Share →


I suppose innovation is the topic this week. I love it. I think it’s what most of this is about. If you ever wonder if this custom car thing is going to catch on, and have been off planet for the last 100 years, I would note that a couple of Nissan engineers in Arizona have made a Nissan Leaf Pickup.


That is not to say I like the Nissan Leaf Pickup. Or don’t like it. Or want one. Or don’t want one. It’s that a couple of Nissan engineers BUILT one. Hardly blessed by Carlos Ghosn. They just did it.

And so it goes. For most of the traveling public, a car is a car. For many, it’s an identity and it’s true that America’s love affair with the automobile has proven pretty much universal, spreading worldwide. But for most, you order whatever kind of car you like and drive whatever kind of car they give you. All in one of six standard colors.

That’s not to say they are good cars or bad cars or big cars or little cars. But they are production cars mass produced by design. Were it not so, they would be hugely more expensive all the way around.

That said, for a few, the urge to modify or customize it into something uniquely their own is not to be denied. For some, adding a cupholder pretty much scratches the itch. At the other extreme, some just have to build a car from scratch – pipebender and welder akimbo.

The electric car technically doesnt’ exist. Neither the number of custom electric cars nor the number of production electric cars quite merits the press it gets, or any press at all for that matter. There IS kind of a fascination with them, modulated by the FEAR of the different and the unknown and untried. Like any new technology, they are horrifically expensive – either way: production or custom. We hear all the time from people wanting to save money on their gasoline bill. We routinely DISCOURAGE them. Financially, electric cars are a huge loser.

I know I risk excommunication from the priesthood for even whispering this, and I will no doubt be besieged by e-mailed spreadsheets from around the world showing ABSOLUTELY that you can electric car yourself into the noveau riche just on the savings of gasoline. But almost all will be from those promoting electric cars or contemplating a build, not from anyone who actually drives one.

It’s true few hobbies actually SAVE you money at all anywhere, and I wouldn’t recommend “huntin an fishin” as a good way to save on groceries. The price of both bass and deer meat if you count all of it is pretty dear. But electric cars remain at this point an economic loser for any individual putting charge to battery.

Still, you have to ask yourself what the payback period is on your 60 inch big screen. It’s all about choices and some choose to spend their time puzzling through the process of how WOULD a more efficient car be made to work. It’s a fascinating mental exercise, and you get to drive your results. Pretty damn good as hobbies and avocations go.

I get six e-mails a week noting that the show is over and EVTV can go home because the electric car is in production now by the real “pro” automotive manufacturers and the DIY gang is just past their day. ????? What planet are these guys typing themselves smart from? They need to type harder. Because so far it isn’t working out for them.

The model for us is of course Summit Racing. Summit Racing started in 1968 selling a few custom parts to friends. Today, they have three 25,000 foot stores and 3 even larger “distribution” centers stocking literally MILLIONS of custom parts for cars. They are still a private company and do not give out their business information but each facility has like 24 loading docks running 24×7 and it has to be way past $100 million in annual sales.

So in an $80 billion dollar automotive market, the little bitty tiny group that has to customize their car to make it their own, or the even tinier group that builds hotrods, weekend race cars, and specialty vehicles, that still comprises a really HUGE thing.

I’ve many times talked about the origins of essentially ALL of our large corporations such as Ford Motor Company, Apple Computer, Eastman Kodak, Hewlett Packard and on and on and on as almost always hailing from two guys in a garage. I mention that because it simply escapes most people entirely. But it is very nearly 100%. ALcoa started in a guys basement. GE started in Thomas Edison’s Menlow Park. Google, Cisco, Microsoft, Facebook. It isn’t that the list goes on. There’s nobody on the OTHER list of how it happened otherwise.

