Recently, a man with a homebrewed, $13,000 electric car called the Phoenix drove over 380 miles on a single charge, leaving a Tesla Model S that was along for the drive in its electron-laden dust. The man who built the car, Eric Lundgren, CEO of IT Asset Partners, says it’s a world record for road-going electric vehicle range (a Guinness World Record certification is in the works). And it was all done with a car built from trash.
AUTOMOBILE Magazine: Tell us about the record attempt.
Eric Lundgren: We drove the car from my headquarters in Chatsworth, CA to just north of San Diego, then headed back up toward the office. The brand-new Tesla P100D died in Fox Hills. We literally had to push it to the supercharging station because it didn’t make it. It traveled 318 miles. The Phoenix still had juice.
When we got back to the office with the Phoenix, we’d been driving for 8 hours and it still had charge. We went back out and drove loops on the freeway to see how far it could go. When it finally died, it had traveled 382.3 miles. To put this into perspective, if I charged up four Nissan Leafs and ran each until they died, getting into a new one each time, I would have still driven farther in the Phoenix.
AM: You’re the CEO of IT Asset Partners, so recycling is your day job, as well as your hobby. Is it really more of a passion — or even a mission — for you?
EL: It’s both a passion and a mission. It’s not a job at all. For me, this is my life, it’s what I was built to do. It’s what I live for. I live for it because I’ve seen the negative repercussions of e-waste being handled in an improper manner around the world. I spent six years in India and China, and I’ve seen what happens when the U.S. exports its e-waste to these countries around the world. It’s like when you sweep dust under the rug. It’s out of sight, but it’s still there.
In our own backyards here in the U.S., 85% of our e-waste is either exported or ends up in our landfills. Toxic chemicals leach out of them into our ground water. The end result is that 80% of harmful chemicals and toxins in our landfills come from electronic waste.
Today we don’t have a real, efficient solution for e-waste. The 15% that goes to recyclers just gets crushed or smelted for commodity value. That’s not an efficient solution, so they can’t go after the other 85%.
Manufacturers keep trying to make things cheaper, using cheaper commodities, whereas electronics recyclers are seeking more expensive commodities, because that’s what they’re trying to extract. Consumers bought the product, and want to do with it what they will. Corporations don’t care because they can’t make money recycling. ITAP has come up with hybrid recycling, which is the reuse of the components within broken or obsolete electronics.
An example would be: recyclers look at a paper cup, and say, “It’s worth a fraction of a penny”, and I say, “Can it still be used as a cup?” If so, it’s worth 3-4 cents — things are much more valuable when they can be used for their utilitarian purpose rather than their materials.
If your car breaks, you don’t just throw it away. It goes to a salvage yard, where all the valuable components are stripped and re-used or recycled before the raw metal is finally crushed and recycled, too. When it comes to consumer electronics, we literally throw them in the dirt.
I’m not an environmentalist, I’m not some guy that screams “Go green!” I’m a social entrepreneur. I believe in efficiency, in providing more for people — more value, higher quality electronics. I don’t believe in using less. If we’re efficient with our waste, we can have more, rather than less. The byproduct of hybrid recycling is actually a cleaner more environmental solution for our planet — but that’s a byproduct, and a byproduct of efficiency in general.
We’ve been doing this hybrid recycling with cars for 100 years, but with electronics, when you drop your cell phone in the sink or you crack your tablet screen, for whatever reason, when your consumer electronics break, we just discard them. Even if it’s part of the 15% of electronics that make it to a recycler today, it just gets shredded for its plastic and metal value, throwing away all of its utilitarian value as an object. Even while they’re destroying these components, the world is demanding more of these same components — including lithium ion batteries. We’re literally raping the earth for the minerals to make these batteries, and then recyclers are taking that exact same battery, that’s still working, and destroying it.
AM: Why an electric car? What makes an EV a good demonstration of your hybrid recycling principles/advocacy?
EL: You can’t really talk about hybrid recycling because it’s complicated. You have to show it. That’s why we built the Phoenix: to show people that in e-waste, there’s a lot of value. When used in the correct application, you can use this recycled material from old, broken, obsolete electronics to set world records and beat the latest and greatest brand-new technology.
