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UW-Milwaukee Students Redesign Tiny Yellow Car With Battery Power

Mitch Teich
Gonzo Couto-Lain stands with the car, called a Ligier, that he helped transform to run on battery power.

Occasionally, a tiny yellow car can be seen tooling around the UW-Milwaukee campus. That car is a battery-powered Ligier.

Gonzo Couto-Lain, the man who's the oldest graduate (at 59-years-old) of the engineering school at UWM, worked with a team to convert the tiny French car to run on battery power.

To his knowledge, this is the only Ligier in North America. It's not even technically considered a car in Europe, it's a moped. How this "car" ended up at UWM is a mystery, says Couto-Lain. It sat in a professor’s research lab for a while and was waiting to be crushed before Couto-Lain got his hands on it.

It was a traditional gas-powered vehicle, but in just three months, he and his team added an electric motor and reprogrammed the car. The key challenges were matching the electric power the electric motor gives compared to a gas engine and matching the power and torque curves, which is all done using software. Couto-Lain and team overcame those challenges, maintaining the Ligier’s original 7-horsepower (by comparison the average 4-cylinder passenger car ranges between 150 - 175 horsepower).

Credit Mitch Teich
The Ligier's battery-powered engine is about six times smaller than a traditional gas-powered engine.

The UWM Ligier is powered by Johnson Control batteries. Currently, the batteries are charged using a smart charger (which can charge any type of battery), but the goal is to eventually use wind and solar energy to power the car.  

The cost to charge the battery would be the equivalent of buying gas at 76 cents a gallon, says Couto-Lain. "That’s my selling point on these electric cars, 76 cents a gallon,” he says.

"The cost to charge the battery would be the equivalent to buying gas at 76 cents a gallon."

"Everything’s plastic," he explains, and is about the thickness of a water bucket. Poke the car with your finger and it bends. It weighs about 350 pounds, minus the batteries.

When it comes to electric cars, range is often a concern. This car has about a 60-mile range, which Couto-Lain says would be acceptable since most people don’t drive that far in one day. Plus, larger batteries could easily increase that range to up to 150 miles.

This was just the first stage of the project. Couto-Lain plans to refine the vehicle with further work on its programming, charging and look.

“We’re going to be working together with the art department and this is going to be the Panther car. So, you’re going to see whatever they decide to go crazy with, they’re free. They want to put bat wings and make it a bat car, I’m happy with that,” he says.

Lauren Sigfusson
Lauren became WUWM's digital producer in July 2018.