Category: Industry News

A 150 mile EV–50 Years Ago

It’s easy to get caught up in the hype and feel like we are at the pinnacle of technology today. In many ways, it’s true, but in others, we aren’t moving along as fast as we might think.

People familiar with old AMC cars, like the Pacer and the Gremlin, will recognize this right away. This car didn’t make it to production, but it definitely inspired the style of cars that followed in in the years later.

Background

While AMC didn’t have the deep pockets of the “Big 3” automakers, several developments pushed them to produce this prototype.

First, air quality was getting downright lousy in major American cities. Smog, smoke, and other contaminants were getting to the point where kids couldn’t go outside on some days. This was especially true in cities like Los Angeles that were designed around the automobile. Congestion and gridlock on major routes only made it worse, as cars would sit and pollute while going nowhere.

This all led to legislation meant to clean up the air. Most people know about CARB, federal emissions equipment requirements, unleaded gasoline, catalytic converters, and the beginning of air testing for vehicles in many places. What is less known is that the federal government also provided funding for electric vehicle research, prompting automakers to start these efforts.

Finally, the 60s and 70s were a time when the United States found itself struggling with reliance on foreign oil. During the worst of it, people put up with shortages and long, long gas lines as some countries choked off the supply of fuel to push the U.S. political buttons. Electric car prototypes, which didn’t make it to production, did show the public that automakers and the government were looking for other options.

AMC and other automakers were experimenting with a variety of different drivetrain and engine options at the time, including GM’s rotary engine program that AMC planned to procure engines from. While none of the alternative power plants made it to production, it was definitely a time of innovation that led to the later success of electric vehicles.

What Made This Vehicle Unique

Like many other EV prototypes of the era, the Amitron was small and light. It had a much more aerodynamic shape than most blocky cars of the era, and was designed more for efficiency than for speed or utility.

What made this vehicle different from the other efforts was its two-stage battery pack. Lithium-ion batteries of the time were the best possible option for energy density, but chemistries of the day simply weren’t up to the task of providing high amounts of raw power or charging quickly when trying to use regenerative braking. To solve this problem, engineers decided to use a bigger lithium pack to charge a smaller nickel-cadmium pack that could handle acceleration and regenerative braking.

This put the Amitron ahead of other manufacturers’ prototypes, which couldn’t accelerate quickly or provide regenerative braking. The few that could used odd battery chemistries that were prohibitively expensive and/or had very poor longevity.

After The Amitron

After the Amitron, AMC did go on to produce other prototypes, some based on the Amitron. Most didn’t go onto any kind of mass production, but the overall shape and style of the Amitron did inspire the Pacer and Gremlin production gas vehicles.

AMC ultimately did produce a limited run of small EV Jeeps for the U.S. Postal Service, with several hundred put into service for a few years in the most polluted cities. The “Electruck” didn’t set any records with its 33 MPH cruising speed and limited range, but was a good fit for the USPS mission of delivering mail.

It would be decades before more serious efforts like the GM EV1 and Nissan LEAF came along, but the Amitron’s 150-mile range and advanced features did show automakers that a practical and usable electric vehicle was at least possible. That alone gives the little car a very good legacy.

Size Matters. (We found our Lithium-ion cell supplier!)

After months of searching and discussing with a number of different battery suppliers, we have finally found the supplier we are looking for!

For several months now we have been talking to a number of different suppliers of our target battery, the 18650 Lithium-Ion based cell. We spoke with wholesalers, distributors, and even directly to several manufacturers, but in most cases ran into a common challenge: As a startup, we simply weren’t able to get them to commit to large volume pricing. We have more than 1 mWh of batteries required to meet our current deposit holders on our pre-order waiting list. We were getting quotes that aligned with 10s or 100s of kWh in volume, which were good, but not good enough.

Even though we have more than 400 reservations, we’re intending to serve several thousand new Leaf customers each year and many more customers with non-Leaf EVs in the years that follow. It is core to our values to make our product affordable, our primary driver for entering into the EV market was that the high cost of batteries creates most of the market’s adoption barriers. Expensive batteries make the cars expensive, they make servicing the car expensive, and the high cost of replacing batteries makes used EVs lose value quickly. So if we want to stay true to our values, we need to ensure our battery supplier understands that we need to get to volume production very quickly, and that means volume pricing.

