Home » This Is How To Make A $16,000 Electric Car

This Is How To Make A $16,000 Electric Car

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Just a few weeks ago, there was a little flurry of stories about how a Department of Energy official proposed a competition for American carmakers to come up with an EV that would sell for just $16,000. Keep in mind that the current cheapest EV in America right now, the 149-mile-range Nissan Leaf, costs nearly twice that amount at just under $30,000. Selling an EV for $16,000 is a big challenge, and will take some really innovative and out-of-the-box thinking to pull off.

The good news is that I’ve barely even seen the inside of that box, and neither has our own Bishop. And between the two of us, I think we have some pretty good ideas for making an incredibly affordable yet still useful and desirable EV. I don’t think this competition has officially begun or even if it will be A Thing at all, but that didn’t stop me from making a bunch of inarticulate demands of the Bishop and him processing those into some wonderful drawings of what I think are pretty damn good design ideas. So, with that in mind, let’s take a look at what sort of cheap EV the Bishop (let’s be honest, mostly Bishop) and I came up with.

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I think there’s a crucial rule behind developing a successful inexpensive car, and that rule is honesty. All of the inexpensive, mass-market “people’s cars” that have become icons had this in common. Cars like the Volkswagen Beetle or Citroën 2CV or Renaut 4 or Fiat 500 never tried to be something they weren’t. They all had ideas that made sense for their own particular goals, even if those ideas and solutions may seem peculiar when compared to more mainstream cars. But they worked.

There’s a reason nobody is going to be collecting Nissan Versas in the future, but people still will be collecting vintage Minis, and that’s because the Versa was never comfortable with what it was, and always strove to be seen as a somehow-shrunken premium car that it very much wasn’t. The cheap cars that somehow captured our hearts and minds, the ones we all know and love, they never tried to be anything other than what they were, no matter how weird and cheap that was.

Cheapcars

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So, in designing our $16,000 EV, that is the philosophy I want to keep in mind. We don’t want to make something that’s trying to be an ensmallenated Tesla Model S or Lucid Air; whatever we make will openly and proudly have affordability as a key core principle. And, to go a little further, I’d like this car to be affordable as you own it, too! I want a car that’s forgiving of human failings and circumstance and chance and fate! If something bad happens, I want this car to work with you, and be cheap and easy to repair.

Modern cars are nightmarishly expensive to repair, for both mechanical problems and fixing damage from a wreck or other outside circumstances. This car will understand that, and try to be better. This car will also be easy to upgrade, on a timeline you as owner choose. It’ll be as modular as possible, with standardized parts that can be easily replaced and upgraded. It’ll be hackable and customizable and a rich aftermarket to support the car should be allowed to form and thrive; this is an idea I’ve dreamt of for quite a while, and I think now is the ideal time for it to happen.

With these ideas in mind, I made this rough sketch to explain what I was thinking to the Bishop:

Torchsketch

There are a few key features to note here:

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  • All lighting equipment is cheap, off-the-shelf stuff. The taillights, indicators, marker lights, and sealed-beam headlights are all out of parts bins. If you break one, you can order one online for dirt cheap or likely find a replacement at an auto parts store nearby. No more headlights that cost thousands of dollars to replace.
  • The bumpers are big, unpainted things designed to take whacks and shrug them off.
  • The need for unique body panels has been reduced as much as possible. The front and rear door stampings are identical parts, just reversed. The same goes for front and rear clips.

If the reversible panels idea sounds familiar, that’s because I cribbed it from those old masters of penny-pinching, AMC:

Amccavalier

The AMC Cavalier concept car was all about reducing the number of stampings and dies; AMC only really implemented this in one stamping for front and rear bumpers on some of their cars, and the Cavalier eventually grew into the car that would be the Hornet, but the clever ideas in the original concept are certainly worth stealing.

From that crude sketch and a lot of back-and-forths with the Bishop, the car that I just now decided I want to call the Modulo took shape:

3 4view

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Here’s a view from the rear quarter:

Rearquarter

Sure, it looks a little funny, but I think for a car like this, that’s a good thing! All truly successful cheap, every-person’s cars have had a quirky look about them. Let’s get some callouts on here so you can see all the crucial features that a car like this I think needs to have:

Modulo Callouts

Aside from the cheap, off-the-shelf lights, we have ports for sensors and cameras that can be added whenever the owner decides they want, say, dynamic cruise control or some sort of Level 2 driving assistance. You can buy the car without those features, then add them in later when you’re ready. That concept will carry throughout the car.

