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It’s been three and a half years since our first video and three years in November since we began a weekly series of videos on electric cars.  The premise was preposterous on the face of it – how to convert a car to electric drive.  And some days I do think I have finally gone over the ever looming edge of madness.

We do a weekly high defintiion video of two hours in length, often two and a half hours – thats more than a feature length movie – every week.  We do it with three or four people.  And we post it on Amazon’s Cloudnet so it is available worldwide.  THIS is a preposterous notion when it started and no less so today.  Why and how could any entity produce two hours of video weekly.  And on electric cars?  It is seven days of effort, starting at five AM here in the hinterland and culminating in a sharp  beginning on the next seven days.  I estimate I can do that until I drop, at which point its not my problem.  The vicissitudes of old age are not attractive to me, particularly given an almost unbelievable propensity toward Alzheimers Disease that runs so deeply in my family that this very tragic disease is actually an ongoing joke to us internally.  But you DO get to meet so many new people every day.

And so I suppose this, coupled with two packs a day of Camels, is my joyous attempt at suicide.  And I’ll be doing what I love when I go.

That is not nearly so dark as some will take it.  I had an intense experience for a dozen years with Boardwatch Magazine.  Tried retirement and golf which did NOT make me happy.  Hard work at something you love, family, and a great cup of coffee and a cigarette, are really where I have found joy in my 57 years.  All else is vanity.

There is no joy in drugs or whiskey.  Only medicinal ease from joint paint.  It’s a tragic substance for most who should avoid it entirely.  For me, sip and glow and enjoy the satisfaction of making it yourself and drinking tax free.

In 2008, while examining newly available batteries from of all places China, it dawned on me that they might be used to make a vehicle move.  We assembled them into a car.  And on Christmas day of 2008 we drove it.  Brain and I took turns driving it in circles.  I couldnt’ get over it.  We tested it over the next six months.  It was an artless build with crude fabrication and a mess of wiring and badly cobbled together ill fitting parts.  But it went 110 miles on one charge.  And it would reach 95 miles an hour on the freeway with sufficient ease to make me uneasy.  The acceleration was not technically impressive by the numbers.  But the feeling of acceleration was very very different.  And most intensely pleasurable.

n 2008, while examining newly available batteries from of all places China, it dawned on me that they might be used to make a vehicle move. We assembled them into a car. And on Christmas day of 2008 we drove it. Brain and I took turns driving it in circles. I couldnt’ get over it. We tested it over the next six months. It was an artless build with crude fabrication and a mess of wiring and badly cobbled together ill fitting parts. But it went 110 miles on one charge. And it would reach 95 miles an hour on the freeway with sufficient ease to make me uneasy. The acceleration was not technically impressive by the numbers. But the feeling of acceleration was very very different. And most intensely pleasurable.

I couldnt’ get over it. I can’t yet. And the haunting thought in driving it was that if ANYBODY knew about this, they would want one. And since almost no one has one, they must not know. It was an obvious candidate for a magazine. A magazine with no inherent reader demand, and no possible ad sale. Only a madman would attempt it.

But I did meet a few others who had the same experience. And there was something oddly familiar in their eyes. With shy shame, they cautiously admitted a passion and enthusiasm for the devices that perhaps exceeded my own. And indeed, some had been working in this area for decades – with much more limited results than we had because of their nearly very nearly useless lead acid batteries or the barely better absorbed glass mat version of the same chemistry. These people were quietly on fire WITHOUT feeling what a real electric car felt like.

I couldnt’ get over it.  I can’t  yet.   And the haunting thought in driving it was that if ANYBODY knew about this, they would want one.  And since almost no one has one, they must not know.  It was an obvious candidate for a magazine.  A magazine with no inherent reader demand, and no possible ad sale.  Only a madman would attempt it.

But I did meet a few others who had the same experience. And there was something oddly familiar in their eyes. With shy shame, they cautiously admitted a passion and enthusiasm for the devices that perhaps exceeded my own. And indeed, some had been working in this area for decades – with much more limited results than we had because of their nearly very nearly useless lead acid batteries or the barely better absorbed glass mat version of the same chemistry. These people were quietly on fire WITHOUT feeling what a real electric car felt like.