The one thing they all had in common was an ability to see larger things coming out of small initial beginnings. I can’t tell you how often I’m approached by people looking for a great idea to start a small business that could grow into something. It’s astounding to me how disappointed they are in my many brilliant ideas. Any one of which could be a billion dollar enterprise. But the “beginnings” of it are always disappointing to them. Beneath them really. There’s no market for it. There’s no money in it. There’s nothing there.

Everything you need is there. The whole world is there. That’s where everything starts. If you want to jump to the END where it is a $60 billion company, you are entirely welcome to. But you work for them. And at this point you kind of have to start at the bottom of the dog pile doing that.

As most of our population drives off the shelf manufactured cars in one of the six standard deluxe colors, it comes as no surprise that most of them work for somebody else at a job. And they should. If you can’t see the dinosaur in the egg, you have no business frying eggs.

And at anything, it follows the standard bell curve that the technology adoption curve is likewise based on. Months turn into years of grueling effort bumping along as a bottom feeder, with gradually accelerating success. As most quit before the success part, it’s not really a very competitive world after all. Last man standing wins.

But it’s very hard to see. This week we really step back out of the limelight and do some kind of long looks at the efforts of some of our viewers. Damien Maguire shows you the pain and the danger of mating an unknown motor with a kind of different shaft to a known transmission and turning it up with an entirely made up inverter driven by an open source and not very developed microcontroller and software. He awoke to find his idle feature had been implemented in software while he slept although it never was tested on anything anywhere in the world. Let’s turn her up and see. SucksssEsse. We tink…

That he turns up a 100kw electric motor to 6000 rpm with the TEETH of the flex plate whizzing past like a TREE CHIPPER with the motor lying LOOSE ON THE TABLE is kind of exciting in a deranged way. I’m not a safety Nazi but I really don’t advise this approach. A piece of angle iron and a couple of bolts through the bench top don’t slow things down THAT much around EVTv.

I actually edited down EIGHT videos of about 30 minutes each to get this under an hour – which is probably our longest ever video from the field. I hope I did the process justice. He put a lot more effort into this than it appears in the final clip we did.

Will he wind up heading the next General Motors – only electric this time? I don’t know. And I doubt it matters. He’s clearly devoted to the avocation of being a serial killer of ICE cars converting them one at a time to electric drive as long as any are left that spell Buy Me Whenever.

He does have a YouTube channel and I would advise you to subscribe for another reason. And not to disparage him. But he didn’t start out fully formed. He has gone through quite an evolution, fearlessly learning step by step what works and what is somewhat explosive. He’s built headway packs the hard way, and replaced them the hard way. But he learns a bit more every single day he goes to the garage.

And a remarkable thing has happened along the way that I can’t quite explain or account for. With each video he’s done, he stands a little straighter. He speaks a little louder and with a bit more authority. In fact, a kind of serious speech problem seems to be improving weekly. We tink. Maybe it’s just how the Irish talk I’m not sure. He actually seems to get a little taller. A bit more confident. If anything more fearless. The furtive eyes are starting to peer into the camera directly. And I kind of have the sense that I’m watching a sweaty little dwarf grow into a defiant giant before my eyes. So why do they water so… If he would just turn down the volume on that god foresaken milling machine…and his hole saw.

We also hosted a visit from Kevin Smith and Nathan Knoppenberg the previous week. I had it on flash card but didn’t quite know what to do with it. It’s an hour as well. But we kind of talk about the innovation thing.

Kevin works for the State of Illinois Environmental Protection Agency. Nathan also works for the state government regulating nursing homes I think. They joined forces a few years ago to compete in the Progressive Insurance XPRIZE competition for the most efficient alternate fuel vehicles. There class had a $5 million award for the winner and at the end of the competition, they had it in the bag on points. During the last round, the clutch on their transmission failed and they were unable to complete the final lap of the competition. And so they sat helpless on the track, watching $5 million go to someone else, who ALSO didn’t complete the competition but got just further than they did. After a year of late night efforts and pouring all their personal resources into this one grand delusion – they failed. In public, and without recourse.

