Archive for August, 2009


August 25th, 2009 Comments off

Unfortunately, I haven’t had much time to keep up with the goings-on in Formula 1 for the past season and a half.  But this weekend, I found myself with a few hours to spare, so I sat down to enjoy the European Grand Prix from Valencia, Spain.  This was the first race that I’ve watched since the season opener in Australia.

One thing that struck me during this weekend’s broadcast was the lack of talk about KERS – the Kinetic Energy Recovery Systems that were allowed this year, effectively making F1 cars hybrids.  At the beginning of the season, KERS was a hot topic, with about half the field attempting to take advantage of the technology.  Unfortunately, given the effort of developing the systems (and the artificial limits placed upon them by the FIA), KERS didn’t immediately prove successful, and most teams decided to drop the technology.  McLaren and Ferrari were the only teams that decided to stick with it.

Louis Hamilton's McLaren

Louis Hamilton's McLaren

At this weekend’s European Grand Prix, McLaren swept the front row in qualifying, and McLaren driver Louis Hamilton finished the race second (and would have arguably won it if not for a botched pit-stop).  Kimi Raikkonen‘s KERS-equipped Ferrari rounded out the podium, with the other McLaren finishing fourth.  So, KERS-equipped cars grabbed 3 of the top 4 spots – and the top two spots at the previous race in Hungary (Hamilton’s McLaren followed by Raikkonen’s Ferrari).  It seems to me KERS development has finally paid off!  Yet the only mention of it (that I recall) during the broadcast was over the fact that KERS will likely be abandoned for the 2010 season, due to its ineffectiveness and added cost.  How frustrating. …I still maintain that if the FIA had not set such low limits for its use (max of 60 kW boost allowed for 6.6 seconds per lap), it would have been more successful.

As an aside, I recently found out that the KERS system used in the McLaren uses A123’s Li-ion cells for energy storage.  Ferrari also uses a battery system (though I’m not sure from whom).  The other option some teams employed was a flywheel system.  …In any case, I’d sure like to see KERS remain for 2010, though reining in costs is a high priority in racing – even F1 – these days, so I’m afraid this season may be the end for it.  Of course, if McLaren and Ferrari continue to enjoy their recent success, KERS may again gain favor with the teams just as quickly as it lost it!

Categories: Racing Tags: , , ,

Rudolf’s Invention

August 20th, 2009 Comments off

In 1892, Rudolf Diesel invented the compression-ignition (i.e., diesel) engine.  The big difference between diesel engines and gasoline engines is that gasoline engines are typically of the spark-ignition type, relying on a spark-plug to ignite the air/fuel mixture, whereas compression-ignition simply relies on physics to cause the air/fuel mixture to ignite when it is compressed to around 5% of its original volume.

VW Jetta TDI Sportwagen

VW Jetta TDI Sportwagen

Diesel engines are significantly more efficient than their gasoline-powered counterparts, and have enjoyed more popularity in most parts of the world.  Unfortunately, the U.S. is not one of those parts.  Although a few manufacturers have offered diesel engines in their light-duty vehicles in the past, about the only mass-market diesel vehicles you can find in the U.S. today are powered by Volkswagen’s TDI technology.  It seems other manufacturers would follow VW’s lead, given the sustained success of the TDI engines.

What’s the problem here?  Maybe it’s marketing: American consumers still remember the horrible diesel engines of a few decades ago, and think of them as noisy, polluting, and slow, when in fact modern diesel engines are quiet, clean, and powerful.  Maybe it’s cost – diesels generally cost a tad more than their gasoline counterparts; however, diesel engines are usually built “tougher” to withstand higher compression ratios, and frequently have greater lifetimes as a result.  And then there’s the efficiency benefits.

…In a past season of Top Gear, the hosts had a contest to see who could drive from Basel, Switzerland, to Blackpool in the UK, driving any car of their choice, but using only one tank of fuel.  Jeremy Clarkson figured it couldn’t be done, so he chose a car that would actually be enjoyable: a Jaguar XJ6 TDVI (diesel) with a fuel economy rating of 35 mpg, and a theoretical range of 655 miles.  James May chose a Subaru Legacy diesel with a rating of 50 mpg, and a theoretical range of 706 miles.  Richard Hammond chose a VW Polo Bluemotion with a 3-cylinder 1.4L engine that gets 74 mpg, but equiped with only a 10-gallon tank.  Before setting off, they properly adjusted their tire pressures, and (in the ultimate display of hypermiling) even sealed the body-seams with tape!

The result?  Richard arrived first, followed by Jeremy, who drove like a bat out of hell with the A/C and all accessories on to demonstrate that it couldn’t be done – proving himself wrong in the process.  …Captain Slow didn’t quite make it.  But, it was an excellent demonstration of the efficiency of diesel vehicles.  Unfortunately, none of these cars are available in the United States.  What will it take to change this?

Will You Be a Convert?

