Jon: Hi Ron! Thanks so much for taking the time to talk to me today. You're my second interview so far!
Ron: My pleasure to be here, thanks for having me! Who was the first interview? Sorry, I didn't get a chance to check out all of your blog posts.
Jon: No worries - we post a lot! The first one I did was really cool and very different from what we will be talking about today. Our last interview was with Jonas Laarson, and he and his wife own a sustainable clothing company called B-Light Organic in Sweden, and all his clothes are made of organic cotton. They are primarily active wear for yoga enthusiasts but also have sustainable clothing for me too, which is rare. They have recently partnered with us at L'Aquila Active as one of our brands!
Ron: Very cool - can you tell me more about L'Aquila Active? I know you focus on sustainability but wasn't sure exactly on the details and what products you sell.
Jon: Our company is called L'Aquila active. We're one of the world's global e-commerce sustainable marketplaces with approx. 10 eco-friendly brands and growing each month. We're primarily focused on women's apparel, but also have sustainable gifts for kids, pets and lifestyle.
We also sell bamboo straws. We sell like even ornaments and dolls, like that are made fair trade and Kysgstan that that are made out of wool sustainably.
What's really exciting for me is that many of our brands are sustainable in different ways - some use recycled polyester and even make clothing out of recycled water bottles, others use organic cotton, and we have also recently added a hemp clothing brand so it's exciting to be on the frontier.
So, as I said, we're, we're keeping busy man!
Ron: Awesome - congrats and good luck with the launch and holiday season!
Jon: Thanks! So I wanted to start by asking about the background of electric cards and alternative energy. I know your background is as a high school shop teacher and converting gasoline engines to electric is mainly a hobby for you at this point, right?
Ron: Yea, at this point it's mainly just a passion but down the road we are considering offering classes on this subject. It's a niche field but definitely growing, especially as interest has grown with major car companies getting involved and obviously companies like Tesla.
Jon: So can we talk about the timing? Why are electric cars becoming popular now? Is it because of better technology? Or cheaper technology?
Ron: Both more efficient and cheaper batteries are probably amongst the biggest factors from a technology perspective. But, I think more than anything, it's just that it was, I think, the timing is due to a reduced influence from fossil fuel companies. Historically, throughout the entire 20th century, they had so much money and influence.
Ron: The truth is the technology has been there for a while as you know but it just it's finally becoming affordable. And that's half the battle right there.
Jon: I agree, and not just the business influence but also political influence! I'd like to ask is like how did you first get interested in electric engines? I know you have a degree for teaching I was just curious, do you have any other degrees or experience in either engineering or electrical engineering or any electrician experience? That was just something I was really curious with your background.
It started almost 20 years ago, actually. It was a project in our senior year, and there was a guy who had a start up that made custom electric cars. He wanted to be all electric and it looked similar to a London taxi.
Ron: He was working with the college and it was still in early stages, and together we came up with some ideas.
It all happened right about that time 9/11 happened. Around that time oil was much more expensive which sparked a renewed interest in alternative energy and electric engines.
Jon: Interesting, so the renewed interest in alternative energy was sparked by high oil prices?
Ron: Yes, it was a big part of it. This happened again about 5 years later when oil prices also got higher when the stock market was hot in 2005-2007 and there was a ton of funding in green companies, alternative energy, electric, etc. Unfortunately, when the financial crisis struck in 2008-2009, a lot of that funding dried up.
Jon: Sounds like you got some experience and insight into alternative energy early on in school.
Ron: Yea, and actually my interest actually started even earlier as a kid.
I remember being into play with little remote control cars. I would just ask my dad, "Why did you even buy gasoline?"
Ron: "Why can't we just use a battery, just charge it up at home? To me, it just seemed super obvious."
In retrospect I was being a bit naive, because obviously the battery technology still wasn't really there, especially from the perspective of being pragmatic and affordable.
Jon: Can you tell me a little more about what you know about battery technology and the history of that when it comes to creating electric cars?
Ron: The story begins at the end of 19th century and the turn of the 20th, when Thomas Edison, who created the grid, along with his competition Westinghouse as well as some scientists involved like Nikola Tesla. Collectively, they were the group of people that created the grid, and it was electric cars. And the problem was that they just couldn't figure out the battery chemistry that was efficient enough.
Ron: So, I don't want to go down this road make it too nerdy but the battery chemistry is basically two dissimilar metals, and it's really about the electrons. And then there's, there's also the first battery ever was a copper zinc. And you can actually make that for pennies because they have copper and zinc in them.
Ron:In simplified terms, one metal holds the electron, and one metal more electrons than the other one, and you have an electrolyte in the middle that lets the current flow. Then you could like store energy on one side, and then let it jump to the other when in use - in that respect, I guess you could think of it like static electricity.
