Archive for October, 2009

High Speed Rail

October 31st, 2009 Comments off

OK, so this is supposed to be a car blog.  But, the tag-line says personal mobility, and as one cog in the wheel of transportation options, high-speed rail certainly falls into that category.

BUT, high-speed rail is currently a very under-represented option for moving people around here in the U.S.  That might soon change, however.  (Well, soon might not be accurate.  Maybe one day, or eventually is more appropriate.)  Earlier this year, the Obama administration proposed significant investment (starting with $8-billion in stimulus money) for developing a high-speed intercity rail transport network, targeting travel distances of approximately 100-600 miles – distances now typically traveled by car or plane.  (Personally, if I can drive somewhere in less than 12 hours, I would much rather drive than fly.  I rank flying as one of the most unpleasurable activities one can undergo – right there with root-canals and vasectomies.)  Speeds will be in excess of 150 mph, making longer distance trips feasible.

So, what’s the point?  Well, to give travelers another transportation option and promote competition for one.  (Choices and competition are good, right?)  Secondly, to stimulate economic activity, through the activities involved with developing and building the high-speed rail system, as well as through the services that high-speed rail will provide once it’s functional.  Another goal is to reduce fossil-based fuel consumption and the effects thereof.  While air travel is now, on average, slightly more efficient per passenger-mile than car travel, high-speed rail is significantly less energy intensive than either.  (Think about it: it takes energy not only to move a giant airliner through the air, but also to keep its immense mass suspended at 30,000 feet.  Trains, on the other hand, travel much closer to the ground.)  A final goal is to support and promote more livable, sustainable communities, by interconnecting them with an affordable, efficient transportation option.

It’s this last goal that’s most intriguing to me (and harkens back to the whole systems thinking theme of my last post).  Viewing high-speed rail not in a vacuum, but as part of a larger transportation ecosystem, we could dramatically change the way we move people and things around.  And if it’s an attractive option for travelers – costing no more than equivalent airfare, while providing at least a modicum of comfort and chance at productivity (unlike air travel) – I see no reason why it shouldn’t succeed.  And the ability to connect high-speed rail with other travel options (such as commuter rail in major metropolitan areas, or car-sharing programs such as the one being piloted by Better Place in Denmark) is just icing on the cake.

Of course, there will be nay-sayers that predict the push for high-speed rail is just another way for government to spend billions of taxpayer money without any result.  But, the same might have been said half a century ago when Dwight Eisenhower pushed for the interstate highway system.  And that certainly had an impact, resulting in the car monoculture that we have today.

High Speed Rail Map

Categories: Policy, Public Transit Tags:


October 30th, 2009 Comments off

Car maintenance is important.  So is website maintenance.  Unfortunately, the recent changes I made to this site (essentially, migrating from a Windows server to Linux) weren’t as seamless as I had hoped, and it’s preventing me from adding additional posts (without jumping through hoops).  Stay tuned…

Categories: Administrative Tags:

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.

An EcoBoost Ego Boost

October 13th, 2009 Comments off

If you keep up with what’s happening on the auto-scene, you’ve no doubt heard of Ford‘s EcoBoost effort by now.  EcoBoost is essentially Ford’s moniker for adding forced induction (i.e., turbochargers) to high-compression engines to produce power equivalent to that of a V8 (or a V6) with fuel economy comparable to a V6 (or a 4-cylinder).  Automakers have been doing this for a number of years now, but Ford is making it a core part of their strategy to boost their brands’ fuel economy, spreading the technology through virtually all of their models.

