Education

April 29th, 2011 Comments off

Earth Day recently came – and went – and, given the push for green transportation these days, a lot of the major car magazines put forth issues devoted to fuel-efficient vehicles in honor of the event.  Autoweek was one of these, with an Earth Day Special Issue, containing a bevy of articles about hybrids, plug-in hybrids, electric vehicles, and clean diesels.  But the article that caught my eye devoted a third of its page layout to a photograph of a Nissan Leaf being loaded onto a tow truck, with the title, Riding the Flatbed of Shame.

The author of this article, Mark Vaughn, describes his 45-mile (one way) journey to a track to conduct testing of the new all-electric Leaf.  Track testing – as in 0-60 mph acceleration tests, pedal-to-the-floor quarter-mile runs, and skid-pad exercises.  (In other words, activities that won’t do much to preserve the state-of-charge of his Leaf’s battery.)  He began this journey with 73 miles of range showing on the dash – which should have made it obvious that he wouldn’t be returning home on the same set of electrons with which he began.  But rather than deal with that reality, Vaughn continued to test the car, even with visual and audio “low battery” warnings of increasing ferocity.  Eventually, our fair automotive journalist set out to an auto electric shop, to cobble together an adapter to connect the Level 1 charging cord that came with the Leaf (which allows for connection into any standard household socket) to a dryer plug. Which immediately ruined the charger.  And required the tow-truck.

If you had *this*, and needed electricity at the other end, what would *you* do?

I have a few problems with this article.  Although the message is really, “If you’re an idiot, an EV won’t work for you,” the visual of the Leaf on the flatbed is simply “EVs don’t work.”  Secondly, Vaughn declares that you have to lay out every mile of your trip and compare it with every kilowatt-hour of charge in your lithium-ion battery pack.  If the numbers don’t add up, don’t go, which is sort of an alarmist view of EV usage.  Thirdly, Vaughn didn’t think, for whatever reason, to plug the charge-cord-he-already-had into a plug for which it was intended – instead taking on the challenging task of putting a square peg in a round hole.  And finally, in describing the final outcome of his mistake of plugging the 110-volt, 12-amp cord into a 220-volt, 50-amp outlet, he explains, with 38 amps more than the cable was designed for, it immediately fried.  Although non-electrical-types can’t be blamed for not realizing that the 50-amp rating of the outlet had nothing to do with the charger failure (it was the 220 volts that got him), as an automotive journalist writing in a major magazine, Vaughn should get his technical information correct.

Put simply, consumers must be educated about new technologies, such as electric-drive vehicles.  And Vaughn’s article only serves to miseducate.  (At least he correctly asserts that “it was nobody’s fault but my own.”)

Recently, I watched an episode of Speedmakers on Speed TV, dealing with Electric Vehicles.  It was an interesting piece that highlighted the Chevy Volt, Tesla Roadster and Model S, and Jaguar C-X75.  Unfortunately, the narrator consistently referred to the 16-kilowatt battery pack in the Volt, and the 52-kilowatt battery pack in the Roadster.  Which is sort of like me saying my Audi has a 50 horsepower gas tank. What the gentleman means to say is kilowatt-HOUR, which is how battery capacity is measured.  Education…

Earlier this month, there was a garage fire in a Connecticut home.  The garage was completely destroyed, as were the two cars in it.  One of these cars was a brand new Chevy Volt, plugged in and charging overnight.  The other was a Suzuki Samurai that had been converted by the owner to an electric vehicle, also plugged in (to a home-made charging system) and charging overnight.  Although the cause of the fire has not yet been determined, that didn’t stop local news outlets (such as WFSB) from declaring that the Volt may have ignited the fire.  In the headlines… As for me, I’m suspicious of the home-made conversion and its charging system.  The Volt was almost certainly the victim here.

In any case, I sure am glad that gasoline doesn’t burn.

Education…

 .

Roads

April 3rd, 2011 Comments off

On a recent road-trip to West Virginia, I saw a bumper-sticker that said, Sick of traffic?  Invest in Highways!

(What is it the kids say these days?  I believe the term is FACEPALM!…)

One can’t be blamed for thinking the solution for too much traffic is to provide more pavement for the cars to travel on.  I mean, if the 4-lane highway is too crowded, then wouldn’t 6 lanes, or 8 lanes – or even a shiny new freeway – fix the problem?

Then again, if there weren’t any highways, there wouldn’t be any traffic.

