Thursday, December 29, 2011

Merry Christmas

Well, we've been struggling a bit with the holiday season and some family illness that has kind of beat us up for time. But Brain and I did manage to get out a bit of a video this week to share, along with the help of some of our viewers.

Brain reminded me that it was Christmas Day of 2008 when we did the first roll of the original Speedster. We had started that first conversion in September of 2008 and we were rolling by Christmas. lots of little fixes between then and May when we did our first video.

Much has transpired in the three years intervening. In November of that year, again Brain kind of pressed for a weekly video. We of course assumed we could easily sell advertising on the show, Brian's always been pretty good at closing such as sale, and by assembling the interested parties in such a show, it looked pretty formulaic.

The industry itself turned out to be a little pre-emergent I'm afraid. We've kind of had a lockup between hopelessly small entrepreneurs selling nearly DOZENS of their product and equally naive larger funded companies who are just as naively insisting on selling only to a half dozen immense Original Equipment Manufacturers.

All of this will shake out of course and some more realistic approaches will remerge. We may have been a little early to the party. So the future of EVTV is kind of a race to see if my attention span wanders before it becomes profitable.

In the early days of Boardwatch I wrote everything and participated a bit in the industry to establish credibility. I actually wrote the only known version of UUCP in assembly language (because I could of course). We worked with modem vendors on features and command sets and pretty much invented the "sysop discount" which was universally adopted by modem manufacturers to offer a 50% discount to BBS operators under the theory that this would advance sales of modems to the callers to those bulletin boards in a world where the modems were not really standardized in those days at the higher speeds.

The EV industry is kind of locked down with all vendors awaiting a call from the OEM that will fill their dreams, meanwhile not selling ANYTHING as their cash dwindles toward zero. It's incredible. These auto guys have to be the dumbest beasts on the planet. SELL SOMETHING to SOMEONE SOMEWHERE. That's kind of the key to business survival.

Having a plan is good. But sitting there watching yourself become irrelevant because it didn't turn out the way you want is not it. If they would sell to who wants to buy, instead of only to their ideal customer, there is no telling where all that might lead.

We hope not to do the same thing. In any event, long term we do NOT intend to do all of it ourselves. EVTV will morph into a "magazine" of various views from various participants. In this issue we feature another installment of John Hale's Toyota upgrade and a fascinating bit from John Hardy of the UK who has devised a cunning thermal watchdog for your battery pack.

And that is rather the point. You don't have to swallow the whole hog to participate in the barbecue. Let's say you have FAILED to introduce the next automobile that changes the world and become GM overnight. You might have worked out the instrumentation to tell how many amp hours you've used. I find the latter more interesting than the former.

New insulating materials, new corrosion preventives, the NordLock washer is the greatest discovery so far at EVTV. And for most of our viewers one little tip like that can make watching worthwhile.

The heart of the question is how do you have and participate in an industry where all solutions are proprietary trade secrets you are trying to patent and make money from? If I see far it IS because I stand on the shoulders of giants. But if all giants keep what they know secret, and don't allow anyone on their shoulders, nobody sees very far at all now dow they?

Our economy has entered a very mean spirited "small" phase where our LARGEST corporations will bring in hundreds of Indian temp workers,layoff hundreds of veteran American workers, and do it all to make next months or next quarters numbers with no thought beyond that. It is ok to steal from each other. And any advantage should be guarded and kept secret. It is very much like the famine period setting of STONE SOUP which I shared with you earlier.

As we used to say in Boardwatch, the Internet DEMANDS a certain generosity of spirit from those who seek to profit from it, and it will punish those without it soundly. Recent goliaths such as Google and Facebook and recent developments on the Internet would tend to make this or even deny it. I don't think so.

And on a wider front I think it holds true as well. Those who carefully guard the little they have will lose even that. Those that start giving it away will be unable to give it away fast enough to keep it from piling up on them.

In this Christmas season, nothing has really changed. The original message holds true. It is better to give than to receive. And more profitable to share than to hide away and hoard. It seems with each generation we have to learn all this over again.

Merry Christmas.

Jack Rickard

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The Mentos and Coke Powered ELEscalade

More Swallow. More Elescalade. We've decided to abandon the electric powered ELEScalade concept and go with a new rocket powered package from EEPYBIRD that uses Mentos and Coca Cola.

The Elescalade we begin populating the large battery box in the back with 57 cells of 400 AH. These 400 Ah cells weigh 29 lbs each for 1653 lbs. With straps and cables and box, probably more like 1725 lbs. It does squat the ELEscalade down on its haunches.

But that also gives us 76380 watt-Hours of power.

The Elescalade has a curb weight of 5800 lbs and a gross of 7200 lbs. We're going to be over gross at 7550lbs and with an additional 1000 lbs of people meat, QUITE over gross.

Our 10:1 rule normally serves us very well and that would seem to indicate 750 to 850 watt-Hours per mile or a little under 100 miles range.

But we think we will do both MUCH better than that, and much worse than that, with this vehicle.

We haven't done much with this, as we have little to test with and some problems. The Rhinehart Motion Systems Controller has never achieved sufficiently consistent operation to offer any useful testing on the 2009 Mini Cooper Clubman. We have another vehicle, a 2007 Ford Edge in the 5000 lbs class offering perhaps more direct experience with an automatic. BUt this conversion was so badly done from the beginning - we kind of inherited it from Arnulf Larsgard when he folded his Iowa plans, that we've barely been able to get it into operation.

But we have noticed and more or less confirmed anecdotally a remarkable inversion in these higher weight vehicles. The Mini Cooper is 3550 lbs while the Ford Edge is over 5000. And accelerating that mass turns out to be hard work. In town, the Edge can use as much as a kilowatt hour per mile. The MiniCooper is more like 400 wH per mile.

But on the freeway, where wind resistance always cuts down our mileage on the light cars, things take a dramatic turn. The Mini Cooper drops from about 1.15 Ah per mile (420 watt hours) to 0.85 Ah per mile (310 watt hours/mile) at 70 mph on the freeway. Similarly, the Edge with the automatic transmission drops down to about 400 watt hours per mile.

This is a little counterintuitive. I don't think it is because they are so very efficient on the freeway. I think it is because they are so very INeffecient in town. Accelerating that much mass is just expensive. When you quit doing it, mere air resistance can't by comparison compete.

So we think we'll have something like 70 mile range in town. But will probably be able to drive the 120 miles to St. Louis rather easily in the ELEscalade. And it's six speed 6L80E transmission with a pretty serious overdrive in sixth gear could in fact extend that phenomenon quite all out of bounds.

The truck will no doubt be heavy.

There is a subtle point of temperature that might be worth stressing at this point. It was observed by the official BMW Mini Cooper electric program which I find interesting.

The presumption on battery cells is that they must be thermally controlled for safety and to avoid thermal runaway somehow and a fire. Our experience is that cell heat just has NOT been an issue and when we do make provisions for it, they are largely wasted.

That view is largely shared by BMW - with the corollary that we've also noticed - a decrease in performance in the cold. We've done little to quantify this. The listed 10-15% is so much smaller than the penalty with Pb chemistry cells that we almost celebrate it. But it is very real.

Then too, the LiFePo4 cells we use all seem to indicate NOT to charge below freezing - 32F or 0C. Truthfully, I thought this was a typo when I first saw it and although I've requested additional information on this perhaps a dozen times from various vendors, nobody has any specifics as to why this is or even whether it is.

But the Mini Cooper guys noticed that on some days of chill, their range fell below what was comfortable for their use. That's pretty serious. And they are talking about what they HOPE to see in the new electrics from BMW.

Mostly this revolves around battery thermal management but really HEAT. They want heated batteries.

And with batteries representing quite a mass, it is really better to START warm than to GET warm. So we're doing something really quite similar in the ELEscalade.

