Crowd-sourcing the e-car

HELSINKI Wed Jul 23, 2008 1:16pm EDT

A screenshot of www.sahkoautot.fi, taken July 22, 2008. REUTERS/Sahkoautot.fi

A screenshot of www.sahkoautot.fi, taken July 22, 2008.

Credit: Reuters/Sahkoautot.fi

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HELSINKI (Reuters) - After the wikipedia, the wikicar. "eCars - Now!" is a Finnish Internet community seeking to apply the collective approach taken by online collaborators like the authors of Wikipedia to start converting used petrol-fuelled cars to electric ones, with the first roll-out due this year.

The Finnish-language forum claims to be first of its kind in the world, and wants to provide an alternative to what its members perceive as foot-dragging in the oil and auto industries.

The group is working in the tradition of 'open source' projects laid down by information technology -- like the Linux computer operating system which was started by a Finn and challenged Microsoft's dominance.

"If we succeed very well it will create similar projects across the world with whom we can share what we know," said project participant Jukka Jarvinen, adding that a similar scheme was launching in Denmark.

"We're hoping to create a global movement."

Electric cars have struggled to shake off a quirky image with tiny sales of often fantastical vehicles at prohibitive prices, or economy-sized "golf carts" with limited range.

But because they are charged from the power grid and make more efficient use of energy, they produce fewer emissions and are seen as a promising clean-air alternative to petrol-powered vehicles.

When it comes to promises, auto-makers are keen to capitalise on mounting consumer concern about high gasoline prices which is prompting trade-ins of gas-guzzling SUVs.

Chrysler LLC was one of the latest to say it plans to launch all-electric vehicles in the next three to five years.

General Motors is rushing to complete the design of its Chevy Volt, which is a plug-in hybrid, Mitsubishi Motors plans to launch its electric compact car "i-MiEV" in Japan in 2009, and in Europe Daimler's electric Smart and Mercedes models are touted for 2010.

But the Finnish group offers an outlet for fans who have so far been disappointed by the car industry. Some experts say it will still take 5-10 years for alternatives to petrol-fuelled cars to take root, given the capacity challenge for an auto industry that is adding 65 million new cars a year to a fleet of 1 billion.

OPEN SOURCE

The group is starting small. It has identified demand for more than 500 electric conversions in Finland and its Web site aims to begin introducing potential buyers to sellers of suitable used cars and components, and mechanics who can make the conversion with an electric motor and lithium batteries.

Its first conversion model will be a Toyota Corolla -- it aims to produce a few dozen finished eCorollas this year -- which it says would have a range of 150 kilometers per charge and a top speed of 120 km/h.

This compares with Oslo-based specialist car producer Think's model City, which travels up to 180 kilometers with a top speed of 100 km/h.

The forum expects the used car and mechanics' work in total to cost roughly 25,000 euros ($38,000), close to the price of a new Corolla in Finland, and will make the conversions using commercially available components.

On the forum, participants feed ideas to the site's discussion boards and email lists, the best of which the non-profit community will put into use.

The community believes 500 orders would be sufficient for mass conversions: Think plans a batch of 8,000 electric cars next year at 20,000 euros each.

Its experts are volunteers who negotiate prices for the components and car conversions. End-users will pay for the car, the component costs and the mechanic.

"We are not trying to jealously build any sort of corporation out of this," Jarvinen said. "This kind of an unorganized organism that grows in small cells across the world cannot be bought out."

OBSTACLES

The old common problem of electric cars -- heavy batteries with a limited life-span -- has mostly been overcome with lithium battery technology, although limits to the range remain.

Infrastructure for power is a hurdle: there are few public spots where one can charge an electric car in Finland, but they can also be charged at home.

Renault and Nissan have signed a deal with Portugal to make the country one of the first to offer consumers the possibility of nationwide electric car charging stations. The two makers have also said they will mass-market electric cars in Israel and Denmark in 2011.

The e-group's intentions are good, says researcher Juhani Laurikko of the Technical Research Centre of Finland, but they are not yet approaching the issue in a sustainable way.

"Frankly, there is not much potential here, but these are moves in the right direction. Converting petrol-fuelled cars that are only a few years old is a waste of natural resources," he said.

"I would rather see conversions done on used cars older than 10 years with older petrol-engine technology."

The community says it is best for the electric car's image to start with new cars rather than tired models.

Finland's Vehicle Administration said the community's cars could be admitted to the roads in Finland.

"They may well be admitted, as long as they fulfill the legally set criteria," said Erik Asplund, senior officer at the vehicle inspection unit. "There are a few of these criteria but probably nothing that couldn't be overcome."

(www.sahkoautot.fi/)

(Additional reporting by Gerard Wynn in London; Editing by Sara Ledwith and Jon Boyle)

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