Today more than ever, the electric car market is reaching new heights. Over the last decade, fluctuating oil prices, international pressure to curb carbon emissions, and upgrades in battery technology have all led to a renaissance in electric car manufacturing.

But unfortunately many electric vehicle models still come at a higher price point that those with internal combustion engines. Although experts do not expect this price disparity to last long, you can still make electric vehicles more affordable by taking matters into your own hands. We’re talking, of course, about building your own!

Yup, that’s right. Today, building electric cars has never been easier or more affordable. But like most people, you’re probably questioning whether you have what it takes. After all, electric cars are not exactly low-tech machines.

But we’ve put these doubts to bed for you. Since we love seeing the electric vehicle community grow, we put together a hands-on guide to building electric cars. You’ll be surprised to find it’s so easy, just about anyone can do it. So read on, and find out more about how to make your own all-electric vehicle that can compete with the best on the market.    

The Electric Vehicle Explosion

What seemed like science fiction technology only a decade ago now seems posed to replace the traditional vehicle market. In 2018, over one million highway-legal electric cars have been sold around the world with the Nissan Leaf and the Tesla Model S leading the charge.

Despite the lack of recharging infrastructure required for electric cars to compete with their combustion engine counterparts, they are quickly gaining traction. Leading the way are new models by Tesla Motors, Nissan, and General Motors that seek to disrupt the fossil fuel-intensive combustion automobile industry. And more manufacturers, like vacuum cleaner giant Dyson, intends to throw their hat in the ring too.

The near-constant growth of the electric vehicle industry is showing no signs of stopping, either. In fact, one of the latest estimates by Energy Innovation: Policy and Technology indicates that electric cars will likely compose over 75% of the total automobile market in the United States by year 2050. Above all, this explosive growth is due to sharply declining electric vehicle costs.

Recent EV Innovations

Most of the industry’s growth has been brought about by a welcoming policy environment, which includes many government subsidies for the purchase and manufacturing of electric cars. However, aside from this a good deal of growth has been caused by innovations in battery research and general advancements in electric technologies.

You may be wondering where exactly these innovations have taken place. To answer this, we’ve got to get a little technical. But luckily for you, electric cars science is not all that complicated.

Thanks to some serious new hardware introduced by Tesla Motors, new lithium-ion batteries have caused electric vehicles’ range to expand drastically. Tesla’s Model S has a range of 265 miles compared to the less-than-impressive 75 mile range of the Nissan Leaf. This has single handedly dropped consumers “range anxiety” and, in turn, driven higher adoption.

To pull this off, Tesla Motors has manufactured new small lithium batteries roughly the size of household AA batteries. These line up row-by-row along the underbelly of Tesla’s cars. Although they come at a higher cost since you have to utilize more of them, they allow the vehicle to access far more energy than large cell batteries.

It all comes down to battery science. The more powerful and energy efficient the battery, the cheaper and better the electric car. And thanks to rapid advancements by Tesla’s battery innovation partners, A123 Systems and the U.S. Department of Energy, it seems that this trend of revamping the industry will continue as innovations become more and more regular.

How Electric Cars Are Made

At this point, there are many questions that might weigh on a DIYer’s mind. How are electric cars made? From where can I source the necessary parts? Do I need to have a PhD in electrical engineering?

The answers to these questions are not as difficult as they might seem. Essentially, you only need to know the absolute basic steps and processes in order to understand how electric cars are made. From there, you will have a clear template to work with when making your own.

Building electric cars is made possible only by first understanding how they work inside and out. So let’s start by reverse engineering a standard electric car.

The battery powers the drivetrain system and is the most crucial component to any electric car. This battery is connected to an on and off switch that is attached to the motor which, in turn, controls the wheels. An electric current travels between the motor and the gearbox to power the wheels. To recharge, the motor needs to be connected to a power source or exposed to sunlight if it comes equipped with a solar collector.

Once the battery is constructed, then it comes down to frame construction. Basically, the metal frame is welded together to house the battery at the bottom, and an electric steering mechanism is then added. Lastly, power-assist brakes are added into the design. They are then installed and tested before being sent on to a dealership. As a general overview, this is how electric cars are made.

The DIY Electric Car

While having its share of up-front costs, building electric cars can be a fun and super rewarding hobby that doesn’t have to break the bank. Thankfully, building an electric car is achievable due to vast cost reductions in the technologies that go into an electric car. Here’s a quick guide to retrofitting your own clunker and turning it into a snazzy, carbon-free electric vehicle.

First, find an old car that is in good working order. We find that late 1990s to early 2000s BMW models work excellently. Volkswagens from the same time period also make for easy electrical outfitting too. Both of these can be bought from your local scrapyard for a super-low price.

After finding your car, you have to remove the combustion engine and anything else gasoline related. This is one of the biggest hassles involved, and might require some oversight from a mechanic. Once you’ve unbolted all the components under the hood, as well as the exhaust and muffler, you can take out the engine and sell them to recoup some of the costs put into the project.

Then, purchase an adapter plate and coupler and install them perfectly center where the engine used to be housed. The adapter and coupler are necessary for taking the original transmission and connecting it to the new flywheel. Again, oversight from a mechanic may be wise here as precision measurement is of the utmost importance.

Once the adapter and coupler are attached, you can either solder your own controller unit or purchase one off an online vendor such as EV West. Just make sure that your control board matches that base model car that you’re using (this is an all-too-common mistake!).  

Almost done! Next, you have to purchase an electric motor. You can find some used electric motors for as little as $100, so be patient when shopping around to find the right deal. Once the new motor is hooked up, you need to power it with batteries. For a 72V system, we recommend 6 x 12V batteries. A welded-on metal tray will be necessary to hold them.

Lastly, check out a boating store for a charger power inlet. Basically, you’re looking for a male electrical connection with a cover to replace the gas tank. A good one will use a regular old extension cord for plugging the car in with. One the car is all charged up, make sure you get the car looked at and approved by your local DMV (just to be on the safe side, of course).

Voila, you now have a low-budget electric car. As far as extra components go, you may want to invest in a reliable heater to keep under the hood. You wouldn’t want your battery to freeze in the cold weather, would you? After that is taken care of, you’ve got yourself an electric car with components that can cost as little as $1000. No PhD or sci-fi technology required!

Quick Rundown

Short on time? Check out these basic steps to start your DIY electric car journey.

  • Check out your local junkyard for an old clunker with a good transmission
  • Remove the engine and all gasoline-related components
  • Purchase and install the appropriate adapter and coupler parts
  • Purchase and install a controller unit that fits your car’s base model
  • Head back to the junkyard for a cheap electric motor
  • Buy 6 x 12V batteries and a metal tray to house them under the hood
  • Buy a power inlet for recharging and install this where the gas tank used to be
  • Bust out an old extension cord for nightly charging, connect it to the power inlet

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