Spending Bitcoin while charging the car

When I go some place new, I always check out what Bitcoin accepting venues there are. I usually try to prioritize shops that accept crypto currency.
When I drive some place far away, I have to charge the car on the way. No big deal, usually I can eat, drink or go to the toilet. All those activities, I prefer not to perform in the car while driving anyway. When I’m done, the battery is charged enough to continue the journey.
But how cool would it be to combine the two. If there was a restaurant that accepts BTC next to a supercharger, I would eat there for sure. Unfortunately finding this information manually is a hassle. That is how the idea was born to write a simple script to correlate charging stations and Bitcoin shops. I did it only quick and dirty. It could be improved a lot, but I’m not sure that is necessary.
You can visit a map with the correlated locations on ZeroNet: Bitcoin shops at car charging stations
If you want to have a look at the script that compiles the list or improve it, you can do so at: bitcoin_supercharger.py

Green Technology Tour

Charles and I are going to participate in the WAVE (world advanced vehicle expedition) along the Grand Tour of Switzerland. This years tour will take place from June 8th to 16th and is titled “Green Technology Tour”.
We enter the trophy as Team Bitcoin with a big BTC logo on the frunk.
The tour will have well publicized stops at approx 40 cities. I’m very excited to spread the word about decentralized payments, and that Bitcoin is so much more than speculation…

You can follow our team blog directly on ZeroNet:
zero://wavebtc.bit
or through a proxy:
http://zeronet.ulrichard.ch/wavebtc.bit
https://zero.acelewis.com/#wavebtc.bit
The proxy links may not work every time. The second one randomly redirects to different proxy servers, some of which can be temporarily down, or don’t allow adding new sites. If you get an error, just try again, or better yet install ZeroNet.
In that respect ZeroNet is very similar to Bitcoin itself. Both networks are incredibly reliable and resilient. Unfortunately that doesn’t apply to the connection to the old world: The exchanges for Bitcoin and the proxies for ZeroNet.

General info about the WAVE is at:
wavetrophy.com

Why I deactivated Tesla app access

The official Tesla App is unfortunately not available for Ubuntu Phone. And there is no indication that it will be on my next phone, the Librem5 from Purism. On the bright side, from the computer I can control my car using the VisibleTesla desktop app running inside a docker container. But the best part about remotely controlling the car is that the API is publicly documented. Bindings are available for most scripting languages. That allows me to control the car from my Ubuntu phone at the command line. It also allows me to run a cron job to pre heat the car before I drive to and from work. It also allows me to precisely track how much electricity I charge, and where. It also allowed us to open the doors directly from an ethereum smart contract at Hack4Climate. And it allowed me to implement a cool live tracking for our summer holiday road trip. The possibilities are endless.

All my scripts authenticate using a token that is said to expire after 90 days. I set up my scripts so that I can enter my password to get a new token. And then the new token is used from there. Usually I enter the password on a maximally secured system, and then copy the file containing the access token to the other systems. That is because I saw in the API documentation, that remote starting the car requires the password explicitly. So if a hacker gained root access to my server or my phone, he could open the doors, but not drive away with my car.

When I first discovered that the Tesla account is secured only with a password, I was bewildered. I mean, this account is essentially a virtual key to my car. Everything that secures something with a value above a few hundred bucks, has used two factor authentication for many years. Having been in the Bitcoin space for some time, cyber security is very important for me. I refuse to use software based 2FA, instead I insist on hardware solutions. I have used a USB dongle with a secure element to manage my GPG keys for a long time. I use FIDO U2FA wherever I can. Most of my crypto currency holdings are secured by multiple hardware wallets. I switched my bank, because the former used text messages as second factor. And now, I find out that the most expensive thing that I bought in my entire live, is secured with only one factor. Wow! That was shocker No 1! So I picked a very long and hard to guess password. I didn’t store it anywhere. I am very cautious on which devices I even type it. But still I was uneasy about it all along.

Last week some of my scripts started reporting errors. As expected, an access token was expired. But I failed to get a new one by entering the password. So I tried logging in on the Tesla website. What I got to see, was a message that my account was blocked due to too many invalid login attempts. There was a button to reset the password. The result of that reset request was an eMail in my inbox with a link to a web form, where I can enter a new password. Hey, but wait a second. That eMail was NOT encrypted! Even if the link is only valid for a few minutes, everybody who sees it could take over my Tesla account, and steal my car. Seriously? That was shocker No 2!!! If a hacker gained access to my eMail account, he could even delete the mail, and I had no idea what’s going on.

I have regarded unencrypted eMails as an insecure means of communication for many years. And I thought that was common sense. For increased security, I run my own mail server. But my ISP added all the dynamic IP addresses to a spam list, and wants me to pay for an expensive business account in order to have eMail work well. Hence I use an externally hosted eMail address for most of the time, also for my Tesla account. So I wanted to quickly verify the security of that mail account. And while I’m at it, change the password to a more secure one. But the first surprise came in the form of the customer login to the management system. It was http only. No way to enter the password without running the risk of it being eavesdropped on. Seriously? That was shocker No 3!!!

