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.

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.