Of course, eliminating all of our roads is about the worst possible solution to solving our traffic problems.  But building a lot more roads isn’t much better.  Roads create traffic. While a highway expansion may eliminate bottlenecks and traffic jams in one location, it increases the number of cars that travel to other locations – typically denser, urban centers or commercial areas into which people commute for their jobs.  Once this “easy access” to the city is built, there’s an influx of people to the suburbs, creating more traffic, requiring more roads, and the downward spiral continues.  The eventual outcome is a sprawling metropolitan area, with a massive network of roads and highways, nearly all of which are constantly clogged with traffic.  (Look at Atlanta, Los Angeles, or Washington, DC as prime examples.)

No, if you’re sick of traffic, don’t invest in highways.  Invest in public transit. High-speed rail and commuter rail make great alternatives to interstate freeways.  Light rail and buses work well in urban areas.  And in addition to the traffic congestion relief provided by transit systems, we also get the environmental and petroleum reduction benefits.  Additionally, high-speed and light rail offers economic opportunities along their routes.  (Of course, the economic impact isn’t universally agreed upon.  Those opposed argue that no transit system can succeed without massive subsidies.  Then again, what about our highways?  Until every road in the U.S. is a toll-road, that roadway upon which you’re driving is 100% subsidized!)

The Sick of Traffic? Invest in Highways! slogan comes from the American Traffic Safety Services Association, a legitimate trade group representing its members who are involved in traffic control and roadway safety.  Obviously, they’re looking out for their members’ interests, and they certainly can’t be blamed for that.  But the irony isn’t lost on me that the particular bumper sticker I saw was plastered on the back of a Hummer H2, rumbling down I-66 carrying only a single occupant.

According to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, we’ve got over four million miles of roads in the U.S.  On the other hand, we’ve got about 21,000 miles of Amtrak, 7,500 miles of commuter rail, and 1500 miles of light rail.  Right now, we don’t need any more roads.

Categories: General, Policy, Public Transit Tags:

Pet Peeves

February 27th, 2011 Comments off

What’s wrong with this picture?

2012 Saab 9-5 Sportwagon

If you’re thinking, “It’s a new Saab, but Saab went the way of coelacanth when GM went through its extreme makeover a couple years ago,” you’d only partially be right.  While GM did shed the Saab brand, Dutch company Spyker Cars NV picked up the reins (for a cool $74M), and the brand lives on.

No, the problem with this picture (and ALL of the pictures of Saab’s new 9-5 Sportwagon) is with the tires.  The directional tires.  The directional tires that are mounted in the wrong direction.

Michelin Pilot Sport Tread Pattern (mounted correctly)

The tread-pattern on a directional tire is designed such that, as the tire rolls forward, the channels in the tread evacuate the water from the center towards the outside, allowing the tire to more safely move over wet surfaces.  But to do so, the tires must be installed correctly.  When mounted in reverse, the tread acts in the opposite direction, pumping water directly under the center of the tire – and significantly reducing wet traction in the process.

I’m constantly surprised at the number of cars I see with directional tires that are mounted incorrectly.  I figure, either the owner (or their service department) doesn’t really understand how tires work, or the driver really enjoys hydroplaning.  It’s a pet-peeve of mine.  …But for a car company to release photos of a new model shod with the rubber reversed?

…Am I the only one bothered by this?

Categories: Tires Tags: , ,

Headlines

February 3rd, 2011 Comments off

Politics.  Controversy.  Failure.  Humiliation.  Death and destruction.  …Also, sex.

These are the attention grabbers in the media — the juicy headlines that cause people to click through and see what the story’s about.  I mean, you’ll never see Boy Gets On Bus; Arrives Safely At School in bold print…  (Except just now.)

You might recall that, during the State of the Union address last week, the President stated the goal of one million electric vehicles on our nation’s roads by 2015.  (The wording has since been relaxed, to state one million advanced technology vehicles, but the emphasis remains on the importance of using electricity from the grid to replace petroleum from our enemies.)  Concurrently, the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana University has released a study, Plug-In Electric Vehicles:  A Practical Plan for Progress.  The report is a very interesting, pragmatic synopsis of the role that electric-drive vehicles may play in our transportation landscape in the future, and it reiterates many valid points that folks who’ve been studying this issue for some time take as truths.  (After all, it was created by an expert panel…)

Unfortunately, a study like this isn’t exactly an attention-grabber.  There’s no murder, or adultery.  That didn’t stop CNN from reporting on it yesterday.  The headline?

So, what’s the roadblock? Well, the report states that “the production intentions of automakers are currently insufficient to meet the 2015 goal,” estimating instead 841,000 sales by 2015 based on a single Pike Research forecast.  (This is probably one point with which I disagree with the report, since depending on which automakers you include and whose production forecasts you believe, you can pretty easily break the 1M-by-2015 barrier.)  To the report’s credit, it does include the disclaimer that “consumer demand for PEVs is quite uncertain.”  Indeed.