Sure, it’s easy to blame my eMail provider, or me for selecting it. In reality it used to be hosted with another company that was later acquired. That just highlights the fact, that it is outside of your control. Email is not secure, and should not be used to transmit sensitive information, unless it’s encrypted – Period! I read about hacked eMail accounts and account takeovers every week. Lots of websites require some security questions in order to unlock an account. That’s better than nothing, if there is not a lot at stake. But if an account controls anything of value, solid 2 factor authentication is a must. Even if the mail account offers FIDO U2FA, I wouldn’t trust it with my car. For example gmail offers U2FA. But guess what happens when you log in with a browser that has no support for it. Yes right, convenience gets priority over security.

Account Recovery Exploitation is a known problem. Let me quote a paragraph from an article by yubico: 5 Surprisingly Easy Ways Your Online Account Credentials Can Be Stolen

Due to the large scale of users for many services and the general desire to keep support costs low everywhere, account recovery flows can be much weaker than the primary authentication channel. For example, it’s common for companies deploying strong two-factor authentication (2FA) solutions as their primary method to leave SMS as a backup. Alternatively, companies may simply allow help desk personnel to reset credentials or set temporary bypass codes with just a phone call and little to no identity verification requirements.
Services implementing 2FA need to strengthen both the primary and the recovery login flow so that users aren’t compromised by the weaker path.

Unfortunately, both the primary and the recovery login flow of the Tesla account are incredibly weak. As much as I love the cool and convenient features from remotely controlling my car, I disabled app access in the settings screen of the car. I would like to re-enable it very much. But only once I can trust the security of it again.

I read many times how important security is for Tesla. And how fast they respond to fix vulnerabilities. But then I found numerous reports of people complaining about the very same problems from FOUR years ago: 1 2 3. Sure, security means different things to different people. I’m grateful to the engineers who make sure, I don’t get killed in the car. But I also don’t want my car to get stolen or broken into so easily. When discussing this topic on a forum, one guy stated he doesn’t want to carry a secure hardware device the size of a key, and that he doesn’t care if his car is stolen. He has insurance. I have insurance too, but still don’t want to go through that experience.

The mother of all hackathons

I just returned from #hack4climate. Even if it was just my third hackathon, I can state with certainty that this one was unlike any other. None of the 100 hackers from 33  countries experienced anything remotely comparable before.

The topic of the event was to develop solutions how blockchain technology can help fighting climate change.

First let me explore how the event differentiated from other hackathons. The hacking session was 24 hours, but the whole event lasted four full days. There were pre-workshops around the world. 100 participants were selected and invited to Bonn. Travel expenses were covered. We stayed on a five star hotel ship. It was adjacent to the UN climate conference. We had balcony suites on the ship. The food was appropriate for a 5 star ship, complete with wine to every dinner. The days before and after the hacking session were filled with interesting talks, a guided city tour, interesting discussions and lots of networking. There were so many interesting people and so much to talk about. At the last day they wanted to make a photo of us on the boat in front of the UN building. Drones were forbidden in the security zone, so the photographer rented a crane to get the perfect shot.

I knew nobody from the event in advance. But I knew that out of the sub topics, I was most interested in “sustainable transportation”. At the team building session, I headed straight to the guy with the most interesting pitch that contained something about cars. Our team was formed soon after, and I had a good feeling from the start. Two were from Singapore who already knew each other. Two were from India one living in San Francisco and the other in China. And one was also from Switzerland, but we didn’t know each other before.

When the hack session started at Tuesday noon, we shaped our rough ideas into a project that we could realize in the short amount of time. Then everybody stated what he would like to do. It all seemed to fit together wonderfully. I wanted to implement the smart contract. I didn’t have much experience in that area, and was grateful that the others could help me and answer my questions. Rather than drawing large diagrams, we collaborated on the interfaces, and then worked towards these. We didn’t hit mayor roadblocks or problems, everything seemed to flow in place. Most of us agreed that we are not productive after 2AM and that is is better to get some hours of sleep. In the morning we went out to shoot a video of our product in action.  The guys from SBB (who was a sponsor of the event) were around us most of the time. They helped where they could, and were generally very interested and engaged. We had many great discussions with them.

Our project was about end to end transportation. On the mobile app, you select a destination, and it identifies legs to use different means of transportation. We focused on car sharing, but other options include trains, bikes or buses. Our smart contract abstracts a car that can be rented over the ethereum blockchain. The owner of the car registers it by creating an instance of the smart contract. A person who wants to rent it can do so by sending ether. The required amount is determined by the price per km the owner wants, times the number of km the renter wants. If he doesn’t use up the credit, the rest is reimbursed at the end of the trip. But if he drives too far, the cars performance is degraded by the smart contract. The car was represented by a RaspberryPi running an ethereum node and our backend running on nodejs. Initially opening the car was indicated by an LED attached to the RPI. But to make it more realistic, the RPI then called the Tesla API to open a real car. At the end of the trip the RPI collected information about the car such as odometer and battery level as well as firmware version, stored it on the IPFS and registered the IPFS address with the smart contract to form an unfalsifiable audit trail. Last but not least, one of our team members used data from moving cars and turned it into an appealing 3D animation that highlights the hot spots in a city.

