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Thursday, Jan. 27, 2011

Owners converting cars to EVs

Kyodo News

Automakers may be gearing up to launch full lineups of electric vehicles, but some environmentally conscious people and businesses aren't waiting around. Instead they're going green by converting their old gasoline engine-powered cars.

News photo
Electric atmosphere: Electric vehicles converted from conventional gasoline-engine cars are readied for a race at the Tsukuba Circuit in Shimotsuma, Ibaraki Prefecture, on Nov. 3. JAPAN ELECTRIC VEHICLE CLUB/KYODO PHOTO

The total cost for conversion can be limited to ¥1 million to ¥1.5 million per car if lead batteries are used instead of costly lithium-ion batteries, said Naotsugu Mihori, a member of the Japan Electric Vehicle Club.

Converted electric vehicles can run legally on public streets if they pass the transport ministry's mandatory safety checks.

"About 70 to 80 members of our club have already gotten their converted electric vehicles to clear the safety checks," Mihori said.

Because electric vehicles incur only ¥1 to ¥2 per kilometer in terms of energy costs, owners of converted models can limit their car-related energy expenses.

Mihori's club powered a Daihatsu Mira minivan with a lithium-ion battery and drove it 1,003 km in about 27 1/2 hours on a single charge during a demonstration last May at the Tsukuba Circuit, a racetrack in Shimotsuma, Ibaraki Prefecture.

Expediting conversions on a massive scale would help cut greenhouse gas emissions and protect the global environment, said Akihiko Nakaya, a board member of Auto Works Club. Co., a Tokyo-based company that offers conversion services.

"We have received some 20 inquiries from car owners who are interested in having us convert their vehicles," Nakaya said.

Owners of imported cars, including Jaguars and BMWs, have also asked about conversion costs and the performance afterward, he said. They don't want to get rid of cars they are attached to, even if their engines or other parts are starting to wear out after long years of use.

They've expressed the desire to make their vehicles more environmentally friendly, provided the conversion cost is acceptable, Nakaya added.

Fitting those cars with lithium-ion batteries to ensure a relatively long range would cost more than ¥3 million, while about ¥1.5 million is usually enough if they use lead batteries. But that means only getting 20 to 30 km per charge, he said.

Growing public interest in converted cars was underlined when 27 such vehicles competed Nov. 3 in the Japan Electric Vehicle Club's 16th endurance race. Altogether, the annual race attracted a record number of entries.

A converted Suzuki Mighty Boy coupe utility vehicle traveled 78 km within the 74-minute time limit on a single charge, winning the top prize.

Many of the participants were students interested in automobile technology and retirees constructing their own electric vehicle as a hobby.

Club representative Tadashi Tateuchi said converted cars "can be made into vehicles that could match gasoline engine-powered vehicles, depending on the technologies" used in the conversion process.

Such conversions "present auto parts makers and maintenance service providers with new business opportunities," he added.

Japan Post Service Co. plans to introduce 1,000 converted vehicles as mail delivery vans in the next fiscal year. They will come from Zero Sports, a venture business in Kakamigahara, Gifu Prefecture.

Given that mail vans typically travel only 10 to 20 km per day, converted vehicles will be ideal for use during the day and then recharged overnight.

"We want to help cut carbon dioxide emissions," Japan Post spokeswoman Takumi Niwa said.

Engineers caution, however, that it is a technological challenge for inexperienced business operators to ensure that converted vehicles meet adequate safety levels, partly because electric cars — whether brand new or converted — use high-voltage electricity.

For example, the Nissan Leaf uses 360-volt lithium-ion batteries, while the Mitsubishi Motors i-MiEV uses 330 volts.

It's possible to receive a fatal electric shock by touching a poorly converted vehicle, or one that has been damaged.

"Some businesses have embarked on conversions even though they don't have adequate technology and knowledge," a conversion enthusiast warned.

Against this backdrop, the transport ministry and the Kanto District Transport Bureau are drawing up a set of technological criteria that makers of converted cars must clear, in conjunction with the Association of the Promotion of Electric Vehicles, which groups carmakers and local governments.



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