August 14th, 2009 Comments off

I recently read an article at gas2.0, written by Felix Cramer, founder of CalCars, describing how the auto-industry could be “fixed” and the electrification of our country’s automobile fleet could be accelerated through the conversion of existing vehicles to electric drive.  In order for this to happen, Felix explains that auto-makers (and everyone else involved) must view cars as upgradeable platforms, akin to the computer industry, rather than “sell-it-and-forget-it” appliances.  The article raises some good points, but I just don’t see electric conversions (either aftermarket or OEM-sanctioned) having that much of an impact.  (And I must add: I have immense respect for Mr. Cramer, who has done more to promote the electrification of the automobile than perhaps anyone else!)

Photo by William Gale Gedney, 1964Currently, EV conversions are largely the domain of DIY’ers who have some spare time and wish to spend it in the garage.  For most vehicles, a complete kit can be purchased, and the conversion process is fairly straightforward – some of the most well-done conversions I’ve seen have been done by groups of high-school students! (The hard part is figuring out where to put all the batteries.)  The end result (with varying degress of success) is usually a commuter-vehicle that gets the owner to and from work with a nightly charge, and a rolling advertisement for the viability of electric vehicles.  Quite often, however, these vehicles require a tad more attention from the owner than most consumers are used to.  (We can’t really expect Aunt Edna to pay attention to the voltages of 72 individual battery cells…)

A few entrepreneurs have stepped up to provide more turn-key solutions for electric vehicles, and even hybridized vehicles (which are beyond the realm of most DIY’ers).  But what Felix envisions is the OEM-sanctioned large-scale conversion of a signifcant portion of the vehicles on the road.  His vision makes a good deal of sense, but I’m skeptical that auto-makers would wish to be involved in such an effort.  It’s not their core business.  As Felix describes, it would take a different mind-set from automakers, but I see this being too big of a leap for an industry that is historically reluctant to take even small steps.  (Dammit, I’m usually an optimist about this stuff!)

Unfortunately, without OEM participation, the conversion industry may remain a niche one. The hurdles to design, build, validate, and certify automotive systems are just too great for most smaller companies to overcome.  And (cynically), I see consumers as being too fickle to want to retrofit Ol’ Trusty and keep driving it around.  I mean, look at the number of people who lease vehicles so that they can (a) drive a car they otherwise couldn’t afford and (b) get something new every few years.  (…Anybody know that number?…)  Felix suggests starting with fleet vehicles – especially the U.S. government’s fleet – to get this new business model moving, which may circumvent consumers’ whimsies to some degree.  (Really, if you want a new car after 3 years, maybe you should have thought a little harder about the last car you got…)

Most would agree that vehicle electrification is imminent, though the pace at which it will happen is anybody’s guess.  Conversions of existing vehicles could certainly impact that pace, but it remains to be seen to what degree.  In any case, Felix’s thinking is exactly the type of entrepreneurial brainstorming of new business models that we need!

Categories: Electrification Tags:

Internal Combustion

August 7th, 2009 Comments off

Those who know me, and those who read this blog (yes, both of you) know that I am bullish on powertrain electrification.  The truth is, though, that virtually all of the cars on our roads today have internal combustion engines, and it will be that way for quite some time.  Fortunately, the internal combustion engine has come a long way from where it started, and it still has a long way to go.  And although the average fuel economy of vehicles in the U.S. has stagnated over the past couple o’ decades, the engines themselves have become much more efficient, moving around more and more mass at ever greater speeds without an increase in fuel use.

2010 Porsche 911 GT3

2010 Porsche 911 GT3

Recently, I was reading an article in Panorama (the official magazine of PCA) about the 2010 Porsche 911 GT3, whose 3.8 liter engine makes 435 hp.  That’s  114.6 hp/liter!  Not so long ago, the 100 hp/liter barrier was nearly impossible to breach, without using forced induction, but the GT3 blows right through it.  How did Porsche do it?  Well, for one thing, they rev it up to 8400 rpm, and to keep it from disintegrating when it gets there they use forged pistons, titanium rods, and light-weight tappets to actuate the valves.  They use variable valve timing and lift to optimize both the intake and exhaust valves across all regions of the rev range.  They use a variable intake manifold, again to optimize the timing with which the incoming pulses of air reach the backs of the intake valves at various revs.  They use a high compression ratio of 12.0:1.  The whole process is controlled through a sophisticated engine management system which constantly monitors conditions and precisely adjusts any variable related to combustion.

Of course, many of these tricks aren’t confined to high-end sports cars like the GT3.  Many production cars these days using variable valve timing, and variable intake manifolds are becoming mainstream as well.  Another technology with the GT3 eschews, but which auto makers are employing, is direct-injection of the fuel into the combustion chamber, resulting in more control of the combustion process.

