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MIT's 1976 Tesla Roadster

Posted by Clifford Atiyeh  August 21, 2009 06:11 PM

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(Essdras M. Suarez/Globe Staff)

From left: Dan Lauber, Paul Karplus, Lennon Rodgers, Mike Nawrot, Kwadwo Nyarko, and Radu Gogoana stand next to their modified electric Porsche they raced in the "One Gallon Challenge."

The Boston GreenFest, a four-day celebration of the latest environmental technologies and engineering, is on now through Saturday at City Hall Plaza. Hand-built cars that raced in Thursday's "One Gallon Challenge," in which competitors attempted to drive 100 miles across the Bay State to Boston on one gallon, will be there, including MIT's snazzy electric Porsche 914.

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This week's Globe explains the science and cost behind the electric Porsche, which has a very similar silhouette to that other racy electric sports car, the Tesla Roadster:

A team of 15 MIT students will compete with a ’76 Porsche that they have spent years converting into an electric car. It has a sleek silver body with leather seats and a trunk packed tightly with hulking batteries.

“We’re hoping to raise awareness about what electric vehicles can do, what the future may be for them, and why they’re practical,’’ said Matt Gildner, 20, a junior at MIT. “But the battery technology is a big challenge since it’s so expensive.’’ Though the original Porsche was donated, it cost $60,000 to convert - $40,000 on batteries alone. The current battery pack takes about eight hours to charge fully.

“I think we’ll have to charge about halfway through the One Gallon Challenge,’’ said Irene Berry, a graduate student in technology and policy, standing in an MIT workshop space cluttered with wrenches, old motors, and cars in various stages of dismemberment. “And I hope it doesn’t rain. It makes me pretty nervous to drive in the rain in a high voltage car with a lot of components exposed.’’

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30 comments so far...
  1. How can you figure 100 miles on a gallon... in an electric car? I hope they start with drained batteries, put 1 gallon of gas into a generator, use it to charge the batteries, then drive the course.

    Posted by asdf August 21, 09 08:13 PM
  1. Miles per gallon equivalent. It's a slightly bogus unit, but it uses a system of measure that the auto-consuming public are familiar with.

    Basically it's the equivalent amount of energy in one gallon of gasoline that is expended per mile. This is usually around 13 megajoules (1.3 * 10^8). A 100MPGe electric car would be able to run 100 miles on 13MJ of battery energy.

    It's not a very standardized unit at the moment, because varying battery chemistries can be discharged to different levels.

    Posted by cHaRlEs August 21, 09 11:41 PM
  1. A gallon of gasoline is a unit of energy same as battery power is a unit of energy. You can just convert between the two just like you convert between centimeters and inches. The actual measurement represented is the same but you can choose which measurement system you use to describe it.

    Posted by bryan August 22, 09 01:13 AM
  1. A 1976 Porsche 914 has a silhouette that's very similar to the Tesla Roadster, which is based on the 2009 Lotus Elise?

    Come on, at least some insight about cars if you're going to write stories like this.

    Posted by ST August 22, 09 01:29 AM
  1. or they could use a combination of gas, coal, wind, and solar to charge the batteries, asdf! cool!

    Posted by mikeybigboy August 22, 09 07:42 AM
  1. What a phony lead in line, "Leave it to MIT students to build an electric roadster for half the Tesla's price". Including the donated cost of the Porche they are the same price!

    The Tesla Roadster will do 0-60 in 4 seconds with a top speed of 125 MPH.

    It will go 220 miles on a charge, enough to do the "One Gallon Challenge" twice without recharging and it's batteries are designed for 5 years or 100,000 miles.

    The Tesla Roadster is sold today and has no worries about driving in the rain. There is no real comparison to the MIT test car.

    Not to disparage the MIT team, they did a fine job 30 years ago, but a good article would have pointed out how far the technolgy has come since their pioneering days. To speak of the MIT effort in regard to the One Gallon Challenge is fair, to contrast it to the Tesla is not.

    Posted by RM52 August 22, 09 08:03 AM
  1. The Winchester High School (just north of you) kids made an electric truck which burns no gas. Maybe you kids should go ask them how to make one that does not burn fuel.

