European startup aims for affordable electric car conversions


In anticipation of strict regulations that may (at least partially) ban fossil-fuel-powered cars from operating within the city limits of many European cities, a French startup, Transition-One, says that it has developed a system to retrofit some of Europe’s most popular vehicles with battery-electric power for about $9400 (8500 euros) retail, or $5600 (5000 euros) after French government subsidies.

While that doesn’t sound inexpensive, Transition-One founder Aymeric Libeau points out that is still a lot less than the cost of a new car. If your daily driver becomes illegal to operate where you need it, you won’t have a lot of choices.

“I’m selling to people who can’t afford a brand new 20,000-euro electric car,” Libeau said while demonstrating his first prototype, a 2009 Renault Twingo, for news agency Bloomberg.

The prototype has a range of 112 miles (180 km). Though that’s less than half of the range of the Renault Zoe (242 miles), it’s close to the ballpark of other urban electrics that are coming to market like the Honda e (124 miles) and the electric Mini SE (144 miles), and should be sufficient for a daily commute in the city.

The package includes an electric traction motor, three battery packs using recycled Tesla cells, and a connected dashboard. A search of Transition-One’s website doesn’t turn up any power or capacity specs on the drivetrain, other than the fact that the battery packs weigh a total of 265 pounds, but the company says it’s aiming for a top speed of about 70 mph (110 kmh).

European car owners are facing some hard choices. In the wake of the 2015 Volkswagen diesel emissions test cheating scandal, and rising concerns about the negative health effects of particulate emissions, some European cities have already taken the first step of banning older diesel-powered cars. Some politicians and industry analysts expect a complete ban on the urban use of combustion powered automobiles on the continent within a decade.

Transition-One’s conversion kit will fit the Citroen C1, Peugeot 107, Fiat 500, Toyota Aygo, Renault Twingo II, and Volkswagen Polo, and takes less than a day to install, though Transition-One is aiming for a four-hour turnaround on retrofitting the cars. The vehicle’s original clutch and transmission is still used, so the motor is likely not a high-torque unit. The fuel filler, as you’d expect, is replaced with a charging port.

Until now, most EV retrofits have involved celebrity one-offs or classic cars, like the electric Jaguar E-Type that Jaguar Classic now offers. Libeau is hoping to raise $6.65 million to build a factory capable of converting up to 4000 cars a year.

Libeau says that he expects French and regulatory approval by the end of 2019. That would be a first for EV retrofitters and necessary for any large-scale conversion operations. Pre-orders, to gauge demand, will start in September.

Markus Lienkamp,  professor of automobile technology at the Technical University of Munich, is skeptical of retrofitting EV power and encourages consumers to keep their fossil fuel powered cars as long as is practical.

“You could technically turn a handcart into an electric car—the question is, does it make sense and how big is the effort?” Lienkamp said. “My advice would be to drive the combustion car as long as it can take, and just buy a new electric car after, because it makes much more sense financially.”

Libeau is undeterred by skepticism. “If the end goal is to cut pollution, all solutions should be on the table,” Libeau said, chauffeuring the Bloomberg reporter through central Paris’ dense traffic. “New cars aren’t enough.”

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