Monday, July 23, 2012

Wheel clicking

The Red Carmeleon continues to run well and be a pleasure to drive.

Recently however, I have noticed a clicking sound if the wheel is turned a fair amount and the car is in motion.  This occurs daily as I negotiate the turns in the parkade close to the office.  It isn't really audible inside the car because the Karma cabin is wonderfully insulated from external noise, but if the window is open then it's quite apparent.

I was just thinking that I'd mention this when the car is in for its next checkup, but I've just read that others have been experiencing a similar issue.  Apparently the problem is easy to redress.  So, if the next week isn't looking too busy I might see about getting it in for a correction.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

iPhone app for the Karma

Sorry, I don't have one... but wouldn't that be cool?

Along the same lines as my experiments with the Raspberry Pi, there are lot of interesting data you could get from the car (and indeed the attached charger, assuming it doesn't also send data to the car while charging, which would be even cooler).

Ignoring the really geeky low level metrics, some of the obvious things that would be fun to know are:
  • How many different routes (beginning and ending location pairs) have I travelled in the car?
  • Metrics for each route... average, min, max of: distance, time, cost (electric + gas), electric usage, regenerative braking, temperature, ICE usage, fuel burned. 
  • Charge-to-charge stats (as above, but all activity between charges)
I'm sure Fisker have more pressing issues to deal with, but supporting common devices with apps would be very cool.  Even cooler though, would be to provide an API for developers to access a wealth of information over the USB and bluetooth.  Then developers could go nuts and provide a variety of different tools and user experiences for accessing and using this sort of information.

One of the trendy things happening in consumer computing these days is "gamification".  This is the provision of certain metrics with goals and rewards designed to incent the user to improve some performance.  It is used in fitness, budgeting and finance and other areas where users want to set themselves objectives and measure their improvement.  Gamification taps into some basic psychology - apparently we are quite motivated to beat targets and enjoy some kind of reward for doing so... even it seems when these rewards are exceptionally abstract, even entirely virtual!

Some of the new EVs reaching the market have a very simple in-dash gamification using some simple graphic to indicate how economically the car is being driven.  So far these have included a green 'eco ball' that most be floated up and maintained at a particular level by driving economically (gentle acceleration and braking, basically) and in another vehicle some animated butterflies that appear when the drive is similarly efficient.   Frankly, I'm not a big fan of such in-dash frippery - I really like the modern, elegant styling of the Karma dash and instrumentation (though a few display options would be nice).  However, if the vehicle's operating metrics are available for application developers to access, then we can have a range of analysis tools and gamification options available.

I notice that the Ford Motor Company seems to have embraced "the car as a platform" in just this way.  This seems both useful and exciting, though I don't have any first hand experience with the features they are promoting.  Hopefully the experience is as good as their marketing suggests, and not just gimmicky.

If my plans for extracting Karma data (such as it is available via the OBD-2 port) come to fruition, then I'll probably have a bash at writing an iPhone/iPad app myself, being fairly versant in such things.  One step at a time though...

Monday, July 9, 2012

A piece of homemade raspberry pi

Hurrah!  My (first) Raspberry Pi system-on-a-chip little computer is here.

These things are selling like hot cakes (half a million sold so far, as I understand it).  They have practically been 'unobtainium' due to the demand and the distributors have had to limit orders through a system of registration and invitation.  This isn't the first little 'full featured' ARM-based computer, and there are more new designs and products popping up now to compete, but the Raspberry Pi somehow managed to go 'viral' (as viral as such a geeky thing will ever get) because of three things I think:
  • The people behind it and their stated vision
  • The really small size, but completeness of the hardware spec
  • The really low price
The Raspberry Pi foundation was created to somehow get back to those simpler days of computing when kids could catch the computer bug and experiment with both hardware and software, learning how to program and how to make computers do interesting things like controlling equipment, lights, heaters, making sounds and music, reacting to noises and speech etc.  The Raspberry Pi in fact is supposed to be a similar low-cost, adaptable, platform for experimentation that my generation had in the eighties though the amazing genesis and evolution of 8-bit home computers.   Moreover, the Raspberry Pi hearkens back to a particular British 8-bit microcomputer wonder called the BBC Micro that was specified, designed purposefully for the BBC's computer literacy project in the early eighties and built by a company called Acorn.  This computer was delivered in "Model A" and "Model B" variants, which is exactly what the makers of the Raspberry Pi have also chosen to name their two versions (Model A being slightly simpler and cheaper).

The BBC Micro was truly a breathtaking product in its day.  The geniuses that specified what this computer would be, were so focused on creating a general, highly-adaptable and extensible system that they created a legend.  The only problem with the high-spec of the machine was that it was relatively expensive.  I remember lusting after it, but my allowance (we called it "pocket money") was nowhere near enough to afford the £399 (if I remember right) that was the asking price for a "B".  I had to make do with the £129 Sinclair Spectrum (marketed as a "Timex" over here, and not very effectively by all accounts, given the stiff competition).

