My year

Posted on December 7th, 2014 in Aerodynamics,AutoSpeed,Driving Emotion,Economy,electric,Honda,Hybrid Power,Intercooling,Opinion by Julian Edgar

Well, it’s nearly the end of the year, and I have been reflecting on my busy car modification 12 months.

All the modifications I have done have been to my little Honda Insight.

Fitting a turbo, water/air intercooler and making and fitting a new airbox. Installing a MoTeC M400 ECU, and then doing all the engine mapping on the road. Fitting a MoTeC CDL3 dash, and then upgrading to an ADL3 dash.

It’s been a huge amount of fun turning the all-alloy, two-seater Honda hybrid into a fuel-efficient turbo with about 70 per cent more power than standard from its 1 litre, 3-cylinder engine.

None of these mods was cheap, but all gave the results I’d been hoping for.

And in the last few weeks I have been playing with the suspension. And, so far, this has been cheap! I calculated the required specs for new springs front and back, sourced them at near zero cost, then installed them. That step was very successful, so then I fitted a new rear antiroll bar – this time, for a cost of less than fifty bucks.

The car is absolutely transformed in both ride and handling – and I am yet to fit the new dampers, which at the time of writing, are on their way from the US.

Sitting in the corner is the next Insight modification – a Tritium Wavesculptor200 high voltage electric motor controller. It will be used to run the Honda’s standard 10kW electric motor, although not always at only 10kW. Given the nature of electric motors, I should be able to over-rate it for short periods, gaining perhaps 20kW for huge short-term torque.

I plan on controlling the Wavescluptor200 using outputs from the MoTeC ADL3 dash. The dash – really, a digital control system that happens to have a display – has a full range of programmable maths functions and can use 3D look-up tables.

The new high voltage battery pack and battery monitoring system? I am yet to decide on these things.

I don’t know if I will achieve my final aim of 0-100 km/h in the Sixes and fuel economy in the high Twos (litres/100km), but the challenge is enormously exciting and rewarding.

In the meantime, we’re off to the United States for five weeks. We’ll be concentrating on the eastern side of the country, and have on our itinerary a long list of technical and automotive sights – and sites. We hope to next year bring you a series in AutoSpeed that describes some of what we see.

Finally, I also published another three books this year – if you are interested, search on Amazon under my name.

Have a safe and happy Christmas and New Year, and remember: for fun and challenge, nothing beats modifying your car!

Tuning programmable management on the road

Posted on September 23rd, 2014 in Driving Emotion,Electric vehicles,Engine Management,Hybrid Power,testing,Turbocharging by Julian Edgar

Never have I had such fun when playing with a car! So what am I excited about?

Tuning programmable management on the road.

Regular readers will be aware of our Honda Insight series. As you’d expect, the publication of the articles in that series lags well behind where I am actually up to with the car. (I don’t want to run into a problem and have a big gap in the middle of the series, so it’s best from a publishing perspective that I take this approach.)

So I am around three months ahead of the series in what I am actually doing – so explaining my recent tuning of the MoTeC M400.

In the last month I’ve been tuning crank and start, fuel, ignition, idle speed control, turbo boost, exhaust gas recirculation, acceleration enrichment, wide-band closed loop feedback and lots of others.

All has been done in my shed, driveway or on the road.

It has been an immense learning curve – I’ve never before tuned a programmable management system – with some problems to overcome along the way.

But what I have found so rewarding is the degree of control that you can have over how the car drives. Tuning an interceptor (that I have previously done) or making minor tweaks to factory ECU inputs and outputs allows you to do lots of things, but tuning programmable management allows you to do so much more. (The same would also apply to factory ECUs where the software has been cracked – not the case with the Insight.)

Having so much control means that you can stuff things up absolutely mightily. I am not talking about blowing the engine (though that of course isn’t difficult with wrong timing or fuel figures) but how the car can be made to drive so badly, so easily.

Or, more positively, you can tweak and tweak and tweak until you achieve things that appear initially impossible.

The Insight is running without its hybrid electric assist at this stage, so the bottom-end torque normally provided by the electric motor is missing. With just a 1 litre engine, very high gearing (especially in first and second) and 4800 rpm peak torque, getting the car tractable around town has been no mean feat.

That’s especially the case when no ‘start-up’ map exists for this car – the MoTeC has had to be programmed literally from scratch.

