stick through with it finish the project. Secondly, everyone was fascinated, and wanted to help. I got some materials donated, such as a used vacuum pump and old welding cable. And I got lots of good advice, not always about the how-to, but “Have you met Jim, just up the road from you? He works on hot-rods and does machining work. Here’s his number.”

The other thing I did was find plenty of books on the subject of electric vehicles. Even older ones still have plenty of information. Although you might be using Lithium batteries, a book that only talks about lead-acid still has great information on battery placement, motor control, overall design, and all the other aspects of an electric vehicle project. I got a few books from the library, ( I actually WORE-OUT my library card..) and ordered some others from online bookstores. I read CONVERT IT by Michael Brown and Shari Prange, and anything else I could find. (For the motorcycle, I got a copy of SECRETS OF EL-NINJA by John Bidwell/Bidwell Design – out of print, but still worth hunting down a copy.)

Besides reading How-To books, it’s also worth reading books for inspiration. SOLO: LIFE WITH AN ELECTRIC CAR, is an excellent road-trip book by Vermonter Noel Perrin.
ELECTRIC DREAMS, by Caroline Kettlewell is the inspirational true story of a high-school team building their own electric car and competing with it.
THE LOST CORD is an excellent history of 1970′s EV technology, with a special storytelling of EV Pioneer Bob Beaumont.

Of course there’s some great documentary films as well, with WHO KILLED THE ELECTRIC CAR? right at the top of the list.

But reading books and watching films isn’t enough. What you really need to do is get your hands dirty, by diving into a conversion. That’s what I did, and on my way, I slowly found a few mentors. By telling everyone I knew that I was building an electric car, I started getting referrals. “Hey, do you know so-and-so? HE built an electric something-or-another….”

I started hanging out in junkyards and auto-parts stores and talking to everyone I could.

While I started my project all on my own, by about half-way through it, I had enough new friends to start lending me a hand, and more importantly, share their skills and experiences so that I started learning more about welding, car repair, brakes, motors, all sorts of good info. If you are an old-school jack of all trades, then you are probably already ready to tackle an electric car conversion. But if not, I highly recommend finding some friends close by who have skills that compliment your own. Even if you live in an area without a bunch of local guys interested in the subject, you can at least join the Electric Auto Association and start hanging out on web forums like Ecomodder.com and DIYElectricCar.

The other thing that I did was that I wanted to give back. When I started building the car, I couldn’t find ANY good “how-to” instructional videos. There were a few bits here and there on the web, but with bad sound and camera-work, and only short segments, nothing that covers a complete project. What skill I DID have was that I had a video camera and microphone, and knew how to use them.

So, I sat down and went through every step it took me to built the car, this time, doing it on camera, and from the point of view of somebody who has never done this before. I MADE the video that I wished I had when I started the project, one that didn’t exist at that time. I highly recommend that you get yourself a copy of BUILD YOUR OWN ELECTRIC CAR: CHEAP, and no, not just because I’m the guy selling it (although any profit just goes right back into the promotion of clean transportation projects.) It’s because it’s the only video that takes a complete novice step-by-step through the whole process. Some people get a copy to watch just to see if they think they COULD build an electric car or not!

Not long after I finished BUILD YOUR OWN ELECTRIC CAR, I was attending an energy fair, which included an alternative car show, but had NO speakers on the subject. I sort of griped out loud about that to a friend I was with, who responded with something like “I thought that’s why you were here… To give a presentation showing others how to build an electric car.” Well, I wasn’t, but nobody else was doing it, so stepped up to the plate, stage-fright and all, to give a presentation there the next summer and ended up being the best attended presentation at the largest energy fair in the country! That was both a bizzare and AMAZING experience. Since then, I’ve given presentations across the country, and have thousands of subscribers on YouTube and Instructables.com and around 3.5 million total views on all my projects.

The downside of it is that I tend to get a lot of questions from folks, which is understandable. It’s just a little hard when somebody e-mails me with “Will this motor work?” Sending only a bad cell phone photo with it, and NO other information about the motor OR the vehicle or project it is going into. Or they ask the same question about using a one horse-power AC motor, showing that they obviously don’t have even a basic understanding of motors.

So what’s this all mean for you?
Well, I might be a quote/unquote “Expert”, but I’ve still only really built one electric car, so feel free to take my advice with a grain of salt, but from my experience, the following WORKS.

1) Learn all you can.
Read all books on the subject you can – library, bookstores, special order, loaned from friends, both How-To AND Inspirational
Watch Documentary films on the Subject.
Watch BUILD YOUR OWN ELECTRIC CAR. I’m serious, it IS the video I wish I had when I started.
Watch YouTube videos on electric car conversions.
Sign up for a non-credit Electronics or Basics of Electricity at your local college.
Page through the EV Album to see what projects other people have done – how much it costs, how much time, what cars people use, etc.

2) JOIN
Join web forums like Ecomodder.com and DIYElectricCar. You can read about all sorts of great projects and get so many questions answered just by reading. Believe me, you are NOT the only person to ask that particular question! Join the EAA or other relevant organizations. Join a collaborative workshop, hackerspace, tool-sharing club, or other social/building group. (I ended up becoming one of the founding members of the Milwaukee Makerspace.)

3) Share
As you work on a project, share about it! Eveyone wants to hear what you are doing and vicariously share in every one of your little successes and setbacks. Post photos, shoot web videos, make an Instructables. To me, teaching is the highest form of learning. Even if something is obvious, the way you look at it may be different than how somebody else thinks of it and can add new light to somebody else’s understanding.

Once you start knowing more about electric car conversions THAT’s when you will start having SPECIFIC questions on dealing with power brakes, choosing the right battery chemistry, and the other quirks of these special projects. THAT’s the time to really start finding mentors. But when you do, make sure it benefits more people than just you. That’s one reason why I really like web forums. Somebody can ask a question, a number of different people can answer, and WE ALL BENEFIT from it!

In fact, everything I’ve just written here originally would have just been one e-mail to one person (you know who you are, Marc!) Instead, I’ve made it into a blog post so that it can be shared with as many people as possible. Heck, I even have Facebook and Twitter, etc. repost shortcuts at the end of this so that you can share all of this info with all of YOUR friends!

So, getting back to what prompted this post to start with….. YES, if you want to e-mail me with a question about your electric vehicle project, feel free to do so. Just make sure you’ve done your homework first, and know that it more than likely will become a blog entry to help as many other people as possible!

I hope these steps help you get going in YOUR EV project!

Take care, and never stop learning!

-Ben
300MPG.org

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