Keep [and electro-retrofit] Your Car!

5.March 2021

My first car was a hand-me-down Alfa Romeo Spider, a 1978 which I drove until I bought my first BMW in 2000. My idea with the BMW was a fashion move. I wanted that odd metallic pea green color. Before launching an exhaustive search for the color, I needed to choose a model. Test-driving mid-1980s BMWs, I was surprised to find that the “executive” 7-series cornered like the tiny Alfa. I later learned that was because –unlike the 300 and 500 coupes– it was built on a racing chassis.  I fell in love with this car and bought it despite the fact the 7s were not made in that wonderful color.

A few years later this car saved my life when I rolled it off the road into a field with the cruise control set at 70mph. It landed on the driver’s side and I climbed out the sunroof unscathed. The car itself sacrificed only the mirror on that side. No glass broke and although the contour was slightly flattened by sliding to a halt in the field, the mechanisms of the driver's side doors and windows were unharmed. The tow truck uprighted the car, pulled it back onto the road, refilled some fluids, and I drove it home more than 100 miles before delivering it to the garage to be realigned.

Unfortunately the alignment did not survive a drunken boyfriend ramming it head-on into a curb, at which point I bought a second 1984 735i, this one having been recently retired from amateur racing, sporting lowering springs that made the profile extra sexy.

I entrusted this beauty to my father when I set off for a six month world tour that unexpectedly went on for 10 years. He did not like “old things”, and –against my wishes– sold her.  I imagined that as soon as I figured out a place to settle and bought a car, I would just buy another one of these.

In December 2020 I did settle, in Italy, temporarily driving a function-focused 2000 BMW station wagon. Here in Italy, we can leave the house on orange days, but we can only leave the village on yellow days. The colors are pegged to infection rates. The newspapers report the recent statistics for each region so we can anticipate the changes. The Italian news delivered two unwelcome facts: First, that this 2000 vehicle which to me seems very new and which functions perfectly, will soon be illegal to drive into 200 European cities due to its emissions rating. Second, that the Italian government is giving €10,000 incentive to people who send an old car to salvage and buy an electric car. The goal is “to replace the fleet”.

Suddenly I find myself on what seems to be the wrong side of the fight to save the planet. There are two sorts of news about the climate crisis: [1] It’s happening, fast. [2] The rich countries’ governments are evasive and impotent. Suddenly a different sort of news arrives: I am to throw away a perfectly good car. I anticipated that if our governments ever did anything about this problem it would begin with limitations on methods and effluents of industrial production. I did not anticipate that the first step would be to force their entire private populations to buy new cars. Indeed parts of Europe will ban non-electric cars by 2030.

Leaving aside issues related with public transportation, as a political economist who has been studying ecological sustainability since the mid-1990s, I see several serious problems with this approach. The first is that consumer incentives turn out to be a massive subsidy to the same car companies who ignored this problem for too long, who buried the files on electric vehicles since 1906 and ignored a second successful engineering foray by BMW itself in 1972. This is a problem not only because of its perversity, but because taking a stark look at who is benefiting from any particular policy move reveals its fundamental intentions. Is this policy intended to rescue the planet or enrich the car companies through fake obsolescence?

An important aside: Giles Slades’ excellent book on planned obsolescence makes two crucial and relevant points. First, it is against the interests of consumer-goods producers to design products that last. Mr. Ford’s commitment to durability had to be abandoned when Mr. Sloane of GM changed the game. Instead of competing on engineering (in which he was Mr. Ford’s inferior), he innovated the  strategy of “aesthetic obsolescence” in which consumers buy new products at planet-shocking rates purely because they look cool instead of because the old one has irreparably failed. The second form of fake obsolescence is regulatory; massive sales can be induced by proclaiming existing technologies illegal. Note that this doesn’t require actual government participation; it can now be accomplished through the administrative processes of industry standards: Banking security protocols require minimum OS versions which in turn depend on minimum hardware specs. Overnight I must replace my otherwise perfectly adequate smartphone in order to access my bank account.

Fleet renewal schemes are often introduced as a way of stimulating consumer spending and/or assisting car manufacturers and dealers in times of economic duress.”  International Transport Forum

The second problem is that our climate problems are not one-dimensional. Both new car production and car “salvage” operations involve toxic emissions, and the strategy of “replacing the fleet” is a staggering commitment both to materials throughput and the water and energy use and effluents of those processes. Even just considering air emissions, producing an electric car is equivalent to driving a combustion car for 3-5 years. And electric vehicles require lithium, cobalt, and a lot of copper that won’t come from salvage but, as The Guardian, points out have to come from some very problematic mining situations.

