Archive for September, 2009

Flaming Fall Foliage

September 29th, 2009 Comments off

Although the first day of autumn was about a week ago, it still feels like summer where I live.  Until this morning.  When I opened the door and the crisp air rushed in to greet me, I got the sense that fall is indeed here.  And it reminded me of a piece of literature by Chris Welty, Hudson-Valley Region PCA member and former Vassar professor, who wrote a series of newsletter columns in the 1990’s simply titled Porsching.  (It was his 15-part story When You Wish Upon a Star that was part of the inspiration behind my deciding that I, too, would one day buy a Porsche.)

So, in honor of autumn, read this, then go for a drive.

Flaming Fall Foliage - Chris Welty, Hudson-Valley Region PCA

Perhaps I hadn't been paying attention.  Perhaps I was unaware that
the sun had been trying all day to break through the protective layer
of clouds.  I barely noticed the patches of blue sky in front of me,
but other than this, there was no warning.

Fire.  Bright blasts of searing heat detonated in waves of color,
blistering the paint on my blood-orange 911.  Poking through holes in
the scattered cloud cover, sunlight exploded on the trees in blinding
bursts of light - summer's verdant flame had been replaced by the
intense inferno of fall.

The air hissed loudly in protest, but like a fiery arrow I flew down
the blazing highway, creating brief swirling maelstorms of red,
yellow, and orange in my wake.  There was no stopping in this
firestorm, the ardent forest blasted my eyes until I could barely see
the road, and my ears were continuously assaulted by the deafening

The heat was unbearable, surely neither I nor my car could withstand
it much longer.  The entire forest was ablaze, the flames blowing over
the road with the currents of rapidly rising air.  It was too late to
turn back, my only choice lay ahead in the hope that a break in the
inferno, a brief respite from the ceaseless burning, might offer

The turbulence of my passage evoked incindiary retaliation from the
forest, and my wake was marked by a pair of blazing corkscrews which
twisted behind me into the heart of the furnace.  I was hypnotised by
the sight, though at this speed my attention had to be focused in
front of me.  Just before I tore my gaze from the scene to the rear, I
noticed a sheer wall of flame, which was rapidly approaching and would
soon overtake and envelop my vehicle.

Survival now became a question of speed, and my surroundings blurred
into a swirling mass of blinding color.  Car control was a matter of
instinct, as temperature became my all consuming concern.  The paint,
coaxed on by the intense heat around it, began to erupt in small
flashes as it bubbled off the surface, revealing the bare metal
beneath.  My own skin was not far behind, I felt as if I would ignite
at any moment.  Sweat poured from every pore, interfering with my
vision and making my hands slip on the steering wheel.  My breathing
got shorter, unable to compete for oxygen with the all-consuming fire.

Suddenly, I felt a breath of relief, as I burst forth from the forest
in a shower of flames.  I cranked the wheel hard and slammed on the
brakes, bringing the car around to face from whence I had come.  After
a moment for my vision to return, I noticed that the clouds had once
again succeeded in cutting the supply of sunlight, and without this to
fuel it, the forest had returned to a cooler, more timid display of

"Oh," said my wife, just waking up. "The leaves are changing."

I shook my head.  She had no idea...

fall foliage

Categories: General Tags:

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?!…


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?

Tragedy of the Commons

September 14th, 2009 Comments off

Anybody who’s had a course in economics – especially natural resource economics – understands what the “tragedy of the commons” is.  (Multiple parties, each acting rationally in their own self-interest, will deplete a finite shared resource – which is certainly not in anyone’s interest.)

Today I read a small news item from a research analyst at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), warning that the “safest small cars are still vulnerable.” It states that recent crash tests of the 2009 Ford Focus and Volvo C30 resulted in top scores, but that the test involved collisions between vehicles of similar size – with the statement that “the cars still [do] not offer as much protection as larger vehicles.

It’s obvious (from posts like this one) that I like small, fun cars.  And the statement above bugs the heck out of me.  It’s effectively promoting the continued trend in oversized, inefficient vehicles in the name of “safety.”  Unfortunately, while the occupants of the larger vehicle may be marginally safer in the event of a collision, the occupants of another vehicle with which the larger vehicle may collide (not to mention any pedestrians) will be that much less safe.

tragedyIt’s the tragedy of the commons again: consumers, acting in their own interest – to protect their own safety – cause a reduction in safety for others, who must then upsize their vehicle, and on and on.  …Unfortunately, I’m not aware of anyone (including the IIHS) who has investigated the relationship between the likelihood of being involved in an accident and the size of one’s vehicle (though I haven’t really looked).  Anecdotally, I know of a few people who believe they have avoided a collision simply by virtue of the fact that their small, nimble vehicle was able to quickly escape the path of an errant SUV driver.

If people continue to believe that they must “buy big” in order to be responsible and protect their family … well, that would be a real tragedy.

Categories: Small Cars Tags: ,

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!