I didn’t realize how great a demonstration it would be. I thought maybe we’d keep up with a Leaf or a Volt, but no, we smoked every single vehicle. My engineers are working on pushing the Phoenix beyond 400 miles, and it’s going to happen next month.
I don’t want to start a car company, I just want to demonstrate what’s possible with EVs and to show the value in hybrid recycling. I don’t want to be a car manufacturer. I want car manufacturers to look at what I’m doing and start doing hybrid recycling. Tesla could save $83 million per year just by adopting hybrid recycling.
The cells found in Tesla’s electric cars and power wall are omnipresent today. They’re the building block for all kinds consumer electronics. So when I open up that Tesla battery pack and test all of the cells — when Tesla says that battery is bad, what it’s saying is 80% of the cells are perfectly good, but it’s not suitable for automotive use anymore.
Let’s say there are 10,000 cells in a 100-kWh battery. I can take 8 of those cells, put them in a plastic case with a five-cent transistor and a cable, and provide you, the consumer, a charger that can charge your iPhone 7 Plus 1.5 times. I can take 16 of those and make an e-bike, 24 and make a Segway or a hoverboard. I can take 40 and put them with a used solar panel and a 1W micro LED (like your phone’s flash), and what I’ve just built is a solar power array – for $30 – that’s capable of taking a house off the grid in Cambodia, where 25% of wages are spent on kerosene to provide electricity for the home. I’ve given them a 10-year replacement for burning harmful, carcinogenic chemicals in their homes. And what did I do all of this with? I did it with America’s trash. Things we’re literally throwing into our landfills.
AM: Why a BMW as the starting point for the Phoenix?
EL: We walked into a scrapyard just north of San Diego on the one day I had free, and I basically said show me all of the salvage cars you’re about to crush. He showed me a line, and it was the second one in the line, and I just went, “That one!” There was no rhyme or reason, we just wanted to use a car that was going to be destroyed. That was the first one we saw that was a car, not a pickup.
So we took that car, dragged it to a flatbed — it didn’t even have wheels — brought it to our facility, and realized not all of the parts were good, so we found another E39 for $600, and out of the two cars we created the Phoenix. That’s why it has mismatched doors. We are going to paint it though. The controller came out of a 1994 electronic forklift.
Of course it’s not as stylish as a Tesla. We built it in 35 days out of trash. Tesla spent $1.5 billion; my R&D budget was Keystone Light. We built the car outdoors, in the rain, under a tarp, on a budget of less than $13,000. It has the largest battery pack of any road-going car to date, until Tesla’s semi truck, but even then, not by much. The pack is made from all types of batteries, and they have the same service life as the new ones. This car will still be on the road in 10 years. We got the motor out of a car that was barely used.
AM: What car do you drive daily?
EL: A Tesla P90D and a BMW i3. I got really furious when I got the BMW and realized I can only go 90 miles — or 45 miles if there are hills.
AM: Do you foresee a future where, in 30 years, when Teslas and other first-generation EVs are “classic cars,” this sort of electric hot rodding will be commonplace, like modifications and upgrades are in current car culture?
EL: One hundred percent yes! This industry is in its infancy. Currently you have a lot of people converting old hot rods into EVs. EV West used my recycled batteries in the newest Top Gear to make a converted Ferrari beat the newest Ferrari out on the track [That episode hasn’t yet aired – Ed.]. Those batteries came from recycled electronics.
I foresee, in the future, Teslas costing $20,000-25,000. The Tesla I drive today that cost me $150,000, I see that costing $25,000 within the next 7-10 years. All the same bells and whistles, everything, because it’s technology. I lease mine because I’m not buying a car, I’m using a piece of technology.
The culture is already out there today, in a way. Someone just cracked the controller for the Tesla motor and now you can use the Tesla motor in another car. They’ve cracked the cooling system programming, the drivetrain programming. As these parts become available, people are going to find ways to hack and combine these systems into cool new vehicles.
Once EVs take off, you’ll have access to all kinds of parts and I see a whole industry evolving, similar to the salvage yards for conventional cars today.