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Somebody KERS!

February 14th, 2010 Comments off

Last August, I posed the question, “Who KERS?” in regards to the limited success of the Kinetic Energy Recovery System employed in the 2009 Formula 1 season, and the elimination of the system for 2010.  Well, it turns out that at least one of the systems developed by an F1 team will in fact live on.

As recently described by AutoBlogGreen, Porsche is utilizing the Williams-developed flywheel-based energy storage system in its 911 GT3 R Hybrid.  The 911 GT3 R is the race version of Porsche’s bread-and-butter 911.  The hybrid system leaves the conventional 480-hp flat-6 powering the rear wheels untouched, while adding a pair of 80-hp electric motors to each of the front wheels.

Porsche 911 GT3 R Hybrid

Porsche has always done things a little differently than other automakers, at least with respect to the 911.  Instead of competing in the horsepower wars using 8-, 10- and 12-cylinder engines with massive displacement, they’ve continually developed their horizontally opposed 6-cylinder combined with lightweight (and often exotic) materials to maintain their competitive edge.  Until just over a decade ago, this engine was still air-cooled, in contrast to literally every other automaker’s water-cooled powerplants.  And even now, in a triumph of engineering over physics, Porsche still hangs the motor way out back behind the rear axle.  So it comes as no surprise that they’ve taken the less-traveled path of using a flywheel (instead of a battery) to recovery the energy from braking.

In the simplest terms, the system works by the front-axle motors acting as generators to convert the kinetic energy of the spinning wheels to electrical energy under braking.  The electrical energy is then converted back to kinetic energy at the flywheel (which is essentially another electric motor), as it spins at speeds up to 40,000 rpm.  Under acceleration, the flywheel then acts as a generator, converting the kinetic energy of its spinning mass to electricity, which is routed to the front-wheel motors, where it is converted back to kinetic energy to help power the wheels. (One thing I’ve often wondered in systems like this is – why all the conversions? You want kinetic energy to move the car, and with a flywheel you’ve got a kinetic energy storage system.  Seems like there’d be fewer conversion losses if you could skip the electro-part of the electro-mechanical system, and just connect the flywheel to the drive system by an intelligently activated clutch or viscous coupling.  I’m sure the hybrid system designers out there could give me countless reasons why this wouldn’t work, however.)

And finally, am I a hypocrite because I like this car so much more than the BMW X6 ActiveHybrid, which I criticized here?  Of course not.  BMW has taken a conventional fuel-efficient technology and applied it to a mass-market car solely for performance purposes, with almost no efficiency benefit.  (Plus, the X6 is ugly.)  Porsche, on the other hand, has taken an unproven fuel-efficient technology, and applied it to a limited production race-car as sort of a rolling laboratory to spear-head the development of this new technology, before potentially applying it to its road-going cars.

And although I (like many others) question the feasibility of flywheels as the energy storage solution for mass-market hybrid vehicles, people also once criticized the throwing-a-dart-backwards handling characteristics of the rear-engined 911.  And by most measures, Porsche has been successful with that effort…

