The Electric Leaf’s True Believers Won’t Leave Well Enough Alone

Posted by Trish Riley, October 17, 2011

JUICED Phil Sadow modified the Leaf's portable cord to charge much faster.


Berkeley, Calif.

WITHIN weeks of when Nissan first began delivering the Leaf to buyers last December, do-it-yourselfers were looking for ways to make the new electric car — an engineering marvel from one of the world’s leading automakers — even better.

Among those who applied their 21st-century engineering skills to tinkering pursuits that date to the dawn of automobiles was Gary Giddings, 69, a retired engineer and a passionate supporter of electric vehicles.

“At this point in my life, my goal is to spend whatever time I have trying to help E.V.’s become successful,” Mr. Giddings said. He is using his Ph.D. in electrical engineering, earned at the University of California, Berkeley in the free-speech 1960s, to correct some of the Leaf’s shortcomings and to squeeze more performance out of it.

Mr. Giddings and a dozen or so Leaf-driving eco-enthusiasts quickly focused on a glitch that annoys many Leaf owners: a battery-charge gauge that is notoriously untrustworthy. This dashboard readout can mislead drivers into believing that the battery pack is about to run out of juice when in fact there are plenty of miles left in the electricity tank.

“We read the Leaf’s program, decode it, find out what it’s doing to see if there’s bugs in it, and see if it should be doing it better,” he said.

Using the car’s diagnostic service port to tap into its electronics, Mr. Giddings devised a way to display far more detail than the Leaf’s dashboard offers. The car’s electronics monitor the remaining battery charge in great detail, but display it to the driver in a simplified readout of 12 bars on the dashboard, he said.

Using Mr. Giddings’s home-brewed E.V. fuel-level display, Leaf drivers get the confidence to extend their driving range by 10 percent or more. His gauge, which displays the actual state of charge, reveals that the Leaf dashboard’s “zero bars” display comes on when the battery pack has several miles remaining.

“Until you can find out how much is really left in the batteries toward the end of its range, it’s just a guess-o-meter,” said Mr. Giddings, who has sold a handful of his displays, both as $170 kits and as $280 completed units, to Leaf owners.

But for Mr. Giddings and like-minded owners, the social dimension of modifying the Leaf is a more important incentive. Mr. Giddings participates in a Leaf group based in Orange County, Calif., one of 10 that has sprung up around the United States. (Disclosure: I’m a member of a Leaf group here in the San Francisco Bay Area.)

“In these groups, we become friends and comrades,” he said. “We learn how to use the cars better and teach it to other people. It’s a good thing.”

If you assume that those discussions are akin to the chatter at a vehicular Tupperware party, you may be underestimating the potential for smart technologists to disrupt the already disruptive electric car industry.

Phil Sadow, an independent engineering consultant based here, is the sort of innovator that makes such upheavals happen.

His contribution sounds innocent enough: he adapted the 120-volt charging cord that comes as standard equipment in the Leaf so it can handle a 240-volt charge. This reduces recharge times to less than eight hours, from about 20, and it lets Leaf drivers plug the Nissan charging cord into any 240-volt household outlet, typically used for appliances like clothes dryers.

Mr. Sadow’s project was inspired by his outrage over E.V. owners’ being billed as much as $6,000 to install 240-volt charging equipment. These home units, he says, with their fancy industrial designs and Wi-Fi capability, are more complex than necessary.

“If you look at your average Walgreens $10 hair dryer, it comes with almost all the same equipment as required by an E.V. cord,” he said.

The 120-volt charge cord, made by Panasonic, is supplied by Nissan with the car as a stopgap for those times when a high-voltage outlet is not available. “I knew it would handle at least 12 amps at 240 volts without any trouble, because all cable is rated to at least 250 volts,” Mr. Sadow said. “I determined that an upgrade was possible.”

His testing showed that the cord had been overengineered by Panasonic and could handle up to 20 amps — that is, if the software in its microcontroller could be modified.

“It took some reverse engineering to figure that out,” Mr. Sadow said. “It was a significant man-hour investment to get to that stage.”

Curiously, Mr. Sadow is not a Leaf owner. He drives a Toyota Prius that he converted to run on a 6.5 kilowatt-hour battery pack — made up of 864 batteries used in DeWalt power tools — overseen by a battery management system that he created.

With Mr. Sadow’s $239 modification, the charging cord that comes with the Leaf will replenish the battery pack at the full capacity of the car’s onboard 3.3-kilowatt charger. It can be plugged into a 240-volt outlet or combined with another device, called a Quick-220, that uses two 110-volt outlets on separate circuits.

“To get 240-volt charging at home, you don’t need to spend a ton of money,” he said.

His point would seem to be supported by Nissan’s announcement last week that the price of its approved home chargers was being lowered to $1,818 for a “typical home installation.”

In essence, Mr. Sadow has created a workaround that could make an expensive electric car-charging infrastructure unnecessary. His work also calls into question the cost-effectiveness of an Energy Department program that is providing $115 million to install 14,000 E.V. chargers in 18 cities in six states and Washington. Leaf owners have complained about the slow rollout of those chargers and their poor reliability.

In addition to the matter of cost, Mr. Sadow said he thought the complexity and bureaucracy of such programs undermined the adoption of electric cars.

“The E.V. cord should be as simple as a garden hose,” he said.

What about the safety of Mr. Sadow’s modifications and the other tweaks that DIYers are performing on Leafs?

“I’m an electrical engineer, so this isn’t a hack,” he said. “It’s been professionally engineered. Obviously, if somebody’s garage burns down and it’s my fault, I’m done.”

Mark Perry, director of product planning for the Leaf, said Nissan did not recommend using the modified cord, citing safety concerns and the risk of damaging the car. “Somebody might say it works fine, but U.L. has not certified it,” he said, referring to the product safety testing laboratory.

Mr. Sadow has a thriving cottage business for now — he said close to 15 percent of the country’s 7,000 Leaf owners had bought his cords — selling the upgrades online at EVSEupgrade.com.

But are these electronic engineers hackers? Mr. Sadow rejects the term, seeing himself and others as helping to find more cost-effective solutions to building E.V. infrastructure — not to mention doing something Americans have done with their cars for more than a century.

“I don’t like the term hacking because it’s been portrayed by the media as something evil,” he said. “To me, hacking is actually very American. Go out to the garage. Take it apart. Make it better.”

By Bradley Berman
From the New York Times

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