Sunday, October 24, 2010

The Vantage Van, the Speedster and You

This week is a bit of one of those "aha" moments which is what I'm really in this stuff about.

I recently received a kind of strangely critical note from someone with the Minnesota Electric Vehicle Association and consequently visited their site to see what was up in the great north.

What I found was a bit interesting - some active projects, all badly done with lead acid and components from five years ago - and touted in the local press as the very latest developments in electric cars by those "cute" hobbyists, not to be confused with real electric car manufacturers.

At the same time, we had just returned from our visit to Special Editions Inc in Bremen, and I was pawing through our contest entries trying to get a hand on who you guys are and where you are and why you are and so forth.

At the same time, I've been working a bit with Matt Hauber, recently joining us from San Diego. A bright young man with a lot of desire, Matt is just unabashedly enroute to building a business in electric vehicles come hell or high water, and at his own expense flew to Cape Girardeau with one suitcase and a dream to learn about electric cars.

Hmmmm.... I'm kind of a sucker for that sort of thing. I like people with a passion and a mission and I like em better if they are generally pretty smart. Lacking any formal education of any kind in basic electronics and electricity, he faces a daunting challenge. But oh to be young and have your knees work and be able to work all day and all night again....

So I'm a little disoriented this week. The state of the art, in Minnesota at least, is pretty much still taking old junk cars, loading them up with a ton of lead batteries, iota DC-DC converters and auxilliary 12v batteries, aging Zilla controllers, and direct drive issues with differentials.

And in our contest submissions, I see description after description after description of quite advanced projects but a VERY consistent underlayment that shows up in entry after entry after entry - probably as much as 75% of them. "I want to work on electric cars as my life's WORK."

Hmmmm. This was a bit of a surprise. I have to tell you I don't SHARE that dream. I do NOT want to work on electric cars as my life's work. I like making them. And I guess I'm pretty much committed to doing VIDEOS about them at this point. But actually make cars for a living?

I was about solving MY transportation problem and ending being a VICTIM of the forces of the universe. A personal one man initiative to stop the gasoline right HERE and right NOW. I think it would be a remarkable thing if everyone with the ability and a garage would do the SAME thing. At some number, this becomes a grass roots movement that really will change the world, and in some very cool ways.

I've done this before. The Internet.

But oh, I had nearly forgotten. Along the way, somebody poured gasoline on the Internet fire by showing guys with bulletin boards that it was ok to charge for their services and make money by doing it and in the end, how to become an Internet Service Provider or ISP, a term we coined actually, among many others, at Boardwatch Magazine. And many of them did wind up making a living for awhile, and some made millions selling their small companies to larger entities later on.

The dream was to build a global network that acted in many ways as a great equalizer, a force for freedom and democratization.

But yeah, I guess it was kind of cool that a lot of us made a living doing that, and some a fortune by anyone's account.

Fortunes may come and go, but the memories, ah the memories, they just mostly go....

So. What's the model? Well let's start with what is NOT the model.

1. Lead acid is not the model.
2. Junk cars are not the model.
3. Will do Electric Car for Food is not the model.

One of my heroes is Wayne Alexander in Walton Kansas. Many people find this surprising since Wayne does almost EVERYTHING different than I do, so of course I think wrong. The other side of that would be that Wayne thinks about everything I do is all wrong.

But he's a good workman, very pragmatic, and very devoted to the mission of converting cars. He has adopted the stance that he'll convert any car for $12500 to a lead acid behemoth that will go down the road sprightly for 30 or 40 miles. He likes to do small pickups, and indeed I agree that's probably the most practical vehicle for ALL electric conversions.

Check out his web site.

Here's a news piece on Wayne that will give you a better idea.

So what's the problem? Well, Wayne is tired and wants to sell his business. Looking it, any wonder.

Wayne doesn't type a lot. He DOES do a lot. Claims some 147 conversions completed. So he knows how to do them, at least with lead. Here's the problem. He'll do ANY car. In the video, you see a VW THING that looked like some of his better work actually.

To do any car anyone brings him, Wayne has a basic set of components he knows and uses, and applies them to different cars as the need arises and demand warrants. The result is he has to engineer EACH car from scratch.

I don't care HOW similar two cars are. They're not the same. Things have to be moved around, installed differently, tuned differently, the gearing is different, the battery layout is different, etc. etc. ad nauseum. I'd be tired too. This guy reinvents the wheel, one wheel at a time.