High-Dollar Hybrid

January 24th, 2010 Comments off
A few days ago, I found myself driving around Phoenix in Mercedes’ new S400 Hybrid.  (Indeed, I found myself behind the wheel of a large automobile.  …Wow, that’s funny stuff.)  The S400 is “the big Merc”, and the folks at Daimler have created a hybridized version to propel it while still maintaining somewhat sane levels of fuel efficiency.
So, what do you get when you buy a $90,000 hybrid?  Well, if it’s the Merc, you get luxury.  You get rich leather seats that are firm (it is German, after all) and that can contort your body in ways it was never meant to bend.  You get a consolidated multimedia interface (Mercedes calls it XXXX) that controls everything imaginable, from the stereo, A/C, and navigation system, to blue-tooth connectivity, rear-window sunshade, and ambient lighting color.  It was fairly intuitive, and I was able to figure out most features within a few minutes.  You also get that vault-like feeling of solidity that the Germans do so well.  (Jeremy Clarkson would say it feels as if it was carved from a single block of aluminum.)  And you get acres of leg-room in the rear – perhaps because that’s where some owners may sit when chauferred around.
And how is it to drive?  Again, “solid” and “luxury” are the words that come to mind.  With the suspension in the “normal” setting the ride is Buick-soft, and pot-holes pass by with hardly a thump.  Put the suspension in “sport” mode, however, and the dampers firm up significantly.  It’s still a big, heavy car, but driving is more rewarding in this setting – the ride is only slightly compromised while body roll in the turns is reduced substantially.  The steering is weighted just slightly on the heavy side – which is a good thing in my book.  The braking, while firm, feels a bit artificial – probably a result of the hybrid drivetrain.
Ah yes, I almost forgot – it’s a hybrid!  Well, it’s a mild-hybrid.  The XXX hp, V6 engine does all of the work most of the time.  The Li-ion battery – the first ever in a production hybrid from a major OEM – spends most of its time being rechared during idling, braking, and coasting events.  (The artificial braking feel likely comes from the fact that the load of the generator charging the battery is additive to the actual braking system.  There’s a little “sticky” feel when releasing the brakes, probably due to the delay of the regen turning off.)  Under normal driving and acceleration, the electric motor doesn’t really participate.  But mash the pedal to the floor, and watch the the energy flow on the dash-mounted screen as the battery discharges and the electric motor complements the engine in moving this XXXX lb car 0-60 mph in X.X seconds.  While quick for a car this size, the performance certainly isn’t blistering.  However, the system – which also turns the engine off while sitting at stop lights – achieves XX mpg in the city and XX mpg on the highway, a XX% improvement over the regular S400.  (Unlike what BMW did with the X6 hybrid, Merc’s goal was to improve fuel economy without sacrificing performance.  Plus, the Merc is actually appealing to look at.)
Really, the only thing that alerts the driver to the fact that this is a hybrid is the tach needle that drops to zero when the car stops moving, and the slight shudder of the engine when it restarts – an event that happens when the brake is released.  Admittedly, this shudder is probably only noticeable because the Mercedes V6 is so perfectly balanced and silky smooth otherwise.

A few days ago, I found myself driving around Phoenix in Mercedes’ new S400 BlueHybrid.  (Indeed, I found myself behind the wheel of a large automobile.  …Wow, that’s funny stuff!…)  The S-class is “the big Merc” (well, excluding their SUVs), and the folks at Daimler have created a hybridized version to propel it while still maintaining somewhat sane levels of fuel efficiency.

So, what do you get when you buy a $90,000 hybrid?  Well, if it’s the Merc, you get luxury.  You get lots of burled walnut, and rich leather seats that are firm (it is German, after all) and that can contort your body in ways it was never meant to bend.  You get a consolidated multimedia interface with an 8″ screen (Mercedes calls it the COMAND system) that controls everything imaginable, from the stereo, A/C, and navigation system, to blue-tooth connectivity, rear-window sunshade, and ambient lighting color.  The system is reasonably intuitive, and I was able to figure out most features within a few minutes.  You also get that vault-like feeling of solidity that the Germans do so well.  (Jeremy Clarkson would say it feels as if it was carved from a single block of aluminum.)  And you get acres of leg-room in the rear – perhaps because that’s where some owners may sit when chauferred around.

And how is it to drive?  Again, “solid” and “luxury” are the words that come to mind.  With the suspension in the “normal” setting the ride is Buick-soft, and pot-holes pass by with hardly a thump.  Put the suspension in “sport” mode, however, and the dampers firm up significantly.  It’s still a big, heavy car, but driving is more rewarding in this setting – the ride is only slightly compromised while body roll in the turns is reduced substantially.  The steering is weighted just slightly on the heavy side – which is a good thing in my book.  The braking, while firm, feels a bit artificial – probably a result of the hybrid drivetrain.