We had also considered finding a supplier that can deliver quality cells in the 2170 (sometimes referred to as 21700) cell packaging. However, we were having a difficult time finding a supplier in that size that was a brand name our customers could trust. And for the last several months we had largely shelved the idea that we could use a 2170 cell in our battery modules.

But why did we want the 2170 to begin with? A quick look at Tesla’s choice to move to this size can answer that. By shifting to 2170 in the Model 3 from the 18650 in the S and X, Tesla was able to deliver a 50% improvement in energy density and a large reduction in the number of individual cells in the car. In short, you get more storage for less cost, size, and weight. The math is hard to ignore. But until recently Tesla was the only big brand manufacturing sufficient volume of these cells, and we’re not a big enough company for Tesla to consider being our supplier. So the search continued…

Until this week! We now have entered into an agreement with a supplier of 2170 cells manufactured by a true name-brand and with more than enough volume to achieve our next several year’s production goals! Not only are we able to get these elusive 2170 cells, but we’re getting them at a price that’s similar to what some other suppliers were quoting for 18650s! And even better, they will assemble, wrap and wire the cells into the arrangement we specify for our custom modules, so they are also a contract manufacturer for our battery assembly now as well! Two suppliers in one! All of us at Fēnix Power are walking on air this weekend, this is a HUGE win for us, and for our customers.

So what does this really mean for our customers and our products? First, it means we will be able to deliver more for less. We’re now re-evaluating our pricing model to determine if we can adjust our predictions for the monthly subscription costs. And second, it means we will be able to get more energy storage into the same space. For customers interested in expanding their Leaf’s capacity, we can’t tell you specifically how much more yet, we’re going to save that news for an announcement later. But what we can say is this: We had planned on trying to get to 40kWh in the stock battery location, but preliminary designs were only reaching about 39kWh. Well, now we can confidently state that 40kWh is easy to achieve, very easy. We can’t wait to share more, so for now, here are some cell specs for those that find such details important:


Size: 21mm x 70mm (970 cubic mm)
Weight: 69 grams (0.069 Kg)
4.8Ah (4800 mAh)
18.5Wh (0.0185kWh)
Energy Density: 268 Wh/Kg



*Image for 18650 v 2170 size reference, not our actual cells

Fēnix & Recycling

We are often asked by our customers “What are you doing about recycling?” or “What happens to my old battery and what happens to your batteries when they’re at the end of their life?” and of course, our answer has always been that we’re committed to never throwing cells away. But anyone can say they’re going to do something, words without actions are just words.

We have been searching to find the right recycling partner, and today we are excited to announce our search is over. We have found a recycling partner that not only will recycle our old cells, but they will also take most of them and convert them into use for fixed storage for the grid, businesses, data centers, etc. This is exactly what we’ve been searching for!

Please welcome BigBattery to the Fēnix Power team of environmentally conscious partners! They are a new venture with a solid pedigree in recycling thanks to their leadership’s long history of running a premier industry recycling business prior to founding BigBattery. Their own words say it all:

BigBattery was created to provide affordable, attainable, and sustainable energy solutions worldwide. We believe access to electricity is a basic human right that 1.2 Billion People today lack. Modern technology has made energy creation extremely affordable yet energy storage remains very expensive. The high cost of batteries remains the single greatest hurdle for our worlds mass adoption of clean and reliable energy solutions.

Our mission is to provide high quality energy storage solutions at a fraction of todays market price to promote mass adoption. BigBattery was not made to create value for a few, but rather to share the greatest positive impact for the whole. Our products are designed to serve your needs at a price you can afford. We are your source for power – it’s time you empower the world!

BigBattery is committed to the 2nd-life market of modern chemistry batteries. Today’s EV, HEV, PHEV vehicles often use advanced chemistries to achieve the storage needs today’s vehicles demand. And an EV is a very demanding application for a battery! We charge and discharge our EV batteries daily, and if not daily, we run them from a nearly full charge to nearly depleted. Plus when in use, we expect our packs to deliver lots of power very quickly. And when we stop at a fast charger, we feed them lots of power very quickly!

