Vircadia was actually the third stop in my exploration of virtual worlds but I’m covering it in part two because, like Second Life, I think I’m moving on from this virtual world so it won’t likely need any more blog posts.
Vircadia is based on VR technology created by High Fidelity. I don’t know the full back story but apparently High Fidelity abandoned a project and open sourced the underlying code. Then several groups jumped on it and forked off two or three new projects. One of those was called Athena and was later renamed to Vircadia.
Vircadia seems to have a critical mass of enthusiastic developers. They’ve already got a good community going complete with code repos, build systems, and an alpha release of their code. I was able to download a working viewer for Fedora Linux and joined one of their development meetings.
Vircadia has some big differences compared to older virtual world projects like Second Life and OpenSimulator, some good and some bad. Good news first: as I said, Vircadia has amassed a community of very active developers who are cranking out new code fast. It’s also got a code base that relies on relatively modern graphics technology. Their alpha software is surprisingly stable and fast. When I popped in at their weekly developers meeting, I felt pretty welcome. Because it’s early in the project there are a lot of ways you can contribute as a new developer.
I immediately spotted a need for a small improvement to their build system so it could target CentOS and RHEL platforms. Within a few days, I had a patch and made a pull request on github. Within a week or so, after a few changes, my patch was incorporated and you can now build Vircadia on a CentOS or RHEL v8.x server. If Vircadia had ended up going in a direction that fit what I’m looking for, I could see easily fitting in to the developer community.
One thing about Vircadia is more of a mixed bag. Unlike other VR projects, Vircadia has put more of a focus on audio rather than texting for in-world communication. Their audio support sounds good, it works, and the avatar lip syncing looks good. I can see it being useful for meetings and educational projects but for just exploring and playing around in a virtual world, I’ve found I prefer doing it in peace and quiet with texting. So while I was really impressed by their audio support, I still prefer text as my primary communications method. But having both available is nice.
On to the bad news. Because Vircadia is new, a lot of things don’t work yet. There is little choice in an avatar. You pick one of several options and most of those are cartoon-like things. Only one is humanoid, a sort of generic looking, dark haired male. There’s not yet any way to customize your avatar to look more like yourself, no way to change the outfit, hair, skin color, eye color, etc. That means it can be tough to tell who you’re talking sometimes. A few developers have customized their avatar using 3D editing software like Blender. I’m sure this issue will be addressed eventually.
I also noticed a disconcerting tendency of the graphics software to periodically, and unexpectedly, remove things from the scene. Suddenly an avatar you’re talking to or a nearby building will just vanish. It usually comes back after 10 seconds or so.
One obvious, and only temporary I’m sure, downside is that because the software is so new, there’s really not much to see once you get a client and log in. There are a handful of “domains” to visit but most of those are run by the developers themselves for testing or dev meetings.
Speaking of “domains”, I found that bit of Vircadia’s terminology confusing. They refer to individual simulations as “domains”, a term that usually refers the naming scheme used on the Internet to identify naming spaces for hosts. In Vircadia, a “domain” is roughly analogous to a “region” in Second Life or OpenSimulator worlds. But because domains, in the Vircadia sense, are also servers with hostnames, each has a domain in the usual Internet DNS sense too, making it confusing to talk about because you can never be sure which meaning is being referred to.
Their reasoning for choosing different terminology makes sense but leads to my biggest problem with Vircadia. Second Life and OpenSimulator are trying to create virtual “worlds”. Each simulator represents a region of the larger world. Those worlds resemble a geographical space, like planet Earth. They are “places” with land, oceans, skies, a sun, a moon, gravity, wind and other recognizable features of the real world. I feel like that gives users a common point of reference when in those simulations.
Vircadia is going a different route. They see the “metaverse” more like a 3D version of the World Wide Web. Each simulator is not running a small portion of a larger geographical place that together forms a world. Instead each simulator is running an arbitrary 3D model that you can look at and move around in using an avatar. There’s no connection between that 3D model and another one running in some other simulator; no more than there is a connection between one website and another. They are just “domains” that you visit like websites. A more apt description of Vircadia might be “websites for viewing 3D models”.
At first, I was fooled into thinking maybe there was an underlying “world” model that I was missing because some simulators include a sort of “desktop background” image for their 3D model that looks a bit like there’s some kind of virtual world’s geography stretching off into the distance. Sometimes an image of terrain with trees (see the image of the dev meeting earlier in this post). But if you zoom out far enough, it becomes apparent the background is just a wrapper around the local simulation and not a view of the larger world.
The “space” between simulations is a meaningless void of black and blue. You can end up there if the viewer fails to reach a desired “domain”, leaving you drifting in a sort of featureless hyperspace. To me, Vircadia finally seemed to be a shared viewer for 3D models more than anything else. To be fair, the idea of 3D websites is a popular one, perhaps as popular as the idea of creating virtual worlds. But I think it’s not where my interest lies. Vircadia is not the Metaverse of Snow Crash or the Oasis of Ready Player One.
Even though I think Vircadia isn’t for me, I’m still checking in on their developer community and following code releases. There is a lot of interesting technology and software that may prove useful in other areas. I highly recommend checking them out if it sounds like a project you’d be interested in. There’s a lot of activity and lot of opportunities to jump in and help out on a new open source project. Here are a couple of links to get you started:
After more than six months of being stuck at home because Covid-19, I began to miss seeing open spaces and even other people. Until it’s safe to do that sort of thing in real life again, I thought I’d explore the state of online virtual worlds. I remember taking a brief tour of Second Life many years ago and, of course, I’m familiar with the classic representations of virtual worlds in novels like Snow Crash, Neuromancer, and Ready Player One. Even though I’m not much of a gamer, I’m aware there are many MMOs out there like Eve and WoW. But I’m more interested in exploring a world, possibly building things in it, and tinkering with the software.
I thought a good start would be to revisit Second Life to see what’s changed in the last 10 years. I was surprised to find there were no immediately noticeable differences. It seemed pretty revolutionary when I saw it in 2007 but it may be on its way to becoming a dinosaur today. Still, it’s reasonably nice-looking and seemed to be the most expansive, most populated virtual world I looked it. Land area is up to 1,636 square kilometers. There are around 900,000 active users, up from 700,000 before Covid-19 (so I’m clearly not the only one who had this idea). For exploring and meeting people it’s probably good.
