Second-Hand Mobility Project Laboratory

Simson moped can be converted to an electric motor faster than you can build a cabinet

Interview with Carlo Schmid, co-organizer and tutor of the project laboratory Second-Hand Mobility

“Second-Hand Mobility” is a TU Berlin project laboratory. The idea behind this is to convert vehicles with obsolete drive technology in a climate-friendly way instead of disposing of them. The entire life cycle, from production and use to disposal of the vehicles, is decisive for the environmental balance sheet when switching to low-emission means of transport. Using the example of a Simson moped, the concept of a serial conversion of used vehicles to alternative drive systems is examined. In four semesters, a moped is to be converted to electric propulsion. 15 students per semester can participate in different phases of the conversion.

What is "second-hand mobility"?

Carlo Schmid: Second-hand mobility stands for the concept of breathing a second CO2-neutral life into end-of-life vehicles. There are currently just under 50 million combustion vehicles on the roads in Germany. But according to government plans, road traffic is to be climate-neutral by 2050, meaning that the internal combustion engines must somehow be taken off the roads. Typically, this means scrapping them and replacing them with new electric and hydrogen vehicles, the production of which generates enormous amounts of new emissions.

Our solution to this is to electrify a large number of combustion vehicles. The vehicles have half the environmental footprint of new electric vehicles without the production of the body, tires, etc., and could be made available to a wider population due to the lower cost.

I founded the project laboratory to conduct a feasibility study for this. Mopeds like the iconic Schwalbe and others produced by the East German manufacturer Simson lend themselves perfectly to a proof-of-concept: They are widely used in Germany, comparatively inexpensive [Editor's note: Used Simson mopeds start at 1,500 euros], technically simple, and very popular. We are now developing a conversion kit which should make it possible for anyone to convert a Simson moped to an electric system in minutes.

How did you come up with it?

Carlo Schmid:  I've been a big fan of thrift stores for a while now. I think it’s a win-win-win situation: It is cheaper, more sustainable, and more individual than newly produced clothing. I then wanted to transfer the whole thing to the automotive industry, which is responsible for significantly higher emissions. When I read about the project laboratory format, I immediately knew what to do. A week later, the application was submitted.

How do you organize the project laboratory?

Carlo Schmid: There are two tutors and 15 participants per semester. Participants work in teams of up to three students on the technical implementation of the project. The work is very far removed from the usual teaching formats. The groups don’t only communicate internally. Instead, there is a continuous exchange among all 15 students. In addition, there is no large power gap other than during the examination. Each student has an influence on the task they perform. It works similar to how a start-up company would function. The teams resemble development units. To create the prototypes, we use 3D printers, CNC mills, and laser cutters, working our way closer, piece by piece, to the goal of a drivable prototype.

Are you driven by the topic or are you mainly interested in the laboratory format?

Carlo Schmid: Both.I think that the best teaching is topic-driven. This means that every student should have the feeling that they are working on something meaningful. If you give them enough leeway instead of controlling and grading them for every little thing, then in our experience, they are highly motivated and happy to work.We meet once a week for a video conference. Although there is neither compulsory attendance nor points for participation, we are always blown away by the students’ dedication.

What are the greatest challenges - what’s not working quite right yet?

Carlo Schmid: In the beginning, funding was an almost insurmountable hurdle. Without the support of the Chair of Engineering Design and Product Reliability and Professor Robert Liebich's trust, the project laboratory would never have come about. With the regular in-kind support of project laboratories, it is almost impossible to realize projects like ours that require a lot of hardware.

Moreover, it is difficult to develop a meaningful type of examination for a project laboratory like ours. I have just mentioned the advantages of not grading participation. However, this leaves only examination formats such as presentations and written reports. A written exam doesn’t even come into question. This makes it possible to evaluate the quality of the results, but less so how the students arrived at them. I still think that in our case it is the best solution.

What do you take away for your personal development?

Carlo Schmid: I am learning more than ever by running the project laboratory. To use a cliché, I could say that there are new challenges every day. There really is a bit of truth in that, though.When I started the project laboratory, I thought I would mainly learn about vehicle electrification. Now, however, I spend a large part of my time coordinating the students and with external cooperation agreements, e.g. with the university association Foresight Festival, Automobile Marketplace Drivery, and competitions.These include the Green Buddy Award and CESEAR Best Idea 2021. Nevertheless, for me the focus is still on developing the conversion kit.

The conversion kit sounds like an interesting product. Could you imagine selling the built-in modules on a large scale?

Carlo Schmid:  Actually, yes. I can imagine a spin-off. I could launch a start-up with the conversion kits, as I think that the demand is definitely there. There is a video on our website - it’s only a minute long! - in which we filmed the drive module and explained the idea of reusing combustion tools.


Interviewer: Christina Camier