We were thrilled all along, even more after all the positive reactions to our presentation. And hooray, we made it into the finalists! That meant, we could present our project at the COP. That’s the fair for NGO’s which is attached to the UN climate conference. The team that won the hackathon, did so deservedly. Their project was about incentivizing land owners not to cut their trees. They used blockchain and game theory for the monetary part. In addition they trained a neuronal network to predict areas which are endangered most of deforestation, and need special attention.

A first official video appeared here, and I’m sure others will follow on the official website.

Update Dec 16 2017

The official after movie of #hack4climate was released:
https://youtu.be/UOANny6i0QM

Road trip to Norway with the Tesla

Our last road trip was a while back. After we returned from South America, we planned that our next big trip with the Büssli would be to Scandinavia. But we figured that family holidays with small kids are better stationary at one camp ground. Now that the kids are old enough, we didn’t trust the Büssli enough for such a big trip. Reliability of the vehicle becomes more important the more people are traveling. Since we have now a very new (for our terms) vehicle, we figured it was time for our next road trip. Let’s drive to Norway with the Tesla!
Many people still think electric cars are not suited for long trips. That might be true for some, but a Tesla is up to everything.
First the important facts:
Duration: 15 days
Distance covered: 5’000 km
Electricity charged: 1’088 kWh
Waiting time for charges: ZERO
Cost for charges: approx CHF 40
Our route on a map

Transit

We knew that it would be a long trip from Switzerland to Norway and back. The kids need to be able to run around every day. So driving it in one go was out of the question. Also my wive is not comfortable enough to drive the new car in a foreign country yet, hence I had to drive it all by myself. She also didn’t want to drive during the night. So we had to expect some traffic jams, and split the distance roughly in half. Both ways we slept in the Hanover area. We chose not do drive all the way around trough Sweden, but take the fairy from Denmark to Norway. To make the route in Norway more like a one way, we took the fairy back from Bergen to Denmark. Spending the night on the boat, we were ready to drive trough Denmark in the early morning.

Charging

While on the road, we mostly charged at the Tesla Superchargers. The navigation system does a great job, planning the required charges. The Superchargers once again proved to be just great. If possible we also charged over the night. But we didn’t stay in the fancy hotels, that have destination chargers. Instead all we got on the camp grounds were Schuko outlets. Not only is the charging slow, but often the charge stopped in the middle of the night because a fuse blew. Iit was always enough to reach the next Supercharger. In Bergen the main parking provided 54 free type2 chargers with 30A one phase. The only two other charges were in the Stavanger area. We stayed at the Lysse Fjord for a few days, and the next supercharger would have been more than half an hour away. Stavanger is Norway’s offshore oil industry center. So it is not such a big surprise that there were less EV’s in that area. I ordered a free RFID tag from Fortum before the trip. They have a decent charging network in Norway. So I charged twice with Chademo.
We tried to charge while having our meals, when shopping, and when somebody needed to go to the toilet. When we came back, the car had always enough energy to continue the trip. We NEVER had to wait for it to charge. I think this is a big takeaway from our trip.

Environment

Obviously an E.V. has no emissions. But this is only fully true, if the electricity doesn’t come from a coal plant. We have a reasonably clean electricity mix in Switzerland. Mostly hydro power, some nuclear and a tiny rest. Tesla promised that on the Swiss Superchargers, they only use energy from renewable sources. I recently confirmed that the electricity we use and charge at home comes exclusively from hydro, mostly local.
Norway has a massive amount of hydro power plants, and considerable wind power. I would be surprised if they had any electricity at all from non renewable sources.
But Germany has a dirty energy mix in general. They burn lots of coal. In the past decades they made huge progress in efficiency and reducing pollution. But that can’t do away the CO2. I read an article from 2015 that Tesla Germany was in the process of migrating all the sources of the electricity for their Superchargers to renewable. So I assume that they should be complete by now. In fact I saw massive solar arrays adjacent to many Superchargers and wondered if they were related. I assume the same holds true for Denmark.
That leaves me with the 10kWh that I charged over night from a regular German power outlet, which probably contained some coal energy. This equates to 1% of the electricity of the entire holiday trip. Plus the fairy boats burned some form of oil. Their use per passenger is difficult for me to quantify.

climate neutral

A few days later by coincidence I found MyClimate where you can compensate the CO2 pollution of a variety of activities. That brought me to the idea, that I could make our holiday climate neutral. They have calculators for different types of emissions. Although not exactly the ones I was looking for. For the fairies I used the cruise ship calculator, and for the brown electricity the house heating calculator, that allowed me to specify German electricity and how much. The calculated sum was 0.966 metric tons of CO2. To compensate, I donated CHF 27 for climate protection projects. What really surprised me was how much pollution a cruise ship emits, even compared to a gasoline car.

Kragero

The first destination in Norway was Kragero. It has some nice islands in front that are part of a nature protection area. The flat that we booked over AirBnb had a nice view over the sea. We visited a small island that was connected with a bridge and hosted the remains of an old fortress.

