As Stew Roberts, owner of the Foreign Service Auto Repair in Roseville, showed me the Ford Ranger he had recently finished converting from gas to electric, he stopped mid-sentence to sniff the air.
“I think I smell burning plastic,” he said.
Seeing a small trail of smoke wafting from behind the driver’s seat where Roberts sat, I pointed, “There’s some smoke.”
“The gumshoe reporter spots the smoke,” joked Todd Seabury-Kolod, owner of the Ford Ranger. Both Roberts and Seabury-Kolod seemed a bit embarrassed, though it turned out the smoke had nothing to do with the conversion.
“This is how the job has been going—all these other dumb things to deal with,” Roberts complained as he fiddled with the stereo amplifier wires causing the smoke.
Todd Seabury-Kolod has been a customer of Stew Roberts since 1981. This year, Seabury-Kolod convinced him to convert his Ford Ranger from gas to electric.
“I gave this a lot of thought, and Todd really wanted it, so I gave in. We planned the project very thoroughly so we could do it efficiently. We planned for about a year and started the process on April 6,” Roberts explained.
When Roberts took me on a drive in the converted Ranger, the car was quiet—no sputter and rattle of a gas engine. He joked that it’s important to have a radio in an electric car so you can know if you’ve left the key on.
Roberts is no stranger to electric cars. He converted his Mazda B 2200 pickup in 2001 and has been happily driving it ever since. Though the Ford Ranger project was delayed for a bit while they waited for a key part to arrive, Roberts says he can do the conversion procedure in just two weeks.
“I’m sick of this constant drumbeat of ‘experts’ saying electric cars aren’t practical,” Roberts said, “When GM says ‘no, we are waiting for the fuel cells,’ their heads are screwed on the wrong place.”
“We want to come up with a template so other people can have this done—educate people so they can know how accessible this technology is, that you can do quite well with [an electric car] in a 40 mile range,” Seabury-Kolod explained, “We can’t wait for the big auto companies to do all the work. I think little people on the sides need to push this technology from the grassroots.”
Roberts estimates, conservatively, that for every thirty miles you drive, it takes ten hours for the car to recharge. In other words, it takes one hour to recharge after three miles of use. The relative cost could be compared to driving a normal car while gas is at $1.50 a gallon.
“You think differently when you’re driving an electric car,” Roberts said, “you think about how far you’re driving, for example. The car gets less total power if you make it work harder, so I take back streets instead of freeways, I drive slower. It’s really a nice thing to change your pace.”
Roberts also carries his own extension cord in his car at all times. “I always plug in wherever I go—charging anytime, anywhere is very valuable. When you’ve depleted the battery pack, it gets sluggish, so if you think you might break down, consider if you have any friends in the area.”
“My dream is for households to have a ‘saver switch’ in their garages installed by their local power company where folks would charge their vehicles at off-peak times,” Seabury-Kolod said.
The electric vehicles that Roberts has converted are primarily around-the-town cars. They are very practical for city driving. He explained that they didn’t want to spend the extra money on better batteries, but with more advanced batteries electric cars can go even farther without recharging. Roberts and Seabury-Kolod estimate that the cost of converting the Ford Ranger was about $18,000—with a $3,500 allowance for buying the used car as well as extra shipping and tax expenses.
There is a sort of “support group” for people converting cars. The nonprofit Minnesota Electric Auto Association meets once a month to discuss issues surrounding the process of converting cars, such as finding the best deal on batteries or insurance. President David Peichel says the group is “a mix of car gearheads, people who envision electric cars as saving the planet, or people who just like the hobby.” The group has approximately 40 or 50 members, an email list of about 200, and 50 or 60 people at most of the meetings. Nevertheless, the website shows only 13 conversion projects complete or in progress in Minnesota. There are definitely some off the record, though, as neither Roberts’ nor Seabury-Kolod’s is on there.
Seabury-Kolod did tell me, however, that he heard from a UAW worker at the Ford Plant that a man named Robert Albertson is trying to acquire 500 Ford Rangers to convert. Albertson, a Wisconsin inventor, started the Mag-Trans Corporation based in Wisconsin with an office also in Edina, where he develops “a new total electric car, called the Trans-Electric Drive Car™.”
David Peichel explained more about the commercial possibilities of electric cars, making it even clearer that the “little fella” seems to be doing more work toward the development of this technology. At a basic level, Neighborhood Electric Vehicles (NEVs) travel at a maximum speed of 25 miles per hour. Higher up on the spectrum, the Tesla Roadster, a pure electric sports car, has a 300-mile range and a 45-minute “QuickCharge.”
“Major manufacturers doing hybrids are thinking of coming out with plug-in hybrids,” Peichel said. “Once you go to that it is essentially the same thing as a hybrid, just with a bigger battery pack—however much power you can pull out of the wall it’s that much less gas to put in. Plug-in hybrids from an economic point of view will make the most sense for a long time. After those are around for a while, you might see a higher mix of electric vehicles available.”
All people involved with electric cars, from the members of the MN Electric Auto Association to Stew Roberts and Todd Seabury-Kolod, are interested in making electric vehicles a more viable option for drivers. Seabury-Kolod mentioned the difficulty of finding insurance to cover a converted vehicle and the lack of tax incentives offered to do the procedure.
Seabury-Kolod has recently taken the converted Ford Ranger home to St. Paul and he reports that everything is going smoothly—except for insurance. “I am currently with California Casualty. Though I am a longtime customer, they do not insure modified vehicles,” Seabury-Kolod explained. “I plan to lobby their administrators to reconsider and thereby show support for green technology. They have referred my coverage to Progressive. They’ll cover me but my premium will double.”
Electric cars are a very green technology as the batteries’ lead and casing are recyclable. Seabury-Kolod plans to write to Congress. “I think the mood is right for Congress to address this issue; they’ve added more tax credits for green technology recently.”
“We’re kind of still learning about our laws right now. Our nonprofit status keeps us from lobbying but we want to work with lawmakers about what would make Minnesota a better place for electric vehicles,” David Peichel said. “Now that more people are getting converted cars, people are looking more toward what we can do to support them through laws.”
Ellen Frazel (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a recent graduate of Macalester College, with a degree in English and creative writing.
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