Southeast Missouri State University student publication

Transformer? Bug? No, an electric car

Tuesday, November 29, 2011
The BugE took Chad Sierman five months to build. - Photo by Amity Downing

There is a new type of vehicle zipping around Cape Girardeau. The miniature car has a domed hood and lacks a trunk and doors, among other things. It is white and bears a "Transformers" sticker on the front.

The odd-looking vehicle appears to be a bug that has transformed into a car -- something from the future. It is called a BugE, an electric car built by Chad Sierman, who is the assistant director of Aquatics at Southeast Missouri State University.

Sierman owns a motorcycle and a truck but found himself riding his motorcycle less because of bad weather and driving his truck on a regular basis. Sierman wished to use his truck as an occasional "tool," not as his only mode of transportation. He was searching the Internet for an electric motor for a recumbent bicycle his father had given him when he came across the BugE.

"I thought, 'That's neat looking,'" Sierman said. "I never bought an electric motor for the bicycle. I bought this instead, which took me a whole lot longer to build than putting just a little motor on a bicycle."

The BugE is available as a kit from a company called Blue Sky Design in Creswell, Ore. The kit includes the frame for the vehicle, the dome top and the wheels. The rest of the essential items to make the BugE run are included in the Deluxe BugE Electrical Kit from a company called EV Parts in Sequim, Wash. The four lithium batteries used to power the electric car came from Elite Power Solutions in Phoenix. Sierman created the remaining parts needed to finish the BugE.

"The kit was not like Legos, as far as there are the instructions and you put it together and it's done," Sierman said. "There was a lot of fabrication and 'Oh, this piece doesn't line up with the instructions.' I'd email the guy who built it, and he would email me back. There were several pieces I had to fabricate myself."

Sierman's BugE is street legal with brake lights, turn signals, a horn, speedometer and side mirrors. He created the steering handle with a pipe, and he used motorcycle mirrors for the side mirrors. The seat and spring slider that moves the seat back and forth were taken from a John Deere lawnmower, and he made a splash guard out of a plastic sign that was going to be thrown away. The BugE has no seatbelt or airbag.

"This is just for driving around town," Sierman said. "I would never take it on a highway. It's not designed for highway or interstate. It's more or less just an enclosed scooter."

However, it's a scooter with no engine. The BugE runs on four 12-volt lithium batteries. The original design called for four 12-volt lead acid batteries, which are used in cars. Sierman said he switched to lithium batteries because, even though they are pricier, they last longer, are more powerful and weigh less.

Weight plays a big factor in designing an electric car. The more weight the batteries must move, the more battery juice is used, Sierman said.

Sierman spent around five months building the electric car in his spare time. He spent about $8,000 building his BugE, which was $2,000 more than if he'd stuck with the lead acid batteries. However, it costs just one cent per mile to drive the BugE and the only additional costs will be new batteries and tires when the time comes.

"It costs probably about the same as when you have a light bulb on in your house and you leave the light bulb on for a couple hours," Sierman said. "The plus is if something goes wrong with it, I don't have to take it in a shop to get it worked on. I built it. So if something breaks on it, I can fix it. I know everything that's there. I know how it's there and why it's there."

Sierman drives his BugE around town running errands as well as to and from his job at Southeast and his assistant coaching position of the Cape Central High School's boys and girls swim teams at Cape Central pool. Sierman said he hasn't filled up his truck since September.

"This is what I drive every day because it doesn't cost me hardly anything to drive it because I don't have to put any gas in it, and I can use my truck now as a tool whenever I need to haul something or move something," Sierman said.

Sierman is stopped all the time by people who are curious about the strange looking vehicle. He doesn't mind spending 45 minutes in Food Giant's parking lot explaining his BugE to those who are curious. He enjoys sharing his creation and stories about his trials and triumphs building it.

"All sorts of people will stop me at an intersection, get out of their car and walk back and look at me," Sierman said. "It happens all the time. I'm surprised I haven't caused an accident yet."

Sierman is used to driving different modes of transportation. He relates the BugE and his motorcycle and drives them similarly. With this type of vehicle things on the road are a little different.

"People don't see motorcycles," Sierman said. "This thing is so awkward looking that everybody gives me a second glance and they are looking at me. So I feel safer here because everybody is staring at me, where on a motorcycle, it's just another motorcycle."

Sierman recommends the BugE for those who love to tinker with mechanics and who have the time and patience to do so. He plans to keep improving it and is working on a trailer that will hitch behind his BugE.

"It was fun to build it even though it was a lot of headache and a lot of time," he said. "If you like building things and tinkering, it's a fun project to do."

One thing's for sure, when Sierman makes his way across Cape Girardeau in his BugE, he will cause second glances.

"It's white, it's bright, it's awkward looking -- people give me double takes, give me strange looks," Sierman said with a smile. "I am definitely noticed."