Computer engineering sophomore Nolan Reker has been an electrical enthusiast all of his life.
“Nolan was fascinated with electrical cords and electricity at six months,” Reker’s father, Roy, said. “His first word was ‘light.’”
When he was in junior high, Reker built a touch-screen computer screen from plexiglass and infrared LED lights, and created an “extraordinary Christmas light display” outside of the Reker’s home that lit up to the rhythm of Christmas songs and was controlled through the Internet, Roy said.
At 14, Reker began planning his future car; at 15, he began investing money in parts; and 400 to 500 hours of labor later, shorty after his 16th birthday, Reker’s project was finished: a fully converted, electric 1999 Toyota Rav4.
Reker said he was inspired by his father — a mechanical engineer who converted his own 1980 Volkswagon Rabbit to run entirely electric, back in 1990 when gas prices began to skyrocket during the Persian Gulf War. In fact, this was the car Reker himself was brought home in from the hospital after being born.
“It was his first car ride ever,” Roy said. “It was quite rare then. There was one book out, more like a pamphlet called ‘Convert It.’”
And Roy still drives it today.
Now at Cal Poly, Reker continues the tradition with his own electric car, and is constantly modifying it for better efficiency.
“It’s kind of an ongoing project,” Reker said. “I would say I do strive to be an environmentally conscience person, but to a very great extent, I think a better way to put it is I don’t like being wasteful or inefficient.”
But the project has not been without its “silly” obstacles, Reker said.
Such as the first time his car was ready for a test drive: It was late at night and the whole family hopped in the Rav4, which ended up breaking down approximately two miles from home, leaving the family stranded — without shoes, according to Roy — until Reker could fix it.
Another “funny thing” about Reker’s project is the battery housing unit, according to Reker’s roommate and business administration senior Kevin Yost.
When Reker first began building his car back in 2008, he was stuck with the option of using lead batteries, because at the time, lithium batteries would have cost around $20,000, Yost said. The problem with lead batteries is they are generally inefficient and heavy.
So he and his father welded support containers for the batteries and mounted on the bottom of his car.
“He says it’s so well protected that if he hits something like the asphalt, the battery unit is so strong that it will just take out the asphalt,” Yost said. “He protects his batteries, that’s the life and blood of his car.”
Since Reker first built his car, the price for lithium batteries has dropped to approximately $6,000, so now he plans to order and add the more efficient batteries to his electric vehicle.
According to Reker, with lead batteries you can’t let the car sit more than a day without losing a charge and it can only go approximately 30 miles on the highway. Because of the continuous driving, the car does not get a chance to stop and charge.
With lithium, the car will make it twice as far on the highway and hold a charge for up to a year — mainly because it supports regenerative breaking (meaning when you press the brake, it charges the battery), Reker said. Also with a lithium battery, the car can do a 15-minute quick charge. In San Luis Obispo there are a quite a few charging stations, which can be found online.
The $6,000 price tag for new batteries might have some feeling faint, but for Reker, that’s a small portion of the overall cost of the project. He estimates that he’s invested approximately $20,000 in the car so far — mistakes not included.
“I have a 50-page log of everything I’ve ever bought for it,” Reker said.
Reker’s car also has a touch-screen computer built into the dashboard that works on a computer program that he partially designed. It shows all of the car’s diagnostics and is connected to the Internet, allowing him to have a navigation system as well as listen to Internet radio.
Reker has even shown his creation at several car shows throughout the area. But overall, Reker said he doesn’t need recognition for his work.
“The primary motivation for building my car was just that it’s a cool project,” Reker said. “I’d always had fun working with my dad on his car before I built mine.”