Meet Greenie,  My Solar-Electric Perpetual Motion (almost) Green Machine.

When I first brought it home... I know it's yellow but it's also truly a green machine. This is the original height. Note the batteries in the passenger compartment.

‘Almost’ perpetual motion because it isn't’t always moving and once every 4 or 5 years I’ll have to replace the batteries, still it’s always there with the power to go when I turn the key.

A while back as I watched my 1994 Deawoo Tico almost literally disintegrate before my very eyes, I knew it had to be replaced. I thought I might be coming into some money, you know, maybe a couple grand to buy another old car, but I remembered a friend had bought a solar tuk-tuk – three wheeled taxi – about five years previously and I thought I should check it out. It was made in Phnom Penh by a company from Australia that mostly outfitted buildings for solar power. Seemed like a much better idea than buying another well used old car with all the baggage, repairs and headaches that entails.

The company’s web site was up and running, but I got no response to my emails: turns out they had just gone out of business, so I contacted my friend to see if he knew anything. He didn't, but in his response he offered me his, I only needed to buy new batteries at a cost of five or six hundred dollars since he hadn’t properly maintained them. He had driven it less than 100 kms before he parked it.

He had gotten freaked out by its mechanical brakes. It has levers and rods instead of hydraulics and doesn't stop anywhere near as fast. He drives his motorbike very fast so I can understand his concern; the two times I’ve had to stop fast since I started driving it, I had to literally jump on the pedal with all my weight to get it to stop in time. The company’s newer models all have hydraulic brakes, which have been standard on most vehicles for around 100 years, though some small motorbikes still use mechanical ones since they are much cheaper to build than hydraulics and I guess they work okay for small bikes.

The brake situation is one of several indications to me that the trike was like a beta model, one they built as an experiment to see what worked. I've checked on adapting it to hydraulics but that would be way too difficult/expensive so the only other option is an entirely new axle, which also wouldn’t be cheap and considering my finances won’t happen anytime soon, or maybe never... after driving for 6 months now, going through all the trouble doesn't seem worth it.. It also confuses me since it’s got a hand brake for the front wheel and a pedal for the rear. Hydraulics would’ve been much simpler, I always forget to use the front brake. I’ll just have to live with the brakes as they are. One thing that makes that deficiency tolerable is that it doesn’t go very fast, maybe 35kph, still, here in Cambodia people do get right in your way sometimes.

My first step getting it running was to buy 4 hefty batteries. I talked to people and checked around and thought I knew what I was doing, then enlisted my favorite tuk-tuk driver and went to pick up the batteries… but even as I was heading back to where the trike was located I kinda knew they were too big for its battery compartments. They are squat, fat and long compared to the originals which were tall, narrow and short. So we went back to town with a sample of what I needed and discovered that the ones that fit, that’re intended for deep-cycle storage, cost twice as much, $260 each instead of the $130 I paid for what are just big truck batteries. I rarely go very far so don't really need deep-cycle. I've never needed to plug it in, the solar roof has provided more energy than I can use.If the batteries last 5 years my pro rated cost per month will be $10. Hopefully lithium batteries, which are a lot lighter, will be a lot cheaper in five years. Like deep cycle ones they now cost twice as much. 

Well, I clearly had to make do with what I had so we hooked it up temporarily with two batteries on the floor of the passenger compartment, but it wouldn’t go…hmmm. Okay, we got the fellow who hooked up a solar setup for my friend’s house over to check it out. Still no go, so he says maybe it’s the controller that’s the problem. Maybe it’s gone bad after 5 years of sitting, he says. The battery cables were hooked up properly because everything checked out, so if the wiring was also hooked up properly and it had to be since nothing had changed since it had been parked, then there’s not much can go wrong with a simple electric vehicle since there are only three active motive parts; batteries, motor and controller. It has four 150 amp batteries, a small 1000Watt – equivalent to 1.3 horsepower - 48 volt motor and a controller that would cost about $125 to replace.

Partial view of three of the four batteries.