In a past show we detailed our electric "heater". This is made from a home tankless water heater of some 24 kW capacity. With our 190v DC pack, we're probably looking at 14 kW with TWO tanks and heaters really. So we will be able to warm our water using a pair of heaters in small tanks, and at some temperature cut out one of the heaters and at a second temperature cut out the other. As temp falls, the "other" would cycle back on. And so we can heat quickly, and then drop our energy use to "maintain" temperature.

This is part of a glycol water system that will be pumped through our cabin heat exchanger so WE can be toasty warm first. But then it will go through our battery box which would represent a pretty deep heat sink if it were cold soaked.

So we're going to make sure it isn't. We're going to have a second system that is made of small rubber flexible heating pads that will attach to the tanks. They operate on 240 vac and are a couple hundred watts each.

These "gentle" heaters will be fed the same 240 as the battery charger, and at the same time. Additionally, we will switch the 12v pumps on when charging. We'll qualify that with a "season" switch so it only happens in winter, not in summer. Or perhaps automatically with a thermostat.

In this way, when you plug your car in at the end of the day to charge it, the warmth will be maintained all night. Because of the continuous or lengthy nature of this, we want a fairly small and gentle heat in this case. The urgency is not so much to save power as we are on our wall AC, but recall that we only have to maintain it above freezing for the batteries and then of course for our comfort in the morning. A couple of hundred watts should do it if it is on all night.

Again, the mission of the ELEscalade is to be warm and toasty in the winter and cool in the summer. Actual motion is a secondary criteria on this build. And performance and range almost not even a consideration.
Oh, I suppose it's always a consideration, but secondary for this build.

In any event, it's a bit of fun to be underway and putting together the battery pack. The large terminals and M14 bolts and Nordlocks are interesting. MANLY battery connections. Speaking of which. EVWorks in Australia had these 55 mm braided copper straps listed for 400Ah Thundersky cells and we bought a bunch of them. We've had them sitting around for eight or nine months. They have a much larger terminal bolt hole of course to accommodate the much larger M14 cap screw, as compared to the M8 or 8 mm diameter terminal screw we normally use on the smaller cells.

Unfortunately, they don't work. These cells are not on 55 mm centers, but rather 67.5 mm centers. So they are too short. Incredibly, EVWorks threw us TOTALLY under the bus. While acknowledging the mistake, their solution is to remove the 400AH reference from the web site and thank you very much for the field report. They have NO straps suitable for 400Ah cells and no intention of getting us any. Sorry.....

Of course, their suppliers, whom they refuse to reveal but whom we of course found anyway, want a kind of a hugish 3000 straps minimum to build them. And we need about 70.

I'm so incensed by this cavalier attitude, as well as the truly egregious shipping charges EVworks has started charging, that we're going to look at just buying the 3000 straps, along with 3000 of all the other sizes, the bolts, the Nordlocks, and just going into the battery terminal connection business. That way I'll have them and you can get them without having to go to Australia for them. Ridiculous situation.

But truly, we love these copper braided straps. They are flexible and do NOT put pressure on the terminals when flexing. They work well with the Nordlocks which have become a central element of our terminal connection strategy. We simply do not use the copper bent straps sent by the manufacturers any longer.

For the moment, we've cut the end out of the straps so they are long enough to fit. They don't REALLY fit and we have kind of not quite enough surface area here for 3000 amps of current. But it will let us wire up the pack until we can get proper 67.5 mm straps in from China.

We got some 1/4 x 3/4 aluminum bar and some 1/2 x 3/4 aluminum bar in from McMaster Carr and we are starting our new strategy of clamping tabs together with 1/4 inch 20 thread screws for the A123 cells. There is nothing really innovative here. Numerous people do this more or less this way and describe it online and a number of different viewers have suggested this, albeit in one screw and two screw and plastic screw variants. Hopefully we'll have something to show this week or next. I've ordered 300 of the cells and once they are in, we can show several approaches at once.

Back to my Mentos and Coca Cola....

Jack Rickard

Monday, December 12, 2011

Chiseled in Jello in the Global Village

It is true we are having a ball in the hinterlands of the Midwest, axing away at how to take any ordinary car and hack it into an entirely silent electric beast and make it do our bidding. While the rest of the world waits with baited breath and hopeful attention for developments from the global OEMsd, we are living and driving the dream and I have to tell you it IS fun and it IS worth it.

I'm doubly excited because it goes a little beyond whacking away in the garage on a hobby. I see a vibrant burgeoning new industry in custom electric cars that stretches out for decades and encompasses things the original hot rod custom car scene cannot even contemplate.

But like any frontier mining camp, it also attracts charlatans and mountebanks along with the adventurers and pioneers.

We were defrauded of some $9800 on a battery purchase from David Kois in April of 2010, along with at least 23 other people. Roy Mann led a group to take legal action and so we pitched in ANOTHER couple thousand ducats for legal expenses. They finally reached a settlement receiving some inventory they insisted represented 59 cents on the dollar, including MY 40 Thundersky 200Ah cells. Despite the irony of having to buy the cells, fund the legal attick, and then pay the rest of the group AGAIN for my cells, I agreed to do that anyway.

Didn't happen. In a behind the scenes maneuver AFTER the settlement, and after reaching an agreement with me on the disposition of the cells, Mann and Baker reached an agreement with David Kois, the ORIGINAL vendor who defrauded us, to have HIM sell the cells and tender cash. They handed over the goods, and Kois has INDEED started selling the stuff AGAIN. But he's keeping the money and refused for nearly a month to even communicate with the principals in the lawsuit.

We confirmed this past week that he had sold our cells AGAIN, and pocketed the proceeds. He insists he'll work it all out AT THE END OF THE YEAR. (Or whenever he gets some money from defrauding someone ELSE sufficient to both live on and pay off the current group).

I'm so disgusted I may never order from an American parts retailer again. Roy Mann is so disillusioned he has abandoned his gorgeous 1976 VW beetle.

Kois currrently operates a web site called CurrentEVTech.

We would urge caution in dealing with him however. He's very charming and got us twice, insisting on BOTH occasions that he's really a VICTIM.... The same claim made by James Morrison....

Meanwhile, we continue work on the Swallow and the Elescalade. We heard from Bill Bishoprick of Salem Oregon, applauding our work to update the Swallow. Bill originally engineered this attractive little notion of an EV. And we're a bit taken with it.

By far the biggest development involves batteries. Sinopoly has emerged as one of the most attractive vendors who never were. They have quoted $1 per AH to anyone who will listen for their cells, but we can find no one who has actually received the cells. Per Ecklund claims he knows a guy who has but we haven't stumbled on anyone directly.

Thundersky is really where all this started. Our first cells were some truly horrible SEIDEN cells. But very early we bought Thunderskies from Elite Power Solutions out in Arizona. Today they sell the GBS cells. But after receiving 70 400 Ah cells from Thundersky for the Elescalade Project, Winston Battery has informed us they no longer offer cells in the United States and their exclusive agent for North America is Balqon. We can't even get them to return a telephone call - or tell us what they want us to do with this commercial we keep running with a dead e-mail address on it.

This leaves China Aviation Lithium Battery Company as the only viable vendor we can find actually shipping prismatic cells - and they are kind of stuck on the idea of $1.25 per AH.

And so we are going to begin looking at alternatives. Headway has some new large scale cylindrical cells. Sebastion Bourgois did an interesting pack in his Porsche 911 from Headway cells and claims he likes them.

Most ironically, it appears that the American manufacturers who have so abusively dismissed us as little and ugly and dressing funny, and insisting that they ONLY sell to "OEMs" with such a hugely comical combination of arrogance and naiveté, seem to be mostly going out of business (Enerdel) or losing control of their product (A123).

A123 is very interesting to me personally. They had previously made some very twitchy little cylindrical cells that were probably truly dangerous in any application. We played with them and I could see no real use for them. We did make a little aux battery out of 4S4P arrangement and it went up in flames a month later.