Ron: Then, depending on the battery and metals - you can either replace it or rechargeable it. The good news is both the cost and the weight has gone down across the board.
Jon: Fascinating - Sorry can I just jump in, I just had a quick question - Where does where does cobalt fit into there? I was reading that was one of the most important elements for the batteries today that's a pretty rare metal.
Ron: Yes, cobalt is a big issue because it's really expensive and also pretty rare - and from a moral standpoint, it's mined primarily in the Congo with tons of reports of human rights abuses and awful working conditions, big companies are actually already trying to remove cobalt from batteries for those reasons.
Jon: Have they succeeded?
Ron: Actually, Tesla has done a good job on this an I believe most Tesla batteries are very low cobalt, something like 3%, and the problem is to be completely cobalt free really can reduce the lifetime of batteries and also run into safety and fire hazard issues. So it's hard to be completely cobalt free but it seems like it wasn't the major issue it was before, and all electric car producers are trying to minimize it in battery production.
Jon: That's great they have already reduced the cobalt amount so low. Hopefully they can either find a way to mine it ethically and safely or create a cobalt free battery. In addition to the cost and energy storage, it's crazy how quickly battery size and weight has decreased, too. I remember really heavy electronics and even cell phones not that long ago.
Ron: Yes, even a few years back your cell phone was super heavy. I think that all of these things all coming together at the same time is the reason electric cards are finally here to stay and are going mainstream. And a lot of that does have to do with the battery, and remember for a car or any type of transportation - weight is one of the most crucial factors. So, when you look at the pioneers of electric car production, like Tesla, they are just taking that technology and putting it in cars. So the floor of a Tesla is basically an entire battery, which is regulated by very smart sensor and computer technology. People think of them as cars but they should think of them more of it as a smart computers.
Ron: It's like a portable computer, like a cell phone, but they put wheels on it!
Jon: I agree, when you compare it to a traditional gasoline combustion engine, especially the older ones without all the electronics, today's electric cars are much more similar to an iphone.
Jon: So my next question is: Now that electric cars have gone mainstream and the battery technology and cost structure make sense, what other applications can you see on the horizon?
Jon: We're in the fourth industrial revolution, we're going to have the Internet of Things, and I wanted to know - how long do you think until we start talking about electric planes jets or helicopters?
Jon: Because that could be a game changer, from a capitalist standpoint, and what I mean by that is that if you know you're able to drive costs down low enough for something like an Uber helicopter that shaped like a drone that could fit 50 people. Imagine people commuting this way instead of trains?
Jon: I'm thinking this big big picture but what would the world look like if labor could be as global as capital? From a structural standpoint, to me, that's always been to me the one of the biggest reasons why we see this huge income inequality. I think that similar to the last industrial revolution with trains and cards - we can help society structurally through design and technology
Jon: Imagine if you were the best carpenter, plumber, electrician, contractor etc. and you can, in one day, commute 200 miles, I mean, that that changes everything. Because we have been doing that with capital for years. I can invest in China today or anywhere in the world 10,000 miles away with a click. So how far off do you think we are from that future?
Ron: Now this type of stuff you're talking about where you're talking about labor costing less to move around was exactly what Henry Ford was talking about. Before the affordability of the automobile, only rich people had cars.
Ron: But what what happened was, you know, he wanted to drive the cost down to take some visionary, to say okay the customer is number one. And it's a bigger picture than just making money. It's about changing the environment for the better, whether that's the work environment, or in the case of electric cars, the literal environment too with reduction in CO2 emissions and the air pollution.
Ron: It takes a company with a higher vision to get there, and companies like Tesla are one of the pioneers in this field, and there vision has always been a sustainable world that requires sustainable energy consumption and generation.
Ron: Regarding electric planes and helicopters, I'm gonna say 10 years until we start seeing it in a more experimentally, and maybe 20 years and we'll start to have the first flight commercially and general public use. However, that's being really conservative because 2008, I built my first electric car with students in high school. And now here we are.
Ron: 11 years later, and Tesla. I think they're close to like 750,000 cars. Wow. Anything is possible and it could all definitely happen quicker than expected with the right company and timing.
Jon: Do you think that helicopters have the chance of coming first? Part of that is because I've already seen so many experimental models of this. I don't see why helicopters couldn't copy similar drone models if they could generate enough lift and keep the weight down. The problem with planes, and especially commercial jets, is that they need way more energy just to get off the ground and there's also an issue with range.
Jon: My theory is that I think helicopters could come first and I can see helicopters in 20 years in the 2030's or 2040's as a form of mass transit like a train or bus today.
Jon: Imagine you know, an electric helicopter going 150-200 miles an hour. And you know, you're in South Jersey and you can get to Manhattan. You know you're like you live by Atlantic City, you can get to Manhattan in 30 minutes on a Chinook style electric helicopter that fits 50 people. I visualize it as being something like wealthier, but not crazy rich, and even upper middle class can afford - like maybe something like a $1,000- $2,000 unlimited month ticket. The suburbs could extend for dozens of mile further and families could have a bigger house a hundred miles from the city right i mean my point is it would change everything real estate prices. In addition to being sustainable and better for the environment, it also has the potential to disrupt everything.