One kilowatt - equivalent to 1.3 hp - 48 volt motor is 15cm long by 15cm in diameter or  6" by 6". It's connected directly to the axle.

The controller is the metal box, center right. Smaller box below it is the solar controller.

Contrast that with a combustion engine with a crankshaft, bearings, piston rods, pistons and rings; camshaft, bearings, valves, rocker arms; oil pump and oil filter; there’s the fuel tank, fuel filter and fuel injectors or carburetor; then there’s the starter, alternator, solenoid, distributor, plugs and plug wires; there’s a maze of vacuum lines and pollution control equipment. Then there’s the exhaust system; manifold, pipe, muffler and sometimes a catalytic converter. There’s the radiator, water pump, fan, fan belt and hoses. And lets not forget the transmission, Greenie has no transmission.

I probably forgot something, but you get the picture. When the world’s vehicle fleet is fully converted to electric, it’ll take one third as many workers to build them and there’s a lot less maintenance on electrics.

So we call another friend over with all of his testers and meters and at first he can’t figure it out either, but in the process of unhooking and hooking back the wires coming out of the controller, a very simple problem was solved, corrosion in the contacts, which was not surprising after five years here in the tropics.

So we get it going driving around my friend’s yard and wow, the throttle is so sensitive it lurches forward if you’re not careful. That’s in contrast to combustion power where you give it a lot of gas to get it started and then back off. There’s a way to correct for that sensitivity electronically, but I don’t know anyone who can do it for me, meanwhile I’m getting used to it, though it’s still no fun.

Okay, we’re on the road. Though it handled fine on a good smooth surface, it was very unstable on rough spots, like it wanted to tip over. There were three factors causing that. It was top heavy because of the weight of the solar roof; it was designed too tall; that is, taller than necessary and it has a narrow track. It also didn’t help that the batteries on the floorboard were not securely fastened and could move around a bit.

But the first step before tackling that fundamental problem of stability was to expand the rear battery compartment to fit three batteries. Originally there were two under each seat, but as it turned out I could relatively easily expand the rear compartment to handle three. Getting to another friend’s place where I could get the welding done, which entailed about 3kms of rough road, was a nerve racking experience made worse by the batteries shifting around. The very heavy cables they were attached to wouldn’t let them go very far, but still that moving weight worsened the stability problem and that was compounded by trying to go as slow as possible with that super sensitive throttle wanting to spurt forward at the slightest touch. 

The job involved running two cables underneath from the front compartment to the third battery in the back. I had a diagram made up to make sure they were hooked up right and did it correctly, but then, for some mysterious reason, I decided that they weren’t right and switched them so that two positives were attached… and was surprised when it didn’t work. It took about half an hour to realize my dumbass, spacy mistake and when hooked up correctly, it seemed like it caused no damage, what a relief…. Except when I got it on the highway on the way home it would only go about half its previous top speed. Well, we didn’t have enough proper cable so we used a length my friend had around that turned out was too small. I had thought that might be the problem. First thing I did was buy a thicker wire to replace it: problem solved. It’s stability was helped a lot by having three heavy batteries, weighing a total of about 100 kilos, sitting on top of the rear wheels, but it still needed two more adaptations to give it true stability: reducing it’s height and getting some fatter tires to give it a wider track.

Reducing it’s height by 4 inches, 10 centimeters, was relatively easy. It took about an hour and made a big difference in handling. The only problem is that I bump my head quite often, though less as I've gotten used to it. It still feels rough at times on dodgy surfaces, but doesn’t feel like it’s going to tip over.


Chopped.

Even so fatter tires will elevate it’s handling to another level, it’ll be much smoother. Greenie has a four bolt hub as well as the Tico and they are both the same diameter1 so I picked up a Tico rim and expected it to fit somehow. It turns out they look the same, but are slightly different: The tuk-tuk bolts are four inches - 10cm -  apart, the Tico’s are 4 ”  inches – 11.2 cm – so I’m in the process of having adapters made…. Actually that process has ground to a halt, neither of the two machine shops in Kampot, including the one that did a friend’s adapter would do mine. Too busy, they say. Kampot’s a town of about 60,000 people. My only option now is a trip to Phnom Penh where I’m certain to find a shop that will do it. I’ll have to trudge up there with a Tico wheel, trike wheel and sample adapter and then wander around looking for a machine shop. Meanwhile with the other improvements it isn't that bad, it’ll just be a lot better and cooler with big wheels.