They developed what they call a prismatic cells, we call them pouch cells. This is a little foil pouch 7.5 mm thick and about the size of our 100Ah prismatics. It has two tabs for positive and negative of course.

They entered these in a competition to power the Chevy Volt and Chevrolet chose LGChem's Lithium Manganese Oxide Spinel cells instead. The Lithium Manganese cells offer a little better energy density than the A123's and at the time, LGChem represented a much larger company more likely to reach full production in time. But Chevrolet may have chosen the wrong cell.

We certainly favor the LiFePo4 cell chemistry of the A123 20 Ah pouch as a safer chemistry. They have continued to work on these cells and have reduced manufacturing costs while increasing density and power performance as they went under a DOE program. Chevrolet has now selected them for the Chevy Spark program. Unfortunately, they don't need any batteries for that car until 2013.

Meanwhile, A123 had invested $30 million in Fisker stock. In return, Fisker selected A123 as their cell vendor. And they had told A123 that they needed cell modules for 7000 cars before the end of 2011.

Brain actually had a conversation a year ago with the Vice President of Sales and Marketing at A123. He was told then that the Prius fire and Davide Andrea was the direct reason they would not sell battery cells to hobbyists and custom car builders. But he also said they would be working day and night just to ramp up production for the Fisker contract.

As ti turns out, apparently Fisker did not build 7000 cars in 2011. They built maybe 1500. It's a little unclear what of THOSE were delivered to actual customers.

But its certainly thrown A123 into a tizzy. Despite an apparently firm contract finally with an OEM - General Motors, A123's stock has plunged. Their Initial Public Offering (IPO) of September 24, 2009 valued the stock at $17. It reached a high just a few days later of $26.74 per share. It opened this morning at around $2.07 - not the performance clean green investor dreams are made of.

And after receiving hundreds of millions in Croney Crapitalism government ducats to bring 5000 new manufacturing jobs to Michigan, the company reached about 900 total jobs before they laid off 125 last week.

That the company maintains their policy of NOT selling their cells and modules should be of intense interest to their board of directors and shareholders. But it gets more interesting. Suddenly, several Chinese traders including OSN Power Technology and Shenzen VictPower Technology are offering A123 MD1 HD 20 Ah cells. These showed up at $50-$60 each a month or so ago and really are not very attractive at that price.

We just ordered 300 at $20 each. They seem to average about 18.6 Ah per cell, not 20. But that's still about $1.08 per AH which seems to be the going rate of the Chinese prismatics.

They ARE possibly attractive at that price. They put a very high amount of POWER for their size - up to 600 Amps momentarily from a 20Ah cell. If you put six of them together, you get about 110 Ah that will pump 3600 amps if you have the packaging hardware to do that without melting or blowing up.

And therein lies a tale of course.

But what has really happened here with this "grey market" A123 cell? Are these simply "seconds" disposed of in a grey market? Perhaps.

More likely, and certainly it makes a more interesting story, let's imagine A123 contracting with Korean and Chinese factories to make their cells. Then they don't need quite as many cells as they thought they did because Fisker doesn't make quite as many cars as they said they would. What is the Chinese factory to do with all the cells piling up in the aisles?

A123 would not be the first U.S. company to lose control of its own Chinese supplier. One of the dangers here in getting the Chinese to build your DeltaQ chargers, for example, is that they might just improve it and sell it against you as an Elcon. We actually busted a guy in EVDL whining heroically about this very matter and pointing to the loss of "American" jobs (Canadian company) as the result. Actually the problem was not American jobs, as they had contracted with China to build their chargers, which they are claiming are "made in Canada."

As American companies have learned to play these games - hey we put a label on it and the instruction book and it is actually American made then - so have the Chinese. Hey we replace this cable with that and up the voltage and its a new charger.

Don't fall for the media demonization of the Chinese. It's the American companies that have brought this directly to our shores.

However it is happening, suddenly we can get some VERY power cells at very reasonable prices. As the volumetric density and density by weight do not actually increase at ALL the advantage is pretty slim. But you do wind up with a very granular device that can be combined in new ways to new shapes. And it does open the door to smaller packs of less range while also featuring less weight, less volume, and still sufficient POWER output to drive the controller and motor to their max.

And so it is incumbent on us to cover this development. More, we need to develop a modularization technique our viewers could use.

Again, if you have any ideas how to structure a process to truly vette a BETTER mousetrap/module, it's a pregnant time. I'm struggling to see how to do this. But I'm attracted to the notion of doing a better/simpler/less expensive/BMSless version of the A123 module.

It is an infant industry on the frontier of a new world of electric cars. IT's all graven in Jello. Yes, there are dangers. But opportunities as well. That's what a frontier is.

I'll make you the same deal I did the Internauts. I'll hang around till it's built. When the townies show up, I"m outta here.

That should give me a little work to do over the next 12 or 14 years I guess.

Jack Rickard

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Public Radio International MARKETPLACE

Nice little story on the 2011 Electric Vehicle Conversion Convention by Alex Chadwick.


Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Jack and Brian in Wonderland - The Search for Alice.

Lies, Damn Lies, and EV Industry Forecasts.

It starts with the rather bald implication that the American public is hungering for electric cars, and that the evil empire is denying them access to them for various vaguely nefarious and republican reasons. This huge, latent demand for a better technology, left unfulfilled and unrequited in the eternal quest for filthy euchre and the ongoing quest for global climactic rape and mayhem.

And somehow lurking in all that is the eternal premise that the wealthy grow wealthy on the backs of the poor working man.

If you could spend a day in my mailbox from THIS end, you'd understand why I'm old, cranky, and overweight.

In truth, the demand for a battery powered electric vehicle, not only in the United States but worldwide, is essentially and statistically zero and always was.

China, a country whose primary means of transportation for a century has been a bicycle, offered a more advanced government subsidy last year for electric cars than the United States and had a whopping 34 takers.

It IS true that those who DID lease an EV1, a RAV4, a Ford Ranger, or a Chevy S10 in the 1990s, probably overwhelmingly wanted to keep them.

Today, the Volt is under siege both as a non seller and a fire hazard. But Volt owners haven't gotten the word. They love the car. In fact, according to Consumer Reports, it has the highest vehicle owner satisfaction numbers in the business - ahead of the Dodge Challenger and the Porsche 911. Neither beast nor fowl, it uses both gasoline and kilowattage rather indiscriminately.

To know an electric car at this point, with modern Lithium ion cells, is to love one. But almost nobody knows them.

And so we have this bizarre Alice in Wonderland national debate, with almost ALL the voices on ALL sides of it, pro AND con, bereft of any experience with the vehicles whatsoever, and they entirely drown out the plaintive mews of actual owners who have actually owned and driven the beasts for at least two weeks.
Since their experience matches not the preconceived pro OR con notions, there is not really a slot on the evening news for their voices at all.

More annoying for me personally, is the entirely altered nature of business in America. An unintended consequence of the Internet. A decade or more ago, all businesses had telephones and answered them as a matter of course, taking all callers. They responded to electronic mail. And generally, they would sell their products to anyone capable of paying for them, in quantities large or small.

This is actually a necessary mannerism of commerce. Despite the 80/20 rule that all businesses live by, wherein 80% of your business comes from 20% of your customers, the 20% age and die. Worse, they merge. And so you have to constantly replenish them from the great mass of unwashed 80% of your customers most of whom are in truth a pain in the ass. Problem being, you can't tell which of them is going to switch categories on you.

Today, we have whole industries with no phone number. They don't have a receptionist. Nobody screens the incoming call because no one takes them. E-mail addresses are posted, but no humanoid ever checks that mailbox. The sales process is very much more efficient because it is entirely outbound. There is no incoming over the transom business because there is no one there to take the order.

This is most forgivable in mature industries. Massive hedging in corn futures could be forgiven for being a bit clubby. There are a few traders who have been doing this as a family business for a hundred years or so. Ironically, you can call them and they'll take the call.

