Archive for July, 2009

Outrageous Claims

July 29th, 2009 Comments off

Recently, a friend asked me about a water powered car that she had heard about through an email forwarded from another friend.  This car runs on nothing but water.  An energy generator takes hydrogen from the water, releasing electrons that power the car.  …FINALLY, all of the barriers with using hydrogen as a transportation fuel (storage, transport, etc.) have been solved!  We can just take the H2 out of the H2O!

…Gimme a break.  Yes, there’s a way to extract hydrogen from water.  It’s called hydrolysis, and it takes quite a bit of energy to break those molecular bonds.  So, when the water-car folks claim it needs no external input besides a bottle of water, it’s obvious all is not what it seems.  (What’s in that “energy generator” that gets around the whole law of conservation of energy, anyway?  …I really don’t like linking to wikipedia…)

U.S. Patent #5,920,127

U.S. Patent #5,920,127

Outrageous claims are everywhere.  I’ve had dozens of people ask me about putting a wind-turbine on top of a car, so that it spins and produces electrical energy as the car goes down the road – electrical energy that can then be used to power the wheels.  (If you were thinking of this, you’re too late – the idea has already been patented.  Really.)  I’ll leave it as an exercise for you to explain the fallacy in that one.

Another company that has made incredible (if not outrageous) claims in the past few years is EEStor, who is under contract with Zenn Motors to supply an ultracapacitor-based energy storage system that costs significantly less per kilowatt-hour than batteries, while solving the energy-density problem that has prevented ultracaps from being seriously considered as an energy storage mechanism for electric vehicles.  Much of the skepticism regarding their claims stems from the fact that they have released virtually no details about their product.  Well, that changed today when an interview with CEO Dick Weir was “leaked” on the internet (as reported by autobloggreen).  It will be interesting to see if the revealed details will quiet EEStor’s skeptics or just lead to more questions.

…In the next installment, I’ll describe the flux capacitor I’m working on, which makes time-travel possible…

Categories: Electrification Tags: ,

Tesla v. Fisker

July 25th, 2009 Comments off
Fisker Karma Front

Fisker Karma

Fisker Karma

No, this isn’t another post about the legal battles between Tesla and Henrik Fisker, who had a shot at designing Tesla’s all-electric sedan before starting a car company on his own.  (You can find those on countless other websites.)  This is my subjective opinion, a comparison of the Tesla Model S and the Fisker Karma – two high-end, electrified automobiles intended to excite the car-guy as much as the environmentalist.  These two vehicles will be natural competitors once they’re available in 2010/2011.

Let’s start with the Karma, since Fisker intends to start delivering it in mid-2010, about a year and a half ahead of Tesla’s Model S.  The Karma is a plug-in hybrid of the serial variety (meaning its gasoline-powered GM-sourced 4-cylinder engine merely serves to recharge its lithium-ion battery once its electric range of 50 miles has been reached).  Fisker promises acceleration to 60 mph in under 6 seconds, and a top speed of 125 mph.  While the top-speed is slow compared to most sports cars, it’s well above any legal speed here in the U.S., and is a limitation of the electric drivetrain when used with a transmission with a single forward gear.  And while the acceleration is on par with other sports sedans, the Karma doesn’t look like other sports sedans.  It looks exotic, in the vein of Aston Martin or Maserati.  Only something’s not quite right.  It’s hood is a little too long (think Jaguar E-type, only not beautiful).  It looks like it’s wearing braces.  The diamond shaped reverse-lights mimic the diamond shaped vents in the front fascia, and neither is stylistically correct.  And My God, have you seen that interior?  …The Karma wants to be an Aston Martin V8 Vantage – a stunning automobile also designed by Henrik Fisker.  But it comes across as a not-quite-final sketch that should have ended up in the wastebasket.  In any case, it can be yours for just shy of $90,000 (excluding federal tax credits).  We’ll finally get to see one in motion in mid-August.

