Just recently we learned Volkswagen is going to sell an electric vehicle (EV) retrofit kit for its classic Beetle. Many CleanTechnica articles are about the transition of the world’s driving fleet to EVs, the expectation that sales of internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles will eventually be supplanted by EVs, and a broad forecast that fleet turnover will take approximately 15 years once ICE vehicle sales cease until the world reaches 100% electric power in this sector.
Then the game becomes how do we get existing ICE off the roads? Time will do it for us, and the value proposition of electric vehicles will also help.
In the not so distant future, it’s likely that many EVs will cost the same as or less in purchase price than ICE vehicles. Electricity already costs less than half the cost of gasoline (in general) and the maintenance needs of electrics are far reduced (with Tesla aiming for maintenance-free and self-diagnosing vehicles). Of course, there won’t be governments banning electric vehicles on pollution grounds (smog or carbon). Also, any future carbon taxes are easily avoidable when your fuel has no carbon (and electricity can already be made carbon free if we have the will).
It is likely the sequence of events will be this, EV sales will continue climbing in percentage until they eventually displace 100% of ICE vehicles (by the invisible hand of the market, by taxation/subsidies of various forms, by mandates to transition off ICE, and by novel mechanisms not yet envisioned), but legacy ICE products will still be on the roads and will slowly diminish in number due to retirements (age, rust, repairs that cost more then the vehicle is worth, etc.) and will experience accelerated depreciation as customers realize a used EV is a better value then used ICE vehicles. If governments do not help retire the orphan gas vehicles (some will and some will yield to the pressure of “personal freedom” to harm society), then the retirement rate will slow to fleet turnover, because even as remaining fossil-powered vehicles experience accelerated depreciation, those who cannot afford even used EVs will be drawn to ultra-low purchase prices.
Absent a carbon tax or self-driving or high oil prices (demand will be falling, so oil prices should crash), a used ICE will actually look very appealing to those without financial resources. While we should not endeavor to make life harder for those who need help the most, it will slow our transition off carbon, so we should look at avenues that allow them to have their cake and eat it too. We can look at subsidies for retiring ICE vehicles and replacing them with EVs, self-driving if its value proposition is there, and other mechanisms as good ideas come along.
But we can also accelerate this process by repowering gasoline/diesel vehicles. True revenge of the electric car. If a ~70 year old vehicle that was certainly not developed for electrification can be retrofitted successfully, then many other vehicles can as well. And if an ICE vehicle needed an expensive engine or transmission repair or replacement and the frame is in decent shape, it may only be a small upcharge to convert it to an electric vehicle (if the kits are widely available).
There will be wrinkles to EV repowering. You can’t easily stuff 50–100 kWh of batteries in a frame not designed to hold them — hence, you have to live with reduced range. Legacy vehicles’ suspensions are not designed for the extra weight, the weight distribution of the vehicle will change, you have to work with the frame spaces you have that were shaped for the original components, and so forth, but it’s likely most cars can be upgraded with a bit of ingenuity. Other indirect wrinkles include crash safety being affected and insurance companies scapegoating the owners of these new EVs with onerous insurance rates.
The real impediment is motivation.
In some cases, conversion kits will simply not be economical, and it makes sense to not release kits for those vehicles unless they’re modular kits adaptable to many models of car with minimal costs.
Conversions are not as good as EVs designed from the ground up, but they could be cost-effective and reduce waste. In developing countries where automobiles are often kept for decades, repowering can be cost effective compared to vehicle replacement. And differing capacities are possible to suit different price points. Finally, as VW showed us, classic cars can be converted, eliminating their carbon production while not having to take them off the road. Finally, all of those diesel vehicle buybacks from the emissions scandal could be repowered with motors and batteries.
Interestingly, it does not have to be automakers doing this. It can be anyone who is enterprising and has the skills and resources to build conversion kits. In fact, there are companies out there today that have kits available. For the Beetle, for example, VW is partnering with an outside EV conversion company. VW is providing the parts, eClassics is doing the installation. Importantly, kits designed by automakers are more likely to sidestep the insurance issue, as the kits would be standardized and can be crash tested.
There is a market for conversions, and offering them is a great idea to further accelerate our transition from oil to electricity (while providing automakers with a new income stream on a product they already once sold). The real question is which automakers are willing to swallow their pride and develop a profitable product to bring EV conversion into the future?
All images courtesy Volkswagen