I'll eventually be replacing the thin motorbike tire with the fat car tire.

Meanwhile serious design flaws cropped up. It’s a simple but good looking design, but the way they put the pieces together had it giving me problems after only 300 kms. The battery compartments were attached to the frame through the sheet metal floor of the compartments, then the structure holding up the roof also was connected only through sheet metal. Sheet metal allows for a lot of flex, in this case a double flex, so the roof was bouncing around from only small bumps in the road surface. That was relatively easily solved with a little welding, but without my previous knowledge of fabricating and design, it would’ve been hard to deal with. I also would've gotten royally pissed off had I spent $2300 on a new vehicle that started falling apart after such a short time.

             Steel tubes (unpainted) were welded from the roof support to the frame to compensate for poor structural design. 
With the equivalent welding in front it rides fine now.

Regardless, the essence is the thing; it’s quiet, smooth, accelerates very quickly up to it’s top speed and the solar panels provide ample power. The specs say it should get about 30kms from a day’s sun and 80 with a full charge. For me that’s plenty. About 90% of the time I drive it to town and back at night for a total of 3km. I always ride bicycle in the day time unless I need Greenie to cart something around. A few times I've gone 10 to 15 kms and it always seemed to be fully charged. Once I did 60 kms. I was concerned how it would do and how much power it would take. Even after 60 kms when I got back home it still had an 85% charge, I was impressed.

At this point I can’t imagine wanting to go back to being cooped up in a little car and that’s the only kind of car I’d have. I’d never want to drive a big honking vehicle around, the little ones are so much easier to drive and park. Yes I will get my lower half wet when torrents of rain are coming at me sideways: I don’t think there’s any way I can install a windshield, at least no easy way. For sure at some point I’ll need to rig up something to keep passengers dry. All in good time.

Meanwhile I’m thrilled to have it; always at the ready, never have to stop for gas, change oil, replace myriad put-put parts. It’d be nice actually to find a team to start manufacturing them, there’s a ready market. Indian made three-wheelers are $3000 to $4000 new and they’re no more than noisy, rattley little tin cans. No comparison to the Green Machine. I've had several people ask me where they can buy one. The Chinese make electric trikes, but rarely include solar, at least the ones I've seen online. And no one has gotten it together to import them.

It’s wonderful to have it. I've always been an environmentalist so it perfectly fits my persona. Being out in the fresh air, even if I am getting wet, seems far preferable to sitting enclosed in a stuffy little car.

I can’t finish this without bringing up electric vehicles in general. People want to think, or tend to think that electric vehicles are a new modern thing, but nothing could be farther than the truth. Studebaker had an electric car in 1899. Electric delivery vehicles were in common use in America’s big cities in the 1920s. They are perfect for use in high traffic urban settings because they don’t idle, no energy is wasted when the vehicle isn't moving. Here’s an extreme example: back in 1993 I lived in Bangkok. It was before the first mass transit lines and traffic was horrific: it could take 3, sometimes 4 hours to go ten kilometers if you were out in peak hours. I remember times when I’d sit back and watch as traffic would come to a full stop for a full hour: I’d marvel at all those buses, trucks, motorbikes and cars spewing out clouds of pollution while standing in place. Traffic stuck electric vehicles would also make no noise, it would be blissfully quiet.

Hybrids also are nothing new: diesel locomotives, first introduced in the 1930s, are actually diesel/electric. So we’ll be moving back to the past to reach a future of electric vehicles. It’ll be worth it. Electric is far more efficient as a motive power. Combustion engines are only about 45% efficient, the rest becomes waste heat. In contrast, more than 90% of energy input is used to move an electric. The future of the planet depends on converting to solar/electric power.

I’ll do an update when I finally get those fat tires together.