The Second Life software is a mix of proprietary and open source. While the protocols and viewer are open source, the servers are proprietary. That’s a problem for me because I like to participate and improve projects that I get involved with. Also, proprietary platforms often lead to proprietary mindsets in the users and that seems to be the case with Second Life.
It’s a highly proprietary world full people who want to sell you stuff. Everything you might want to do is going to cost you money. Want a piece of real estate to play with building things on? It’ll cost you. Want to customize your avatar to look a bit more (or less) like yourself? It’ll cost you. Want to play a game, sail a boat, race a car? It’ll cost you. For my casual exploration, I didn’t really want to spend a lot of dollars in the process. So I moved on after a couple of days. But I think Second Life makes a good reference point as the most well-known virtual world.
The Second Life world is made up of square geographic segments called “regions”. Regions are joined together in the form of a large, rectangular grid. So the “world” is built on a sort of flat Earth model where the planet is a big, flat rectangle instead of a sphere. This is pretty much a super primitive version of the virtual world described in Neil Stephenson’s novel, Snow Crash. By default, everything is ocean but when you take over a region, you can make it anything you want: an island, a forest, mountains, a plain, an urban area, anything you want to design. This leads to interesting transitions if you’re exploring on foot as you walk through a forest and cross a perfectly straight boundary after which you’re in the middle of a downtown area. Since region owners can also control weather to an extent, you’ll run into contrasts you’d never see in real life. Snow covered, rolling hills will abruptly transition to rocky desert.
Many areas are almost devoid of other people but it’s easy to find crowds if you want to. Just look for bars and dance clubs. Second Lifers seem to enjoy dancing, and why not, it’s easy in a virtual world, no practice needed. Even I was able to dance better than I can in real life. Without a VR headset though, it begins to feel more like you’re just watching video game characters doing stuff rather than experiencing it yourself. Walking alone in some areas with first person view turned on, it was a little easier to get into the experience. Talking with other people is mostly done by text chat rather than voice, and that also breaks the feeling of a real experience.
The one thing in Second Life that did seem to be different than I remember from my decade old experience was the lack of creativity I saw. When it was new, everyone in Second Life seemed almost obsessive with the need for artistic experimentation. You’d see every kind of avatar you could imagine. Aliens, animals, robots, ghosts, even stranger things were common. There were weird and wonderful vehicles, landscapes, and events. Today things have settled down into a something a little less creative and more mundane.
Eventually, my desire to see the software behind things caught up with me and I moved on to other virtual worlds. The next two I looked at were OSgrid, a virtual world that relies on OpenSimulator, a free software/open source server, and Vircadia, an open source spin-off of software original developed by the High Fidelity VR company. I’ll take a look at one of those next time.
Like everyone else, I experienced a moment of shock during Tesla’s Cybertruck reveal, when I wondered if it was a joke or the real thing. It was just so bizarre looking. But it was also strangely familiar. It took 24 hours for my brain to make the right connections with childhood memories. The Cybertruck is basically referencing the design language of the wedge designs from the 1970s that were widely identified as futuristic. I wanted to round up a few of the ones I personally remembered for comparison and thought you might enjoy the seeing them again too.
1968 – Alfa Romeo Carabo
The Alfa Romeo Carabo concept car was designed by Marcello Gandini at Bertone and shown at the 1968 Paris Motor Show. Even though it was an early example, many people still consider it the ultimate “wedge car”. If you were a kid in the 1970s and played with Hot Wheels cars, you almost certainly had the scale model of this one in your collection.
1969 – Gerry Anderson’s UFO Series Cars
These two cars were actually created for a chase scene in the 1969 movie, Doppelganger, but most of us saw them as kids on Gerry Anderson’s UFO series in the 1970s and knew them as Straker’s car and Foster’s car. The wedge is less evident but the flat, angular elements are still there. They were designed by Derek Meddings, who worked for Gerry Anderson’s special effects group. He designed many of the models for Gerry Anderson’s television shows and also some of the early James Bond films.
1970 – Lancia Stratos Zero
The Lancia Strato Zero concept car was designed by Marcello Gandini of Bertone and first shown at the Turin Motor Show in 1970. Hot Wheels also released a scale version of this that you probably played with as a kiddo.
1971 – Maserati Boomerang
The Maserati Boomerang is one of my all-time favorite car designs. I wanted one of these so bad when I first saw it and was so disappointed to learn it was a one-off concept car. It was designed by Giorgetto Giugiaro. It was first shown at the 1971 Turin Motor Show. It evolved into a production car called the Maserati Bora but lost all the flat panels and angular design to become a unremarkable curvy sports car. The Boomerang still makes appearances at auto shows and has won best of show awards as recently as 2014.
1972 – Lotus Esprit S1
The Lotus Esprit S1 was designed by Giorgetto Giugiaro of Bertone and was first shown at the 1972 Turin Auto Show in concept form. It was sometimes referred to as a polygonal folded paper or origami design, a term that has resurfaced in recent descriptions of the Tesla Cybertruck. These photos are of the original 1972 silver concept vehicle but you’re probably more familiar with the white production version that was popularized as James Bond’s vehicle of choice in the late 1970s. Elon Musk was a fan of the Bond films and owns one of the actual Lotus Esprit S1 vehicles used in production of the Bond film, The Spy Who Loved Me. He has mentioned that the Cybertruck was partially inspired by this vehicle.
1975 – Syd Mead Sports Sedan Concept
In the mid 1970s, designer and futurist, Syd Mead, was invited to work with Giorgetto Giugiaro at Bertone and collaborated in exploring the angular wedge design language. In 1975, Syd Mead created this concept vehicle for the Japanese magazine, Car Styling. It clearly inherits many of the wedge features but has a blunter nose and more recognizable SUV-like features. It was never more than artwork but Syd Mead is followed by anyone interested in futuristic design, so undoubtedly it influenced other designers. Note, for example, the similarity of wheels to those used on the Delorean just a year later. Update: He likes it! According to a Business Week article, Syd Mead has said that Tesla’s Cybertruck is “stylistically breathtaking” and “has completely changed the vocabulary of the personal truck market design”.