I’ve seen that passion before. In the early days of the Internet, there was a body of people who deeply resented the monopoly ownership of communications held by American Telephone and Telegraph. If you wanted to communicate, you could write a letter, or make a telephone call. And if it was more than a few miles, a meter and subsequent bill for substantial ducats went with that. Hurry up, it’s a long distance call. When I predicted in the pages of Boardwatch Magazine that someday all calls in the U.S. would be local, everyone laughed. And in a way, they were right. Today all calls are long distance, with a minutes meter on them. But the cost has dropped so eggregiously that it is effectively free long distance – a national local calling area. And the number of free minutes per monthly contract has risen to the point where you have to be a full time teenage girl to exceed them.

But the rise of the Internet was entirely driven by that passion and that enthusiasm. The quest to exchange electronic mail and information online took on certain aspects of a religious experience. And the adherents had drunk deeply of the koolaide. And so it was a very exciting time with every little gain marked by celebration. A clumsy cobbled together mess for most of the development, it was much much more expensive than making a long distance telephone call. It made no economic sense at all. A lowly 3 line bulletin board might entail $30,000 of expense to the “sysop”. A connection to the NSF Arpanet started at $2000 per month – with 56kbps of bandwidth to use any way you might. And since no one needed that much bandwidth, it was cut up into pieces and shared with 20 or so simultaneous 2400 bps connections over it. Which of course you could sell access to. We had to coin a term for this, and I selected Internet Service Provider or ISP. At the peak, there were 7500 of them. And 125,000 bulletin boards.

The start of all this I would mark as 1983-1985 or so. Vinton Cerf et al released the Internet Protocol and Tom Jennings et al released the FIDO software for Fidonet. I sold the company in 1998 when the Internet had become a craze. 15 years.

It was 16 years from the introduction of the personal computer until it was adopted by 25% of the population in the U.S. The same metric for cell phones was 13 years. The adoption of a technology is actually a kind of a slow process as the product evolves and becomes more usable, and as the cost drops. A large ticket item like a PC has a little more expanded diffusion curve than a less expensive up front cost for a cell phone. But every dog has its due. And the adoption proceeds at its own pace in a very predictable curve.

This curve was first described by Dr. Everett Rodgers in his seminal work “Diffusion of Innovation” in 1962. It derived from his study of the adoption cycle of new hybrid seed corn variants among farmers in the U.S. And during the following 50 years, as the pace of techological progress went into a kind of hyperkinetic frenzy, this diffusion curve was found to be immutable. It just was.

Today, a very great thing has happened. We’ve just been through a firestorm of sound and fury worldwide over the obvious advantages of using electric drive for personal mobility. But it is a BIG ticket item. After your house, your largest expense. Your car. And that portends a very long adoption curve.

Communication channels are part of the variable input. Better communications means faster adoption. Higher price to play means a slower one. Where does it all come out?

Well it doesnt’ come out to three years guys. That’s where it DOESN’T come out. No matter how clear the advantages, and how much you spend on the introduction, a population doesn’t adopt a $28,000 device in three years. It is just a preposterous notion.

Some would say it has been over a hundred years. It has not. The electric car did not ever exist prior to the ready availability of LARGE format lithium ion cells to the general public. That was 2008 if anyone cares. Kind of like 1983 to me.

The car of a hundred years ago was broadly as capable as a gasoline car. But it depended on a fuel source that per mile was FIVE TIMES as expensive as gasoline and mostly unavailable throughout the land, with the exception of a few cities. Today, electricity is much more than five times LESS expensive than gasoline per mile, and it is ubiquitous. But the cars were not broadly as capable as gasoline cars because of the batteries. As of 2008 they are ROUGHLY as capable for most people.

And so when would we look for 25% of the population to adopt them? Better communication channels and higher initial cost, I could only guess. But I’d put it at 14-18 years. From 2008.

For that to happen, two things must occur. Price has to fall to a plausible value proposition, and the public has to be acculturated to the innovation.