But in young, emerging, technically disruptive businesses, this is pretty much a page of lost opportunity and connections and relationships never made and never fulfilled. In other words, kids playing at having a business - usually with other peoples money.

So it is no great loss to the CEO of Enerdel. That half a billion in investor capital went away because HE was too busy in a business FANTASY to answer the phone wasn't really his money. And A123 can likewise VERY cavalierly claim to NOT do business with the great unwashed AS they watch their investors stock plunge below $3 - not a problem. OPM.

But the lost opportunities are a treasonous high crime and misdemeanor. Backyard and garage inventors Bill Hewlett, David Packard, Steve Jobs, Steve Wozniak, Bill Gates, Paul Allen would simply be shut out today because they cannot "qualify" to get a phone call or e-mail returned, much less order a small quantity of whatever it is the companies offer.

So today, we have this ironic situation where we have plunging prices on American lithium batteries that can only be purchased from Chinese traders,which is ok because the American made batteries are really made in Korea or China ANYWAY while the American company is laying off workers in MICHIGAN prior to going out of business and being delisted from the Nasdaq ANYWAY and our main question is will these cells be available long enough for us to bother to design a module/package for sufficient to use in a car.

And if we did, and enough of you purchased the cells, would the cells then remain in production in China to fill THAT backdoor demand even though the original U.S. company went out of business entirely? Oh, did I mention they received $259 million of YOUR tax dollars to do all this? But they will neither sell to you or even SPEAK to you at this point?

American jobs? I'm sorry. Americans don't DESERVE jobs. They can't be bothered answering the phone.

Beyond ranting and raving about these developments, we're basically taking the win on almost everything we've predicted for the past two years. It is now becoming evident to everyone that General Motors sales projections, Nissan's sales projections, and all industry observers sales projections, have been nothing but fantasy confused by the ongoing propensity to offer a bare faced lie to anyone who will listen.

Electric cars offer a serious advantage to those who own them. The problem is those who own them are very few and not part of the national conversation on this topic. So in this Alice and Wonderland world, the only way anyone is going to learn anything useful about a modern electric car is to take a ride with one of the very few who have one. ANd that ironically is the same group that was building their own. The conversion guys generally ARE the low hanging fruit who are buying the Leaf's and the Volts, and parking them right next to their own efforts at an electric car in the same garage. But that's what's happening.

And so the bootstrapping of this technology to the masses is going to be a much longer and much slower process than Carlos Ghosn can imagine I do fear, despite his heroic work in this area. It remains an early adopter market. And will because the American public has learned to rely on information gathered first hand by their own experience. They have over time learned how to tell when the corporate elements of the world are lying .....
.....- you can see their lips moving.....

We continue to work on the Swallow - which is fun with an open VW chassis from 1968. We're making battery boxes and hooking things up left and right.

Jack Rickard

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Elescalade LiftOff and the A123 LiFePo4 Cell Puzzle

It's almost peaceful at EVTV. The EleCobra project is done and gone and by all accounts from Granby quite a hit points west and south.

This frees up room and time and we are at the end part of November when it is appropriate to stop and give thanks for our really crummy miserable weather of this time of year. Steel grey skies, spitting half-hearted precipitation and chill damp temperatures in an uncertain wind.

It makes the man cave kind of cozy with our enormous gas heaters filling the shop with the homey smell of my money going up in flames of natural gas.

As you know from last week's show, we have taken on a small project for Lee Morehead with the Swallow. We're finding a spider under each rock but have the chassis bare and on the lift and Brain is in more familiar territory with VW brakes and clutches and so forth. We're ordering a lot of little inexpensive piece parts and should receive both batteries and boxes this week.

We've also put Elescalade on the lift and we are carefully beginning the tear down process We had sent Elescalade to Slingblade for a hydroboost ectomy. Many GM vehicles have diesel motors of course and so they have developed a power brake and power steering system based on a hydraulic pump rather than vacuum. We already had a pump for the power steering on the Elescalade but for some reason they had a vacuum brake system on the vehicle. We have never done a car with the noisy intermittent vacuum pump and reservoir and I frankly do not want Elescalade to be the first. So we had Slingblade convert Elescalade to the hydroboost brake system.

This was a bit more involved than I thought. I had been told all we had to do was swap out the hydroboost unit. As it turns out there is a SEPARATE master cylinder and reservoir that also has to be replaced and in fact, the system uses a different pump with more fittings for the hydroboost. I have actually seen conversion photos where they use the same pump and simply hose it up differently. But there might be some advantage to stock hoses from GM. As the pump will be placed on the front of our 34 and 3/4 inch long motor assembly anyway, we might have to redo the hoses. But we START the conversion with a power steering and brake system that works off a quiet pump we can run with the electric drive motors and it should all work just fine.

The system did provide a couple of vacuum sensor inputs to the engine control unit. Hopefully, our HP Tuners system will let us turn off that fault code permanently.

The other area where I've taken some time to examine and burned down a few of the cells of course has been the A123 MD-H1 20Ah prismatic cell. This is kind of an interesting area, but fraught with new challenges I'm afraid.

Essentially ALL the OEM's have opted for these small form factor soft pouch cells with tabs OR in the case of Tesla, an even more challenging small cylinder of the 26550 variety and in vast numerical quantity. The implications of all this keeps me awake nights.

For one thing, the residual value of electric cars has historically been, and most likely will be, very different from ICE cars and not in a positive sense. As most of the components SHOULD be more durable than the ICE version, the cars should last longer and so depreciate more slowly, than ICE vehicles.

That said, the history is that they become near valueless on delivery. This is because most of the cars are orphans, with either bankrupt parents or an abandoned product line. In any event orphans.

But behind every electric car lies a battery and too soon and too often a dead battery. And while the American public is not acculturated at this point to living with an electric car, we ALL know ALL ABOUT batteries. From our first penlight flashlight to our latest cellphone or laptop, we have all paid the price for portability, over and over and over.

If you warranty the battery of a car for 8 years and 100,000 miles, then you have defined the life of the battery, all laws of physics thereafter held in abeyance. In ADDITION to the normal depreciation of the average car, you are also down whatever fraction of that 8 years and 100,000 miles you have used. And the ASSUMPTION we can make in looking for a total pack replacement after 8 years is that you will be screwed into the WALL by whomever sells it to you and TREBLE screwed if it is a proprietary pack.

Long term, I think this is the OEM equivalent of pouring gasoline over their own heads and lighting a BIC. By insisting on a proprietary cell module design and setting a warranty period, they pretty much PROMISE plummeting values the minute the car leaves the showroom floor. How does THIS work for anyone?

In addition to the usual software knots in the car's computers to make sure it is a Mr. Goodwrench approved battery pack, Tesla has actually gone to the trouble of PATENTING a totally nonsense module connector SHAPE. You can't really patent shapes. But by patenting the CONNECTOR for the individual modules, they pretty much assure themselves a proprietary pack forever. Third parties MIGHT be able to rebuild these modules, but no new ones could be made by third parties. The shape of the connector is nonsense. It has no merit AS a connector. It just IS a connector with a unique and unusual shape and so patentable. Someone at Tesla I'm sure is celebrating their brilliance on this one. Someone at Tesla should actually be promoted to "street status" and provided a final paycheck over it to my way of thinking. Long term this will haunt them for generations.

In any event, A123 is a battery maker and a MOST peculiar case. In any new and disruptive field there is an urge, certainly by the more advanced players to sort the world out into "good" customers and "bad" customers and the 80/20 rule being what it is, we would all like to focus on the 20. It almost never works that way, and won't here again. But particularly among the LEAST advanced, it is a mantra. I just had an e-mail conversation with a new electric drive company that is just absolutely FLUSHED with the glow of success from a SEMA showing that caused them a LOT of attention for an exciting NEW product that at this point I think we can rest assured does not exist and never will exist, and he's already sharpening his pen over which "well funded OEM effort" they will deign speak with. We can assume UNOBTAINIUM forever there.