You might eek out a living with this model. And you might even do some nice conversions, particularly if you'll bail on the lead acid thing. But you can't make any money and in the end you have no "equity" in your business to sell. The only thing you have to sell is you. And you'll be REAL tired after engineering 147 different conversions from scratch. I would be ground off about mid-thigh level by now if I was Wayne. Nothing left above the waist, that's for sure.

If you want a model to get involved with electric cars the model has already been presented - last week. But since it hasn't apparently sunk in, we'll just repeat it THIS week. It's in Bremen.

It's kind of a specialized world. I can't take on Discovery Channel head to head. But I can specialize in Electric Vehicles and pretty much kick their ass, on that narrow field of specialization.

Kevin and Carey Hines and Special Edition Inc are probably not going to go head to head with Audi or even Saab. It's just not a battle they can win. As Porsche aficionados, I don't know quite how to picture them "competing" with Porsche. Actually they personify the origins of Porsche in ways far beyond what Porsche is today.

They have "specialized" in a very narrow area of two classic Porsche's, the Spyder 550 and the 1957 Speedster. They are replicas of course, in many ways better than the original vehicle to my way of thinking, not being a purist. And they've built up such a clientele over the past 30 years that they churn out 125-150 very nice vehicles per year, really quite CUSTOMIZED vehicles at that. But using the same two basic vehicles. And as best I can tell, they live rather well thank you.

How can this be? It is all about MASS PRODUCTION. Actually I'm stealing that term since you all and most of the automotive world are fixated on it. Picture something like MASS PRODUCTION at the THREE MAN SHOP level. They have to do 2-3 cars per week with a handful of employees. That's pretty busy.

But the secret is deep discerning knowledge. They KNOW those two vehicles extremely well. Everything about the body. Everything about the paint. Everything about the instrumentation. Everything about all available power plants. Everything about the transmissions. Everything about the suspension and steering. After doing the first two or three thousand cars, they know a lot about them.

Do you want a square hole in the dash for a 7-inch touch screen? No problem. They've done that. Special color? No problem. But although they are willing to customize what they know, they aren't going to build you a 65 Mustang.

Our second electric speedster is frankly light years better than our first. While we were out there we discussed a number of changes to the vehicle that we've made in the four or five weeks THEY have had it looking at it. We're going to change the front battery box layout thanks to Eric Kriss of Krissmotors. He came up with a way to do that eliminating two cable jumpers. I'm embarassed I didn't see that myself.

We're going to install the braided EVWORKS cell straps and nordlock washers - depicted in today's video. We're changing to a different shock absorber and coil overspring in the rear at Carey's suggestion. And we're going to adopt the Toyota Prius inverter cooling pump for the cooling system. It is smaller. It is lighter. It is less expensive. It runs cooler. It uses less electricity.

And so you can refine the design. I could redesign the Speedster every year for the next ten years and I guarentee you I would never get bored, never get tired, never feel ground down, and the car would do nothing but get better and better and better. If anyone cares and buys some, that's precisely what I'll do.

This is not stultifying boredom guys. This is how cars evolve and are refined and it is like layers of an onion. The more you peel away, the more layers there are. WHILE WE'RE TALKING, these guys in Bremen, in a 30 year old business, are not bored. They're working like crazy to move their glass works INTO the U.S. from Brazil. They're rolling out a new line extension with the Porsche 904. They're expanding their facility. They are having new molds built. They're looking at carbon fiber. They're evaluating an electric version. Far from boredom, they have more going on right now than they can possibly say grace over. They're ENERGIZED and the younger Hines is clearly having a ball.

So to bring all this to ground, and make it real for Matt Hauber and all the guys in this contest who so painfully WANT to get into this business and make a living at it, the answer is YOU CAN AND YOU NEEDN'T APOLOGIZE. It's a GOOD dream and we will cheer you on every step of the way. And some of you will make a fortune at it.

And how does competition from the OEM's play into this? Well the concept is your car has to be different, and in some ways better than theirs, and you have to hand build it and customize it so the buyer is getting great value and a unique car. Duh...

So you need to pick a car. And not just any car. A car you love. Better a car that others can love. And that makes sense as an electric car. And then you start making them. With each car you make, you improve it. After 147 of them, they should start to get to be pretty good. And you should start to have a following. And you continue to refine it down to every nut, bolt, screw, battery compartment, cell heating element, etc. The components available will change for you every year. The batteries will change every year. And you have to learn to select the good stuff for YOUR car. The process doesn't actually end.

