Share →

Electric vehicle design has advanced rapidly in the eight years this month that we’ve been doing EVTV. Our first build used a forklift motor and a Chinese pulse-width modulated controller. Today, OEMs almost universally use 3 phase AC motors that are liquid cooled and use an advanced Field Oriented Control algorithm to control torque and speed. These are much more efficient in their use of electricity, and for vehicle purposes much easier to cool.

One of the ironies along the way is that electric vehicles did not need the radiators and fans and pumps of the ICE engine. Turns out they still do.

No AC drive unit exceeds that in the Tesla Model S, in my unqualified but nonetheless strongly held opinion. The AC Induction motor is the simplest – requiring no rare earth metals. And the package Tesla devised incorporating the inverter, the motor, and the 9.73:1 single speed gearbox is simply beautiful. It also decreases the space required in a car for those components enormously. And the 350kw power is just overkill for any reasonable vehicle.

Along with these dramatic improvements in drive train technology we get complexity. And this exhibits mostly as the electronic control required via Controller Area Network.

For the past two years, we have been sucked down the maw of this monster to the point that 100% of my time is focused on software and wiring issues to make Tesla components useable in other vehicles. As a result, we have easily repairable electric builds from the past sitting around with no attention to them whatsoever. And a build schedule of newer vehicles slowed, not to a standstill, but seemingly to reverse.

As a result I’ve been snapping and grouching in all directions. And my staff are too often reduced to doing things to assist that appear to involve a LOT of work for very little visible gain. Often they have no idea what we are doing or why, and are reluctant even to ask. I always answer. But often the explanations are unsatisfying to them. (Blah, blah, blah, big word, big word, blah, blah, blah).

But Bill Bayer has worked quietly away at the current flagship, a 1990 Volkswagen Type II Transporter (T3) Doppelkabine or DOKA as we call it. This is actually the LEAST likely vehicle on the planet for a Tesla Model S drive unit transplant, which is precisely why it suits my sense of whimsey. Others are of course trying to do the same thing with Lotus Evora’s, AC Cobra’s, and all manner of sexy two-seat sports cars intent on developing the fastest electric race car imaginable. EVTV not so much. A plodding top heavy awkward combination of bus and pickup truck, painted dayglow yellow.

In this episode, we achieve a milestone. The first wheelspin. It’s not quite a first drive. But we actually have most of the components mounted in the vehicle. We are able to charge the battery system and produce 12v for the normal vehicle lights/horn, etc. And we can control the drive unit and make the wheels spin forward and in reverse.

In the week since filming this, we have indeed actually driven the vehicle and I hope to post some detailed videos of all of that in another week.

But the salient point is that each of us took a turn driving it, and were somehow reinvigorated and renewed. It can often be the case that you are so up to your ass in alligators that you forget you were there to drain the swamp as the saying goes. We’ve been fighting connectors and software and wiring and software and connectors for so long we had almost forgotten it is all about electric vehicles. As all of us drive them daily, that’s kind of hard to believe. But the central core issue is not efficiency, it isn’t avoiding paying for gasoline, and it isn’t to save the planet. Electric cars are simply a better and more enjoyable drive than ICE cars. And none of us ever quite get over it.

That said, we have never driven anything like the DOKA before, except a Tesla Model S. And while I don’t know what I expected, incredibly the DOKA drives a LOT like a Tesla Model S. And I somehow did NOT expect that.

And as each of us took a turn on the road with the thing, we all came back almost silently in awe. Then bursting with excitement. And I have to say, that is with almost EVERYTHING on the vehicle wrong, and not operating correctly.

First, in mounting the drive unit in the vehicle, SOMEBODY developed some theory that it should be mounted EXACTLY 1 inch right of center. We don’t know where this came from. Bill very carefully built a jig, suspended it in the vehicle, and welded up mounts for it precisely. But today, the drive unit is firmly mounted 1 inch to the right.

Second, we also precisely measured the distance between the drive plates of the VW transmission. And we actually fabricated a specific jig to measure the distance between the two plates. And we had axle stubs custom fabricated to ensure they presented exactly the same distance. But the result was exactly 3/4 inch short on both sides. No idea how it happened.

