30 May 2012

Back on the road, better than before

Main Screen for the Think Tech Center diagnostic tool
We bought our first Think City EV a year ago at full price and have had no problems with it.  Initially Think did not want to sell me a car since I lived so far from any authorized service.  But I convinced them that I was capable of handling any service on my own.  After the bankruptcy and sale, the new Think North America organization started selling the remaining 150 or so cars at a steep discount.

Replacement Power Conversion Unit
When our second Think City EV arrived, the Power Conversion Unit (PCU) stopped working the first day we drove it.  As I reported earlier, Think's service manager stopped by my house a few days later and diagnosed the problem.  This put to rest any remaining questions about service.  Within days, a replacement PCU arrived with the diagnostic tools needed to reprogram it for my particular car.

Bottom view of the installed PCU showing black low pressure coolant hose.  The main 400 volt cables are orange.

I removed the hood, wipers, air intake, vacuum pump and a few other minor items just so I could look over the job while reading the manuals.  This way I had a good idea of what needed to be done before explaining the project to the shop technician.  Then we had our red Think towed to an independent local shop which has demonstrated interest in EVs, and the real work began.
Think City EV engine compartment after removing the hood, vacuum pump, wipers, air intake, etc.
The shop had to disconnect the 12 volt battery and the 400 volt battery before evacuating the R134a refrigerant from the air conditioner.  Then they removed the condenser to gain access to the PCU.  Next the wiper motor and mechanism had to come out.

Wiper mechanism is off to the side
Numerous other little things such as draining the coolant from the PCU and motor, as well as removing the mounting bracket from the cabin heater had happened before we got to the final bracket in the way of the PCU removal.  The technician told me the manuals did not explicitly mention this bracket, but it was certainly obvious enough.

Soon everything was back together and the Tech Center tool was used to reprogram the VIN and teach the new Vehicle Control Unit to recognize the wireless key fobs, without which the car will not start.

Although I was initially instructed to reprogram the PCU completely, I questioned this since the PCU appeared to be a refurbished unit.  Think agreed, and told me to leave the existing programming if it worked.  This turned out to be a fortunate event, as the programming in the PCU appears to be newer and a noticeable improvement, especially for highway driving. 
Live data read-out from the Battery Management System

More about that in a future post, after I have time to plot the data I took comparing both our new and old Think EVs.  I then returned the PCU and diagnostic tools, but only after getting logs files of the Live Data shown above and below.
Live data read-out from the Power Conversion Unit

The discussion list for the Think City EV over at Yahoo Groups has been very active since the price drop.  There have been some relatively minor problems compared to mine, the worst of which might be a bad 12 volt battery.  Think service quickly provided a document (now posted over at Yahoo Groups) which details replacement procedures for the battery.  (I don't know if this particular 12 volt battery replacement was done at the dealer or by the owner.)  There have also been some loose battery cables.  The speculation is that the factory disconnected the 12 volt batteries when sales slowed after the bankruptcy, and a few were not reconnected tightly before shipping to the buyers.  At these prices, most of us are not complaining very loudly about such things.
Rear torsion bar suspension
I have now seen more of the inner workings of a Think than most drivers ever will.  And on the positive side, I may have one of the first releases of updated power and regeneration curves.  Hopefully these new curves will become available as the new engineering organization in Munich gets up to speed.

There is also a survey going on at the discussion list to find out how many owners might be interested in purchasing the diagnostic tool.  Think is getting ready to place an order with the supplier in England.  I am not the only Think owner who lives far from an authorized service center and wants to own a service tool.  As I understand it, it is possible that the price may be lower if enough units are purchased all at once.  What the survey leaves out is that there might be an annual software maintenance fee for the most up to date versions.

09 May 2012

The Electric Car Factor

(The following is a guest post by Lanny who bought his Think on April 19, 2012.)

EV gathering in Marlyland
The area around Washington, DC has a thriving community of EV enthusiasts. We have the Electric Vehicle Association of DC which has been around for over 30 years and pulls a good crowd to the monthly meetings. New groups are forming, such as the Capital Leafs and the Maryland Volt Meetup Group, around the affinity for those cars.