If 100,000 guys go in their garage and build an electric car, the expenditures for components will form a market. Developers can feed that market and as volumes go up component costs come down. The 100,000 is still a tiny market, but that’s how these things start. Tiny gains are forward amplified. That’s why the curve is nearly horizontal at the beginning. It’s a bootstrap process.

But the important part is the communications. Not all communication is equal. You can’t believe everything you read on the Internet. And we’ve actually become intensely cynical about the paid advertising message. Today, even our news organizations have made a bad trade with the devil in my estimation. They had a trusted source position when Walter Cronkeit was running it. They voluntarily forfeited it in an absolute frenzy of whoring. So an ever increasing segment of our population simply do not believe them any more. In fact, an ever increasing segment don’t even WATCH them any more.

And so in an age of wildly expanding communication channels, the channels are actually LESS effective because they are less believed, less trusted.

The 100,000 guys are mostly trusted. At least by friends and family and often near acquaintences.

There is another aspect to the Diffusion of Innovation that must be understood viscrerally. It is NOT a bloodless exercise in holding hands and singing Kumbaya. Disruptive technologies ALWAYS displace existing ones. In theory, film and digital photography could co-exist. In practice, Eastman Kodak is no more. Cell phones and land lines were interactive and each offered distinct differentiated advantages. But any business model today based on landlines is comically misplaced today.

In theory gasoline cars and electric cars can coexist. But only during the curve. If the electric car offers the advantages I believe it does, for every electric sold, one less gasoline powered car will be sold. What is the history of the DISPLACED industry introducing the Disruptive innovation? It COULD be done in theory. But I havent’ a go-by to offer hear. It is unheard of.

Now in the aftermath, we see both cable television and all telcos and cell phone companies essentially taking over Internet access. The 7500 ISPs are for the most part gone. And indeed, it appears for all the world that AT&T and Charter Cable, indeed invented the Internet right along side Microsoft. None of that every happened. But the history is easy enough to rewrite with enough hired publicists.

And so the automakers of today are unlikely to put much into the curve. On the backside they will of course own it if they want to survive. But don’t get the cart before the horse. We are a long way from the end game.

And so today’s video is kind of a “where we are in space and time” attempt to reorient our viewership as to who’s who and what’s what circa 2013. And in my unqualified but nonetheless strongly held opinion, we are at the very EARLY part of the tinkerer and innovator stage. Where nothing quite works, it’s all cobbled together, and the components and cost to paly are just heroically expensive.

That’s also the zone where the very greatest profit potential, the frontier of opportunity lies.

That point also carries the pitiful appearance of what I call the weary pioneer. In traipsing across the prairie, this fatally tragic figure just sees one two many fights with the indians, fords one too many swollen stream, and gives up the fight – right at the California border. Or more tragically falling dead face first into the South Fork of the American River, at Sutters Mill. Two days before gold is discovered laying on the river bed there.

We have many uncelebrated pioneers of the EV industry that labored long and early. They actively resent us newcomers with our fancy batteries and multicontroller controlled electronics. I’m sorry. There is NOTHING you can do for these people. Let them lie where they fall and move on. Stopping to bury them can be fatal here in INdian country. I distinctly recall valiant contributors to the computer bulletin board systems who did not really approve of all this connecting up via the NSFnet backbone. OR this irreligious concept of charging for access. It was anathema.

So that’s the reset this week. I think we are at a moment when AZD is bankrupt, Fisker and Coda very nearly so, and the field strewn with startups that have failed, and ENORMOUS corporations coming to grips with the fact that their hugely funded introductions of electric cars are NOT selling to the general public. Just as I predicted, once the low hanging fruit of latent demand for electric cars (YOU) was gone through, there was no one next to sell them to. And that’s truly where we are.

The vehicle has to be improved, made easier, and most importantly of all, the value proposition has to be developed to a plausible state. The only practical way to OWN an electric car is to remove the profit, the overhead, and the labor. And that means doing it yourself. In doing so, you BECOME one of the tinkerers and innovators. And that’s where we are.