1976 – Delorean
The Delorean is so famous, I hardly need to include a photo. But many younger people may never have seen one that was not encrusted with Hollywood special effects props, only being familiar with the car from its appearance in the Back to the Future movies. The Delorean was designed by Giorgetto Giugiaro of Bertone and, like the Tesla Cybertruck, has an unpainted stainless steel body, though several were plated with 24kt gold. Unlike the Cybertruck, however, the Delorean had a chassis and the body panels were a thinner covering rather than providing the structure of the car. But even with the thinner panels, only minimal shaping was possible and most surfaces are flat.
1979 – Aston Martin Bulldog
The Aston Martin Bulldog was designed by William Towns of Aston Martin and first shown at a public launch event in 1980. It was designed to be a small production run vehicle that would grab the title of fastest production car but production proved too costly and only the one prototype exists.
2019 – Tesla Cybertruck
That brings us to 2019 and the Tesla Cybertruck. Obviously the big difference is that it’s not a sports car, so making it flat and low to the ground isn’t possible. Only the Syd Mead sport utility vehicle approaches the Cybertruck, though all these vehicles seem to me to share in a common design language. Some look better than others and I’m still not sure if I like or dislike the Cybertruck’s appearance. It’s so strange and different that it will take some time for me to adjust and form an objective opinion.
I already own an electric vehicle that I’m quite happy with (a Chevy Bolt) so I won’t be buying one myself. But I am a stockholder in Tesla, so I’m curious how this will go over as a business decision. While I’m not really a potential truck customer, I am a fan of futuristic vehicles with weird, angular designs. So I can see others like me buying one. In fact, I already have several friends who’ve put down their deposits! And the Cybertruck has a vaguely militaristic look, so I can also see the crowd that bought Hummers as gas-guzzling status symbols maybe taking an interest.
I can definitely see companies and fleet managers buying these IF the specs and features beat other trucks in similar price ranges, which appears to be the case. It’s hard for any gas vehicle to compete with an electric but there are other electric trucks coming out soon that it will have to compete with. And the other truck EVs have more old-fashioned appearances that may appeal to more conservative truck buyers. Will a Texas rancher or a typical suburbanite buy one of these? That’s going to be the interesting question.
It reminds me somewhat of the Apple iPhone. When it came out, it was a shocking departure from what everyone thought a telephone was supposed to look like. It seemed ungainly and unattractive. How could a flat rectangle be a phone? But a decade later and every major phone has adopted the flat rectangular form factor. One thing I can say for sure – the Tesla Cybertruck is pushing design boundaries for a production vehicle and will necessarily create strong opinions.
Robert E. Spaulding, Jr. or “Mr. Spaulding”, as I knew him when he was my high school math teacher, died on July 16 at the age of 82. I’ve been out of touch with him since my high school days, which is sad because I never got the chance to tell him what an impact he had on my life. Every student has that one teacher who made a difference and for me that was Mr. Spaulding. I tried to locate him a few times over the years but in pre-Internet days it was a bit harder to track someone down.
I heard about his passing from another high school friend. There’s not much online in the way of an obituary and I’m not sure if he has any surviving relatives or descendants. As interesting, eccentric, and meaningful to my own life as he was, I’d hate for him to be forgotten, so here are a few memories of him.
I came from a very religious family and, after attending a public elementary school, ended up at a private religious school. That school was First Baptist Academy, operated by the First Baptist Church in downtown Dallas. It was a conservative, evangelical church back then under W. A Criswell. In retrospect, he seems mild compared to the modern head of the church – the notorious Robert Jeffress, who is more of a right-wing political operative, Fox news personality, and wack-a-doodle Trump apologist than any sort of real religious figure. So I suspect I really didn’t have it too bad compared to current students.
There were good teachers and bad teachers in high school. Most that I remember were above average. One stood out immediately as unique: Mr Spaulding, a math teacher. He looked different with his pocket protector filled with more pens and pencils that he could possibly need. He always had several calculators on his person including in belt holsters. He carried a strange, boxy brief case with giant metal hinges that looked like it came from another century. He frequently had a can of Dr. Pepper nearby. Unlike the other teachers who used white chalk, he had boxes of colored chalk and used every color they contained.
And Mr. Spaulding didn’t just look different. He had all sorts of fascinatingly eccentric habits. For example, his multi-colored chalk board work, in addition to equations and graphs, frequently included doodles of a math teacher in a cape he referred to as “super teacher”.
He sometimes complained about the temperature in his classroom and the official rules for the building’s thermostat. Air vents in that old, downtown Dallas building could not be throttled or closed. But he invented his own solution. When too much cold air was blowing in, he would begin inflating balloons one-by-one and stuffing them up into the large circular vent above his desk until the duct work was so full of balloons that no air came out.
When a student misbehaved, he didn’t yell, he would simple “Zot” the offending student. A zot consisted of a hand movement reminiscent of a Greek God preparing to emit a lightning bolt combined with him speaking the word “zot”. I think first-time students may have shut up and behaved simply because they were so confused by what had just happened. (side note: some quick googling suggests zot may have originated with the 1958 newspaper comic strip, B.C., in which it was the printed sound-effect accompanying a lighting bolt strike on one of the characters.)
When a student said “When will we ever use this in real life?”, he was good at finding examples that appealed to the student who asked. In answer to one student who asked the question, he used the student’s interest in all things military to propose a scenario in which said student is piloting a futuristic aircraft, carrying a nuclear bomb with which he has to destroy an enemy stronghold. If he fails, a counter-attack will destroy the western world. His plane has taken some hits, and he’s flying with no computers, just instruments. To get out alive he has to achieve a minimum safe distance from the nuke after dropping it. He needs to fly in low under the radar, pull up at the last minute, drop the bomb while accelerating straight up, and reach a safe altitude before the bomb arcs back towards the ground and detonates. With the computer down he has to do the math in his head.
Turns out saving the world depends on whether he paid attention in Mr. Spaulding’s class that day because the seemingly useless math he was teaching was exactly the math needed to solve the problem. I recall him spending almost the entire class setting up the example with his usual multi-colored diagrams. A lot of students were bored out of their minds that day but to the one who asked the question, it was the coolest thing ever and probably the first time he’d actually enjoyed a math class. As I watched the whole thing unfold, it was the first time I’d seen a teacher put that much into getting through to one student before.
