3D printing an open source electric car

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What excites me about ZWheelz is the potential to improve our education system, environment, energy independence, and economy—all with what I like to call, one "EZ" project.

It all began when I built a plane from a kit, then saw the documentary, Who Killed The Electric Car?, and decided to build an electric car. Turns out, it functioned really well, and I began wondering: "Why aren't there more electric vehicles on the road?"

As I continued to refine the idea for an electric-kit-car, it was helpful that many of today’s CNC (Computer Numerically Controlled) machines and 3D printers are based on open source designs, making it possible to email files and make products locally. And with desktop versions, it’s possible to do inexpensive rapid prototyping using scale models using the same CAD (Computer Aided Design) model. So, for the car frame, I plan to cut fiberglass/honeycomb sheets with a CNC and stack them together forming interlocking 3D shapes. This will be strong, light, easy to manufacture and assemble, and non-conductive and non-corrosive. I have all the CAD files, parts, materials, tools, and machines available online and will continue to publish everything about it. (Read more about my process at the ZWheelz Indiegogo campaign page.)

As a parallel process, my next goal is to create very accurate, functional, one-fourth scale model kits to be made available as part of a STEM program in education; spanning middle school to high school to college and on to the private sector. Even kids can learn CAD using inexpensive desktop CNC machines and 3D printers. Plus, kids have vast imaginations; let's tap into that with this rapid prototyping process. Then, their ideas could be passed up to high school students for scrutiny and improvement, building full-size street-legal versions in shop class. Next, the vehicles could move on to college students who refine the designs further. Finally, local, small businesses, or others in private industry, could build, sell, and maintain the electric vehicle.

There should be options:

  • kits and parts can be purchased to build vehicles at home (i.e. parent-child project)
  • individuals, families, or groups can schedule time to build a vehicle in a workshop (i.e. hands-on adult education class)
  • complete "turn key" vehicles can be purchased
  • private industry could sponsor programs similar to the BEST/FIRST robotics programs and their components could be used in the full-size vehicles

These education + small business models could be used around the world to improve education, the environment, and economies. Foreign oil costs the U.S. on the order of $1.5T/year in direct and military costs. A large portion of our military costs (which are about one-fifth of our total spending) are to maintain stability in the middle east and north Africa, and to protect oil routes like the Straight of Hormuz. That is a strategic "choke point" where we have stationed an aircraft carrier for the past 30 years at a cost of $7T. (For a great reference on the impact of oil on our economy, read more in Reinventing Fire.) Point is, electric vehicles stop the flow of money out of our local and national economies, and to sometimes unfriendly countries. Plus, there are indirect costs to us, like health, the environment, and other factors that effect our quality of life.

Because electric vehicle motors, controllers, chargers, and batteries are off-the-shelf and modular, an open source vehicle design would turn the automotive world upside down; producing cars that are cheaper to buy and operate, easier to maintain and upgrade, that could be customized to an unlimited extent, and that would last much longer. The motors are typically cylindrical with a rotating shaft—much simpler to swap out different sizes and manufacturers than internal combution engines. The connections are very simple—a positive and negative for DC motors or three phase connections for AC motors. Batteries are also modular and swappable in that regardless of the battery chemistry and format, every battery has a single positive and negative connection. Not to mention, electric vehicles get better with age each time the batteries are replaced, because with each generation of battery technology they get cheaper and lighter and have higher energy densitites. No more throw away cars and no more proprietary interfaces and designs.

Additionally, one common misconception is the idea that electric vehicles "push pollution to power plants", but the truth is that it takes more electricity to refine gasoline than it does to charge an electric car. Also, there is a surplus of electricity on our grid that we 'throw out' every night when we could be charging electric cars. Electric vehicles can also act as portable power stations to provide eletricity to homes for days or weeks. There is a $20M program underway that plans to use electric vehicles to power the an entire army base.

After researching, designing, and building electric cars for several years, I’m convinced of the many benefits the wider use of electric vehicles would have on society and future generations. And they are fun, have lots of torque, and are smooth, quiet, clean and simple!

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27 Comments

robinmuilwijk's picture
Open Source Sensei

Very informative article, I enjoyed reading it. I'm more of a FOSS 'guy' but with a background in electronic engineering this is very interesting.

jwrgorman's picture
Open Enthusiast

Also: for open source EV components and community, check out:

http://www.tumanako.net/

For an open-source renewable energy management platform:

http://www.solarnetwork.net

Alfred Cook's picture

I have one question. Where is the electrical power coming from? The electrical power generation would have to drastically increased at tremendous cost. Get real

Gary Krysztopik's picture
Open Enthusiast

In many places, like Texas, there is a surplus of electricity at night. Nuclear plants (and others) can't be "turned off" when there is reduced load so we essentially "throw out" the electricity while still paying for it in cost and environmental impact. Electric cars will mostly be charged overnight so there is part of the solution there.

Charging an electric car requires less electricity than it does to refine an equal amount of gasoline, so by not using gas we save more electricity than we would use.