Tesla Model S

Tesla Model S

Now on to the Tesla Model S.  I have to admit, I was blown away when the Model S was revealed in mid-March.  Like Tesla’s Roadster, the Model S is motivated by an all-electric powertrain, going 0-60 mph in 5.6 seconds with a top-speed of 120 mph – specs which are almost identical to the Karma’s.  The base version will cost just shy of $60,000 (exluding tax credits) and have a 160-mile range (with optional upgrades to 230 or 300 miles).  The lack of an internal combustion engine allows for more space for occupants as well – the Model S claims it can carry 5 adults PLUS two children.  And it looks good.  Damn good.  It’s not quite as exotic as the Karma; instead, it looks like something you might see on the street.  It looks like what the Porsche Panamera should’ve looked like.  It aims to compete with the BMW 5-series, or perhaps the Mercedes S-class, or maybe the Panamera.  And it does it well.  It’s Achilles-heel is the fact that production likely won’t begin until the end of 2011 (despite the fact that we’ve already seen the prototype going out for a test drive).  And for more Model S design eye-candy, check out this video.

I wish both Fisker and Tesla immense success.  But if I had $90k burning a hole in my pocket, I believe I’d wait the extra 18 months and drive home in a Model S (with the 300-mile battery-pack, thank you).

I Have Two Clunkers

July 21st, 2009 Comments off

Most everyone who cares about cars has heard of the Cash for Clunkers program by now.  Basically, if you trade in your clunker for a more fuel-efficient vehicle, you get an instant credit of either $3,500 or $4,500, depending on the type and mileage of the traded-in vehicle and the vehicle being purchased or leased (with  various restrictions).  This program is intended to have the dual benefits of accelerating the transition of our nation’s light-duty vehicle fleet to a more fuel-efficient one, as well as helping to stimulate an auto industry that’s currently in dire straits.  (Plus, folks buying a new car can get a substantial discount – not bad, politically!)

But, what constitutes a clunker?  Essentially, it’s a car that you’ve driven for at least a year, and that has a combined city/highway fuel economy rating of 18 mpg or less.  Also, it has to be newer than 25 years old.  This means my wife’s Buick Enclave, which we bought new in 2007, and which has a combined rating of 18 mpg, qualifies.  My truck, which on its last tank averaged 12.4 mpg, and which doesn’t have an official fuel economy rating, qualifies as a “Category 3” work truck.  We could trade both these vehicles in today and take advantage of the program.

Crushed CarsThis got me thinking – I wonder how effective the Car Allowance Rebate System (CARS) will have been once it concludes on November 1 (unless funds run out first).  The goal of stimulating the auto industry will almost certainly be reached.  It’s the other goal that worries me.  Who will take advantage of the program?  If consumers who had already planned to purchase a new vehicle are swayed towards a more fuel-efficient choice because of CARS, then that would be wonderful.  On the other hand, if folks are tempted to trade-in a nearly-new vehicle, or one that doesn’t get driven very often, simply to get their slice of the government pie, then the overall benefit could be negative.  After all, the program mandates that traded-in vehicles be shredded or crushed (and hopefully recycled) so that they aren’t resold as used vehicles.  And using my truck – which I probably drove less than 3000 miles in the past year – as an example, the net environmental impact of building a new vehicle (and scrapping the old) is likely negative when that vehicle is rarely used.

I hope the CARS program proves to be an effective mechanism for reaching both goals.  But as for me – I’m keeping my two clunkers.

VVC (Very, Very Coy)

July 17th, 2009 Comments off

About a month ago, the V-Vehicle Company (VVC) burst onto the auto scene, announcing plans to set up shop in an abandoned Guide headlight plant in Monroe, Louisiana.  Their stated intention is to be “a new American car company that will produce a high-quality and fuel-efficient car for the U.S. market.”  They raised some eyebrows, probably because of their high-profile investors Kleiner Perkins and T. Boone Pickens (hey, what about his wind project?), and also because of their director of design, Tom Matano, who was the stylistic mind that created the iconic Mazda Miata.  Bringing jobs to a depressed region in America, building a new efficient American car, having all the right people in place – all sounds great, right?