On the first Saturday of each month, members of all of these groups have an informal gathering in a small business development called Maple Lawn that has six charging stations and a nice little coffee shop. The gathering on Saturday was particularly exciting because we had a surprise guest. Jim McL and his wife happened to be driving through the area and stopped by for a bit. This blog is a great resource for those of us who are smitten with these fun little electric cars and it was great to meet Jim in person and introduce him to the group.
We had a good variety of vehicles on Saturday. Besides my new Think City, there were a number of Leafs and Volts, a 2002 Toyota RAV4 EV, an electric Ford Transit Connect van, one of the new Mitsubishi iMiEVs, a Vectrix electric scooter and an electric bicycle that Jim took for an EV grin-inducing ride.

One of the best parts of these get togethers is the chance to see other EVs, talk with the owners and compare notes. There was a lot of interest in the Think. Many were surprised how solid the construction is and how roomy it is inside.

Ford/Azure Dynamics Transit Connect EV

My wife and I are starting to get used to the attention the Think attracts in parking lots and at charging stations. We recently met a couple who own a Tesla Roadster and they spoke of "the electric car factor" whenever they plan a trip to the store. They figure in extra time for answering the inevitable questions about the car to curious and interested folks in the parking lot.

Unsuspecting Plug In Prius Owner

Many of our group had unplugged and left for home when the remaining few of us spotted a brand new Plugin Prius circling the charging station at the far end of the lot. None of us had seen one before and we all started walking. The gentleman was struggling with the charging station and suddenly looked up to see all of us converging on him. Our questions began, one after another. Then he told us that this was his first attempt to use a public charging station. He didn't have a card so Jeffrey in our group lent him his. His wife spotted our "cute" Think and asked if it was electric. My wife gave her the tour.

We apologized for taking so much of his time and delaying his shopping excursion. After all, we were just interested in his electric car! This new plugin owner just got his first lesson in "the electric car factor."

08 May 2012

Diagnosis: Replace Power Control Unit

Think diagnostic interface from the back
I got a prompt visit this morning from Think North America's service manager (I am not really certain what his title is, sorry), the day after my wife and I returned from vacation.  He was able to confirm that our second Think needs its PCU replaced.

They could fly someone down here but I would prefer to learn something about the car, so I am arranging to use a local shop with experience in high voltage hybrids.  We need to lift the car and disconnect the high voltage cables, then evacuate the R134a and remove the air conditioning compressor and condenser to get at the PCU.

Think diagnostic interface from the front
While parts for the car are plentiful, I would like to purchase the diagnostic interface, pictured above.  At the moment these are not plentiful in the US, I am told.  The service manager, who is in regular contact with engineering in Munich (he was on a call with them before coming to my home) will let me know when they are available.  The price is above $1000 and the software license which provides updates regularly might be even more, but perhaps I can get an old static copy with some minor bugs.  Since I am far away from any authorized service, I would like to be equipped to diagnose problems in the future after the warranty runs out.

Think Ox concept from Skeie Industridesign Vestfold

I was not able to gather much in the way of news about the future direction of Think, except that the new model will likely be more along the lines of the four door concept than the previous two seat models.

01 May 2012

Break through technology for EVs in 2015

Delphi Heat Pump for automotive applications
Green Car Congress is reporting a new development at Delphi that will significantly reduce the impact of winter heating demand on EV range.

And I am reporting that our second Think City EV got out on the road today.  Temporary tags finally arrived, 5 calendar days (or two working days) after the car itself arrived.

I put 18 miles on it before it died hard.  I suspect the power control unit, we will see.  Better to happen now while the warranty is fresh.  Being an engineering geek, I am rather excited about the prospect of getting to see something under the hood.  My wife on the other hand, is not so excited.  Let's just say I am lucky she puts up with me.  She is starting to wonder if the Think does have something in common with the Mini E after all.  Like being not totally reliable.  I wonder if it is what the electronics industry refers to as "infant mortality", where some semiconductors die early.

29 April 2012

Service center summary for Think EVs UPDATED

New Think EV owners in Maryland
At the moment I have information on four seven service locations for Think City EVs, one two on each coast and two in the Midwest, plus one in my home town.  I don't have details yet on the Auto Clinic in Portland Oregon, where 20 Thinks just arrived.  I hope to have more on them later.