The excitement of activating and then mapping exhaust gas recirc that boosted part-throttle low-rpm torque to a major degree was sensational; getting acceleration fuel enrichment sorted so the turbo boosts much more quickly after a throttle movement was fun; mapping the control of the water/air intercooler pump so that the pump works only when needed was intriguing; and designing the boost table in three dimensions to give exactly the boost behaviour I want was exciting.

I can now see better why a friend of mine years ago talked about driving to work each day, laptop on the passenger seat and making tuning tweaks at every set of traffic lights! With literally thousands of data points able to changed, and often interacting with each other in the driving, getting the perfect tune could be a lifetime pursuit.

But in the mean time, it’s a helluva lot of fun.

Picking gauges

Posted on April 2nd, 2014 in Economy,Honda,Hybrid Power,testing by Julian Edgar

It’s not often that you get a clean slate in terms of designing an instrument panel.

With my Honda Insight project, where the standard instrument panel is being ditched and replaced with (primarily) a MoTeC CDL3 digital dash, to some extent the type of display becomes obvious – it’ll be dominated by the MoTeC unit.

But what about the factory-fitted warning lights – things like ABS, EPS (electric power steering) and airbag malfunction indicators? And how will high beam, low beam and the action of the indicators be shown? And will there be data that I will want to be able to see but the MoTeC dash won’t easily show?

Despite the dash not likely to be installed for many months, I’ve been mulling over these ideas.

At this stage – and things may well change – this is what I am thinking I’ll need:

Warning lights for:

 – high beam

 – low beam

 – left indicator

 – right indicator

 – EPS

 – ABS

 – airbag

 – handbrake / braking system fail


Small backlit numerical LCDs for:

 – high voltage battery voltage

 – electric motor current flow


MoTeC dash display of:

 – engine rpm

 – coolant temp

 – fuel level

 – road speed

 – manifold pressure

 – intake air temp

 – gear

 – oil pressure

 – oil temperature

 – turbo exhaust back-pressure

 – water/air intercooler pump drive voltage

 – 12V battery voltage

Some of these MoTeC-displayed parameters (eg intake air temp and rpm) will be communicated via the CAN bus from the M400 ECU.

One parameter (selected gear) will be internally calculated in the dash, while other parameters (like oil temp and pressure) will require dedicated sensors.

Note that the MoTec dash allows different data to be displayed depending on the mode selected – so not all of these things will be available all at once!

On the list above there are a couple of unusual ones.

I want to be able to see turbo exhaust back-pressure because, in order to provide low rpm torque, the turbo that is being used is small. However, if as a result of its small size, the exhaust back-pressure is overly high, then fuel economy will suffer. It’ll be good to be able to see this figure.

So why show the water/air intercooler pump drive voltage? The pump will be varied in speed by the ECU. This is needed because I want to control the intake air temp, rather than just keep it as low as possible. For much of the time, I would expect that the pump will be operating at less than full speed. Displaying pump drive voltage will allow me to see at what speed the pump is being driven. Not only will this be interesting in itself, it will also allow me to assess how effective the control strategies are that are being used to operate the pump.

As I said, all still a long way off, but I need to start sourcing bits and installing sensors right now.

Hybrid taxis

Posted on March 30th, 2014 in Hybrid Power,testing,Toyota by Julian Edgar

I recently spent some days in Darwin teaching people in government how to write clearly. It’s a long time since I’ve been in Darwin, and the growth and increasing affluence of the city was plain to see.

But the thing that fascinated me more than anything else in Darwin was the proliferation of Toyota hybrid taxis. The Prius, Prius V and Camry hybrid just dominate the taxi fleet.

Watching the few non-hybrid taxis sit there in ranks, waiting for customers with the car engines running to keep the air-conditioned cabins cool, it struck me how Toyota hybrids have a clear fuel economy advantage in these conditions.

And what’s that? Well, they can have the air con compressors and cabin fans operating with the engine switched off – until the HV battery gets low in charge, anyway.

One Prius taxi I went in had a dash displayed fuel economy of 7.5 litres/100km (horrendous for a Prius) but with the car being driven abysmally, and with all that time stopped with the air on, that was probably a pretty good figure compared with a conventional drivetrain.

(Yes the HV juice that runs the air con still needs to come from the petrol, but an engine is less efficient at idle than when driving the car, so overall, the fuel economy would benefit with the hybrid approach. Not to mention the battery juice achieved through braking regen.)

When I was in Germany a few months ago, there were many Prius taxis in the ranks – oftentimes, as many of the hybrid Toyotas as there were Mercedes and Volkswagens. I don’t think that fuel economy in those cool German cities would be a stellar advantage to the hybrids over diesels, so that brings up another taxi advantage. The Prius driveline is basically bulletproof – the engine, power split converter and electronics give extraordinarily little trouble. (That’s not just lucky – Toyota went to enormous pains to ensure that hybrids wouldn’t get a bad reputation through poor reliability.)

