Is it worth converting ordinary cars into electric ones? – DW – 10/24/2022

In a workshop in the eastern German city of Erfurt, the diesel engine of a decade-old bus has been removed in preparation for repairs. The new electric motor is waiting to be installed.

“It will be easy, but very high-tech,” says Hans-Georg Herb, CEO of Elerra, a local firm specializing in converting conventional vehicles into electric ones.

In the former engine compartment there is now enough space for batteries.

“We can install eight battery packs with a capacity of about 250 kilowatt hours, which is enough for the bus to travel about 250 kilometers.

Herb says that converting diesel buses to electric is not only technically fascinating, but he also believes it makes economic sense.

Depending on the battery, converting a regular bus to electric costs between €300,000 and €340,000, roughly half the price of a new one.

Herb plans to up his bus conversion game in the next little while. “We want to make three buses this year,” he says, adding that he aims for around 70 by 2023.

Close-up of rear wheel axle in garage
The electric motors for the bus are integrated into the rims of the rear wheel axleImage: Gero Rueter/DW

More e-buses on the road

The EU Clean Vehicles Directive increasing demand for battery-powered buses in urban transport systems. Around 15,000 buses in the EU and 3,000 in Germany will need to be electrified in the coming years, according to some estimates. And major manufacturers are struggling to keep up with demand.

E-buses could save money for transport companies as they require less maintenance. Electric driving is also up to 60% cheaper than using petrol.

Falling battery prices and increasing mass production of components have made converting gasoline cars to electric more attractive.

“I can imagine that more than half the buses that are running now will be converted one day,” says Herb. “If we’re going to manage decarbonisation, we’re not going to do it without this kind of transformation.”

Is it worth remaking cars too?

Replacing internal combustion engines with electric ones is technically possible for all cars. The old engine and gearbox had to be removed to make room for the electrics and batteries. Engineers must develop specific electric power steering systems for each vehicle.

Herb shows off the inside of a vintage 1993 Jaguar that will soon be powered by an electric motor and batteries
This vintage Jaguar from 1993 will soon be powered by an electric motor and batteriesImage: Gero Rueter/DW

The first car Herb converted was a Porsche 911 in 2014. He caught the bug and began transforming even older cars into electronic vehicles before moving on to buses.

A vintage car conversion costs about €60,000, says Herb, pointing to a black 1993 Jaguar Daimler limousine.

“The customer wants to electrify it. In this case, we will use Tesla modules,” says Herb.

Kits to install electronic motors and batteries for vintage cars cost at least 10,000 euros and require more than 100 hours of labor. The technically minded who want to tackle the project themselves can save a lot of money and pay companies like Elerra to simply advise on the process.

But Herb says converting classic cars isn’t worth it economically.

“Retro cars tend not to be driven much, so running costs don’t matter as much. Their conversion is more of a hobby.”

And he has a similar view of smaller regular cars. Herb says he regularly has to advise customers that buying something like a Volkswagen e-Up electric vehicle would be cheaper and better than converting a VW Polo.

“It really doesn’t make sense to convert a VW Polo and I have to stress that point often.”

Electric bus in Germany
More and more cities are putting e-buses on the road and manufacturers can’t keep upImage: Marcus Brandt/dpa/picture alliance

Converting cars for the city

Along with the buses, three new trucks are waiting to be rebuilt in Herb’s workshop. One of them is the Mitsubishi Fuso mini truck, which for now is only available with a regular internal combustion engine.

Herb’s team converted the vehicles into electric four-wheel drives. Each will be supplied with batteries and specially designed software.

“These vehicles are really good for driving in the winter, so we’re working on a small series of electric four-wheelers for the cities,” says Herb.

His workshop is not the only one in Germany or Europe that retrofits ordinary vehicles with electric motors. As European cities work to reduce air and noise pollution and follow new EU climate protection rules, there is plenty of work to do.

Even delivery companies, such as UPS, are increasingly converting conventional vehicles to electric ones.

This article was originally published in German.

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