On another occasion, when several jocks were not understanding the math, he re-oriented the curriculum on the spot, basing it around a new problem that involved the body weight and running speed of football players. There was a football game coming up that evening and he got them involved by asking them to give numbers for players on our school’s team and compared them to numbers they estimated for players on the opposing team. I doubt any of them became math majors but it was the only time I recall seeing them participate in a math class with any interest.
In my own case, I had developed a bad habit of doodling little space ships in the margins of test papers. A lot my teachers just ignored it but Mr. Spaulding alternated between one of two responses. I occasionally got my test back to find “-3 for space doodles” but more often, I’d get my test back to find little biplanes, drawn with a red grading pen, shooting at my space ships.
I was an avid reader of science fiction and almost always had a paperback book by Asimov or Bradbury with me in those years. Mr. Spaulding was a fan himself. I would occasionally sneak out of the sportsball pep rallies that students were supposed to attend, and sometimes ended up in Spaulding’s classroom talking about science fiction ideas or just sitting and reading.
Then there were days when you’d come to Mr Spaulding’s class and find out he was not in the mood to teach any math that day. He was going to teach something but it wasn’t math. He had ideas on subjects ranging from politics to theology. He often illustrated a point by way of telling one of many stories about his days stationed on a top secret US nuclear missile launch site in South Korea. At the time, there was debate among the students as to whether those stories were real or completely made up. None of us had ever heard about nuclear missile launch sites in South Korea and it seemed far-fetched.
I only recall a couple of his Korean stories. One involved a big tough soldier who claimed the missile engineers were all wimps and spent most of his time lifting weights outside near the launch pads and talking about how he’d probably have to save them all if things got serious. One day they got a high level alert with launch codes and came with seconds of a launch. The engineers were all busy doing their thing while the tough guy sat by his weights crying for his mother because he thought they were all about to die.
Another story involved missile maintenance and I think may have been used to illustrate a math or physics point. He said they periodically had to pull the gyroscopes out of the missiles for testing and maintenance. The gyroscopes were able to briefly generate hundreds of pounds of force (from the description I’m guessing early CMG devices used for attitude control in the missles? Not sure what other gyroscopic component in an old missile could do something like this?). One of the missile engineers devised a portable power supply that would allow them to put the gyroscope assembly inside of a large suitcase. They added a hidden switch to handle. They then drove to a nearby hotel, got out of the car and carried the suitcase up to the bell boy at the door. As they set it down, they secretly activated the gyroscope, then asked the bell boy to carry it in for them. The suitcase now effectively weighed a couple of hundred pounds and the bewildered bell boy couldn’t lift it. They’d ask what was wrong, reaching down to pick it up themselves, turning off the switch, and lifting it easily.
Many years later I read there actually were secret US nuclear missile bases in South Korean during the cold war. So who knows?
Other times he talked about theology. He also taught one of the school’s Bible classes. The interesting thing about his theology is that he seemed to think you could read the bible and figure out what it meant on your own. And he wanted to apply reason and logic to it. If you asked him a religious question, he could tell you the doctrine of every denomination and sect on the subject and explain why he thought most of them were wrong. Unfortunately, this meant that the administration of the school, who seemed to prefer “official” First Baptist Church theology, frequently were at odds with Mr. Spaulding’s ideas. But to any rebellious high school kid, religious or not, that made hearing Mr. Spaulding way more interesting than the official answers the other teachers gave.
I was only just beginning to emerge from my shell of strictly controlled religious doctrines and was fascinated by the idea that you could figure this stuff out for yourself, and that you could apply logic and reason to religion just like you did everywhere else. If an idea didn’t stand up to reason, you didn’t abandon reason and “take it on faith”, you discarded the idea. I suspect I’ve discarded more of my religion than Mr. Spaulding anticipated but he was one of several crucial influences that set me on the path to thinking for myself.
Mr. Spaulding was a Ham radio operator, electronics hobbyist, and seemed to know a little about everything. I and some of my friends dabbled in electronics too and this gave us someone to go to for advice when we ran into problems with our projects. We also once solicited advice from him on a model rocketry problem. We were trying to determine what altitude our rockets were reaching. We thought we could solve this as a trigonometry problem because it seemed like the observer, the rocket at apogee, and the launch pad formed a triangle. We described the problem to Mr. Spaulding one day and ended up learning trigonometry a little ahead of schedule.
I visited Mr. Spaulding and his wife at their home a few times. (I have a photo of it because I had just gotten my first real camera and was taking photos of everything that year). He had an entire room devoted to all his hobbies and projects. Besides all the radio gear, there were scopes and other test equipment and a workbench full of electronic stuff. One of the few projects I remember is a pair of glasses he was developing for blind people that converted light into sound. You put on the glasses, inserted some earphones and as you “looked” around the room, you heard variable tones that formed a sort of sonic image of whatever was in front of you.
Another project he worked on for years was an ion-propulsion space craft design. He had models of various sizes in his home and he occasionally drew diagrams for us on the board at school, talking about how it would work. On one visit to his home, he gave me one of the models that had been superceded by a newer design. Believe it or not, I still have that cardboard spaceship model in a closet and it’s still in remarkably good shape. The ship has two propulsion nacelles, each with a circular particle accelerator fore and aft (the bulges near the tips). The double aft accelerators would provide forward thrust and the single fore accelerator braking thrust to slow down without needing to turn the ship around.
All good things come to end though and Mr. Spaulding retired from teaching near the end of my high school days, I believe at the end of my junior year. We got the impression it wasn’t an entirely voluntary retirement. He liked teaching but his theological ideas and his use of a slightly different translation of the Bible from the one preferred by the administration were creating lots of conflict. Earlier that year he stopped teaching any Bible classes but continued teaching math and science. He seemed increasingly frustrated that last year and the last time we talked after class on the last day of the school year he drew a final piece of chalk board art. I had my camera with me and captured it. He said it represented First Baptist Church crushing super teacher under the boots of their orthodoxy. You can just make out the blue-caped, fictional educator beneath the boot.