When you accelerate hard in a Leaf, the battery pack may see as much as 50kW of demand. And we’re all familiar with how temperature can have real impacts on the cells we’re already expecting a lot from. But the interesting part is when you change the use case from EV to something like fixed storage, the performance expectations are very different. An on-site business battery will often see a heavy load, but that demand increases slowly, and they get recharged over longer periods of time. In a power backup scenario, again they’ll charge slowly over time, and when under load, that load is even and drawn out over hours or days. What all this means is once a cell can’t perform well in an EV, it could still see years or even decades of use in a fixed storage installation.

And finally, this partnership allows us to proudly say that every battery that we take out of service will become part of the supply chain of a business that fully complies with stringent industry recycling standards. Our recycling partner maintains a responsible and sustainable business management system in full compliance with R2:2013, ISO 9001:2015, OHSAS 18001:2007, ISO 14001:2015, and practices for responsible recycling.

For more information:

R2:2013 Responsible Recycling

ISO 9001:2015

ISO 14002:2015

BS OHSAS: 18001:2007

A few words on modifying cars and their software…

One of the questions we get asked quite often is about the legality of modifying a car to install our solution.  In the US, aftermarket automotive suppliers have enjoyed more protections than in other countries for many years, however, cars have evolved beyond the standard definitions of those older rules.  For example, many cars have computers and software, and often multiple computers and a variety of software operating them.  Under the old rules and combined with modern software protection rules, where does this leave us?

Well, the simplest way for us to work under the rules as they stood until recently was to make physical changes to the car but to write our software to “play nice” with the car’s software.  This way we’re not actually “hacking” the car’s software, we’re simply emulating what it thinks it’s talking to.  Well that all just changed, and for the better!  The US Copyright Office has just issued it’s updated ruling on software modification and circumvention rules and has specific changes that apply to the automotive world.  Before I get into the details, first a couple of links:

IFIXIT wrote an article summarizing the changes: https://ifixit.org/blog/11951/1201-copyright-final-rule/

The Copyright Office ruling itself: https://www.copyright.gov/1201/2018/

To give a quick example that shows the intent of the ruling, this is from IFIXIT:

The Copyright Office clearly understands the frustration that the repair community is experiencing. In the introduction to their ruling, they include this quote, “[i]t’s my own damn car, I paid for it, I should be able to repair it or have the person of my choice do it for me.”

But more specifically on this topic, here are three quick summaries of how the changes apply to vehicles:

Repair of motorized land vehicles (including tractors) by modifying the software is now legal. Importantly, this includes access to telematic diagnostic data—which was a major point of contention.

And:

Computer programs that are contained in and control the functioning of a lawfully acquired motorized land vehicle such as a personal automobile, commercial vehicle, or mechanized agricultural vehicle, except for programs accessed through a separate subscription service, when circumvention is a necessary step to allow the diagnosis, repair, or lawful modification of a vehicle function, where such circumvention does not constitute a violation of applicable law

And:

Your ability to fix and maintain the products you own is contingent on being able to modify that software. But our tooling hasn’t kept up. For fear of prosecution, farmers and independent mechanics haven’t developed their own software tools to maintain their equipment. Now, they can.

This ruling doesn’t make that tooling available to the public—we’re going to need actual Right to Repair legislation for that. But it does make it legal to make your own tools. And that’s a huge step in the right direction.

So what does all of this mean?  It means we can now write our own software that modifies the software in the LEAF (tools), and it means we can change the software in the LEAF to make it compatible with our solutions (modifying the GOM parameters, circumvent battery swapping protections.)  It also means that others working on aftermarket solutions and software like the folks behind LeafSpy can expand the scope of their products to do more for the consumer.  This is a huge win for the aftermarket solutions business as it applies to Electric Vehicles.  With car manufacturers expanding their software to include hardware validation, encryption, and effectively blocking third-party solutions, those of us working in the aftermarket solutions business can now legally fight back.

-The Fēnix Power Team