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When Hacking Your Car Is a Civic Duty

A group of what we might call red-white-and-blue-hat hackers thinks it’s downright patriotic to tweak your electric vehicle.
October 18, 2011

The Do-It-Yourself community is well known for its playful spirit and its relatively simple hacks; it’s epitomized by a site like Make, which will teach you how to saw and solder and tweak to your heart’s content. Most DIY projects are for fun–a cute little robot here, a wooden digital alarm clock there.

A group of hackers, though, are setting their sights on a bigger target, reports the New York Times. Bigger both physically, and in terms of the larger issues at stake: the hackers are tweaking electric cars.

The Times story profiles a few people who’ve tweaked their Nissan Leafs in various ways. Gary Giddings, 69, a retired engineer, focused on a common complaint among Leaf owners: a wolf-crying battery gauge that says your car is out of juice when it in fact has a few miles left in it. Giddings calls the factory-built Leaf gauge “just a guess-o-meter,” and he sells his own, more precise, displays for around $200.

Another subject is Phil Sadow, an engineering consultant who adapted the Leaf’s 120-volt charging cord into a 240-volt one. 240-volt outlets, which are typically used for clothes dryers and other energy-intensive appliances, can deliver a faster charge to a vehicle. Sadow had to take apart the 120-volt cord to confirm that it could handle 240 volts at 20 amps, and then he had to figure out a way to modify the software governing the cord. His hack displays his belief that, as he said, the “E.V. cord should be as simple as a garden hose”–and it would seem to suggest that more elaborate and expensive projects to roll out extensive EV charging infrastructure might be unnecessary. Sadow plies his wares here.

Sadow believes it’s hardly illicit, but actually patriotic to modify your EV; he told the Times that “hacking is actually very American. Go out to the garage. Take it apart. Make it better.”

Some hackers go way farther. Here’s a fellow who doesn’t just want you to tweak your Leaf; he wants you to retrofit your old-school gas-guzzler, taking out the engine and replacing it’s innards with an electric motor. He breaks the process down into steps. (Step 1 is, “Get a car.”)

The trend seems both salubrious and potentially dangerous. Salubrious in that it is leading EV-owners to get the most out of their cars, and in that it lends a kind of transparency to pricing that could ensure that Nissan and others don’t charge too much for their products or services. (Nissan recently lowered its pricing on a Leaf home charging system, to around $1,800.) It’s potentially dangerous, though, in that DIY hackers are of course not subject to the same regulatory scrutiny that Nissan or its suppliers are. “Obviously, if somebody’s garage burns down and it’s my fault, I’m done,” said Sadow, though he added that as a professional engineer, he had confidence in his work.

What would be ideal, it seems, is if hackers and manufacturers had a way to meet in the middle, to tap the spirit and ingenuity of the crowd with the standardization and consumer safety regulation demanded of the corporation.

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"It was in the newspaper, but the towers fell the next day, and what I’d done was quickly lost."

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