I’m sure my memories barely scratch the surface. If you had Mr. Spaulding as a teacher and have any memories you’d like share, leave them in a comment below.
I’ve been driving an electric car since December of 2018. I’ve driven more than 3000 miles in about four months and it’s time for a proper review of the car. If you’re curious why I chose an electric car and how I selected the Chevy Bolt EV, check out Going Electric Part 1. If you’re curious about the trials and tribulations of ordering an electric car from a traditional car manufacturer like GM, read Going Electric Part 2. If you just want to know how I like my Bolt after 3000 miles of driving, read on.
I’ll start by saying that I love the Bolt and would happily buy it again even though the Tesla Model 3 is now close to being in the same price range. I don’t miss weekly trips to the gas station. The Bolt is quiet, non-polluting, and fun to drive. I’m not someone who usually names my cars but I couldn’t resist naming this one Jolteon, after the powerful little electric Pokémon. The Bolt shares the generational difference that makes all electric cars feel futuristic compared to older gas cars. It’s hard to describe that difference to someone who hasn’t tried driving an electric car but if you imagine the change from driving from a wooden, horse-drawn wagon to a Ferrari, you’ll have an idea. Top Gear’s James May was a skeptic of electric cars but, after driving a Tesla, he’s a fan and was quoted as saying they seem to be “propelled by magic”. Joe Rogan, a podcaster and well-known electric car skeptic was also converted after test driving a Tesla. He described the feeling as the car “punching its way out of a wormhole using alien technology”.
I’ve read that cars are not very interesting or important to the current generation but if you grew up in my generation, getting your driver’s license and first car was one of the most important events in your life, signaling you’d reached adulthood. And you probably loved that first car (no matter how much of a beat up, second-hand wreck it really was). You loved driving it, tinkering with it, even washing and waxing it. You might look for any excuse to go for a drive just for the sheer joy of it. Getting an electric car, whether it’s a Chevy Bolt EV, BWM i3, or the ubiquitous Tesla, is a bit like reliving that teenage first-car experience.
I’m not a professional car reviewer and can’t hope to cover all the usual car review points in a way more interesting than the dozens of well-done reviews already out there. So, instead, I thought I’d do two things. First, I’ll give you an idea of my daily driving routine. And, second, I’ll address some of the common questions I get asked by people when they find out I drive an electric car. If you have a question I haven’t answered, feel free to leave it in a comment and maybe I can give you an answer.
My daily commute on weekdays is minimal. I live a few miles from work and usually drive a few more miles each day for a meal or an errand. Weekends are busier and can involve far more miles than weekdays but seldom more than 200 unless we’re taking a trip down to Austin or Houston. I typically charge my Bolt twice a week; once on Sunday night to get me through the work week and once on Friday night to get me through the weekend. Most weeks, I could easily get by on one charge if I wanted but I like having the extra range in case I need it. I also top off the battery occasionally when I’m at one of the growing number of locations that offer free EV charging. Most Whole Foods locations, for example, have a free Level 2 charger, so you can pick up another 20 miles or so of range while you shop or have a coffee. Our local Half Price Books also has a free charger and we love to browse in the bookstore. Quite a few franchise restaurants are in the process of deploying similar free or low cost charging stations.
The Chevy Bolt has the typical GM shifter used in most of their new models but the L and D have slightly different meanings than in an ICE car since EVs don’t have the concept of Low vs Drive gears. I think of them as “Logical” and “Dumb” mode. If you put the shifter in D, the computer turns off regenerative braking, except when you’re actually stepping on the brake pedal. So it emulates the driving characteristics of a gas powered car with an automatic transmission – it coasts when you take your foot off the “gas” pedal at speed, slows down when you step on the brake pedal, and rolls forward at about 1mph on its own if you take your foot off the brake after stopping. It would be dumb to use D most of the time because it’s much less efficient, with a couple of exceptions. D can be handy if you’re letting someone drive your vehicle and they have no experience driving an EV. Putting it in D will make them feel right at home. The other time D can be useful is if you’re driving on an icy road and actually need to coast with no regen (you could also shift into neutral but D is probably easier).
The logical thing to do, most of the time, is to put the shifter into L for everyday driving. This is often referred to as “one pedal driving” mode and lets the “gas” pedal combine acceleration and deceleration. Electric cars use regenerative braking instead of friction braking. In a gas car, you use friction brakes to convert excess speed into waste heat. In an electric car, you use regeneration to convert excess speed into electricity that’s stored in the battery. With one pedal controlling both acceleration and deceleration, you have to pick up the knack of knowing where the zero-point is – the point where the pedal movement passes from acceleration to maintaining constant speed to decelerating. If you’ve ever driven a gas car with a standard transmission, this is exactly like learning the zero-point on the clutch – the point in the pedal motion where the clutch engages. I found one pedal driving very intuitive within a few minutes, I think because it reuses my old standard transmission skills. Even in L mode, the traditional disc brakes are still there if you need them for an emergency stop or station keeping at a stop light. The added bonus of driving in L mode is that your brake pads will likely last so long that they’ll never need replacement.
The car can accelerate like crazy of course, as all electric vehicles can. The Bolt doesn’t have anything approaching Tesla’s “ludicrous” mode but it does have a “sport” mode that changes the acceleration curve for quicker starts. I almost never use sport mode as it’s not really needed and just makes it harder to avoid spinning the wheels when the light turns green.
Another thing most EVs have in common is that they are very heavy due to the batteries. This is a problem for decelerating because there’s a lot more inertia than an ICE vehicle. Trying to stop in a very short distance feels similar to an emergency stop in a loaded down pickup truck. But the weight actually seems to improve some handling characteristics. Going around curves feels pretty good in the Bolt. The electric power steering feels much better to me than the usual steering slop found in most American-made cars. There’s a bit of torque-steer at high acceleration, which can be a surprise the first time you experience it, but it isn’t too bad and you can keep it under control easily as long you know it’s coming.
Like other electric vehicles, the Bolt has more space in the cabin and the trunk than you’d expect. Most people who get into the back seat of my Bolt are surprised at the leg room. And there have been a few times I folded the rear seats down and used the resulting cargo space to load big stuff in through hatchback.
