Thursday, October 26, 2017

Driving a Three-Pedal EV: The Electric Bus


By: Sebastien Bell
It takes a special kind of person to sit in the back of a Rolls Royce and think: “I can do better than this.” But that’s exactly what Pete Casciato thought to himself on his way to a childhood friend’s wedding. A born entrepreneur, Pete threw himself headlong into a major project involving an engine swap and an electrical engineer that started in 2010 and continues to this day (as any good project does).
Casciato was interested in starting his own limousining business, but he also had an interested in cool cars (i.e. classic Volkswagens), and a passing interest in electric vehicles. Realizing that the task required lots of space and lots of city driving, he decided that there was a way to marry all of those interests. So he bought a 1973 bay window microbus from Washington state, the motor from a forklift, and a whole bunch of Chinese aviation batteries and set about making his very own electric VW.
Do you remember when Clarkson used to start a bit in Top Gear by asking “how hard can it be?” and we all laughed because we knew that the answer would be “very?” Well, Casciato probably didn’t laugh at those bits. Having worked as an auto mechanic for much of his life, he wasn’t exactly a neophyte, but he certainly wasn’t an electrical engineer. Apart from a bit of online research, he was going into this blind. “I somewhat foolishly threw myself into the deep end,” he admits now, but at the time he said to himself “Just build it.”
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The project ended up taking him until 2011 to get on the road, but through a combination of help from the homebrew EV community (like the electric car, electric conversions have been around for a lot longer than you’d think) and the help of an electrical engineer he met closer to home, he did it.
So what is it like to drive? Well, almost disappointingly normal is the answer. By which, of course, I don’t mean that the car is disappointing, it just kind of reminded me of the first time I rode a motorcycle. I’d really gotten myself psyched up for difficulty and danger, but having used a clutch before and ridden a bicycle there was a vague sense of anticlimax when I got going without much difficulty (I’m no Evel Knievel, I dropped the bike as soon as I tried to stop). Similarly, the bus moves like any other. It’s peppy, but not ludicrously so. It’s quiet, but it’s still an old car, so there’s a lot of ambient noise going on and DC motors are pretty loud, so it’s not exactly silent. And its brakes and steering and signals are all VW, so there’s nothing too weird there.
Power comes from a DC electric motor that originally powered a forklift and it sits out in the back where it belongs. Oddly enough, it’s so “where it belongs” that it’s actually still paired VW’s four-speed transmission. That means that this electric car not only has gears, but a clutch, too. That’s because DC motors have a torque curve and feel a little bit like an internal combustion engine. So gears have to be used for the same reason as an engine.
Honestly, the only weird thing about driving this is the clutch. Because this is an electric motor, it won’t stall. So when you stop, you don’t need a foot on the clutch, nor do you need it to get off the line, something I found impossible to remember when merging with traffic. Changing gears is also a little weird because the clutch is either on or off. Going from one gear to the next happens remarkably smoothly, but I found myself waiting for an engagement point that never came, which meant that I was driving it choppily.
Still, though, despite the weirdness, the torque curve was actually nice. I’ve said before that the e-Golf’s lack of a torque curve is one of its major selling points and I stand by it. It just pulls and pulls and pulls, but I have to admit that I still like finding and searching for torque. It’s a skill that keeps me engaged while I’m driving and it lends this bay window a lot of mechanical charm. It still has gobs of torque, though, so realistically second gear is all you need for city driving.
The Chinese batteries also give him all the range you need for city driving. Casciato says he long ago conquered his range anxiety. “How far do you want to go?” he asks. “It’ll do it.” It’s torquey, it’s quick, there’s no smell of gas (an especially important point for his bridely clients), and it’ll drive the live long day.
It’s reliable, too. Or at least it was until about 3,000 miles into driving it. Everything was rosy until his controller failed on one of Toronto’s busiest and most fashionable streets, Queen St. Perils of a homemade car. Casciato was unfazed, though. He says that while he was waiting for help, he took advantage of the foot traffic to hand out some flyers for his chauffeuring business. His wife calls him a shameless self-promoter. Since then he’s put in an upgraded motor that’ll get him going even faster and he’s undaunted by highway driving, though he admits that the shape of the bus pretty much makes 75 mph its top speed.
The fact of the bus’s normalness is its biggest appeal to Casciato. “I would’ve given up on it a long time ago if it didn’t work,” he says. And while he thinks it’s nice to spend a little less money on commuting, he isn’t what you’d call an environmentalist. It’s all about performance. “When I put the batteries down I was blown away by how good it was,” he says. “That’s the biggest advantage to me.”
As with any project, though, it may never really finish. Although he’ll happily extoll the current setup’s virtues, he’s still decided that the DC motor needs to come out. One of the biggest reasons for the change, coincidentally enough, is A/C. Currently, the car’s only form of climate control is the windows and that doesn’t always suit people on their way to a wedding.
Secondly, Casciato wants his creation to be a little easier to fix. This old style of electric car requires a lot of homebrew computer programming and the particular program that runs this bay window was written by a couple of guys from Florida. The upshot was that it was free, the downside, though is that everything behind the scenes is a bit of a mystery. If something were to go wrong, the car might brick like a bad iPhone. Casciato wants something that’s simpler to fix, something that a garage could fix. So it’s time for a motor swap.
That motor, from a Nissan Leaf, is now apart in his workshop. It needs a little work before it can go into the car, but when that happens he’ll have a faster charging, air-conditioned bus that can be fixed by a Nissan mechanic—Casciato wanted an e-Golf unit, but one sadly wasn’t available to him at the time. “So now,” says Casciato, “if I’m struck by lightning, the car can still be used.”
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That’s still a ways off, though. Casciato bought the Leaf in August and he’s already stripped it of all the parts he needs, but there are no instruction manuals for a Nissan Leaf to Volkswagen motor swaps, so a lot of design is going to be needed. With everything in pieces, there’s also a lot wiring all over the place. Like, a frightening amount of wiring. But Casciato knows that he can simplify for the loom for his purposes. Ultimately, he hopes to work on this project, whenever he can, over the course of this winter and to have it on the road next summer.
It’s easy to feel like the electric onslaught is an existential threat to cars and the enthusiast lifestyle, but people like Casciato prove that it’s just swapping one technology for another. Speaking next to a Ferrari 308 that his shop is working on, he gushes about good old-fashioned engineering, but now he can talk about motors, too. “I wasn’t an electrical genius going into this,” he admits. “But through doing this I’ve gotten better.” And by jumping in with both feet, he’s managed to build something that’s engaging, personal, and has personality coming out the wazoo.


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