Evolving our Ideas to Build Something That Matters

When Jeffrey Brian “JB” Straubel built his first electric car in 2000, a modified 1984 Porsche 944, powered by two beefy DC motors, he did it mostly for fun and out of his own curiosity for power electronics. At that time, “EV” was already a hype among tinkerers and makers, but Straubel certainly pushed the concept to the limit. He designed his own charger, motor controller, and cooling system, capable of an estimated 288 kW (368 hp) peak power output. 20 lead-acid batteries were connected in series to power the 240 V drive train. With a 30-40 mile range the build was not only road capable but also set a world record for EV drag racing.

The “Electric Porsche 944” – by JB Straubel

The project was never meant to change the world, but with Tesla Motors, which Straubel co-founded only a few years later, the old Porsche 944 may have mattered way more than originally intended. The explosive growth between 2000 and 2010 in the laptop computer market has brought forth performance and affordable energy storage technology and made it available to other applications, such as traction batteries. However, why did energy storage have to take the detour through a bazillion laptop computers until it arrived at electro mobility?


You certainly won’t find that grail of engineering by just trying hard. Rather than feverishly hunting down the next big thing or that fix for the world’s big problems, we sometimes need to remind ourselves that even a small improvement, a new approach or just a fun build may be just the right ‘next step’. We may eventually build all the things and solve all the problems, but looking at the past, we tend to not do so by force. We are much better at evolving our ideas continuously over time. And each step on the way still matters. Let’s dig a bit deeper into this concept and see where it takes us.

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Giant robotic giraffe getting a giant robotic facelift

If you’ve had the opportunity to attend the annual Bay Area Maker Faire, you’ve likely encountered Russell the Electric Giraffe. Modeled after a small Tamiya walking toy scaled up to the height of an actual giraffe, Russell was created by [Lindsay Lawlor] in 2005 originally as an “art car” providing a better vantage point from which to enjoy the Burning Man arts festival. In the intervening five years, the Electric Giraffe has enjoyed face time in dozens of parades, trade shows, magazines and television appearances.

Scattered about [Lawlor’s] living room floor at the moment are the giraffe’s dismantled steel skull and several massive Torxis servos (the red boxes in the photo above) — Russell is being upgraded. One of [Lawlor’s] goals in returning to Maker Faire each year is that he not simply present the same exhibit time and time again; the robot is continually evolving. Initially it was little more than a framework and drivetrain, and had to be steered by bodily shoving the entire 1,700 pound beast. Improvements to the steering and power train followed, along with a “skin” of hundreds of addressable LEDs, cosmetic improvements such as a new paint job, and technological upgrades like interactivity, radio control and speech. His goal this year is to bring expressive animatronic movement to the giraffe’s head and jaw, hence the servos, push rods and custom-machined bits currently strewn through his living space-cum-laboratory.

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