And speaking of seats… I’ve read persistent complaints that the Bolt has “uncomfortable” seats. All I can say is that the seats feel great to me and are as comfortable as the seats in previous cars I’ve owned like the Acura RSX, Acura Integra, and various Hondas. Maybe the seats don’t work for drivers who are extra tall, extra wide, or extra large? Maybe some people are just pickier about their seats than I am? Maybe it was just the first generation 2017 Bolts with this problem? All I can say is that the seats in my 2019 Bolt Premier are quite comfortable. I recommend you do a test drive to try them out for yourself before buying.
So that’s about it for the review. I love the car and think you ought to test drive a Bolt today. GM is finally beginning to catch up with demand, which means you’ve got a pretty good chance of finding Bolts in stock at the dealers. Last I checked, Classic Chevrolet in Grapevine has around 20 in stock. What follows are my attempts to answer some of the questions I’ve been asked since I got there car.
Don’t you get “range anxiety” with an electric car? – “Range anxiety” is the media’s name for the fear that you’ll run out power while driving. It’s basically the same as the fear you’ll run out of gas and get stuck in a gas-powered car. The short answer is no, I’ve never experienced range anxiety. Prior to my Bolt EV, I drove a 2009 Pontiac G6. With a full tank of gas, I could drive about 300 miles. With my Bolt EV and a full charge, I can drive 238 miles according to the EPA rating, and typically 285 miles or more in the real world (“hyper-milers” have driven Bolt EVs well over 400 miles on a charge but that’s driving at low speeds with no radio, no AC, and other hardships I’m not willing to endure). My daily commute is seldom over 100 miles even on my busiest day running errands all over the Dallas / Fort Worth area. It’s very unlikely that I would ever run out of gas or power in either car; there’s just no difference. If anything, I have less range anxiety with the Bolt because I don’t have to worry about trips to the gas station. I can leave the house every morning with a full battery if I want. On very rare occasions, I travel as far as Austin or Houston and in those cases I may need to “fill up” along the way, which means stopping at a fast-charger for a half-hour while I eat lunch. Again, for me, this isn’t a problem or source of anxiety. If my driving habits were different and I had a commute that was on the edge of my range, like 250 miles, I could see how this might be an issue and I’d recommend getting a car with a greater daily range.
What are the maintenance costs like? An electric car has no gas engine, no oil pump or oil, no spark plugs, no transmission or transmission fluid. There’s no camshaft, no head gaskets, no catalytic converter, no exhaust system, no alternator, no starter, no fuel pump, no timing belt. Think about all the stuff that used to break on your gas car. Most of those components don’t even exist on an electric car. I’ve read that where typical ICE vehicles have over 10,000 moving parts, the average EV only has about 20 moving parts. There are still traditional disc brakes, but they’re really just for backup and you’ll almost never use them due to regenerative braking, so you may never have to replace the brake pads. There are still tires that need rotation and replacement. And you’ll need to top off the wiper fluid and replace wiper blades eventually. There’s also a battery coolant system that will someday need to be flushed and refilled if you keep the car long enough. The Bolt EV’s official maintenance schedule for the first 100,000 miles consists of nothing but tire rotation and changing the cabin air filter. At 150,000 miles you’ll have the first check on the battery coolant and a flush or top off as needed.
But what about the battery, isn’t that super expensive to replace? Yes, it is but it’s covered for 8 years or 100,000 miles. It’s monitored remotely by GM and in the rare case that it suffers unexpected degradation, you’ll likely just get an email asking you to bring it in for a free replacement. That’s very rare but has happened to a few Bolt owners. No one really knows what the full lifespan of auto battery packs will be but there are lots of examples of Bolt EVs and Teslas well into the multi-hundred-thousand mile range with no more than 10% degradation in range. The older Chevy Volts, which have similar battery technology, have reached over 400,000 miles driven with no significant battery degradation. I’d compare it to having to replace the engine in a gasoline car; sure it’s expensive but I’ve never had to do that even once with all the gasoline cars I’ve owned during my lifetime, so I’m not really worried about it.
I’ve read that it’s actually worse for the environment to drive an electric car, is that true? No it’s not true. Even considering the ecological impact of building the car AND of the power generation used over the lifetime of the car (electricity vs oil), AND even if you charge it using electricity generated from coal, the most polluting energy source available, an electric car still produces only half the pollution of a gas car over their respective lifetimes. If you’re in a state with the freedom to choose your electric provider, you likely have one that uses 100% renewable sources like wind or solar and, in that case, you’re doing way better than just half the pollution of a gas car. Plus that difference is increasing fast as the energy density of batteries improves and more of our power generation infrastructure switches to non-polluting sources. If you look closely at the origin of those stories about electric cars harming the environment, you’ll find that many are funded by fossil-fuel proponents with political and economic motivation for pulling the wool over your eyes. It’s a bit like all the reports the tobacco industry used to fund claiming smoking was healthy for you. So consider the source and don’t be fooled by that sort of propaganda! Other studies are well-meaning but flawed. The most common flaw is that they will take into account the costs and CO2 of producing the electricity used by an electric car over its lifetime but forget to do the same for the gas car (i.e. take into account the cost and CO2 of prospecting, drilling, extracting, shipping, refining, and then burning all that oil).
The Bolt EV doesn’t have all the self-driving technology like the Teslas does it? No, it doesn’t but it does have similar underlying sensor technology. It has follow distance sensing with auto-braking, closing distance alarm, lane departure detection and auto-correction, pedestrian sensing with auto-braking, 360 degree imaging in the form of a “drone view” of the car as well as traditional front and rear camera views for parking. It has a video-based rear view mirror, allowing the rear view mirror to work even when your back seat is full of stuff and blocking the view. And it has a lot of other automation like automatically applying the parking brake on inclines and automatically disengaging it if you forget. But it doesn’t do autonomous driving. It’s worth noting that the Teslas in the Bolt EV’s price range can not do autonomous driving either. If you get a Tesla Model 3, adding autopilot for autonomous driving ups the price by $5000 or more. Without autopilot, the Bolt EV actually has more and better automation than the Tesla Model 3 for the same price. But if you want a fully autonomous driving mode, you want the Tesla, not the Bolt.