Taxi operators are among the hardest economic heads operating vehicles – they will use a car only if there is an overall economic benefit. So compared with other manufacturers, the taxi purchase / maintenance cost equation must be highly competitive for the Prius.

Wouldn’t it be funny if one of the greatest advances in car technology in the last 80 years – hybrids – ended up entering the mainstream through the back door of taxi use?

Bloody brackets….

Posted on March 18th, 2014 in Hybrid Power,Materials,tools by Julian Edgar

I hate making brackets that hold things driven by belts.

The last, most horrible job that I performed in this area was installing a supercharger on a Toyota Prius. I wanted to get the little blower mounted in a position where it could be driven by a longer version of the standard serpentine belt. This required painstakingly accurate building of a heavy duty and rigid bracket. The only place to put the bracket was where the engine mount sat – so the new bracket also became a new engine mount.

In itself that wasn’t so difficult, but getting the pulley mounted in exactly the right plane was just so time consuming.

However, in the end, the belt drive system (including a new idler pulley) worked perfectly – pity the supercharger was so noisy that it all had to come off again.

Right now I am building the bracket to place an alternator on a 2001 Honda Insight. (The Insight doesn’t normally use an alternator.) I don’t know if it’s just me, but this darn bracket is taking me forever.

The alternator is being located between the engine and the firewall, with access possible from both top and bottom. But the bolts on which the mount can ‘pick up’ are few and far between, meaning the bracket has to be a complex, odd shape.

Furthermore, it needs to provide the mounts for two idler pulleys. Why two? Well, they are needed so that firstly, there’s enough belt wrap around the crank pulley; and secondly, so that the belt misses the engine mount.

The resulting alternator bracket needs to be stiff, able to be installed (more difficult than it sounds when the fastening bolts for the bracket are on the side of the block, the end of the block, and under the block), and of course needs to be able to be built.

So how long is this taking me?

Including making a mount on which the alternator can sit temporarily as it’s juggled into the correct position, positioning the two idlers, clearing the torsional vibration damper on the driveshaft at full suspension bump, nestling the alternator as close as possible to the engine block, moving things around so an off-the-shelf belt will fit – and then cutting and welding 8mm plate, positioning the alternator drive pulley and the two idler pulleys in exactly the right plane, straightening bracket distortion after welding… well I’m still going on the bracket, and I reckon so far it’s taken me three full days.

I know I am a pretty slow worker, but three bloody days!

Anyway, the good news is that the top part of the bracket is now in position, the alloy engine mount has been milled to allow the plate to be sandwiched between the engine mount and the block without then causing a host of clearance problems, and as I write this, I am waiting for a belt that I think is the right size – better to have a belt on hand before I drill the hole for the second idler pulley….

AutoSpeed in 2014

Posted on October 4th, 2013 in AutoSpeed,Driving Emotion,Hybrid Power by Julian Edgar

Well, it’s an exciting automotive time for me.

I’ve been working hard on a project – turbocharging my little Honda Insight – that’s going to result in a whole bunch of interesting DIY AutoSpeed stories in 2014.

Yes, even if you’ve no particular interest in turbo’ing a hybrid!

So what sort of stories then?

Well, first off the rank, I’ve bought a TIG welder and have been learning how to drive it. I must say that it’s been a very steep learning curve: despite having experience in both MIG and gas welding, TIG’ing aluminium is a dramatic step up. I’d expect some time in 2014 to write a story about learning how to TIG weld – in the mean time, I’ve done a story for AutoSpeed on making a welding trolley to hold the unit and its gas cylinder.

One of the things I’ve been welding is a water/air intercooler heat exchanger. The Honda will use the intercooler to maintain a constant inlet air temp (eg 35 degrees C ) – not just to cool the air when on boost. This is likely to require passing engine coolant through the heat exchanger following start-up on cold days, transitioning to working as a standalone heat sink, then in hot ambient conditions to working as a conventional cooler with pump and front-radiator. The aim is to achieve best fuel economy, as well as avoid detonation caused by high intake air temps.

I’ve also made a new airbox, taking an unusual approach that is easy to build and uses a widely available, paper filter element. The result flows well, is compact and can be adapted in size and configuration as required for the particular application.