It’s been a month since VVC came out from under the radar, and it seems like they’ve now faded back into secrecy.  Other than a fancy video from Louisiana Economic Development with some teaser images (and a rumor that the vehicle’s price-tag will be about $10k), there’s not much info to be had about the car that VVC plans to begin producing in about a year and a half.  I’m very curious as to why they chose last month to say, “HI, LOOK AT US!” without continuing to stoke the excitement.  (I wonder, might they be requesting DOE loans under the ATVMP?)  And what about this rumored $10k price tag, if it is true?  At that price, it certainly won’t be an electrified vehicle, like so many others that are currently under development.  (I wonder, could it have a natural gas-fueled powertrain, given that T. Boone is on board?)

I wish them luck, and they’ve definitely got my interested piqued.  But 18 17 months isn’t that far away, and Bobby Jindal‘s inspiring words at the end of the video won’t sustain me that long!

VVC teaser

Lose Some Weight, Will Ya?

July 15th, 2009 Comments off

An article in the current issue of SAE‘s Automotive Engineering International (“Everything but the Engine”) discusses the effect that components other than the engine have on vehicle fuel efficiency.  Among the items discussed are transmissions and the benefits of DCTs (which I previously talked about here) and tire rolling resistance (which I previously talked about here).  (…Wow, I’m very timely, aren’t I?)  Other efficiency mechanisms discussed are reducing vehicle size, using advanced lightweight materials, improving aerodynamics, and reducing the weight of all the accessories that are packed into what have essentially become condominiums on wheels.

Buick Enclave Rear Suspension

Buick Enclave Rear Suspension

Let’s talk about weight.  Our cars need to go on a diet.  I remember last year reading a Road & Track article about the new BMW 1-series (finally, a small BMW to replace the formerly-small 3-series!), and my jaw hit the floor when I saw how much it weighs – 3373 lbs for a manual 135i?!  This is small car?  …At the other extreme, my wife’s Buick Enclave has a curb-weight just shy of 5000 lbs, despite the use of aluminum in some of the body panels and suspension components.  (The Enclave’s aluminum rear control arms are a thing of beauty, though.  GM did do a few things right.  …Am I the only one for whom control arm material is a criteria for purchasing a vehicle?)

More extensive use of light-weight materials such as aluminum, magnesium, high-strength steel, and carbon fiber can reduce weight, but it seems like automakers are more focused on making cars more bloated while using these materials to offset a portion of the weight-gain that would otherwise occur.  (They add 100 lbs of features, but only 75 lbs of weight!)  On the other hand, my race car weighs a scant 2500 lbs, and that’s with an old-school steel tub, a heavy steel cage, and 70 lbs of ballast in the floorboard.  And in its day it would carry 2 adults and 2 children (sans cage) plus their luggage.  Granted, it lacks all the amenities that consumers demand today.

Lightweighting is a good thing, with compounding benefits.  Reducing the weight of the vehicle means a reduction in the size of the engine needed to move it around, smaller brakes to stop it, and lighter suspension components with which to control it, all of which lead to further reduced weight!  At the same time, handling is improved and stopping distances are reduced.  So, why haven’t we seen this in our cars?  One answer is that many of the advanced materials are still too expensive to be cost-effective.  Secondly, consumers demand more and more comforts such as DVD players, Ipod adaptors, Bluetooth connectivity, Big Gulp holders, and hip room.  Finally, some argue that smaller and lighter-weight vehicles are less safe, backing it up with statistics showing increased fatalities for occupants of such vehicles.  And while it is true that today’s small vehicles won’t fare as well in a crash with a Ford Excursion as the Excursion will, this does not take into account the effect that smarter design and the use of advanced materials have on occupant safety.  Cars aren’t like billiard balls – there are many more dynamic forces at play, and heavier doesn’t necessarily mean safer.

