Toyota’s Akio Toyoda has nobled but flawed vision of retrofitted EVs

The idea of EV retrofits is not new. One niche player, EV West in California, sells conversion kits for a handful of classic cars under the Volkswagen Group umbrella ranging from the 1955-1974 Karmann Ghia ($8,734) to the 1965-1986 Porsche 911 ($11,594) to the 1971-1979 VW Super Beetle ($18,695).

Legacy automakers are also in on the action. For example, Ford Motor Co. in 2021 debuted the Ford F-100 Eluminator concept, a pickup styled like a 1978 F-100 and outfitted with two 2021 Mustang Mach-E GT Performance Edition motors. Alongside the concept, Ford announced that customers could buy an Eluminator Mach-E electric motor online or through a dealership. It’s listed at $4,340.

And Toyoda, while unveiling his vision at the Tokyo Auto Salon, showed off a pair of carbon-free concepts derived from Toyota AE86 compact sports cars, one with an EV battery and the other with a hydrogen-combustion system.

These are neat ideas for hobbyists with financial means, but I am having a difficult time seeing this work on a meaningful scale.

For starters, seeing how wary many people are of brand-new EVs with modern technologies and construction, how much consumer appeal is there in taking an aging Corolla or Land Cruiser and making it an EV? Sure, a few people might dig it, but not the masses.

If I am interpreting correctly what Toyoda said — he did not provide a timeline or costs — making a significant impact on air quality would mean converting a big chunk of the approximately 1.5 billion vehicles on Earth.

That would also mean figuring out how to do these conversions at a scale that makes it economically viable for retrofitters and consumers. With today’s battery chemistries, obtaining batteries alone would be an enormously challenging and expensive proposition. Add in the installation costs, and will it be affordable for consumers?

With passenger vehicles coming in all shapes and sizes, how many variations of conversion kits would be needed? Would the vehicles’ bodies and frames need to be in pristine condition for a retrofit, or would they need to be repaired, adding additional expense?

Another consideration is that EV conversions could considerably alter a vehicle’s physical constitution and driving dynamics. If such vehicles showed any promise of becoming a significant portion of traffic, would automakers, dealership service departments, body shops and other retrofitters welcome a heavier regulatory hand from government in the U.S. and abroad?

Perhaps this could be a potential new revenue stream for dealerships looking to replace routine maintenance associated with ICE vehicles. But will there be enough business to justify the time and expense needed to train technicians? And would those dealerships or other retrofitters be exposed to liability if something goes haywire with a customer’s vehicle?

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