Tom Wicker’s electric car can go farther and faster than you may have thought
When his wife first started attending meetings of the Electric Auto Association of Northern Nevada, Tom Wicker thought, “Well, you can’t go very far in an electric vehicle because of the batteries. It’s not practical.”
He, like many, envisioned electric vehicles as small, golf cart-looking contraptions moving around town at about 30 miles per hour before needing a recharge after 15 to 35 miles. That’s been the reputation of EVs running off lead acid batteries, a common battery choice for EV conversion projects. Then Wicker discovered that some batteries—lithium ion ones—can hold more energy than he thought. They cost more than lead acid batteries but are expected to last roughly 10 years rather than three to five for the lead variety.
After about a year of research, the semi-retired electrical engineer with a masters in physics converted his 2001 Suzuki Swift to an all-electric vehicle in about four months. Now he’ll be presenting to the EAANN himself at their Feb. 25 meeting. He’ll describe how, for about $20,000, he created an electric vehicle that he says can go 60 miles before needing a recharge, which he does through the solar panels on his roof during off-peak hours at night. And while EVs loaded with lead acid batteries typically have to steer clear of freeways, Wicker’s Suzuki Swift can go up to 90 mph, keeping up just fine with other vehicles. During a test drive, he puts the key in the ignition and turns on the car—though you’d hardly know it since it makes no sound upon starting. He accelerates and then, with the car whirring, heads onto Reno’s side streets and out onto the freeway, capably handling steep declines and upward slopes alike, and with a better pick up than many gas-powered vehicles.
You can’t buy a car like this in America yet. The all-electric Nissan Leaf, a five-passenger sedan with a 100-mile range and an expected price of around $30,000, is due to hit American driveways by this December. For now, however, you have to either convert a car to electric yourself or hire someone to do it for you. But you may not want one. Many people experience what Wicker calls “range anxiety.” The typical driver rarely travels more than 60 miles per day, and much of that is around town. But when a longer journey is in order, an EV like Wicker’s won’t cut it, especially given the lack of charging stations in Nevada. (More are in California and Oregon. The Department of Energy provides a map of charging stations at www.afdc.energy.gov/afdc/fuels/electricity_locations.html.) And not everyone can afford to spend thousands converting to or buying an electric vehicle and also have a second car as a back up.
“I think what most people will want is a hybrid,” says Wicker. That way, their around-town driving can be done with electric power, but they’ll have the cushion of gas power for longer trips. “That’s a good solution. You can cut emissions tremendously that way.”
Wicker notes that while he chose a small, lightweight vehicle to convert for reasons of efficiency, larger cars can be electric, too. But they require more batteries and a bigger motor, making for a more costly conversion.
“The main point is you can do all your daily driving with an electric vehicle with a 60-mile range or a plug-in hybrid with a similar range,” says Wicker, “and you can do that right now.”