Far from Tesla’s US megafactories and China’s mass production lines, a quiet electric vehicle revolution is under way in an unlikely location.
Entrepreneurs in the Venezuelan city of Maracaibo have created affordable battery- and solar-powered vehicles adapted from golf carts and inspired by drag racing to overcome the country’s chronic fuel shortages and power outages.
Venezuela was one of the world’s largest oil producers just a decade ago but the Opec nation’s oil sector has collapsed due to economic mismanagement and rampant corruption. Queues of cars routinely wait for hours at petrol stations, which sometimes run dry.
“As an oil-producing state we never imagined that we could have gas shortages,” says Augusto Pradelli, 61, who designed a battery-powered car. “It used to be free, but now it’s either unavailable or crazy expensive.”
Oil is particularly scarce in the north-western state of Zulia, where the price of a litre of gas exceeded $4 during the pandemic. Venezuela’s monthly minimum wage is $28.
Drawing on experience from his hobby of building drag cars, Pradelli started the experiment by hacking away at a humble golf cart.
“It was heavy, it was slow and it was cumbersome. The only interesting thing was that it had an electric battery – and that didn’t last long,” Pradelli says.
As with drag cars, the first step was to make the cart’s boxy body as lightweight and aerodynamic as possible by removing material. Recycled materials like sheet metal from fridges were used to develop a body with less drag, an anti-roll bar was fitted to make it more manoeuvrable, and most importantly, the sluggish golf cart’s batteries and motors were souped up.
The electric carts now reach speeds of up to 40km an hour and can travel 60-100km with up to four passengers on a six-hour charge.
Caribe Carros are the product of the problem-solving ability that Venezuelans have developed to overcome the myriad challenges of everyday life in the Caribbean nation, says José Citron, a renewable energy expert who has partnered with Pradelli to fit solar panels to the vehicles.
“There was no fuel, drastic power outages were leaving us without electricity for up to six hours a day, and there was a pandemic so we couldn’t go out. All of this together made us creative,” Citron says.
The pair also drew on the resourcefulness needed to get by in today’s Venezuela, where shortages of everything from eggs and water to cars and motor parts have contributed to the largest refugee crisis in the history of the Americas.
The chassis is recycled, the motor is scavenged from golf buggies and nearly all the other parts, from the dashboard to the speedometer and disc brakes, are taken from motorcycles.
The team of seven are refining a hybrid model with a roof-mounted solar panel that extends the duration of the car’s charge cycle. At speeds of up to 11 kilometres an hour it can power itself endlessly, as long as the intense Maracaibo sun is out, Pradelli says.
Even President Nicolás Maduro was impressed when the ministry of science and technology invited the vehicle’s inventors to show off their creation – despite some teething issues which left the former bus driver a bit perplexed.
“He thought that when he turned it on it would sound like a combustion engine but as it has an electric motor it makes no noise, so he didn’t hit the pedals. It was a bit of a misunderstanding,” Citron says.
Pradellli uses his car as a miniature food truck to sell crepes and waffles but it can be customised for families travelling around town, trips to the supermarket or to tow broken-down vehicles, he says.
Citron and Pradelli are keen to move from their workshop to a mass production line but they are not ready to take on Elon Musk quite yet. They need a national licence for the vehicle and there is no legal framework in Venezuela for using electric cars on the road.
The cars could also do with a little more oomph. While they traverse the flat roads of Maracaibo with ease, a test run in Caracas showed that its electric motor struggled with hills.
The creators are convinced that with a few modifications electric vehicles are the solution not just for Venezuela but everywhere.
“Other energy crises just like the ones we have had in Venezuela will come along for the rest of the world. We need to stick with electric vehicles as they are the future of humanity,” Pradelli says.