In the summer of 2008, I built an electric car. By now, the public is well aware of commercially-available electric cars, but at that time, there really was no such thing.
I had originally built an electric bicycle from a kit, and that lead me to building an electric motorcycle. With the skills, experience, and confidence that I gained from that project, I spent the next summer building the electric car. I spent months researching, planning, designing, car-hunting, cutting, welding, and assembling – pouring my blood, sweat, and tears into the project. Only one thing prevented me from legally driving my own home-built electric car － passing an emissions test. I would soon learn that it wouldn’t be easy for me to fit my round peg into the square hole of state bureaucracy.
My electric car is a 1996 Geo Metro. I bought it in the spring and and began the conversion from gas to electric. The summer flew by with a series of triumphs and frustrations. I found an electric motor at a garage sale for only fifty dollars and rebuilt it in a single afternoon. I also cursed the project when I finally got the new motor and transmission in, only to realize that the shifter linkage would no longer reach! Every step drew me closer to a completed project – my very own electric car, which wouldn’t use even a single drop of gasoline.
The car wasn’t registered for most of the summer, as it would just be in my driveway and not on public roads anyways. By August, I was finally able to get the vehicle to travel under its own power, so it was time to send in the registration. I hadn’t registered the car earlier, knowing that in Wisconsin’s Waukesha County a vehicle must past pollution emissions testing soon after getting registered or face suspension. I filled out the paperwork, mailed in the registration, and waited.
Two weeks later, I had my proper automobile registration. Along with it was the standard short form asking for the vehicle to be brought in for pollution testing. In my case, the car simply DID NOT make pollution! There was no longer any fuel tank, no engine to burn it, nor exhaust system to pump pollution out into the air. Of course, the State had no way of knowing that, so I wrote a letter to the officials.
In my letter, I briefly stated how I had converted my car to electric and that it had no combustion system to create pollution. I included a dozen photographs showing the conversion process – such as removing the engine, taking off the gas tank, and installing the electric motor. I tucked the photos in with my single-page and politely worded, typed explanation and mailed the letter to the state.
Three weeks later, I received my response. It was anorexic white envelope from the Department of Transportation. It simply requested, “Please take your vehicle to your nearest Emissions Testing Station.” Along with the letter were my returned photographs. There wasn’t even a signature on the letter. As far as I could tell, it was a stock form! No one had even looked at my photographs!
The nearest test station was on the opposite side of the county. It was farther away than I could travel on a single charge of the electric car. I would have to tow the vehicle there. Fortunately, I had made new friends while working on this project, and had already invited a few over that Sunday to lend a hand working on the car. Among other tasks for the day was to weld towing points to the front bumper, so that a removable tow bar could be installed for those rare times that towing would be necessary.
The next week, I towed the Metro to the testing station. It was a cold and clear December afternoon. When I arrived, I was heartened to see that there was no waiting in line, so I was able to see a clerk right away. She was a grouchy, older woman who seemed to have no interest in anything outside her job description. I explained to her my situation and she then passed me off to another clerk and mis-explained my situation (twice!) to clerk number two. Clerk #1 headed off to the cigarette break area, clearly more interested in nicotine than in customers.
The second clerk was a friendly, younger woman with dark hair and genuinely seemed to want to help. Unfortunately, she had neither the authority, nor the intellect to do so. I explained to her how I had converted the car from gas to electric. It no longer has an engine or a gas tank or a muffler. It is an ELECTRIC CAR. She shuffled through a series of papers on her desk, stopping at a form that referred to fuel types. She looked down at it, and then vacantly up at me. “I don’t have a box for that.” Sure enough, looking at the bottom of the form, there were two clearly marked boxes; 1) Gasoline, and 2) Diesel. Not for the first time in my life, I was outside the box.
With some encouraging, I was able to get the clerk to make a phone call to somebody with more experience and authority. She spoke with a Mr. Joe Paulick at the Department of Transportation, and after stumbling through a poor explanation, eventually just put me on the phone.
“Mr. Nelson?”, the voice crackled, “What you need to do is make an appointment at the Technical Assistance Center. I’ll try contacting Ken over there. IF the car truely is as you say it is, we will exempt you from testing.”
I thanked Mr. Paulick and looked forward to getting a call from him in a few days. As I turned towards the door, a third clerk tried being helpful. “You know what you could do is just get registration, but no plates.” I asked him how I would legally drive the car if it didn’t have plates on it. He questioned in return, “How are you going to drive it with no engine?” I sighed, palmed my face, and walked out the door, not looking forward to a slow, wintery drive towing my car back home.