2010 Mercedes Benz S400 BlueHybrid

2010 Mercedes Benz S400 BlueHybrid

Ah yes, I almost forgot – it’s a hybrid! Well, it’s basically a mild-hybrid, but with some drive assist.  The 275 hp, 3.5 liter V6 engine does all of the work most of the time.  The Li-ion battery – the first ever in a production hybrid from a major OEM – spends most of its time being rechared during idling, braking, and coasting events.  (The artificial braking feel likely comes from the fact that the load of the generator charging the battery is additive to the actual braking system.  There’s a bit of a “sticky” sensation when releasing the brakes, probably due to the delay of the regen turning off.)  Under normal driving and acceleration, the electric motor doesn’t really participate.  But mash the pedal to the floor, and watch the the energy flow reverse directions on the dash-mounted screen as the battery discharges and the electric motor complements the engine in moving this more-than-2-ton car 0-60 mph in 7.2 seconds.  While reasonably quick for a car this size, the performance certainly isn’t blistering.  However, the system – which also turns the engine off while sitting at stop lights – achieves 19 mpg in the city and 26 mpg on the highway, a 26% improvement over the conventional S550, which uses a 382 hp, 5.5 liter V8 to propel it to 60 mph nearly 2 seconds quicker than the hybrid.  (Unlike what BMW did with the X6 hybrid, Merc’s goal was to improve fuel economy without sacrificing performance.  Plus, the Merc is actually appealing to look at.)

Really, the only thing that alerts the driver to the fact that this is a hybrid is the tach needle that drops to zero when the car stops moving, and the slight shudder of the engine when it restarts – an event that happens when the brake is released.  Admittedly, this vibration is probably only noticeable because the Mercedes V6 is so perfectly balanced and silky smooth otherwise.  Nonetheless, it’s worth mentioning.

In hybrid terms, the car doesn’t really do anything that other, cheaper hybrids don’t.  So what good is its Li-ion battery pack?  Well, it’s a lot smaller than the NiMH batteries used in every other conventional hybrid (although its capacity is about the same), so passenger and cargo space is completely unaffected.  (Same as it ever was…  Same as it ever was…)  But it does represent another step in Lithium-ion technology moving into the mass-market.

Stay-tuned!  If all goes as planned, I’ll be test-driving a much more radical and exciting alternative vehicle in the next few weeks.  One might say it’s an opportunity that comes once in a lifetime!

Missing the Point

January 7th, 2010 Comments off

The fuel-economy of our nation’s light-duty vehicle fleet has been roughly stagnant for the past three decades, following a significant (but unsustained) improvement just after the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) rules were enacted in 1975.  And although our cars’ fuel-economy hasn’t really improved, their efficiency certainly has.  We’re certainly moving around a lot more mass, a lot faster, on the same amount of fuel (per car) we were using 30 years ago. The problem is, all this technology packed into our automobiles has been engineered almost entirely to give us more performance (a 1980 Honda Accord had less than 80 hp; today’s base-model is approaching 200) and move us around in a lot more luxury (with a resulting heft of 3200 lbs for today’s Accord, a gain of a half-ton over the 1980 version) than we ever thought possible, at the complete expense of fuel-economy.  (I know, it’s a result of market demand…  But the best marketers are experts at selling us what we don’t need.)

These days, hybrid technology seems to be the solution to significant increases in fuel-economy, as it becomes ever more difficult to squeeze further efficiency improvements from conventional powertrains.  But BMW has taken a different tack with their ActiveHybrid X6.  Touted as “the world’s most powerful hybrid,” BMW starts with a 4.4-liter, 400 hp V8 internal combustion engine – which, until recent years, would have been enough of a beast to power anything but vehicles of near-supercar status – and integrates it with not one, but TWO electric motors totaling an additional 174 hp.  And sure, the combined 574 horses will be enough to provide incredible acceleration in this nearly 3-ton mammoth, but … what’s the point?

2010 BMW X6 ActiveHybrid

2010 BMW X6 ActiveHybrid

The X6 ActiveHybrid starts at a base price of nearly $90k.  At that price-level, you could almost have a Tesla Roadster, or one of the other upcoming EVs or PHEVs with phenomenal performance and actual environmental benefits.  Granted, the X6 will carry a little more gear than a Roadster.  But, it’s ugly – no matter what powertrain is under the skin.  The X6 looks like the answer to a question that nobody asked.  And while I’m sure it, like all BMWs, offers a driving experience more exhilarating than the majority of other cars on the road, I can’t help but think of it as a caricature of a Honda CRX.

