Author / Feature Writer
'Ashland man constructs electric powered truck'
July 2006 - The Lake Superior Sounder
It's never exactly been a vacation, but lately, going to the gas pump has turned into a real hair-puller, as gas prices have once again crept above $3 per gallon. If you drive any kind of truck, you're facing at least $50 to fill the sucker. And if the truck's big enough, that should last you...oh, out to Wal-Mart and back. Then it's time for a refill.
These days, we pay for our vehicles twice. Once off the sticker, then again in gasoline, over time.
Employing know-how, the ability to learn, the desire to learn, and a little help from some friends, Warren Kehn has put himself in an enviable position here in Chequamegon Bay: he's fashioned an electricity-powered vehicle out of a 1998 Chevy S-10 pick-up.
That's right - electricity. No smell (on the fingers, or in the air), no shock at the pumps, no gas jockeys to tip. When Kehn's truck runs low on 'fuel' (that is, an electrical charge), he plugs it in overnight and it's ready to go the next morning.
The auto industry has been dabbling in hybrid electric cars for years, but their cars invariably take the shape of an egg, or, in the case of France's 'smart car', a pencil eraser. Nobody wants to drive something like that.
Kehn's project, on the other hand, matches the attractiveness of an American pick-up truck with a sense of environmental awareness, and the results are extraordinary. It's exactly what the auto industry needs to start doing: make electric vehicles look good.
It took Kehn six months to complete the project, which involved ripping out the internal combution engine and replacing it with an electric motor. Since March, when he first got his truck on the road, he's spent less than one dollar in kilowatt hours recharging it. There was surely some up front cost ($5,000 for the truck itself, approximately $7,500 to pull off the conversion), but never has the phrase 'pays for itself over time' been more relevant.
"I chose a pick-up truck primarily because of its payload," says Kehn, who lives south of Ashland with wife Kathy, "simply speaking, this motor runs on a series of 20 6-volt marine batteries, and though ideally you want a smaller, more streamlined vehicle, I figured the truck would be able to handle it best."
The idea first came to Kehn many years ago, reading an article in Mother Earth News about electric cars, at the dawn of such technology and the height of the environmental movement. A retired engineer who worked at Brettings Manufacturing in Ashland for a number of years, Kehn was intrigued, and kept the dream of doing it himself close to his heart for a long time. Recently, he was spurred into action after acquiring a book that laid out in detail just how to do it. This was several years after first reading about it, and Kehn found not only that it was easier than he thought, but the technology to do so was better and more accessible than ever, making it a worthwhile endeavor.
The process, started last November, involved stripping the vehicle down, keeping pretty much only the drive system behind the clutch. Anything that draws power unnecessarily - the AC, the radio - was taken out.
The motor is operated by a series of electrical relays that divide the steady 120-volt current into pulses, which in turn monitor how fast the engine runs. The fewer pulses - that is, the less it is interrupted - the stronger the current, causing the vehicle to move forward. Press the brake, and the current gets divided up and the engine slows down, although, Kehn points out, it can 'idle coast' much further than a standard engine.
For the most part, Kehn's electric S-10 drives just like any other vehicle. It has no power steering, so turning is a struggle, but it's got quite a bit of pep in the low end. The engine is geared for optimum torque, so that at 55 miles per hour, you're still in first gear.
"I don't think I'll ever have occasion to shift into second," Kehn smiles, "unless I'm being chased by somebody."
Kehn says the electric motor and its compononents came with schematics and diagrams that were easier to understand than people might think.
"Electrical components are not my specialty," he says, "we definitely had some trial and error. But the project always seemed to be moving forward because it was easy to figure out."
The phrase 'stripped down' might be misleading. In fact, when the project was over, Kehn had added close to a thousand pounds to the vehicle, mostly in batteries.
Mounting the motor proved to be one of the biggest challenges.
"If I were ever to do this again," he says, "I'd buy a welder and learn how to use it. I'd also find an older vehicle, something from the mid-70s. They don't have computers, which means less wiring and complexity, and they're not made of plastic, like so many of today's vehicles."
Kehn still has a gas-powered vehicle to accommodate some shortcomings of the S-10, among them the fact that it can only run about 60 miles before it needs to be recharged.
He says home-built electric cars are quite prevalent in California, so much so, that filling stations have started offering spots for electric cars to 'fuel up' along roadways.
Kehn is a member of the Electric Automobile Association, a national group, but laments the fact that the nearest chapter is in Illinois. He hopes his efforts are the start of a growing trend in the Midwest, and it would be hard to imagine it not happening. Eventually, our society will have to find more suitable and economical ways to power its vehicles.
About the biggest expense Kehn faces now that the conversion has been completed, is battery replacement. Eventually, all batteries fail, especially those that get charged routinely. To offset this, Kehn never runs his batteries below a quarter charge. He can monitor this on the dashboard. Instead of a gas gauge and speedomoter, he fashioned a 'charge' meter and an 'amp' reader that functions kind of like a tachometer, monitoring amp output rather than RPMs.
"This is a DC electric motor that requires little or no maintenance," he says. "There are very few moving parts, the bearings are sealed, there's no oil to change, no filters. If the ride is the same, why not?"
A question the auto industry needs to start asking itself on a much more serious level.