18 April, 2017   By: Rebecca Martin

Perth brothers James and Peter Hill have spent years, (and quite a bit of money), building electric vehicles (EV). Now, as EVs become mainstream, they’ve got their eyes trained on setting new records.

Some kids like to surf, others like music or sport. But for James Hill most of his free time since he turned 15 has been taken up assembling electric vehicles. From scratch.

Hill could be described as prolific. At nearly 23, he has already built six electric vehicles and three electric motorbikes, although he currently only has one of each in his garage.

“Once we’ve built them and then raced them we pull them apart and use the parts for the next one we build,” he says.

Hill is quick to point out that he has not done this all on his own. His younger brother Peter, now an 18-year-old computer science and electronic engineering student, started helping when he was 11 and is very much the brains behind much of the electrical wizardry in the vehicles.

Also, clocking up hours are the rest of the Hill family, plus the team at George’s Bike Shop in Willetton.

“Each year, cumulatively, we probably spend around 8000 man-hours on the vehicles,” Hill says. “I’ve probably put in everything that I’ve ever earned. It's an expensive hobby.”

James and Peter Hill in their workshop
James and Peter Hill with their three-wheeled custom-built electric vehicle
Competitive spirit

It was a competition, WA’s long-running eV challenge, that first drew Hill into the electric vehicle game. Students build their own EV and then race each other to achieve the most number of laps on one battery charge. Hill was hooked.

“Most of the teams would buy a ‘hub’ motor that is reliable and cheap.

“Over the years we started getting more creative with our builds. We tried different drive trains and started building our own custom electronics, whereas most of the others would use the off-the-shelf batteries."
“But, we weren’t winning. Our cars were unreliable. Motors or batteries would blow up or the controller would fail. So we would often lose on the day, even though we knew we had good car.”

James and Peter on the track
Going for a test-run in the EV  'monopod'

Record attempt

After several losses at the eV Challenge and more fine tuning, Hill and his brother came first in their class and second overall.

Now they’re chasing a new win – beating the Australian world record for the number of kilometres done in a single charge over 1019 kilometres.

Their prototype vehicle for the record attempt is a three-wheeled custom-built EV ‘monopod’.

“We have to keep the vehicle as light as possible in order to use as little power as possible – the heavier the vehicle the more power you need to move it, which would drain the battery.”

They made an attempt in March this year, intending to drive through the night and swap drivers, travelling at speeds of around 40km/h.

 Things did not go to plan.

“Quite early on the axle developed a crack,” Hill says. “And we were getting electrical interference back to the main board. So we had to pull out.”

Electric vehicle monopod on the trak
The custom-built three-wheeler in action on the track

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Undeterred and still confident in their vehicle, they spent the next day fixing it and then took it to the track again to show it off at the annual Electrikhana – an electric vehicle showcase event.

“We strapped a bigger motor onto the car and my brother Peter was doing 55km an hour, sliding through corners. We were trying to drive for 200km.

“At 196km, one of the back tyres went and he crashed onto the grass. So after a bit of patching, we managed the last four kilometres driving at 5km an hour. All up we did 200km on one-third of the battery charge, which is the equivalent of using 0.13L of fuel every 100km. We were pretty happy with that. We’re looking at trying the record again later this year.”

Having just graduated from the University of Western Australia with a Bachelor of Commerce, Hill is happy working in private equity.

However he is keen to see where his EV building experience can take him.

“It is an expensive hobby but there are ways to commercialise it," he says. "For example, we’ve been asked to do EV conversions for motorbikes.

“But what we’ve learnt by going through all the thinking and logic in the process is stuff we can use elsewhere. We’ve also learned how to code, weld and manufacture things. So it’s made it well worth the money we’ve spent.”


James and Peter Hill holding their winning trophy
James (right) and Peter (middle) with their dad, Chris Hill.

Image credits: Warren Duff / James and Peter Hill

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