Blog - Quidzel

Back into an i3

I gave my e46 away about 3 years ago, and have been driving an i3 since then, a funky little BMW electric. About 4 months ago, my cheap lease was up, and it went back to BMW. I shared my wife’s car for about 3 months, until she couldn’t stand it and told me to get another car. I’ve pretty much committed to driving an EV, so my options were pretty limited given our budget. I tried a used Nissan Leaf, which I couldn’t get very excited about, thought heavily about the Chevy Bolt EV, which was hard to get a good deal in IL. Well, I’ve been driving BMWs exclusively for a little over a decade, so I’m back in an i3 – this time a fully loaded 2014 that I bought used for a great price.
I’ve been interested in autonomous vehicles over the last 3-4 years as the technology started catching up with the promises. In the fully loaded BMWs, there’s actually a lot of autonomous driver assistance systems for a 2014 car, and I followed the efforts of others trying to enable the Traffic Jam Assistant (TJA) functions. On the X5 forums, several F15 X5 drivers bought the capacitive steering wheel and associated electronics to retrofit their X5s, and were successful. I realized that the LIN bus communication was the missing piece to enable TJA.
So I’ve been sitting with an O-Scope and serial capture interfaces the last month or so to characterize the LIN communication that the car is looking for to indicate an increase in capacitance at the steering wheel, and now have an emulator here that sends those messages such that the TJA functions can be tested before a full retrofit is attempted.

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As some of you might guess, Quidzel is my side gig. I absolutely LOVE LOVE LOVE doing this. I love doing production, debug, development, but most of all, I LOVE getting to talk with customers. Most of the time, there’s not too much need to interact, but when questions or problems arise, I always like those opportunities to help my customers out. I think my favorite memories so far have been turning bad situations into good ones. I’ll sometimes get an email to the effect of ‘It doesn’t work; give me my money back!!’ or something like that. My response tends to go like this: “Hi! I’m Sam! I’m so sorry you are having problems, and I’m here to help or get your refund…” Sometimes, all it takes is some guidance to get things working great; other times I have to send out replacements; and sometimes, I don’t hesitate to offer a return/refund. Where the joy comes in is when I do get it working for someone, sometimes after some effort, and what was initially a hard experience turns into a rewarding experience with the organic referrals that are the best form of marketing. I’ve tried some paid marketing, but have yet to figure out how to make the needle move more than just the organic referrals that people share after finding something that worked for them. When I get an opportunity to share with others what I do outside of work, I sense that joy rising up in that I’ve been able to help others.

If you are ever considering starting a small product manufacturing based ecommerce business (i.e. makerspace -> marketplace), as either a side venture or with the hopes of making it into something larger, I’d love to talk with you and share what has worked for me, and likewise, if you’ve got some suggestions for me on how I can serve you and/or others better, I’d love to hear from you!

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Leasing a new car

I want to share how you can drive a brand new car for less than $100/mo. Two years ago I was eager to buy my first brand new BMW after years of driving e39s and e46s. I had my eyes set on an F80 M3, doing euro delivery, and really making it the experience of a lifetime, but along the way I test drove the BMW i3, a funky looking electric hatchback. It was definitely no M3, but it had the electric punch off the line, CFRP, LED lights – and it was something entirely different. It looked strange to my eyes, but there was something unique about this car that attracted me. I passed on that thought for a while as I tried to weigh whether I should go for the Yas Marina Blue or pay a bit more for the Tanzanite Blue for my M3. But then, I started noticing that the i3 wasn’t selling very well in the fall of 2014. After the early adopters who were all ready committed to EVs had bought it for the first few months of its release, the remainder of these odd cars were languishing on dealers’ backlots. I wasn’t in love with the car, but I figured I could beat a dealer up and take one of these off their hands for a very favorable price. Against the advice of people like Dave Ramsay (who always advocates against leasing) I figured the best way to dip my toes into the EV waters was to try it out on a lease.
I found a dealer who was trying to blow out their remaining ’14s in May of 2015 at $10K off MSRP, to which was added part of the EV tax incentive which was about $4500 at the time. I looked at the numbers, and realized I would not even have to negotiate to get a lease deal of $100/mo. + tax. BMW inflated the residual to 63% for a 24 month lease, which meant that I would pay depreciation of only $700 + interest to drive it for two years.
If you are thinking about buying a new car, you may consider running the numbers using leasing as a financing method rather than purchasing. All you need to really know is the selling price, which is the negotiated price after discounts, the residual (set by the finance co.; nonnegotiable), and the money factor(MF), basically interest. Buying a new car is always a bad investment that depreciates in value, but you are getting intrinsic value of enjoying a new car instead of maintaining your old car. With a lease, you can put the depreciation risk back on the financing company, such that you need not worry about how fast it drops in value while you drive it. At the end of your lease, if the value is less than your residual, give it back, and if it has maintained its value better than your residual, you can capture that value by trading it in, or buy it for your renegotiated residual.
In my case, my BMW i3 (base model) had an msrp including destination of $43,200. The 63% residual took it down to $27,200 after 2 years. When BMW got pinched and I got to drive a new car for two years, was that $10K off, the lease credit of $4500, and a BMWCCA rebate of $1K. BMW also had a multiple security deposit program at the time that reduced the MF, and I rolled in my acquisition fee into the MF. You can see quickly how I was able to get the selling price to an effective $27.7K and I’ve enjoyed my new BMW i3 for the last 2 years for a monthly payment of $92/mo.
Now it is time to return this car and see what is next. The BMW i3 isn’t for everyone, and leaves a few things to be desired. I wish it was bigger overall, had regular tires and regular rear doors. Some of the lines on the exterior are still downright ugly to me. I don’t wish for more range surprisingly. The 22KWH battery (no range extender here) was more than enough for everything I needed to do – with all the push to make 200+ mile EVs, perhaps there’s some deal to be made for me as I can get by with 80 miles.