Automakers need to build small, lightweight cars – not small versions of what they already build.

The Art of Racing in the Rain

July 13th, 2009 Comments off

My dog died today.

I’m not a reader.  I mean, I read non-fiction books and magazines (about cars, mostly).  But, I only sit down to read a novel about once a decade.  That “once” came last summer, when I read Garth Stein’s The Art of Racing in the Rain.  I bought this book because it was recommended in Road & Track, and when a car magazine recommends a novel, you’ve got to figure it’s not just another book.

Stein - Art of RacingThe Art of Racing in the Rain is a book about balance, anticipation, and patience.  It is told from the point of view of Enzo (whose namesake, Enzo Ferrari, founded the maker of those prancing-horse-emblazoned Italian automobiles in 1947).  Enzo is a dog who’s at the end of his life, and in the book he reflects upon all of the events that have occured during his time with Denny, his owner and an aspiring race car driver, and Denny’s wife Eve and daughter Zoë.  Now, I really have no frame of reference with which to compare it, but this is an incredible book.  If you love dogs and/or racing, you must read it.  …My wife has long said I am unemotional.  That may be true, except when it comes to dogs and cars.  And The Art of Racing in the Rain nails it on both accounts.

In racing, rain is the great equilizer.  It makes the track unpredictable, and increases the chances of the unexpected.  (I’ve had three on-track wrecks, two of which were in the rain.)  I found out my dog (coincidentally, named Zoe) had cancer a little over 5 weeks ago, when I took her to the vet to fix a broken tooth.  Her symptoms had just started, but at that point the mass was too large to do much about.  Talk about the unexpected…  Her health declined rapidly over the past month.

I read The Art of Racing in the Rain last summer just after driving from North Carolina to Colorado, by way of Utah.  Zoe was my companion for the trip.  I was thankful to have her with me, as she was a good listener, and she forced me to pause for rest-stop picnics and to stretch our legs every now and then.  I missed her tremendously when I had to leave her in Utah while I was in Colorado for 11 weeks.  …I’m going to miss her a lot more now.

Zoe, October 17, 1999 - July 13, 2009

Zoe, October 17, 1999 - July 13, 2009

Green (Car) Building

July 8th, 2009 Comments off

As with many industries these days, auto manufacturers are working on “greening” themselves – both in terms of the products they build, as well as how they build them.  Ford has earned recognition for their use of soy-based foam in seat-padding, instead of the traditional petroleum-based (and VOC-emitting) polyurethane foam.  Subaru operates its manufacturing facility in Lafayette, Indiana, so that it produces zero landfill waste.  Honda has experiemented with bio-fabrics for its upholstery, and won this years EARTH ANGEL award as the most environmentally progressive automaker, while Toyota operates under a “Global Earth Charter” which takes into account the environmental impact of all if its activities.  These are wonderful efforts.

Earlier this year, I was able to visit a few businesses in the San Francisco Bay area that are housed in LEED-certified, “green” buildings.  Similar to the initiatives by the automakers mentioned above, the design and construction of these buildings take into consideration the environmental impact, using renewable, recycled, and sustainable materials in the construction, as well as innovative design techniques such as the efficient use of daylighting and natural ventilation.  The obvious benefits are a reduced environmental footprint, as well as energy savings that result in reduced operating costs.  Another, less obvious, benefit is that these spaces make people happy.  Sure, an office-cubicle-farm-without-windows would be just as functional, but (and I may be making this up) studies have shown that a person’s environment affects his/her mood, and spaces such as these can actually enhance productivity.

