It’s nice to have the support, but why not convert too?

Today’s post has been rattling around in my head for the past week or so after a couple of comments to previous posts I’d made really got me thinking along with some really intense discussions with various EVers this week. Big thanks to Joe Lado, my good friend Pyoor Kate and Andrew Bissell for getting me thinking. What about? Well, about the future of plug-ins in the UK.

See, it’s long been my thought that EV conversions have to play a part in the future of plug in vehicles. How else are we going to get the 33 million or more vehicles on the roads of the UK switched to greener fuels? Scrapping them all isn’t an option. At £2,000 per pop, (in a scheme similar to those held in Germany and Ireland) I simply don’t see the money being there. Someone would have to fund it. As Pyoor Kate put it when I chatted to her earlier today, £2,000 to force coerce people into scrapping working vehicles to switch to newer vehicles may be a great idea on the face of it, but what if those vehicles don’t need replacing. What if they’re mechanically pretty sound?

Not all old cars should end up like this. They could become plug ins!!!
Not all old cars should end up like this. They could become EVs!

Photo by Ekai

Details of a better deal for encouraging EV and PHEV takeup after the jump

Let’s not forget that since the mid 1990s the quality of all but the cheapest of car brands has become so good that cars rarely fail the MOT (the yearly UK road-worthiness test that most vehicles – save some rather strange exceptions – over the age of 3 years have to take) on severer rust problems. They’re more likely to fail on emission problems caused by failing catalytic converters or high-mileage engines. Until the start of 2007, my partner Kate was running a 1992 Honda Prelude. The bodywork was excellent and there was very little sign of rust damage. While the body looked great the engine had started to show signs of wear at 140,000 miles. The trim was starting to look tired. And we’d had to replace parts of the suspension. As it stood, it wasn’t worth spending money on to get the engine running sweetly. So we traded in for a more practical car – our first Prius.

But wait! If that car had been a little more practical, say a five seat family car rather than a two plus two sports coupe we could have actually kept it and converted it. The prelude could have quite easily become a fast EV coupe. It would have cost more than your regular conversion, thanks to the complex Honda electronics. But it could have been possible.

Let’s look at a more mainstream car. Take the Ford Focus. It’s a car I’m not all that fond of, but along with the Ford Mondeo, Vauxhall Vectra and Vauxhall Astra it’s a mainstay of the motorway. Thousands upon thousands of them ferry sales reps up and down the country to appointments, getting hammered all the way and treated like the company car trash they are. But once these cars get a few years old (or perhaps 20 thousand miles or so) they are often sold on to families looking for cheaper vehicles which they can use as a family car. They keep it a few years and then pass it on, very often because they want a newer model. But stop a second. The families who look for a bargain, the ones who end up buying a used high-mileage ex rep’s car to help the family budget, are just the type of people who would take a £2,000 government grant to scrap an older car and buy a new one. Good vehicles get scrapped unnecessarily.

As Andrew pointed out in his comment yesterday to my post, the Governmental plans to subsidy the purchase of EVs and PHEVs in 2011 onwards don’t really go very far when you examine the vehicles which will qualify (none of the current electric vehicles currently on the market qualify, and no qualifying vehicles exist yet). It’s easy to pledge future funds to help people buy vehicles which aren’t even made yet. It’s harder to pledge money to help the growth of a whole industry dedicated to building and converting plug ins today.

Andrew also pointed out some very valid points about the scheme announced yesterday. Namely that very few people will buy a plug-in vehicle before 2011 because they know they may get up to £5,000 off after that date. Which means that either car manufacturers will have to wait until 2011 to bring models to market, or that for the next two years we’ll be in a strange limbo where sales of plug in vehicles crawl along while very few people step up to the plate to spend more money to be the first in line. Not a good place to be when companies like Mitsubishi plan to launch the iMiev in late 2009…

Wouldn’t it be better though, if the scheme started now? Wouldn’t it be better if the government helped support companies developing plug-in conversion kits as well as those wanting to buy a new plug in?

Let’s go back to the Ford Focus. At my wonderful EVADC meal on Monday night, Joe Lado and myself had a long chat about the future of EVs. I batted some ideas around with him about how I felt conversions were essential to the success of plug ins. What if a company could be supported by the government to design a replacement power unit for popular cars like the Focus (however boring I feel they are I have to acknowledge that there’s lots of them – and that means a chance of making a profit) and patent a design of ‘drop it in’ conversions. Sure, fabrication is always going to be needed, but given enough demand, a governmental-supported conversion company could get it down to a fine art. Drop off your car on a Friday afternoon and pick it up on Monday morning as a fully functioning EV or PHEV.

£2,000 to scrap a decent car, or £5,000 to help convert your existing car to a plug in. That’d be less waste than scrapping and buying a new one. Not only that, but people would probably feel more comfortable driving a converted vehicle they knew rather than some wacky design they didn’t. I’m not saying that all new plug ins are going to look bizare, but there are at least going to be some people who won’t like them. A state-sponsored conversion campaign would help people to keep the cars they liked and drive cleanly.

If state-supported conversions were offered as pure EV conversions, Plug in hybrid conversions or perhaps even flex fuel conversions then the takeup would be much higher. (American company Netgain Motors, makers of the famous Warp Motors used in DIY conversions world-wide, have already patented an in-line PHEV conversion system for rear-wheel drive ICE cars and are planning a front-wheel drive version – I’m trying to convince PyoorKate to get one.) Supporting the public to enable them to convert would be a better way of operating than constricting and shoehorning people into reluctantly changing. A combination of the two may just work.

We also do need the new EVs and PHEVs. They need the tax-breaks and the government’s support to ensure that they can produce high-quality vehicles to help fuel the revolution. Every avenue needs to be covered. At the moment, the UK government seems to be focusing on a very narrow band on the plug in market and the potential plug in market.

Now let’s focus on hybrids.

The UK firm Amberjac will convert your Prius for you to a plug in hybrid. Sadly you won’t have much change from £12,000. That’s not going to encourage people to convert when the regular Prius costs £20,000 new. But let’s envisage a new future. The new Prius launches, and offers a plug-in from new. Some customers will go for that. But that’s only really catering to the top n% of the population who buy a new car. It leaves everyone else out in the cold. Those who are willing and able to pay the huge price of depreciation as their new car pulls out the dealer’s lot will be fine with the governmental grant for new EV tech. But those who can’t afford a new car – £5,000 grant or no, will need a solution. What if those people were able to buy a Prius second-hand like I did (at under 1/2 the new price) and then convert it for £2,000 to a plug in. Admittedly, my conversion cost £2,000 because I did it myself. Let’s be generous and allow that £5,000 for a company-based conversion. Give used car buyers the option to convert to a plug in with the £5,000 grant. That would work, just like doing the same with an EV kit.

So, what do we learn from this? We still need to push for more. More support, more infrastructure, more buying power and support for both the NEW plug in industry as well as those who support the many thousands of plug in conversions worldwide. Keep writing your letters. Keep supporting. Keep going.

Until everyone has a chance to own a plug in there’s still more work to be done…