With pressure increasing to reduce use of fossil fuels, car companies plan to stop producing combustion engines and cities ratchet up vehicle emission restrictions. Many European cities have determined to ban combustion engines as early as 2030. Italy boldly urges citizens to “replace the fleet”, offering €10,000 incentives for sending your old car to salvage and buying a new electric car.
As car companies are embracing electric designs, electric vehicle technology (some of it pulled from e-wrecks) travels through a parallel industry. Independent mechanic are retrofitting cars, boats, and even airplanes. DIY amateurs document proofs on Youtube: that no car is too heavy or too full of electronics, that conversions can be done for less than $1000 in parts, or can be done in only a week … Meanwhile small engineering companies push forward technology for batteries and hydrogen fuel cells, controllers, and drive trains.
For mechanics, conversion is no longer a staggeringly expensive and time-consuming bespoke project for wealthy car collectors, but a new product aimed at regular people who just like their cars. By focusing on selected models, a small garage can capitalize on their experience (aka R&D), and offer kits as well as affordable conversion services.
While car manufacturers design to impress their markets that electric cars can be fast, luxurious, and masculine, retrofitters encourage car-owners to consider their personal use-case, reducing costs by optimizing between range, speed, and car size. If most of your trips are short and you don’t need to drive over the speed limit, you could be doing it in a used Citroën, Jaguar, or Cadillac for less than the price of a new electric car.
Regardless of how you balance your priorities, all conversions will dramatically reduce repair and fuel bills, create a pleasurable driving experience, and, of course, curtail emissions. In fact, a conversion is a far more planet-friendly choice, as building a new car causes the equivalent pollution to 3-5 years of combustion-engine driving.
But the most dramatic difference between purchasing a new e-car and retrofitting an existing car is what it means for jobs and small and medium sized businesses. New cars are increasingly built by robots, and require branded diagnostic machines for repair. Parts are supplied by an ecosystem of smaller engineering and manufacturing innovators and retrofits can be installed (and upgraded later on) by local mechanics. As Matthew Crawford painstakingly argues in his 2006 treatise on labor history, motorcycle repair, and satisfaction, the work of auto mechanics is “cognitively rich”, especially when in service to what they consider to be “a life well lived” – or, we might say “a life well driven”.
In my case that means a mid-1980s BMW 7-series, a luxury model which takes corners like a race car, but also saved my life when I rolled it off the road into a field with the cruise control set at 70mph. Then, undaunted and uprighted, sacrificing only the driver’s side mirror, it continued its elegant service.
With retrofitting, driving the diversity and heritage of automotive design is no longer just for deep-pocketed collectors. It’s a choice we can all make – a choice that supports local businesses and entrepreneurial innovators, and an opportunity for personal auto-style.
To learn more, visit my research page.