From West to East:

Hawthorne Auto Clinic, Liz Dally and Jim Houser, co-owners:
4307 SE Hawthorne Blvd.
Portland, OR 97215
503-234-4230, fax
They've been in business here for 29 years and are real nice folks.

Bryant’s Auto Electric
Randy Bryant
1753 Grant St.
Santa Clara CA 95050
I have not spoken with Randy yet, and his web site is not ready as of today.  They do service only, not sales, if I understand.  Sales are handled by Jeff Speno at www.missionvalleytruckcenter.com.

Green Wheels Chicago
1540 N Western Ave
Chicago IL 60622
Green Wheels handles both sales and service. Possibly the lowest price if you live in a ZEV state.

Tom Wood Think, Indianapolis
3300 East 96th
Indianapolis IN
Excellent web site, full service and probably the first dealer in the US.  Several older video links including one shot inside the factory in Finland.

Eurostar Autos
9330 Liberty Road
Randallstown MD 21133
Eurostar will be getting service training soon, sales are ongoing.  Tom is very excited about Think EVs and the future model plans.

Buddy's Auto
3711 Philadelphia Road
Abingdon MD 21009-1182

Checking local charging stations in Maryland.  It is hard to see the black cord in front of the black car.
I should also give honorable mention to my local shop which replace my Power Conversion Unit (PCU) in our second Think City EV:

431 Battleground Ave.
Greensboro, NC 27401
(336) 274-7872 

Technically The Auto Trends might not be a fully authorized Think Service Center, since there are only four Thinks in Greensboro.  So it does not really warrant the cost of investing in the diagnostic tools.  But they did an excellent job replacing my PCU, which is nearly the most difficult job in this EV.  Think loaned us the tools, which have since been returned.

No worries about service

An excerpt from the Think service manuals.  Buying my own copy is now on my wish list.
When our second Think EV arrived the other day, we were surprised that the delivery driver left the window down.  My wife went to put the window up before the cats got inside, and came back saying the battery was low, the window would not go all the way up.  This did not sound right, since Doug at Green Wheels said the car left fully charged.

It turns out that if you put the key in the accessory position, the 400 volt traction battery is not yet charging the 12 volt accessory battery, which was a little weak from sitting through the bankruptcy last year when sales slowed.  No problem, I have a 12 volt battery charger that plugs into the "cigarette lighter" outlet, which is always on in the Think. I can use that to charge up the 12 volt battery until we get plates of the car on Monday.  After that, the 12 volt battery will be charged simply by driving or charging the traction battery (regular charging).

But for now I just "started" the car which begins charging the 12 volt battery, yet the window moved up very slowly. The passenger side window moved more quickly.  I tried the driver's side again, this time the motor apparently over-heated and stopped to cool off.

I have adjusted windows before, so I was not about to make a big deal out of this.  Especially since we paid less than half as much for this car as we did for the Think we bought last year, and Think North America had resisted selling me the first car because I was far from any authorized service center.  But I could not figure out how to get the door panel off.

I emailed Doug at Green Wheels Chicago and quickly received the service manual pages for the door panel.  As far as I can tell, Green Wheels was the first dealer to get factory service training for the Think, so I was not surprised that Doug had the manuals close at hand.

Removing the door pull cover
As it turns out, there is a cover in the door pull that is easily removed.  Under that, there are two screws, in addition to the usual perimeter fasteners.

Unscrewing the door pull fasteners (T15 Torx, if I recall)
The service manual warns that removing the seal under the door panel may destroy it, but apparently they upgraded to a high quality removable mastic, something like a "rope caulk", but stickier.  I was able to remove and replace the same liner without damage.  If it had been needed, I could have gotten another liner from the Elkhart factory.
Door seal under the panel
Once I had access, adjusting the window motor angle was easy.
Adjustable fasteners between window and motor
There are slots for the screws.  I set the window half way down, removed the screws to see where they wanted to line up.  In my case the optimum position was at the far right of the slots.

After this adjustment, the driver's window moves a bit faster than the passenger's window.  But I am not taking the passenger door apart. It is good enough and I suspect it will loosen up with use.

I want to look into buying the service manuals.  It was fascinating to browse the service documents, looking for the one I needed.  Many of the debug tools were updated as recently as last November, which simply confirms that work did not stop because of the bankruptcy.