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For the past 10 years or so, I have been playing around with drones. I have to say this habit started much earlier when as a 5 year old, my dad and I build balsa wood & tissue rubber band airplanes. We progressed towards RC airplanes. We never got too far during my childhood, but the itch to fly was berthed deep within me. My dad and I would travel to airshows to see aircraft flying and static displays I could climb in. I took flying lessons in a Cessna when I was 16, dreaming about becoming an airline pilot, or even better, a fighter jet pilot. But life’s twists and turns caused my aspirations to shift as I moved towards college and career. Once I had my first job, I got back into RC aircraft, actually helicopters. I bought a Blade CX which is a coaxial/cyclical helicopter that was fairly easy to fly around the house. I always thought quad rotors were silly as they didn’t parallel actual human rated aircraft, but my mind was changed when I started flying around a Dromida Ominus about 4 years ago.

With Quidzel, I also have been working on some drone developments looking for business use cases. Recently I got my hands on a DJI Phantom 3, which blew me away with the software capabilities and refinement. I soon was watching videos of a new to market folding drone, the DJI Mavic, and I had to get my hands on it. This thing is incredible, and along with that, I recently picked up the FAA part 107 certification for commercial flying. With the current restrictions on autonomous drone flight and maintaining line of sight to a human operator, I think the use cases may be restricted to photography and other imaging applications. While everyone is picking up real estate photography and drone videos for weddings, I see a better value use case in inspections or even possibly remote manipulation.

I’m currently exploring ideas in the drone space, as I think this market is set to explode. While a lot of commercial drone operators are opting for the DJI Inspire platform, I think the Mavic is actually a better fit for many cases. It is less invasive, both visually and acoustically. Because of the light weight, it will do less damage to itself or other things in the event of a mishap. It has all the latest DJI technologies, including a very robust ISM datalink, forward & downward sensors, and an impressive battery life for this class of aerial platform. Its compact nature allows easy fielding and setup.

I have really felt bad for the GoPro Karma. They released their drone a week before the Mavic, and they were first to market with a practical folding design, built in display, and an intuitive removable gimbal for their product line. But the Mavic came out at 1/4 the folded size, and revealed GoPro’s failures to stay close to DJI in terms of technology. Initial reviews have panned the Karma for lack of downward sonar/cameras that can keep the drone perfectly still, the short flight times, noisy operation, and basically antiquated drone technology. I hope that GoPro can stick with it and release a 2.0 that builds on the failures of Karma 1.0, otherwise DJI will continue to dominate the prosumer drone market. I feel that GoPro is best positioned to effectively provide meaningful US-based competition for DJI, but for now, DJI has nearly the whole market around its pinky finger.

So, where does this leave me? I’m exploring new business cases that either involve software, hardware, or even just local aerial imaging/inspection services in the Chicagoland & Midwest. On the software front, DJI has an SDK that allows 3rd parties to build on top of their platforms. I’ve downloaded the SDK and I’m considering building some software that leverages the sensors to provide a dimensioned grid overlay to the video stream to enable measurement of findings, for drone based inspections. This allows repeatable measurements over time to track the status of a defect or other dynamic finding (plant growth, for another example). Automated image capture and automated flight control has some interesting possibilities as well. For example, I can develop 3 dimensional structural models with detailed imagery – i.e. fly 2m from a planar surface at 1 m/s, take image every 2 meters to create model that has a very fine visual granularity. I would process the images to eliminate known distortions, stitch together, etc to complete the model.

