Homegrown electrics

High-school students build electric cars in auto shop

When I was in high school, I always wanted to build my own car. Still do, in fact. Doodles are all over my lecture notes; fantasy specifications scribbled in the margins of newspapers and magazines. More often than not, my fantastical renderings are powered by electric motors&emdash;so long as you're dreaming, why not go all the way, right?

For some high-school students, these cars are far more than dreams; they've become reality right in their schools' auto shops. For several years now, the Electric Vehicle Society of Canada's Toronto Chapter has been promoting electric conversions of compact cars as a way for students with an interest in automobiles, technology, and the environment to gain some hands-on experience.

The vehicles, often donations from manufacturers, are put together in high-school auto shops, usually as extracurricular projects.

The conversion basically consists of removing the gasoline engine and its associated parts and inserting an electric motor, batteries, and charging equipment. It's a relatively simple operation and doesn't require engineering degrees, just ingenuity and determination.

Don Bosco Secondary School, for example, has run a converted executive-driven Acura Integra in several competitions down south, including the Tour de Sol through five New England states, and a combination slalom/road-race/drag-strip/range/pit crew competition in Phoenix, Arizona, and beat several US entries which were designed by professional engineers. It's been gutted and fitted with a rollcage, but otherwise is surprisingly stock: the 100-volt electric motor is even connected to the car's standard five-speed transmission.

Marian Academy Secondary's Asüna Sunfire (an Isuzu Impulse in drag, donated by GM Canada) also competed in Tour de Sol, and unlike Don Bosco's vehicle, is actually street-legal. Built in a short period of time "over twenty-four hour shifts," one student jokes, its sports-car credentials are surprising. It accelerates with gusto, and&emdash;downhill&emdash;hits 170 km/h. If nothing else, it serves to dispel the commonly-held perception of electric vehicles as slow, stodgy slugs of metal.

Still, many hurdles remain. The car's range of 110 km can only be achieved under a constant 20 km/h cruise. Weight is still a big problem&emdash;despite the removal of the car's rear seat and many other non-essential components, it still weighs in at two hundred pounds over the original car's. The brakes and steering don't have power assist.

The major problem with this and any other high-school-run program, though, remains funding. Don Bosco barely had enough cash to go to Phoenix this year; other schools have faced similar fates. Perhaps more importantly, the lack of money also means a low profile for such programs, and discourages other high schools from getting in on the act. A meeting that I attended with the Society had a disappointing turnout&emdash;less than fifteen respondents to a hundred and fifty invitations sent out.

Monte Gisborne, the Society's treasurer, thinks that sponsorships are the way to obtain the necessary cash as well as to raise a program's profile. His own personal project, a converted 120-volt, 130 km/h Pontiac Firefly, was funded by a car dealership and a public utilities commission. He was able to raise $12,000 in three months working in his free time; he figures that high schools, with more time and manpower at their disposal, as well as a greater level of involvement, ought to easily better that.

In a way, it's a shame that more high schools haven't yet clued in on this growing trend. Not only is the work great for students interested in the automotive field&emdash;especially female students, I'm told, as electric cars, by their nature, are quieter, smarter, less overtly macho&emdash;but it's important in an environmental sense too; with the world's gas-powered vehicular population growing at an unprecedented rate, it's clear that something must be done to stem the flow of emissions.

Something at such a grassroots, car-at-a-time level, and especially one that enriches the lives of the young people working on it in so many ways, ought to be given a much better chance to succeed.



For more information:

Howard Hutt, Electric Vehicle Society of Canada, Toronto Chapter

21 Burritt Road, Scarborough ON, M1R 3S5

Phone/Fax 416-755-4324; email hwhutt@pathcom.com


Meetings held on third Thursday of each month except July and August at Centennial College's Ashtonbee Campus, 7:30 PM.


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