Coming down the pike, we see efficiency improvements through technologies like variable compression ratio, such as that demonstrated by MCE-5; GM’s homogeneous charge compression ignition (HCCI), which combines concepts of both spark-ignition and diesel engines; and Fiat’s MultiAir technology, which very precisely controls the valve timing of each cylinder individually.  Combining these efforts with smaller engines using forced induction, such as Ford’s Ecoboost effort, may yield fuel efficiency improvements that go beyond today’s hybrids.  (And the technology compounds – the use of turbos means the ability to use variable turbine geometry!)

Internal combustion engines these days are a far cry from what they were 30+ years ago, when carburetors used low-pressure air to suck fuel out of a hole, and ignition timing was controlled through the centrifugal force of a couple of weights attached to the distributor.  …It will be a long time before we’re all driving pure electric vehicles.  And let’s face it: even PHEVs (and EREVs) have internal combustion engines.  So, let’s hope the advances continue!

MORE Cash for Clunkers

August 4th, 2009 Comments off

CARSA couple of weeks ago, I talked about the Federal Car Allowance Rebate System (CARS) program, and the effects it might have on the auto industry and the environment.  It turns out, the program has worked a little too well, at least in some respects.  Nearly as soon as the final rules were published, the $1-billion allocated to the program was exhausted.  Now, the House has authorized an additional $2-billion, though the Senate must do likewise for the program to continue.  The debate is now whether or not to spend this extra cash before fully understanding the effect that the program is having.

Obviously, it seems the program was underfunded.  If we assume the average rebate is $4,000 (which is likely not accurate, but it’s the average of the two possible rebate amounts of $3,500 and $4,500, and the math is easy), then the initial $1-billion represents 250,000 trade-ins and new car sales.  That’s only about 1.7% of the yearly new car sales in the U.S. (prior to the meltdown of the auto-industry).  So the fact that $1-billion was burned through so quickly isn’t surprising.  I tend to think the downturn that we had seen in new car sales wasn’t so much a result of people deciding not to buy cars, but rather deciding to delay their car purchases.  With so much pent-up demand, it’s no wonder the CARS program had such an explosive effect.

The program has certainly had an impact on the auto industry.  Today’s Wall Street Journal (Clunker Plan Gives Car Sales a Lift) describes auto makers’ plans to begin increasing production as a result of the boost in sales.  It also mentions that suppliers to the auto industry plan to benefit as well – ripple effects that result in tangible benefits to the economy.

The environmental impact is less clear.  The US Department of Transportation reports that the average fuel economy of new cars being sold under this program is 25.4 mpg, compared to 15.8 mpg for the vehicles being traded in – a 9.6 mpg average improvement.  Assuming these cars are driven an average of 15,000 miles per year (and assuming my previous statement of 250,000 cars is correct), that’s 390-million gallons of gas saved, or over 3.4-million metric tons of CO2 avoided, at a cost of $290 per ton – expensive carbon mitigation by any measure.

…Of course, to quantify the actual effect, one would have to know the baseline – what would have happened in the absence of the program.  (It’s likely that, since traded-in cars were probably bought when gas prices were lower than they are today, their average fuel economy would still be worse than the new cars replacing them.)  Plus, my calculations are so full of my assumptions as to render them pointless.  But, it makes for good blog discussion!

Why’d You Buy That Car?

August 3rd, 2009 Comments off

The car you drive says a lot about you.  …At least that’s what the vehicle marketing folks would have us believe.  And it’s probably true – as Sperling and Gordon write in their book Two Billion Cars:  “It’s axiomatic in marketing that people value identity over practical considerations in making purchases.  They buy products that reinforce their self-image and symbolize who they want to be.”

Why, then, do people buy hybrids today?  From a financial perspective, they may be the more economical choice when our volatile gas prices swing upward; but if the axiom above holds true, this isn’t really the motivation behind hybrid purchases.  The folks who buy them do so because the car portrays an image of who the driver wants to be.  For hybrid drivers, the message is usually, “I care about my impact on the Earth.”  I’ve heard the term “conspicous non-consumption” several times recently to describe this behavior.

Unfortunately, it’s the techy, greenie, “first adopters” who are the ones who want to portray this image when it comes to automobiles.  As long as that’s true, hybrids, plug-in hybrids, and EV’s will never constitute more than a a slight percentage of our vehicle fleet.  How do we overcome this?  We either have to recruit more folks to the “green” movement, or we have to make these cars appeal to more than those who want to conspicuously non-consume.  I expect the latter will be a much easier task than the former…

This idea applies to more than just electrified vehicles; it’s true for small, economical cars as well (a topic which I touched on here).  As long as small cars are largely decontented appliances that send the message, “This is all I can afford,” they won’t compete with the massive “I dominate everything” rolling fortresses that roam the nation’s highways.  Wouldn’t it be ironic if increasing the price of a compact car (while making it more desirable) actually led to increased sales?  MINI has actually done a good job with this, producing a fun, attractive small car that costs a little more than most econoboxes, but actually offers something – a lot – in return.

mini hummer

"What're YOU lookin' at?!"

Now, I’m off to the garage to see what my cars have been saying about me…