As you do this, the efficiency will increase dramatically. The build time goes down. The component costs go down. You just get better at it as you go.

So quit doing electric cars for food. Do them on purpose. And most of all, get the lead out.

In this video there are a lot of little clues. We convert a Vantage van from lead to LiFePo4. When we do so, we go from 800 lbs of batteries and boxes to about 350 lbs offering twice the power. The result is an easy 100 mile range in a cute little van. Vantage is doing just what we advocate - specializing. But they're doing it with lead because it brings the price down. It also kills the vehicle.

This is our longest most rambling video ever. If you pay close attention, I think you'll see why. If you listen casually, you should probably skip it entirely. If you have no interest in a career in EV's, it's probably not worth the feature length film length of two hours and ten minutes. If you ARE interested in that, it's the roadmap that can't actually fail if done that way...

Jack Rickard

Friday, October 22, 2010

Journey to Bremen

Yes, I'm a little late with the Blog Post this week.

We journeyed to Bremen Indiana this past week using "The Legend" a DC-3 we fly all too rarely these days. Pete Malone joined us on this trip to keep me from killing us all as I fly so little these days. The weather was marvelous and we had a great trip in and out in a day.

We got to visit with Kevin and Carey Hines of Special Editions Inc. And we learned a great deal. It was an enormous eye opener for me and it culminates in NEXT week's video which for a certain segment of our audience will likewise be a kind of earth moving under the feet experience. I've had a glimpse of the future, along with the accompanying headaches and interstitial dislocation and disorientation. So if I'm a little unfocused, forgive. Interdimensional travel is hard for me.

Actually these guys are a marvel. They have been producing the same two cars since the early 1980's and they are in a FRENZY of innovation even as we speak, building a new facility, ponying up for brand new molds, and moving the body/chassis work INTO the U.S. from Sao Paulo Brazil. That's right, they are IMPORTING jobs from South America.

Juxtaposed with this is the image of a badly worn Spyder in the driveway with a sign on the Windshield that says DAD'S 550. Story to tell is that some kids got together and wrestled Dad's beloved but worn Spyder 550, one of the first Kevin Hines built, out of the garage and shipped it to Bremen for refurb - 30 years later. A birthday present for Dad. YOU'VE GOT TO BE PUTTING ME ON.....

Passion. Excellence. Decades. Generations. You want a testimonial to product excellence? How about some KIDS, (undoubtedly in their thirties and forties and with kids of their own) ponying up to REBUILD a 30 year old car that was a replica THEN when new... for the father, who must have dearly loved the car. I'm crying and slobbering and going on and I haven't had a drink yet that day and we're not even INSIDE THE PLANT yet....

And so it goes. They make 125 cars a year. They've always made the same two cars. And they are absolutely working like crazy people to improve the whole thing, roll out a new line extension with a gorgeous BECK replica of the Porsche 904, expand to a new facility, bring fiberglass layout in house from South America and have a discussion about their new ELECTRIC line of the SAME vehicles, all at the same time...

Far from a tired old staid company at the end of their long obsolete line, these guys are ENERGIZED with INNOVATION doing classic cars as fast as they can possibly build them for a client base that is so loyal the KIDS AND GRANDKIDS know about them and wouldn't have a simple paint and interior job that could be done ANYWHERE done ANYWHERE ELSE.

Did I say they were IMPORTING JOBS TO AMERICA???? Who else is doing this?

They are onboard with some changes to the Rickard version of their roller, including some they suggested as well. They're going to do the rear bumper mod, have ABS boxes built for the rear battery boxes, and do the nasty fiberglass cutout HAL had to do for us. But they also tuned up the rear suspension and suggested a set of Q1 adjustable shock/coil overs for the car.

As to the turnkey electric build.... Carey seems to want it and Dad is kind of leery of it. Both had very cogent reasons for their positions...

The BMS was of course controversial. I claim it is a menace and they claim it's necessary, although the Duke's Garage version is currently disabled OVER BMS ISSUES...Duh being more than a car name....

So I don't know how that's going to all turn out. But Carey is going to build one for himself to see what's really involved. The rollers will certainly be available and getting better all the time. And I have suggested a price of $60K for a turnkey car. I would be willing to bet if you called and ordered one, the normal 12 week lead time probably wouldn't happen, but you'd have a car by spring anyway.

