Archive for March, 2010

Moore’s Law

March 26th, 2010 Comments off

In the computer industry, there’s a concept known as Moore’s Law.  It basically describes the historical trend that, every year (or two), the number of transistors that can be put onto a semiconductor device roughly doubles – which means the power and capability of our computing devices roughly double as well.  …This is the reason that your iPod can do so many more things than your Atari 2600 could 30+ years ago. (And if you already knew what Moore’s Law is, then you’re a giant nerd.  Or you work in the semiconductor industry – which is basically the same thing.)

On occasion, I’ve heard people criticize the auto industry when comparing it to the computer industry.  They say things like, “If we’d had the same amount of innovation in the auto industry as we’ve had in computers, then we’d all be driving around at 800mph in cars that cost $10 and get 200mpg.” …OK, I made up those numbers.  But you get the point – it’s complete crap.

There’s a big difference between the semiconductor industry and the auto industry.  Automobiles are used to move people – and their stuff – around. In semiconductors, the goal is to move around electrons.  Electrons are, in general, much smaller than people. We’ve been able to make semiconductors so much better because we’ve been able to improve the way we manufacture them, reducing their size to sub-micron levels – much closer to the size of those electrons than when we first started.

Cars, on the other hand, are roughly the size they need to be to move us around.  (OK, you could argue that our cars here in the U.S. are a little bloated. But, they’re not orders of magnitude larger than they need to be.)  It’s not like the first cars manufactured were about the size of a small town, and we’re only slowly shrinking them down as our manufacturing capabilities allow.  The constraint here is the size of the passengers – which probably won’t be changing anytime soon.

Ironically, some of the most exciting new “green” cars are coming from companies that were formed by folks who cut their teeth in the semiconductor industry.  They know what Moore’s Law is.  They’ve got some great ideas, but I hope they don’t expect the same year-after-year exponential improvements in their new industry as they’re accustomed to.

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March 8th, 2010 Comments off

There’s a big push to increase the fuel efficiency of our country’s – our WORLD’S – passenger cars.  All of the major automakers are working on more fuel-efficient engines, hybridization, electrification, lightweighting, idle-reduction, and other technology pathways in an effort to meet more stringent CAFE standards in America and compete in the new, greener automotive landscape.

But what about trucks? No, I don’t mean the pickup in your neighbor’s driveway.  I mean the big, 18-wheeled, freight-haulin’, diesel-drinkin’, noise-makin’ semis that move approximately two-thirds of our nation’s freight around, accounting for around 7 TRILLION dollars annually – a substantial portion of our economy.  These trucks get, on average, around 6 miles per gallon.  Horrible, right?  (Well, consider that these trucks, when fully loaded, weigh up to around 80,000 pounds – about the same as 20 passenger cars.  If you assume the cars get 25 mpg each, then the group as a whole gets the equivalent of 1.25 mpg.  In that respect, the semi ain’t so bad…)

…Which brings me to my point.  When talking about fuel efficiency in the trucking industry, FREIGHT efficiency is the proper metric.  (Units of freight-ton-miles-per-gallon are most often talked about.)  And despite the fact that not much effort has been put forth historically into improving the freight efficiency of long-haul trucks, that trend is certainly changing.  The US Department of Energy recently announced awardees under the SuperTruck program – funded in part by the American Recovery & Reinvestment Act of 2009 (i.e., the Stimulus Bill) – to improve the freight-fuel-efficiency of Class 8 trucks by 50%.

And how is this being accomplished?  Although the impacts of hybridization in long-haul trucks may be modest, electrification can have a LARGE impact in idle-reduction at truck-stops.  (Today, when truck drivers take their mandatory rests at truck-stops, they must let their engines idle to maintain the heating, cooling, and other ancillary functions within their cab.  Having an auxiliary power unit – whether battery or fuel cell – could eliminate this need.)  Aerodynamics plays a HUGE role as well.  Think about it – semi-trucks today are a bit like a brick – an extremely large brick – blasting down the freeway at 70 mph.  Aerodynamic improvements are the low-hanging fruit.  Even simple add-ons that address the gap between the cab and the trailer, the space between the trailer and the road, and the flow-field immediately behind the trailer can have significant impacts.

Beyond this, truck OEMs are working on improvements with more efficient engines through downsizing and downspeeding combined with improvements in the transmission and controls.  The use of waste heat recovery systems is being investigated to capture some of the heat energy that is released through the exhaust system, converting it to electricity to power accessories.  Even driver aids, such as eco-feedback to provide information about the fuel-economy impacts of driving habits, and intelligent route mapping that considers traffic and topography in plotting the most optimum course for shipment, are being considered.  Super-insulated cabs to reduce the heating/cooling load, and super-wide low-rolling-resistance tires are also being developed.  The list goes on and on!

Why is this important? By some estimations, the emissions (of pollutants AND greenhouse gases) from passenger vehicles in the U.S. could flatten out as our vehicles become more efficient, combined with the (slight) potential for mass-transit as our population increases.  (In developing countries however, that might not be the case, unless you’re an eternal optimist and believe that China/India/Brazil will seize the opportunity and grow more smartly than we did.)  Freight, on the other hand, will continue to grow with our population, magnified by the globalization of trade. Basically, if we don’t do something now, the problem could be huge.

Plus, freight companies are businesses.  Businesses make money (or fail).  Rising and uncertain fuel costs wreak havoc with their operating expenses.  More freight-efficient transport translates into more stable profits for freight companies, and more stable prices for the consumer.

Of course, we haven’t even begun to discuss rail-freight yet.  But that’s a topic for another day…