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Duxbury student's quirky EV lands him a job at Tesla

Posted by Bill Griffith  April 27, 2010 02:30 PM

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Chad-Conway-Comuta-Car.jpg

(All photos: Handout/Chad Conway)

Chad Conway, above, in the electric 1980 Comuta-Car he restored.

Chad Conway took the typical teenager's dream of building a car—preferably a cool one—to a different level. Where others would have chosen a Mustang, Camaro, Integra or Civic, Conway instead restored a 1980 Comuta-Car, a pioneering electric car built from 1975 to 1982, before production ceased because of US safety standards.

To a traditionalist, the project sounds like a joke. A cynic might think the car looks like a joke, too.

But to Conway, the innovative vehicle was (and remains) a thing of beauty and an indicator of things to come. It's still the only car he's ever owned—and makes him a mini-celebrity at Tesla Motors in San Carlos, Calif., where he's spending a six-month internship.

Tesla builds an innovative $130,000 all-electric roadster capable of going from 0 to 60 miles per hour in 4 seconds (or better), showing where the technology has gone in 35 years.

"Virtually all the guys who work here drive cars with traditional internal-combustion engines," says Conway. "I own an electric car. That makes me a bit of a curiosity."

Conway, now 20, is a sophomore at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology in Terre Haute, Ind., with a double major in electrical and mechanical engineering. He first started contacting the Tesla people when he was a junior at Duxbury High School and working on rewiring his own electric car.

"They were like, 'We have 11 employees and no idea what to do with an intern,'" he says now. "But they encouraged me to stay in touch." He did, even after doing an internship after his high school junior year at MIT, where he worked on the university's City Car Project. That electric vehicle is capable of O-turns (turning 360 degrees on its own axis) or moving 90 degrees sideways directly into a parallel parking spot.

Chad-Conway-Tesla-Motors.jpg

Conway, who wrote to Tesla Motors as a teenager in Duxbury, is now on a six-month internship for the California company.

At Tesla—a dream assignment—Conway is working with the battery development team, building prototypes and parts for the battery packs that power the company's vehicles, which now have a range of up to 244 miles. "There are a lot of smart people to learn from here," he says. "We're constantly upgrading our battery packs. There will be advances in both the lithium-ion batteries and also with super-capacitors."

As the answer to another dream, he has driven the Tesla roadster. Its amazing acceleration and electronically limited 125 mph top speed are a huge contrast to Conway's EV, which, on a good day, can sneak above 40 mph and has a range of 45 miles. Massachusetts grandfathered his car to be street legal though it's banned from major highways such as Rte. 3 or I-95.

But that car, which vaguely resembles a cheese wedge or some sort of electric railroad switch engine, gave him a hands-on background in applied electrical engineering.

"If things go well [at Tesla], I may have [the car] shipped out here from Duxbury," he says. "I live about five miles from the Tesla plant and ride a bicycle to work every day. It'd be nice to have the car here for rainy days, and then I could send it back to school in Indiana in the fall."

The car-which Duxbury teacher Chris Connors used to inspire Conway-was in need of serious electrical work when the high school project began.

"Someone had tried to convert it to a 72-volt system," says Conway. "That meant it would need new parts, including a charger, motor and controllers." Such stuff wasn't readily available so Conway went the route of least resistance, learning how to rewire everything to the original 48-volt system specifications.

Those 48 volts come from eight batteries, four mounted on each end of the Comuta-Car under what appear to be the bumper ends of a railway car. "They're basically six-volt golf-cart batteries," Conway says. "They're not too expensive and are readily replaceable."

Conway finished the project in time to drive the Comuta-Car to school his senior year - and to his senior prom, earning the "coolest ride" award. It has a speedometer (55 mph max), odometer (roughly 5,000 miles in 30 years), and a neat sound system, which he installed to replace the original AM radio.

"Electric cars are supposed to be very quiet," says Conway, "but everyone can hear me coming."

Heat and defrosting were problems. "I usually drove my sister to school with me," he says. "We bundled up in the winter, and took turns using a towel to clean the windows."

The car's builders had provided a hose from the air-cooled motor with the option to vent it into the passenger compartment, theoretically providing heat. "DC brushless motors produce very little heat," says Conway. "but they're very efficient in rotary turning. So we learned to wear warm jackets."

Conway, who represents the future generation of automotive engineering, is bullish on the future of electric vehicles. "I foresee all kinds of advances in battery technology," he says.

After all, one EV has already taken him from Massachusetts to California, in a matter of speaking.

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