Doesn’t charging take forever compared to a fill-up at the gas station? That’s the wrong comparison. With a gas car, you have to stand there and monitor the fill up. A better analogy would be your phone. Doesn’t it take you forever to charge your phone, as you stand over the phone waiting for it to finish charging from 0% to 100%? Of course not, that’s silly because you don’t do that. You probably just plug the phone in when you’re not using it, like during the night when you’re sleeping or at your desk while you’re working. Same thing with an electric car. I get home in the evening and it takes just a few seconds to plug it in and that’s it. When I leave in the morning it’s fully charged and ready to go. You can leave every morning with a full “tank” and it doesn’t take more than a few seconds of your time. The one exception is if you’re traveling a long distance and need to stop midway to charge. In this case, it actually is more like filling a gas tank because you’re stuck until it’s ready to go again. It takes about 30 minutes at a fast charger and you’ll add around 90 miles of range. If you plan ahead and time it to coincide with lunch or a rest stop it’s not a big deal. This issue will diminish over time as battery energy density improves. For me it’s no problem now but if it’s a problem for you, wait another year or two for the next generation of EVs that will go 400 miles, 600 miles, or even futher on a charge
Does the car include GPS navigation? No, it includes something better. It interfaces with the GPS navigation on your smartphone via Android Auto (or whatever the equivalent Apple thing is for iPhone users). So you can continue using Google Maps without having to learn a sub-standard auto navigation app that probably doesn’t have up-to-date map data anyway. I wish all cars did this. Android Auto basically puts your phone’s display on the Bolt’s big 10“ touch screen and uses the Bolt’s sound system too. So you can say “Ok, Google, navigate to the nearest Starbucks” or you can use the touch screen to drag the maps around and find what you want. Just make sure you have a good USB cable, Android Auto uses a lot of bandwidth and some cables aren’t up to it.
Why a boring color like white? Cars only come in a limited number of colors these days. I’ve owned two blue cars, three red ones, and a silver one. I’ve always wanted a yellow one but the car I want to buy has never been available in yellow the year I bought it. The Bolt came close with that tennis ball yellow/green “shock” color but it wasn’t close enough to true yellow to suit me. Eliminating all those colors left black and white. Black cars are intolerably hot in the Texas summer. So it was white by default. On the upside, statistically, white cars have the highest resale value and the lowest accident rate of any color.
Is there a spare tire? No, like a growing number of new cars, the Bolt EV includes self-healing / run-flat tires only. There is no spare of any kind. I built my own kit with a donut spare from a Chevy Cruze and a jack from a Chevy Blazer. Works great for me and I like having the backup even though I haven’t needed it so far. If you go the DIY route, just be aware that you’ll need a heavy duty jack from something like a Blazer or some other Chevy truck that can lift the weight of an EV (check the Bolt EV forums to find lists of compatible jacks).
Anything unexpected or surprising about owning a Bolt?
The silence makes ambient sounds like rain and nearby birds more noticeable. It also means people in the parking lot can’t hear you and tend walk right in front of the car, so you have to pay extra attention to pedestrians.
Even though you know the torque and acceleration are amazing compared to ICE vehicles because it’s mentioned in every review, it still takes you by surprise.
Within weeks, the complete absence of emissions makes you strangely aware of the exhaust smell from ICE cars.
Between the huge windshield and all the video, the visibility is amazing, maybe the best of any car I’ve owned since my 1984 Honda CRX.
Free public chargers. I didn’t realize there were free chargers available anywhere when I bought it. Imagine getting a free gallon of gas every time you go the grocery store, the book store, or the coffee shop!
Unlike a Tesla, the Bolt isn’t instantly recognizable as an electric vehicle. Many people mistake the Bolt for a typical compact hatchback. But it’s distinctive and rare enough you’ll still get the occasional “what kind of car is that” questions.
My brother, William Randy Rainwater, died 8 Feb 2019 from complications of Parkinson’s Disease. His death resulted in a lot of reminiscing about him and I thought I’d write down a few memories while they were on my mind.
I grew up in a family with five children. Randy was the oldest and I was youngest, so there was quite an age gap between us. In my early years, I just thought he was another adult who lived in the house. And I think he, as an early teen, didn’t really want to hang out with a pre-schooler, so we barely knew each other. Randy started college in Illinois around the time my family moved to Irving, Texas. I started first grade that year. At the end of Randy’s freshman year, he also moved to Irving and lived at home again while completing his education at UTA in Arlington. My Dad converted our garage into an additional bedroom for Randy, complete with the cheesy fake wood paneling that was popular in the 1970s. In the early days in Irving, my only distinct memories of Randy are from Christmas and other holidays. But by the time I started middle school, Randy and I began to get to know each for the first time. I suppose the age difference seemed less significant as I got older.
I remember being fascinated by, and a little envious of, Randy’s garage bedroom. It was on the other side of the house from my parents’ bedroom and had a lock on the door. The idea of locking the door and keeping the parents at bay while talking to friends on the phone or doing whatever you wanted seemed very utopian to me. Randy’s room was always a mess but it was interesting mess.
One day when I visited his garage room, he had dozens of two foot long wooden dowels and was cutting plastic tubing into little 3 or 4 inch sections. He was going to build a geodesic dome, he said. He was using the plastic tubing to connect dowels together two at time. Then he took three pairs of dowels and put a bolt through the plastic tubes in the center, forming the vertices of the six triangles that make up a hexagon. His plan was to then assemble all the hexagons into a dome. I don’t think he ever got that far though. Eventually all the components vanished from his room (years later I rediscovered the partially assembled dome pieces in our attic).
Another time, there were electronics parts scattered all over the carpeted floor of his room: discrete LEDs in red, yellow, orange, and green, some 7 segment LED numeric displays, ICs, and a 45 degree angle joint of 4 inch PVC pipe. Randy said he was going to build a digital clock and use the pipe joint as the case. He was going to cut a red plastic bezel to fit one of end of the pipe. We sat around on the floor lighting up LEDs with batteries and I was thoroughly fascinated by it all. The clock never got finished and the parts remained lying in piles in his room for several years; a fate that has met many an electronic hobbyist’s project. I shared his interest in electronics; maybe even picked it up from seeing him work on projects like this.