One criticism remains very very valid. The instrumentation we did is just not what's needed. I knew that. We're working on it. You can't read it while driving. You don't know what it means if you COULD read it. And it's just generally been the achilles heal of this project from the beginning. We DID get the temp and fuel gage to work but the real electric car info is just very nearly unavailable even though it's right in front of you. This has to be addressed.

I guess I think this ultimately is a controller issue. All the information you need is actually IN the controller. Current, rpm, temperature, voltage. They're all already in there. It needs to be brought out to a display that can be put in a car. All else is vanity. Add a $20 GPS chip and you have speed and miles to go. Why are the controller guys SO lost on this. It's an obvious upsell and you could have six different display variants for the same data at six different prices. I don't get it.

Curtis kind of DOES this but it is so lame and so lead acid I can't believe they even bother....

Great visit. These guys build GREAT American Classics - even if they are Porsche's. They are more reminiscent of Ferdinand and Fergy Porsche than Porsche itself is. They CAPTURE the essence of small shop hand made cars and clearly there IS an economic niche for such. In fact, they are not the past at all....they are the very essence of the future....

Jack Rickard

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Contest Launch and Mini Cooper Success - or was it DISASTER

Strange week. A lot going on. Reminds me of the early days of Boardwatch Magazine.

First, the contest. We're launched. And we're getting a very encouraging number of entries. Reading through them, as I noted in a recent post, I'm not sure I'm up to this emotionally.

We're probably going to quick scan 100 promising ones out of the pile at about 19weeks. I'm going to give this list to our sponsors who can then each pick two. We'll pick two. That's 10.

Then we're going to ask them for further videos, photos, writeups, whatever they want to provide for the finals.

We'll post that and let the viewers decide.

This week's video.

This video marks a first. Our first paid advertiser, as part of the contest sponsorship of course, is Netgain Motors LLC. We intend things will go well enough that they will take some pride in the future to be cunning enough to be our first supporter. The Netgain "commercial" is our first paid commercial.

The motor bears the tale. has come out with a total of 26 improvements to the motor, and as we're using a couple of them in the Escalade we're pretty much excited about them. An optical port for a sensor on the fan is pretty interesting. The new brush design and the 192v limit George does NOT want to talk about, because it hasn't been tested yet, is exciting. And the new fan is supposed to improve air flow 50%. We need all that.

This week we also announce we have settled on EVnetics Soliton1 as the controller you'll be getting. A bit of agony here getting to this. I thnk the Zilla is what the viewers would want. But the Soliton1 is newer technology, uses components that weren't even available when Zilla was designed. It's supposed to do 1000 amps. And the build look is just really quite cool. I like the hard core fittings for the water cooling instead of plastic. And I just think these guys deserve a shot. They've done a good job with this design. THere's enough running it to indicate a chance at a good one.

I think these guys are a little strange. Now put that in context with ME and OTMAR OBBENHEICH. Who isn't strange? But their device oughtta get an industrial package design award if it doesn't work at all. It's configurable. It's in software that can be upgraded. IT uses the latest IGBT's, and I suspect they are the 1400 amp IGBT's giving us a little head room. Even the old fashioned bakelight terminal strip is just easier for me to deal with than tiny crimp pins and trick plugs. I like it. And it's my show. So that's that.

Is Ryan Bohm/Netgains just as good? Probably. We had to make a call and Netgain already had the motor.

Anyway, welcome EVnetics You're the SECOND advertiser in EVTV history. If I seem to be a little hard to deal with, it's because I am. No one suffers it more than me, lacking it might be my wife or Brain. In any event, I admire your engineering and that's that.

Speaking of being me. Mix a little Alzheimers, a quart of whiskey, and high voltage and what do you get? A 2009 Mini Cooper Clubman. We did a little experiment with the little exciter ring and magnetic pickup from the origianl Mini engine and low and behold, would you believe the DME started showing the tachometer display AND turned on the Electronic Power Assist Steering (EPAS) all in one smooth move.

I got so excited I changed the brake regen and accelerator regen and replaced the exciter ring with the ttach output from the TIMS600 controller.

Unbelievably, it all worked. Well more or less. The tach was live but didn't read right by a factor of four. The EPAS doesn't come on until 600 rpm so that meant 2400 real rpm. But we went and drove it and it was a different car. I was actually pretty pleased with the way it drove before. But by lengthening the brake regen PERIOD to 3 seconds from two and increasing the TORQUE to 70% max from 50% the brakes were PERFECT.

