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A Volkswagen T2 Camper Van’s Electric Conversion — Part 5

This series is the result of conversations with Kit Lacey about his entrepreneurship in converting classic cars to electric propulsion. Kit’s UK-based company is called eDub Services. I encouraged Kit to share the concrete information on his rebuilds with CleanTechnica in his own words. It has been somewhat chronological, but is this chapter the final one? Read on and make a wild guess.

This series is the result of conversations with Kit Lacey about his entrepreneurship in converting classic cars to electric propulsion. Kit’s UK-based company is called eDub Services. I encouraged Kit to share the concrete information on his rebuilds with CleanTechnica in his own words. It has been somewhat chronological, but is this chapter the final one? Read on and make a wild guess.

You may want to catch up with part 1, part 2, part 3, & part 4 before I hand it over to Kit Lacey. Indie, the adorable T2, is a very special vehicle that you would need an ICE-cold heart not to love, but…

Part 5 — Test Driving the Final Product

How do I test drive the vehicle you ask? North Yorkshire, God’s Green County (or Country depending on who you ask!), is one of the finest places on earth, but I have to admit; I cannot claim to be Yorkshire “Born and Bred.” Against my choosing, I was born in Cambridge and lived there for the first 18 months of my life. Thankfully, I have no memory of this. My first Yorkshire (and life) memories are when we lived on a farm near the village on Nidd, close to Harrogate. Beautiful rolling hills in every direction, perfect for driving. eDub HQ is slap-bang between the Yorkshire Dales and the North York Moors. And once our eDub is complete, testing is required.

The main thing to check is accurate capacity. This is a fine balance between the projected amp-hours (Ah) of a battery pack and the cell voltages. When you first assemble a battery pack, make sure the connections are tight so resistance is as low as possible, then program the BMS (Battery Management System). The most important thing is to set the maximum and minimum voltages. Depending on the system and charger, you can set the charge and discharge rate to taper off towards these maximum and minimum values, extending the life of the battery pack. Next, set the Ah of the pack so the BMS can know the capacity.

To calculate range, you need to charge the pack until it reaches the maximum voltages. A balanced pack will see all cells reach this level together. Then as you discharge, the BMS will use the Ah value to know how quick to lower the State of Charge (SOC). Clever eh!? If you’ve done a good job, and if the pack is good, the SOC will approach 0% as the voltages reach their minimum.

What about consecutive charge/discharges runs? Indie has 180Ah CALB (China Aviation Lithium Battery) cells, 3.2V nominal, and 46 cells in total. That gives us a 26.5 kilowatt-hour (kWh) pack. In a heavy brick on wheels, how do we know for sure what the range is? Modern EVs will give you a range based on factory statistics, which are useless in the real world. Plus, every driver is different. So here lies our challenge. Indie is to be used for hire, and so how do we accurately inform people what the range is and help them plan accordingly. The answer? We test!

To get the best range, we drive down the long flat roads of the A168, the old A1. With one driver, gentle driving no faster than 50 mph, and no luggage; this can get us our maximum range. Even better if the temperature outside is a level 20 degrees centigrade with no wind. For the other end of the scale, head to the hills! This is where Indie being a brick on wheels is a bonus. Her motor is accurately programmed so that the throttle pedal is smooth and doesn’t waste energy on violent acceleration. Her aerodynamics are awful so there is not a lot of difference between her best and her worst range.

The best way to inform hirers is to tell them of our experiences. “I’ve made it to the coast in one go, just over 70 miles, but with luggage, passengers and the temptation of taking a little detour for the scenery, best plan 50 miles range per trip. That way you can’t go wrong.” If the hirer wants to risk it, there’s an AA card in the glove box.

What about registration and approval? Registration is remarkably simple here in the UK. Even though we convert to MOT standards, classic campers are MOT exempt so no need to put them through that process. As they are also tax exempt, and electric, so tax exempt again (I think the government owes me money by this point!) Once the conversion is complete, the V5C form needs sending off to declare that the fuel type and engine number has changed. There’s a small fee, and once the wizards in the DVLA basement have worked their magic, ta-da! You’re all set! There are some additional regulations in place for electric vehicles, such as all High Voltage cables to be orange, and the vehicle must have a master switch to isolate the system. We include these in our conversions.

Time taken? Indie was purchased in March 2014. Our original aim was to be at the Harewood VW festival that year, but alas; in true Grand Designs style, the project ran long. By Christmas 2014 Indie had been built, then taken apart again and sent to paint. I can’t tell you how excited I was to receive pictures of Indie in her fresh green paint over New Year. As the project had run on so long, our mechanics had to catch up with other work for a few months before, finally a year overdue, Indie was ready to drive.

Our initial issues were with cooling. We could drive 7-8 miles before Indie would slog to a halt and we had to wait for the controller to stop flashing a red LED at us. This was fixed by relocating the coolant pump to allow for better flow. Then with coolant sorted, we were ready for the open road. We decided to test range and power and all was going well, until…

Mum and I were cruising the country roads and approached a blind dip in the road. We were already at 50 mph so decided to use the sudden depreciation to accelerate and zip up the other side. Spirits were high and so my foot hit the floor. 88bhp shot from the motor into the gearbox but something got stuck. I felt a sudden lurch and then all at once; all power was gone. We rolled to a stop at the side of the road and another AA call was made. Ironically we had broken down alongside an American Air Base so police were with us in minutes, considering we were in the middle of nowhere. The irony was not lost that a camper van powered by “eco” electricity had stopped alongside an American military hot spot. We were only missing the tie-dye.

We were lifted home and what followed was 3 months of pointing fingers. The motor and controller had both failed, as well as frying a fuse and welding a contactor. These were removed and sent back to the states to diagnose the cause. In the end, a very small wire had rubbed through on the encoder of the motor. This had sent incorrect information to the controller as to how fast the motor was spinning. For some reason, the controller then sent all available power to the motor, blowing the fuse but not before destroying itself.

So, for several weeks, Indie sat immobile in the yard, letting winter draw in. It was at this point I really started to question what we were doing. Was it worth it to bring the world’s first electric classic camper to the hire market? I wasn’t so sure.

To Be Continued…

Tune in soon for the final (promise) part 6, where we upgrade Indie with some hardware that will work long term.

All photos courtesy of Kit Lacey, eDub Services.

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Written By

Jesper had his perspective on the world expanded vastly after having attended primary school in rural Africa in the early 1980s. And while educated a computer programmer and laboratory technician, working with computers and lab-robots at the institute of forensic medicine in Aarhus, Denmark, he never forgets what life is like having nothing. Thus it became obvious for him that technological advancement is necessary for the prosperity of all humankind, sharing this one vessel we call planet earth. However, technology has to be smart, clean, sustainable, widely accessible, and democratic in order to change the world for the better. Writing about clean energy, electric transportation, energy poverty, and related issues, he gets the message through to anyone who wants to know better. Jesper is founder of and a long-term investor in Tesla, Ørsted, and Vestas.


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