So, you want to build an Electric Car?

Through web forums, e-mail, and social media, I’m constantly asked “How do I build an electric car?” Sometimes it’s from a person in a foreign country, with broken English. Sometimes it’s in the form of “where do I get the motor you used?” and sometimes it’s well thought out, but still a flurry of smaller individual questions.

But NO, I can’t help you build an electric car in a single response on Facebook.

What I CAN do is share my approach and the concepts I used to build an electric car. The following paragraphs are the most condensed way I could think of to answer “How do I build an Electric Car”.
I hope it helps answer the question for YOU!

First, do you really want to build an electric car?
There’s plenty of great electric cars, commercially-built, at good used prices. For many people, a used Nissan Leaf, Chevy Volt, or other plug-in car is a GREAT vehicle! It has a factory warranty and you could be driving it tomorrow!

If you just want a way to commute and otherwise have a car that just happens to BE ELECTRIC, buy one that was already built that way!

If you want to build an electric vehicle, I recommend that it’s something that you CAN’T BUY ANYWAYS. That might be a convertible, a classic car, a certain style motorcycle, or a car to which you had some certain attachment. As of this writing, you STILL CANNOT BUY an ELECTRIC PICKUP TRUCK! Yet, those have been an extremely popular conversion.

Just the top of a sample entry on the EV Album.

If you DO decide “YES! I’m going to build an Electric Car!”, then great, but don’t “Reinvent the Wheel”. Plenty of people have already built electric cars. Take a look to see what they have done, what it cost, how much time it took, and what parts were used. A quick and easy way to do that is by looking through the EV Album.
The EV Album is a listing of thousands of homemade electric vehicles – cars, trucks, bikes, classics, motorcycles, and more! You can even search by make and model or components used in a project. If you are thinking of converting a certain vehicle, search for it on the EV Album, chances are that somebody else has done nearly the same project you are thinking of doing!

When I first went to build an electric car, there were NO videos on the subject. So, after I converted a Geo Metro to electric, I made an instructional DVD teaching, step by step, exactly what I did. I followed that up the next summer by making a matching video about my electric motorcycle project. When YouTube finally became as big as it is, and nobody was really watching DVDs anymore anyways, I put all of my DIY ELECTRIC VEHICLE video online, for free!

You can watch both instructional DVDs as YouTube playlists HERE:

The entire BUILD YOUR OWN ELECTRIC CAR DVD, as a YouTube Playlist

There were also a number of videos that I posted to YouTube as I was working on them, including some videos of a friend’s AC Dodge Neon.

Tom’s AC Dodge Neon Conversion

Beyond that, I also have a number of other videos on the motorcycle, on upgrading a Vectrix electric motorcycle to lithium, videos on solar, and a whole lot more you might be interested in. Please visit the YouTube channel and browse and search through it for more.

Web forums are a great place to get the current pulse of what’s going on in conversions. Battery technology has changed quickly in the past years, and are a good example of the type of info that’s sometimes better found in a fast-changing media like a web forum than it is in a library book.
Web forums are interactive, so you can ask questions of people, get responses, and have input from multiple minds.
There are many forums out there on the subject, here’s a few:
DIY Electric Car
ElMoto (Electric Motorcycles)
Endless Sphere (Electric bike emphasis, but also great battery info)
Ecomodder’s Fossil Fuel Free Forum
Instructables is a little different. It’s not a forum, it’s more of a “Show and Tell” for projects. There are plenty of smart people on there sharing their own DIY EV projects.
I also documented both the Electric Car and Electric Motorcycle projects on Instructables, as well as Hybridizing the car.

Facebook also has quite a few EV groups. Facebook is great for instant feedback, but poor for keeping track of information long-term. It’s great to use for quick input from people, but try to do the main documentation of your project on a web forum, dedicated web page, or something with more permanence.

Seriously, get thee to a library! I literally wore out my library card working on my first electric vehicle project. While some of the older electric car conversion books may seem a bit dated, the CONCEPTS in them are timeless. Just read all of them you can get your hands on. Bob Brant’s classic BUILD YOUR OWN ELECTRIC VEHICLE is in at least its third edition, and is considered a classic of EV Builders.
If you are looking for good current battery info, check out Micah Toll’s DIY LITHIUM BATTERY.

People often ask me where to find wiring diagrams. The easy answer is “Right in the Instruction Manual!” If you buy a motor controller, it will come with a manual and diagrams showing how to hook it up. Even if you don’t know the exact motor controller you will use yet, almost any motor controller diagram will be a good template to start from. Read the manuals for the motor, controller, charger, and any other components you plan to use in your system. Since so much is available online now, you can likely get PDF manuals for every component you want before spending a dime on conversion parts.
Get those and READ THEM!