To connect the turbo to the intercooler and then the throttle body I need new intake plumbing – and I’ve been making that as well. I chose to use mild steel mandrel bends – and I’ve made a simple tool to place a bead on the ends of the tubes to stop the hoses blowing off. We’ll be covering the tool, that uses a hydraulic press to power it, in a story in 2014.

Not yet made as I write this, but on the list of things to do, is a new exhaust system. I want to incorporate something I’ve long admired – a variable flow exhaust valve. I’ve got one sitting on the shelf (taken, from all things, a Ferrari rear muffler!) and I’d like to be able to integrate it near the rear of the car.

Driving the engine will be a MoTeC M400 – initially I’ll be controlling fuel, spark, EGR, VTEC changeover and turbo boost. Sitting in the same box near my desk as I type is also a MoTeC CDL3 dash – it will be displaying as many bits of information as I can configure into it.

I’d like to later integrate electronic throttle control – but one step at a time.

And what of the ‘hybridness’ of the car? Longer term, I’d like to use a new li-ion battery pack and controller, potentially over-rating the 10kW electric motor for short term bursts. But initially at least, the car will run as just a turbo three cylinder without the hybrid system operating.

My ultimate aim is to maintain the car’s  unbelievably good fuel economy and have up to 40 per cent more power.

On a different topic, over Christmas and New Year I expect to be in Germany for a month – as we did this year for the UK, I believe that will result in some very interesting tech stories.

2014 is AutoSpeed’s 16th year of publication – it looks like there will be plenty of interesting content!

The Prius C is indicative of Toyota having lost its hybrid way

Posted on May 26th, 2012 in diesel,Economy,Global Warming,Hybrid Power,Opinion,Toyota by Julian Edgar

I think the new Prius C is indicative of Toyota having lost its hybrid way.

I write that with a rather heavy heart: anyone who has read my stuff over a long period will know that I previously embraced and relished hybrid technology.

The first hybrid I ever experienced, around the year 2000, was an NHW10 grey-market Japanese import Prius – it blew me away with its refinement, quality and fuel economy.

Back in 2003 I new-car-tested a hybrid Honda Insight – we did 3,500 kilometres in four days. The fuel economy? Just 3.6 litres/100km. The original Insight is the most fuel-efficient car ever sold in Australia.

In 2004 I tested an NHW20 Prius over 5,400 kilometres in seven days; I then called it one of the most fascinating cars you can buy.

As a magazine tester of new cars (a role I no longer play) I also drove two models of the Honda Civic Hybrid, and the hybrid Lexus GS450H, Lexus RX400h and Lexus 600hL.

I own a first gen Honda Insight, and for years I owned an NHW10 Prius that I first supercharged, and then turbocharged.

But I’m not wedded to hybrid technology.

My current main car is a mildly-modified 2008 Skoda Roomster 1.9 turbo diesel. It gets fuel economy in my use that varies from the high-fours (in litres/100km) to about 6 litres/100km. And that from a relatively old and low-tech diesel design.

I haven’t driven the current model Prius, but I’ve experienced a Camry Hybrid- and wasn’t much impressed. The fuel economy wasn’t outstanding, and the car drove with an uninspiring feel.

But with the release of the Prius C, I thought that things might be very different.

The lightest (1120kg) and cheapest (AUD$23,990) hybrid Toyota sold in Australia, the Prius C has an official fuel economy rating of 3.9 litres/100km. That’s the same as its big brother Prius – but surely that must be a quirk of the testing system… with the C’s smaller size and mass, and lower total power, surely there’d be a benefit to real-world fuel economy?

And boasting a host of advanced technologies – including a new inverter, motor and battery – you’d expect that this to be as good in fuel economy as a hybrid Toyota gets.

Well that might be the case – but unfortunately, these days, it just isn’t good enough.

Today I visited a Toyota dealership. It wasn’t with just prurient intent: if the car did what it was supposed to, I was quite prepared to buy one.

The presented i-Tech model (a higher trim level that costs $26,990) was OK inside, although definitely nothing outstanding. The interior room was alright (a tall adult could sit [j-u-s-t] behind a tall driver); the digital instruments were clear; the seats comfortable; the load area pretty small (and the rear seats fold to give a pronounced step in the floor); and the double-DIN upgrade nav looks like it should cost only about $400 through eBay.

But hey, it’s a small car that isn’t priced at luxury levels.

On the road, with three adults and a seven-year-old in the car, the transmission refinement was good, the steering welcomingly much heavier in feel than previous Toyota (and Lexus) hybrids, and the power was – well, a bit disappointing. The last Prius I drove, now an old-model NHW20, could on green lights wheelspin its way across intersections – the current Prius C had not remotely enough low-down torque to do that. But, again, it was OK – but definitely not scintillating.