I’m going to take this one step further: Can the design principles that we often see in green buildings be applied to vehicles?  Now, a vehicle’s interior is the ultimate in function over form, but if automotive designers could create calming spaces within our cars (within the constraints of maintaining functionality and meeting the myriad other safety requirements), might we be less likely to give Joe Sixpack the finger when he cuts us off during our morning commute?  As it is, many automotive interiors aim to give the driver the feeling of being strapped into cockpit of a fighter jet, blasting off to do battle with whatever enemy dares creep into our lane.

This thought came when I saw the floating center console of the new Volvo XC60.  Now, I’m not sure what it’s made of, but if I find out it comes from a sustainably grown bamboo forest, I will go out now and buy one.

Volvo XC60 Panel

Volvo Floating Center Console

Categories: Automotive Design Tags: , , , ,

Back of the Envelope

July 6th, 2009 Comments off

So yesterday, in my post with the funny German title, I contemplated how much gas we could save if everybody drove a car with a manual transmission.  Someone told me later, “You asked the question, but you didn’t give us the answer!”  Well, I don’t know the answer, but it’s an easy calculation – at least if the goal is to get a rough estimation…  So, let’s do the math!

In 2007, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, there were nearly 136-million registered passenger vehicles in the U.S.  These cars drove nearly 1,671-billion miles and consumed over 74-billion gallons of fuel that year.   This yields an average fuel economy of 22.5mpg.  If the 72% of vehicles that have automatic transmissions had manuals (with the assumption that their fuel economy would increase by 1mpg, to 23.5mpg), then it turns out we could save approximately 2.28-billion gallons of fuel a year, or about 3% of the fuel used for our passenger vehicles.  That translates to over 116 million barrels of oil per year, or in financial terms, $8-billion (at $70 per barrel).

…This is what I learned to do in graduate school…

Old School HP Calculator


July 5th, 2009 Comments off

I noticed in the mid-1980s, about the time I became of legal driving age, that cars with manual transmissions get slightly better fuel economy than their automatic transmission equivalents.  I was surprised recently to find out that this wasn’t common knowledge.  And I’ve long wondered, what if we all drove stick-shift?  How much fuel would that save, given that nearly 3/4 of the vehicles sold in North America come equipped with automatic transmissions and the associated 1-2mpg penalty?

A friend recently asked me, why are automatics less efficient?  Now, automatic transmissions are one of the most mysterious components on a vehicle to me.  Inside the transmission are a collection of planetary gearsets, clutches, bands, hydraulic pumps, plates, valves, modulators, and pixie dust that make the car go.  All of this is typically heavier than the components of a manual transmission, and uses a portion of the engine output in its operation.  But the thing which enables the automatic transmission to work (besides the pixie dust) is the torque remover converter.  This is the device that provides a fluid coupling between the engine and transmission, and allows your engine to idle while you’re sitting still with your foot on the brake pedal … and which also accounts for some of the efficiency loss in automatics.

A proper manual gearbox is much more straightforward:  You have a clutch which engages/disengages the connection between the engine and the transmission via your left leg, and gears on the input shaft (from the engine) which engage with gears on the output shaft (to your wheels, through a differential).  No pumping losses, inefficent fluid couplings, pixie dust, or other such nonsense.

Green Technology?

Green Technology?

Blurring the line between manuals and automatics, dual clutch transmissions (DCTs) have been introduced to the mass market in recent years.  VW‘s is called DSG (direct shift gearbox); Audi calls it S-tronic; BMW calls theirs DKG, abbreviating the German “doppelkupplungsgetriebe” (literally, double clutch transmission); Porsche‘s is called PDK (Porsche DoppelKupplungsgetriebe).  These are effectively manual transmissions in which a computer does the shifting for you.  (Of course, they also have a manual mode, allowing the driver to be more involved in the process.)  Note, these boxes are vastly different than the “manumatics” of the past, such as Dodge’s “autostick” and Porsche’s “tiptronic,” which are actually planetary gearset, torque converter-based automatics that pretend to let the driver be in charge.  The new gearboxes are both more efficient than traditional automatics, and often even higher performance – faster shifts – than even the best driver-actuated manuals.  This is achieved by essentially encasing two manual transmissions (one for even gears, one for odd) in a single case – hence, the “dual” nature.  By the computer anticipating and preselecting the next gear to be chosen, shift-time is dramatically reduced.