    Posted by Andy August 22, 09 08:19 AM
  1. asdf: Part of your comment is correct in wondering about how to compare a pure electric car's mileage with that of a pure gasoline engine, especially in terms of miles per gallon. The second part, that it would only be a valid comparison if they put 1 gallon of gasoline in a generator, is not on the mark. Because plug-in electric vehicles get their recharging power off of the grid, that means it comes from a variety of sources (making it even more complex to compare). HOWEVER, the power plants supplying electricity are much more efficient than a little gasoline generator. The better the mix of power plants used, the better the resulting true fuel cost per mile will be. If it is all coal power, then there is not as much reward for using battery-stored electricity than there is if we use more clean energy sources for our electrical grid. If we plug the car into totally clean power sources, such as solar, wind, or other clean technology, then the fuel used per mile would be zero, making the mileage functionally infinite. While totally clean power is a long way off (due more to political choices than technical barriers), we will by necessity be shifting more and more generating capacity to the newer cleaner methods, so electric vehicles will become more and more clean over time without making any advances in the cars themselves. Add to that the fact that the electric car and battery technology are also getting better, and the sky is the limit for electric cars. Remember, electric motors are actually better suited to transportation need than internal combustion engines, which is why freight trains have used electric motors to pull the loads for years, with the diesel engine acting only as a generator (this is somewhat like what the Chevy Volt does: use electric to drive the wheels fast and powerfully, and a small gas engine to generate electricity to maintain battery charge on longer trips).

    Posted by AndrewS August 22, 09 11:11 AM
  1. @RM52 @ST, I drove the Tesla for three days, and am well aware of how fast it goes and how it's made. And the price of this Porsche isn't worth that much. 914s can be had for under 10k. In principle, this MIT car is like the Tesla, but the comparisons obviously stop there.

    Posted by Clifford Atiyeh August 22, 09 11:44 AM
  1. Miles per equilivalent Gallon is bogus. Completely bogus. No power plant in the world is 100% efficient in converting fuel into electricity, Sure electric engines are very efficient once the energy is in the form of electricity, but getting in that form takes a lot more energy. Basically you can divide whatever MPGe they are claiming by 3 or 4 to account for generating and distribution inefficiencies dicated by the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics.

    Posted by JimboSlice August 22, 09 11:56 AM
  1. My brother in law modified a 914 Porsche over 5 years ago into an electric car! It's my nephew's daily driver.

    Posted by Daniel Benton August 22, 09 12:22 PM
  1. Honestly, the MIT effort seems to be lacking compared to what is already available.
    The article ddin't explain what MIT is trying to learn that hasn't already been done.
    Raising awreness is fine, but I guess I have higher expectations form the best and brightest.
    Their car has $40k of batteries and can't even go 100 miles without a recharge.

    Posted by B Damon August 22, 09 03:12 PM
  1. This newspaper--and many othrs--seems to equate electric energy with zero power consumption. Get real. There is a very measurable usew of power with electricity. Why else would we pay the electric bill?

    Posted by Clifton Dean August 23, 09 08:38 AM
  1. These cars should all have an outer layer of solar power to help charge the batteries.

    Posted by Magneto August 23, 09 10:10 AM
  1. Using the name "Tesla" is ridiculous/dishonest.

    Tesla built a power TRANSMITTER.

    His version of an 'electric-car' picked-up transmitted-power, like your radio receives a radio-station's broadcast.

    No batteries. No squabbling Higher-Ed cultists squandering billions for decades.

    Using broadcast-power, and building unfrustructure hiways that allow vehicles to pick-up that power, would solve all the 'greenhouse-emissions' issues to squabble about as well, reducing taxes, complications, improving lifestyles, making this nation PRODUCTIVE once again.

    Suspend that over existing easements, and a mass-transit system could provide individual-transit FREEDOMS no MIT proposals discuss (because it doesn't involve decades and billions for them to squander squabbling about).

    Posted by Clayton Leon Winton August 23, 09 11:10 AM
  1. Does anyone know how many MPG's the trolley buses in Cambridge get?

    Posted by Mike August 23, 09 02:06 PM
  1. the tesla is the gold standard of electric cars and battery technology. but its still not even good for the environment... you need to plug it in to charge it, and most likely the electricity that comes to your home (and charges your car batteries) is produced by burning coal, another non-renewable resource that creates greenhouse gases. awesome!

    Posted by eguarino August 23, 09 02:13 PM
  1. If you can afford a Tesla you can certainly afford a solar array to charge it with clean power.

    Posted by Kevin August 23, 09 06:23 PM
  1. what's the average age of all MIT seniors, at all time?

    Posted by not from mit August 23, 09 08:56 PM
  1. Despite the obvious shortcomings compared to a Tesla roadster, this is a pretty nifty project. I also have a soft spot for old 914s, 944s and 928s. ;) It shows that, despite a better production car being made, something similar can be had with a little DIY work.
    (I agree that the 914 looks nothing like a Tesla. neat car though.)
    As for the MPGe rating, I also feel like it's a bogus claim only because it puts comparing it's efficiency in the improper context--ie, MPG is used to compare cars based on real gasoline consumption (and consequently expense) rather than emissions output. Obviously a car that requires no gasoline purchase shouldn't be rated in how it uses said gasoline, so it really means nothing in the long run.

    Posted by TK August 24, 09 02:35 AM
  1. I fell in love with the Tesla roadster since i first saw it in GQ years ago. It's my dream car, but way out of my price range. I have a BMZ Z3 roadster, but I salivate every time I hear the Tesla mentioned. I hope to see one soon!