There are two more problems, but I’ll get to them in a moment. Right now I am busy with shock and anger. I feel startled and frightened by this news, as I am when e-cars silently creep around the blind corners of the too-narrow-for-sidewalks streets of the village.

I remember admiring the first homebuilt e-cars in California, and the doggedness of their DIY inventors. Then came the opportunity for righteous consumers to invest in and show off their ethics with the hybrids. Then clever strategists sought to impress motorheads by setting speed records with electric vehicles. Then Tesla asserted a luxury market. Ok, all fine. Next step: Ban most families’ cars and “replace the fleet” ?

I’m waking up in the night sad and angry at the loss of my 7s. I do not want one of these plastic new cars whose styleThe Telegraph’s Ed Wiseman rather understates as “increasingly congruous”. Are we really about to “junk” all that quality? Volvos and BMWs and Mercedes with wooden dashboards and leather seats, cars built for engines designed to run a million miles?

Over the years I have wondered aloud “shouldn’t we be converting the existing cars to electric?” Men –regardless of whether they have more or less education than me, or any engineering education whatsoever– are quick to shut me down by telling me “Impossible. They’re too heavy.” But this week I am angry enough to override the truisms and ask Google, who –despite many faults– is not a mansplainer.

My report… Alongside the industry of new e-cars is another growing industry of e-conversion. Like e-cars themselves, this started as homebrew DIY supported by enthusiast online forums like diyelectriccar.com, Then classic car collectors commissioned their mechanics for bespoke conversions. Drawing on these projects as R&D these mechanics developed “kits” for iconic models: VW Bug and Bus, Rolls Royce, mini-Cooper…

Now independent mechanics are starting to specialize in e-conversions – engineering drivetrains, optimizing battery configurations, and reusing parts from crashed Teslas and Leafs. Writing for The New York Times Ray Furchgott reports that the technology is improving so fast that mechanics go back over finished work to upgrade before the project is complete. The consumer market is diversifying into the space between DIY and luxury collector. Companies like London Electric Cars aim to make conversion cheaper than buying a new e-car, pointing out that in metropolises, most drivers do not need a lot of speed or range, which brings down the specs and costs of batteries. Founder Matthew Quitter also points out that “you can convert anything” and most older cars have "a lot of space” (for batteries). In June of 2020, Jesper Thuno, Managing Director of the Danish converter E-Cap Mobility explained on an AVERE webinar that most cars can be converted for around €20,000.

Industry media is emerging, like Retrofit Daily where you can watch timelapse retrofit porn to learn exactly how it’s done. Italy and France are offering €3500-€5000 subsidies for consumer conversions. "The cost of converting a vehicle with an internal combustion engine (gasoline or diesel) into an electrically driven vehicle has become competitive with the purchase of a new electric car." (translated, https://www.ezcar.it) The French AIRe Assocation brings together all the parties interested in retrofitting, including companies focused on systematically repurposing batteries to appropriate industrial uses. In March 2020 AIRe convinced the government to create a "regulatory framework for vehicle conversion”, including safety standards, and recognizing the impacts on job generation.

L’Aventure, the club and conservatory for enthusiasts of Peugeot and Citroën, now launches a conversion program for owners, in partnership with the parent company’s design offices. Retrofuture FRANCE has chosen 15 iconic models and sold 70 in presale in 6 months. They partner with CarJager to source the cars. ElektroFarhzeuge-Stuttgart does fleets. In Italy, Officine Gentile of Torino does conversions as well as restorations. In the US, EV West sells kits for 14 cars.

As for things like “impossible” 7-series and their ilk, one only need consult a matrix to balance one’s priorities among speed, range, weight, and price. In California, Electric GT offers "swap" packages for V8, Straight 6, and 4-cylinder engines, even aestheticized to echo their predecessors and shipped complete with "motors, controllers, charger(s), batteries, sensors, relays and computer systems". These can fit Toyota Land Cruiser, Land Rover, Ford Bronco, Chevy Camaro, and Ford Mustangs – and just to prove their point, they converted a Ferrari. With hydrogen batteries in the final stage of regulatory hurdles, battery weight will not be an issue much longer.

It comes from marine technology, originally. It’s quite a normal thing to do in a marine environment, people upgrade boats all the time. It’s not unusual to see a hull that’s 100 years old with a new engine, and we wanted to start doing the same thing to cars...