I hope automakers don’t repeat the trend of the past 3 decades, by following BMW’s example of continuing to utilize efficiency-improving technology to increase performance while sacrificing potential fuel-economy benefits. Fortunately, due to the recent and long-overdue increase in CAFE standards, this trend may be thwarted.  At least, as it was in the 1980s, temporarily.

Electric Eye Candy

December 16th, 2009 Comments off

A decade ago, Toyota showed us that transportation could be efficient but boring when they introduced the first generation Prius.  A few years ago, Tesla wowed the world (well, at least the automotive world – or rather, the green-sports-car-world) with its Roadster, showing that fast can be efficient and sexy all at once.  Then came Fisker‘s Karma.  And others…

Mercedes Benz SLS AMG

Mercedes Benz SLS AMG

At this point, high-end, electrified sports cars are popping up as frequently as Tiger Woods’ mistresses.  Two recently caught my eye.  (Cars, not mistresses…)  The first is the Mercedes Benz SLS AMG.  Now, the SLS isn’t a built-from-scratch EV supercar.  This homage to the classic 300SL comes with a 6.2-liter, 563 hp V8 providing the motivation for sub-4-second acceleration to 60 mph.  But, Daimler’s Chairman of the Board Dieter Zetsche says “As of 2013, it will be available with an electric-only driveline.”  Unfortunately, details are sparse.  But given the gasoline version will probably cost around $200,000, there’s plenty of financial opportunity to install a very capable electron-based drivetrain in a couple years.

The other car that caught my attention is a new car (the Motion) from a new car company (Kepler Motors, presumably named for German mathematician Johannes Kepler, for a reason I don’t know, although I did once visit Tübingen, Germany – the town of Kepler’s alma mater – and had some really good spätzle).  The Motion – a parallel through-the-road hybrid – utilizes Ford‘s new EcoBoost engine (which I described here), tuned to 550 hp and attached to the rear wheels, while a 250 hp electric motor provides motive force at the front end, adding up to new levels of ridiculosity.  It’s good-looking, exclusive, and undoubtedly fast, but I keep thinking:  All these new companies keep showing us what they can do with electrified drivetrains – now, show us what you can do with a $20k – $40k price point.

A Battery of Questions

November 24th, 2009 Comments off

cell photoI often think I know more about things than I really do. And one thing I think I know a lot about is batteries – the kind that goes in your Prius, and the kind that will go in your Volt.  As most car-folks know, the battery industry is currently transitioning from nickel-metal-hydride (NiMH) batteries (i.e., what’s in your Prius) to lithium-ion (Li-ion; i.e., what’s in your Volt.  Or Leaf.  Or Tesla.).  And, it turns out, a battery isn’t just a battery – different types of batteries require significantly different control mechanisms to manage how much and how quickly they are charged and discharged, and how they behave while in operation, so that lifetime, safety, and performance are maximized.

But it’s even more complicated than that.  There are dozens of different Li-ion battery chemistries.  Every battery manufacturer has their own idea of the right combination of chemistry and manufacturing process that will result in the winning formula.  But each of these batteries has very unique characteristics that require very specific controls once it’s embedded in an automobile.  Auto manufacturers, on the other hand, would like to be chemistry-agnostic.  (They just want a battery that meets their requirements.)  But, given that the battery dictates the control software, it’s not so easy for a car maker to just pick a battery off the shelf.  Substantial development effort must take place between the auto maker and the battery maker, so that the car and the battery work together as a system.  (Just look at all the effort that has gone into the Volt’s development, in conjunction with Compact Power / LG Chem.)  Once a vehicle has been developed with a particular battery in place, changing battery suppliers would be a major hurdle.  As a result, there have been a lot of joint-ventures formed between auto manufacturers and battery companies, effectively tying their efforts together.