I do not recall seeing the lifting points in the regular owner's manual, so when I saw that in the service manual, I felt it was a reasonable case of "fair use" to post those photos at the top of this entry, even though the service manuals are commercial documents.  Everyone needs to know how to lift the car when rotating the tires.  Lifting points should have been be shown in the owner's manuals.

In the end, a minor annoyance served to increase my confidence in owning two Think City EVs.

His and Hers

We are now a two Think household
Our second Think City EV was delivered a couple days back.  My wife was rather skeptical when we bought the blue Think last year, it was quite different from the Mini Cooper EV we had before.  On the down side the Think is not as quiet as the Mini EV, has a little less range, less power and less regenerative braking. 

On the up side, the Think has a huge amount of cargo space, absolute reliability, a very good heater, the seats are more comfortable, and surprisingly I find it handles better than the Mini EV did.  In one year and almost 10,000 miles of driving, I had the blue Think fuss at me about charging exactly twice.  Both times there was a good reason, such as being plugged into an old worn out timer.  The Mini EV fussed at me more than twice a week about charging, and for months during winter the Mini EV refused to charge at 240 volts at all.

Our new Think before it left the Elkhart Indiana factory.  Is that a battery pack in the background on the left?

I have had some questions from readers about whether there are any "gotchas" with the Think, and we struggled to think of anything more to say than the obvious (last year's bankruptcy) or the trivial (as noted above).  But then we remembered two things:

The sun visor has limited utility on the side.  The visor is rather short since the car is narrow, and the sloping windshield puts it fairly far away.  I have taken to keeping a wide brimmed hat in the car for those times when the sun bothers me.  I had forgotten about this, but it cannot quite be categorized as trivial.  On the other hand this is a city car, not likely to be taken on cross country trips often, where the sun can beat down relentlessly.  I hope the new Think model (next year?) will have a side visor.

The other issue we had briefly was a little trouble getting into reverse on rare occasions.  Once it became clear what was happening, I simply moved the shifter back and forth through all the virtual "gears" several times quickly and the problem disappeared.  I suspect there was some dust in the switch.

My car pool colleague and her husband wish they could buy an EV, but they cannot charge at their present apartment which has neither assigned parking nor outdoor power outlets
It is interesting to hear from people in Maryland who are buying EVs when they do not have a garage.  In one case, a home owner does have a reserved parking spot and is working with his Home Owners Association to get permission to have an electrician run power out to the assigned parking spot.

19 April 2012

If you are in Chicago...

This is what Green Wheels Chicago looks like. 
1540 North Western Avenue, Chicago, IL 60622 
Not sure if that is the view from the street.  
Their prices for the Think mentioned in my previous post include shipping.

18 April 2012

Stealth price reductions on 2011 Think City EV

Indianapolis Police Stealth Cruiser
If you live in one of the "ZEV" states and you are interested in buying one of the last ten or so 2011 models of the Think City EV, Call Doug at Green Wheels Chicago, 312 943 1500.  He tells me that he can sell his last few Thinks for $2000 below the price on his web site to buyers in those CARB states.  And his posted price is already the lowest I have seen.

The rest of us in non-ZEV states (me included) are not quite as lucky.  Oh Well.

Of course there is a $7500 Federal Tax deduction after that.  If you owe less than $7500, you get to deduct less but pay no income tax for the  year.  (No carry forward as I read it.)

My understanding of the ZEV discount is that states which conform to CARB rules require a certain number of zero emission cars to be sold in their states.  Pure EV companies such as Think, Tesla, Coda and the rest can actually sell their credits to the major auto makers.  Perhaps these credits go for $4000 lately?  I am not sure of the details, but I suspect it figures into their calculation of Corporate Average Fuel Economy and such.  Something like that, don't quote me please.

Anyway, this price drop came up in stealth mode, so to say.  Like the Indianapolis police department who uses there Think police cruiser to sneak up on suspicious activities.

Green Wheels Chicago got their factory service training from Think last year, along with service manuals and tools.  Anyone worried about parts should not worry, Doug can ship parts to you overnight if, say, that kid next door puts a rock through your windshield.  Elkhart Indiana will maintain parts stock, even if they don't produce the new models there.