Every electric car owner that I know has solar panels on their homes. An EV can cut the payoff time in half for solar panels because you are using them to power your home and to fuel your car.

There is a lot of skepticism, especially in the media, but there are a lot of solutions. Sometimes the solutions are just correcting all the misinformation out there.

JFM's picture

Charging an electric car requires less electricity than it does to refine an equal amount of gasoline, so by not using gas we save more electricity than we would use.

???? That electricity has been produced in a power plant using fuel ioe one of the products of refination. In opther words your assetion is in direct contradiction both with the principle of conservation of energy and with Carnot's laws of thermodynamics since it requires that the power plant gives yield above 100%.

alisonken1's picture
Community Member

Except for the power plants that don't use fossil fuels to create electricity. One major source, for example, is Hoover Dam.

Just pointing out that there are other ways to generate electricity.

Do you Slack? Slackware Linux since 1993

Unidentified's picture

There's no fundamental physics contradicted here. The energy is already in fossil fuels. Getting it out of the ground and into a useful form requires energy, but it's not related to the energy content of the fuel by anything other than economics.

Luis Ibanez's picture
Open Source Sensei

Here is the distribution of U.S. electricity generation by energy source:
http://www.eia.gov/tools/faqs/faq.cfm?id=427&t=3
(from the US Energy Information Administration):

Energy sources and percent share of total for electricity generation in 2011:

Coal 42%
Natural Gas 25%
Nuclear 19%
Hydropower 8%
Other Renewable 5%
Biomass 1.38%
Geothermal 0.41%
Solar 0.04%
Wind 2.92%
Petroleum 1%
Other Gases < 1%

The distribution changes according to the State.

For example, New York State, has the following distribution
http://www.eia.gov/beta/state/?sid=ny#tabs-4

Natural Gas-Fired 44%
Nuclear 27%
Hydroelectric 20%
Coal-Fired 4.57%
Other Renewables 4.09%
Petroleum-Fired 0.37%

jwrgorman's picture
Open Enthusiast

Thanks, this is very solid information. I am encouraged by the fact that percentage wise, there is so much potential for solar PV in that mix. The upsides are giant - plus the benefits of hybrid solar + storage systems are also clearly there for the communities and grids they attach to. so fantastic - PV and EVs are going to have a massive positive impact, and already have a lot of momentum now - this is really great.

Gary Krysztopik's picture
Open Enthusiast

Good info, but even more important to look at trends ...

"During the first ten months of 2012, 92 wind projects (5,403 MW), 167 solar projects (1,032 MW), 79 biomass projects (409 MW), seven geothermal projects (123 MW), and 9 water power projects (12 MW) have come on-line. Collectively, these total 6,979 MW or 46.22% of all new generating capacity added since the beginning of the year."

http://www.renewableenergyworld.com/rea/news/article/2012/12/renewables-...

jwrgorman's picture
Open Enthusiast

reality:

http://www.wired.com/autopia/2013/01/volkswagen-solar/

they fabricate (gasoline-based) cars will solar power now...what else?

Gary Krysztopik's picture
Open Enthusiast

Wow, thanks for posting that. Now *that's* how it's done! How cool would it be to have solar power for EV production?

jwrgorman's picture
Open Enthusiast

yes, really cool!! We think there are a lot of possibilities - plus the Tesla factory in CA (Motor trend Car of the Year 2013) must be thinking this already. Lots of evidence that this kind of convergence is well on its way - some links I've collected anyway:

http://www.solarnetwork.net/evidence.php

and have you seen this project for Demand Response - some serious potential...

http://open.enernoc.com/

alisonken1's picture
Community Member

Interesting. The same thing was said when we switched from horse/buggy power to horseless carriage (i.e., gas powered).

The question is not "Where is the electrical power coming from?", but rather "When is the electrical power coming?".

BTW - gas is not a renewable energy source, but electrical power is - and plenty of clean alternatives are available now, and I expect newer clean alternatives will be thought up as well.

Do you Slack? Slackware Linux since 1993

JFM's picture

There is one word to define electric cars: stupidity beyond measure and a probably unfixable one.

Take an average european ie small, with very little space for luggage named Renault Clio. It has a 90hp engine. That is 65,000 wats. Suppose it is travelling at 100 km/h (ie 60mph) for one hour. Let's assume, since this is not its top speed it uses only half power, ie 30,000 watts. Gasoline-powered cars need to refuel about every 4 or 5 hundred kiometers and do it in thre minutes top but we will relax it into one five minutes stop every sixty miles ie every hour at our speed. Assuming perfect (ie 100% efficient) batteries and engine you have to deliver 30,000*12 = 360,000 watts while the car is refueling. At 220 volts (larger voltages will be unsafe) that means 360,000 / 220 = 1650 amperes. Now unless there are drastic advances with supraconductors you will have to do with copper. Take a look at the size and weight of cable rated for 40 amperes and multiply its weight by 41 and its section by sqrt(41) ie 6.4. Well you have to use this cable to connect your car to the fueling station. Every hour. Or you can take real world (ie roughly ten hours) reloading times and you will only need 15 amperes but. But in the UK a green activist tried to travel some three or four hundred miles with an electric scam, err, car and it took longer than with a car powered with one of those manure and methane producing engines called horses.

alisonken1's picture
Community Member

Hmm. Maybe you're thinking about it the wrong way. For most homes, they just swap out the batteries when they go flat. I've read that there's some interesting in doing the same thing with electric car batteries. Would make a recharge about a 5 minute swap - with the added benefit of newer technology allowing the swapout to come with better batteries as time goes by.