Dalen

There is not a lot of Bitcoin activity in Norway. But on coinmap.org I found a camp ground. It is run by Dutch people. My wive was pleased by the clean toilets. As chance would have it, Dalen also has the most beautiful hotel in Norway. We didn’t stay there, but we had a drink in comfortable leather seats while listening to the piano in the big hall.

Farsund

After the shower facility of the cabin we booked didn’t meet my wives expectations, we drove on to Kristiansand. All the way we tried to find a place to spend the night. In the rural areas there were many signs for cabins. But we saw none of them when we got closer to the sea. We ended up in a camp site with a beautiful beach. The sanitary installations were far worse than what we dissed before. But it was too late to search something else. When we arrived a 9pm, I set up our tent. The night was too cold for my wife even though she was the only one with a sleeping bag for sub zero temperatures. So this was to be our only night in the tent. The next morning we went to the beach, but the sea was just too cold for us to swim.

LandaLand

The famous Lyssefjord is a very touristic area. Thousands of people walk up to the Preikestolen every day. We had a small room at the LandaLand for three nights. The first day we drove around the fjord trough the mountains and down the 27 steep curves. From there we took the fairy trough the fjord.
On the second day we hiked to the Preikestolen. We started early through the well prepared trail in light rain. There were lots of people, but not nearly as much as in the stories of other people.
The third day there was a nice event in LandaLand. The kids could shoot with bow and arrow, and cast some tin. Later we drove to Stavanger and visited the oil museum. It was very interesting. They seemed to be open to all the questions about the environment. But of course their angle is slightly different than ours, driving an E.V. I was mainly interested in the technical aspects of the drilling platforms and submarines and stuff. These parts were very informative. Finally we had a delicious dinner at the food festival.

Voss

Norwegians love outdoor sports, and Voss is most known for it. On the way there we saw some more beautiful fjords and waterfalls. Every camp ground and every hotel and every holiday flat in the vicinity of Voss seemed to be fully booked. After a long search, we found a family room in the youth hostel. I could finally make the first flight with my paraglider in Norway. Since all the cable cars were closed, I had to walk up. This marked the 20th country for me to paraglide. Numer 19 was Korea in 2009. Initially we planned to stay some days in Voss, but the weather was getting worse and the city center was not that great. Since we saw lots of fjords already we thought the Sognefjord couldn’t be that much different. So we decided to spend the last few days in Bergen.

Bergen

We were very lucky with the accommodation that we found on AirBnb. We spent two nights in a nicely prepared basement apartment hosted by a lovely retired lady.  Also the city was nice. In Bergen we saw way more electric cars than in the regions visited so far.

Payments

One strange thing was that the restaurant where we had lunch in Bergen didn’t have a toilet. So we went the the shopping mall. But the toilet had a card reader attached. It wouldn’t work with a regular Maestro card. And I had to try multiple times to figure out how to open the door with my Xapo Visa debit card. Even the toy cars where the kids can ride in the shopping mall are card operated. In Norway almost everything is payed by card. Some might call it progress, to me this is completely derailed.

 

Driving the Tesla

It is now almost three months and 7’000 kilometers. So I thought, I write a small review for my Tesla S85.

Silence

The immediate most notable difference when driving an electric car is the absence of the engine noise. People who drive big engine gasoline cars often assure how essential this is to their driving experience. I was curious how I would feel about that myself. The V12 has a distinctive sound, but in the Jaguar it is not amplified at all. Instead it is running very silently. I also had my “hey look, my ride can produce louder noises than yours” days when tuning mopeds. But that ended when puberty was over.
People coming from diesel engines don’t seem to miss the sound as much as the petrol heads. After all, most diesel cars still sound like tractors.
Turns out, it is incredibly peaceful to drive along in complete silence. I missed the engine noise not a single time. There are occasions where pedestrians or cyclists didn’t expect a car to be so close, but that is just something to be a bit more alert. And there is the occasional awkward situation when somebody clearly never saw an electric car before and stares at it in disbelieve.

Controls

The most notable difference when you enter the car is the absence of any controls other than what is around the steering wheel. Instead there is the gigantic touch screen in the center. It controls everything from the navigation system to the music to the suspension to the sun roof to the interior and exterior lights and almost everything else. After reading books about haptic user interface design, I expected this to have occasional disadvantages. There is obviously something to it, to have the switch for the sun roof located next to the sun roof and being able to operate it blindly. But I got used to managing everything with the touch screen quicker than I anticipated. And it has many advantages of its own. It gives much more control, and can be changed with over the air software updates. And it is generally easier to learn. Let’s not forget that the car does most of these things automatically anyway.
Another notable control that is absent is the gear selector lever. There is a handle to switch between “D”, “N”, “R” and “P” attached to the steering wheel column. But it doesn’t allow to restrict the (not present) transmission to lower gears. If you like to drive curvy mountain roads in a sporty manner, you may think you’d miss that. But think about it for a moment longer. The only two reasons you shift to a lower gear before a curve is to decelerate and have more torque available for acceleration. The Tesla not only decelerates when you lift your foot before the turn, it converts the kinetic energy back into electricity and stores it in the battery. And when you hit it again, the torque is immediately available without any special manipulation. In effect, the only reason for wanting a gear stick back is nostalgia.

