CATALYTIC CONVERTER: Instead of selling pricey new vehicles, the ChargeCar team wants to create a kit that makes it easy for local auto shops to convert gasoline cars to run on electricity. Image: ISTOCKPHOTO/sjlocke
PITTSBURGH -- Chuck Wichrowski remembers the first car he ever worked on, when he was just a college graduate and knew nothing about cars: His wife's 1970 Chevy Nova.
The second? A 1964 Studebaker Wagonaire.
"I just sort of applied the college model, which is: You look the things up, you get a book, and then you do it," Wichrowski said.
As the years rolled by, Wichrowski put his wrench to the cars that drove the Steel City through its industrial heyday. But times have changed in Pittsburgh, and while he still runs Baum Boulevard Automotive, his customers have moved on to mostly foreign cars, and increasingly, hybrids.
Wichrowski used to run two gas stations, and he knows electric-drive cars need less maintenance than the gas-driven ones. Yet he has loaned a mechanic to a local university to help it design electric cars for regular Pittsburghers, and he thinks his shop can cash in if the future really is electric.
And for the team at Carnegie Mellon University, which is designing cars to get residents to work without burning a pint of gas or even wasting an electron, the future of electric cars is Pittsburgh.
Designers of the ChargeCar project say that instead of selling pricey new vehicles, they want to create a kit that makes it easy for local auto shops like Wichrowski's to convert a gasoline car to run on electricity.
"There's a bunch of machine shops running idle in Pittsburgh," said Illah Nourbakhsh, a robotics professor at CMU and a co-director of ChargeCar. "There's a ton of shops that can do that kind of thing. There's mechanical know-how in this town like no other that I've seen."
Electric-car conversions have been available for decades, whether through small, independent companies or engineers tinkering in their garages. But ChargeCar is likely the first effort to gut a gasoline car and redesign it for a single purpose: the perfect commute.
When Nourbakhsh and his colleagues looked at how Pittsburghers drive, they found that most trips are about half a dozen miles. Some zoom along the highway, while others plod past stop signs and red lights. Some drive on flat roads; others climb or coast down the city's hilly terrain.
The team reckoned a battery, combined with a gadget called a supercapacitor and controlled by software, could make most of these miles electric-powered, at a price Pittsburghers could afford.
Fiddling and fact-finding
ChargeCar's latest projects sit in a former gas station across the street from Carnegie Mellon. One is a 2006 Honda Civic: Over the next month, the team will convert it into a short-range, all-electric car. Wichrowski's mechanic will lend a hand and advise on how to make such conversions as simple as possible for other auto repairers in Pittsburgh.
The other car in the garage feels more like an airplane. From the outside, it looks like a common Scion xB; surrounding the cockpit, though, are scores of dials and gauges.
The car is an experiment.
As Nourbakhsh pulls onto the road, he points to wobbling needles and flashing numbers on the computer screen. This car is powered by a battery and a supercapacitor, and these gauges are constantly crunching numbers: how much juice is left, how much power is flowing, how hot the battery is.
He switches between using the supercapacitor and the battery. He tries each one on hills, up and down. When he slows at a red light, he can choose which device he wants to charge up.
As the professor fiddles, the team is learning important facts about the most efficient way to power an electric car.