17 April 2012

I am free! From maintenance, oil, etc.

We ordered our second Think City EV today, red this time.  It is about one year since we ordered our first blue Think, and the price is significantly lower due to the closeout of the 2011 models.

Of course, a lot has changed in the EV world since the photo above.  There are now many more Nissan EVs and Volt (mongrels?) on the road than there are Thinks or Teslas.  This is all good.  But how many of these other EVs have a proven track record, with a steady used market of ten year old models selling every day?  Here are some Norwegian used car listings for Think, and the translated version in English (but don't trust the distance and monetary units).  My understanding is that about 700 of the older fourth generation Think EVs are running around Norway, and many more scattered around Europe.  In Germany, the 4th gen Thinks are popular car to convert to Lithium Ion batteries from the original flooded NiCad.  The EV1 was a contemporary of the 4th gen Think, but we all know what happened to the EV1.

So I am proud to own a car (soon my wife will also) from the oldest dedicated EV maker on the planet, looking back on a history of reliability and forward to a future of new models, perhaps next year.  Everything I am hearing points to a promising future from a well capitalized company, now headquartered in Munich.  I wish I had something solid to report, maybe soon.  But the scuttlebutt makes me smile.

Don't get me wrong, I love the Volt.  We really thought about buying one.  But after almost 10,000 miles in our 5th gen Think EV with absolutely no maintenance, I really don't want to see another car with exhaust pipes, belts, pressurized hoses, alternators, EGR valves, spark plugs, toxic fuels, oil to be changed every few months, catalytic convertors, filters, on and on and on.

"I am free! ...And I am waiting for you to follow me" as The Who said so many years ago.

Well, I am following those people in the photo above, who are in Finland.  No, that is not the old factory in Aurskog Norway, nor Elkhart Indiana.

Freedom indeed.  On so many levels.  From noise.  From big oil.  From maintenance, that is the big one to me now.

05 April 2012

East Coast clearance price on Think EVs

Now the east coast is matching the same price as the west coast dealer for the remaining 2011 Think City EVs.  Euro Star Autos posted this at Plug In Cars today:

"We were able to close a contract with the remainder cars available for immediate delivery from THINK NORTH AMERICA. Cars are now priced at $15990 after government tax credits to eligible users. Most states have also excise tax incentives up to $2'000 so you might register it in your state without additional cost. This price is only available to the following ZEV CREDIT STATES and includes delivery to your house only if in mid Atlantic states ( courtesy of EUROSTAR automotive group ). Following are the ZEV CREDITS STATES : CALIFORNIA, CONNECTICUT, MAINE, MASSACHUSETTS, NEW JERSEY, NEW YORK, RHODE ISLAND, VERMONT, MARYLAND, NEW MEXICO AND OREGON
If interested in this now affordable price on this amazing electric car please contact Tom at 1-410-922-1100 or send an email to tomm@eurostarautos.com

20 cars arriving in our dealership in RANDALLSTOWN MD TUESDAY"

I spoke with Tom today, he is very positive about the future of Think under the new owner in Russia and the new engineering team in Munich.  Tom is quite confident of parts availability from the Elkhart Indiana facility.

I am not clear on the details of shipping outside of those eleven states that follow CARB rules.  From what I can tell, you can still buy a Think but there is a chance it will cost about $4000 more if registered outside of the CARB states listed above.  Again, I am not certain of this.

02 April 2012

Huge discount on 2011 Think City EV

The classified ads over at evfinder.com announced that the remaining 2011 Think City EVs from the Indiana factory are going on sale at a huge discount.  The link above refers to a base price (before the federal $7500 tax rebate) of $22300 for new Think City EVs with warranty.

I spoke with Jeff Speno at Mission Valley Ford today.  They will sell to buyers from outside of California.  I was not the first to ask.  (We do not yet know the shipping charges.)  With this heavy discount, the cars may not last long.

On the other coast, Eurostar Automotive Group is also discounting, although not quite as deeply.  Eurostar's webpage today claimed a base price of $26495, although I have not called them yet or checked details on delivery and such.  SEE UPDATE ABOVE, price now matched on east coast.