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Here’s what the Bishop has to say about the panel-reuse concept and overall design theory:

“Here’s what you need to know about manufacturing: the tooling needed to make things like stamping out metal and molding plastic is expensive. Millions of dollars need to be spent up front before you’ll see any parts. At the same time, it goes without saying that making 50,000 parts will likely give you a cheaper per-piece price than making 25,000 pieces; you’ll pay for that tool much faster.

What that means is the fewer parts, and the more parts we can reuse, will make a product cheaper. The key to the Autopian car design is symmetry. Most cars are symmetrical left to right, but few are mirrored front-to-back; ours will do just that. Starting with the unibody frame underneath, we’ll use gigapress-formed parts where hopefully we could get the left and right to be exactly the same pieces welded together. All frames would be painted the same white or grey regardless of the colors of the other body panels we add to keep costs down. The fenders and hood that bolt on can, of course, be in different colors, preferably bright and fun ones.

There’s been talk about cars like the Rivian requiring expensive body repairs for even minor shunts. The Autopian car’s visible parts are all easily replaceable; just unbolt them and ad the new one in minutes.

The front and rear doors are mirror images of each other, so left front would be the same pressing as the right rear. Lastly, the bumpers are black plastic pieces that are used on both the front and rear of the car, with apertures that can accept different lights. That was a key requirement from Jason; he’s sick of hearing about $1000 lamp assemblies on cars and wanted the Autopian car to have lights you could buy almost anywhere inexpensively. Headlamps are old-school sealed beams, and taillamps are the “orange stripe” stock ones made by Hella and others (a reflector ring fills the space in the aperture).”

We have a main unibody frame that’s always one basic color, and the body panels provide the actual color of the car. And those panels are kept to a minimum! Same doors front and rear, same unpainted, rugged front and rear fascia panels, same fender/wheel arch panels front and rear. Here, look at the basic components:

Components

The motor and gearbox assembly will be mounted on the rear axle, close to other crucial drivetrain and charging components, which will be effectively under the rear trunk floor, and accessible via a removable floor panel. Up front, we have a mirror of this compartment but as a frunk, and below that floor will be more power and electronic hardware, along with the 12V battery.

Doors

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I especially like how the doors turned out; there are just two stampings, and both doors open at the B-pillar, meaning the rear doors are suicide-type doors. The windows open in circular arcs, and operate manually with simple catch-and-slide mechanics – unless an optional power window module is installed, which can be added on a door-by-door basis. Speakers can be added to any door panel, along with anything else the aftermarket decides to come up with.

Side Opendeck

The rear “wagonback” cover can be removed easily as well, transforming the rear cargo area into an open bed, like a small truck. Here’s more from the Bishop:

“Naturally, the Autopian car isn’t exactly the same front and back; the front would have a typical hood and windshield while the rear is covered by a “wagon back” style hatch. My guess is that we could offer a standard “trunk lid” rear or a “fastback” style roof for those that prefer something different. The roof is a wide open hole; a collapsible, removable canvas top would be standard. You could upgrade to a multi-piece rigid unit or even a solar panel one to charge batteries and power your bluetooth speaker at a picnic or beach. Speaking of beach, after removing the roof, you could even unbolt the rear “wagon back” hatch for a full open style similar to what you could do with a 1986 Nissan Pulsar NX (and like that car a canvas cover could be offered in case it starts to rain while the “wagon back” is back at home).”

Another thing I demanded of the Autopian Modulo is that it should have removable, swappable batteries. I’ve thought that EV batteries should be easy to remove and swap out as an alternative to charging or for maintenance purposes for years. The EV industry has not agreed with me, and has been integrating battery packs ever more tightly into the structure of its electric cars. This has some engineering advantages, but it also means that replacing a bad battery pack is extremely costly major surgery.

While EV battery life is generally better than was expected in the early modern EV era, it’s still not a question of if you’ll eventually have to replace an EV battery, it’s when. I can’t abide the idea that a car should have such a financially crippling time bomb embedded in it, so the Autopian Modulo will have modular, standardized battery packs.

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Batteryremoval

There will be slots for six batteries, three per side, and they slide out from under the rocker panels. The car can run with as few as one pack if needed and the base model will likely be sold with two by default, but buyers can add more if desired. I would hope each module is capable of delivering at least, say, 40 miles, for a total range of 240 miles with a full six-pack on board. Even if the individual batteries only get 30 miles per pack, the total would still be 180 miles, which is still decent enough for an entry-level EV like this.