2010 Lincoln MKS

2010 Lincoln MKS

I just finished watching the 6 vs 8 – Showdown at Loveland Pass episode of Speed Test Drive on Speed Channel, in which the Lincoln (Ford’s luxury brand) MKS (with a twin-turbo EcoBoost 3.5L V6 making 355 hp and 350 lb-ft of torque) was pitted against a Mercedes E550 (with a 382 hp 5.5L V8), BMW 550i (360 hp 4.6L V8), Maserati Quattroporte (400 hp, 4.3L V8), and Jaguar XF (385 hp, 5.0L V8).  The challenge was to see if the 6-cylinder Lincoln could keep up with the V8-powered European luxury/performance brands in a 3.7-mile hill climb up Loveland Pass in Colorado, with the finish-line nearly 12,000 feet above sea-level.  Expert rally / hill-climb champion racer Rod Millen was given the honor of piloting each of the vehicles.

The result?  The Lincoln came in second, with a time of 172.7 seconds – a couple of seconds (and about 0.8 mph) slower than the BMW, and several seconds ahead of the Mercedes, Jaguar, and Maserati that came in 3rd, 4th, and 5th respectively.  More striking is the fact that the Lincoln actually reached the highest top-speed on the course (109 mph), demonstrating that it was the handling, not the engine, that caused it to fall just short of the BMW’s pace.

I’ve never driven Loveland Pass.  I have driven over Independence Pass – 100 feet higher than Loveland Pass – and realize what a challenge this test actually is.  I also know how anemic normally-aspirated cars can be at extreme elevations – a fact that certainly played to the boosted Lincoln’s strengths.  And if you’re wondering why the car with the least power appears to be the fastest, note that it’s not the peak horsepower that matters – it’s the area under the torque curve, and the Lincoln’s is wide and flat.

I’m impressed.  That the Lincoln can run with, and even outshine, Europe’s best in any test has got to be an ego-boost for Ford.  But I’m even more impressed with Ford’s efforts to bring the technology to all of their vehicles.  The EcoBoost engine in the new Ford Flex (reviewed here by Autoblog) makes nearly 100 hp more than the normally aspirated V6 Flex, with the same fuel economy.  (I’d like to see them replace that old Duratec V6 with an EcoBoost 4-cylinder.)  The same engine is used in the high-performance Taurus SHO.  And there are even plans to use a version of it in Ford’s light-duty trucks.

I grew up in a Chevy family.  (Growing up the rural south in the ’70s, you were either a Chevy family, a Ford family, or a Chrysler family.)  And though my preferences have shifted to a few German marques, I’ve got to give Ford credit.  While the other American manufacturers have gone through bankruptcy and major reorgs in the last year, Ford has not only managed to survive, but they’ve introduced interesting new technology, all while manufacturing some of the better hybrids on the market.  And that, more than anything, should boost their ego.

ecoboost logo

Porsche Goes Lithium, Saturn Leaves Orbit

October 8th, 2009 Comments off

Buried in the pages of the November issue of Road & Track is a short description of the 2010 Porsche 911 GT3 RS.  (For those unaware, the 911 is Porsche’s bread-and-butter sports car.  The GT3 version is the ultra-high-performance, race-bred version of the 911.  The RS is the insane, barely-street-legal, over-the-top version of the GT3.  It’s the one I want.)  It’s got all the goodies you’d expect, but one option really sticks out in my mind: a lithium-ion battery to replace to the conventional lead-acid battery, resulting in a 22-pound weight reduction.  Now, this isn’t a hybrid or electric vehicle of any sort.  The battery is used, as it is in any conventional car, to turn the starter and to power the accessories when the car’s not running.  And while racers have used down-sized lead-acid batteries (barely capable of starting the car) for weight savings for quite some time, this is the first time I’m aware of that a manufacturer has offered a Li-ion starter battery.

There are folks that criticize Li-ion batteries as being too unsafe and too expensive to be a real solution to automotive energy storage.  There are even those that suggest lead-acid batteries are more than capable of storing the energy we need in hybrid and electric vehicles, not to mention the starting-duties of internal combustion engine cars.  (I’d agree with respect to starter batteries, but certainly not the other points.)  But now Li-ion has made it’s way into what most would agree would be lead-acid’s territory for the foreseeable future!  Sure, it’s probably an expensive box to check on your GT3 RS order form, and it really is a niche application.  But it may also be a glimpse into the future of automotive batteries.  (Though I do find it ironic that Porsche is offering this option to save 22 pounds – less than 1% of the weight of the vehicle – while they’ve refused to offer weight-saving and arguably more practical options on their GT3 to the North American market in the past, such as carbon-fiber fixed-back racing seats.)

