Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The Gear-Headed Mentality

The old Saturn Ion that I had been driving is nearly ready to give up the ghost. After nearly a decade on the road, it is time for it to be put to pasture. Even now the car is getting 30 miles per gallon, a completely respectable rate. Still, so much of my traveling is just limited to the daily commute and running errands -
and it is time to look at something more efficient than a controlled explosion eighteen inches from my knees.

The first issue I encountered when shopping for an EV was that dealerships still seem to be getting accustomed to selling all-electric cars. Several salespeople outright refused to speak to me about the Leaf, and instead passed me off to other sales reps. I couldn't find a single salesperson who would let me drive a Ford Focus. After I pried a bit further, it seems like the more "senior" sales staff believe that EV buyers are too high maintenance - the buyers don't understand the range issues, they fear higher return rates, they get cold feet and back out of the deal. Even the sales staff that would talk to me pressed very hard for a commitment, wanting faux signatures and asking for money down prior to delivery. I spoke to lot managers about the Leaf turnover rates, since I felt they had a more accurate sense of how inventory was moving, and they seemed to think the actual return rates were much lower than the rates the sales guys were assuming. For one lot, out of 15 Leaf sales only 1 had been returned.

If you troll the EV forums you find that there is some hint of truth to the conception that potential all-electric owners are a high-maintenance bunch. Several complain that they had to wait a whole 5 minutes in a maintenance bay, others are incensed at the 87-mile range, and many aren't quite ready for the anxiety of finding a charger when they need one. If you are planning on using an EV as a secondary commuter car the stress can be much less, however an all-electric primary car can definitely give you an ulcer. Electric vehicles definitely require a cultural fit right now, which may be why there is such friction between buyers and sales people.

As odd as it might seem, Focus/Leaf/i-MiEV/Soul/i3 owners are more akin to Corvette than to Corolla owners. A happy Leaf owner frets over charging temperatures, battery chemistry, wind resistance, regen strength, residential electrical codes, LED vs. halogen amperage - and enjoys doing so. Just as a Corvette owner is worried about properly gap'ing spark plugs, an EV owner is worried about electrolyte conductivity. If you wouldn't enjoy obsessing over the winter tires of a 'Vette, you likely wouldn't like obsessing over the optimum tire pressure for maximum EV range.

In all honesty, I've never been a car guy. I know that the engine belts form a mobius strip to allow for even wear... and... there are cables? And various and sundry liquids? Not sure. However, the mechanics of an EV are much simpler to understand, which lets dullards like me become car guys because there is
so much less to know. As is entirely too apparent, I'm more than happy to obsess needlessly about the baubles of technology... and so I think I can make the shift from the mainstream "it just works" mentality to the gear-headed "how does it work" mentality. Mainstream adoption may not be there for EVs just yet, but wannabe car guys have the perfect inroad now.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Hack Your Alarm Clock

Kids, teens and adults are more inspired to tinker after they learn the basic framework of what they are tinkering with. Electronics and circuit sets are great, but it really helps to jump-start learning with demos or projects that are heavily documented in the box. After you get your bearings on what works and what breaks, you are more free to experiment and add your own ideas.

To that effort I'm working on a hackable alarm clock based on the Raspberry Pi platform along with several Adafruit/Sparkfun components. The idea is that we can build a customized, tricked-out bedroom alarm clock with some general off-the-shelf components to see how hardware and software work in concert to create something useful. After the project is done, I'm hoping its creators will feel inspired to rip it apart or build new features using the pieces.

I've already run these lessons with a few kids between the ages of 5 and 11, and it was pretty interesting to see what they found interesting. They all wanted to start playing music, but they celebrated being able to have whatever number they wished show up on the LED display. To simply type "77," hit "Save" and refresh the display was enough to send them clapping. They also spent a ton of time building their own enclosures out of Lego, designing the perfect case for their clock.

Right now we have made it to Lesson 6 (the AM/PM indicator), however I have only published up to Lesson 4. More are to come, and I have already found some refinements that need to be made in the previous lessons. The lessons are available at, the hardware project is documented on HackADay at, and the Python source code for the clock driver is posted on GitHub via I will keep these sites updated as the project grows.

Let me know if you try out the project yourself. We are already making some fun hacks, such as using the LED display to show the answers to math problems. I'd love to hear what other people devise!

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Out of Gas

I took a Nissan Leaf for an extended test drive today - I borrowed it last night and will return it tomorrow morning. It was definitely good to take an all-day test drive... there were a few things I didn't expect to encounter but are helpful to know.

First off: the range. I drive approximately 53 miles a day just to work and back, and I'm driving in a midwest winter. The temp wasn't terribly cold - it was above freezing - but I needed to run the defogger for most of my trek. I drove in "Eco" mode the entire time as well, and made sure to take advantage of the regenerative braking. While Nissan quotes the driving range between 75 and 84 miles, a single 26.5 mile trek ate 40% of my battery. This places my winter driving range closer to 66.25 miles, assuming a linear discharge of the battery. That ain't good, and is a full 12% less than the advertised range.

I am pretty fortunate to have EV charging stations at work, otherwise I'd be sunk within a year. Right now the plan is to use the regular 240V charger at work, and trickle-charge the battery at 120V at home. This means I need to charge for 4 hours once I arrive at work, and charge for 10.5 hours at home. Not terribly convenient, but doable. If I wasn't able to recharge at work I would definitely be sweating it on the trip back.

For a while I weighed the difference between the S and SL models (the low and high end), but I didn't find a compelling reason to move to the SL. True, the SV/SL models offer CARWINGS, however it uses an old AT&T 2G network that is scheduled to go dark by the end of 2016. There is also the navigation console and full Bluetooth support which is nice... but... meh. Overall I didn't find a compelling reason to upgrade from the base S model, other than adding the quick charge package.

The Leaf is tempting. I will definitely need to change my driving habits and will have to always be mindful of the nearest charging station; already I've petitioned work for additional EV spots. However, if I am willing to bend over backwards I believe I could make a switch to all-electric.