Written by Frank M. lin April 18th, 2019 3:49 am @ Shilin, Taipei, Taiwan – I had shared this article on my FB recently but I think not many people have read it. I had re-read the article again and it contains many gold nuggets. Shenta is a very smart self taught electrical engineer and that’s highly inspiring. His insights are very useful to anyone with interest in EV technology. I wanted to archive this article in case it gets erased from the Internet… so here it goes. I recommend reading it thoroughly.
Shenta Tsai Interview: Taiwan’s EV Rebel
The first time we encountered Shenta Tsai’s work was over a year and a half ago, with his ultra-highly modified electric scooter, based upon an Eton E-Go. Highly modified would not begin to convey the amount of re-engineering and transformation the scooter underwent. The encounter took place some six months before Gogoro officially debuted in Taiwan, and was to be our first experience with a serious e-scooter, far different from the common variety then in Taiwan or China, safe for grandma. Riding this immaculately re-worked and reconceived machine was a revelation. Over the course of a half-hour ride, it felt as though one had suddenly been catapulted seven years straight into the future, and knew it with every cell of the body. The scooter accelerated fast, seriously fast, yet was silent, smooth, and refined. It wasn’t just extraordinary, it was a paradigm shift on what a scooter could be. How could something this exist – why weren’t these everywhere? In time, they will be, as firsthand experience with such next-level, next-gen electric scooter and motorcycle performance will tend to make instant converts.
Shenta Tsai is a unique figure in Taiwan’s EV community, much admired and respected by enthusiasts who convert and assemble their own electric scooters and motorcycles, who often refer to him affectionately as “Professor S”. Tsai says he didn’t receive a formal education in electrical engineering, and is mostly self- taught, having spent many long hours over the years, studying everything he could get his hands on to fuel what he calls his “passion” for speed. He’s been burning the midnight oil over the better part of a decade, and with fascinating results. Tsai’s company Mobipus now makes high-end motor controllers, a component that regulates the energy output from the battery and instructs the motor how to move. Mobipus’ operation includes an R&D center in Taiwan and an assembly plant in Thailand, where Tsai’s family business used to produce single-use cameras.
Tsai’s family moved to Canada, to Montreal, when he was in the 5th grade, and he would later spend time in the US, in Detroit. He returned to Taiwan after studying international business, and joined the family’s disposable camera business as an international sales rep at first, working with clients like Kodak and Konica. Tsai says he didn’t start pursuing EVs for the sake of the environment, but rather out of a passion (a word he uses a lot) for speed, performance, and the thrill that electric drive delivers.
WN: How did you go from making single-use cameras into the world of EVs?
ST: I liked fast cars – speed was always my obsession and it’s what led me to attempt building my own electric bike. I saw the ‘Killacycle’ [world’s fastest 1⁄4 mile EV, 0–100 km/h in just under 1 second], saw this stunning amount of torque and the true capabilities of electric drive. That’s what really ignited this passion. I say “passion” because for me, being passionate about what you do comes first, the money is secondary. That’s how I fell into developing electric bikes. In between, we did a lot of research into controllers and everything else; we put major effort into analyzing and engineering motors. I tried to buy magnets from TDK and Hyundai, and acquired some 150 motors from around the world, taking them apart to study their design. I think in R&D, you really have to be obsessed to make progress Not everyone has that drive. I mean, during this period my girlfriend of eight years left, and I was alone when everyone was out to play. I was hitting the books, studying papers on electrical engineering, everything I could get my hands on. It was a difficult period over which a huge amount of sweat equity was invested. That’s why I call it…yeah, my obsession.
WN: The company you formed with all that you’ve learned, Mobipus, makes motor controllers right?
ST: Yes, that’s what we produce right now, along with a range of accessories. The concept of the company is built around a very simple idea and philosophy: I just want to make great products to fuel our passion, and share it with people I like. Fuck commercial products made for profit only. I ask myself, am I pleased with this; would I pay for it? Never ask what your clients’ needs are because if your standards are higher, you’ve got to satisfy yourself first. My idea is simple: we don’t look for ready-made solutions, we don’t buy other people’s know-how. We go from not knowing to knowing. I ask, am I pleased with this? That is always our starting point and ending point. Right now we are also working on developing a new BMS.
WN: BMS, a battery management system?
ST: Yes, the BMS is critical. Everyone talks about better battery cells, but it’s the BMS that really controls the performance you can extract. Among other things, there’ve been incidents with cheap Chinese chargers posing problems for others. So we started developing a new battery protection system which we’ll release, totally open source, to share with everyone, to benefit all.
WN: What’s your opinion about plugging in versus battery swap systems?
ST: I think the swap approach is a transitional step. Battery swapping is a business model, but in the long run, the plug-in will still be the answer. Battery tech is good now, but always improving, always advancing, and many companies around the world are working on it. EVs are on the rise and batteries will just keep getting smaller, higher density, and charge faster. Just give it time. The best cells are great now, but in ten years, they’ll be so sophisticated, you can’t imagine. Just let them get there, then when you can go 500 km, 1000 km, on a single quick charge, then who needs to swap? I’m not a big fan of swapping, I don’t think it makes sense, all things considered. Even Tesla didn’t go with the swap approach.
