Thursday, April 10, 2003
Local man helps build electric car movement one vehicle at a time
By Heidi Walters
Bill Kuehl's a slowpoke, driving down the road at a comfy 35 mph in a 45 mph zone. Cars rush past on the left, fly by on the right. Nobody honks, but you can imagine their curses, their profound wishes that he move aside, speed up, get with the times.
Thing is, Kuehl's actually way ahead of his time--has been ever since 1980 when he converted a gas-drinking Pinto into an electric chariot. Today he drives a small white pickup that a senior class at Clark High School converted to electric 10 years ago as a science project. The 1995 GMC Sonoma was donated to the class by Nevada Power Co., whose employees then drove it for 18,000 miles. Last year the company auctioned it off, and Kuehl bought it. The student mechanics followed a formula that Kuehl, president of the Las Vegas Electric Vehicle Association, had worked out some 10 years before. And though Kuehl can bring the 120-volt truck up to freeway speed any time he wants to, he doesn't need to.
"I'm kind of economical in driving it," he says. "I'm going down the road, and I see these SUVs coming behind me, and the light turns red and so I take my foot off the pedal and coast. But these guys in the SUVs gun past me. I want to make up a sign: `Hurry up and pass me fast, waste your gas, and you get to stop first at the stop sign.' The way the price of gas is, people should be driving more economically. But they don't. They do jackrabbit starts, race to the stop sign and then idle for two minutes."
That's right. With gasoline prices the way they are, and war raging in oil-rich Iraq, people oughta be taking notice of alternative-fuel cars. Reports in local papers tell us they are: Sales of the hybrid gas/electric Toyota Prius and Honda Insight have gone up in recent weeks, say local car dealers.
But we get mixed messages: Over in California, the state that sets progressive-consumer trends for the rest of the country, the state air resources board is considering easing up on its zero-emission vehicle rules that require auto makers to build and sell a certain number of electric vehicles per traditional gas vehicles. Instead, the auto industry could get credit for offering low-emission gasoline-electric hybrids. But California being California, the citizenry raised a big enough stink that a March 27-28 hearing ended at an impasse and the air board retreated to reconsider its options.
Hybrids are fine, says Kuehl, and will become more popular. But he sees them as a transition to, not from, the all-electric car. And the zero-emission hydrogen fuel cell car is still a long way off.
True, present-day all-electrics aren't perfect. They're in-town cars, and will remain so until the industry steps up to improve the technology. But even with a pack of heavy duty 6-volt golf cart batteries, Kuehl says he's been able to go as far as 100 miles on one charge in one of his electric cars. His truck, which has 20 6-volt batteries, can go up 40 to 60 miles a day on one charge. Then it takes six to eight hours to recharge it. For him, that's no problem--and it shouldn't be for most drivers, he says.
"The average person has this mindset where he thinks he needs to be able to go 300 miles a day," Kuehl says. "But how often do most people really do that?"
Kuehl says if he needs to get to, say, Los Angeles, he can afford to rent a gasoline-powered car, or fly, with the savings he's achieved by driving his battery car. "I did a survey one year," he says. "I had a '74 Ford Pinto I had converted to electric, and my wife had a '73 gas-fueled Pinto. It cost her about $1,200 a year to operate that car. For me, to recharge the batteries cost me $150 a year. And I had no repairs."
Every two to three years, Kuehl replaces the battery pack in his truck. That costs about $900, he says. A conversion costs from $6,000 to $8,000.
"It's kind of expensive to outlay all this money to convert a car," he says. "But you have to look at the long term."
You also don't need a brand-new car. Or to confine yourself to grandpa speeds. Even Kuehl likes to go fast sometimes--he has an '85 Pontiac Fiero he converted to electric in 1991 that he drag races head-to-head with the spiffed-out gas hogs.
"Years ago, a guy come over--he'd seen my car, and he says he was one of the engineers working for GM when this Fiero design come out in '84," Kuehl says. "They had an electric Fiero design, but they scrapped it. And this guy, he says he just had to see what I'd done. It cost me $4,500 to convert over. He said, if GM could do this in volume, it'd probably cost $1,000 per car."
But so far the auto industry hasn't had prolonged incentive to defy the oil barons on a large scale, though there are signs that the oil industry is losing its grip.
Take the current gas spikes. It was just such an event that made Kuehl go electric. "In the '70s, the price of gas was 32 cents a gallon," he says. "Then they had the oil embargo, and gas began spiraling up to $1.45 and $1.50--you know, I'm sittin' in a gas line one day, where you go up one car at a time and everyone's sittin' there burning gas. And I thought, I've got to figure out how to drive a car without spending so much money on gas."
Now, each of the hundred or so people Kuehl has helped convert cars from gasoline to electric may turn around and helped another 50 or more do the same. There's even a company that now makes parts for electric car conversions. Like that, the fever spreads.
"It's like cell phones," Kuehl says. "Years ago, when they come out, I was saying, `What the hell do I need a cell phone for?' But it evolved from somebody who had one, and now everywhere you go, you see everyone on one, yacking away."