In the end, we’ll likely see each electrified automobile maker tied to one particular type of battery.  But there’s also the issue of standardization in the industry.  I wonder, if each auto/battery manufacturer takes a different path, will this complicate standardization?  How will this effect business models like Better Place – will their entire infrastructure be wedded to one type of battery and one manufacturer?

Whole Systems Thinking

October 23rd, 2009 Comments off

It’s an interesting time in the auto industry, as numerous startups emerge to challenge the traditional manufacturers that have been struggling lately.  The problem with start-up companies, though, is that as a rule most of them fail.

But there are a few bright spots on the automotive horizon.  One such company is Bright Automotive.  And what’s their big idea?  Well, it’s called the IDEA.  (AutoblogGreen got to drive a prototype recently.  Check out their review here.)  The IDEA is a perfect example of what happens when brilliant minds come together to create a vehicle that is optimized as a complete system – not just an incremental improvement on an existing platform.  It’s basically a panel van – think FedEx.  Or the cable company.  Or the phone company.  Or any company that has to haul stuff places. It’s a plug-in hybrid, utilizing a “through-the-pavement” parallel hybrid architecture (the electric motor drives the rear wheels, while the internal combustion engine motivates the front).  And it’s got a 30 40 mile all-electric range before the gas engine is pressed into service.

Bright IDEA

Bright IDEA

So, it’s just another PHEV, but shaped like a delivery van, right?  Where’s the whole systems thinking come in?  Well, it’s SLEEK.  Aerodynamically, it’s much more efficient than any other vehicle with which it competes.  And it’s LIGHT.  It weighs a few hundred pounds less than the new BMW 1-series.  And it’s SMART.  The passenger seat transforms into a fully functional desk area.  The rear and side doors are optimally sized and shaped for their intended purpose.  The folks at Bright incorporated feedback from fleet owners into the design of the vehicle to make everything work as a system, rather than relying on aftermarket add-ons to make the vehicle usable.  All the components work together to increase efficiency and functionality – the design of one considers the characteristics of the others.

I’ve done a fair amount of analysis of the cost reductions that electrified vehicles (and specifically their batteries) must undergo in order to become competitive with traditional vehicles.  The problem is, regular car owners don’t really buy cars based on the total cost of ownership over the life of the vehicle.  (We buy cars as an extension of our personality!)  Fleet owners, on the other hand, are concerned first and foremost with expenses.  And the IDEA will, under nearly all circumstances, reduce them.

So, Bright has designed an incredible vehicle, for an important market that is key to commercializing electrified vehicles.  (Centralized maintenance operations and predictable usage patterns for fleets eliminate some of the charging infrastructure concerns related to electric passenger vehicles.)  So, the whole systems thinking extends beyond the vehicle itself to Bright’s entire business model.  Impressive!

As a disclaimer I should note that I worked for RMI (from whence Bright evolved) a short time during grad school.  So I may be biased.  But I know a bright idea when I see it.  (OK, that pun is so played out by now…)

Most start-up companies fail – a fact that likely won’t change with the latest slate of hopeful automotive manufacturers.  My guess is that Bright Automotive has a better chance of succeeding than most.

You Lie!

October 6th, 2009 Comments off

This is not a political blog.

24

TWENTY-FOUR.  That’s the number of misleading statements (most of which are outright lies) that I just counted in this 9-and-a-half-minute video showing two Fox News segments about the DOE loans given to Tesla Motors and Fisker Automotive through the Advanced Technology Vehicles Manufacturing Loan program, authorized by the 2007 Energy Independence and Security Act.  The myth perpetuated by the Fox folks (and a WSJ columnist) is that these loans are going to European companies, creating jobs overseas, to build ultra-expensive cars that nobody can afford, all because of Al Gore’s influence over the DOE.