Software

As cars get more and more computerized, and as I read stories of cars getting equipped with mainstream mobile operating systems, I started to worry. I never wanted a car running iOS, Android or god beware Windows. So I was relieved big time when I learned that the Tesla cars run on Linux and have a Qt interface. This is absolutely the best choice and I salute the engineers to it. Tesla is often described as a technology company, rather than a car company. That certainly shows in their technology decisions. As a software developer, I can attest them that they are all very sound. This trend continues with the later models, and how they react to problems with the older autopilot hardware. One further instance where I can applaud them is how they handled reports of a security vulnerability in their mobile app. They acknowledged it and were very quick to push an improved version. This is in stark contrast to other car manufacturers who try to neglect for as long as they possibly can.

Security

Tesla stated many times that security is their single most important concern. This was mainly about safety on the road. But also their security practices with regard to the computer systems seems to be sound. Except for one thing. To gain control through means of the remote app, only an eMail address and a password is required. This in turn allows you to open the doors, start the car and and drive it. Adding two factor authentication would be much preferred. And if you are at it, make is solid hardware based like FIDO U2FA.

Mechanics

Other car companies (especially from Germany) moan about lower quality, but so far I found nothing that would back that claim. They also badmouthed Jaguar for that, while I had many more problems with German cars than with English ones. They go to great lengths explaining how their gap dimensions are tighter, giving them better aerodynamics. But hey, go on priding yourselves with efficiency improvements from 35 to 36% while the electric drive train starts above 90%.
With petrol engine and gearbox transmissions out, there are far fewer parts that can break and that need maintenance. One common meme is that a Tesla has exactly six consumable parts: 4 tires and 2 windshield wipers. No oil, and a much smaller and easier coolant circulation also put an end to smeary puddles on the parking lot.

Maintenance

Nothing is perfect. The one thing that worries me and many other Tesla owners is the maintenance cost after they run out of warranty. Yes there is less stuff that can break. And reports from what I read so far attest that the prices for spare parts were reasonable. Further, Elon promised that they don’t want to make too much money with repairs. But the repair manuals are very hard to get. And there are reports where they denied to deliver spare parts. So in essence we are very dependent on their goodwill. More so than I like. One thing I already found out is that the hourly rates are much higher than what the company charges, where I had my cars fixed so far. I’m looking forward for a haynes manual at least.

Environment

One thing that I didn’t expect to make such a big difference, is the good feeling from caring about the environment. Of course there are people who try to discredit all the benefits. The biggest part is CO2, but also apart from that, ICE cars emit lots of other toxic gases and dust. Even if coal was used to produce the electricity, the plants would have far better filters an no cheating software. If you look at the whole chain, there are no oil tankers, no exploding oil drilling platforms and no enormous pipelines required to power an electric car. The metric to look at the whole value chain is called “well to wheel“. The difference in overall efficiency is gigantic. Gasoline cars are at 12% while electric cars are somewhere between 32% and 70% depending on the source of the electricity.
There is still a lot of education to do.

Choose your bleeding edge

Are early adopters usually interested in only one new technology, or generally forward looking and open to innovation?
I encountered multiple startups that seem to assume the former. As a company you want to make your product available for a large number of potential users. But who are your potential users? Sometimes you have to choose one or more platforms where you make your product available. This decision is especially important for startups with limited resources. It might be a difficult choice. Either exclusively opt for an established platform with a large user base. Or add support for an emerging contender with fewer users. Now I would argue those fewer users are more likely to try your new product. This is because if you already use bleeding edge technology in one field, you are more likely to experiment with innovative new ideas in other areas as well. But this is only my humble opinion. Of course there are more potential users on the legacy platforms. But how many of them are there because they were told so, and would never venture into something new on their own?
Let me list a couple of examples I ran into:

  • Ubuntu phone is still a relatively new operating system for smart phones. Canonical canceled their efforts on it last week. I’ll keep using it because it is still the best option if you value your freedom. But there are a few things about it that I really don’t understand. For somebody to choose ubuntu phone, one has to be dissatisfied with the existing, well established alternatives. Probably you don’t like the paternalism on the iOS platform, and the privacy intrusions on Android. So why does UP ship with no real email app installed, but only a gmail web app? This is not giving them what they are used to, but trying to force them into the very thing they are trying to escape. Why would they ship with google as the only option to synchronize PIM data from the settings screen? And why would they still after 2 years only add OwnCloud to the GUI? Is it really so hard for Canonical to imagine that people store their contacts and appointments on a standard CalDAV store using their own Ubuntu server product? Don’t get me wrong on that. It is great to be open to competing platforms. But to penalize your own users is clearly not the solution.
  • Tesla make awesome cars. They are at the forefront of innovation for electric vehicles. And they are pushing the boundaries of autonomic driving for consumers. Yet they still only accept ancient forms of payments for their products and services. Out of all the stories of cars bought with Bitcoin, Tesla is mentioned most often by a big margin. Yet all those stories are with resellers and/or used cars. They also have no public plans to include a modern BTC wallet into the car software for paying electricity, parking or roads. Since the car runs on Linux and Qt, it should be relatively easy to integrate a light wallet like electrum. In addition, their remote control app is available only for Android and iOS.
  • There are many options to pay for the electricity when charging an electric car. None of them is convenient. One should assume that companies that are innovative enough to provide services to modern cars involving some form of value transfer should be open to the latest (eight year old) advances in payments technology. Yet I am not aware of a single charging station that is in production where I could pay with Bitcoin for the charge. Instead there is a company that develops a blockchain based solution that introduces even more friction rather than to remove it. They offer their proprietary app for (you guessed it) Android and iOS. You have to buy their tokens beforehand and you can only pay them with credit card or paypal.
  • Steemit is a social platform that rewards users for writing and curating. They want to differentiate themselves from the giant centralized networks. With their ties to blockchain, they seek to please a decentralized crowd. But you cannot sign up if you don’t have neither a facebook nor a twitter account. That’s like a horse is required to acquire a car.

