San Francisco's De Young Museum is a modernist copper-and-glass statement that challenges the eye and mind to think beyond the quotidian. The same can be said for the funky car and its oddball trailer parked just across the street in the heart of Golden Gate Park. If you thought the all-electric Nissan Leaf was a step into the future, Phil Sadow would like you to think again.
"What you're looking at is a propane-powered Capstone turbine engine that spins at 100,000 rpm, but has only one moving part and can help electric vehicle owners get around the lack of quick-charging stations," Sadow says, launching into a flurry of scientific jargon that is the Bay Area engineer's natural language. "It can provide up to 30 kilowatts to supplement the Leaf's own battery pack when you're …"
Hang on. Let's press rewind.
When Nissan unveiled its Leaf EV last year, the wedge-like machine lifted the spirits of any motorist disgruntled by the Who Killed The Electric Car? era. None more so than Sadow, who grew up criss-crossing the country thanks to his father's job with the electric golf cart giant, E-Z-Go.
"You can say I got bit by the EV bug early, around the age of 7," Sadow says.
Fast forward a few decades, and that kid is now an electrical engineering whiz who has become consumed with making this incarnation of the electric car live.
"My goal is to make the EV a success, because it's the only thing that's going to save us," he says. "Our culture is based on cars, so that's not going away. But when petroleum becomes scarce, our economy is going to tank given our dependency on foreign oil. I just hope what we're doing isn't too little too late."
Sadow is part of a growing group of savvy enthusiasts who are eager to improve upon whatever alternative-fuel vehicles auto manufacturers can produce. In many ways, this brainy group of renegades are not unlike the garage-based computer geeks who, in the early days of the PC, hacked around in an effort to find more efficient ways for the machines to run.
Hacker, however, is a term that make Sadow wrinkle his nose. "We are making professionally engineered products," he says. "We're not hacking things together."
The battle within
Although Sadow himself drives a heavily modified Prius -- powered by a 6.5 kilowatt-hour battery pack and monitoring system of his own devising -- he knew that Leaf owners would benefit most from his brainstorms. His first revelation had to do with the Japanese EV's 120-volt power cord, which can re-charge the Leaf in around 20 hours, "which is just far too long to be practical."
Teaming up with fellow EV enthusiast Mark Dutko, EVSE Upgrade was born. The online company sells re-engineered Leaf power cords for $240, which can be plugged into 240-volt connections -- what most homes have for a washer/dryer or hot tub -- thereby reducing re-charge times to around seven hours. Another $25 buys a Quick-220, a forked adapter that allows the Leaf to charge off two separate 110-volt outlets.
Dutko won't release sales figures, but he says EVSE Upgrade has put plugs into the hands of around 15 percent of the nation's 7,000 Leaf owners. Nissan has not endorsed Sadow's invention, something he finds vexing.
"It's certainly easy for people to be scared," he says, referencing the fires some Chevy Volt owners confronted as a result of that plug-in hybrid's power cord issues. "But I think overall there's too much misinformation out there."
Sadow says he has heard no reports of mishaps from his customers. That's given him the impetus to try and further upgrade the Leaf. Next up is a $150 tweak to the car's climate controls. In its as-delivered state, the Leaf's heater -- a significant power drain, since it doesn't have an internal combustion engine generating spare heat -- cannot be shut off with the press of a button, much the way in a conventional car the power-sucking AC can be shut down with one touch.
"With what we're developing, the Leaf owner can very simply shut off the heating unit," says Sadow. "What we find is that with most EV owners, an obsession develops around mileage. People want to go as far as they can off a charge, and don't want anything to get in the way of that quest."
Sadow proudly announces that he hasn't put gas in his Prius since last March.
Tinkerers vs. corporations
Such obsession is part and parcel of any new technological boom, says Andy Frank, the plug-in hybrid pioneer whose transmission system innovations created while he was at the University of California-Davis have been licensed to a new firm he's overseeing, Efficient Drivetrains, Inc.
"If you look back in time, the dawn of any new technology has found people tinkering, from the Model T on up," says Frank. "I played with hot rods as a kid. The same is going on now with plug-ins and hybrids. It's part of American culture."
Frank salutes innovators such as Sadow, but, as a passionate Volt owner, is convinced that plug-in hybrids have the best chance of starting a real automotive revolution due largely to the vexing issue of recharging EVs, whose range typically tops out at around 100 miles.
"For short drives around town, my Volt runs only on electric," says Frank. "But if I were an EV owner and had to go from Davis to San Francisco and back, I'd have to rent a car."
That sort of talk gets Sadow's motor running. In fact, he was partly driven to action by EV owners' frustration over both how slowly electric recharging stations are being rolled out and by the price tags - $6,000 or more - of in-home recharging units.
"I wanted a way for people to recharge without the need for city inspections and major electrical rewiring projects," he says.
What promptly followed suit was the Leaf's upgraded plug, its optimized HVAC system, and -- arguably his most impressive if as yet not scaleable invention -- a portable electrical powerplant that gets towed behind the Leaf.
It's this contraption that has Golden Gate Park motorists slowing and cyclists stopping.
"Uh, what is that thing?" asks a biker as he pulls a pair of buds out of his ears.
Sadow doesn't need to be asked twice; in seconds, he's off and running with a science-heavy explanation of how he fabricated a tow-hitch to pull a micro-turbine fed by propane that can be used to charge the car from zero to 80 percent in around 30 minutes (the last 20 percent takes another 40 minutes), or used on-the-go thereby extending the range of the EV for as long as the propane lasts.
"This is a proof of concept, and we're still tinkering," says Sadow, explaining how the somewhat bulky package could eventually be streamlined into a sleek tow-able oval. He sticks he head over the turbine's exhaust and sucks in a lungful of air. "It's cleaner than most air you breathe," he says.
The cost of Sadow's portable generator is still in the prohibitive category, around $30,000. But he's determined to bring that down, as well as expand the scope of a potential market for the invention. He'd particularly like to interest traditional gas stations dotting the nation's interstates. "Not only could they help EV owners fill up, but they could likely get free heating for their garages" thanks to to the extreme heat generated by the turbine, says Sadow.
Not long ago, Sadow got to demonstrate his invention at a gathering of EV fans for Hidetoshi Kadota, Nissan's chief vehicle engineer for the Leaf. Sadow reports that while impressed, Kadota felt such innovations would only appeal to "techies, but that's not a fair description of who Leaf owners are," says Sadow. "If you go on any EV discussions groups (online), you'll wind up talking to everyone from doctors to mechanics, Democrats and Republicans. We're just people who want to do something about the planet, and think that cars are a good place to start."
Sadow shrugs. "I could make a lot more money consulting than I do with EVSE, but I am determined to help see the EV grow," he says. Then he confesses to an odd dream for an entrepreneur.
"One day, we will get beyond these habits that we've created over generations, of going to a gas station to fill up on oil so we can drive these noisy, smelly contraptions," he says. "When that day comes and there are many more EVs on the road as well as easy ways to recharge them, I'll be happily out of business."