You may not have heard of the Speed Equipment Manufacturers Association, but SEMA, as it’s known, hosts a huge event every year to showcase the hottest parts and technology in the automotive industry. But with cars changing and new types of vehicles appearing on the scene, the 60-year-old organization debuted SEMA Electrified in 2019 to showcase gas-free machinery and parts. Since then, the department has grown from a handful of features to 60 exhibits covering 21,000 square feet.
That’s a big leap for an organization founded by a bunch of performance equipment manufacturers who make their living off gas-guzzling hot rods. And yet it makes sense, says SEMA director of vehicle technology Luis Morales. Everything about the EV market is growing, including the aftermarket for parts, accessories and parts. It makes sense to give these cars their share of the automotive spotlight — even if some of the show’s audience might be anti-electric.
“There will be hard gas or diesel fans who may be hesitant to convert, and that’s okay. We love where we came from,” Morales said PopSci. “Again, we also want to bring in all the new options that come to market.”
Encouraging electrification in the aftermarket
Long before the Prius and other electric cars were even a twinkle in Toyota’s eye, SEMA was formed as an alliance of manufacturers in 1963. Back then, natural gas vehicles were in full swing while alternative fuels were a distant futuristic idea. As hybrid and electric technology began to take off, SEMA leaders began to notice not only new powertrains but also innovations such as portable batteries and complete conversion kits.
SEMA vice president of marketing RJ de Vera points to California-based EV West as an example of a company that has had incredible success selling electric car parts, conversion kits that turn a gas-powered car into an EV, and charging accessories. Interest in full conversions is growing as parts for older gas-powered cars become scarce. After all, an electric motor consists of only a few components, while internal combustion engines can contain hundreds of components.
Conversion kits are a hot aftermarket product, says de Vera, some with waiting lists of two or three years. EVs require no engine, fuel tank or fuel pumps, for example, and really only one moving part: the engine.
(Related: Chevy’s first electric Corvette, the E-Ray, is a heavyweight built to be fast)
“This seems to be more and more a point of interest for many hobbyists doing a restomod,” says de Vera. Restomod is the process of renewing a classic car with more modern technology. “They might think it’s going to be so hard to get the original engine or get gaskets or things that are no longer made, especially for more exotic vehicles. An EV conversion becomes much more enticing because the drivetrain is so simple.”
Discovering the excitement in the EV market
As recently as the 2018 SEMA show, EVs were rare and aftermarket parts even more so. However, slowly, then immediately, interesting new specialized companies appeared. For example, companies like Juice Technology, which was founded less than a decade ago, now sell portable EV chargers that weigh just a few pounds and are capable of charging even in temperatures as low as -22 degrees F or as high as 122 degrees Fahrenheit. This is music to an EV owner’s ears, as temperature fluctuations can greatly affect range and charging. A portable charger for an EV means it can be transported in an emergency, like a charging bank for a smartphone. it’s meant to offer some respite from range anxiety with a quick burst of power to get you to the next charging station.
“Range anxiety is why everyone is focused on getting a car with the most mileage they can get per charge, and that drives up the price of the vehicle, which can make EVs a little less attractive to the consumer,” Morales says. Portable chargers could make this easier. Moreover, it is somewhat old practice in the automotive industry, but in a slightly newer form.
“If you look at the land scene, for example, there are trucks camping 30 or 40 miles off-road. You will notice that they carry their spare fuel, in case they run out of fuel,” he adds. “(These portable chargers) can get you out of a situation where you have to get to a charging station as opposed to calling a tow truck.”
Whether it’s appliances, parts, alternative fuels and engines, or new technology, SEMA leadership strives to embrace it all. Not to mention there is a lot of room for small startups to think creatively, overcome current challenges and grow rapidly in the space.
“It’s not just about (internal combustion) vehicles or electric vehicles,” says de Vera. “It’s really about the culture of being a proud vehicle owner and having that passion for car culture and aftermarket customization and modification. And that’s really our message: to make sure that the love of cars and modifying cars and customizing them lives on for generations.”