A123 has a somewhat longer and more gorey history. But it's actually quite interesting. The company was formed by three people and a scantily garbed fish in 2001. A professor, Yet-Ming Chiang of MIT's Department of Materials Science and Engineering, an engineer, Bart Riley of American Superconductor, and a serial entrepreneur, Ric Fulop, met for dinner at the Naked Fish restaurant in July 2001. Professor Chiang had been working with a novel set of materials that appeared to self assemble into a very powerful battery.

The three agreed to launch an effort and by December, North Bridge Venture partners had turned their head and coughed $8.3 million. This further inspired Motorola and Qualcomm to join the party at $4 million and the company was off and running.

Along the way, Professor Chiang had also applied for a DOE Small Business Innovations Research grant and was awarded $100,000 for development of a nano phosphate cathode material. The group licensed both the self organizing battery and the nano phosphate chemistry from MIT on an exclusive basis.

As it turns out, the self assembling battery worked. But the batteries lasted a few dozen cycles and died. This was not promising. But the nanophophate material licensed as an afterthought showed unusually high power density. Professor Chiang published a paper on this and it actually caused quite a stir in the battery industry on a wide front.

So the company repurposed for the power cell. Batteries are generally described in two ways of interest - energy density and power density. We tend to be interested in energy density. Energy density is how much total power can be contained in a given weight and volume - the storage capacity if you will. More capacity, more range.

Power density is quite different. Power density has to do with how much INSTANTANEOUS power output can be derived from a given weight and volume. We talk of this as momentary or pulse power and it is often 5C or 10C - meaning 5x or 10x the amp hour capacity. A 100Ah cell that can put out 500 amps momentarily has a 5C power output rating.

This is the central tradeoff in Lithium batteries. More active material on the cathode gives you greater ENERGY density, but it slows the diffusion of lithium ions into and out of the cathode structure, severely limiting the power delivery capability. Thinner cathode materials provide more instantaneous power, but energy density suffers.

Chiang's nanophosphate cathode material had good energy density, but VERY high power densities of up to 100C. So a 2 Ah cell could momentarily put out 200A. Of course, it couldn't do that very long as it ran out of capacity very quickly at 100C. 60/200= about 18 seconds.

And where would this be most useful? Power tools like drills and screwdrivers tend to need a lot of power for a few seconds, after which they are often lain on the bench for minutes. A123 showed some cells to Black and Decker and in 2005 the company contracted for some cylindrical cells for their DeWalt Power Tool line. Later they added the main Black and Decker line to the mix as well. As an interesting aside, Black and Decker/Dewalt hold a very interesting patent for BOTTOM BALANCING lithium ion cells.

This gave A123 instant gravitas in the battery world and they were off and running. They eventually raised $131 million in venture capital BEFORE a very successful Initial Public OFfering.

In 2008, they did have a little hiccup. A company in Boulder Colorado had converted a Toyota Prius to an extended range electric by replacing the Prius battery pack with a pack designed by Davide Andrea. The company was Hybrids Plus with Carl Lawrence CEO at the time.

The car had been developed for a utility company and had burst into flames and burned to the ground while driving on the Internstate highway system. The battery pack was removed and sent to A123's headquarters and a third party company came in to do the forensics and determine the cause of the fire.
It was eventually laid off as an improper hardware assembly of a fuse and cable in the report. But it caused A123 to issue an entire document on proper module design in stellar cover your ass fashion.

The full A123firereport is here.

Davide Andrea went on to design the Elithion Battery Management System and wrote a book that could be titled "Jack is Wrong and you should send me money for my BMS and here is why."

A123 subsequently refused to sell cells to any conversion shops, one off car builders, custom cars, or hobbyist enthusiast and actually post a derogatory and very nearly actionable description of this on their web site. We questioned them about it and received an answer from the highest levels of management that they believe the incident contributed to their loss of the Chevy Volt contract to LGChem.

Which IS indeed interesting in a way. LG Chem provides GM with an intrinsically LESS safe Lithium Manganese Oxide Spinel cell that the A123 LiFePo4 cell just beats in all directions including life cycle and safety. IN any event, A123 just won't sell us or any conversion guys batteries.

But snubbed by Chevrolet, and worse, publicly noted as the LOSER in the OEM battle, A123 was desperate to get into electric vehicles. They invested $30 million dollars in Fisker Automotive, and would you believe Fisker found A123 cells to be the PERFECT answer to their battery needs. And so A123 announced they DID have an OEM car maker contract and others should look at their cells as well.

Fisker had promised a very sexy hybrid car. But like many startups, delays were the rule and the car didn't come out as scheduled. Worse, when they did finally begin shipping a few, it appeared that their all electric range had shrunk to 50 miles and in fact the EPA declared it to be 32 miles - LESS than the Chevy Volt. To suffer insult on indignity, they also found it got 20 MPG on the hybrid engine - worse than almost any economy car. So it isn't really very green. It isn't really very electric. And it IS very expensive - originally $95K but now north of $100K. And so beyond a few celebrity movie stars it has placed the cars with, there are no sales of Fiskers. They are currently trying to recast it as some sort of greenish tinted Bentley but there is really no place for this car to go.

So A123 has been working furiously to ramp up production to support Fisker, and now Fisker doesn't need very many batteries. SINCE we shot this video, A123 has announced layoffs of 125 workers in Michigan of about900 who were working there on the modules. In 2009, when receiving U.S. tax dollars of $259 million and state of Michigan grants and local tax abatements, they had promised 5000 jobs.

This isn't going well. And worse, it comes on the heals of the Enerdel meltdown. Also publicly traded, Enerdel had invested $59 million in THINKCITY, who miraculously found their ENER1 to be JUST THE TICKET for the THink car. Think didn't make the cut and has since gone bankrupt and is now apparently the property of a Russian entrepreneur. ENERdel was delisted from the NASDAQ last month.

We would predict Fisker is months away from also turning turtle on A123.

A123 has in the meantime been selected for the Chevrolet Spark program. But this is likely a year or two out in time for actual production - nothing in the next few quarters.

Which is a bit confusing. The company saves about $6.25 million per year by laying off this 125 people - assuming they are costing $50K per year each. They were obviously already trained to make the battery modules. The company has the $259 million in federal money. Why are they risking public ire and parody to save the $6.25 million? I would have probably had them garden, and work with the plants around the building or what not, sit around and train each other instead of cutting them loose. They promise to "call them back later." They most likely will be in another state later.

In any event, it appears the actual A123 A20MD-H1 prismatic 20Ah pouch cell is manufactured in Korea. The company also does have factories in CHina. And these cells are normally printed MADE IN THE USA incredibly, even though they are NOT made in the USA at all.

We originally bought 16 of these from a company called OSN Power at $50 each. They indicated they could do these in 500 quantity at $46.

We kind of posted a query on Alibaba that would alert us to these cells if they came up. And subsequently we heard from Richard Zhang at Shenzhen VictPower Technology Company They would sell A123 cells for $30 each in sample quantities and take PayPal for payment. AND in quantity 600 they quoted us $23.80 per cell.

$23.80 per cell for 20 Ah cells starts to look competitive. And Like OSNPower, Victpower is just a trading company. They sell birthday candles, flowers, tennis shoes, whatever you want to buy is kind of what they were wanting to sell. So we still haven't tracked down the SOURCE of these A123 cells, or found the real price for that matter. But it appears A123 is either backdooring production output to Asia, or they have lost control of a Korean factory that is simply selling the cells A123 isn't taking, anywhere they can.

It's an interesting problem. ANd an interesting opportunity.

But it goes right back to the original problem that A123 and Hybrids PLus faced, how do you package these pouch cells into a module that is safe and effective at driving a car. We would propose just buying the modules from A123, but it appears they would rather LAY OFF 125 workers than sell us the modules, and we have to guess if they DID, it would be at a ridiculous price to make us go away. So no rational world to deal with here.

