Share →

The more I examine this electric car thing, the more I realize how Alice in Wonderland it has become. We’re seeing the wider press, and by that I mean even those specific to electric cars such as Autoblog-Green, EVCAST, EV World, and others just go gaga over every press release put out by any automobile manufacturer about any electric model announcement. They all swallow every word hook, line and sinker with no critical thought as to what was being said, what was NOT being said, and what the likelihood is of any of it ever happening.

When we started talking about the Mini Cooper project nearly a year ago, Brian and I had a little bet. He thought that if Mini was doing this experimental lease program, they were simply getting something “out there” and would be announcing an electric model certainly within a year – at least before the lease program was up. I told him it would be 3-5 years if they ever did it at all. And we had a spirited discussion about it. I said I put the chances of a production electric mini within 4 years at less than 20%. I should have said what I really thought – less than 2%.

IF we had ANY automotive manufacturer that really got religion and WANTED to produce a pure electric car, there are a couple of problems. And the chances of having one are about the same as having a railroad want to produce DC-3’s, or IBM develop the Apple II Personal Computer, and all for the same reasons. But if they DID, there’s a couple of basic problems.

The cost and time to engineer a new car model are pretty steep. Typically 5-7 years of engineering time and a half billion for a startup or over a billion for an established firm. Why is this?

The business is not quite what it seems. You would be stunned to learn what it actually costs an automobile manufacturer to manufacture your car – the parts, supplies and labor to produce it. A typical $35,000 car costs about $5,000 in parts and labor.

The design process is only partly devoted to the car. What they really have to design is a machine that makes that car. There is of course some design in the car itself, typically about a third. The other 2/3 are devoted to designing the assembly line, specing and procuring and integrating robotic welders and assembly machines, and specing and procuring each of the parts bought from suppliers. Those parts have to arrive at a particular gate, on particular days and times, in particular packaging, for further delivery to particular doors, for staging at particular areas of the line. And this goes for wheels, brakes, axles, seats, rear view mirrors, stereos, transmissions, bumpers, and many many other items they don’t actually manufacture, but purchase.

This machine also consists of the factory workers, which type of worker stationed at what point and doing what task, in what order.

If you design all this, the actual parts and labor per car, your unit costs, can be very low. But of course it is all burdened by a huge overhead of engineering talent, not $45 per hour factory workers but $125,000 design engineers, in droves, who have to design this MACHINE that makes a specific model of a car.

So the business is kind of one of those threshold businesses. It can be operated at many levels, but it more or less works the same. You have to sell x thousand cars to break even, and it’s typically a relatively large number. I call it thresholdy. If you make it across the threshold, it rains money. So if you can reach your 325,000 unit threshold, for EVERY car you manufacturer over that, you make 6X your costs – it literally rains money.

Of course, the other end of that is that for every car UNDER the 325,000 magic number, you LOSE an almost unlimited amount of money.

Last year’s credit squeeze caused EVERYBODY to miss their number. That’s why GM needs $80 billion dollars. Almost everyone buys cars on credit. And when credit locked up, so did vehicle sales. And they missed their VERY large magic numbers very badly. But the huge buildings full of engineers continue to eat money all the while.

The head of the autoworkers union was actually on television and said “look, if we agree to work for FREE for the rest of our lives, it won’t get GM out of the financial bind they are in.” Everyone laughed at the guy. We all know that the reason the American automakers can’t make money is the ridiculously high “union wage” GM and Chrysler and Ford are forced to pay.

The irony is that the guy was exactly right and quite knew what he was talking about. The blond chippie chick “journalists” on TV howled with mirth, because they are so woefully ignorant of everything they report on, they can’t tell fact from fiction.

But the labor costs are part of the $5000 unit costs. And what was killing the companies was the design engineering overhead.

So what has this all got to do with electric cars? Well, aside from the fact that a lot of the revenue streams kind of dry up with the electric car, it basically takes a huge amount of money and typically 5-7 years, to develop these lines. It’s not about drawing a pretty car on a computer. So if an emergency was declared and they truly believed EVERYONE would ONLY want electric cars, it could be done in 4 years.

And that’s about all there is to it. GM may indeed deliver the Volt by November 2011 – maybe about 500 of them. But it will certainly take longer to get the machine up and running to make sufficient numbers where you will be able to get one. There’s no magic wand to wave here.

The second problem has to do with the concept of a true electric car. I’ve made no secret of my disdain for hybrids. Hybrids inherit the complexities and disadvantages of BOTH the electric drive train AND the internal combustion driver train, while pretty much negating the advantages of either. Not that either is partiicularly good or bad, but rather that in the act of combining them, you have to deal with the weight and low storage of batteries, while you have to deal with fueling and storage of gasoline and all the negatives of running a petrol motor as well. The main advantage of an electric car is that it has no internal combustion engine and related systems. The main advantages of an ICE vehicle, are their quick refueling, and extraordinary power. When you combine them, you wind up with inadequate electric range, and inadequate piston power.