Ron: There's a lot more challenges with aviation, especially when it comes to testing, safety, and especially battery weight, strength, and range - I don't know nearly as much about it as I do electric cars, but I agree it would definitely be a game changer across the board.
Ron: The beauty of technology is that it's always changing and in some cases, it's absolutely revolutionary. Can you imagine someone talking about automobiles, with two guys on horses? But it only took 10-20 years for the transition across almost all major cities to go from horses to automobiles.
Similarly, when we switched over the jets because they were more efficient than a piston driven, propeller prop. People said the electric car would never happen, and here we are.
Jon: I know, it's been incredibly interesting to watch this all unfold. As you know, we are a sustainable clothing platform, and when it comes to climate change and the multiple crisis's unfolding simultaneously across our environment, where do we start? Some people want to blame government and corporations, while others say individuals to take more responsibility. Where do you stand on that?
Ron: The truth is probably some combination of all three. But you have to start with what you can control. For examples, And I prefer sustainable products, and I'll buy an organic carrot versus a regular carrot. But it's complicated because sustainable products aren't always available or affordable.
Jon: Agreed! I knowI've said the same thing in that. Listen, we're not billionaires, all you can really do is vote with your wallet at this at this point. Of course, when there are important elections we should try to elect environmentally responsible candidates, but there is only so much we can do.
Ron: We all vote with our wallet like every day and make a choice. You go and buy a cup of coffee. You buy a bottle of water. You go and buy a piece of food. Even bigger purchases have things to consider environmentally like buying a house and choosing to install solar panels, or buy an electric car, etc.
Ron: More importantly, sometimes we forget the ripple effect on others. The way you spend your money that has a huge influence because you're going to influence your friends, you're going to influence your family, your co-workers, your neighbors, even strangers.
Ron: It's an amazing freedom that we have. If you think about it, the flip from horses to cars was like, extremely fast, it was like, maybe 15 years, you know, 20 years, and then the flip from. let's say, blockbuster where you drive down to the blockbuster or you rent Netflix on your, in your house. Ultimately, that's all driven by consumers. Our collective financial decisions decide the future we are going to live in, and whether that's a sustainable one or not.
Jon: Can you walk me through like the basic steps of converting a combustion engine to a electric engine and, and maybe how long does it take and what are the costs?
Ron: Picture it like you're doing heart surgery. So, you're just replacing one component, the machine that rotates the wheels. That's it. The rest of the car stays the same. So what we did. There's only three components, the major components that we bought an electric motor, a speed controller, which is just a computer, and then batteries, three components.
Ron: So, you take the gasoline engine out. But also everything that comes with it - so out goes the exhaust pipe, the radiator, the gas tank, anything that goes with the engine.
Ron: And then you begin the process of placing the electric motor right where the gas engine used to be.
Ron:And this is where it becomes like a creative problem solving solution. So, it's not going to sit exactly because it wasn't meant for that. So you have to make something called an adaptive point. And basically, it's the old patterns that don't match to turn it like it's like you're trying to connect two different things. with the same rotating shaft in the middle. So, you just need something that that has two sides to it one size fits the original and the net the other side has its. It's like a bridge. You just got to bridge the gap.
Ron: So that's part one, and then Part two is you got to put the battery somewhere. So you can you can make like a cage or like a holder and you put it into the spare tire window or baby put it where the gas tank would go you want to have it as low as possible. And then the speed controller can just be mounted almost anywhere.
Ron: And you need to be able to measure and create parts. So everybody's heard of the 3d printer. But there's also a machine if you want to make something out of metal. I call it a 3d cutter, since it cuts three dimensional shapes, but I think it's called a milling machine by those in the metal industry
Ron: Next, you need to be able to weld, which is the connection of two shapes together. You have to be really precise here, because it's a moving object so it has to be very secure.
Ron: The only other thing I would add is what people do is, a lot of people try and reinvent the wheel. You know they want to reinvent the car, and I don't really understand why you want to do that. So, they would, I would say just keep the car in stock as possible, and then just do heart surgery just change the engine. This is a common thing people do this all time and they just call it like the upgrade or engine swap. It's, it's nothing new it I mean, in fact it's closely related to hot rodding for custom cars and less related to like green engineering.
Jon: Thanks for the explanation, great run through of the process - what are the costs involved right now? I know you said this could change in the future of battery costs drop. But is it cost effective right now to convert engines or does it make more sense to for example just buy an electric car? I was just trying to get an idea of cost and and also where do you think that can go in the future.
