Features & Columns

Students at Singularity University Create Hybrid Conversion Kits

Students create hybrid conversion kits for drivers in developing countries
ON THE ROADSTERS: Leonardo Valente, Christian Henriquez and Javier Rincon (from left) created a hybrid conversion kit as part of a school project for Singularity University.

I meet Javier Rincon at NASA's Ames Research Center. His jeans and orange New York Mets hat are stained with grease. His hands are blackened after spending the entire day working on a project he hopes will solve the problem of affordable hybrid vehicles in the developing world. He gestures to a white Hyundai Accent with handprints marking up the side panels and Diet Coke cans and take-out containers littering the roof. Car parts and power tools are sprawled out over the asphalt. Rincon's answer: build the hybrid himself.

Growing up in Mexico City, Rincon noticed that going green wasn't cheap. Hybrid and electric cars are still considered luxury items south of the border—they often cost more than double what they would in the United States—and the expense often puts them out of reach for most families. A Prius runs in the $20,000-plus range in the South Bay, while one in Mexico costs around $40,000. "A cheap hybrid car is non-existent," Rincon says. While some have tried to get around this economic hurdle by modifying their gas combustion cars to run on natural gas, Rincon wanted a better solution.

Vehicle customization is already popular throughout Latin America, he reasoned, and a do-it-yourself (DIY) project would dramatically bring down the cost. "What we want to do is convert a cheap car that costs $10,000 or $15,000 into a hybrid by spending just a few extra thousand dollars," says Rincon, 27.

A student at Singularity University in Silicon Valley, Rincon and two of his classmates, Leonardo Valente and Christian Henriquez, embarked on an ambitious project in August to convert a 2004 Hyundai Accent into a hybrid in just 12 days. Doing this, they said, would prove that anyone could build a hybrid. While Rincon is an engineer, none of the three has any advanced mechanical experience—Valente is an economist and Henriquez studies business

Rincon says they chose the Accent because it is a "cheap, low-weight" car "similar to what we can find in Latin America." The vehicle, which they purchased for around $2,000, had front-wheel drive powered by a gas engine and drum brakes in the rear wheels. Rincon added an electric engine and batteries to power the real wheels—which not only converted the car into a hybrid, but also made it four-wheel drive. In addition, the team developed software—what Rincon calls the "secret sauce"—to control which engine turns on, when and for how long.

The group finished building the car on Aug. 18, and successfully took it out for a test drive from NASA's Ames Research Center—where Singularity University is based—to the Computer History Museum in Mountain View. The car's maximum electric speed is 40 miles per hour.

With the prototype complete, Rincon, Valente and Henriquez are now focused on replicating the project to provide greater access to hybrids and electrics in the developing world through their company, Exponential Motor Co. Although Rincon says they're still "working on the business models," the goal is to package parts necessary to convert a car into a hybrid. These kits would then be sold in Latin America, so anyone could modify a car, or have a mechanic do it for them.

"In the end, it's helping people in developing countries to have hybrid cars that can pay themselves in less than a year so that it can be really, really accessible," says Rincon. "Instead of making a big modification, we're making a small modification with a big impact, which is to reduce the emissions of the car around 30 percent. The long view is to prepare the way for electric cars and new types of energy."

Eric Kilczer, a former employee of Tesla Motors who helped Rincon build the hybrid, says he's encouraged by what he sees—not just for the future of developing countries, but for the United States as well.

"I'm hoping that this type of garage-style effort becomes more and more common," he says. "Let's see someone else do it. I think if more people did this, it would move the movement of electric vehicles forward—it would really help make an impact."

Homemade hybrid and electric vehicles are gaining traction, and not just in the developing world.

Shari Prange, co-owner of Electro Automotive in Santa Cruz County, says that her husband, Mike Brown, started building electric cars for customers back in 1979. "There was a gas crisis—the second gas crisis—and he had an auto repair shop and gas station in Bonny Doon, and one of his regular customers wanted my husband to build an electric car for him," she says. "So he did, and in the process discovered that there really wasn't anybody supplying parts for these things. You had to go out and scrounge aircraft generators for motors, so he decided that there was a need for a business to sell parts specifically for electric car conversions."

Like Rincon and his colleagues, Electro Automotive now sells kits for those who want to go electric—and also teaches high school classes and other laymen how to do it. The kits cost anywhere between $6,500 and $11,000, depending on the weight and power of the car, and how much work a person wants to put into the conversion.

Prange says the process is relatively easy: All that is needed is an electric motor, speed controller, battery pack, battery charger, a mount and an adapter to put the electric motor onto the existing transmission, and a few other small parts. Then, she says, "the process is basically taking out everything that had to do with the gas drive system—the fuel system, the exhaust system, the cooling system, the engine, and then replacing it with these electric drive components."

"Electric cars are so much more efficient than gas cars," she continues, even when factoring in the emissions from coal power plants. And converting a car carries additional benefits for those who can't afford a Tesla or find the Toyota Prius body design objectionable.

"A lot of people have a particular car that they're really in love with, that they want to keep, that they want to drive, but that they want better fuel economy from," Prange says.

On the other hand, building a hybrid—as Rincon has done—is more complicated. This type of conversion requires more parts and more coordination with the existing machinery of the car, Prange explains, calling it a more ambitious undertaking.

"We don't see a lot of homemade hybrids," she says. "It's a more challenging prospect and a lot of people find that they don't really need the hybrid part of it—they can get all the range they need out of the electric, so why go to the extra expense and trouble?"

Since Electro Automotive opened in 1979, Prange and Brown say they have seen thousands of customers convert their cars into EVs. Similar shops have also popped up around the Bay Area, particularly, says Prange, as interest in electrics rises. Other companies, such as ALTe in Michigan and VIA Motors in Utah, offer electric conversion for commercial vehicles—a market that is likely to take off faster than personal vehicles. Prange acknowledges that the DIY method isn't for everyone, and is likely to remain an activity for car enthusiasts, not the mainstream. "Some people wouldn't know pliers from screwdrivers," she says.

Seth Leitman, author of Build Your Own Electric Vehicle, which was first published in 1994, agrees that converting gas-guzzlers may never be the most popular way to get an energy efficient car, even if companies such as Nissan and Tesla now offer customers the option to "build" their own EV for greater customization. But, he says, it gives consumers one more way to reduce their carbon footprint.

"Whatever it's going to be," Leitman says, "we need to get off oil, and we need to get off things that aren't energy efficient."