The OEM introductions were not without value. There will be much to be gained feeding on the abandoned carcasses for parts, components, reusable items. And they DID raise public awareness of the electric vehicle. Ground was certainly gained. But in the end, they were playing at an end of the adoption curve where they just can’t play. They cannot afford to do the innovation and engineering and production line development for a few hundred cars. If I sold 200 cars I wouldn’t know where to hide the money. If AZD sells 200 cars, they don’t know how to liquidate the company. At this end of the curve, ANYTHING that sells at all can be scaled UP. But NOTHING can be scaled DOWN. There is no scaling down. And that’s why a large automaker cannot play, and cannot displace itself with a disruptive technology introduction.

When it comes to reading the press releases with a critical eye, I might point out another little gem you should be aware of. Tesla Motors is NOT Elon Musk’s brainchild. It was and is the dream of again one man, JB Straubel. Mr. Straubel has been building and converting electric cars in his garage for TWENTY YEARS. This was HIS dream. He managed to have a conversation with Elon Musk, who had $200 million from the sale of PayPal. I have no doubt in all sincerety that Elon Musk caught the virus from Straubel and is a true believer. But that’s the history of the thing. They posture and preen for investors and an IPO and Wall Street and so on. It will be some time yet before the cache of the home garage innovator becomes sufficiently alluring that they trot JB out to make the claim. They want to be taken seriously now as an “OEM” world class “automaker.” When that image no longer serves, they’ll write up a new one. But the reality is that backyard sports car designer got OPM from investor Elon Musk, and built assembly line for his design vision. A lot of other no doubt smart and dedicated people added in by ducats along the way. My fear is they have just designed Steve Jobs NeXT Cube. Incredibly attractive technological marvel – priced beyond the means of even the most ardent and well heeled techno geek. The value proposition. They did sell 2500 ish Roadsters. They are attempting to scale up, but tragically at the same prices as the 2500 units. I guess I think that dog won’t hunt. I sincerely hope they survive it. However much they deny it, they are us.

More to practical matters, this week we hosted a visit from Paul Dove and Kenneth House of the Marshall Space Flight center in Huntsville Alabama. They are among several teams hopefully that will make hay toward what I am proposing, a Generalized Electric Vehicle Control Unit – GEVCU. We’ll be publishing our initial design spec this week hopefully.
We invite anyone who believes they have the skills and moxey – along with one of our DMOC645s and Siemens motor, to form a team and attempt the same thing. Ed Clausen has declared for this mission as well. One viewer who promised me all the embeded code I could ever want for a DMOC645 disappeared when I pointed out that could eventually come to a LOT of embedded code. But I think having several seperate efforts, at least initially, is a very attractive notion.

An entirely open source hardware open source software generalized VCU has several advantages. First, it lets us interface ANY inverter to any car. But more subtly, it shifts the product support function strongly AWAY from the developer of the inverter and into the open source community developing the GEVCU. They become a black box to the end user and their product support mission kind of falls to making sure they work ok with the GEVCU. Interfacing their product to the car becomes a GEVCU funciton and we will have support forums and documentation and so forth for the GEVCU. Hopefully we can simplify it sufficiently that that will work.

THAT implies that these guys with these products, such as UQM, and Rinehart and Sevcon and so forth can then sell these devices to individuals at comparative prices to what they sell them to OEM’s and startups. This two tiered pricing system is an abomination. But the support costs are indeed very real and inescapable. So you have a drive train that is $35,000 to the individual, or $7000 to an OEM. This is just a mess.How about $7000 and $8500 for a start. If all the details of operation are centered in the GEVCU, they are off the hook for product support. It comes down to DOA or not DOA at that point. Does it work with that motor or does it NOT work with that motor.

In a perfect world, these guys would have collaborated on their own GEVCU. But then they would have had to support it. I suppose we need to serve as the man in the middle.

But that’s the pubic good I see from an open source vehicle control unit. A standardized interface for you to build an electric car, using your CHOICE of motors and inverters, and those motors and inverters avaialable at a more believable price point.

The results depend on the development teams and how well this is implemented. But I’m very hopeful at this point.

By the way, Chris Brune of Rinehart tried to get me to see this two years ago. I’m slow. I’m obstinate. But grudgingly trainable. He spoke very clearly on the topic. I just wasn’t smart enough to get it at the time.

Jack Rickard