And what about the aux inputs? I’ve been exploring a transition here for a while. When I had a 1999 e46, it was my own problem I wanted to solve. But now I have kids and a newer car that has all these features now. I was always hoping to get a bluetooth device to market, but I kept running into challenges there. Right now, I haven’t spent a lot of time developing the business, but produce inventory, process orders, and handle customer service needs. I love helping people out, and see a future for this specific business. I think Quidzel’s aux input business needs to focus on the CD changer emulators for an expanded # of makes. There’s a lot of CD changer emulators out there for various makes, but I still like the intuitive/simple/low cost approach that Quidzel’s hardware offers. The fact is that I know and can support this for my customers vs. some place that doesn’t know what’s inside the box. I’d like to build a USB interface on it, allowing for remote end user firmware updates (current method is mailing reprogrammed modules around). There’s other functions that this device could do in terms of providing a simple USB interface to a number of 1 wire serial busses used on cars.

Anyways, I’m interested in your feedback, and thanks for reading my thoughts!

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I don’t often share personal details here, but I figured as long as people are coming here, whether to buy an aux input kit for their BMW or to check on the bluetooth module status, I’ll give some personal background. As some of you know, I’m pretty passionate about the BMW brand, but it didn’t start out that way. When I was growing up, this guy whose brother was my age always had beater BMWs and loved them, specifically some of the 6 series shark nose cars from the 80’s (which now are classics!), but I wasn’t too thrilled with them at the time. I always thought the 80’s BMWs were stodgy and underpowered from my experiences with my buddy. That all changed in the early 2000s in college, when another buddy showed me the e39 M5.

From that day I was hooked – I was going to get my hands on a BMW when I graduated engineering school. After college, I got myself a ’97 528i in Aspen silver, manual transmission, and rebuilt title. But I loved the car – in spite of overheating adventures, it led me to an ’01 530i sport, then finally I got my hands on an ’02 M5. I had all the add ons I could get including MK4 nav, BMW Bluetooth ULF (phone only), and the Intravee/Alpine iPod integration. Even with this, the integration wasn’t that great, and I started playing around with whether I could do something better myself in about 2011.
I started playing around with small microcontroller boards (Arduino) and got a basic CD changer emulator functioning using the great resources available from those who went before, and a lot of hard work. The goal was and is to have bluetooth integration, but along the way, I figured I’d try to sell a productionized CD changer emulator to help those of you who don’t have an aux input. I figured I’d sell a few, and it would be a stepping stone to offering the bluetooth integration. Mind you, Quidzel was (and is currently) a side project that I did in my free time before kids – my day job was as an EE in aerospace R&D. So the aux input started selling more than I thought it would, and I was hopeful that this was my big step into entrepreneurship, something that I’ve always dreamed about. I took some time off work, and focused on this for a few months. During this season, my wife and I were blessed with twin boys, which slowed development down a lot. I went back to work as selling aux inputs for BMWs doesn’t exactly replace an engineering salary, which slowed things down more. Most of the development work I’ve done happened before April. Since then, working full time, buying a new house, and we have a 3rd addition to our family hasn’t helped things. I also had sold my M5, bought an e46, and then I recently got a BMW i3, which actually has pretty good bluetooth integration.

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DSP availability

We have sent out a prototype DSP bluetooth adapter to a customer right now, and we are excited about the possibility of releasing a DSP capable adapter in the next couple weeks. For those of you with e39, e38, and e53s that previously have struggled with DSP system compatibility, we think this will be a great product for you as you can now maintain a digital stream from your phone to your amplifier. No more converters going between analog and digital. Our aux input product wasn’t a great solution for those with DSP because it was strictly analog, and I know that a few of you have been holding out hope that we would get something out there for you guys.

Your patience is about to be rewarded!

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Bluetooth October Update

Hey Everyone! We’ve gotten so many messages asking about our bluetooth kit, and I want to personally apologize that we’ve been so delayed on getting that back in stock. Earlier this year, we started selling a streaming audio Bluetooth module for e46 that was working pretty well, but we did have several issues with it. On some installs, we had some ground loop noise on the audio lines (Bad!), and of course, we felt that we were missing the basic phone feature expected of a bluetooth application. We planned for a redesign of the board to include a new amplifier circuit that would help eliminate any noise issues, and of course a functional microphone circuit. The goal has been to have a GREAT bluetooth adapter and nothing more – we didn’t feel super motivated to try to be the jack of all trades with USB/iPod/etc, we just wanted great and simple bluetooth.

Well, that was about 6 months ago. We moved our offices and shop, ran out of existing streaming only stock, and were busy with a contract consulting project which has really been eating up our staff’s time. I’m personally going to be pushing this project more, because I’m convinced that this is really needed. I’m so sorry that we’ve had to make you wait, when I’m so excited to be sharing our module with you.

