Battery Included

Carnegie Mellon researchers plan to bring the electric car to Pittsburgh, one used Honda Civic at a time.

What makes Pittsburgh the best place for the electric car to be reborn? We have tenuous weather, daunting hills and stop-and-go traffic. If an electric vehicle can work here, it can work just about anywhere. And the folks at ChargeCar are taking up the challenge with open-source green technology for the open road.

ChargeCar, a project led by Carnegie Mellon University scientists Illah Nourbakhsh, Gregg Podnar and Ben Brown, started off almost two years ago (after receiving the necessary funds from a few generous donors) with the goal to create an electric commuter car—one that wouldn’t go a tremendous distance but would be efficient for puttering around town. Right now, the folks at ChargeCar are designing a kit to convert used Honda Civics into electric cars in local garages, and there’s now a pre-prototype that travels the distance that most people need for their day-to-day commute. It requires minimal upkeep—just think: no more fuel pumps, catalytic converters or mufflers—and ends up costing about 2.5 cents per mile in electricity.


Alex May and Mike Schoenfeld work in ChargeCar’s shop.

Courtesy of Gregg Podnar/CMU   

But one concern with electric cars has always been the battery pack: Previous models’ batteries didn’t hold a charge long enough and were expensive to replace. So, ChargeCar set out with the goal of making the batteries more efficient.
“I have to predict what the road ahead is going to be,” explains Podnar, speaking as the mind of the car—and in case you didn’t guess, that’s where Carnegie Mellon’s robotics and artificial intelligence brainiacs come in. They’ve devised a “smart-car” system to minimize high voltage fluctuations in the batteries. The car considers a compilation of data: your intended route, the topography of the area and where the stopping points are located (traffic lights, congestion). Using this data, the car can predict what it needs to do to prepare for the road ahead—consuming energy from the batteries in moderation and managing it with a super-capacitor.

The battery can be charged by hooking into regular outlets (yes, like the ones in your garage), and the average charge time is eight to 10 hours for batteries with little to no energy remaining (Podnar recommends charging overnight).
An average battery lasts 40 miles per charge; however, the team’s personal best run on one charge was nearly 50 miles through the city.

“If we can make your car last 10 percent longer on a charge or put in a 10 percent smaller battery pack, that’s worth something to you,” explains Podnar. “It’s certainly worth something to Nissan and Toyota and Chevy.” But even considering the value, Podnar is dismissive of the idea of selling the research, which is available to anyone for free. “We’re a university,” he says, “We’re trying to do good stuff. We’re trying to generate new knowledge and have society benefit from it.”

So, what’s the road ahead for ChargeCar? The team is working to make the conversion—currently in the ballpark of $10,000 to $20,000—a financially viable option for the average consumer. The first kit will be compatible with the seventh-generation Honda Civic (2001-2005 models).

For more about ChargeCar, go to

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