The Spectrum was an everyman's machine and probably had the success it did precisely because of my demographic and our lack of disposable income!  While it was a great little machine, the BBC towered over it in sophistication and sheer potential.  These days, I have a BBC Master (the 'version 2' of the BBC Model B) on a desk, not far from where I'm writing this... just for nostalgia really, but also because it's STILL an experimentor's dream.  No other computer I've ever seen has had so many simple hardware interfaces and such great system software to access them.  The Raspberry Pi is indeed an attempt to recreate this in modern times. 

One other little factoid that connects the Raspberry Pi (and that phone you own, and your iPad if you have one, and probably your TV, car and a myriad other devices in your life) is that the Raspberry Pi uses the ARM processor.  Most people know that their PCs use Intel processors.  These chips started out simple enough in the early 70s, but Intel has basically been adding layer after layer of complexity ever since.  While these CPUs give our desktop computers sheer brute force processing power, they consume a vast amount of power to do this and they generate massive amounts of waste heat.  The ARM processor started out with a vision of power with simplicity and has stayed very true to this vision ever since.  Besides being technically able to deliver adequate processing power for less power and heat, which make the chip far more appropriate for small electronic devices, ARM also has a completely different business model: they don't make the chips themselves, but rather they license their designs to companies that make chips.  This combination has created an explosive growth of the technology - it's in practically every device other than desktop computers.  Intel have had major attempts to disrupt this pattern, but so far have not succeeded.

What many people do not know is that ARM started life as a proprietary CPU for a next-generation BBC Micro.  ARM actually stood for "Acorn RISC Machine" (RISC itself being the acronym of "Reduced Instruction Set Computer", the technical approach for limiting the design complexity of a processor).  ARM was a major investment and amazingly visionary for what was still a small household computer manufacturer.  Eventually, Acorn built an amazing new computer around it called the Acorn Archimedes.  Unfortunately, as it so often the case with grand product designs, the computer made it to market too late to dominate, and some highly capable 16-bit machines were appearing from the American market (the Atari ST and Amiga 500).  So, the Archimedes gradually faded into obscurity, along with Acorn the computer maker... but ARM was spun off and did kinda take over the world.  That's also a familiar business story... sometimes the biggest visions win, but not for their original founders.

The BBC Master in my office has gone full circle.  The sheer flexibility of these machines has meant that many have been discovered in the new millennium, still controlling pumping stations or collecting and sending data to other computers.  My computer now sports a completely modern solid state disk, which its 1980's disk operating system handles with aplomb.  However, the other major upgrade inside the case is loaded with gravitas.  The BBC was always designed to support plug-in alternative CPUs.  Back in the day, there were products to add Z80s and even Intel chips as additional processors (the native 6502 process was amazingly designed to retreat into the background as an I/O coprocessor in this eventuality!).  Today, my BBC Master proudly incorporates a modern ARM daughter card.  

Of course, this is supposed to be a blog about a new kind of car.  While it's a bit of a diversion to get into computers, the connection of course is that I intend to host my Raspberry Pi in my Karma.   In a way there's another, albeit more philosophical connection.  The Karma is a BBC Micro kind of product: innovative, slightly ahead of its time, erudite.  It's a risk by some brilliant people on a brand new, flexible, technical platform.  For me, it certainly feels avant garde - exciting to own and be a part of.  Hopefully though the Karma will succeed on its own merits, as its unlikely there's anything like the equivalent of Fisker's "ARM" lurking in the mix.

So, I've assembled all the major components I need to start building out my little in-car data processor.  The internet connectivity is already in place, thanks to the Rogers LTE adapter.  I now have the main pieces to access vehicle data and run software:

The last essential piece will be an 802.11 wifi adapter so the Raspberry Pi can join the OBD Key's ad hoc wifi network to obtain vehicle telemetry (while also connecting to the WAN via LTE).

I have just started playing with the card, by booting it up (the SD card shown has been loaded with one of the available Linux builds specialised for the Raspberry Pi).  Lots of fun to be had in the near future as I learn and experiment more.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Scratches, splashes and crowds

This weekend was a beauty here in Vancouver, BC.

We finally got some summer.  Hopefully it has arrived for 'good' now.  It's horribly late, even by Vancouver standards, or perhaps more accurately I should say that we had no spring this year, so seeing any sun at all is horribly late.  In a way we seem to have leaped from winter to summer almost overnight.  That means I'm completely white still, but suddenly accosted with a UV index over 8!