September 9th, 2009 Comments off

A friend of mine recently asked me a few car-related questions via email.  I thought I’d answer them here.

Why can’t I get a Jetta turbo diesel sport wagon?  There are waiting lists for this car all over the country.  Seems crazy. Well, that’s easy.  It’s because the demand has exceeded supply.  Ah, but you knew that.  …It’s ironic: wagons haven’t been very popular in the U.S. in recent years, and neither have diesels (which I spoke about here).  But VW can’t seem to build enough Jetta TDI Sportwagens to satisfy the American market right now.  I chalk it up to the fact that folks are finally realizing the benefits of smaller vehicles, as well as modern diesel engines.  In concluding that a wagon is a perfect replacement for their SUV, they’re finding there’s really only one vehicle that fits the bill – the VW sportwagen really doesn’t have any competition out there right now.  I’m still not sure what it will take, though, for them to increase production (are they already at capacity?) or shift more of the allotment to the U.S.  (As a curious sidenote, I think I read somewhere that the vast majority of VW Jetta Sportwagens that are ordered are of the TDI variety.  I may be making that up.)

So which brands of car are we loosing due to the GM collapse?  Which cars will we never see again and good riddance and which one’s would it have been nice to keep around. We’re losing Pontiac – they’re vanishing completely.  And good riddance to them.  We’re losing Hummer – that brand is being sold to Tengzhong Heavy Industrial Machinery.  It’s not clear to me if we’ll continue to see the brand in the U.S., but my guess is that we won’t.  And that won’t be a loss, either.  Saturn also gets the axe, although to a lesser degree – it is being sold to Penske Automotive Group.  GM will continue to supply Penske with the Aura, Vue, and Outlook for a couple of years, and other models will eventually be outsourced from other auto manufacturers.  (Unfortunately, the Saturn Sky didn’t make the cut.  This 2-seat, rear-wheel-drive roadster, sharing the Kappa platform with the Pontiac Solstice, is a completely irrational, impractical automobile – but it’s beautiful, sporty, and is a big loss in my mind.  The Outlook is a good vehicle, but might be a little too diluted, being virtually the same as the GMC Acadia, Buick Enclave, and Chevy Traverse.)  The Penske deal is an interesting one to me, since it’s different than anything else I’ve seen in the auto industry.  Another interesting deal is the sale of Saab to Swedish supercar-maker Koenigsegg along with Beijing Automotive Industry Holdings.  My guess is Saab will remain, but its focus will shift to the Asian market, and they may vanish from the U.S. altogether.  Unfortunately, Saab never really caught on in the U.S. – and that’s our loss.  Finally, GM may be selling off its Opel unit, though it’s not clear at this point.  Doesn’t really affect us over here, though…

And lastly why do Americans hate the hatchback?? I don’t know.  Call it an extension of the anti-wagon sentiment.  Although, hatchbacks have been successful here in the past.  The original hot-hatches, the Honda CVCC and VW GTi, were hugely popular.  And the Ford Focus hatchback sold well here, I believe.  I’m excited for the 2011 Ford Fiesta (in hatchback form) to make its arrival.  What do you think?

2011 Ford Fiesta Hatchback

2011 Ford Fiesta Hatchback


September 8th, 2009 Comments off

I’ve said (as have many others) that the Toyota Prius, (new) Honda Insight, and Chevy Volt all look similiar, at least insofar as the overall shape of the vehicles.  (My personal opinion is that that Volt is much better looking than the other two, with the new Prius coming in second, but this isn’t really related to shape.)  The reason for this is that they are all efficient vehicles, so one of their design goals was a low drag coefficient.  An article in this month’s Automotive Engineering International (Aerodynamics Soar) speaks to this, mentioning “complaints that cars like the Honda Insight and Chevrolet Volt, which balance similar missions of efficiency and cabin space, are derivative of Toyota’s Prius, when actually they are all recognitions of the fact that similar goals will produce similar designs.”

A recent video on the Chevy Voltage website talks a bit about the work that went into optimizing the aerodynamics of the Chevy Volt.  One remarkable data-point is that aerodynamic work on the Volt increased the all-electric range by 7 MILES from the original prototype!  Aerodynamic efficiency makes the Volt a PHEV-40, rather than a PHEV-33! To my knowledge, GM still has not announced what the Cd for the Volt is, except to say it’s the lowest of any GM vehicle since the EV1 (which had a Cd of 0.195).  For comparison, the Prius has a Cd of 0.25, and the new Ford Taurus (a modern vehicle for which aero is important, though not as high a priority as it is for hybrids) scores a 0.32.