    Posted by Liz pakula August 24, 09 07:17 AM
  1. Sear's sells batteries for under $40k ... just sayin'...

    Posted by NewOrder August 24, 09 08:59 AM
  1. Andy (comment 7), how do the batteries get charged in the first place? From the grid? If so fuel is burned.

    Posted by DF August 24, 09 09:46 AM
  1. "real gasoline consumption (and consequently expense)"

    How come your electric bill at the end of the month is zero then? Oh, it isn't? Then there's expense in charging your Tesla. (Yes, if you get a lot of your electricity from your own solar array, then maybe you're not getting a bill -- but you're still paying for the upkeep and an amortized cost of the installation of your solar panels.)

    MPGe is a measure of energy expended, which is one facet of the environmental effect of a car; emissions, while related, are quite different. Depending on what kind of technology scrubs the tailpipe, you can have low MPG and high emissions or vice versa. (Britain now taxes its cars by their emissions -- I was somewhat shocked to discover that my rather ordinary minivan has twice the CO2 emissions of the highest tax band over there.)

    Posted by Alistair August 24, 09 11:45 AM
  1. Porsche 914 can be had for cheap on craigslist. Seems like a fun little car. I wonder how expensive the parts would be for this; it is an entry level.

    I'm sure with the light weight of this car and electric conversion could be easily done by an auto electrician or someone very savvy about those things. I'm sure it would be a bit more reliable with the newer componets.

    I should consider converting my Miata to electric.

    Posted by Non-mech Car Enthusiast August 24, 09 01:20 PM
  1. For a 900 MPGe solution ( OK, you do have to pedal a bit as well) check out the Hauler that Lorax Motor Works makes. Plugged in for a 5 hour charge it gets the equivalent of 900 MPGe and if used with solar panels, its MPG is infinite!
    Granted, top speed is about 25 mph, but that is as fast as you can drive in the city anyway.

    I am going to enter one in next year's challenge, as soon as I finish driving it across the country.


    Posted by William Grote August 25, 09 02:05 AM
  1. I guess that Clayton forgot that Tesla also invented and refined the use of alternating current (AC). Which Westinghouse used to safely "wire" the country with and beat out his closest competitor and Tesla's first mentor Tom Edison. Edison swore by the use of DC (direct current) as the means to wire America for electricity.

    Either way the MIT team gets Kudos for helping push the technology forward.
    I'm interested to see the VOLT in action when it finally hits the market.

    Posted by TheBank August 25, 09 09:24 AM
  1. In the article above, there is a reference link to another article to explain the "science and cost" behind the MIT vehicle...yet that article has little useful info with the exception of defining the cost of the batteries and the fact it will not make 100 miles on a charge. I am guessing the car is built for performance (ie autocross trailer-queen) and not as an economical / practical road-going car. Maybe the author can elaborate more? How much HP? What battery technology is used that is SO expensive yet lacks the capacity to move the car 100 miles? What other elements went into the conversion that are innovative? etc. etc.

    Seems like for a MPG and engineering design challenge (even if it is a homebuilder-type one) they should have come up with a much better entry....

    Posted by carguy August 25, 09 11:35 AM
  1. We all know electricity comes from coal, oil, gas uranium. However, internal combustion engines are only about 25% efficient. An electric motor is 90% efficient. Electricity is everywhere where gasoline is trucked to stations for distribution. Some electricity is also made from hydroelectric dams, solar, wind, tides, burning trash, corn and cow manure. The title of the article got our attention vs. MIT makes another electric car.

    Posted by Anonymous August 25, 09 01:34 PM
  1. Leather seats? LOL! That be the finest VW vinyl from Germany.

    Posted by Gabe September 11, 09 02:10 AM

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Clifford Atiyeh is an automotive writer and car enthusiast . He has spent his entire life driving cars he doesn't own.
In the garage: 1995 21-speed Iron Horse, 2002 Jeep Wrangler X (by association)
Bill Griffith is a veteran Boston Globe reporter, having reviewed cars for more than 10 years and serving as assistant sports editor for 25 years. He was also the paper's sports media columnist.
In the garage: 2006 Subaru Baja
AAA's Car Doctor, John Paul John Paul is public affairs manager for AAA Southern New England, a certified mechanic, and a Globe columnist. He hosts a weekly radio show on WROL.
In the garage: Hyundai Sante Fe, Chrysler PT Cruiser convertible
Craig Fitzgerald has been writing about cars, motorcycles, and the automotive industry since 1999. He is the former editor of Hemmings Sports & Exotic Car.
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Keith Griffin is president of the New England Motor Press Association and edits the used car section on He also writes for the Hartford Business Journal and various weekly newspapers in Connecticut.
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