As pointed out in this Autobloggreen post, Fisker is not a Finnish company – they’re based in Irvine, California.  The Karma’s body construction is contracted out to Valmet, a Finnish company that also builds Boxsters for Porsche.  As Fisker points out, 65% of the Karma (by cost) is built in the United States.  Similarly, Tesla Motors is not a British company, but is based in San Carlos, California.  Lotus builds the bodies for their Tesla Roadster in the UK, but again the majority of the car (not to mention the R&D efforts) come from the U.S.  And while the Fisker Karma and Tesla Roadster are indeed more expensive than the Camry in your garage, they are first-generation high-performance electric vehicles.  (The first computers were also outrageously expensive.  So were CD players.  And video cameras.  And DVD players.  And any other new technology that makes its way downmarket.)

The DOE loans are intended to increase the pace of technological development and volume manufacturing at these companies, and help bring the technology into the mainstream more quickly. Tesla’s Model S and Fisker’s NINA will arrive sooner than they otherwise would have, and they will be built here in the U.S. because of these loans.  And what role did Al Gore play in all of this?  None.  He (along with about 43 other individuals) is a partner at Kleiner Perkins, one of the financial backers behind Fisker, and a host of other companies.

Describing Fisker as “an Al Gore-backed company from Finland” isn’t only a stretch – it’s a blatant lie.

The Public Option, Good Karma, and the Mainstream

September 23rd, 2009 Comments off

If you’re keeping up with the goings-on in the alternative vehicle world these days, you might be as optimistic as I am.  As the economy starts to emerge from the sewer of the past year, indications are that momentum behind electrified vehicles is starting to increase – especially that of the financial variety.

a123-logoThe Public Option OK, so healthcare has taken center-stage for a number of weeks now, but that’s not what this is about.  I’m talking about the Initial Public Offering of shares of Li-ion battery maker A123 System’s common stock.  Without doing any rigorous financial analysis, I’m excited about the IPO.  A123 is a good company with an appropriate battery chemistry and some degree of demonstrating that it can mass produce battery cells at high volume.  Their acquisition of Hymotion gives them a test-bed and demonstration platform for using their battery technology in automotive applications.  They’ve received grants from both the federal and Michigan state governments.  Plus, they have a nice website.  The fact that the IPO was estimated to be priced at $8.75/share just a couple of weeks ago, and is now likely to be more in the $10 – $11.50 range, illustrates the excitement behind this IPO.  (This, in a time when folks are still reluctant to let go of their cash.)  We’ll know today or tomorrow what the price is, and it’ll be fun to watch what happens going forward.

fisker logoGood Karma It was announced this week that Fisker Automotive, maker of the Karma high-end PHEV, has joined the ranks of Ford, Nissan, and Tesla Motors and received federal loans from the DOE’s Advanced Technology Vehicle Manufacturing program, to the tune of $528-million (slightly more than the amount awarded to Tesla).  These funds will be used to complete the development of the Karma, as well as a second previously unknown model codenamed Project NINA, targeting the more mainstream lower-cost market.  Hopefully, private money will follow public, for Fisker and for the other companies receiving DOE grants and loans.

The Mainstream I hereby declare that electric vehicles have become mainstream!  The proof is that Stephen Colbert’s guest on the Colbert Report last night was Shai Agassi, the technologically brilliant and business savvy founder and CEO of Better Place, the company planning to deploy massive electric vehicle charging and battery-swap infrastructure.  Some might say Better Place’s task is more daunting than that of the automakers.  They have certainly received, and will continue to receive, a lot of attention from the industry.  But now Shai is visiting Stephen Colbert?!  What next – will Elon Musk appear on Letterman?!…

Misinformation

September 20th, 2009 Comments off

In the Street Talk section of the September issue of Panorama (the official magazine of the Porsche Club of America), there’s a blurb about the upcoming Chevy Volt.  To quote, in part:  “The retail price of the car now would be approximately $40,000, as compared to the initial target price of $25,000 or thereabouts.  …  The current configuration of the Volt shows that this car is a plug-in, not a hybrid, with lithium-ion batteries which give the car a range of about 40 miles.  There is a small gasoline engine that can recharge the battery, but not run the car.  Let’s see, $40,000, 40 miles, that’s a grand a mile, by our slide rule. … The car has too limited a range and way too high a price to be a success, so GM is working hard to try to trim the cost.