But the fuel economy? Oh dear.

In a gentle drive, about a third through urban conditions and the rest on 80 and 100 km/h freeways, the car massively disappointed. It started off at about 6 – 7 litres/100 (not a problem; it was a cold start) and then gradually dropped to about the mid-Fives. With the ultra-economy mode then engaged, it continued to drop – reaching a low of 4.6 litres/100 and then rising finally for a trip average of 4.7 litres/100 for the 20-odd kilometres.

Well, isn’t 4.7 litres/100 really good?

Only if you have no better comparisons…

My 1999 (read that again – 1999, that’s 13-year-old technology!) Honda Insight in similar conditions would, I’d guess, be in the mid-Threes – but that’s in a car that is much smaller (only two seats) and is also much lighter. So in many respects it’s not a fair comparison.

But what about my Skoda Roomster? It weighs about 200kg more than the Prius C, has much better performance, vastly more interior space – and like the Prius C, has 5-star crash test safety.

Since we’d taken the Roomster to the dealer, I immediately drove exactly the same road loop just undertaken in the Prius C. We didn’t have the salesman aboard, but apart from that, the conditions were as identical as it was possible to make them – same speeds, same roads, same traffic.

And the fuel economy of the Roomster? It came in at 4.9 litres/100km.

Seeing those figures: 4.7 for the cutting edge, small, 2012-model hybrid Prius C, and 4.9 for the much larger, old fashioned 2008-model diesel Roomster, suggests to me that in the real world, plenty of current small diesels will match the fuel economy of the Prius C.

For me, the Prius C could not be justified in any way as a replacement for my existing car – the Roomster.

And so then you wonder – for whom would the Prius C be justifiable over other fuel-efficient cars? After all, why buy a car that is demonstrably far more complex, and has a battery pack that will one day fail, when the raison d’etre of the hybrid – fuel economy – is no longer stunningly better than the others?

The above statement really indicates that Toyota has lost its way: that the hugely innovative and technologically incredibly brave step that occurred with the release of the NHW10 Prius at the end of 1997, the move that saw car makers the world-over stare in disbelief and then turn towards hybrids – well, that technology is now more about selling cars on a gimmick rather than through demonstrable real-world advantage.

What a bloody shame.

New DIY Electric Car Opportunities

Posted on January 22nd, 2009 in Driving Emotion,Electric vehicles,Honda,Hybrid Power,Opinion,Toyota by Julian Edgar

People who have been into modified cars here in Australia have for decades known of the incredible bargains that can be had from Japanese-importing wreckers.

Because of the speed with which Japanese drivers discard near-new cars, the drivelines – or even complete front halves of cars – can be bought amazingly cheaply. Engines and gearboxes boasting late model technology, for less than the cost of having an old clunker rebuilt. It’s simple – buy a locally-delivered car and then install a new Japanese-import driveline having much greater performance. Over the years I’ve done this twice – and both times got a tremendous car for the money.

And now there’s a whole new and exciting Japanese-import field opening up.

Because Japanese manufacturers have led the world in the creation of hybrid petrol/electric cars – the first was built over 10 years ago – and because many were sold locally in Japan, hybrid car parts can now be sourced out of Japan at the same ridiculously low prices.

Should Tesla sell?

Posted on January 13th, 2009 in Electric vehicles,Hybrid Power by Julian Edgar

An interesting opinion article, especially in the context of the global financial crash that has occurred since this piece was first published.

Monitoring Factory-Fitted Oxygen Sensors

Posted on September 16th, 2008 in AutoSpeed,Economy,Engine Management,Hybrid Power,testing,Turbocharging by Julian Edgar

This week we have the first in a two-part series, one that I am very pleased with.

The series is on how to use cheap and simple electronic kits to monitor the output of the oxygen sensor.

The first story I did on this, way back in the mid 1990s, resulted in the development of the ‘Mixture Meter’ kit – thousands have since been sold.

Now we both re-introduce the narrow band sensor display, updating the story to additionally discuss what many people want from such a display (and that’s improving fuel economy) and also, in Part 2, look at how a similarly cheap and easy-to-build display can be used with wideband sensors.

The latter is especially significant: while there are plenty of aftermarket air/fuel ratio meters that use wideband sensors, we’ve never seen a description of how to tap into the standard wideband sensor fitted to many of today’s cars.