Could these be a replacement for traditional automatics?  In my opinion, YES, and I back that up with an anecdote: A friend of mine recently bought a DSG-equipped VW Jetta.  He told me it was an automatic, for which I belittled him.  Upon seeing it, I realized it was a DSG and informed him of that fact.  He had no idea, even after driving it a few thousand miles.

A recent article in Automative Engineering International (a publication of the Society of Automotive Engineers) mentions that such gearboxes have been around since the early 1980s, but have only recently become commercially viable because of advances in electronics, sensors, and computing power on-board the vehicle.  New technology has enabled better fuel efficiency AND better performance.  …Ain’t technology great?!

Eco-Tires & Eco-Racing

July 3rd, 2009 Comments off

I love tires.  And I love racing.  I especially like the sort of racing that involves both right AND left-hand turns.  Not so long ago, I made sure to watch every Formula1, American Le Mans, Grand-Am, and Speed World Challenge race that was broadcast.  (My wife’s 30th birthday present to me was VIP tickets for the Petit Le Mans – best present ever!)  Unfortunately, I now seem to have much less time to devote to sitting in front of the tube every race weekend…

Of all these series, the ALMS has made the most effort to “go green,” (with involvement from the EPA and DOE).  It started a few years ago, with Audi’s “clean diesel” R10 cars dominating the LMP1 class (and the whole series).  Since then, ALMS cars have raced using E10 and cellulosic E85 fuels as well as hybrid technology.  This year, there’s even the Michelin-sponsored Green X Challenge, which scores the race-finishers based on highest performance with least environmental impact.  (Yeah, I’d love to see the NASCAR folks try to implement a program like this…)  And, yesterday it was announced that the ALMS has even partnered with The Nature Conservancy!

Yokohama Advan ENV-R1Adding to the Green Theme, Yokohama is now supplying the eco-tires used in the Patron GT3 Challenge series (a support series for the ALMS).  This tire (the Advan ENV-R1) is a race-tire that replaces 10% of the petroleum used in the tire’s construction with citrus-derived oil.  The impressive performance and durability characteristics of these tires demonstrate that this technology is applicable to street tires as well.  (Now, I would like to know just how much petroleum is being displaced, both in the tire construction itself as well as from a life-cycle perspective.  Is the extraction of the orange oil and incorporation of it into the manufacturing process any more energy-intensive than the conventional method?)

In another take on eco-friendly tires, NHTSA has recently proposed a tire-rating system that adds fuel-efficiency ratings (in addition to revamped traction and treadwear ratings) to the mandatory tire-labeling system.  Yes, the tires you buy do have an impact on your car’s fuel efficiency!  On the whole, I think this is a good idea; however, one thing does bother me a little.  Tires improve fuel-efficiency for the most part through decreased rolling resistance.  Decreased rolling resistance almost always means less grip.  (NHTSA states that this doesn’t have to be the case, with the disclaimer that higher costs would be involved otherwise.)  And think about it – the only thing connecting your car to the road is the four tire contact patches, each about the size of your hand.  Less grip at the four corners of your car means longer stopping distances and less traction when going around corners.  In an effort to (slightly) improve fuel economy, is it so far-fetched to question if there may be a (slight) increase in traffic accidents?

I wonder how much fuel could be saved through low-rolling-resisitance tires.  Though I haven’t done the analysis, I would guess it would be small compared to how much could be saved if people just maintained proper tire pressures!  And how does it compare with the effect of using orange oil instead of petroleum in the tire construction?  …Yeah, I’m gonna have to figure this one out…