What?  First of all, I’m aware of no initial price target of $25k for the Volt (though I may just be unaware).  And, it’s a “plug-in, not a hybrid”?  Of course it’s a hybrid – it has an electric motor and an internal combustion engine.  It’s a serial hybrid, meaning that the wheels are driven only by the electric motor.  And to imply that the car only has a 40-mile range?  Uh, that’s a 40-mile all-electric range, and you’ll get about 360 more miles once the internal combustion engine kicks in…  (It’s sort of like me saying, “The new Porsche Panamera has a top speed of 50 mph!” and then leaving off the “in 1st gear” qualifier.  …And by the way, I made up that statistic…)

GM is actually working hard to reduce costs, so there’s one point they got right.  But, why the misinformation?  In print, in a magazine?!  …Granted, this is a small, member-only car-club publication – not one of the major auto-rags that generally get their facts straight.  But, I’m a believer that one should know what one is talking about before one starts talking.  Shouldn’t one?

Do You Hear What I Hear?

September 10th, 2009 Comments off

Eberspächer, a German-based company focused on automotive exhaust systems, heaters, and electronics, has recently demonstrated a new product:  a speaker integrated into a vehicle’s muffler, with the capability of significantly affecting the exhaust sound.  “So what?” you might ask.  Well, as described in Automotive Engineering International, there are numerous applications for this technology.

First of all, it could be used to enhance the sound of the tiny little 4-banger – or the quiet rattle of the diesel engine – in our cars.  Conversely, where noise limits are enforced, it could be used to subdue the scream from the high-strung V8 in your Ferrari F430 with the flick of a switch.  (This is done by generating antiphase sound waves – basically, the inverse of the sound being produced from the engine.  The waves cancel each other out – a phenomenon I played around with when I did digital signal processing research in college.  But I’m getting off-topic, and you’re getting bored…)  Furthermore, with talk of the dangers of electric vehicles quietly roaming our city streets, plowing down unsuspecting pedestrians who fail to hear them approaching, the Eberspächer system could be used to produce an exhaust note of any sort to upcoming EVs.

Le Mans PosterHhhmmm.  I’m a bigger fan of a properly tuned exhaust note than most anyone I know.  (To get a sense of what I’m talking about, watch the movie Le Mans in Dolby Digital.  Tell the kids to hush when the Porsche 917 screams down the Mulsanne Straight.  That, to me, is the greatest sound ever made.)  But the automotive purist in me appreciates the fact that these sounds come from the mechanical process that’s moving the car!  Auto OEMs, as well as the aftermarket, have devoted a lot of resources into improving and enhancing the sound coming from our vehicles’ engines.  (Respective examples are the Motor Sound Package offered on various Porsche models in the past, and the fart-can exhausts that people tend to affix to their souped-up Hondas – though any “improvement” from the latter is agruable.)  But they’ve always relied on the engine itself – not some artificial audio source.

Applications making EVs audible might be a more worthy cause, though I tend to think the safety issue there is overblown.  (In cities, where pedestrians are used to crossing the street, people tend to use their eyes as well as their ears to give them an indication of when it’s best to step off the curb.  And at higher, high-way speeds, noise from the tires and air flowing around the car tend to equal that of the engine anyway.)  To me, the most ideal use of this technology might be in PHEVs/EREVs once they’re traveling in charge-sustaining mode (i.e., when the engine comes on to keep the battery charged).  It seems to me that, say, once the engine turns on in the Chevy Volt or Fisker Karma, it would most optimally run at a constant rpm to generate electricity – maintaining this speed whether the car is traveling at a steady speed, accelerating, or even (in some cases) sitting at a stop-light.  That would be a bit unnerving to the driver, who’s used to the engine sound having some sort of relationship with what the car’s doing.  (As an aside – Constantly Variable Transmissions have specific gear-ratios programmed into their software in part for this exact reason.)  Perhaps the Eberspächer system could be used to help recreate the aural experience to which the consumer is accustomed – one more tool to help smooth the transition to electrified vehicles.

Now, go watch Le Mans!