2010 Porsche 911 GT3 RS

2010 Porsche 911 GT3 RS

In other news, it was announced over a week ago (and how did I miss it?!) that the deal whereby Penske would acquire the Saturn brand and sell vehicles under a contract-manufacturing agreement with various automotive OEMs won’t happen happen after all, and the Saturn brand will disappear.  I find this disappointing, simply because it was a new business model in the automotive world, and I was interested to see how it would work out.  Unfortunately, I guess I now have my answer:  not well.

You Lie!

October 6th, 2009 Comments off

This is not a political blog.


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 Great Pumpkin

October 6th, 2009 Comments off

They say the two best days in a guy’s life are when he buys a race car, and when he sells that race car.  (They also say the same thing about boats.  And spouses.  …But this is about cars.)

Great Pumpkin

The Great Pumpkin

I bought the Great Pumpkin – a 1978 Porsche 911SC – about 6 and a half years ago, from its former owner whose life had brought him to the point that he no longer needed a race car.  (Who needs a race car? you might ask.  Well, doesn’t everybody?)  I bought it to replace my ’89 Porsche Carrera, which I totaled at Virginia International Raceway in 2002.  I also bought it to go Porsche Club Racing, which I did fairly successfully for a few years before life dictated that I, too, should pass the Great Pumpkin on to someone else.

Every little boy dreams of owning a Porsche.  …Or at least a fast car.  As a kid in the ’70s and ’80s I had Porsche posters on my bedroom walls, and decided in the late 1990s that I might actually be able to buy one.  The iconic design of the Porsche 911 has endured for nearly 45 years now.  It remained virtually unchanged for its first 25 years, but even the latest iteration is instantly recognizable as directly linked to the original from 1965.  No other car in the world can claim such direct lineage.  And no other car is equally at home on the race track as it is on the street.  (Well, OK, there might be a few others…)

Yesterday, I sold the Great Pumpkin, to a guy in New York who plans to race it in the SCCA.  (Coincidentally, when I met him, we realized we could be long lost brothers – a fact that was pointed out by one random passer-by who noted our similarly disappearing hairlines.)  I hope he enjoys it as much as I have.

They say the best two days in a guys life are when he buys a race car, and when he sells that race car.  But that’s crap.  The day he sells the race car is much worse.

Categories: General, Racing Tags: , ,

The Hangover

October 1st, 2009 Comments off

I heard a story on NPR today about what auto dealers are calling the Cash For Clunkers Hangover.  September, it seems, was a dismal month for auto sales, primarily due to the fact that so many cars were sold in late July and August due to the CARS program.  The two reasons cited are that people purchased new vehicles earlier than they otherwise would have to take advantage of the incentives, and dealer inventory was quite sparse in the post-CARS weeks.

Is this really a story, though? I wrote about CARS prior to the program here, and midway through it here, and stated that CARS had such an explosive effect due to pent-up demand (i.e., people delayed their vehicle purchase due to the economic downturn).  CARS was intended to counteract this delay by accelerating vehicle purchases – essentially compressing time for the auto industry.  Unfortunately, the program was a victim of its own success and was thus short-lived.  So, is it any wonder that sales slacked off after the incentives ran out?  Not to criticize NPR (one of my favorite news sources), but isn’t this story akin to headlines like “Fans Celebrate After Team Victory?”

CARS HangoverOne good point that was made in the story, though, was that perhaps the incentives were too high, and thus too large a market distortion.  Maybe if the incentives had been only $1000 or $2000, instead of typically $3500 or $4500, auto sales would have been stimulated for a longer duration (though to a lesser degree).  …Then maybe the hangover wouldn’t have been so bad for the dealers.