In any event, the first drive by Bill Bayer resulted in the walk of shame. He made it less than a block and the left axle appeared to break leaving the vehicle sitting stranded on the side of the road. We drug it back and examined it.

As it turns out the axle wasn’t broken at all. The inner CV joint had given up the ghost but wasn’t actually damaged. The axle had been stretched to the point that the little balls in the CV joint just popped out of the joint and it was fairly trivial to reassemble it no harm done. But what had caused them to pop out?

And that was when we discovered the measurement problems. One viewer of this weeks’ episode actually inquired whether the axles were moving back and forth axially. The answer is “yes”. Good eye.

So we fabricated a 1/2 inch adapter plate to insert between the drive axle and the axle stub in the Tesla drive unit.

That seemed to cure the problem for a day or two. Until once more, the left CV joint gave way and a call to the flatbed tow truck was in order. We subsequently persuaded Cape Precision Machine to make us a little bit more artful version an inch thick.

And so far (fingers crossed) it seems to hold. I did six miles yesterday with the parking brake on to test that (525 Wh per mile) and then another 14 miles with the parking brake OFF to compare it (345 Wh/mile) and I’m pleased to report that the vehicle runs MUCH better with the parking brake off. Also that the Alzheimers thing may be deteriorating.

I had purchased some very expensive Vanagon wheels from GoWesty a year or so ago. But Bill wanted to use the wheels off a wrecked Tesla we purchased. And I must say, they look FABULOUS on the vehicle.

But on sharp turns or with a load of people, they rub on the rear part of the opening in the body for them. So we’ve ordered a set of 1.5 inch lift coilovers from GoWesty and will attempt to remedy by jacking the vehicle up by an inch and a half. Failing in that, we have to work out some sort of flair on the body.

The Tesla Drive Unit features a charger interlock signal to pin 5 of the X939 connector on the drive unit. I KNOW Mark Weisheimer and I worked this out two years ago. That pin shows 3.3v from an internal pullup and you HAVE to apply a ground to it to make it go. But today, two years later, I can’t tell it has any effect at all. Both on the DOKA and on the Test bench it works fine with ground or without. As we have the charge port on the far side of the car from the driver, and as I have ALREADY demonstrated that you can pull a J1772 EVSE right off the wall AND tear the inlet out of the car in one smooth move with the yellow THING, we HAVE to have a charge interlock. So I’m adding a feature to the software and a little harness rewiring so Bill’s wireup with a relay to do so will actually work.

The DOKA has a paint job that to put it kindly was “unusual”. It took three tries. But we finally got it covered in day-glow yellow Plasti-Dip. This is the stuff you dip plier handles in to give them a rubber insulating grip. We dipped the entire car.

Subsequently the DOKA survived an intense battery fire in the shop rather well – except that it was covered in black soot. We managed to add to that with greasy pawprints as we worked on the car until it actually looked horrible. You can see this in our current episode. I decided it must be a feature and we refer to it as neo-steampunk-ratrod.

While we were standing around the DOKA in the shop, I asked QingFeng Liu to get me a rag and a can of Scrubbin Bubbles. If you don’t know about DOW’s bathroom cleaner “Scrubbin Bubbles” I have used it on everything from multimillion dollar aircraft to indeed toilet seats and I’m always amazed. Kind of a foaming combination of bleach and a very light abrasive, it is my favorite cleaning product after Clorox. (Don’t mix them and no, don’t ask).

In any event, I sprayed a small area of the sideboard with this and gave it a quick rub with a microfiber towel. To my amazement, all the grime came off in my hand in an instant. It turns out this Plasti-Dip simply doesn’t present much of a surface for dirt, despite it’s kind of rough surface. It was like cleaning plastic, predictably enough.

We all grabbed rags and within an hour the DOKA literally glowed in the dark.

