Ben Nelson, known on the site without the space between his names, tinkers with motorized vehicles. That, in and of itself, is awesome. But Ben takes things several steps further than even the most ardent hobbyist mechanic. He has converted several vehicles to electricity. That's right. While the major automakers are frantically trying to meet new environmental conditions, Ben's done the work. In his garage. And he's been nice enough to share his journey here on Instructables and on his own website 300mpg.org.
How did you get started with Instructables?
I had to go back into my account settings to see! I've been a member since December of 2007.
I had been wandering around the internet a bit before that. My first real DIY project was a homebuilt camping trailer. I had never done anything like that before. I stumbled on a web page for people who made their own "Teardrops & Tiny Travel Trailers" and was hooked. I ordered a set of plans on how to build one and went from there. When I started, I was following the plans "to the T", and by the end of the project, everything I was doing was custom. It was the first time I realized how AMAZING it can feel to try something new and really take pride in the finished results. I've been hooked on DIY ever since.
After that, I started work on an electric motorcycle. I blogged about that project on several DIY sites. Not long after that project, I found INSTRUCTABLES through links from some of the other sites. Finally, a site where a person can show off and teach about what they have done! I really liked that it was so inclusive - it wasn't JUST a 'modded car site or a cooking site or an electronics site. It was a real place for somebody to show off their variety of projects.
By that time, I had been riding my electric cycle for an entire summer, and was starting to get pretty sick of people saying "Loud pipes save lives", or some variation on that. "I'll show them, I'll show them all!" screamed the evil mad scientist in my head as I hooked up an iPod to some old battery-operated speakers. My very first Instructable was on how to add sound effects to an electric motorcycle. Not only could my cycle be nearly silent, it could also sound just like a Harley, a 50cc, or the George Jetson Flying car. I showed it to a bunch of Harley guys once. They liked it. I heard one guy mumble under his breath, "Wish my bike could do that…"
What's your experience with electric vehicles? How did you get into it?
Electric Vehicles are pretty amazing. Believe it or not, I got into them because of all the crumby cars I have driven in the past. My first car ever was a Geo Spectrum. It was great - it got exactly 47 miles per gallon, no matter what and the entire thing could be fixed with just one wrench. Every car I had since then got worse fuel economy and leaked more oil. When Hybrids like the original Honda Insight came out, I was impressed! What cool cars. But I didn't have the money to be able to run out and buy a brand new car just to get a little better fuel economy.
That was right around the same time that I first attended the Midwest Renewable Energy Fair. They had a small alternative car show, including a few electric cars. There was also an electric bicycle there, built from a kit. I spoke to the owner, and he told me how easy it was to put together. Just swap out the front wheel for one with a motor built in, add some batteries, and plug in a few cables.
I ordered the kit the moment I got home, and installed it on a grandma ten-speed I got from the thrift store. I chose that bike because it had a sturdy all-steel frame and a wire pannier on the back to hold the batteries. I rode that all summer, zipping around effortlessly at 20 miles per hour (state legal maximum for an electric bike.) It was great, but there were a few problems. It just didn't LOOK fast. I'd be zooming about on the grandma electric bike, and cars would pull right out in front of me (and I didn't even have a horn to honk with!) Pot holes weren't fun either. Old ten-speeds don't have shocks the way the mountain bike style do.
So, if only I had something with shocks, a horn, maybe a light, something that LOOKS like I'm going really fast…
The next summer, I built an electric motorcycle. It was basically a big electric bike. The only difference this time is that it wasn't a kit. I just had to figure out everything myself.
I had a blast riding the cycle all summer. Then winter arrived. A cycle isn't exactly good on snow. More wheels and maybe a roof would be nice.
The next summer I built an electric car. I returned to the MREA fair, this time as a speaker on "HOW TO BUILD YOUR OWN ELECTRIC CAR". It was standing room only, and there I was, the guy in the front everyone was staring at. I was later told that my presentation was the best attended of the entire event. This was at the largest renewable energy fair in the country. All because I got sick of crummy used cars dripping oil in my driveway.
Are electric vehicles actually much greener than combustion engines? Is there a quantifiable reduction in your carbon footprint?
Yes, they really are cleaner. Just to start with, an electric vehicle is usually about 4 times as efficient as its gasoline counterpart, right off the bat. Think about it - heat and noise are signs of inefficiency. Gas vehicles are loud and hot, and require additional equipment (mufflers, radiators, tail-pipes, coolant, etc.) just to deal with that. Engines also waste fuel during the warm-up process and while idling. Motor don't have to warm up, and don't idle.
Carbon foot-prints get to be complicated fast. I've read a number of long studies on energy production, coal-vs-nuclear-vs-solar, etc. But it's pretty simple when you get right down to it. Running a vehicle on electricity from the wall is cleaner than from gasoline. As the grid gets cleaner, so do electric cars. And if you really want to make a jump, just power an EV from renewable energy in the first place. I get mine through a renewable energy program through my power provider, and I have a few small PV solar panels as well.
People also don't realize how much energy goes into transporting and refining petroleum. In California, oil refineries are the second largest users of electricity in the state. Refining a gallon of gasoline takes about 6kWh of electricity. That's enough energy to drive my car for about 24 miles. The US fleet average is about 21mpg, meaning that it takes more electricity to push a GAS car down the road than an electric one!
How was the Craftsman event? How does it feel to be maker-famous?
The Craftsman event was a blast! The best part was meeting other Instructables authors in person. I'd never been part of a live broadcast like that before. Some of the best parts were behind the scenes though. I rode my electric motorcycle through the streets of Chicago, over the curb, and right up the front steps into the Craftsman Experience.
There was some good food there too. I realized that between the taco bar and dessert bar, that there were all the required ingredients for a person to build their own impromptu Choco-Taco, including toasting it to melt the chocolate chips. Of course I took photos and posted it as an Instructable.
What projects are on the horizon for you?
I've met some pretty amazing people through the process of working on various projects. I'm collaborating with another Instructables author on designing an Open Source Hybrid Car that anyone can build.
I'm continuing to do what I can to conserve water. I think I am going to hook my kitchen sink up to a guitar pedal to turn the faucet on and off, hands-free. My solar hot water panel is already mounted on posts on the south side of my house. Now comes the fun of figuring out the plumbing and automatically turning a pump on and off at the right time.
I'm also experimenting with using electric vehicles in place of a backup generator. When the power goes out, just plug your house into your car!
When you learn new things, the whole world becomes an open book. Instead of hoping for a better future, you can create it….. one project at a time.
[Ed. note: check out the video of Ben's appearance at the Instructables Live Craftsman Event in Chicago to see his motorcycle (and him) in action.]