So we think a module to use the A123 pouch cell might have life.

And packaging is probably my WORST area of non talent. In this video, I comically and ineptly describe how to make an A123 bomb for your car.

What I would LIKE to do is sponsor some sort of a design contest - something a LOT less work than last year's battery contest, where we get YOU guys to design the thing rather than ME designing something and all of you elegantly and with such charm e-mailing me about how I SHOULD have done it.

Perhaps we'll SELL you the cells at $50 each - 20 cells. You then send us the 20 cells in a module. Winning module gets something - 500 cells or something. ALL the cells that entered maybe. And we just buy module hardware from the winner. And of course encourage our viewers to do so as well. Ideas on how to structure this design contest are welcome.

Jack Rickard

Monday, November 21, 2011

Charges and Counter Charges in the land of the Swallow

Some are spitters. Some are swallowers.

This week, we send the Cadillac Elescalade over to Slingblade for a brake conversion. This will allow us to use the excellent power brakes on this vehicle WITHOUT having to deal with simulating engine vacuum. Muc of GM's truck line of course features diesel engines and they rather fail to produce sufficient manifold vacuum to run such auxiliary devices. The Elescalade already has a hydraulic pressure pump to run the power steering. By replacing the brake pack with the hydroboost version used on the diesels, and swapping out this pump for an identical one with a few more ports, we can run both brakes and steering off the same pump AND keep everything completely stock in a sense. All parts readily available and recognizable. We've already made provisions to mount this pump on the aux shaft of our electric motor pack.

Meanwhile, Lee Morehead of Denton Texas visited at the 2011 Electric Vehicle Conversion Convention. He brought a vehicle, purportedly just needing a new battery set, he called a Swallow. Originally designed

by Bill Bishoprick of Salem Oregon, this is a very lightweight vehicle based on a 1968 VW beetle, with a custom body reminiscent of a Jaguar. In 1922, Wilson Lyons founded the Swallow Sidecar Company to make motorcycle sidecars. That grew into Jaguar and Bishoprick then named the car after them.

Originally 1650 lbs with 523 lbs of Optima Yellow Tops, the vehicle got a scant 30 miles range. We're going to replace all that with 253 lbs of China Aviation Lithium Battery Company 100 Ah cells bringing the curb weight down to just over 1400 lbs.

That was the original scope of the project. Unfortunately, we've gotten a bit into it and found a bad clutch cylinder, some very bad connections between the rear suspension and the pan, and a seized motor.

So we're going to upgrade the motor and controller to an HPEVS AC-50 and Curtis 1238-7601. We'll put in an Elcon charger to charge the cells. A brake line pressure transducer to manage the regenerative braking, and a set of Bridgestone Ecopia LLR tires to replace the low profile Toyos.

The result should be a very lightweight, slightly overpowered but balanced fair-weather vehicle. I think we'll be up in the 80 mile range even using 100AH cells. Lee originally wanted to stuff it with 180Ah cells. We just couldn't' figure a good way to get them all in there, and it would have brought us back up to about the original weight, which we think was a touch bloated. With some new seat work, we think we'll be at 1500 lbs or less and very sprightly. The car is destined for use by Lee's daughter.

Meanwhile, we have had a bit of a development in the land of chargers. This has been a pernicious problem since we first started converting cars.

Our first charger was a Brusa NLG-511 or 513. It is really pretty good at 3000 watts because it is endlessly configurable. You can set up multiple stages and have them cycle on time, amp hours, current level, voltage, really almost anything. It's quite good at measuring voltage and current.

Unfortunately, it comes from Switzerland - no support at all. If you burn one up you get to keep all the charred remains. And with the Euro exchange rate, they reached $4000 each. I was 26 years old before I owned a car that cost over $4000. Much less a charger.

One of the staples of the EV world has been Manzanita. This is a non-isolated charger. You CAN configure the CC/CV voltage but its not very accurate and the point moves around with the current level. You "tweak" this with a kind of blind pot. And the termination is actually done by clock. It's really not designed for LiFePo4 cells. It can be made to work, but you have to do it carefully and it's a bit tricky. They have an add on Rudman Regulator that serves as a BMS and controls this and there have been a number of "incidents" involving fires related to this combination.

They are also a bit pricey with a 30 amp version starting at about $2400 and the big 75 amp model going for $4750. A lot more power per dollar at the expense of configuration and control.

DeltaQ makes a lot of the chargers for neighborhood electric vehicles like the GEM and THINK and so forth. Because of liability issues, they simple will not sell or configure any of their chargers for EV conversions. And they complain bitterly that the Chinese firm Elcon has ripped off their design.

If so, Elcon has presented designs with much more useful and higher voltages than DeltaQ, and it must be pointed out that the reason they were available to be ripped off is DeltaQ was having theirs manufactured in China. This is kind of a double edges sword faced by many companies. You can have your electronics product made in China at much less expense than in America. But when you do so, you often find remarkably similar products showing up to compete with you, with remarkably similar designs, and often a few improvements to boot.

The Elcon is the low priced leader. We can get a 3000 watt version for about $900. We got a 5000 watt version for the Cobra delivered in one week. They will load up to 10 "charge curves" into the machine for you and you do have the ability to pick from these 10 curves. This gives you a little bit of a selection of voltages. And they work well and reliably. But if you change your battery pack or car very much, you are stuck with a charger that just no longer works.

In September 2009, Simon Raferty, a UK engineer started a thread on DIYelectric on a $200 build it yourself charger. This thread has now spanned two years and about 50 pages of comments - one of the more popularly read threads on the service. In it, he describes a simple buck circuit controlled by an Arduino.

The Arduino is an Italian open source project to make a small board with an Atmel multi controller on it. They added an IDE and programming language to it and a USB port so anyone could easily program these in C++ on a PC. They have produced millions of these and it has given rise to a stunning open source community involved in home automation.

Rafferty adapted the Arduino as a controller to switch a pair of IGBTS's to make a functional buck circuit that could charge at 320v and below to any voltage and current desired.

Enter Valery Miftakhov. Miftakhov sports a Phd in Physics from Princeton and has developed an interest in the EV world. He's started a conversion shop called Electric Motor Werks to convert BMW's to electric drive. But he was a little put off by the state of some of the components, and chargers rather immediately fell to view. And so he has set out to "productize" this open source charger system. He has further refined the design and published layouts for printed circuit boards, parts lists, schematics, etc. He sells a kit of components for $849. And he'll even assemble one for you for $1849.

The unit is ENTIRELY configurable, better it is also entirely PROGRAMMABLE if you care to play Arduino, and it will pump out 10kw of power.

Developing such things is actually non-trivial. This week, we test the THIRD version of this we have received, and note that it still has a lot of things hanging on the outside that should be hanging on the inside. But we tried it on Speedster Redux and its' 192v pack and the device worked superbly. The CC/CV switch was accurate and the termination at 9 amperes was spot on. It is reasonably easy to configure. And it was doing over 8000 watts. I think we could have specified a higher power level yet.

Given the product liability issues with chargers, this may be the way to go. Open source charger projects you can build yourself inexpensively, or of course get some one to build for you for a fee. You kind of have to assume the liability, which you really always did anyway.

Finally, we have located a reasonably priced source for A123 cells. These 20 Ah LiFePo4 pouch cells are mildly interesting. They are high power cells capable of 20C outputs and more. This opens the window to small battery backs and LESS range, but still able to deliver the current levels required for high performance.

It's kind of theoretical, and we intend to approach it with a bit of caution. But we're playing around with five cell 100Ah modules and we were charging such a battery at 100 amps. I got involved in a fascinating phone call with Bill Ritchie of HPEVS about their "Secret stuff" coming spring of 2012 and how that might play with an 818 World Car build from Factory Five Racing. In an Alzheimer's moment, I kind of forgot the batteries.

