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This week ended a little oddly with Brain off to Louisville to take the test on SPIRITS as part of his grand plan to take over the world of Sommellier and other South African drink experts.

I was left with EVTV again this week. But that is not all bad. I like puttering around the shop by myself and some of my more productive days are spent this way. This week I reprised the Escalade test bench and got the two EVNetics Soliton1 controllers back up and running – more or less – in preparation for moving the motors from the bench to the vehicle.

Under the rubric of “Even a blind hog gets an acorn now and again..” we found that the total length of our assembly from the face of the transmission to the air conditioning compressor clutch was right at 35.5 inches.

And we appear to have about 36.5 inches clear in the vehicle, with another inch to the large tubular cross member on which most of our coolers and heat exchangers mount. As there is a twin fan assembly mounting INSIDE of those heat exchangers, I would say we are going to lose some fans, or more likely have to get something in a tractor version from Summit to go on the other side.

But clearly the very long twin 11 inch motor will fit the car, albeit not by much. As we had the internal fans removed to minimize the length, this is currently looking like a brilliant move. At the point where we are at the side of the road with smoke rolling out of those motors, probably less so. The difference being a pair of XSTURBOS garrett turbocharger air pumps – each purportedly capable of 435 cfm and excusing their ear splitting howl. This may NOT be the quietest EV on the road.

The upgrade of Soliton1 software was surprisingly easy. I hooked a laptop up to the device with an ethernet cable, applied 12v, and started the program UPLOADER.EXE. The new 1.5.1 release being in the same directory, it found the Soliton1, and uploaded the new firmware. When it rebooted the device, it was updated.

Oh, there was a progress bar and an advisory that it was successful. But my role in all this was pretty damned impressively limited. I basically posed and preened and tried to look knowledgeable while all that was going on.

I also had a request from a viewer that we intercede for them in the purchase of an AC50 system direct from HPEVS. We’ve basically always avoided dealing in components as it is kind of like competing with our advertisers. But the advertisers didn’t show up, and the deal is getting progressively harder to do for our viewers in a lot of cases. So I was casting about the net trying to determine what the going rate was on this, as well as on a Zilla 2K a guy was pestering me about (I still don’t know how he knew we had one – he says he SAW it on an earlier video on the rack).

I was struck by a couple of things. There is a kind of deep malaise in the EV components industry. I suppose the David Kois/James Morrison/EVComponents thing did more damage than we thought. And it is true the economy has been a problem. But the landscape looked decimated and moribund. Half the ev components guys are GONE and the other half appear to have not updated their web sites since the middle centuries after the renaissance.

It is truly bleak looking.

I’m juxtaposing in my mind this sad state of affairs with the TRULY improved golden age of conversions that we are clearly IN at the moment. The EVnetics Soliton1 is just beyond conception three short years ago. The batteries are of course infinitely better and substantially less expensive. The motors are better. The HPEVS AC50 and Curtis 1238 controller are frankly MARVELS in some key ways. These guys kind of sauntered onto the scene in quiet mode. A few people tried this very low power AC option and it worked some better than expected. Even on midsized vehicles of 3000 lbs, this very underwhelming spec sheet was actually moving the vehicles quite well.

We’ve done a couple of builds now ourselves and bought the Spyder from Duane Balle who also used this solution. WE’ve run them for awhile. They just don’t get revisited very much. They just work.

I find the setup a little annoying each time. SOMETHING or other gets me. On the swallow it was a weird interaction with a perfectly normal hall effect pedal. But it’s always something. The controller is just a LITTLE too hard to setup for my tastes, certainly compared to the EVNetics Soliton1 but it IS quite flexible, which I do like. It is the ONLY controller where we’ve gotten the hydraulic pressure transducer 0-5v to actually control the regenerative braking, and this is a “feel” item that I “feel” rather strongly about. This is the way to do it. We’ve actually been advised by the HPEVS guys that it won’t work or won’t’ work very long. It has proven bullet proof for us and we have it on Speedster Duh, the Spyder, and the Vantage Van where we stole both the idea and the parts supplier.

Unfortunately, great flexibility and utility usually come at the cost of some configuration angst. Choices are choices. But the 1238 is truly a marvel.

One of our regular viewers, Ryan Fenchel, has a brother in-law working at Curtis’s Livermore Facility, what is called the PMC division. He sent us a fascinating article published in the March 8 edition of a very local small town newspaper titled the Independent. It profiled the PMC division of Curtis Instruments.

Curtis Instruments is a family owned business started in 1960 with about 1000 employees worldwide. The PMC division in Livermore has but 68 employees, but accounts for half the company’s revenues. And therein lies a tale.

My own first EV attempt was in 1980 with a 73 Pinto. It did use a kind of homemade “contactor” but a contactor was actually a series of switches that allowed you to cut the batteries in in various combinations to do various speeds. Kind of like a complicated manual transmission. Your motor was either ON or OFF and when on could be at several different voltages. It was a mess I have to tell you. With lead, you got about 11 miles to a charge. No heat of any kind. Electric cars were tough I tell you.

THere were no MOSFETs. There WAS such a thing as a field effect transistor or FET but it wasn’t really used for high powered applications.

