During the 20th Century, much of the western world decided that motor vehicles were the only desirable form of transportation. We built our cities to accommodate cars through parking, stop lights, and any number of other infrastructure investments so that you could go get milk and bread in style. In the US, 50% of automobile trips are less than three miles and have only one occupant. [Bradley Gawthrop] asked if there might be a more efficient way to do all this? Enter the Personal Electric Vehicle (PEV).
What Are PEVs?
PEVs are a nascent part of the transportation mix that fall under the wider umbrella of “micromobility,” including scooters, bikes, skateboards, and the like. The key differentiator here is that they are at least partially electrically-driven. [Gawthrop] walks us through several of the different types during his Supercon 2022 talk, but since they are all small, electric powered devices for transporting one or two people, they can trace their lineage back to the infamous Segway Human Transporter.
Using an electric motor or two connected to a controller and batteries, the overall system complexity for any of these devices is quite low and ripe for the hacking. Given the right tools and safety precautions, anyone should be able to crack a PEV open and repair or tinker with it. As with many things in life, the real story is more complicated.
As [Gawthrop] notes, many a hacker has said, “I wish I’d been able to be involved in X before…” where X equals some technology like home automation and it’s before it got creepy or dystopian in some manner. He exhorts us that the time to be in on the ground floor with PEVs is now.
Implementation Is Key
While there isn’t anything magic about any of these devices, that doesn’t keep the specter of intellectual property from haunting this space. One particularly egregious example is Onewheel. Based in Santa Cruz, Onewheel manufactures what amounts to a Segway HT and skateboard chimera. Unfortunately for users, any maintenance on the devices, including tire or battery replacements or repairs, must only be performed at the single repair center in California. Not even John Deere is that regressive in its attempts to stymie Right to Repair.
On the other end of the spectrum is the electric skateboard community, where the DIY culture of the skateboarding community came along for the ride when skateboards went electric. Another key to keeping electric skateboards open is that the first skateboard-specific motor controller, VESC, was developed by a PhD student, [Benjamin Vedder] who open sourced the hardware, firmware, and configuration software. Many off-the-shelf electric skateboards still use a variant of this board still as the community expects customization and openness.
Electric bikes fall somewhere in the middle of this spectrum since there are certainly more and less serviceable electrical components running from the bargain basement of AliExpress to the OEM-only Bosh systems. The other parts of the bike will be serviceable by any bike shop or home mechanic. A similar case seems to exist for privately-owned electric kick scooters also used by SaaS (Scooters as a Service) companies like Bird or Lime. The IOT components of shared scooters are perhaps understandably not designed to be open to the consumer.
How Can You Join Up?
As we are in the early days of PEVs taking over the roads or micromobility lanes of our cities, [Gawthrop] sees a number of places hackers could find a place. First, the VESC controller project can use help, especially regarding supply chain issues. Second, given the small number of commodity controllers for these platforms, reverse engineering the screen communication protocols could be a big help since the screen interface is arguable the weakest part of most PEV packages. Third, building battery packs competently is a highly transferable skill and could cut down on the number of battery fires from small electric vehicles which is a rare, but serious risk with these systems. Finally, engage with local and broader political bodies to make sure that laws being passed regarding PEVs are reasonable and not just knee-jerk reactions to the new.