The drag coefficient (Cd) is directly proportional to the amount of power needed to overcome the force of the air pushing against a vehicle in order to maintain a steady speed.  This power is also directly proportional to the frontal area of the vehicle, the density of the air, as well as the cube of the vehicle’s velocity.  So, fuel economy can be increased by improving the aerodynamics, reducing the size of the vehicle, driving in less-dense air … or, to an even greater degree, slowing down.  The third option seems difficult, and the fourth a bit boring…

If you still think that aerodynamics don’t matter, check out the extreme, where Cd is optimized at the expense of downforce, causing this Mercedes at Le Mans, and this Porsche at Road Atlanta, to become airborn!

Mercedes CLR at Le Mans, 1999

Mercedes CLR at Le Mans, 1999


September 5th, 2009 Comments off

I like to think I know most everything that’s going on in the automotive world.  So I was surprised recently when I read an article in Automotive Engineering International about Velozzi‘s new crossover, the Solo.  Velozzi, an Automotive X-Prize contender, plans to develop “practical plug-in multi-fuel hybrid electric vehicles.”  My surprise was due to the fact that I hadn’t actually heard of this company.

Velozzi Supercar

Velozzi Supercar

Currently, Velozzi has plans to build two models.  The first of these, the Supercar, is a 770-hp all-electric vehicle that accelerates to 60 mph in 3 seconds and reaches over 200 mph.  This is a beautiful car, with Ferrari-esque styling and ridiculous performance potential.  The more conventional vehicle, the Solo, is an attractive crossover PHEV with better-than-average acceleration and fuel-economy of 100 mpg.

Velozzi Solo

Velozzi Solo

Two things are particularly striking to me regarding Velozzi.  First, founder Roberto Velozzi has stated that “It is inconceivable and counterproductive to manufacture efficient vehicles using antiquated types of construction.”  To that end, he plans to incorporate novel materials such as carbon-fiber nano-tube-based components, leading to simplified construction and reduced manufacturing costs.  I applaud this effort, as it represents a fundamental shift from the traditional manufacturing techniques that are so entrenched in auto industry, and I believe such a change is necessary for the industry to reinvent itself.  Secondly, instead of a conventional internal combustion engine, the Solo will use a micro-turbine in charge-sustaining mode, allowing for much greater efficiency and fuel flexibility.  Again, this is the break from traditional thinking that the industry needs.  (I do have to question, however, why their Supercar needs 700 hp to achieve its performance targets, assuming that the use of carbon fiber has indeed resulted in significant weight-savings.)

Velozzi has partnered with some well-known (and deep-pocketed) suppliers to make the Supercar and Solo a reality, and plans to start mass-production by early 2012.  Unfortunately, all we’ve seen so far are CAD drawings, and no prototype for either car exists.  But now that Velozzi is on my radar, I will certainly be following their progress.  And their chances of success can only be increased with a name like “Velozzi”!


September 2nd, 2009 Comments off

I’m a car guy, and an environmentalist.  I made that clear in my inaugural post.  I’m proof that these two perspectives aren’t mutually exclusive.

In The Road Ahead column in the October issue of Road & Track, editor-in-chief Matt DeLorenzo likens the freedom and spirit of the American cowboy to the mobility now afforded us by modern cars.  (It’s a reasonable analogy, given that the feature article is about the Ford Mustang, Chevrolet Camaro, and Dodge Challenger – 3 American “pony” cars that have recently been resurrected.)  He also makes the very correct point that “the automobile has a social cost – clean air, use of resources, accidents … [that] must be weighed against the benefits – mobility, freedom and independence.”  (OK, “freedom and independence” may be a bit of a stretch, but you get the point…)

Unfortunately, DeLorenzo goes further, and says “there are those who can’t abide these freedoms … [and] would rather see the American cowboy unhorsed.”  He suspects that the push for cleaning up the environment and improving fuel economy is “cover for a larger agenda” to force people to stop using automobiles.  He views this point of view as largely coming from “sophisticates (usually from big cities or across the ocean)” who view our constitutional rights as “merely incidental.”  He effectively equates reducing the environmental impact of our transportation to the demise of one of the great patriotic symbols of America.  (We won’t get into what the great American cowboy did to the Native Americans here…)

…Really?  Does DeLorenzo really belive that there are folks that want to prevent other folks from driving simply because of a desire to suppress others’ rights?  (OK, I’m sure there are one or two such people out there, but they probably also believe that the Apollo moon landings were faked.)  While the “sophisticates” who live in large metropolitan areas might be more likely to place high importance upon improving fuel economy and finding other modes of transport, it’s because the social cost (as DeLorenzo correctly described it) of millions of inefficient automobiles is much higher for them than it is for Johnny Tumbleweed piloting his Mustang across Wyoming – at least insofar as the noise, congestion, and pollution that result.  (Greenhouse gases, on the other hand, will affect Mr. Tumbleweed just as much as they will Winston Urbandweller.)

It’s valid to argue what the real social cost of our automobile use is.  But to suggest that it’s all a ploy to get people to stop driving, while hinting that the effort destroys a piece of American heritage, is ridiculous.  I’m offended – as a car-guy, and as an environmentalist.