While you can use conventional EV chargers and fast chargers to charge the Modulo, there’s also the option of battery swapping. They’re already doing something much like what we’re imagining with scooters in China:

We’re imagining something similar for the Modulo, ideally done in an open-source way, so any number of companies could operate Modulo-compatible battery swap stations that meet dimensional, voltage, and connector standards. A typical station may look like this:

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Rechargestation

They would be sort of like propane tank stations are at countless gas stations across the country: you’d pay for the “rights” to however many batteries you want, and you just swap them out when they’re depleted, and back into the system they go. When they get too degraded, they’re pulled from circulation and go on to become wind farm load levelers or some similar use. This way, you may own, say, four “batteries” but you never actually have to physically own a battery that’s constantly and slowly degrading.

Plus, you can upgrade your range as needed. If your daily life works just fine with three batteries, then that’s all the battery rights you need to own, except for the three times a year you take big road trips, and in those times you temporarily pay for access to three more batteries. It’s flexible and easy and you’re never going to be dragging around battery weight you don’t need and never will be stuck having to shell out $20,000 for a whole new battery pack.

The inside of the Modulo is based on the same principles of modularity, ease of use and repair, and ready upgradability. The HVAC unit is optional and mounted in the center console; this can be a basic unit with just a heater or a full HVAC unit with A/C. The HVAC distribution pipes form the structural basis of the whole dashboard, with other components mounted to them.

The instrument cluster and center-stack infotainment displays and touchscreens are both cheap, off-the-shelf Android (or iOS, why not?) tablets running an app for their specific functions. They connect to the car for power and data with standardized connectors and can be replaced or upgraded at will. They’re not necessarily automotive grade, but if they fail after a few years, they’re cheap to replace. Plus, as technology improves, better tablets capable of running updated infotainment or instrument cluster software can be used. Systems like Apple CarPlay or Android Auto can be used in lieu of the center stack infotainment tablet if desired, too.

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Dash

Like the rest of the car, the modular interior would be designed so that aftermarket options would be available, so if you wanted, for example, nicer leather seats, you could swap out the more basic seats the car came with for fanicer ones whenever you wanted.

Seats

The seats, like everything else the owner has access to on the car, would be designed to be easy to remove and install with only basic skills and tools. This would go for as many elements of the car as possible. Flooring may start as rubber matting, but that could be removed and replaced with carpet, using the same basic fasteners. The same goes for interior door panels or headliners or whatever.

This is the way we can get to a $16,000 useful, desirable EV. Maybe that $16,000 edition is the most basic one, with rubber flooring and manual windows and just two battery packs and cheap tablets and no extra cameras and sensors and so on. But what makes the Modulo different from most cars is that you can buy the $16,000 basic one and over the years, as your fortunes improve, you can easily add and modify your car until you’ve doubled the range, got better seats, full carpet, A/C, adaptive cruise, whatever. And you did it on your pace, and installed every upgrade on your own, with ease.

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If you get in a small wreck, it’s not a devastating thing; it’s a little bit of money and a weekend’s worth of time to make things right again. As the car ages, you’re not stuck with a degrading battery and vanishing range; you just go to your nearest battery swap station and get yourself some new modules.

I think making a good, cheap EV needs to be a pretty radical departure from the sorts of EVs we see now, and needs to be something that looks at the entirety of the ownership experience, not just something that looks sleek and crows about range and 0-60 times. It needs to be something that’s not just affordable at the point of sale but stays affordable throughout its long and devoted life with you.

It’s time for the Autopian Modulo. Are you listening, Advanced Research Projects Agency – Energy (ARPA-E)? Go ahead and officially issue that $16,000 challenge! We’re ready! Well, unless we have to actually build these, in which case, um, we don’t have those resources. But we’re open to talk!

 

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MushroomGlue
MushroomGlue
8 days ago

Slight missed trick; those doors are almost symmetrical top-to-bottom, ignoring the window opening; if you made them fully symmetrical, and used a blanking panel in the window opening for the lower half, you could reduce things down to a single door frame for all four doors…

Dave
Dave
13 days ago

At or near $20K I want one. Blue body panels please, something Porsche Lapis blue or BMW Estoril Blue in hue. Wagon back, hardtop roof. Battery for 180 real world miles. A/C a must. (probably should be standard) Rubber floor, Honda element style. Physical buttons for A/C and basic audio controls. Cloth seats in a a fun, colorful pattern. Alloy wheels with a minimum tire sidewall aspect of 40, preferring 50. And it would be nice if it had space for a spare tire – a space saver tire would be fine. This would be an awesome multipurpose around town errand-running utility vehicle. Yes, please.