When we started this, back in 2008, it was all bespoke. Every car we did was like starting again...Now, it’s getting to the point where it will be a bolt-in solution for many vehicles. We want to get to the point where it’s like a giant Meccano kit. That’s where we're aiming, because if we want to do this at scale, we have to make it incredibly simple.

Kevin Sharpe in "How to put an electric car on your driveway for as little as £900" 1.December 2020 AUTOCAR

Sharpe works for the English branch of Amsterdam company New Electric founded by another visionary in this new industry, Anne Kloppenborg. New Electric converts fleets, tugboats, and heavy equipment in addition to family vehicles.  "This is not just about luxury cars. This Volvo will bring a family in to town.” There’s no need to "build a whole new car for that family who doesn’t move around too much.”

He also feels the need to change the messaging. “A lot of sustainability has been about you can’t do things. Electric meant compromise. If the message is that gas and all combustion engines are bad and they’re polluting, then the message is that people are doing the wrong thing. That is immediately is going to lead to the response that heck no, I didn’t have a choice and now you’re blaming me for stuff...The message really has to be: We all had no choice. We understand.... If there’s a car you love "you can basically drop it off the car and the keys and come back and have her be fully electric. The fuel code will go from B or D to E for electric.”

Anne is not a car collector. His interests are public health (especially regarding the afterburning diesel technology) and making the most efficient transition. "In 2016 we won an award for diesel replacement technology, but our local city council is still running old diesel garbage trucks circles around the playgrounds of our children. Costs compared to what? Let’s not wait until every [piece of heavy machinery] has an electric version. It’s going to take too long. We have so many good vehicles. It’s only their current engine that is the problem. Let’s repower vehicles already on the roads and waterways.”

He goes on to explain that for equipment like a tugboat, repowering is cheaper and faster than building a new one, and creates "a much bigger value-add to our own economy” by employing engineers and mechanics.   (Quotes from Kloppenborg from Now You Know YouTube Channel, "New Electric | EV Drive Trains Conversions!", 16.May 2019.)

Cool as Anne is, my new favorite person is Damien Maguire, an Irish "electronics engineer" who has set out on a one-man expedition "EVBMW" to prove that every BMW can be converted, for as little as €1000 and as quickly as a week. He has converted one BMW in every series from 1 to 8 and explained his methods on his youtube channel.

My anger is abating. I’m refocused on wondering how to buy as many good car bodies as possible and where to put them for a few years while the kits proliferate, mechanics streamline their methods, and countries improve their incentives. And wondering where all the vintage Alfas are, as I have yet to see a single vintage Italian car on the road while living here. This brings me to problem #3, the loss of the automotive aesthetic landscape. We are used to the French harping on about “heritage” and “patrimony"  but American nostalgia cannot really be far behind. Wouldn't we prefer a landscape in which Corvettes and tail-fin Cadillacs still roam? I remember a conversation with a Mercedes dashboard designer. He was telling me about visiting the Lotus factory in England, about car parts being moved in wheelbarrows through the mud and about the incredible artistry at work in the body modelling workshop. Why trash the engineering, craft, workmanship, history, and culture embodied in these vehicles?

The last problem of the new e-car future is the most profound. What kind of jobs are created by “replacing the fleet" and by e-conversion? New car production is being rapidly roboticized, a tragedy for its formerly well-paid and proud workforce which ought to raise skepticism about car companies’ bid for public subsidy of any kind. Furthermore, new cars (alongside new Macs) are designed not to be serviceable by the neighborhood independent mechanic but only by dealerships with proprietary diagnostic machines. Meanwhile the “salvage” cars will either be shipped to the third world (which, er, doesn’t really solve the global emissions problem), or dismantled. Dismantling jobs in heavy equipment such as cars and boats (and in electronics) are often credited as “green” but they are toxic, dangerous, and undesirable. Their invisibility facilitates regulatory ignorance and superexpoitation of workers and ecosystems.

The jobs generated by e-conversion are entirely different. They depend on and generate engaging innovative mechanical work, inviting creativity both from the owners, who have the chance to customize the lightened interiors, and from the mechanics who will fit ever-more-compact battery racks and manage each car’s quirks. “Cognitively-rich” is Matthew Crawford’s conclusion from his intensive study of labor history, motorcycle porn, and satisfying work. The strategy of e-conversion distributes not only the wealth but also the opportunity for meaningful and heroic engineering work among independent mechanics and parts manufacturers.

The process of conversion (DIY)


City Cars