But even the automakers who proclaim that they have religion – such as GM with the Volt, have a problem. And the problem is that we run out of gas. 10,000 of us a day do it. I’ve done it. Almost everyone has. With an ICE car, it’s pretty much no harm no foul. You put more in it, and you can go on your way. With a battery driven car, there is harm, and it is foul. You destroy the battery pack. The $10,000 battery pack.

Now since childhood we have become acculturated to the concept of batteries. We got Christmas toys that wouldn’t run because the batteries weren’t included and no one thought to buy them and there is nothing open on CHristmas day. We played with flashlights and…. well you know what happens when the batteries run out. ANd as adults we have battled through laptops and cell phones, and we just know quite a bit about batteries…

And the big question all newbies have about electric cars is of course the “range” question.

So if you go to a dealer and talk about buying an electric car, you are going to have a couple of questions. The first will be about the range, (how long will the flashlight shine before the light goes out) and the second question is “how much do the batteries cost?

At one point, before the introduction of the Maglight, flashlights were basically free. The battery companies would INCLUDE a flashlight with a battery purchase.

So we know how this story goes.

The brlilliant answer, and actually the only answer that will result in a sale is really about the batteries, not the range. And the answer is that they are under “warranty”. GM is now claiming a quite generous 10 years and 150,000 miles on the batteries in the Volt, which is odd since they haven’t really fully developed, much less tested them.

And that brings us to running out of gas. If you warranty the batteries, you can’t ALLOW them to run out of gas. So you add an ICE with generator, and monitor the pack voltage. When it gets down to a certain voltage level, you automatically kick in the generator to save the batteries.

We’ll call it a “range extender” because that’s the other question they are worried about. And if they don’t mind putt-putting along on a three cylinder chain saw motor, they’ll have plenty of “range.”

Interestingly, the CEO of BMW went on conference call to discuss their less than stellar sales and earnings over the past two quarters. In the hopes of pointing to a brighter future, he pointed to the success of the Mini-E program. Actually the Mini-E program has been plagued by a host of technical and logistical problems. It was rather rushed to market in what is now being clearly seen as a move to cash CARB credits before the June 30 2009 deadline while taking advantage of a comical loophole in the byzantine CARB regulations.

But what was amazing was that he noted that what they learned from the Mini program would be very valuable for a brand new Magna City model they had planned for 2012. That year is another magic CARB date, by the way. But more importantly, he made NO mention of ANY plans to produce an electric Mini Cooper of any variant at all.

Cars such as this, the Mitsubishi iMiev, and the Nissan Leaf may indeed make it into production in two or three years. They will be comical little pieces of car, and I do not think they will be particularly well received by the public.

So who has the best shot at actually producing a desirable production car? Well, Tesla obviously, though in small numbers. And believe it or not, I think this Smart for Two car has legs. It is actually very cute, fully featured, (remarkably fully featured for a car this size) and they are experimenting with an electric model. I think it has legs.

But now to everyone’s darling, Tesla. And the real heart of the dark side of electric cars. Proprietary Technology. EVERYONE wants to shut EVERYONE out of the game. The classic pig at the trough scenario.

Its really not a problem for us, because we are shitcanning the whole engine. But the 2009 Mini Cooper Clubman has an Engine Control Unit they call the DME. It’ s a computer that monitors ignition, air intake, fuel flow, timing, etc to keep the engine running at peak performance and efficiency. But YOU can’t program it. Only BMW service centers can. And in fact, this ECU is SERIALIZED and matched to the motor. A guy here in Missouri had a brand new car that was struck by lightning. The car really wasn’t damaged but the ECU was smoked. He had to take it to the BMW dealer in St. Louis. They fixed it alright. And presented him with a bill for $3500 (on a $30,000 car – over 10% of the purchase price) for a new ECU. He told them to take it back out. And he subsequently sold the car for a fraction of what he paid rather than pay them this amount.

You basically cannot work on your MIni Cooper engine if it involves the ECU. In fact, you can’t change the program, you can’t replace the ECU, and you can’t use your ECU on any other engine.

Tesla. Everyone’s darling. It’s a Lotus Elise with an electric motor. Well done, but that’s what it is. Their web site actually says that THEY designed the clay body etc. and that the Tesla shares less than 7% of the parts of the Elise. It’s actually true, but it’s not true the way they claim. The 7% includes the body, frame, chassis, suspension etc. Since the ENGINE has over 2500 parts, and the transmission a couple of hundred more, if you count the NUMBER of parts, it has less than 7% of the parts in the Elise. But it’s a slightly modified Elise glider.

But the one that just drives me insane is the charging connector. They are now charging some $3000 for their “charging station”, about $1500 for a 240vac extension cable, and $600 for a totally useless 120 vac charging cable.

Let’s get a couple of things straight. First, the “charging station” is not a charger. The actual charger converts AC supply to a DC voltage to charge the batteries. It’s built into their Power Electronics Module or PEM that contains the controller, DC-DC converter, and charger.