Do you Slack? Slackware Linux since 1993

jwrgorman's picture
Open Enthusiast

Better Place which is doing that kind of battery exchange has an interesting business model, but certainly has it's challenges:

http://www.technologyreview.com/view/510906/better-place-pulls-the-plug-...

JFM's picture

Either your batteries are light enough to be swapped by mere (wo) man strength or you need to develop a kind of special crane for batteries: a battery extractor. If you need a trained operator it will be provabkly a no-no once people behin stoppongevery hour and staying in the line during a half one waiting for their battery change (don't forget you have to stio a lot moree often than a gasoline ca=r. Ideally it should be like car washing: you go into the tunnel and you leave it with anew battery. Not easy but doable, doable in inder five minutes can be a challenge. For now you would be better with a horse-car.

Gary Krysztopik's picture
Open Enthusiast

EV's are not going to solve all problems for all people. They work fine for simple commuter vehicles. There is no need for fast charging or battery swapping. The batteries are getting cheaper with higher energy density every year. They will do just fine charging from a normal outlet overnight and getting 200-300 mile ranges. This will satisfy about 90% of peoples needs. There are other things that can be done for longer trips but I think providing a solution for 90% of our needs is a pretty good start. I don't think continuing business as usual while waiting for "perfect" for all possible uses is not very wise.

Gary Krysztopik's picture
Open Enthusiast

The energy required to refine gasoline can be looked at as Energy Return On Energy Invested (EROEI). The oil that was bubbling out of the ground in Texas 100 years ago was about 100:1, it averages 20:1 today and the tar sands will be about 4:1. The energy contained in a gallon of gasoline does not vary but the energy invested to get that energy out does. We can use that energy to power EV's directly and be much more efficient with our energy use. We still need gas and diesel for some vehicles and we still need oil for plastics and many other things. We should just be smarter about how we use it all. Over the past 50 years, most of the oil used in the U.S. was imported (and mostly from the middle east, creating a lot of "unrest"). Most of that oil is and was used for transportation. Most of that energy is wasted as heat since Internal Combustion Engines (ICE) are not very efficient. Only about 20% of the energy is used to move the vehicle, the rest of the energy goes out the exhaust and radiator as heat. Electric motors are about 90% efficient.

Unidentified's picture

One thing that's rarely mentioned in the "moving the pollution to the power plant" argument: at the power plant you could, if you wanted and it were economically feasible, scrub the air pollution to below any measurable amount. To do that at the vehicle would vastly increase the payload, hence the energy consumption. Also, with an IC engine you're driving the pollution around with you wherever you go, much more difficult to control.

Gary Krysztopik's picture
Open Enthusiast

Exactly! It's easier to clean up power plants than all the cars. Another way of looking at it is that electric cars will only get cleaner as we improve our power plants and transition to clean energy. A good article here - http://www.huffingtonpost.com/amory-lovins/climate-change-no-breakth_b_2...

Tim's picture

"It all began when I built a plane from a kit, then saw the documentary, Who Killed The Electric Car?, and decided to build an electric car. Turns out, it functioned really well, and I began wondering: 'Why aren't there more electric vehicles on the road?'"

A better question is "Who killed the hydrogen car?"

GM had one that was more viable than the VOLT, but it has disappeared....

Unidentified's picture

Safe hydrogen storage is an issue. The first Hindenberg disaster will definitely kill the hydrogen car.

Clean burning, no question about that. The car itself has no "carbon footprint", only what you use to get the hydrogen.

ChillyDawgg's picture

Cool, incorporate flexible solar panels into the roof for constant recharging.

Richard's picture

the TeslaMotors Car using a supercharger (fast charging)- appears to be solid fact and takes about 15 minutes to charge one of their cars. I couldn't afford to buy one of their cars yet but with adoption the tech should drop in price and improve. I believe on 15 min the cars can do a few hundred k's. Most motorists stop for at least that long when travelling that far.
see http://www.teslamotors.com/

jwrgorman's picture
Open Enthusiast

I think this Road and Track article is pretty fair:

http://www.roadandtrack.com/car-reviews/road-tests/road-test-2013-tesla-...

it's not glowing about the Model S because they got everything right about the car - clearly they have NOT - but there's enough right to make the car worth a second look. I heard that the fast chargers on the west coast are also going to be free for Tesla S owners?

http://www.fastcoexist.com/1680627/why-teslas-free-electric-vehicle-supe...

so again, still some stuff to criticize, and not a perfect setup, but heading in the right direction I'd say.