If you don’t already have some sort of background in electricity, TAKE A CLASS. Technical, Two-Year, and Community Colleges offer all sorts of great non-credit classes. Check to see what they offer. I found that spending one evening a week at my local technical college was a  fantastic way to increase my general knowledge on electrical concepts. The class I took was called “Basic AC/DC Fundamentals”.
While a person COULD learn the same sort of thing from, say, watching web videos, it’s sometimes best to have a set date and time, and a real live human instructor. Don’t overlook your local educational institutions as a great resource.
It can also be a great social resource, as other students there are also interested in electricity. I also found an “Electrathon” race team through the local tech school!

Probably one of the best parts of working on an electric car was the friends I met on the way. There are lots of people out there who have greater skills than you, and are happy to share them. I personally tend to be a Jack of All Trades, but not particularly good at any one. On the other hand, there are people who have worked entire careers as welders, electrical engineers, fabricators, inventors, and mechanics. Find these people and become their friend!

It might start just by asking all of your personal friends, and then beyond that, friends of friends. When I announced to the world that I was going to build an electric car, I was amazed how people came out of the woodwork to help me. I got quite a few comments like “Do you know Bob? He works on hot-rods and lives just down the road from you….”

The rise of Makerspace and Hackerspaces over the last decade has been amazing. These organizations are generally membership-based clubs of people working on projects. Anything from electronics to metalworking, laser-cutting to CNC, and pottery and crafts. Those are PERFECT places to meet like-minded individuals to help with your projects. Even helping out somebody else on their project is a great way to learn while building social capitol.
A few people getting together to build robots and electric cars was actually the catalyst of forming the Milwaukee Makerspace. I’m proud to say that I’m a founding member.

By being in a group like this, I was able to learn welding from Rich, electric engineering from Tom, automation from Brian, and machining from Bob.

Find Other Groups
Does an electric car group already exist in your area? The Electric Auto Association has been a long-time organization of people building and using their own EVs. Take a look, there might be a group right near you!
Also check Facebook for geographic-based electric car groups.

What’s it REALLY TAKE?
Building an electric car is a process. It won’t happen overnight, and I can’t just tell you how to build one. You need to learn all you can and then make it happen. It will probably take more time and money than you think, but you will also be a better, more knowledgable, more experienced person when you are done.

For me, building an electric car was really a major life experience. I learned so much that I was simply NOT the same person after as I was before. I learned skills and confidence and shared what I learned.  I hope that these words help you. Not just in building an electric car, but these same concepts can apply to almost everything you do in life.

I went from not knowing a thing about electric vehicles, to somehow becoming an “expert in the field”.
Remember, the best thing we can ever make, is to make something of ourselves.

Until next time, stay charged up!
-Ben Nelson

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Alfonso January 29, 2020 at 3:20 pm

Hello Ben,
Been reading your website and I haven’t read one page and more than 1 video and Im already hooked.
Wanting to built an EV for long time.. Rather than doing it like many have done, I prefer the DC approach instead of the AC motor. Seems to me is easier (in theory I guess)
SO far I got my hands on a new electric motor from a forklift and I’m in search of the best light car I can get (was thinking about a truck but still thinking… since I almost have it completed with gas engine (1965 Datsun pick up)
Anyway, I hope to learn from you on the project.. my most difficult thing is coming up with the controller, and batteries…
Understanding how to approach it or built a good battery system is the thing I need to solve…

DO you think that using several modules from the hybrid vehicles like the Prius is a possibility? or it has to be a lead based battery?

I don’t know if this is the place to make those questions but hopefully you can answer…

Still much to learn…

Thanks I advance!!


2 Ben N February 6, 2020 at 12:24 pm

Hi Alfonso,
I haven’t seen too many projects built with repurposed batteries from hybrids. Lead-acid batteries are tried and true, but are heavy an have lower energy capacity than lithium batteries.
Batteries from hybrids (like a Prius) tended to be NiMH batteries, and not very large. They really were designed to work with a motor AND a generator charging them, acting more like a buffer than anything.

Definitely learn all you can before starting a project. There are lots of web forums, YouTube videos, and even books about DIY electric vehicles.

You might also want to start small. Perhaps you might build an electric bicycle or a go-kart to learn the basics and make the mistakes there BEFORE spending the time, energy, and money on a full blown DIY electric car or truck.

Good luck with your project!

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