Thursday, Feb. 7, 2008

Electric car sparks lesson on skills, efficiency

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Bryan Haynes⁄The Gazette
Suitland High School seniors Derek Alvarenga (left) and Larry Covington III (right) and junior William Reyes present their electric car to passersby at the Washington Car Show on Jan. 27. The students worked on the car as part of an electrical career class.
Tyrone Tarlton keeps his electric racecar in peak condition with help from an unlikely pit crew — a dozen Suitland High School students.

Tarlton, who teaches an electrical career class at Suitland, has brought in the red-and-black 1997 Dodge Daytona the last two years for a hands-on lesson on electric cars. Over the past two months, students gutted the car, extracted and replaced 16 12-volt batteries, and reconnected fuses and wires that send electrical currents to the main engine.

Even though the students are studying to become electricians — some may be professionally certified by the time they graduate — their interest in the car goes beyond the wiring. There’s also the environmental component.

‘‘It’s definitely a cleaner ride ... and I know a lot of people who would save a lot of money with a car like this,” Suitland senior Rickey Miner, 17, said as he waved his hand over the mass of batteries and black-and-red wires under the car’s hood. ‘‘I would love to drive an electric car, that’s for sure. ... It’s 100 percent efficient.”

Students also learned about the different kinds of batteries. The car uses dry cell batteries instead of wet cell because they are less likely to leak harmful chemicals that could end up in the water supply, Tarlton said.

‘‘We’ve seen the way technology might evolve,” said senior Derek Alvarenga, 18. ‘‘But we can see that it takes a lot of [battery] power to move a car.”

Tarlton, who built the car and has raced it at regional competitions over the last decade, incorporated the vehicle in his class lesson for the first time last year.

The Daytona’s engine is hardly audible, Tarlton said. It takes a minute, sometimes longer, to reach its top speed of 80 mph, he said, and it can run for four hours at 60 mph.

‘‘Right now, you go to [gas stations] to fill up,” Tarlton said, pointing out that the car’s gas flap hides an electrical outlet. ‘‘Here, we plug up.”

The car takes about four to six hours to charge, he said.

Organizers of the Washington Auto Show held last month at the Washington Convention Center learned about the car and allowed the students to display it at the show. Although the show included a few electric-gas hybrids, the students’ car — clad with logos of sponsors like Goodyear and Pepco — was the only vehicle there powered by electricity alone.

‘‘It’s the way of the future, and these kids realize it,” Tarlton said.

E-mail Dennis Carter at dcarter@gazette.net.