Understand and do not equivocate – it was a TOTAL failure and a very public humiliation.

On the other hand….

Five or six clowns in a corn field outside Springfield Illinois, knowing essentially BUTT about ANY kind of car or having any sort of mechanical aptitude, raised a hundred grand and built an electric car from DIRT using junkyard parts and ALMOST won the Progressive Insurance XPRIZE $5 million.

And what did they do with their failure? There isn’t going to BE another Xprize. But they still have the car. And they still work on it. And today, it is a four passenger vehicle, quite comfortable at highway speeds indeed featuring a top end of 130 mph. And it uses 147 watt hours to push 2900 lbs of mass (not counting Kevin and his never miss a meal companion) down the road at a weight to watt hour ratio somewhere over TWENTY TO ONE. They call it 200 mpgE. Or MPGe. Or something.

And here they are with two new possibilities. One is some new window tint film to cut down on the solar heat gain of the vehicle – passively reducing the air conditioning energy costs. The other is a permanent magnet linear motor/generator they think will generate 72 volts at some current implying 250 watts from the 3mm variation in road surface felt through the vehicle suspension.

What do I think about that? It’s hard to say. I struggle to think cogently through the tears…

I walk through a land of heroes and giants who have no idea who they are or what they look like to me. I feel like the one-eyed king in the land of the sightless. Do any have the vision to see what is before you? It is a miraculous time. With enormously powerful spirits doing amazing world changing things by whim.

But if you can’t see it I can’t show it to you…You’ll be left whining about the white balance and the quibbling over the cost of AN fittings in Ohio.

There is another side to it. Not all innovation is innocent. And some is frankly opportunistic. I really wouldn’t mind, but my e-mail box tends to fill up with the frustrated victims. In this episode, we kind of “out” the EVMotorWorks guys and the home grown DIY charger. I’ve mixed emotions about this which is why we’ve delayed on this. Two years ago I sold one of these chargers to Dale Friedhoff and he blew it up within a week. We gave him another charger of different make and returned it to “Valery” for replacement. Four months later we got it back right around the time he wanted me to carry his latest “product” which also didn’t work very well.

The ambition is actually kind of laudable. The guy has developed a design which orignally was NOT his own, but a DIY design on the DIYelectricjunk forum. Damien, curiously has BUILT this charger and it does work. But Valery attempted to productize it into a kit and an assembled product.

I disregard the kit entirely. You buy a kit you are responsible for the outcome. But he has sold a number of the assembled chargers. And i hear from them. Because they ALL blow up. It’s not whether. It is when. And it can take MONTHS to get Valery to do anything about it. Meanwhile, the ardent following of bottom feeders who desperately want a 24kw charger for $1200 to somehow be true, keep TOUTING it. Jehu and I kind of fell out over this charger over a year ago. He had failed both with the kit and the assembled charger but was STILL TOUTING IT as a great thing on his videos. It’s like a religion.

This week he release a video finally falling on his sword on this one – AFTER getting stranded 125 miles from home with a charger failure.

And with astounding hubris, Jehu is announcing that HE is going to FIX the Valery charger and productize it himself.

I have to admire this guy – he really has balls. But I can’t help but wish he would mount a couple of neurons on top of them just to kind of help aim them at something. His laptop battery adventure has gone quietly to the grave – I was cringing through the entire series. Now he wants to put his fast camera mount skills in play in POWER SWITCHING ELECTRONICS.

So how do two separate groups bring me to tears of admiration with Damien and Kevin, while two others bring me to shrieks of horror in Jehu and Valery.

Part of it is the “product” part. And part of it is picking your targets. Kevin and Damien are working on THEIR cars. Jehu and Valery want to work on YOURS for profit.