The “charging station” is a barely glorified AC power receptacle. It has a couple of items in it. A ground fault interrupt circuit. A control pilot circuit. And the cord. It’s tied to wiring into your electrical panel. It can handle (and the Tesla can eat) 70 Amperes of current at 240 VAC.

This charge station DOES have another magic bit. It’s an electrical connector that fits the car. Actually, this connector is made by Amphenol. Amphenol makes probably the best electrical connectors in the world and their major customer is the U.S. government, and virtually every DOD contractor. They make MILSPEC connectors primarily but they do sell versions of them for the civilian market. They are indeed expensive, but well worth it. And they have many standard connectors with four contacts in about that shell size that would work admirably. Tesla worked out a custom connector with them with the proviso that they NOT sell this connector to anyone but Tesla. A Proprietary charging connector?

The idea is patently absurd. They are advocating cities and other public and private entities to build charging stations where you can recharge your electric car. But they want a proprietary connector nobody can buy except through them? It is just ridiculous. Surely they do realize that SOMEBODY else is going make an electric car and the concept of them MONOPOLIZING electric cars in the future is a pretty far reach… Nobody is going to do charging stations with a DIFFERENT connector for EACH type of car?

The usual move is to open source your connector so that as many people start using YOUR connector before the standards bodies can establish standardized connectors. This is how the Hayes AT command set wound up in everyone’s modems years after it made any sense at all.

The Society of American Engineers (SAE) is supposed to be out for balloting on the proposed J1772 standard as you read this. This is a five pin connector. It features two large pins for high current AC voltage, a neutral, an interlock pin to disable the car while the cord is plugged in, and the Control Pilot signal.

The Control Pilot is a bit interesting. This is a 1 kHz 12v square wave. The pulse width of this signal indicates what current the charge station is capable of supplying. Your charger is supposed to know and be able to limit itself to that amount of current. The signal is also used to detect the presence of an onboard charger in the car. The charge station doesn’t actually turn on the current until the plug is connected and it has determined what level of resistance the charge circuit is presenting to indicate that a car is connected. THEN it turns on the power.

All in all, not a bad scheme. A ground fault interrupt circuit compares current levels in the two power lines. If one is higher than the other by about 10 milliamps, it reads this as a short to ground or the frame of the car. It will disable the charger. In the event there is some chewed or worn cable that does connect the AC to the vehicle frame, this will disconnect the power before you can really be electrocuted by touching the car.

Yazaki so far is the only one making the connector. We talked to them last week and they seem to have had some incident, problem or objection, and they are back to the drawing board on this one. This might indicate a delay with J1772 adoption, or it ight have just been a manufacturing snag.

In any event, a standard plug will happen, and we would think soon. Which makes Teslas activity with the charging connector on their roadster absolutely mystical. In fact, it is not even in their interests so I’m going to claim it is one of the stupidest moves I’ve seen by an electric car builder. They COULD have been the defacto standard just by filling the vacuum while all this was going on. Instead, they’ve alienated the people who were their customers. No news there. See Hitlers dilemma.

So we are officially retiring our advocacy of electric cars. Actually, we have refined it or replaced it with a new mission OPEN SOURCE CUSTOM ELECTRIC CARS.

We advocate true electric cars. And we do not limit ourselves to funny little true electric cars like the GEM and the MIEV. But rather to cars you might WANT. Corvette electric cars. Volkswagen electric cars. Porsche electric cars. Lotus electric cars. Even 1965 Datsun pickup electric cars. Basically Custom Electric Cars built by individuals or conversion shops as the CARS YOU WANT TO OWN AND DRIVE. Neil Young has a classic Lincoln electric car. So can you. And we advocate the advancement of OPEN SOURCE components. I don’t care if they publish the schematics or software. I mean parts and components that anyone can buy for money without having to qualify as an OEM and enter some secret backroom deal to screw the American public into the floor. An END to this proprietary parts madness. Your “qualification” for a component for an electric vehicle should be your willingness to PAY for the thing. Not your prospects to order 100,000 of them. Five years from now, if you want to upgrade your batteries, you should be able to chose from a NUMBER of vendors who can compete on power, quality, life, price, or whatever they want to offer as an advantage. If they are trying to offer you a MONOPOLY on a part, they should be brought up on charges, fined, and imprisoned.

This goes for batteries, controllers, motors, wiring, and yes, the charging connectors. A 14-50 connector costs $6.97 at Lowes. It will handle 50 amps at 240 volts. If you want to design something that will do 80 amps and has nearly TWO FREAKIN DOLLARS WORTH OF PARTS IN IT to make a 1 kHz square wave, great. That’s not a $3000 item partner. I think everyone that touches electric cars should make a profit. I have no problem with profits. Monopolistic “tricks” where “you were stupid enough to buy our products, and now you are going to pay, read the fine print” seem enormously counterproductive to building a loyal customer base.

Jack Rickard