I had adopted this strategy, curiously enough, after seeing a guy with a Tesla Model S who painted the ENTIRE CAR with stealth black plasti-dip. It looked deadly. But I asked him about ruining the paint job on a perfectly new car. His answer was intriguing. He intended it to completely PROTECT the paint job on the car, and told me he had done this to other cars and the plasti-dip is quite easily removable later, revealing a showroom new paint job underneath.

So we tried it on the DOKA. Incredibly, it makes it EASIER to clean than a normal paint job.

So the usual things after a first drive. Stereo. Sun visors. Seat issues. Center console. We await our lift springs AND the custom set of Speedhut gages that now work with the Alset controller.

Predictably enough, the 7-inch EVIC screen is a delight to use – as long as you are parked. Also as I DID predict, it is almost totally useless when in motion. If you study it carefully, you will raise your eyes inevitably to see the rear end of an 18-wheeler appearing to plow TOWARD you as you brake in a panic.

But the PKP2400 CAN key set is a Godsend. It makes it very easy to put the thing in DRIVE or PARK or REVERSE, and the response is instant.

We have a very early drive unit on the test bench and CREEP doesn’t appear to work. I had thought I might have messed up my software somewhere with the recent changes but on the DOKA it works perfectly. Actually it works even BETTER than perfectly with the parking brake off.

And REGEN is actually better than on my Tesla Model S. On the Tesla, you have two levels of regen to pick from. But this is actually effected by a single CAN message with an 8-bit integer offering 255 levels of regen. We convert that to a somewhat more understandable PERCENTAGE on the display, and we have an up and down arrow. I think a 3% bump on up and a 2% decrease on down allowing you to do almost anything 0-100%. The higher regen selectable in a Tesla is 63%. I currently have the DOKA set at 81% and it is incredible. True one pedal control of the vehicle. But you can tune it as desired with the up or down key on the PKP2400 on the fly. I thought this would be cool. It is much cooler than I thought.

When we first started doing conversions, we naturally wanted to conserve battery energy anywhere we could. We knew there would BE LED headlights, but they really didn’t have them yet. So we used HIDS instead and LEDs, which WERE available for the tail lights, the turn signals, the reverse lights, etc. Trucklite came out with a pair of garish round headlights that were about $750 per pair and we used them successfully on the THINGS.

Well a lot has changed. Most modern cars use headlight “fixtures” with replaceable bulb units in them now. And indeed, LED versions of this bulbs have become available in a profusion of confusion over bulb numbers, wattage, color in degrees Kelvin, and so forth.

We found some on for the DOKA and we are indeed blown away by them. The DOKA had outside lights for normal, and another pair inside for high beam. Bill got a bulb for the outside that features high AND low beam, and a yellow pair on the inside that come on only in high beam. They are EXTREMELY bright. And also extremely efficient using maybe 5 amps of 12v to run the entire rig. We have come a very long way on LED lights. I just received an LED lightbulb from AMAZON for a ceiling light, that I can get an app for my iPhone to set it’s color and brightness, AND it incorporates a Bluetooth speaker to play iTunes from the phone remotely. What will they think of next. Alexa, use the dishwasher to do my laundry.

The takeaway I suppose is that things HAVE become more complicated. But we are somewhat delighting in it. We find a problem or a nice-to-have new feature, and we wheel a little cart with laptop up to the vehicle and plug in a USB cable. I spend twenty minutes adding some code, and ask Bill to hook up a wire between this connector and pin and that connector and pin. Now try it. And batta boom batta bing. With the complexity, wish lists are just easy.

The DOKA has a monster fan on the radiator. We don’t want it on all the time, but we want it if the motor gets hot. On the test bench, we thought inverter temperature would be the critical item. But running actual current through it to move a 3530 pound vehicle (up from 3430 original) we quickly learned that it is MotorStatorTemperature that does the climbing. So we revised the software to display that on the Speedhut gages, and added a use for one of our unused outputs on the controller. Now you can set the COOLON temperature and the COOLOFF temperature from a menu. And when it reaches the COOLON temperature that output pin switches to ground, which is used to turn on a relay applying 12v to the fan. If temperature reduces to COOLOFF, it goes to an open, deenergizing the relay and turning off the fan. We could use the same output to light a dash LED if we wanted – either instead of or in addition to.