Andrew M
Andrew M
13 days ago

“charge port behind flip down plate”

Nope, nope, nope-itty nope. Even on 20” wheels with full-profile tires, the charge port ends up maybe 16” off the ground, and only lower if the wheels are any smaller. You want drivers to have to sit down or kneel down on the ground every time they plug in or unplug the car? I don’t think so.

This also has the side effect of making the car take up nearly an extra foot of length if you want to be able to plug it in to charge inside a garage. As an added bonus, you run a serious risk of smashing the plug and port with the garage door if you back in and plug in before closing the door.

John Neff
John Neff
14 days ago

Two words: fabric bodies. I think it’s time… https://www.motor1.com/features/503234/make-cars-out-of-fabric/

MAX FRESH OFF
MAX FRESH OFF
14 days ago

Someone should sell this as a CKD kit, and pack parts for a half dozen or so in a shipping container. Use the container as a shop, and once you put them together you have an instant micro-car dealership/battery swap station. Then you define them as racing class and have a track series.

Ben
Ben
14 days ago

The first thing that would get cut out of this design in an effort to hit the $16k price target is all the serviceability. There’s a reason Munro praises Tesla for all of their clever engineering features to reduce manufacturing costs, and almost every single one of those makes the cars harder to service.

M Wilkins
M Wilkins
14 days ago

Those large diameter wheels look cool but will kill the vehicle range. Make them smaller and the car will go farther on a charge.

SCOTT GREEN
SCOTT GREEN
13 days ago
Reply to  M Wilkins

It’s just a matter of gearing.

M Wilkins
M Wilkins
8 days ago
Reply to  SCOTT GREEN

So this EV will have a gearbox?

Luix PLS
Luix PLS
11 days ago
Reply to  M Wilkins

unless the tires are thin profile.

M Wilkins
M Wilkins
8 days ago
Reply to  Luix PLS

Many factors to consider, but in general for EVs the smaller the wheel diameter the longer the range. Engineering Explained has details here:
https://youtu.be/NYvKxsYFqO8?si=h2CVvh7KNMAp9qv3

Luix PLS
Luix PLS
7 days ago
Reply to  M Wilkins

You are righ, mostly efficiency is about sidewall morover than thikness and outer diametter. Btw. excellent video!!!

Myk El
Myk El
14 days ago

Love it

Mike Smith
Mike Smith
14 days ago

I love this concept! Put it in production and I’ll buy one.
I think your battery swapping concept will run into some physical limitations, though: using some rough approximations, I think your full-range 240 miles/charge version of this car will need at least 60 kWh of battery to achieve, especially given the inevitable aerodynamic efficiency penalties that will come as a trade-off for your symmetrical exterior styling dictated by the body panel sharing mandate (which I love!). So each one of those six battery modules would have to be 10 kWh each, which means they’d each weigh something like 230 pounds. No one is quickly slotting those in and out in lieu of sitting at a fast charger.
If your car company can manage magical Tesla-like vertical integration to generate the associated cost-savings on the batteries, you may be able to make your battery packs at a $100/kWh price level. That means the 240 mile range (which is a good number – I think that’s about minimum to be considered a ‘real’ car for a single-vehicle home) version of your car will have $6000 of its $16,000 price spoken for via batteries. That means you need to make all your margin on the remaining $10,000 worth of car. Because of the rock-star Autopian engineering talent pool, let’s say the price to the company to produce the shell is $5000/vehicle. If this thing is a smash hit like the VW beetle in the 60’s, you might sell 300,000 of them a year. That would mean $1.5 billion / year to pay for the fixed costs of your factory, pay your employees, and pay for the amortized cost of R&D and tooling. That sounds about right to me: the Volt cost GM $1.2 billion in R&D costs to develop, and I seem to recall Bob Lutz pinning the cost to produce one Cruze at around $10,000 to GM. He also ballparked assembly costs at $1000/car for around 20 hours of assembly labor. Could you beat GM’s cost efficiency to build An Car by a factor of 2? With some serious innovation… maybe.

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