October 21, 2011


The Electric Leaf's True Believers Won't Leave Well Enough Alone (BRADLEY BERMAN, 10/16/11, NY Times)

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.

Posted by at October 21, 2011 6:53 AM

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