Turns out if you want to make use of innovative new technology on multiple orthogonal fronts, you can have a really hard time.
I really don’t get it why technology seems to advance in any given directory in isolation. It is like saying you can either have a color TV or stereo sound, but not both. Things converge eventually, because you can have AC in your car and not just at home. But why aren’t they bundled at an early stage?
The largest group of people does not necessarily contain the largest number of people to potentially experiment with new products. They might have left the old world already. Sure you want to have them all as customers at last, but the early adopters might help you to get there. And the early adopters have slightly different requirements than the eventual end users.

Quality

Quality is important

During the apprenticeship at Victorinox we were indoctrinated with “quality above all else”. The teacher told us that also in our private lives we would be better off buying quality products even if they are considerably more expensive than throwaway products. Part of it stuck with me ever since. But I relaxed the rule somewhat. I usually assess how much I am going to use a product before I buy it. If it is a tool I expect to only need once a year, I buy a cheap one. The good ones are for people who need them in their everyday work.
But shoes are something entirely different. When I switched from the machine industry to software development early in my professional career, live became better. Shortly after the salary hike, I visited a shoe store. When the sales lady talked me into buying a pair of fine English goodyear shoes, I reminded myself that quality pays off in the long run. I have had these very same shoes for 19 years. I used them a lot and they are still very comfortable. Over the years, they needed some minor repairs. From above they still look perfectly fine, but now they are worn off, so that a bigger repair would be required. The cost would be about half of what a pair of new ones cost. I hesitated a while. Nineteen years is already quite remarkable, but how cool would it be to have 40 year old shoes that are still in regular use? On the other hand, by buying the almost same model from the same manufacturer at the same store, I am rewarding them for their exceptional work.

Economics are even more important

Producing quality products is unfortunately no guarantee for success in our society. A school mate once told me that his father worked as an electrician in New York. He was fired because the stuff he did never broke.
Quality control is well understood in the mechanical manufacturing industry. We worked with precisions of 0.01mm on a daily basis. It is also understood on the broader scale. Companies rigorously test their products before going into mass production.
But it is an entirely different beast in software. There are many facets to it. They range from not crashing, deliver expected results in all edge cases, robust against malicious attacks, execution time, energy efficiency, to maintainability of the source code. As an engineer, it saddens me to no end to witness that companies with the lowest quality software do so well economically. What could be the reasons for that? What is so different in software from hardware? The most obvious difference is that software can be patched so easily. Found a critical bug? Just push an update that fixes it. I used to say that software is newer and not as well understood as other disciplines. But after 17 years in the field, I no longer think of this as a major contributing factor. After all, the mechanical first industrial revolution happened also not a lot more than 100 years ago. I think the customers or end users are responsible to a large degree. As long as companies can sell sloppy products with aggressive marketing, why should they invest into quality? I hope that the digital natives, that are growing up with ever more technology, have a better understanding. But it might also be that they accept the current state as the reality we live in.

Charging electric vehicles with Bitcoin

In my last post I ranted about the current payment methods for charging E.V.s. The electricity for a full charge of an electric car costs something in the range of $2 to $20. But most of the time, we only need a partial charge. Credit cards impose enormous fees on low value transactions, and require expensive equipment. PayPal even adds on top of that. This is why some energy providers opted to use RFID membership cards. Unfortunately there are many of these. Most have excessive annual fees. They are mostly incompatible island solutions and they usually offer bad deals. So let me explain why Bitcoin offers the perfect solution here.

Machine to machine

Some car manufacturers are already looking into equipping their vehicles with digital wallets. And some power companies are looking already into blockchain payments. So the car could pay directly for the power. This can be done exactly and trustlessly with use of Bitcoin payment channels. The cars already communicate with the charging terminals, so payment would be just one more stream of information. Because Bitcoin accounts don’t need to be tied to a person, and you can create as many accounts as you like, it is no problem to have a separate account for the car. Or you can share an account between your car and other devices. Whatever fits your use case best. The same goes for the infrastructure provider. He can maintain a separate hierarchical deterministic wallet for every charging station. It would even be relatively easy to put a protocol in place where the charging station doesn’t even need an Internet connection by itself. Instead the car or the consumer could present a proof that was signed by the energy provider that a valid payment was made. The possibilities are endless.

