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Electric SUVs: A smaller footprint for big vehicles

Converting existing gas-guzzling trucks and SUVs into hybrid and electric vehicles gains traction.

By Staff Writer for the Christian Science Monitor / November 4, 2009

Dan Vasconcellos

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Tom Reid likes his ride big – a 2000 Ford Explorer SUV with plenty of interior room and all the amenities. None of those prissy little hybrid vehicles will do for him.

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But after gas hit $4 a gallon last year, Mr. Reid had a big fuel bill, too – and an epiphany: convert his gas guzzler to an all-electric vehicle.

So he did. Now Reid’s bright idea has become a sideline business for his shop, HTC Racing, which produces specialized protective coating for automotive and other metal parts in Whitman, Mass. He offers kits to convert any 1995-2004 gas-sucking Ford Explorer into a cheap-to-keep, no fuel, little maintenance all-electric SUV. Cost: $15,000.

He admits that the idea may be “ahead of its time.” Reid has yet to sell a single kit. With gas at only $2.50 a gallon, the conversion cost is too much for even SUV-loving die-hards. But if gasoline prices soar again, Reid says he’ll be ready – and he won’t be alone either.

Converting America’s vast existing fleet of gas-guzzling SUVs and pickup trucks into electrified vehicles is an idea percolating among policy wonks, start-up companies, and fleet owners such as FedEx and the US Postal Service.

Despite all the hoopla over Detroit’s move to make plug-in hybrid and all-electric vehicles, there’s a need for a speedier US shift away from oil in order to enhance energy security and slow the buildup of carbon in the atmosphere, says a small but growing chorus.

President Obama has set a goal of 1 million plug-in vehicles on the road by 2015. But with 260 million cars, SUVs, and light trucks on the road today, new electrified vehicles won’t arrive in sufficient volume to yield a significant benefit on reducing US carbon dioxide emissions or oil consumption for at least 15 years, says Felix Kramer, cofounder of the California Cars Initiative, an advocacy group that promotes plug-in electric-gas hybrid vehicles.

What that means is that conversions will be needed – and the best place to start is with gas guzzlers, Mr. Kramer says .

They point out that even if all new cars sold in America were electric by 2030, they would only represent a third of US vehicles.

“We’re happy automakers are changing – but new plug-in vehicles sales can’t do the job alone or anytime soon,” he says. “It’s clear [new plug-ins] will initially be a drop in the bucket. So we have to change over existing vehicles – we need conversions.”

A big part of the problem is vehicle longevity. It takes 15 to 17 years for a typical vehicle to go from showroom to junkyard crusher – and sometimes longer for SUVs, pickup trucks, and vans that have sturdier frames.

In the scenario where 100 percent of new car sales are plug-in hybrid vehicles by 2030, US oil consumption would fall by just 21 percent and carbon emissions by 15 percent because of the millions of remaining gasoline cars, estimates a California Cars Initiative white paper.

But with an active conversion program that included tax incentives, the number of plug-in vehicles would roughly double to about two-thirds of the fleet by 2030. That would produce a 36 percent cut in oil use and a 25 percent chop in CO2 emissions.

The reason to focus on gas guzzlers rather than gas sippers is the much bigger benefits from electrifying them. When Kramer of the California Cars Initiative converted his Toyota Prius hybrid into a plug-in hybrid with more electric power – the car went from 50 miles per gallon up to 100 m.p.g. But the United States could save far more, he says, if it converted existing pickup trucks that get 15 m.p.g. to vehicles that can go 30 to 40 miles on a charge before shifting to gas.