Brain noticed them when the smoke started billowing out of the battery lab. We used the occasion to do a real world test of a new Kidde ABC fire extinguisher that uses a yellow chemical retardant powder. I was impressed.

Reiterating one more time. If you overcharge these cells, they will cause a very hot fire. Fortunately we were HERE to stop it. They weren't enclosed but perched on top of a plastic box. They burned through the box and dropped into it, where they were struggling for oxygen. We're probably going to replace the box and put about a foot of water in it. In this way, future battery fires would burn through the lid,and drop into the water automatically starting the fire and automatically extinguishing it in one smooth motion. I can then just phone in or text in my part in all this.

The interesting thing going on here is that A123 will not sell to us directly. They DO sell through a company called Mavezin who supplies components for electric motorcycles. They quoted us a price of $65 each for these 20 Ah "prismatic" cells. That's 3x the rate of our current batteries thank you.

OSN Power sold us 16 of these at $50 each. But we recently found a source at a much lower price and OSN has lowered their price commensurately. We bought 36 cells at $30 each and they quoted $23.80 in quantity 600. You can get lower yet if you want 2000 of them. And that starts to get down to the going rate for LiFePo4 cells anyway.

What remains is that you have to do your own packaging. Our initial tests indicate some minor heating around the terminals that could become problematic at VERY high current levels. The essential demand for a good Battery Management System appears to be just as valid as it is for the Chinese prismatics - that is not at all. And so we are looking at module designs that would be light weight, volumetrically of advantage, and inexpensive. This is not an area where we excel and any number of our viewers might do better at this than we do.

I'm playing with cast epoxy resin "tops" that host the cell tabs and clamp them using lightweight copper bars/sheet. Once a mold was perfected for this, they could be produced much less expensively I would think than with CNC machined plastic. But I don't know. We may try to design some sort of design contest for this project. If you have any suggestions for how that might work.

This is a VERY interesting development. And timely. Thundersky appears to be self cratering. Sinopoly has not apparently sold ANYONE we know any battery cells. We have received notice from Winston Battery that they will no longer market cells in the U.S. and that this will be taken over by their U.S. agent Balqon. Balqon assures all callers they must purchase a Balqon BMS and in any event cells will be 60 days to delivery with full payment required up front. This leaves CALB about our only source for Chinese prismatic cells.

Meanwhile, despite their obstinate reluctance to sell us cells, A123 is losing oxygen fast. The problem is Fisker Automotive. Fisker is just not ramping up their car sales per plan and so inventories of A123 cells are stacking up. Fisker blames it on floods and bad leather shipments and all manner of things in classic GM fashion. But it would appear that their car gets somewhere between 30 and 50 miles of electric range, and after the gasoline kicks in it is 20 mpg and spewing carbon in all directions - all for $95K. Becoming available pretty much in the same time frame as Tesla's $77K all electric with 300 mile range. And so Fisker is more or less DOA without drastic action.

The A123 cells are actually manufactured in Korea. The manufacturer has their own agenda. And now Chinese traders have picked up the line from Korea and are selling the cells. And they have their own agenda. Methinks A123 is losing control of their design. I think they'll quickly find their price at about $1 Ah where everything else is, perhaps slightly below given the expense of putting them in modules.

We should at least examine the possibility of using these cells as an option. I don't know at this point if they are Chinese, Korean, or from Framinham Massachusettes. Increasingly, it doesn't matter. But it is some work to use them in a car safely. Maybe a plastic battery box with water in the bottom.....

Monday, November 14, 2011

EleCobra - The Thrill of Victory, and the Agony of The Feet.

Sadly and painfully behind on my blogging duties, it is probably poor form to attempt a remedy with one massive update. But we do what we can. We HAVE been a bit busy with the roundup of the EleCobra prototype for Aptima Motors.

Recall, if you will, that I was vaguely disappointed in our performance at the local airstrip with the EleCobra. As it turns out, justifiably so. I'm pleased to report that we had quite a bit stronger car in the box than was immediately evident.

The week before last we took the EleCobra to Slingblade Performance in Anna Illinois to do some dynamometer testing on their Dynojet system. The results there were also disappointing. But we mounted a video camera behind the car and shot the actual gages up close while the acceleration tests were performed.

On return, I did something so gruesome I scarce recommend it. I exported the Winpep data in 100 msec chunks. We shoot our video at 29.97 frames per second and so 1/10th of a second corresponds to 3 frames of video. And so I loaded the videos and cycled through the runs 3 frames at a time, noting amps, volts, temperature,s etc from every gage on the dash, three fluke meters, and the Netgain Warp Drive Interface Module.

This is beyond watching paint dry. It's self abuse.

But it did pay off. We could note, for example, that not only were we NOT getting the calculated power, but apparently we weren't asking for it. The throttle input never exceeded 80% command.

Recall that we had struggled with a type 23 error reported on the Netgain Warp Drive Industrial. Mr. Bohm was prompt in providing us with a firmware upgrade on the controller. Better, the process of updating firmware was actually pleasant. Mr. Bohm sent us an e-mail with an attached file. We pulled the tiny SD micro card from the interface module and mounted it in an SD card adapter, and plugged it into a desktop computer. We could then copy the file onto the card.

We then reversed the process, inserting the card into the Interface Module. A simple menu item allows you to update the firmware to the controller, and in fact you can even update the firmware in the Interface Module itself if need be. The entire process from e-mail to updated controller was probably not eight minutes.

The Interface Module is a very handy way to set configuration items on the controller, but there really aren't very many. You get motor amps and volts limits, in forward and reverse. You can clear errors, and read errors. There's a "frame leak" option. And not very much else.

But you CAN select your throttle type. You don't get to change much on it, but you can select it. Our throttle is the LOKAR PEDAL the last option on the list. We believe when we updated the firmware we reverted to the default, CTS which is the FIRST item on the list.

So we were running the car error 23 free finally, but with the WRONG pedal. This had the unfortunate effect of lopping off the top 20% of our available power.

The scary thing about all that is that without all this testing, we never would have known. We would have been vaguely disappointed in the Netgain 11HV, the Warp Drive Industrial, and the EleCobra. But it ran well, and we could have gone for years. As a first prototype, we would compare it to WHAT? What SHOULD the power have been? My napkin scratch?

The central issue with one-off custom cars and prototypes is you never KNOW when you are done. Now that we've found the pedal issue, is there MORE things we are missing? More tricks that could this dramatically improve performance?

Our zero to sixty time dropped from 6.8 seconds, which isn't as good as Speedster Redux, to 5.8 seconds - making it the fastest car on our lot. That's a 14.7% improvement. What ELSE is in the car that will give me another 10% say? Scarey thought.

This week, we returned to Slingblade and things got better.

You can also see the results in the graphs below and I'll include a link to the actual elecobra.xlsx EXCEL FILE for the Cobra so you can see the data. There's actually a LOT more data in the file than we graphed and you might find some of it quite interesting.

I'm going to hear howls from the Dan Friedricksons and other lesser intellects on the disparity between the data from the fluke meters and the Xantrex and the Interface Module. Here's a clue. Each device has a different "sample rate" and we are snapshotting the numbers in 1/10th second slices. If you slide the numbers, they're all good, just not in precise line in all cases.

Since we insisted on publishing everything we did on the EleCobra, Aptima Motors, which has plenty of secret plans, has avoided making us privy to all of them for obvious reasons. But Bryan ANderson claims they have already put two additional chassis into work. They are going to integrate the battery boxes a little bit better into the new frame. And they are going to do a carbon fiber body for the vehicle. Bryan believes he can slice 400 lbs certainly, and potentially as much as 500 lbs from our 2961 curb weight. With a 5.8 second zero to sixty now, imagine the improvement with a 17% weight decrease. This should also have a dramatic impact on our 120 mile range. And I think he mentioned they are going to sell these cars completely finished at $85,000.

What I found very surprising was a rather significant level of interest from his EXISTING customer base of Cobra owners in the project.