Accessibility

Bitcoin wallets exists on almost every operating system. Most of them are open source. This is in stark contrast to proprietary apps that some charging providers advertise. If they have one for Android and one for iOS, I’m out of luck. It won’t run on my Ubuntu phone.

Transaction costs

When I started with Bitcoin in 2011, transaction costs were really neglectable. They were optional, and usually a fraction of a penny. For a long time they were at about two pennies, which is still minor. Only recently they started to raise to about 20 pennies for an average size medium priority transaction. This is still comparable to Maestro cards, and way below credit cards. But it is not so great at the moment for micro transactions. The reason for this is that the block size is capped and the limit was reached. Thus a fee market emerged, where you pay a higher fee to have your transaction included in a block sooner. The Bitcoin community is in deep crisis over this. It is not as bad as it sounds though. Because Bitcoin is an open, distributed system, there is no dictator or board of directors who decides the course behind closed doors. Instead the discussion is held publicly. Everybody who feels he has something to contribute, can take part. It can take longer to come to an agreement, but the chances of getting a good solution are maximized this way. Consensus is something sacred with a trustless distributed network such as Bitcoin. So trust me, the fees will decrease again one or another way. If we can even call it a problem when comparing with other options.

User agreements

Do you know somebody who likes user agreements? Do you know somebody who reads everything he signs? I don’t, eventhough I force myself to read more than I would like to. If a multi page agreement is required to sell something or to make use of a service, that is a clear indication that there is something wrong with the design of the product. If I see an overly lengthy agreement before I can use something, I get offended and run away. The occasions where it is difficult to find a better alternative are few and far between.

If I buy a hammer in a store, I don’t have to sign neither the seller nor the producer off a liability in case I break something with it. If I buy a power tool, I don’t have to sign a letter to make nobody reliable if I electrocute myself. Even the company delivering the electric power cannot be held responsible if I get an electric shock. And I don’t have to sign them off before they would deliver electricity to me. This is because there are rules and regulations and certifications. We know how these tools are supposed to work, and we make sure they do so.

So why do I have to sign pages of incomprehensible legaleeze before opening a bank account or applying for a credit card? Why do I have to sign a user agreement when I want an RFID from one of the power providers for E.V.s? Why do I have to sign off my privacy rights before using an online service? Because the product is poorly designed!

I don’t have to sign anything to open a Bitcoin account. Not even if I want to create a million Bitcoin accounts. I can just do it. Bitcoin is asset based. So whoever or whatever is in control of the private key can spend the funds. Clear and simple.

Clear and simple

Charging an electric vehicle should be at least as simple as fueling a gasoline car. You can usually pay in cash or debit card. I heard that there are charging stations that you can pay in cash. So far I found only one. During a short flight yesterday I charged the car at the Swiss Holiday Park. This was actually the first time I payed for a charge. It was a good service at a reasonable fee.
Only Bitcoin could make the experience even better.

Update Jan 2018:

Meanwhile I have had a charger in the garage at home for half a year. Charging like this is awesome!
All my reservations against the RFID cards at the public charging stations were just confirmed by a talk at the 34c3:

Ladeinfrastruktur für Elektroautos: Ausbau statt Sicherheit

Charging electric vehicles

First experience

In a month of driving the Tesla, I collected some experiences but I feel I’m still a newbie. Charging is obviously very different from fueling a car. I gathered some information before buying the car, but it turned out I still had some misconceptions. The first thing I realized on the day after picking up the car. In retrospect I’m not sure why I was so fully convinced that there was a supercharger at the service center in Cham. It was somehow part of the decision to buy the car. So I drove to work, and the car displayed a warning that the battery would run low, and I should look for a charging opportunity. But it only suggested some hotels with destination charging in the area of Zug. Unimpressed, I drove to the Tesla Service center in Cham, and started looking around for the supercharger. A friendly employee informed me that they didn’t have any of these here. But I could charge it at their 22kW plug. While it was charging, we registered the ownership change, and I could look around in the shop. Another employee showed me lemnet.org, a website that displays charging stations on a map.

Near the work place

With this site I found three charging stations within walking distance of my work place. All three were listed as free and without restrictions. The closest one has two parking spots that are very visibly marked for electric vehicles. But after I plugged in the car for the second time, somebody informed me that they are intended only for customers. Ok, nothing wrong with that, but then it should be corrected in all the websites. I sent an email to the company that I would be willing to pay, if I could charge there regularly. So far I didn’t receive a reply. The next one is at a dealer for German cars, where my brother bought his eGolf. It would even allow for faster charging, if I had an adapter. Sometimes it is occupied. The third option is in a shopping mall. They have at least 4 spots, and so far I always found an empty one. Power is free, but I have to pay for the parking. And sometimes it only delivers 11kW. So for these three options it usually takes half a day for fully charging up. It is walking distance, but to drive the car to the other side of the railway tracks during the lunch break is almost 5km.