Ron: The only reason the car would be because you really feel nostalgic about the shell is to sell the car. It's worth less than the engine.
Ron: So a lot of people convert old Porsches or old, or classic cars, Volkswagen is better because the classic are worth more money.
Ron: Something special like a DeLorean is also a great example for someone that still loves this car's look and doesn't really care about the noise and power of an old gasoline engine. That's when it's worth it, especially when we are talking about antique cars with weaker engines when it's more about the look than the engine.
Ron: So, because it's about $15,000 minimum to convert the car right now if that's if you're trying to get your money back out of it now if you're doing it just for practicality or you're trying to do it for some sort of mission statement, then you could convert any car.
Jon: So it sounds like it would make the most sense on historic cars which probably had weaker engines to begin with, and really when people care about the look of the car.
Ron: Exactly, I mean it's a nice market, but growing especially for some of the older historical cars, some people that specialize this have waiting lists for months.
Jon: Alright so that kind of leads me to my next question which is was about you.
Jon: I'm just saying, you know, I know you're a full time teacher but would you ever consider either starting joining a business like this or consulting something that that does convert electric engines? Maybe you can call it Ronnie's Rides?
Ron: Great name, haha. Yes, right now, even though I'm full time teacher. I'm starting to offer classes. I'm offering my first class on how to convert a car like a crash course, we're going to do it on November 16 but we're doing it at a battery recycling facility in the Philadelphia area.
Ron: It's a town called Ben Salem but it's just the beginning so like we sort of, you know, I partnered with a couple other people to do it, but it's just like an experiment so there's like three possibly five people signed up already. It's about $200 for the day.
Ron: Additionally, I'm also considering getting into supplying parts for custom kits. They tend to be very specialized and you can create custom kits for a particular car for electric conversion where people can do it at home with less hours and expertise.
Ron: There's really no standardization on this, and still a niche hobby, so a lot of people waste a ton of money on this. I've seen people not listen and they break their cars and then they give up on the project or they years longer to complete since parts won't always fit correctly and there's a lot of creative problem solving involved in doing it right.
Jon: What are the most important parts needed and how much do they cost? I know you told me the whole project 15,000. Also, how much time does it take to do this completely and what takes the longest?
Ron: It's about $2,500 for the motor. And then the controller, which has the match, is also about $2,500. So the electric motor, and the computer that drives it called the controller is about $5000. And that's just two parts.
Ron: You also need your transmission. Now some people say oh well why do you need a transmission. This is like a whole other conversation but I can touch on it. Briefly, but first let me say you have to match it to the transmission, or to the car. You also need motor mounts.
Ron: And so those parts cost between $1000 to $2000 so let's say $2,000. Okay, So now you're up to like $7,000. Okay, now you're gonna need batteries.
Ron: So batteries, it depends on how long you want to drive so if you want to have 100 miles or 300 miles, there's a big difference in price. So, you're probably talking about $10,000 - $15,000 ballpark. Okay, so let's say you go you know for the middle range you say $10,000 so that might be well actually, but let's just say $10,000 and you do like 100 mile range or 150 mile range. Okay.
Ron: So $10,000 now you're up to $17,000 okay you're not done those batteries have to be managed. Okay, so the. So there's a computer, little computers that go on top of each battery. And then what they do is they talk back to a centralized computer which helps balance the batteries is a balancing system.
Ron: Why do you need to balance on because lithium? Because when overcharged, they will actually go on fire. So, you don't want to do that, obviously, the phone that you're on, or the computer you're reading this article on or whatever, you know, it has batteries in it, and there's a management system in there too. So that's another $1,000.
Ron: All right. Let's just ballpark that Okay, then. There's one more piece of puzzle, you need to charge the batteries. Say $2,000 for a fast charger. So now you're up to. Probably 20 grand total at this point.
Ron: Finally, add $1,000 because it's not like a radio shack cable, the cables like almost an inch thick. And copper is expensive so we are looking at another thousand dollars. Keep in mind some of these components like chargers, wires, etc. can be used for multiple jobs and you can also find custom kits that bring down costs for popular models, so that's why I said around $15,000 - $20,000 total.
Jon: How long does all of this take you?
Ron: My last job was 700 hours, but they included a lot of extra work. We had to take the engine out, we had to clean the car. We had to upgrade the suspension because we're putting all these batteries in, we had to make our own batteries, like cage they called a box with basically a battery cage. And then we also had to make our own custom motor mounts.
Ron: For a simpler conversion with a team for a model that's already been done, I can imagine you could get it done with three good mechanics with a mechanical and electrical engineering background, I think you did get it done in a week, maybe a 40 hour week with three people so I guess 120 hours. But these people have to be good and maybe they've done it before.
Jon: This is all fascinating and I've learned so much today, thank you so much for spending the time to talk today! I hope this market continues to grow and more and more people invest in sustainable electric car engines!