Is The ‘Maker Culture’ The Secret To Keeping Classic Hybrid, Electric Cars On The Roads Long After Automakers Intended?

As custodians of vehicles considered by many, and indeed by their manufacturers, to be far past their sell-by dates, we here at Transport Evolved are all too familiar with the challenges of keeping older cars on the road. Beyond just their age, early hybrids (and some electric cars) from a decade ago are far more complex than conventional vehicles of a similar age, meaning there’s quite a lot to go wrong. And with the rarity of early model, originally limited-production electric cars such as our duet of Toyota RAV4 EVs on the Transport Evolved staff fleet there are the added difficulties of parts availability. After all, when your car was made in the hundreds rather than the hundreds of thousands, getting spare parts can be a real pain. 

The first-generation Toyota Prius is getting long in the tooth

The first-generation Toyota Prius is getting long in the tooth.

In previous articles, we’ve considered the challenges faced by older hybrids and expressed concern that the prospects for these vehicles in the long term may be limited by disappearing manufacturer support. Even despite the efforts of bands of loyal fans and owners with their enormous enthusiasm for keeping their beloved vehicles going, prospects didn’t look great. Those owners are sometimes joined by keen independent garages who find ways to repair vehicles that would otherwise be uneconomical to keep running, but even still, the complexity of some of these challenges can be restrictive.

Even when garages like Luscious Garage — an independent, locally-run garage in the Mission District of San Francisco —  come up with vastly more economical ways of carrying out fixes to well-known problems with these early cars (such as its innovative way of repairing the transmission of first-generation Toyota Prii to cut down on labor time and thus cost), parts still remain the big issue.

Armed with a factory repair manual, there's not much hobbyists can't fix with the right know-how.

Armed with a factory repair manual, there’s not much hobbyists can’t fix with the right know-how.

But what if parts weren’t the limiting factor? What if instead of searching for hours on obscure forums or through ebay listings for the part you needed you could just go to a local 3D printing specialist and print the part you needed right there? Or what if you could download the program you needed to replace that faulty, complex battery management system with modern hobbyist components? What then?

Based on participation and observation of the groups who operate these early hybrid and electric cars, we think we’re on the cusp of a new age, aided by the latest technology and the ‘maker culture’ —  hobbyists can now easily create things that only a few years ago required a dedicated production facility. And when that new age happens, we’re going to see these early hybrid and electric cars become far easier to maintain and own.

Reverse engineering of automotive electronics is no new thing; for many years in the ICE vehicle world engine control units, or ECUs, have been tweaked to enhance performance or (less commonly) efficiency. But a new generation of automotive retro-hackers are working to try and find the means to keep their rare and unsupported vehicles running. They are reverse engineering not merely battery and engine management ‘black boxes’, but also the devices used by dealers to obtain error data. They’re building new pieces of kit to interface with the brains of these ageing vehicles to enhance efficiency or replace components no longer available brand-new.  They’re devising control systems that allow Lithium batteries to replace Nickel Metal Hydride, complete with systems that then ‘lie’ to the original battery management system to enable the original instrumentation to function appropriately, without the tangle of wires associated with most ‘home brew’ projects.

The RAV4 EV's "suitcase" may prove challenging to maintain eventually.

The RAV4 EV’s “suitcase” may prove challenging to maintain eventually.

It’s not a new thing of course. The 1998-2003 Toyota Rav4 EV, for example, could be monitored through a Palm Pilot PDA (if you remember those) using a custom-made wiring harness and a specially-written program. These enabled owners of these early RAV4 EVs to see far more of what was going on inside their car’s battery pack than the stock dashboard displayed.

But as lovely as they are, these PDAs are now as old as the cars and unfortunately, finding working 80’s and 90’s consumer electronics is like searching for a needle in a particularly large haystack. Frustratingly too, the code that interfaces that Palm Pilot and the Rav4 EV isn’t easily ported to modern smartphones either. 

Members of that self-same clan of first-generation Toyota Rav4 EV owners are also trying to get modern chargers to interface with the cars arcane charging system, as this model of car (like that generation of Ford Ranger and Chevrolet S10 EVs) predate the modern J1772 standard. Thanks to easily-programmable Arduino microcontroller boards, affordable relay shields and off-the-shelf fully-customizable components, things are far easier now than they once were, provided of course you’re not afraid of writing some code or building some rudimentary circuits.

Keeping the electronics going, or developing replacements for those proprietary black boxes isn’t the only challenge. At first glance, the early EVs were often based on gasoline counterparts, but hidden within they also sport some exceptionally rare and specific-to-the-EV components. First generation hybrids like the 2000-2003 Toyota Prius and 2000-2006 Honda Insights being fait-a-complit special vehicles, are also a veritable bevy of components that are increasingly made of unobtainium.

Until recently, the only way to repair cars with broken components was the traditional pull a ‘known good’ unit from a scrapper. But with some of these being unspeakably rare, that’s an option many owners would rather avoid. And as 3D printing and scanning are increasingly shifting into home appliance territory, so home auto-engineers are reverse engineering the broken and unobtainable parts for their cars – preserving the existing fleet and improving their parts availability.

3D Printed parts may be the future

3D Printed parts may be the future

For example, lurking in the rear of the Honda insight is a small plastic component, the hatch actuator, responsible for unlocking the rear hatch. If it breaks, you can still open the trunk with the key, but the central-locking mechanism will no longer do its job.

However, if you have difficulty getting the part from your local Honda dealer, you could instead just 3D print it. Indeed, you can probably get it quicker by printing it than you could by ordering it. Shades of the future are beginning to appear, even for vehicles over a decade old.

So although the massive increase in complexity of modern vehicles may well be concerning in terms of longevity, it seems the shade tree mechanic isn’t going down without a fight. And possibly, these cars will get to stay on the roads longer than any of us might have expected.

Would you 3D print parts for your car? Would you want to use off-the-shelf electronics to replace broken parts of your electric or hybrid car to keep it on the road a little longer?

Or does the idea of aftermarket anything concern you? Let us know in the Comments below.


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