In 1867, eight years after the invention of the lead-acid battery in 1859, the first known personal electric vehicle was debuted at the 1867 Word Exposition in Paris. In 2000, Joe Capowski took his home-built Chevrolet S10 truck for its maiden voyage.
“I’m an electrical engineer,” said Capowski. “I always had two technical dreams, one was to design and build my own house and one was to design and build an electric car. In the year 2000, I left the Chapel Hill Town Council and finally had time to do the electric car. By then, the batteries were good enough.”
The electric car was just a curiosity until 1884, when English inventor Thomas Parker built the first serial-production electric car. Electric vehicles were quickly overshadowed by the relative range and price of cars with gasoline-powered engines, but the energy crises of the 70s and 80s renewed public interest in “alternatively powered” private transportation. This interest was short-lived, as gas lines disappeared and prices normalized, but the story of the electric car is closely tied with “crises” in the sale of fossil fuels. A brief revival took place in the early 90s, but nonexistent sales and suspicions of collusion between automakers and the oil industry quashed hope for an electric future.
Fuel prices once again fell, and SUVs became the preferred transportation of Americans. Again-rising gas prices of the early 2000s made the Toyota Prius the best-selling hybrid vehicle in the United States, representing 48 percent of market share of total hybrid sales in the U.S. since 1999. While hybrid vehicles experienced a relative “golden age,” full-electric vehicles were largely relegated to low-range cars designed for short hops around urban environments and not classified as “highway legal.” When Tesla Motors began development on the Tesla Roadster in 2004 and began delivering to customers in 2008, public perception of the electric vehicle began to change.
The Tesla Roadster was the first highway legal electric car to use a lithium-ion battery, and the first all-electric car to travel over 200 miles on a single charge. Shattering preconceived notions of electric vehicle range and on-road performance, the Tesla Roadster was “the crowbar that helped break up the log jam,” according to Bob Lutz, vice-chairman of GM. Now we see the Chevrolet Volt and Spark, the Nissan Leaf, and there will be more all-electric vehicles to come.
“Electric motors are absolutely perfect for transit,” said Capowski. “Trains, cars, or trucks. It automatically has the most amount of power when you need it the most, which is starting. It really doesn’t take much power to maintain speed at 50 miles per hour.”
Capowski’s electric truck, complete with “ELEC CAR” vanity plate, is driven by a 19 horsepower electric motor. But don’t let that small number of horses discourage you in an era where the average car often possesses over 100 hp.
“Don’t even try and compare the horsepower of an electric motor to [the horsepower of] a gasoline engine,” said Capowski. “You use an electric motor differently from how you use a gasoline engine. A gasoline engine has no torque at zero speed, so you have to have some system to let the engine begin at a fairly high speed and then engage the load. In other words, have the clutch engage and have the rear tires engage, and the vehicle goes. An electric motor is just the opposite. It has its maximum torque at zero speed.”
Obviously, horsepower isn’t the only concern when it comes to acceleration. The power-to-weight ratio of a vehicle has the largest role to play in performance and overall efficiency. When Capowski was first building his truck, lead-acid batteries were the only practical solution.
“Finding a place to put the batteries is the hardest job,” said Capowski. “The batteries fit well underneath the bed of the truck … there were 20 lead acid batteries that weighed a total of 1,000 pounds.” The current iteration of Capowski’s “ELEC CAR” gets its juice from a bank of lithium-ion batteries that weighs just 400 lbs.
“We removed all the gasoline components,” said Capowski. “The gasoline engine, the exhaust … with the lead acid batteries the truck was actually about 450 lbs heavier than originally it was with a gas engine. Now, it’s lighter than it was by about 200 lbs.”
The road from idea to execution was a long one for Capowski, and the build wasn’t without challenges. Luckily, there were resources available in the form of the Triangle Electric Auto Association and the Triad EV Association. These organizations provide expert advice and assistance from people who have done these sorts of conversions before. As the saying goes; measure twice, cut once. Unexpectedly (or expectedly, depending on your point of view) it was the NC DMV that caused the most headaches.
Capowski bought the truck in 1997, knowing that he was going to convert it. It had a gasoline engine, and around 100,000 miles on it. After a couple years of tinkering in the garage, the truck finally made it out onto the open road. Of course, travelling legally on state roads means submission to registration inspections.
“I took it into Chapel Hill Tire, where I had taken cars for quite a few years,” said Capowski. “The state inspection is run by a technician, but it’s directed by a computer … It came to a point in the program where the technician had to answer this question: How many cylinders are in the truck? He asked me ‘how many cylinders are there?’ and I said ‘none’ … It passed the safety inspection, I paid my nine dollars, and I thought ‘that was easy.’ Right? Wrong.”
About four months later, Capowski got a “nasty letter” from the DMV, essentially saying that he had been avoiding the emissions test and to immediately take his car to a specific inspection point at the Orange County DMV. Capowski did so, filled out the appropriate paperwork, and got his truck registered through a specially requested form. The story doesn’t end there, however. Roughly a year and a half later, Capowski was pulled over for having an expired inspection sticker, which meant another trip to the DMV. After standing in line and producing the same paperwork, Capowski was informed that his truck was registered as having a “diesel engine.” Another personal inspection confirmed that the truck was indeed all-electric, and Capowski was once again sent on his way. But that isn’t the end of Capowski’s troubles with the State of North Carolina.
“About three years ago, our North Carolina legislature realized that there were starting to be a substantial number of electric vehicles or hybrid vehicles on the road,” said Capowski. “The owners of electric vehicles don’t buy gasoline and therefore do not pay the North Carolina gasoline tax, which I understand is the principle component of paying for road maintenance for state-owned roads in North Carolina. So they passed a law that there will be a $100 charge on all electric vehicles in North Carolina in addition to the regular registration fees and taxes.”
Despite the registration woes of trying to work an electric vehicle through the DMV system in a time when electric vehicles were exceptionally rare and the issues tied up in lawmaking for a class of vehicles vastly underrepresented until now, Capowski remains optimistic for the future, and will keep driving forward.
“I take pride in driving something I made, though I had a lot of help,” said Capowski.
Audio by Steph Beckett