One Big Thing I Learned About The Industry By Helping Start An EV Conversion Business

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A few months ago, I got a surprising phone call from my dad and brother. As I’ve said here before, I grew up in a transmission shop, and I’ve had several other family members growing up who worked in the automotive industry, but most of what I grew up with were ICE (internal combustion engine) vehicles. While my dad went into another industry, the passion for cars continued as a hobby for most of us, and nearly everybody stuck with ICE. One of the big family hobbies is off-roading, with most of us focusing on classic Ford Broncos.

A few years ago, I did what I often do, and served in the role of black sheep of the family, this time getting into EVs. This apparently rubbed off on others in the family, and seeing the writing on the wall for the EV transition, my dad and brother decided it was time to re-enter the industry, this time opening up a conversion shop that focuses on classic off-roaders.

So far, we don’t have much of a website, largely because we’ve been focusing on getting the first Classic Bronco conversion done. It’s powered by a NetGain HyPer9HV motor, just over 37 kWh of reconfigured Tesla battery modules in a custom pack we built, all pushing power into a manual transmission and the vehicle’s stock transfer case and solid axles. Here’s a few photos of the build (photos provided by Rugged EV):

In a future post, I’ll share a lot more about the vehicle (which is up and running, and pretty impressive) and how things go at a couple of shows we’re about to attend. The big one that’s about to start is the Moab Bronco Safari, which should give us a good chance to show off its capabilities! But first, my brother is going to show it off at Chrome in the Dome in Springerville, Arizona.

A Big Thing I Learned Doing This

A couple years ago, I wrote an article about what the independent automotive shop of the future might look like. One fundamental problem is that a modular approach to repair, where a whole system gets replaced instead of opened up and repaired, ends up being an expensive proposition. For example, Tesla’s repair shops can’t repair a broken battery pack, and this can lead to repairs that cost over ten thousand dollars despite the needed repair being much cheaper.

In the end, I concluded that the highly specialized skills needed for deep-level EV repairs are unlikely to be learned across the whole independent repair industry, with battery and electronics experts at every little auto shop. But that doesn’t necessarily keep the industry from doing these deep-level repairs.

Instead of having deep systems experts and specialized equipment at every shop, the automotive industry already has ways of dealing with this issue: remanufacturing. For example, an alternator (the part of an ICE vehicle that generates electricity, usually 12 or 24 volts) is something very few local shops can repair, but if you go to an auto parts store, you can get a cheaper rebuilt replacement unit. There’s also a “core charge,” where you get a partial rebate for trading in your broken alternator, which will then be rebuilt for somebody else to buy later. The alternator (like any other part available remanufactured) gets sent to a special facility that has the expertise and equipment needed to fix it up and get it ready for the next customer.

With EVs, it’s likely that most independent repair shops will be able to switch a battery pack out in the future, but they’ll buy a rebuilt pack for their customers and then send the broken one in for a core charge. The experts won’t be everywhere, but the benefit of their expertise will still be widely available.

This is just one example of a “hub and spoke” approach to specialized goods and services. Not only does industry do this, but society itself, with institutions like universities, professional societies, and sometimes even governments concentrating expertise and spreading the benefit out, and giving people shortcuts to knowledge that could take decades or even lifetimes to amass through trial and error.

One such “shortcut” we used was to work with Legacy EV. Instead of having to start at square one, a couple of us took a training course to learn the basics of conversions. We also had access to complete parts kits that are known to work well together, as well as support when we ran into trouble a couple of times. The whole project would have still been impossible without our decades of general automotive experience, welding and fabrication skills, computer experience (that’s where I contributed the most), and even some 3D printing skills and equipment one of my brothers had been tinkering with.

That having been said, relying on a “hub” that helped fill in the knowledge gaps in our new “spoke” was a great help. Prior to this, most of our automotive electrical expertise was limited to that which shows up in ICE vehicles (12-volt systems). Being able to hit the ground running with high-voltage systems, battery management, and everything else got us up and running a lot faster than we’d have been able to do by ourselves with trial and error.

This Concept Will Probably Go Far Beyond Conversion & Repair Shops

The possibilities for extending the hub and spoke concept into the EV industry will probably not stop at independent shops doing repairs and EV conversions. Computer technology has gotten to the point where gatekeepers with more skill than the average driver will not always be needed to keep EVs on the road.

A big part of this could come in the form of Right to Repair laws and manufacturers who are open-minded about customer and independent shop repairs with or without such laws. While larger manufacturers will probably keep their own service centers (and those of affiliated entities, like dealers), smaller manufacturers may have a real shot in the EV space but won’t have the footprint to put a repair shop in every city and town. It’s possible that we’ll see new business models for low-production and non-traditional manufacturers emerge that rely on distributing knowledge instead of locking customers into a service relationship.

It’s also likely that we’ll see things we can’t predict right now. The internet, connected vehicles, distributed learning, and even artificial intelligence will probably create new hub and spoke arrangements in the EV industry that we can’t even begin to predict sitting where we are in 2023.

All images provided by Rugged EV.

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Jennifer Sensiba

Jennifer Sensiba is a long time efficient vehicle enthusiast, writer, and photographer. She grew up around a transmission shop, and has been experimenting with vehicle efficiency since she was 16 and drove a Pontiac Fiero. She likes to get off the beaten path in her "Bolt EAV" and any other EVs she can get behind the wheel or handlebars of with her wife and kids. You can find her on Twitter here, Facebook here, and YouTube here.

Jennifer Sensiba has 1953 posts and counting. See all posts by Jennifer Sensiba