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As several of you are aware, we are developing new Bluetooth hardware to add a functional microphone circuit, DSP capability, and an isolating amplifier to cut ground loop noise in the audio ground. We thought that the old board’s mic circuit wasn’t functioning right, so we’ve never sold the HFP capability. I have wanted to use the OEM mic location and wiring to the moonroof switch area, but it’s a 3 wire connection, of which I was trying to get working with 2 wires, Mic + & -. We were getting clicking/popping noises out of the microphone, so we assumed that there was something wrong with the bias circuit or ground, and went down that track trying to solve some issues there we thought were contributing to the noise. We got the new hardware back about a week ago, and have been doing some testing and I was initially disappointed to be getting similar performance with popping. On a whim, I connected the third wire (identified as a shield ground on BMW’s schematics) to the ground on the existing board, and all of a sudden the popping noises were 90% gone – I guess that circuit really needs that shielding. It looks like the bias circuit on the existing hardware isn’t the major issue, although I like the new bias circuit a bit better.

There’s always improvements that can be made to this board, as it is a much more complex and expensive adapter than our aux input CD changer emulator board. We have some adjustments to the cap values for the isolating amplifier so we don’t get as much of a high pass frequency response, some changes we need to make the board more producible, and firmware changes to accommodate a much better microcontroller. For those of you who’ve bought (or are interested in buying) the existing current bluetooth modules, we may be able to offer a reprogram service to provide some basic HFP support, although the circuit might be a little rough, and we can’t guarantee great voice quality. We’d like to get the hardware to a point where we CAN deliver very good HFP support.

We know many of you have asked us me for updates on the HFP capable modules, and I’ll let you know that we do need to make some changes to the circuit board which may take a couple more weeks depending on our work load here. We want to get it right for you guys!

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BMW’s DSP system has thrown a wrench into many upgrade plans. While state of the art, perhaps for the time it was introduced, it complicated the aftermarket because instead of easy analog inputs on the CD changer connections, we have a digital signal directly from the CD changer to the amplifier via a SMB connection on a 50ohm cable. The aftermarket has provided some A/D converters specific to this purpose. I’ve always had the intention of playing around with the DSP system to see if we can help you DSP guys out a little better than what’s out there. What is cool is we are working on a hardware revision for our Bluetooth Adapter, and I realized that we can keep a digital stream all the way through the system. No need to convert to analog and then back to digital for the amplifier. I noticed that our BMW CD changer output is 4x oversampled, which helps during the analog reconstruction. According to the Nyquist theorem, we have to sample at twice the highest frequency we want to reproduce, which for a human ear is roughly 20KHz, meaning that CDs contain a sample rate of 44.1KHz. However, aliasing occurs at every 44KHz, so we have to use low pass analog filters after the DSP amplifier’s DAC to cut the aliasing. However these low pass filters have a phase response which distorts the music, and by using 4x upsampling (perhaps one valid sample and 3 zeros), our aliased images now occur every 176KHz, making it easier to build a low pass filter that will not introduce phase distortion. What I need to find out is whether the DSP amplifier always expects 176KHz samples or can deal with 44.1KHz samples. Some people have had success giving the DSP amplifier any sample rate 44.1KHz or higher, specifically 48KHz – a common sampling rate these days, but mentioned that the music through the 48KHz converter never sounded as good as the CD audio from the changer. Whether it was because of the multiple conversions D -> A -> D(48KHz) -> A, the sampling rate or perhaps the DSP amplifier analog reconstruction filters don’t attenuate aliased images below 176KHz very well, I’d like to know so we can get something working great for you. If you have any insights into this, let me know. And for those DSP customers who cannot use our aux input kit right now, we are working to see if we can put together a better converter for you as well.

We also want to mention that if you need help with your aux input kit, please email us and we will help you out.

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What a great March!

Thanks to all of you, March 2015 turned out to be our best month yet as we shipped to more people than ever before! We are super excited about how many people we’ve been able to serve with our aux input kit. Our aux input kit is the simplest and cheapest way to get your phone connected to your pre 2003 radio, and if you’ve purchased our aux, please submit your review here. We also saw great interest in our bluetooth module, and we are excited to finally share what was our original dream (great Bluetooth integration). I believe that as we continue to develop this product, it is going to really serve a lot of people. I don’t really care about USB, and hardwired iPod integration is so 2009. But Bluetooth is such a requirement for cars these days, as all of our music is in our pocket and can stay there with great Bluetooth integration.
So thanks again for allowing us to serve you! I hope your April is great, and I’m thinking ours will be too!

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