Not all his projects were abandoned but those two stand out for me because I found both particularly fascinating. Randy was also interested in hi-fi audio equipment and built his own three way speakers in hand-made, stained wood cabinets. He used them with his tube amplifier (this was not a retro thing; at that time tube amps were actually the conventional type of high end audio amplifier). He had some sort of DIY 8-Track tape deck that looked like he’d taken a car 8-Track player and bolted it to a piece of wood with a connected 12V power supply. I enjoyed watching it because you could see all the mechanics of the tape head changing tracks as it played. He also had a reel-to-reel tape deck for recording. And he was particularly proud of a new hi-fi stereo cassette recorder deck that was the latest technology.
He had a pair of microphones for the cassette deck and we spent a lot of time playing with it, recording ourselves or other family members doing dumb things, the sort of things kids today would record as video on their phones and post to YouTube. Back then we thought it was funny to hear your own voice on a recording saying stupid things because it was so novel. He was always looking for unusual sounds to record. Once, when we were having plumbing problems and a plumber had dug up the sewer line in the back yard, he stuck the microphone through a vent hole in one of the pipes and had me flush the upstairs toilet a few times. The result sounded like a recording of a roaring tsunami and we had a lot of fun playing it for people and having them guess what it was.
I remember Randy in those years listened to an eclectic assortment of vinyl records: Al Hirt, The Doors, Henry Mancini, The Moody Blues, any record with soundtrack music from spy movies or tv shows. He was a huge fan of “I Spy” as well as the older James Bond and Matt Helm movies. He also listened to an obscure comedic radio program called Chicken Man about an unlikely super-hero. I and occasionally some other friend or family member would join Randy in his garage bedroom to hear the latest weekly adventure of Chicken Man. Many years later, I ran across someone online who had worked at the radio station where Chicken Man was recorded and I was able to buy a complete set of episodes on cassette tapes that I gave to Randy as a birthday gift.
Randy moved to his own home in Irving after he was out of college but I still saw him fairly regularly. He worked for a succession of computer-related companies and by the time I was a Junior in high school, he was working with a company that made custom energy management systems for large buildings. They had a contract to do an energy management system to control HVAC at the Loews Anatole Hotel that was going to be constructed near downtown Dallas. During the summer of (I think) 1978, Randy talked his company into hiring me to help with the project. It was my first real job and I spent most of that summer on the Anatole construction site wire-wrapping relay control boards (wire-wrapping was an older technology that’s an alternative to soldering). I had a growing interest in photography at that time and, thanks to Randy’s help getting that job, I saved enough money over the summer to buy my first camera; the newly released Canon A1 SLR, and a Canon 50mm f/1.4 lens.
Randy then began traveling a lot with the energy management company, to places like San Juan and Germany to work on other hotel energy systems. He stayed for months at a time living in hotels. He mentioned to me on more than one occasion that he thought living in hotels was the perfect lifestyle because his room was always clean when he got home in the evening and someone else took care of cleaning his clothes. I think he would have lived in hotels the rest of his life if that had been an option. He had to leave behind his beloved red Honda Civic CVCC during his travels and he generously allowed me to drive it while he was gone. So I learned to drive a standard thanks to Randy’s red Honda. Every car Randy owned or leased after that little red car was a Honda Civic or Honda Accord. And he always loved telling people about his latest Honda and its gas mileage.
The other thing that came from Randy’s travels was his own interest in photography. He bought an inexpensive Fujica SLR so he could photograph his travels. That gave us a shared interest, and when he came back to Dallas periodically, we would go out on photo expeditions to take time exposures at night or find new locations from which to shoot the Dallas skyline. He also came along with me to photograph model rocket launches with my geeky high school friends. Our father had been interested in photography in his younger days and once we even talked him into coming along with us on a photo outing; one of the only times I remember any sort of outing with dad and both sons. Randy’s interest in photography waned when his next job didn’t require travel but for several years we had some good adventures.
Another thing I remember about Randy is that he would frequently come up with strange phrases and some of them would become “Randyisms” that we heard a dozen times a day for years. For a few years he responded to just about anything you said to him with the phrase “how quaint”. Later it became “what a deal”. Every few years he seemed to replace his stock phrase with a new one.
Once I moved out on my own, I began to see him less often but we’d still get together a couple of times a month for one reason or another. Then, in 1992 when I started my company, NCC, Randy wanted to get in on it and joined the board of directors. He was between jobs, and for a few years, he officed at NCC and we were hanging out together again almost daily. Eventually he moved on to other full-time work.
At some point along the way, Randy realized he was interested in ballet and began taking dance classes, which eventually led to some local dance performances. It also led to him meeting a lot of young, upcoming dancers including, he told us, Brooke Burns. Brooke eventually dropped out of dance due to an injury and tried modeling and acting, where she made the big time as a Baywatch girl. Years later, I was working on a business project with some New York rock-and-rollers and crossed paths with Brooke. Our NY clients were using Las Vegas as a test site for a video networking project we were developing and I was onsite regularly. They had somehow convinced Michael Berk, the creator of Baywatch, to invest in their company. My monthly Vegas trips occasionally involved me hanging out on the fringes of the rich-and-famous crowd with Hollywood and music people. At one such event, where Michael was doing a Baywatch promotion, David Hasselhoff and Brooke Burns turned up. I managed to introduce myself to Brooke and said, “so my brother Randy is always claiming that he knows you from his dance school days in Dallas. Is that true?” She confirmed it, said lots of nice things about Randy, and borrowed my mobile phone to call Randy (he wasn’t home at the time but she left him a long voice mail, which I gather he was very happy about).
Sometime around 2005 or 2006, I don’t recall exactly when, Randy began to notice his hands shaking. It continued for several years and seemed to get worse. Everyone encouraged him to see a doctor but he was afraid of what he’d find out and didn’t want to go. Eventually, as the shaking began to affect his arms and his feet, a business associate insisted he see a doctor. Randy was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease. Because he had waited so long, it was fairly advanced and continued to progress rapidly despite treatment. We later learned he was also suffering from Lewy Body Dementia, which made things worse. He died in February of 2019 and donated his body to UT Southwestern to further research on Parkinson’s Disease and other neural degenerative conditions.