Ken Norwick is a systems analyst and an electric vehicle advocate who converted his 1996 Saturn to electric power two years ago.

Monday, 8 Jul 2002

CALGARY, Alberta, Canada

I’m a programmer by way of occupation, but a “Curious George” by nature. I like to spend my free time out in my garage tinkering away. For the next five days I am going to describe what it is like to live and commute with an electric car — specifically, with my somewhat weather-beaten 1996 Saturn four-door sedan that was given a new lease on life by way of a motor transplant.

Ken with the electric Saturn in winter.

A little over a year ago, I rescued this badly smoking car and transformed it into a battery-powered electric vehicle that produces no emissions whatsoever. I documented this conversion process in an online diary. In doing so, I became one of a growing group of electric vehicle enthusiasts around the world who could not or would not wait for the auto industry to produce a zero-emissions vehicle, and so took matters into their own hands.

At the turn of the last century, electric vehicles and petrol-powered automobiles were running neck-and-neck in popularity. By the early 1920s, increases in the availability of cheap gasoline coupled with the invention of the electric starter motor allowed vehicles powered by internal combustion engines to outpace the electric automobile. Electric vehicles soon disappeared from the motoring landscape.

Increased sensitivity to the problems of climate change and pollution brought the electric vehicle back into the public eye in the early 1970s, aided by advances in electric motors, electronic control systems, and battery storage cells. Engineering teams from the major automotive manufacturers were tasked with exploring new transportation alternatives. At the same time, a grassroots movement to build zero-emission vehicles began in the American southwest, and has been spreading up the West Coast and around the world.

My particular conversion project got its start late in 2000, so I have been driving my electric vehicle for over a year now. The Saturn has seen weather from -31 to 95 degrees Fahrenheit, and has survived blizzards that stopped many other cars and trucks in their tracks. It gets a daily recharge from one of two sources. The wall of my garage has a special plug dedicated to my Saturn, and I have been lucky enough to find sponsors to provide electricity as required at my place of work.

Charging the Saturn.

I’m also lucky to have a relatively short commute to work. I’d be hard-pressed to travel 15 miles in a day, so my energy requirements cannot be taken as the norm. Most people have a much longer journey to work and back, and the range restrictions of the current electric vehicles on the market are not suited to longer commutes. My electric vehicle is able to travel 40 to 75 miles on a single charge, but you can effectively double your range by charging at your destination. Emerging battery technologies will allow electric vehicles to travel 100 to 300 miles per charge. These new batteries will be much smaller and lighter than the batteries that I carry in the two racks in the rear of my car. I use the batteries out of a golf cart to give me the best possible range. The Saturn carries 18 of these 70-pound batteries, which adds about 1,300 pounds to the total weight of the car. That is a lot of lead to be hauling in a small car like the Saturn, and I had to help the poor little thing by modifying the rear suspension.

My Saturn is no way representative of the new breed of commercially available electric vehicles just coming on the market; rather, it’s typical of a homemade electric vehicle in that it is effectively a recycled gasoline-powered car. In its new life as an EV, it has no gasoline motor, no exhaust system, no gas tank, no radiator, and no fluids. It is quiet and emits nothing. Maintenance on an EV is much reduced, as there are very few moving parts. Mechanics hate them! No valves to adjust (or to burn out), no tune-ups, and no oil changes. The bearings in my car’s electric motor are sealed for life and will probably last 15 to 20 years. Of course, there are always parts such as brakes and tires that will need service, but generally speaking, maintenance costs on an electric vehicle are drastically lower than a typical gasoline-powered car.

Most private conversion projects begin with a discarded or expired gasoline-powered vehicle for the simple reason that it is a lot easier to get an EV up and running if you don’t have to build your car from scratch. The auto manufacturers put a lot of engineering into each car they make, and the costs would be prohibitive for an individual trying to duplicate the complex drive train, suspension, steering, and braking systems of the modern automobile. Besides, giving a worn-out car or truck a new lease on life as a non-polluting electric vehicle is noble example of recycling. The alternative for these vehicles would be a trip to the wreckers.

Still, a conversion project undertaken by a private individual can be quite costly, and one way to minimize any expenses is draw on the experience of fellow EV enthusiasts from all over the world. Like myself, many have set up web sites that fully describe their respective projects. My online diary contains more than 200 pages of information and hundreds of images. Visitors from 8 to 15 time zones per day drop in to this site for information.

In fact, this is generally how my day starts. Early each morning, I log onto my computer and go to my website to make sure that it is up and running. I go to the web stats page to get reports of the number of recent visitors, their locations, and the name of the organizations or schools that they belong to. My next EV-related task for the day is to open my emails from site visitors and to try to briefly answer any questions they have. My online diary generates a lot of interest, and is great to hear from people in Sweden, Japan, India, Turkey, Israel, Germany, England, or the good old U.S.A.

I’m always adding or changing things on the car, and each time I do, I try to make sure that my digital camera is close by. The images I take could be of the weirdest things, but you just never know what might be of interest to a person just starting their own conversion project. These pictures get added to the website, and I try to find the time to add commentary and informational links as well.

Maintenance of my site usually takes place in the evenings after I get home from work. I find it to be a time-consuming but necessary process; maintaining the conversion diary and keeping it current has become one of the most important of my EV-related tasks each day. Judging by the emails I receive, everyone else feels the same way. A constantly changing website keeps people returning for more information, and this is a very important aspect of the educational process.

Driving my Saturn EV for over a year has given me a newfound respect for the capabilities of electric vehicles. It is still very much a work in progress — a sort of rolling science experiment. I often get asked to present the car to science classes and at various locations around the city. I meet a lot of people while driving this car around town, and their general impression is that electric vehicles are slow and stodgy — just glorified golf carts. Let’s put that one to rest; this car is spunky to say the least. Its top speed is somewhere between 75 and 100 miles per hour, and I am never the one holding up traffic!

Speaking of which, it’s time to get to work, so I’ll be on my way to the garage to unplug the car and get the day started.