By decreasing the throttle regen zone from the first 20% to the first 10%, suddenly the throttle regen felt right for the first time. Better, we apparently got both into a zone where the 5K pot on the dash started to make sense and for the first time I could "tune" this to perfection.

I thought I didn't need the EPAS while driving, but was aware that in a parking scenario it was way to stiff for most humanoids. Yah, well. It felt MUCH better at ALL speeds.

Was I excited? You bet. But the tach wasn't right so I had an even BETTER idea. We would steal the 64 bit encoder signal from the motor right out of the controller box and use THAT to drive the tach.

Would you believe it worked? Oh, I wasn't set up to make sure it was to the RPM. But the tach indications suddenly made sense - approximately right. ANd the EPAS kicked in at 600 rpm instead of 2400. But the motor had a little different noise and the tach would magically drop out after 10 minutes.

So I played with some resistor loading between the encoder signal and ground. And things REALLY began to get better. I was on a roll. So I quickly threw together a little darlington pair driving an opto isolator to really separate these two.

To quote the famous electronics engineer and inventor, Scooby Doo, - RUH-ROW.

And that's the last the MIni ever peeped. Absolutely dead on power output of any kind. It would talk on the serial port, and reports an A3 POWER ALARM. We looked that up in the truly superb Swiss Italian gibberish documentaiton that came with and it very cleverly defined the A3 POWER ALARM as being the A3 POWER ALARM. Not another word in the book.

No help from Victor or MES-DEA of course. Do you think those guys just don't LIKE me anymore?

We replaced the encoder in the motor. No help.

So, we have NO controller. We also tore it all down to put the exciter ring and magnetic pickup in the adapter plate where it always should have been.

A door is closed. But a window opened and I think this will be a LOT of fun for you guys. Maybe less so for me at about 10 grand.

A little birdy told me that Larry Rinehart of Rinehart Motion Systems had a little bit of a business breakthrough recently. It seems that Remy, a division of what was DELCO REMY, has a very interesting motor. IT's termed a Hybrid Vehicle Hairpin motor. It's used in some of hte GM hybrids and is buried in the transmission. This is a very intereetsing, and somewhat problematical motor.

You can actually get these hybrid transmissions on eBay now. They don't give em away but given the prices of AC motor systems for EV's there's a lot of room there. The problem is the motor really doesn't have a housing. It sits in the transmission and is literally bathed in the transmission fluid for cooling.

But it is a very cool motor. The stator windings use a unique hairpin design that allows about a 70% fill instead of 40%. That translates into a tighter flux and more torque in the same sized motor. Or higher current levels, rather depending on both how you look at it and how you wind it.

But they don't have a controller of their own. And therein lies a tale. Apparently they have actually invested some MONEY into Rinehart and word is this controller, now $9500, may go into a more assembly line kind of production getting it down into the $4500 range. Now the motor is hardly free. Actuallly there is a line of motors. And Rinehart is apparently working on a 150kw controller in addition to the 100kw unit they have. How all this will shake out is anybody's guess, and I would guess Larry and Remy and everyone involved aren't really nailed down as to where it can go themselves. But it looks like a pregnant partnership. Remember where you heard about it first.

Too late to do us much good. But we are talking to them about a 100kw Rinehart for the Mini and it looks promising. They have a couple laying around and I have already spoken for it in decimal. We'll likely have to send them the motor to get it configured. But it's worth a try.

For one thing it moves our controller support function to Wilsonville Oregon instead of whacoville Metric Mind or the Swiss Italian alps. The documentation, which looks pretty good, is in English, which I still favor as my native tongue.

And so there is the POSSIBILITY to examine, using our Mini disaster, which is mega, to explore a real AC controller and motor system that COULD BE purchsed for cash at a useful power level sufficient to do somewhat larger vehicles than the HPEVS system. As we've kind of reached a command level decision to just start studiously ignoring all the pie in the sky unobtanium in favor of products where you can get documentation, spares, replacement and support, this is as Martha always says, "a good thing."

Speaking of unobtainium, I DID stick in a little piece on the Audi eTron appearing at the Paris auto show. Why? Because it's cool and chicks dig it, of course.

Stay with us. I'm hoping to have some further coolness in the way of a brand new charger entry for our contest....that you've never heard of before....

Jack Rickard