I didn't have any doubt at any point that we could make the car roll forward using batteries and a motor. Frankly, no miracle there. Really anyone CAN do this. If you want to take an existing car and make it drive on batteries, the stuff is there.

Naturally, we wanted to do it with new and interesting components to make it interesting video. But my concern from the beginning was that the resulting car be "Cobra-like". And I struggle to define what I mean by that. Obviously it would be a new and different thing powered by LiFePo4 cells and a magnetic motor. But could it be done incorporating the feel and mystique and sense of this car, which has such a history and such a community of enthusiasts who so deeply feel the Cobra gestaltd?

Bryan Anderson claims to have built 2700 chassis in 25 years, the majority of which are Cobras. He seems to think so.

Our mission was to take an existing car as it was and convert it to a working prototype electric drive car. In this particular adventure, the loop is continued. Now Mr. Anderson can take what we've done, and go BACK to the beginning of the process. By making some fairly dramatic changes to the chassis, he can take off weight and do a MUCH improved positioning of the battery cells. With carbon fiber, he can lighten the body and if he dares, alter the front end to eliminate the aerodynamically perverse open front face of the car - vastly improving the admittedly poor aerodynamics of this particular model.

There are some more refined improvements available as well. If you are disappointed with our horsepower numbers, you probably ill understand what horsepower is. Our torque was very good, but it WAS a little constrained to the lower end of the RPM band - limiting somewhat the HP number you read on the dynamometer. Horsepower is an expression of radial torque RPM corrected. Simply increasing the voltage 20 volts would widen that RPM band substantially. By incorporating the boxes more integrally into the chassis, that is a very possible improvement.

We were at that under 500 ft lbs of torque. The Tremek TK600 transmission is the big guy in that line and rated for 600 ft-lbs. On reflection, it is POSSIBLE that a lighter, lower friction T45 or even T5 transmission MIGHT make the grade - decreasing our drivetrain friction losses as well as overall weight. The same can be said of the entire rear differential and axle assembly.

The production costs of the EleCobra are simply too high to be a viable vehicle in my estimation. But Aptima is intent on it and at $85,000 it would certainly be an interesting offering. With the changes outlined above, this would truly be a performance car by any measure, and I can say the view from the cockpit did grow on me over the course of this project. It will be very interesting to see this develop.

Meanwhile, we're back on the Elescalade and a couple of new projects. As described in the second video, we are taking a close look at Factory Five Racing's 818 World Car concepts. This is a two seat mid engine spyder sports car using the universally and globally available Suburu parts in either left OR right hand drive. David Smith intends to reach a younger customer base with this and enhance his already notable export business - he calls it a "World Car." Better, he is looking to a $9900 kit car price with a completed vehicle possible at a smooth $15,000.

This is very attractive. We can't make it electric and stay within $15,000. But an electric version of this modern, very aerodynamic and lightweight (818 refers to kilograms wet) could be very attractive at $25,000 or even $27,000 all in. If we could find a suitably NEW and interesting motor and controller combination, and perhaps a suitably new and exciting battery architecture to match, this could be the ultimate kit build electric car at a price more of our viewership can afford than say, the Elescalade.

I guess the question we would have is should we go for max range/performance or attempt a dramatic price breakthrough on such a build? Viewer thoughts on this would be welcome.

Jack Rickard

Monday, October 31, 2011

LRR Tires - Worth It

The Aptima Motors eCobra is coming along. We are in the final days of this project. It rolls and drives well.

One of the concerns with this car has been the amount of power required to move it. For a two seat convertible sports model, it is a bit heavy at 2961 lbs - no interior or paint yet at that. But as we have added pieces such as the hood and trunk, the aerodynamics have improved and the power consumption has fallen to more of the expected levels just over 300 wH per mile - about as expected for it's weight.

One of the eyebrow raisers from receipt of this car was the large wide tires that came on it. Lots of rubber looks good and rides well, but it usually means higher rolling resistance. Very early in the program we ordered a new set of lightweight WELD wheels with a carefully calculated offset so we could run Michelin Energy Saver A/S low rolling resistance tires on this car. The issue was having the offset such that the tires still filled the wheel well and didn't look entirely odd on a Cobra.

Recall from our mystery surrounding the Porsche 550 Spyder and the Porsche 356 Speedster that we got a significantly better range and energy use from the heavier and rounder Speedster. Despite installing expensive aluminum rotors, calipers, low rolling resistance tires, and even ceramic bearings, we never did get the Spyder even close to the Speedster's ability to roll much more freely.

As kind of a joke we ran what we called the Soapbox Derby - simply rolling the two cars down the street in neutral to see which rolled further. True to our range results, the Speedster rolled dramatically further than the Spyder.

We can of course do normal range testing but it is quite time consuming and subject to variabilities out of our control. If a tractor trailer blows past you, cuts in front of you, and then slows to 7 miles per hour below your target speed, there's not a lot you can do about it in a small convertible. And the tests take hours and are much more accurate over a significant number of miles - 15 to 25 typically.

So we liked the quick indication of the Soap Box derby. But it didn't actually provide much data - just a distance on a hill. And you have to use the SAME hill. So YOU can't compare YOUR results to ours.

The way this is actually done in automotive testing is with a coast down test. And so we adopted the pretty standard procedure used in such tests - with perhaps less instrumentation and rigeur than is commonly done at the Chrysler Test Grounds. But we think it renders quite accurate information, and is reproducible by anyone anywhere on any car.

Basically, we go to a flat stretch of road sufficiently long to allow an acceleration to 75 mph and a subsequent unpowered roll to a full stop. Ideally, with very little traffic on it. We then accelerate to 75 miles per hour, and then remove all throttle input and place the transmission in neutral.

As the car speed decreases and passes through 70 mph, you take a time mark. As the point where it hits 60 miles per hour, you note the time from the 70 mph start time mark. As it passes through 50 mph, again take a time. And so forth until the car actually comes to a stop, noting the time each 10 miles per hour.

There is a human element using a stopwatch, and the incline of the road will affect the results, no matter how flat. So we run the test THREE TIMES in each direction, giving us six time sets. Then we average the times. We actually had little variation there.

The chart below shows this coast down test for the Michelin Energy Saver A/S tires/wheels, as well as for the Stinger Radial GTS tires that originally came on the car.

As you can see, the results are pretty similar at the higher speeds, where aerodynamics comprises the predominant effect. But as the speed deteriorates, the two curves diverge pretty strongly. Total time was a difference of nearly 30 seconds. That's quite a bit of time and quite a bit of distance differential for two sets of tires.

We also did some actual range testing. Excluding extraneous factors such as hoods and trunk lids, we really only have directly comparable data for 40 mph and 50 mph.

But the results are startling. At 40 mph our max range calculates to 152 miles with the Michelins and 124 miles with the Stinger tires. LRR tires typically provide a 3-5% increase in gas mileage. But in this case, starting with tires that are so BAD for an electric drive application, this was 28 miles further than the Stinger results - a gain in max range of 22.58%. This is frankly just huge. Not precisely apples to apples as they are entirely differently sized tires, but it's a real gain and we'll take it.

The results at 50 mph are less as there is slightly more of an aerodynamic component at the higher speed - predictably enough. But they are still substantial at over 14%.

A number of people have waned us to keep the eCobra cobra like. We don't know precisely what this means. But we think it has something to do with burning rubber. So we installed a line locker on the front brake line. This allows us to spin the rear wheels while applying brake to the front wheels. It worked well enough as you'll see in the video. As an added bonus, it makes a very handy parking brake.

We also did some very preliminary testing of 0 to 60 times using the pretty basics device provided on the GPS speedometer. It would appear we ran 0 to 60 mph in 6.77 seconds and 360 linear feet. We think we can improve on that with practice, probably down to about six seconds.

We hope to get the car over to Slingblade Racing this week for a full dynamometer test.