Stephen Post started his conversion somewhat before mine, at age 12. His father worked at Lawrence Livermore Labs and so innovation was a family rite. In 1984, he attacked the control problem using parallel Metal Oxide Semiconductor Field Effect Transistors (MOSFET) to create a “chopper” controller that took the battery output and chopped it into a square wave. This square wave was then “pulse width modulated” to vary the positive portion of the square wave duty cycle from 0 to 100 percent. In this way, the AVERAGE voltage to the motor could be varied. Since motors are mostly a series of inductors, and inductors strongly resist a change in current flow, the high frequency square wave was very much “averaged” by the motors themselves.

He launched Post Motor Controllers, but within a year the company made the radar screen of Curtis Instruments. As Curtis has international distribution and a very good name from providing instrumentation for the space program, the acquisition was a no brainer. The PMC division has had a great result within the company by providing controllers for industrial machinery, primarily forklifts and pumps.

But it DID become the default controller for electric vehicles and the Curtis 1231C remains probably the most widely installed controller in electric vehicle conversions. According to Fenchel, half the employees at Livermore drive EV’s to work. They’re all believers in the cause.

Stephen Post continues as head of the division and Vice President within Curtis to this day.

We found the article fascinating. But it puts us in mind how progress occurs over years and you can be a bit too far ahead of your time.

Enter the curious case of Thomas Davenport. Much like Mr. Post, he too was intrigued by the possibilities. A blacksmith in Vermont, he visited a nearby ironworks and was enthralled by the action of drum with iron spike electromagnetics protruding from it that was turned against finely ground iron ore. The more iron rich particles would stick to the spikes and so very fine iron containing ore could be extracted.

He was so taken with this that he bought one of these Henry electromagnets and took it home and disassembled it. He learned to make his own electromagnets and continued working with it until he developed the first commutated series DC motor.

He attempted to patent the motor in 1835 but the patent office had never patented an electrical device. Electrical apparatus was viewed at the time as part science and part occult mysticism and most adherents that actually made money did so by traveling about giving presentations bordering on magic of various things that could be done with electricity. Kind of a version of stupid pet tricks with batteries.

Davenport enlisted the aid of some famous engineers at Rensselaer Polytechnic, the first American school of engineering and even got Benjamin Franklin Bache, grandson of BF himself, to vouch for the device. Rensselaer actually bought one of the first motors. In 1837 he received the first American patent ever issued on an electrical device – number 132.

We like to view inventors of the past as ignorant provincials lacking the understanding we have today. It was almost never true. Davenport had a FULLY formed vision of what his motor could do and he particularly saw it as THE driving force in railroads, which were JUST then getting underway. He actually built model trolleys, cars, and a railroad on a track that ran on electricity. He also used one of his motors to run a PRINTING PRESS which he used to publish a newsletter on the motor. He had almost everything we use a motor for today correctly envisioned in the 1840’s.

He died bankrupt in 1851, heart broken that Samuel Morse had been credited with invention of the telegraph, which Davenport had apparently also invented earlier. He never achieved any kind of commercial success with his motor. Nor did he see it used for the many things he envisioned, and which indeed it came to be used for.

I’m struck by how FULLY he envisioned and described the motor, its importance, and its future uses. He had not discovered something and failed to understand it’s importance. He had FULLY comprehended it from birth.

The problem, apropos to us in the here and now, were the batteries. Motors in 1834 could only be driven by batteries. There were no generators, or dynamos, invented yet. ANd the batteries were unreliable, expensive, and there was no way of determining how much energy was left in them.

And so steam power was the watchword of the age and there was NO market for electric motors to drive anything – largely because there was no electricity.

The ultimate irony of course, is that the solution lie in the problem. Had he but turned his motor around and turned the shaft by hand, he might have observed that it PRODUCED electricity and might have invented the dynamo as well. That was not to come for some thirty more years. And so Thomas Davenport, was simply decades ahead of his time, with a fully formed vision of electric cars and trains, and electrically driven industry. He foresaw electrically operated looms, textile machines, all of it DECADES before it was remotely possible.

A large segment of our viewership are unduly focused on the concept of IDEAS and place great stock in them. In truth, they are not very valuable and have almost never been the driver in innovation and technology. The ability to develop something or execute and bring a concept to a useful product is the heart of engineering and of technology. Ideas are a dime a freight car load.

And so while I rail in frustration over all the obvious things we don’t’ have with regards to chargers, instrumentation, and so forth, there is another view. How marvelous the things we DO have available to very common everyday sorts at achievable prices in the way of batteries, controllers, motors, and other elements necessary to build an electric car. We may in fact be entering a golden age of componentry.  That rich availability of capable parts can lead to magical, incredible things.

If you watch the march of innovation and technology from the best technical minds and university labs, in steady progression into the maw of the huge corporate creature which grinds and masticates this technology into a churning stew of bits and pieces and industrial magic, it generally remains some lone guy somewhere who found three pieces that fit together in a new way to produce the disruptive technology that changes the game.

But for each of those stories, there are also a hundred Thomas Davenports.  And even keeping the story straight is nearly impossible.  If you look at almost EVERY single inventor credited with the invention of x..  when I was a child, we now know that at least three others that had an excellent prior claim….

To a pessimist, the glass always looks half empty. To an optimistic, always half full. But to an engineer, it looks like the wrong sized glass, with the wrong amount of water in it, and placed probably in the wrong place in the first place. But with a few adjustments….

Jack Rickard