Did I accidentally pee on some sacred idol? Did I offend some powerful shaman? Did I back over a leprechaun in my driveway? I had to have done something like this because how else can my run of bad luck be explained?
First, a stupid deer and my Pao met, rapidly and violently, and now my formerly ironclad little cheap-ass electric 拉屎box, the Changli, let me down for the first time in over a year of ownership. What have I done to deserve this?
Is Elon Musk doing this to me with some kind of shittification beam from a satellite in geosynchronous orbit? I should probably check.
So, here’s what happened: The other night, I took the Changli out to make a quick grocery store run. A pressing urge for Rice Krispie treats was detected by the other two members of my household, and it was made clear that this was a dire situation. So, fine, I’m always happy for an excuse to really open up the Changli and let those 1.1 (is that actually plural? It’s more than one, but less than two. Hmmm.) horses out to gallop.
About halfway to the store, I felt an odd little jolt as I was driving; I was on a flat stretch of road, with the pedal to the floor—in the Changli, the pedal is always to the floor if your goal is forward motion—but then the car continued just fine.
Not too long later, I began to smell something like ozone, with maybe a hint of burning, and began to worry. Soon after that, the cabin began to fill with smoke, and the Changli lost power.
The battery indicator dropped to one bar, then one blinking block, then empty, followed by the dash going blank and all power vanishing. I coasted off the road and got out of the car, looking for the source of the smoke.
I lifted the seat, which exposed the battery compartment, and found the source of the combustion:
It was the scraps of cardboard box that the Changli factory used as a sort of cheap—well, really, free—insulator between the battery terminals and the seat.
We show it pretty clearly in our tech explainer of the Changli, and at the time I thought it was kind of funny and clever. An interesting, extremely cost-saving solution. I now realize it’s also kind of a terrible idea, too.
Why? Because cardboard burns, and batteries can get hot. If you get a short or some other failure like I did that causes the battery terminals to heat up, it’s probably not a great idea to have what is effectively fire kindling right in contact with those terminals. Some kind of flame-retardant material would have been much better, but of course, that would have cost actual money. Maybe they could at least coat the cardboard with a thin coating of asphalt or something?
So, yeah, I had a fire start about three inches right under my ass. Not great.
I had to call my wife and have her drive the Tiguan out to me, and I used a tow strap to hitch the Changli behind the VW to pull it home. I rode in the Changli to operate the brake, since the tow strap is flexible, and let me tell you that riding about three feet behind the Tiguan, at night, at speeds of up to, oh, 20 mph, was absolutely nerve-puréeing.
The Changli only has little drum brakes on the rear wheels, so I was in constant fear of smacking into the back of the Tiguan. I was on speakerphone with my wife the whole time, and had many exchanges like this:
Me: Slow down! Holy crap, please, slow down! I feel like I’m about to slam into you!
Wife: I’m going 10 miles per hour!
Me: Really? It feels a lot faster. I can’t see anything. This is better. How fast are we going now?
Me: This is good. How fast are we going?
Wife: (obvious disgust in voice) Eight.
We did make it home fine, and despite locking the Changli’s rear wheels a few times, everything worked out.
I’ve had a little bit of time to look at it and try to figure out what happened, and here’s what I’ve found so far: the batteries themselves seem fine. I checked the voltages of them with a meter, individually and collectively, and all are reading just what I’d expect: a bit over 12 for the individuals, and 64 volts for the whole setup.
Yes, the batteries themselves seem fine. I checked out the motor controller and the junction box thing that’s a whole ramen bowl of wires, but nothing looked fried. I then checked around the battery compartment by the source of the little fire, and I think I found the culprit:
Ah. Yeah, that doesn’t look great. It seems that these two bundles of wires shorted out against each other. Now, was this because of crappy insulation and bundling (not shocking, pun not intended, weirdly), or was the insulation compromised because wires were being heated up too much? I’m not sure.
Either way, this feels like a pretty on-brand sort of failure for the Changli if it indeed turns out the problem was crappy electrical taping.
I suppose the next step is to take the wire bundles, cut away all the damaged bits, re-splice everything together carefully, and I guess see what happens?
Maybe I’ll get lucky, and this short was causing all the problems. Maybe the short fried other components I can’t even see? Maybe this is the opportunity I need to do some upgrades?
I guess we’ll find out. The Changli has been incredibly trouble-free for the almost year-and-a-half I’ve had it and has demanded nearly zero maintenance, so I suppose it’s earned one breakdown.
I hope this is an easy fix. I actually use this ridiculous thing!