Tsai rides his creation, the “Red Devil”, one of the fastest accelerating electric motorcycles around.
WN: Tesla contemplated battery swapping at one point, and abandoned it, didn’t they?
ST: Tesla today has an 8-year unlimited-mile warranty on their battery, and Zero Motorcycles guarantees their batteries for 5 years and 160,000 km. In both cases, they can do this because they have an excellent battery management system on them. That’s the key point. The media and everyone focusses on batteries, but it’s the BMS that makes all the difference. In Taiwan, when someone comes to us with a bad battery, we take off their BMS, and rebalance the cells. After we rebalance them, and put it back, the battery performs. You see the problem is not with the battery, but with the BMS and its design.
WN: How much are EVs in Thailand growing? There’s been talk in the press about the government’s investment in the EV industry.
ST: A lot of what you hear happening in Thailand is mostly PR, and not really worth mentioning; it’s just for show. The reason is simple: it’s politicians putting on demonstrations, usually with a small EV, maybe with the prime minister, or some other news about EV demos with a university and politicians, just to promote themselves and their party. But I’m surprised by all the hybrid vehicles we now have in Thailand. On the other hand, the government in Singapore impressed me by how hard they’re making the push for EVs. The Singaporean government came to me several times, offering to buy a share of my company, encouraging us to setup our R&D center there, offering a high rise location, subsidies, grants and no corporate income tax, to lure us over there. That’s something I really believe Taiwan can improve on. Taiwan’s government tries to promote EVs, but I personally think they can do a whole lot better.
WN: What about China?
ST: China will be a game changer for EVs. Beginning in the early 1990s, when China’s growth period started and the economy began taking off, they realized that their fossil fuel reliance was going to be a problem. All their fuel is imported, leaving them very vulnerable to shortages, something which clearly isn’t in their national interest in the long run. So the government began subsidizing a lot of research into battery technology. BYD started out making batteries. China’s top two EV manufacturers both came into being through government subsidized R&D. In the 2000s, with the rise of mobile phones, battery capacity increased ten fold, and the battery industry took off. China doesn’t have petroleum, so they’re strategically subsidizing batteries. I’ve driven a BYD and they’re really nice. A friend of mine who is also in the industry drives one. I like that car, the handling, the motor performance, and the quietness. I think it’s better than Hyundai. I don’t think the Korean EVs are as good as China’s.
WN: What’s the battery’s role for EVs moving ahead?
ST: The battery is a major thing for an EV industry, on that we all agree. Look at Germany and see what they’re doing with their technical prowess. BMW is sort of doing EVs with the i3, Mercedes has hybrids, Porsche has excellent engineers, plug-in hybrids, great inverter tech, but who makes their battery? Samsung. They don’t have a mass commercial battery manufacturer. Who can really do electric cars then? Japan, the US, and China, because they have the battery technology and battery manufacturing capability.
WN: When do you think the major changeover to EVs will occur?
ST: The question is about necessity, and not when. When I was ten, I remember hearing that the world will run out of fossil fuels in fifty years. Now I’m almost forty, and still hearing that we’re going to run out of fossil fuels in fifty years. I think we have an abundance of oil, but you see, the petroleum industry is trying to frighten us about a scarcity of oil so they can control its price. Now, however, the oil industry is starting to feel pressure from the rise of EVs. That’s why the price of oil is dropping. The price of batteries is coming down like crazy too. Lithium battery prices have halved compared to only a few years ago. So give them just another few years to drop the price by half again. EVs are going to be cheaper than gas vehicles! I think that the major changeover will start taking place within five years, at the current pace, unless another dude like Elon Musk with Tesla appears, who really wants to be a game changer, speeding things up even more. EVs are not just better for the environment, they’re also cheaper, or will be cheaper. Commercial fleets like FedEx and DHL are already going electric. The reason for these commercial operators switching is purely the reduced operational cost. Their return on investment is within three years due to the significantly lower fueling, operating, and maintenance costs of EVs.
WN: There’s a certain reverence in the EV community for your electric motorbike the “Red Devil”. Tell us about it.
ST: My bike, the Red Devil, is the fastest accelerating performance bike that you can ride. It goes from 0–100 km/h in just 3.6 seconds. [The Killacycle mentioned earlier, is designed only for drag racing.] It was the first to do 100 km/h in sub 4 seconds. Best of all, there’s no clutch, no gears, no ramp-up. When gas bikes accelerate, a high level of skill is needed to release the clutch and change gears quickly, at precisely the right time, a real skill to reach max performance which not everyone masters. When we were testing the Red Devil at the Penbay International Circuit last year, in the straightaway, the gas bikes might get up to 160 km/h, changing gears, where we can get up to 134 km/h with a single gear, but that’s the only place where they still have an advantage. Once we start hitting the curves and turns, due to their size, weight, and acceleration curve, the gas bikes have to aim for the largest radius, but the Red Devil has so much instant torque, we don’t need to follow the widest radius. We have so many lines through the turns we can choose, rather than just in and out in the widest arc. Everyone there was completely blown away.