Beyond the chilling effect of having dozens of bad chargers out there failing with no real support after they’ve failed, I kind of have a problem with chargers and batteries. They are where the FIRES come from. Batteries, chargers, BMS systems kind of all get together for some pretty incendiary stuff. That has another undesired effect. It REINFORCES an already extant view of the garage electric car tinkerer as an unschooled idiot playing with dangerous electricity that can prove a menace to our roads and our neighborhoods. Something must be DONE. And what they will do is regulate us out of existence if that perception is not countered with the story of all innovation coming out of the garage. Valery and Jehu are not advancing the ball. They are threatening to let the air out of it. I will speak to this. And let those with an ear to hear hear.

I would further comment that power switching devices dealing with powers of 12kw, 24kw, 100kw, 150kw, are simply nontrivial. The nature of the components and the ready availability of standardized book designs make it appear to be really easy to just hook these things up and go. In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice there is. And anyone who actually HAS attempted to properly school themselves on this, and I don’t care that you don’t have a PHD or formal training, but you do have to go through the process, has a pile of blasted caps and even more blasted IGbTs to prove the point.

There is a layer of elegance and finesse required here that if you are unaware of it, you are unlikely to master it. These devices have a lot of power, but also a lot of inductive and capacitive reactance that moves you into the realm of FM electronics. That does NOT stand for frequency modulation. More like f***ng magic. And so we see a case of don’t know and don’t know they don’t know at play here.

As to productization, it is heartbreaking. Note first that I’m not avid to do a charger or an inverter and certainly not without serious help. Forty years of electronics is NOT enough in this case. But taking a thing from a working prototype on MY car to a product for use elsewhere is simply non-trivial. We battle with enclosures. With cables. With connectors. With connectors. With connectors…. oops. Down to the BOX its mailed in and the documentation that goes with it.

I suppose our lone “product” contribution would be the GEVCU – which employed a GLOBAL team of guys who really DO know about these things, with us doing most of the grunt work with cables and boxes and so forth. But don’t be confused. We have probably close to $200,000 tied up in the developement of the Generalized Electric Vehicle Control Unit. We have THREE test benches set up with at least two motors and inverters on them, and TWO live vehicles, VW THINGS with motors and inverters in them, and we started the project in January of 2013. And the first few deliveries of GEVCUS to anyone outside the development group have occurred in the last 60 days. We test this stuff over and over and over again on different benches with different inverters and motors and then we put them in vehicles and go DRIVE them for days and weeks and months EVERY DAY.

That’s all for a little Arduino based controller that translates accelerator pedal to CAN messages. At power levels approaching and at times even EXCEEDING a half an ampere at 12 volts. A six watt device with no real fire potential. It works your brake lights. Your reverse lights. It is IMPORTANT that it be right. But it isnt’ critical. It really isn’t going to cause your vehicle to run away with you. It MIGHT cause it to stop in its tracks. But so far it is going well.

In this episode we see the first drive of the Jeep CJ5 build. This is the first out of house build, delivered by Anne Kloopenberg of EVTV.EU, rather eggregiously inspected by the Dutch authorities, but the GEVCU seems to be holding its own. A Siemens motor. An Azure Dynamics DMOC645 inverter. And the GEVCU. Rolling well it seems to me.

So I love the idea of a linear motor converting potholes to Megawatts. It points the way and it might give YOU some ideas of how to do the same for less. But I think Kevin faces a long tough road to delivering it as a product. Indeed, he didn’t express any ambition to do so. And the likelihood of stranding anyone from suspension dampener failure, or setting a vehicle or building on fire, is pretty minimal.

Damien is somewhat fearlessly doing his own inverter. All of Ireland here forewarned and plenty of ocean between him and us. But he does have a record of success with high power devices and spanner based battery management. And it is for his own car. I wont’ expect him to replace mine if it fails because he didn’t make it.

We are hereby formally inviting him to act as keynote speaker, Electric Vehicle Conversion Convention 2015. He can leave the milling machine at home. No need to transport it. I would ask everyone to assist me in pressuring him to accept.