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updated 10/3/2006 5:59:30 PM ET 2006-10-03T21:59:30

At first glance, Mike Willmon's 1988 Mitsubishi MightyMax looks like any other pickup cruising Anchorage's streets.

But instead of the rattling and rumbling sounds that typically go with old pickups, Willmon's rig emits a gentle whir that gradually fades as he eases it to a stop at a traffic light. And there's no sight or smell of exhaust fumes as he waits for it to turn green.

That's because Willmon, an electrical engineer, overhauled the truck, replacing its gasoline engine with an electric motor that runs on batteries.

He's part of a small but growing group of people nationwide who are putting together vehicles that run on electricity instead of expensive gasoline or diesel fuel. Lately there's been increased interest in "hybrids," which combine gasoline engines with electric motors. But Willmon and his counterparts have chosen to chuck their gas tanks altogether and rely exclusively on plug-in power.

The electric-car movement isn't new. Organized groups have advocated development of the technology for years, many of them motivated by concerns about harm they think emissions from gas-powered cars may be doing to the environment.

Willmon said he got interested for more practical reasons.

"I'm into it to save money," he said. "I'm not a greenie liberal. In fact, I lean more toward the other side."

About a year ago, facing soaring gas prices and a 20-mile-a-day commute, Willmon said he did some math and figured he'd come out ahead if he invested the time and money to build an electric-powered vehicle.

He sold his 10-year-old Jeep Cherokee for $6,000, bought the Mitsubishi pickup for $1,000 and then spent about $11,000 for the parts needed to convert it to electric, Willmon said.

There are remarkably few parts under the hood, compared with the gasoline-fired engine and its related components like the radiator, alternator, pumps, belts and hoses.

The "Electrabishi," as Willmon has dubbed his rig, needs only the electric motor, a motor controller, a battery charger and a small computer that keeps it all humming.

In the back of the pickup, Willmon built a wooden box that houses the 16 rechargeable, lead-acid batteries that supply the power. They take about four hours to charge and are good for about 40 miles of driving, Willmon said.

Since he started commuting in the Electrabishi in May, Willmon said his family's electric bill has risen about $20 a month. That compares with the $120 it cost to gas up the Jeep each month, he said.

The electric rig does have its drawbacks. It can go only so far before it runs out of juice, and its batteries will wear out and need to be replaced every couple of years, Willmon said.

But the Electrabishi is the Willmon family's second car. His wife, Paula, drives a gas-powered Dodge minivan, which is more suited than a pickup would be for family outings with their two children anyway, Willmon said.

Ron Freund, chairman of the national Electric Auto Association in California, said there are lots of families across the country like the Willmons who have more than one car and typically use at least one of them to drive only short distances.

"Why not make one of them electric?" Freund said.

His group promotes the advancement and widespread adoption of electric-powered vehicles, and seeks to educate people about the pros and cons and teach them how to switch from gas to electric.

Although it takes some money -- from $5,000 to $12,000 for the parts needed to convert a car from gas to electric -- as well as some know-how, Freund said, you don't need a vast amount of technical skill to shift to plug-in power.

In fact, he characterized most of his group's thousand or so members as "shade-tree mechanics."

"These aren't rocket-science skills," Freund said. "You remove components and replace them with something more simple. You don't need a Ph.D. in electrical engineering."

Willmon, who started an Alaska chapter, said he knows of a handful of others in the state who have done their own electric car conversions. He said he hopes to dispel some of the myths that have sprung up about electric cars, including that they don't have the same kind of get-up-and go as their gas-burning counterparts.

The Electrabishi's motor can produce 200 horsepower and can go from zero to 60 miles an hour in about 12 seconds, burning rubber in first and second gear.

That's plenty fast for cruising around Anchorage. "It pretty much hangs with the Mustangs and the Corvettes between the lights," he said.

Copyright 2006 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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