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EVs Shouldn’t Hide So Much Data From Drivers

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The Dumbing Down (& Elimination) Of Gauge Clusters

If you’re like my son, who recently got his learner’s permit, the first car you drive will be an EV. Unless it’s something really cool, like an EV conversion of a classic car with a manual, it’s going to be very, very simple to operate. The skinny pedal makes it go, the wide pedal makes it stop, and there’s only park, drive, neutral, and reverse to select from. The gauge cluster (or, in a Model 3/Y, the top-left corner of the center screen) will probably have a speedometer and a battery percentage, and not much else.

If you’re much older than my son, you’re probably accustomed to a much more complex experience. In an automatic, there’s not just P, R, N, and D, but probably a number of other options like 4, 3, 2, and 1, or maybe something like L. In a hybrid, there might be a B mode to get more regen and/or engine braking for steep downhill driving without frying your brakes. The gauge cluster not only shows your speed, but often shows the engine’s speed, the engine coolant temperature, the oil pressure, the battery voltage, and the fuel level (sometimes for multiple tanks). Other gauges, like transmission fluid temperature or turbo boost, come from the factory on some cars and are commonly added with aftermarket parts.

Like EVs, there are often at least small screens in the gauge clusters of ICE vehicles these days, but they usually show things like tire pressure, ADAS status, compass heading, exterior temperature, efficiency readouts, and other less pressing data.

For many drivers, the sad truth is that everything but the speedometer and gas gauge gets ignored. Heck, ask any highway patrolman or roadside assistance guy, and they’ll have endless stories proving that those two gauges are likewise often ignored. For this reason, manufacturers started adding “idiot lights” to the gauges and audible warnings when any of the gauges’ readings weren’t nominal. An overheating engine, low oil pressure, and even low fuel will trigger an additional warning to the driver so they can address it (hopefully).

Going back to EVs, popular Tesla Twitter thinking is that there’s just not much you need to know about an EVs’ inner workings. Instead of hundreds of moving parts, there are just a few. Instead of up to ten forward gears, there’s often just one. If anything serious is wrong, the car’s computer will let you know, but what’s to go wrong with an EV?

With fewer things to go wrong, the thinking goes, it makes sense to simplify and even eliminate the gauge cluster entirely. In Tesla’s case, they wanted cleaner aesthetics. For many other manufacturers, the gauge cluster now has things like navigation, music, and other things taking up the screen real estate, because those are things the average driver still finds useful.

This Doesn’t Mean EVs Are Maintenance-Free

It’s true that an electric drive unit is much simpler than an ICE engine and transmission, but that’s not the entire story. If you look at the whole vehicle, there’s still a fair amount of complexity, and by extension a number of things that can still go wrong (and do). For example, cooling systems for the motor, inverter, charger, and battery pack for EVs are often more complex than those of ICE vehicles.

For example, you can watch this 32-minute video that goes through the entire Chevy Bolt cooling system:

Having worked on older cars, I was initially pretty frightened by this complexity. Instead of two hoses that could fail, there are now almost a dozen coolant hoses, three tanks, and an active shutter that opens up air for the radiator (at the temporary expense of aerodynamic efficiency). That’s a lot of stuff that can go wrong!

But, having worked on and owned newer vehicles, I’m not that worried. Radiator hose quality has increased drastically in the last couple of decades, to the point where many vehicles sit in the junkyard after a long life with the original belts and hoses. Instead of needing to replace them every 4 years or so, radiator hose replacement has become very uncommon. EVs do generate heat, but a lot less heat than an ICE powerplant, so there’s a lot less strain on the cooling system components, too.

That having been said, the point still stands that there are still things you need to watch out for in an EV, especially as they age. You’ll need to regularly inspect things under the hood and watch for premature failures. Unusual noises and shakes should be investigated. Tires should be rotated.

In normal circumstances, you’re probably not going to need to check the gauges in an EV. The computer is watching dozens of different sensor inputs and will give you an error or adjust things to keep it all running.

Not All Circumstances Are Normal

There are still situations where access to that data is good, though. When things break, when you’re doing something unusual with the EV, and when you’re just curious, access to more data can be very useful.

First, let’s talk about when things break. The average driver who doesn’t watch Weber Auto or Munro Live (or read CleanTechnica) will find out when the car acts weird or the vehicle’s computer lets them know there’s a problem. But, if you are a power user and understand the vehicle more, you could catch problems before they get to the point where they throw a trouble code or break down.

Even when things break, it seems like unusual circumstances are more and more common these days. Record heat waves, crazy winter storms, and many other circumstances make life unusually hard for something like an EV cooling system. Auto manufacturers (with the notable exception of the Nissan LEAF) have extreme conditions in mind and test their vehicles in the heat to prevent problems, but keeping an eye on things like battery temperature can help you to head problems off early in extreme conditions by slowing down or taking breaks.

This is especially true if you’re doing something to put unusual strain on your vehicle doing something like towing or climbing abnormally steep hills. For example, the climb from Phoenix to Flagstaff on the hottest summer days can put a LOT of strain on an unloaded vehicle, so taking it easy and slowing it down a bit can keep the gauge from getting into the red (if you had one).

Enthusiasts do tend to have access to this data. You can get to most or all of it through aftermarket apps, OBD-II Bluetooth dongles, and with professional scan tools. There are even special apps tailored to certain vehicles, like Leaf Spy Pro, or MyGreenVolt. I’ve been using Torque Pro to watch certain parameters on my Bolt EUV.

A screenshot of Torque Pro, gathering four data points from my Bolt EUV.

The only problem is that I don’t know how to fully interpret all of this information. I know that the transmission fluid temperature shouldn’t go above 220 degrees Fahrenheit, and the Bolt never goes much above 180 in normal highway driving in the heat. Batteries aren’t happy over 100 degrees, so I know spiking over 110–115°F is bad news. But, I have no idea what a safe range of electric motor temperatures is.

None of my fellow tinkerers on Bolt forums or Reddit seem to know at what point the numbers are too high/low and at what point the computer would generate a trouble code. GM won’t even respond to the email about it, and this isn’t the first time they’ve ignored deeper technical questions, so it seems that they don’t want to talk about it.

Manufacturers Should Make This A Little Easier

I understand that they don’t want to take up default screen real estate or bother the average non-technical driver with all of the data that they’d just either ignore or needlessly worry about. But there should at least be some easier access to additional data for power users and nerds to look at.

The easiest way to do this would be to provide access to additional gauges in the vehicle settings. They can even include a disclaimer saying they don’t accept questions about the gauges if they want, and advise non-technical drivers to not worry about the gauges because the vehicle’s computer has their back. The gauges should probably have red zones so drivers can know what’s unusual.

If they don’t want to provide direct access to the gauges, they should at least provide information on what’s normal and what’s unusual for things like transmission fluid temperature, coolant temperatures, and cell voltages for those of us who are nerdy enough to get into the data ourselves. We’re going to get into this data whether they like it or not, so giving us a tiny bit of guidance would be better than leaving us feeling like we’re in the dark.

Not only would this help us nerds messing with newer cars, but it would help future owners keep them on the road and running right later as these vehicles age. The right to repair is worthless without the data needed to do it.

Images by Jennifer Sensiba.

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Written By

Jennifer Sensiba is a long time efficient vehicle enthusiast, writer, and photographer. She grew up around a transmission shop, and has been experimenting with vehicle efficiency since she was 16 and drove a Pontiac Fiero. She likes to get off the beaten path in her "Bolt EAV" and any other EVs she can get behind the wheel or handlebars of with her wife and kids. You can find her on Twitter here, Facebook here, and YouTube here.


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