The next week, Joe Paulick called me again. By now, my time to get emissions testing had expired and my registration was suspended. Joe was able to cut through some red tape and give me an extension, so I could continue to drive the car legally, if only temporarily. “Here’s what you do,” he chimed in on the phone. “Go see Ken at the North Technical Assistance Center”. He gave me the address and then continued, “I tried calling him, but only got through to voice-mail. He’s the guy you need to see.”
It wasn’t until the next day that I was able to raise Ken on the phone. At this point we were able to set up an appointment for January 6th, which was almost three months since I originally mailed in my registration form. I got a time and location and wrote them down.
On that icy January morning, I carefully headed out onto the main roads with my four-cylinder Chevy S10, towing one ton of Geo Metro loaded with lead-acid batteries. It was a 75 mile round-trip to the test center. The irony of using so much gasoline to register an electric vehicle was not lost on me. I made sure to leave in plenty of time to arrive punctually and un-hitch the car from the truck.
The parking lot of the institution was black ice. I carefully maneuvered my rig into the parking lot, unhitched the car, and glided it into the visitor parking space in front. When I stepped inside, my eyes had to adjust from the snow glare to the dim green flicker of fluorescent lights. There was no receptionist. A few moments later, somebody was walking down the hall, an oversized, empty plastic coffee cup in hand. I told him who I was and why I was there. The nameless bureaucrat escorted me to what looked like perhaps a break-room and asked me to wait.
There was no pleasant background music, no magazines, nothing to even indicate this room was used for waiting, just tasteless mint cinder block walls. A coffee pot dripped acrid brown sludge. The stingy wall clock’s hands clung to every minute. Only with a sharp tick did it release them. An eternity later, a middle-aged man in blue coveralls popped into the room.
“I need your keys”, chirped the man who obviously had had his coffee. “Anything special I need to know about driving it?”
“Just turn the key”, I instructed. “Put it in second, and go easy on the accelerator”.
He warned me that, due to liability reasons, I would have to stay put in the waiting area until called. He left, leaving me alone with my worries.
What would be required during this “Manual Inspection”. Would my wiring be good enough? Would the safety features be acceptable? Would this caffeine-enhanced mechanic smash my car into something while driving it around the building to the garage?
After a second eternity, I was called up by the first man I had spoken with. Only later would I realize that this was Ken, who I had talked to on the phone. He silently escorted me down a dingy hallway. The feeble fluorescent light struggled to hold the gloom at bay. Finally, we reached the garage. It was loaded with special testing equipment; a dynometer, carbon monoxide detectors, and machines from a by-gone era. The metal boxes formed a city skyline of monstrous devices. The air smelled of stale coffee and old tires. The place was both a typical government building and a grimy repair shop. Held hostage in the middle was my car.
“Please open your hood.” Ken commanded.
I stepped into the car, popped the release, came back out, raised the hood, and put the prop down into place. Ken slowly stepped forward to look into the unusual engine compartment.
An entire years worth of work came down to this － the opinion of a single government employee. All of my hours of labor, of crafting together pumps and motors and wiring, of fiddling and welding and repairing, were wrapped up in this car. Cold sweat beaded on the back of my neck. With the single whim of this man, I would be able to drive the car legally, or not at all.
“Yep, there’s, uh…. no engine in there,” he quipped, scribbling his name on the bottom of a form. “Hey Bob, come look at this!”
Other employees starting entering the garage to take a look at the car. Ken pulled out a camera to take photos. While at first I thought that they were for the car’s permanent record, I quickly realized he was just taking them to show his friends!
The other employees had questions too, but it was just because they were curious. Where are the batteries? How do you charge it? How far? How fast?
Ken slapped his one page form on the fax machine and hit send. “You won’t have to worry about emissions again. This takes care of it. If you ever get a renewal notice in the mail for some reason, just call me.”
I breathed a sigh of relief. Now that we were all on good terms, the mood changed. I shared my story of how I had already managed a speeding ticket in the electric car. They all got a kick out of it and even borrowed my newspaper clipping about the incident to photocopy and post around the office. Everyone there agreed that my car was a great project. As one inspector said, “It was much better than that hydrogen bomb that one guy brought in. You remember that one? Yikes!” Then to me, “We did NOT approve that modification!”
A short while later, I was able to back my car out of the garage. I hitched it up to the truck, ready to make the return trip. While I was nervous on the way to the test center, I was now relaxed, with a glowing inner smile. These guys loved my car, and I could now legally hit the road with it. Although I might not always fit inside the box, it’s good to know that I was able to unstick the red tape and get my project on the road!