Light Electric Vehicles Discussion Group Sparks New Ideas for DIYers

DATE:  January 24, 2021     CATEGORIES:  Blog, Classes, Education, Electronics, Robotics

Winter is the time to build, but for many light electric vehicle enthusiasts, this winter was destined to mean troubleshooting and problem solving alone, in private garages and work spaces, armed simply with their tools and random YouTube videos to assist. Thanks to a new online discussion forum at Artisan’s Asylum, these builders not only have a way to meet others who are interested in LEVs, but are collaborating in real time, sharing information, inspiration and tips through this free virtual exchange platform. 

Tony Dopazo and Nik Lal, the inspiration behind Artisan Asylum’s monthly Light Electric Vehicles Virtual Discussion Group, answered some questions about how this online platform connects LEV enthusiasts with information, experience and camaraderie.

Q: How did you both get involved with Artisan’s Asylum?

Tony: When Artisan’s first opened in 2010, they had what I liked to call an “all you can eat” plan with one price for all the classes you could take in a year. I must have been there 4 or 5 days a week. I remember taking rubber casting and making a rubber mold of my hand, I took a woodworking class and learned how to weld. It was a great way to get introduced to the community, and very quickly ramp up interest in membership, too. Two years later I signed up for a studio, a little home of 50 or 100 square feet where you can do with it what you wish.

Nik: I had always gone to Artisans for the more heavy duty builds; I built my first wheel there on the SCUL bike stand. I got my own studio to work on projects and ebikes just before the pandemic hit. But then things totally changed as we jumped into the PPE crisis. It was an odd start for me at Artisans, but it was a good reason to stick around and the sense of community convinced me to stay long term.

Q: How did you become interested in Light Electric Vehicles (LEV)?

Tony: I was heavily interested in mopeds from the 60s and 70s, their internal combustion engines and very cool vintage look. I would find an old moped in someone’s old barn and bring it back to life. After a while I couldn’t avoid the fact that mopeds are pretty difficult on the environment, and to be honest, moped parts were very difficult to find. I saw light vehicles as the ultimate commuter vehicle, to be able to weave in and out of traffic when bike lanes are full, and in and out of bike lanes when car traffic is heavy. For me it’s pretty rewarding to bring these things back to life but with modern green and clean parts. 

Nik: Electrifying bicycles was certainly a practical motivation. The most efficient way for humans to travel is by bike, and the only way to get much better is to add a little bit of external energy. You take something that is already extremely efficient and make it even better. This is quite appealing to me as a huge bike enthusiast, and is sort of an end game for bicycles. 

Tony: I have to add that, as a professional, sometimes you have to show up in front of clients and you just can’t after a sweaty bike ride. As a commuter option, it’s fantastic. And I’ve also got bad knees, so it’s been a great aid.

Q: What inspired you to start this online discussion forum?

Tony: When I was part of the moped community, I saw a camaraderie and shared knowledge evolve among a bunch of enthusiasts. They are a great group of guys. I remember feeling a real sense of generosity from them in sharing what they knew. As I got more and more into these light electric vehicles, I saw the same things forming and I wanted the ability to share what little I knew with others. When you bring together a couple of engineers, a couple of bike mechanics, the same things develop – shared knowledge, troubleshooting, swapping parts, that type of thing. 

Nik: While I had some personal motivation, the concept was largely the brainchild of [AA Education Director] Anne Wright. She’s got some great ideas about how to get more community members involved and get our general skill level higher. Tony and I have built a reputation as EV fanatics, even riding in the building sometimes. Anne reached out to people who are interested in sharing their knowledge bank and I think we were a natural fit.

Q: How was the first LEV session?

Tony: We treated this first online class as a learning experience. Eight people actually participated and two more hovered, listening and pretty interested.  They both texted me privately to say “hey, I don’t really know that much but I am interested in building this.” I tried to encourage them to hop on the video and tell everyone about their projects because they will get bombarded with feedback.

The electric moped is a really popular form factor right now. I am really happy about, but a little surprised. It’s not quite the expense or bulk weight of an electric motorcycle, but it is more sturdy than a bicycle. There’s also a bunch of folks doing tadpoles, trikes, and lots of other projects.

Q: What are your goals for this workshop?

Nik: People are trying to finish up their projects so that by the end of the winter we all have something fun to ride. Hopefully this platform serves as a way of building some shared culture ahead of the spring where we might be able to host electric vehicle meetups like we’ve done in the past. Maybe we can meet up at one of the community spaces or in other parts of the city. 

Tony: As a big picture goal, I’d like to see some sort of central LEV garage down the road, maybe housed at Artisan’s. This is an expensive hobby and you need access to specialized tools that you might not want to purchase for one-time use. We could model it like the free bike garage in Somerville where maybe we receive some donated parts or abandoned parts from LEV startups that don’t want to see unused motors go to waste. The garage would be a place where all the pieces come together to make the hobby a little more affordable and knowledge more accessible.

And, Wednesday night rides! The moped community used to do them right by the river.

Q: How has COVID impacted the LEV community at Artisan’s?

Tony: Covid brought a hard, screeching stop to our meetings. We originally started the LEV group in person—we had 8 or 9 meetups and were gaining momentum, so we started to meet twice a month. Meetings would begin with show-and-tell where people would show us their new projects, then we’d do a wrenching session and work on vehicles together. What I loved the best was the group troubleshooting. Someone would walk in with a broken “this” and hopefully they would pedal or ride out. We had an 80% success rate…it was pretty cool.

Q: How has Artisan’s Asylum influenced your LEV experience? 

Tony: When I first moved into my cube at Artisan’s, I put my first moped up on the bench and my neighbor in the cube next door, Alan Killian, asked what I was doing. He said he also had a moped that he was looking to convert, so he brought it in and had it running in a couple of weeks. That really speaks to the inspiration found at Artisan’s. At several meetings, we’ve had mechanical and electrical engineers, Alan with his electronics and firmware background, Nick the bike shop lead, and others. When you put these minds together, it’s pretty powerful to be approaching projects or builds from all of these different angles.

Nik: A lot of what makes Artisan’s exceptional is that there are folks who work hard at their interests, and Artisan’s spends a lot of time trying to pull them out of the weeds to share what they do with the world. LEVs may be our new thing; Artisan’s reminds us that we are all doing cool work that we should share with the larger community.

The next Free Light Electric Vehicles Virtual Discussion Group takes place on February 11, and every second Thursday at Artisan’s Asylum. Share your project or learn more by registering here [link]. If you have an idea for a new collaboration or partnership, email Anne Wright, Education Director, to discuss how Artisan’s can help you get your concept off the ground.