WITHIN weeks of when Nissan first began delivering the Leaf to buyers last December, do-it-yourselfers were looking for ways to make the newelectric 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.
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