This was all added in 45 minutes.

I don’t want anyone to miss the larger point. There is life in reusing salvage electric vehicle components to make new types of unusual electric vehicles. And this points to something that goes entirely beyond right to repair. It is to the public good in fostering innovation. While you may want to focus on “security” issues, this mostly shows a lack of comprehension on what security means and what security is possible. Elon Musk himself has said it is simply an exercise in futility to try to secure a computer someone has PHYSICAL access to. Focus on network security.

Some in Tesla seem to not quite GET that very important point. Further, and perhaps more importantly, it actually accrues directly and massively to the equity in their brand, if their vehicles are easily repairable, become a platform for modification and innovation, and if the parts are reusable for entirely unimagined and unforeseen purposes. They should by all rights be PUBLISHING what we are working so painfully to eek out CAN message by CAN message, byte by byte, and even bit by bit one day at a time.

This is not a guess or a theory. Volkswagen was, until just a few months ago, the LARGEST and most successful automobile manufacturer in THE WORLD period. I can easily make the case that the iconic VW Beetle and VW bus are what got them there. And it was about a PLATFORM that simply cut so many ways with so many people doing so many things with it that VW long ago lost all control of it. Leading to massive sales of NEW vehicles that had nothing to do with that – apparently. None of it disproved any law of cause and effect whatsoever. There are no coincidences at work here.

With the car sitting in front of us physically, a car I might point out that I OWN front decal to rear bumper, given enough serial days in a lifetime, we are GOING to win on this one anyway. It’s the 100 monkeys on 100 typewriters for 100 years thing. As I claimed two years ago, the EVTV Hack Team not only CAN – we WILL. But Tesla needs to revisit the signal announcement by their own CEO regarding patents and open source. They have backpedaled on this furiously ever since, but it was true then and remains truer today. And parsing all the legal and other considerations ad infinitum doesn’t change a thing. Tesla should open up this car.

In the meantime, I am secretly very very pleased with any number of things over the past eight years. I just heard from yet ANOTHER EVTV viewer who is going to work for Tesla. Chad Olivieri has been an accomplished engineer for many years, but still credits EVTV with simply rolling through the interview at Tesla like a boss. I cannot reveal how MANY EVTV viewers have gone on to careers at Tesla. And we basically simply cease all communications with them once they do to prevent conflicts or even the appearance of such. And we not only do not solicit, but will not accept any inside information from anyone there for the same reason.
Beyond that, it has become apparent in a number of interesting ways, how many people within Tesla have watched us for years – going to some pretty upper reaches of the management of the company.

Tesla currently faces some enormous challenges that require throwing warm bodies at them in great huddles hoping for good outcomes in batteries, solar issues, and electric vehicles. So if you do want to play a part, understand that as an EVTV viewer you are already more knowledgeable than most of the people they hear from. I doubt it will do you any good, and might do harm to mention EVTV directly. But just the background knowledge you already have regarding EV operation and design issues and tradeoffs, as well as familiarity with Tesla itself and a sense of common mission, kind of makes many of you the warm meat they have to have to win. I would not live in California under federal order and being sent to a concentration camp there myself. Just mow me down with the machine gun. But if you don’t mind working overseas in a country like California, go for it. They need you. And so does the world. You’re still in Jack’s 100k army. Just TDY Tesla.

We are camera-ing up in an attempt to show you. I don’t know if it is going to work. But if you can believe it, I’m driving a VW Vanagon Pickup, that has MORE acceleration than my Tesla Model S, more DECELERATION through regen than my Tesla Model S, and while it kind of rolls around like a whale in a bathtub compared to the Model S in corners, it is the most unbelievable ride we’ve ever cobbled together. It is just SHOCKING.
Sadly, it is even HARDER for me to squirt my 300 lbs of joy into than the Tesla Model S. Oh well…can’t have everything…

In converting a car to electric drive, we are all familiar with the phenomenon of the “EV grin”. This is one of the best we’ve ever had in that respect and it reminds us pointedly why we do what we do.

Jack Rickard