As I reported earlier, Green Wheels Chicago still is listing Think cars on their website, as does Clean Cities.

20 March 2012

"Guerrilla" charging

2.5 kW transformer, "Quick 220" safety box, Think 220 volt EVSE
There are electrical outlets everywhere in the United States.  Unfortunately for EV drivers, most of these outlets supply 120 volts, unlike Europe's faster 230 volt standard.  So until there are more public 240 volt charging stations in the US, I carry extra tools on longer trips.

The "Quick 220" box in the middle is well known among EV adventurers in the US, but it does not work when your source outlets have Ground Fault Interrupters, or GFIs.  (Every outdoor outlet should have a GFI for safety.)  In the photo above there is an isolation transformer on the left which allows the Quick 220 to work from any two 120 volt outlets as long as they are on separate circuits. 

The plug on the yellow cord feeds into the transformer, the plug on the short black cord simply passes through the case and joins the neutral leg to the output of the transformer.  Without a common neutral on both circuits feeding the Quick 220, the safety relays will not engage.  This transformer is wired for 120 volts in and 120 volts out.  It must be an isolation transformer to work with the Quick 220, not an "autoformer" like many voltage converters found on the internet.

On the far right is Think's proprietary 220 volt EVSE from Europe.  There is a button on the front to select between 12 amps and 16 amps.  I bought it from a seller at www.elbil.no, which is a EV forum in Norway.  (Most of the discussion at www.elbil.no are in Norwegian, but Google Translate does an acceptable job, and I believe English posts are generally welcome.)

Common adapters, extension cords and meters
My typical long trip is once a month, 140 miles in one day.  We spend a few hours at a social event where I can park between two 120 volt outlets on separate 20 amp circuits that are about eighty feet apart.  I use a forty foot long 12 gauge extension cord (the gray one above) for the nearest outlet, and a sixty foot long 10 gauge extension cord (the black one above) running to the far outlet.  The 10 gauge cord has heavy 600 volt insulation, which makes it cumbersome but also much more durable.

There are various other adapters pictured, which are useful when there is a 240 volt dryer or kitchen range outlet available.  I have three such opportunities on various routes through nearby towns.  These outlets are found at homes, churches and businesses which are friendly to EVs.

In an older post I showed a variable auto transformer (a so called "Variac") which is useful in industrial areas where power is typically three phase, 208 volts.  The Variac allows 208 to be adjusted up to 240.  I don't use it much anymore, although it could be useful at some of the new public charging stations that supply the slower 208 volts.  I would need to acquire a J1772 receptacle to get the Variac between a public EVSE and my car.

A public EVSE at an Interstate Freeway rest stop nearby
Of course, carrying all that stuff is inconvenient, and certainly not for the average driver.  Fortunately there are more public rest stops appearing near where I live.  But I suspect I will be still be charging occasionally from conventional outlets for many years.

15 February 2012

Think City EV in Lilyhammer TV series

The first two episodes of a new TV series feature the main character driving a Think City EV.  Netflix has all eight episodes of the first season available in the US, while NRK broadcasts it in Norway.

The Mini E had overly aggressive traction control, making driving on snow difficult at times.  Of course the Think is much better tuned for snow, being originally from Norway.  So while I am not a fan of mobster themes in general, I enjoyed watching the main character spin the wheels of the Think and knock over the occasional motorcycle of rival gangsters.  Try that in a tin can car!  No dents in the Think with its superior ABS body panels.

The back story I heard is that Think Global declined to provide a car for the filming, so the producers borrowed a car from a private driver who was also the first owner of the older fourth generation Think some twelve years ago.  His older car is described here.

NRK TV at first declined to air the series, since they assumed that Think Global had paid to place the car in the show.

Authorized Think City EV dealer in Chicago

Green Wheels Chicago has been selling and servicing Think City EVs since early last year.  They had several in stock but a recent posting at Autoblog Green has helped Green Wheels sell most of its Thinks in the last few days.  As an authorized sales and service dealer, they still have new models and lower prices than the factory web site offers (although they do not include shipping to your door the way the factory does).

Nice to see another authorized dealer for Think.  Chicago should be a key market, since it is a notoriously hard place to park and the Think fits anywhere.  We all look forward to production restarting this year with the new German updates and Russian owners.