At home

Obviously the best option to charge an E.V. is during the night at home. Electricity is cheaper during the night, and the car is idle anyway. My brother was responsible for the electrical installations at the building we currently live. He told me that it would be no problem to install a charging possibility in the subterranean parking. A cable rail already runs from the distributor and electricity counters to exactly our parking spot. So I thought I would obviously get the permission to have a plug installed. To my big astonishment, I received the refusal only after I bought the car. When I asked for the reason, I only received a vague excuse.

Near from home

Public charging options are not so great where I live. There is one across the street, but with a really bad deal. More on that later. The next would be at the lake front with a Restaurant. That might be an emergency option to have dinner there, when the car needs an urgent refill. Then there are the shopping malls in the neighboring towns which offer free power and even free parking wile they are open. But the amount of power is limited so that charging takes longer than even the longest shopping marathon. There are good charging stations in a 10km radius, but I have to combine this with another activity.

At the work place

In the meantime I asked my employer, if I could install a plug at the parking in the office. Of course I would pay for the installation and the power. He has to check with the owner of the building. So an answer is still pending. So much to day to day charging.

Supercharger

For longer trips, there are obviously the Tesla superchargers. They are simply great! They are even greater after you explore other options. The navigation software plans supercharger stops into the trip, and calculates the remaining battery power at the destination. No only that, but it even displays how many stalls are occupied before you arrive at a supercharger. You get there, plug in, and wait for it to charge up. Of course it takes longer than fueling gasoline or diesel. But compared to all other E.V. charging options available today, it is more than twice as fast. Once you charged enough, you simply pull the cord, and drive on. I never had an issue with a supercharger. They simply work great. Most of the time for longer trips, superchargers are all you need. You might have to drive minor deviations, but that’s usually fine.

Other public charging infrastructure

Nonetheless, I wanted to try other charging stations. I’m still hesitant to buy the CHADEMO adapter for fast DC charging. But whether it is DC fast or AC slower charging, is only one distinction. The more important one turned out to be whether it’s free or not. In general I am not opposed to paying for a service I consume at all. Quite the opposite. I believe that if I pay for a good service, then it will be there also in the future, and maybe even improve further. But so far I never payed for charging. And the reason is simply that I could not. I have no exact data, but my impression is that about half of the public charging stations are free at the moment. Of course this won’t stay that way forever. It is more like a promotion, and the sponsors range from cities to energy providers to shopping malls. Half of the remaining stations support payment with NFC enabled credit cards with a hefty additional fee because of the credit card. Since I don’t have a credit card, I couldn’t make use of that option. What is left is a jungle of RFID cards and physical keys and whatnot. There are countless offerings where you pay an annual fee of usually around $100. This will give you access to a number of charging stations whose number and distribution wary greatly. For some offerings this flat rate is all you pay. For others you have to pre-pay, and still others will send you an invoice. The prices are sometimes per kWh, sometimes per hour and sometimes a combination. Most of the time it is not transparent what you would pay. With one operator you can send a text message that would charge your mobile a one time fee of $8 for one hour of charging. You could call this extortion of people with empty batteries. To make a long story short, paying for charging electric vehicles is pure horror. I don’t plan on making use of the offerings I encountered so far. Instead I wait and hope and suggest that it will soon be possible to pay with Bitcoin. This would be a match made in heaven.

Frequency of charging

The first thing people usually fear with E.V.’s is what would happen when the battery runs flat. Granted, that is not such a nice thought. And I’m not intending on finding out. The cars navigation system does a great job at helping to avoid such a situation. A friend of my brother reported to being able to drive for quite a distance after the indication for the remaining distance went to zero. This is probably not very healthy for the battery. During regular operation you usually don’t charge above 90%. This has two reasons. On one hand charging gets slower the closer to full you get. And on the other hand, it is also better for the health of the battery not to fully charge it too often. So 100% charge is in preparation for longer trips. But I also don’t feel too confident to go below 15% in regular operation. The reason is that should something unexpected come up, I want to be able to drive to e.g. the hospital and back and then still be able to reach a charging station. For all of these reasons I charge the car usually three times a week.

Proprietary standards

Even if the plug of the Tesla is a standard Type 2, it makes use of proprietary extensions. No other cars can make use of the superchargers, even if the plugs would fit mechanically. I am usually strongly opposed to such practices. If it was on a larger scale it would be monopolistic. I believe that open standards and interoperability are very important. So why do I support a company that develops their secret sauce? Tesla is still a startup compared to the incumbent car companies. Even if they have great successes by any metric, it is not granted yet that they will succeed long term. I certainly hope they do! Tesla has an advantage with knowledge in electric vehicles, with batteries and charging infrastructure. The traditional car manufacturers have an advantage in mass production and supply chain management. Both are catching up to each other. Now it is important that the intersection will happen at the right spot. I hope Tesla will open up their charging infrastructure to other cars in the future, even if that could imply that I will have to wait in line some day. But it would be too early now. Tesla needs every advantage they have at the moment to succeed. The Model3 will be their grading test. Elon Musk displayed a healthy attitude in the past by sharing the patents, and with his remarks after Dieselgate. So I’m confident he will do the right thing.