Summer has resulted in the impetus to clean the car so she looks her best, and also the need to use the windscreen washer to clear the inevitable bug splattage.  Both of these activities have resulted in discoveries.

First, I discovered scratches on the hood.  These weren't bad and clearly hadn't stood out egregiously, but they were definite scratches through the clear coat and into the paint proper.  They are localized and by their number, orientation and distribution you can see exactly how they were caused.  Someone at the dealership who was tasked with cleaning the vehicle, while it was on display at the dealership, clearly picked up a rag that had been used for rather less genteel purposes, or dropped their wash rag on the ground.  They then took a few good strokes at 'cleaning' or 'polishing' the hood, nicely rubbing some grit into the paintwork in the process.

Of course, once you've spotted these things, you can't take your eye off them (well at least while your vehicle is under a few years old!).  Consequently, I had to find some way to affect a fix.  With some trepidation I bought a couple of scratch repair kits from a local automotive products outlet.  It's quite clear that most of these products are based on the principle of fine abrasives to dull scratches... though some also provide a clear coat touch-up compound too.  I decided to start with the simpler system, which is basically a tube of toothpaste-like material (and of course performs much the same function).  Working this into the scratches did make a noticeable difference to the definition and visibility of the actual scratches, which was encouraging, so I continued until I thought I'd achieved a sufficient effect.   You then remove the residual paste, and it was then that you could see the unintended consequences for the larger areas over which I had been applying my "circular motions".  This whole area had a noticeably duller appearance and appeared to have a whitish sheen.  It was quite noticeable in sunlight and the area reflected direct light quite differently.

Naturally, one fears the worst on such occasions, but I had figured that there was at least a chance that this effect was mostly down to product residue that wasn't easily removed with a cloth.  Failing this, then it might be a microscopic scoring of the clear coat from the abrasive that changed the lustre of what is an exceedingly deep metallic style paint on the Karma.  I figured that the best approach was a full-system clean and wax.  Consequently I trotted back off to the purveyor of car beauty wares and acquired Autoglym's deep cleaner, polish and waxing products.  I figured the cleaner might remove any residue (if that was the issue) and the polish, which is an even finer abrasive, could probably restore an even lustre and shine if the paint surface was the actual problem.  Wax would be the icing on the cake, so to speak.

You can't apply these products onto hot bodywork in direct sunshine, so I had to wait until late afternoon when the sun had dipped behind the mountain forest.  I then applied the cleanser and polished the whole hood after that, with particular vigour on the scratched and denatured area.  The end result is practically miraculous.  You _can_ still see the scratches, but you really do have to look hard now.  I suspect that another round or two of the Autoglym treatment after subsequent washes will continue to improve things.  In the meantime, the hood is gleaming incredibly.  That stuff does what it says on the tin.  It's tempting to do the whole car one day for an all-over effect.

Onto the windshield washer topic.  The Karma has a simple system compared to must cars I have ever owned, except maybe my Pontiac Bonneville from around 2000.  Rather than having through the hood liquid deliver to spray nozzles (which are often heated in luxury cars), the Karma has tubes to deliver washer fluid to the midpoints of the wipers.  Clearly, this system has some advantages in distributing washer fluid over the windscreen, however probably also freezes up much more readily and given the mechanical stresses of the tubes and how they have to be clipped onto the wiper blades, I wonder if the system is as robust and reliable.  Anyway, in point of fact, the right hand wiper seems to no longer be delivering any fluid today.  Given that I'm getting fluid from the left hand (drivers-side) wiper, which is of course the most important, it's not a critical issue.  I am however going to have to investigate.

I assume there's only one washer fluid pump, so there's probably a blockage or airlock preventing the fluid from reaching the right wiper.  Anyway... we'll see.

Finally, another bit of Karma people-magnet fun.  On both occasions that I have driven the Karma to the aforementioned automotive products superstore I have arrived back at the car after paying for my swag to find a small crowd of people gathered around it.  Today was no exception and had the biggest crowd yet (I'd only been in the store under 10 minutes!).  Perhaps it was the incredibly bright sunshine glinting off the sparkly bodywork, or maybe the eye-catching roof (which does seem to be a factor in grabbing initial attention).  Either way there was a crowd and they had questions as soon as it was obvious I was the owner:

  • What is this vehicle?  Never heard of it.
  • Does the solar roof really work?
  • How far can you go?  
  • Is it as fast as it looks?
  • How does it accelerate with that electric motor?
  • Are they selling these in Vancouver?
While we were talking more people were parking up and heading over... it was like some kind of impromptu auto show in the sun.  

Aside from the obvious issues with being found out doing this, Fisker or their dealerships should seriously pay to have people drive their cars into the middle of auto-retailers parking lots on sunny days.  The attention the car was getting all on its own was insane!