Have you ever had one of those cars that was so special it felt like a member of the family? AAA Member Gracie Cole can relate. In 1979, her parents purchased a new Volkswagen bus to accommodate their growing family in California. That bus took Cole, the youngest of four children, home from the hospital, on hundreds of rides to and from soccer practice, on two 10,000-mile cross-country family road trips and, sure enough, for an occasional visit to the AAA mechanic.

When Cole graduated from college, her parents gave her a special gift: the family bus. “They told me two very specific things,” she says. “First, check the oil regularly, and second, make sure I always have AAA.”

The bus was Cole’s constant companion—even her occasional home—as she built a career in outdoor recreation management, earned her master’s degree and became the first woman to unicycle across the United States. Always one for adventure, Cole went to work as an aircraft fuels operator at Antarctica’s McMurdo Station. She didn’t need the Volkswagen there, of course, so she sold it back to her mom. “There has always been one rule for the bus: It needs to stay in the family,” says Cole.

Returning stateside, Cole knew two things: She wanted a new career in mechanical engineering, and she wanted to buy the bus back from her mom. She managed both while pursuing a second bachelor’s degree at the Colorado School of Mines. During her senior year, Cole led a team of 15 Mines students in a capstone project, dubbed “Re-Volt,” to convert her family’s ’79 Volkswagen into a fully electric vehicle (EV).

Gone were the engine, the gas tank and the need for oil changes. In their place was a road trip-ready vehicle powered by 18 batteries, cutting-edge electrical systems and custom components, with plenty of room for loved ones and all their camping gear.

Although the Volkswagen no longer chokes and chortles as it heads up to Colorado’s high country, it has kept its spirit of adventure. So much so that whenever the bus accelerates off the line, Cole thinks of her father, who passed away in 2010. “Wow, my dad would’ve loved that,” she says.

Cole ultimately graduated from Mines as the outstanding senior in mechanical engineering, and Re-Volt won the Fall 2020 Capstone Design Showcase. Her experience leading that team inspired her to pursue a master’s in engineering management at Duke University in North Carolina, while working as a systems engineer for Sierra Space.

As for the bus? Although it’s essentially a brand-new EV under the hood, Cole keeps her AAA Membership Card close at hand. “With Volkswagens, the journey is the adventure,” she says. “Whether we take it road-tripping, camping or just to get groceries, we’ll never leave home without the peace of mind and sense of safety we get from AAA, because even electric vehicles break down.”

This story was featured in the
September/October 2021 issue of AAALiving Magazine

The Juice on Electric Vehicles

Learn more about the experience of going green and the cost of EV ownership.

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