Don’t Toss That Gasoline Engine Just Yet

Even older vehicles can run on batteries, but there are limitations.


As auto makers race toward increasingly electrified vehicles, there is an entire after-market effort underway that was started decades ago, largely by hobbyists. And after decades of playing around with batteries and novel technologies, they’ve come to roughly the same conclusions as the owners of newer electric vehicles. There are definite advantages as well as some limitations, and the needle is still not far enough to the right to satisfy everyone.

After hundreds (maybe thousands) of interviews involving many aspects of automotive electronics — chips, battery technology, dual motors in the front and rear versus single motors or quad motors in each wheel, and a mix of electric motors and internal combustion engines — I took a road trip to the Oxnard Electric Vehicle Showcase in Southern California. My goal, as always, is to identify new trends and technologies, and to talk with people who develop them, test them, and drive them.

This was probably my 50th auto show with electric vehicles, but this one offered several surprises. First, alongside the latest advances in electric vehicles were some older vehicles that were converted to full battery power, including a 1960s Ford Mustang and a newly revamped (2020) 1969 Subaru van (Subaru phased out its last microvan in 1998), which can be charged directly using solar panels. Talking with the people who did the conversions, it became obvious that range anxiety always has been, and probably always will be, an issue for electric vehicle owners. If you run out of gas, you look for a gas station. When your batteries run low, you need to have a plan, and right now the sparsity of charging stations and the time it takes to charge a vehicle remain big problems.

I also talked with the head of a school bus fleet, which is now using electric school buses for local routes. This makes sense because electric vehicles are extremely efficient in stop-and-go situations, which is what you’d expect for a school bus picking up and dropping off students. When the bus is stopped, the battery drain is minimal. But for away games and field trips, they swap to gasoline-powered buses because the electric buses max out at about 200 miles.

Second, while the after-market conversions are interesting from an ecological and car enthusiast perspective — a Ford Mustang is considered a classic in California — most people doing the conversions are simply swapping out the mechanical engines and gas tanks for batteries. They still lack the sophisticated simulation to show how a vehicle will handle on the road with a trunk full of batteries instead of fuel, and where the optimal placement of those batteries should be. New EVs are simulated from the ground up, so they handle extremely well with a balanced low center of gravity. Most people doing the after-market conversions don’t have access to that kind of equipment, so handling, braking, and performance optimization are unknown.

Third, while electric cars are less obvious sources of pollution than those powered by internal combustion engines, they’re not completely carbon neutral. The distance separating where they are manufactured, and where they are sold and used, can give the illusion that an electric vehicle is carbon neutral, but it isn’t.

In the long run, there’s no question that EVs are less polluting than ICE-powered vehicles, but carmakers are beginning to come cleaner on this equation, in part because they still haven’t got the battery range customers want at an affordable price, and in part because the infrastructure to charge vehicles isn’t available everywhere, or in enough density to satisfy the growing demand. Manufacturing and recycling of batteries is dirty, but so is the mining of lithium and other materials, the manufacturing of the steel and plastic in vehicles, as well as the various other components in a car. BMW details some of this with its i3 REx, which uses a motorcycle engine to extend the range of the batteries — preferably well beyond the distance a gasoline-powered car can travel with a single fill up.

Green is certainly better, and it’s better to be more green than less green. But being carbon neutral is a whole different calculation, and getting there will take a lot of time, effort, resources, and investment from all parts of the globe.

Bottom line: Progress is being made on all fronts, and the move away from oil and internal-combustion engines is real. But until there is sufficient infrastructure and range under all conditions, including cold, mountains and higher speeds, and sufficient economies of scale, many consumers will remain wary of migrating to this technology. And for fleets, the choice may be all about total cost of ownership, including delays for drivers looking to charge their vehicles.

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