But it irks me that Ms. Dimmler chose to frame this reasonable and useful report as a “roadblock” to the administration’s goal.  Nothing has actually happened.  There hasn’t been some great revelation making this EV goal unreachable.  Someone just happened to point out the very logical idea that, in order to sell a million vehicles, people will have to buy a million vehicles.  Somehow this leads to the conclusion that  The President Has Failed!, four years ahead of schedule.

My guess is, whenever it does happen, we likely won’t see the One Million Plug-In Vehicles Hit Nation’s Roads headline.  But the first time one is involved in a tragic accident – or a senator gets caught in the back seat with his mistress – we’ll hear all about it.

Categories: Electrification, Policy Tags:

Racers, Start Your Engines

January 29th, 2011 Comments off

Flying Lizard Porsche/Riley Daytona Prototype

The racing season officially starts today!  The Grand Am Rolex Sports Car Series is running its 49th annual 24-hour endurance race at Daytona as I type this.  And while the France family dumbed down the series back in 2003 with the introduction of the low-tech tube-framed Daytona Prototypes, the racing is exciting at least.  Endurance racing is supposed to be about patience and strategy, but this running is already off to a sprint-race-like start.  It’ll be interesting to see if the pace can be maintained while the little hand travels twice around the clock…

Audi R15 TDI Le Mans Prototype

The more relevant sports car series, the American Le Mans Series, has their winter test at Sebring early next month, with the racing commencing in mid-March.  Meanwhile, Formula 1 starts its season in Bahrain about the same time.  NASCAR also begins its long and boring season next month … but does anybody really care?  (Though it’s the most popular series in the U.S. – much like McDonalds is the most popular restaurant – it’s essentially a spec-series using outdated technology, and its huge fan-base has been in decline of late.)

Sebastian Vettel's 2010 Renault-powered Red Bull F1

But more importantly, Cub Scout Pack 350 held their Pinewood Derby this morning, and your author’s 7-year-old son took first place in his den!  Sure, the construction of the car was very much a father-son project (emphasis on the father).  After all, it’s unwise to hand over saws and power tools to a 1st-grader.  But the boy designed the profile, and repeatedly rationalized his design decisions based on the fact that we wanted to optimize the aerodynamics.

…And if that doesn’t solidify my credentials to bring you this blog, then I don’t know what does!

2011 Pinewood Derby "Blue Pirate"

Observations From an Auto Show

January 28th, 2011 Comments off

The Washington, DC Auto Show kicked off today.  And although it’s not the premiere event on most automakers’ calendars, it is an important occasion, given the vast intersection between the auto industry and policy makers.  It’s also the auto show that’s easiest for me to attend, given that it takes place in the city in which I work…

So, as I wandered through the automakers’ displays, taking note of the new models on the floor (…and I’m talking about the cars, not the barbie-esque spokespersons demonstrating how to recline the seats…), I made a few observations.  And here they are.

Fiat 500 Sport

Fiat is here. Yes, I’ve been excited about the arrival of the Cinquecento for some time.  And Chrysler … err, Fiat had quite a few on display in various colors and trim levels.  This is a nice car. ..It’s a small car.  (Grown people may not be able to fit in the back seat.)  But I think it will sell at least as well as the Mini Cooper (its only real competition) has done.  Molto bene!

Chrysler may be back from the brink, but its future isn’t certain. One of two automakers that the government saved from complete collapse (the other being GM), Chrysler finally has an updated line-up reaching the market.  It is much improved (the new Jeep Grand Cherokee is awesome, and the new Durango and Charger are impressive as well); but I get the feeling their first step post-rescue, while big, is still a little shaky.  I’m skeptical that any of these vehicles (other than the Cherokee) will sell in large numbers.  And it’s telling that their Fiat 500 display was the most crowded spot in the entire Chrysler/Dodge/Jeep/Fiat area while I was there.

Buick is relevant. GM started turning Buick around not long before the General found itself at the edge of the cliff.  Through their restructuring, the Buick brand was saved, and now has an expanded (and impressive) model line-up.  The Enclave is arguably the best looking vehicle in its class, the Regal GS is bad-ass (yes, I said a Buick is bad-ass), and the upcoming Verano is a small car for grown-ups.  Now, if only they could come up with better model names…

Acura isn’t. Honda’s premium brand, for some reason, has decided to make cars that nobody wants to buy.

Ford C-Max

Ford is on a tear. From where I stood, Ford had the biggest presence at the Washington Auto Show, and had the vehicles to back it up.  They’re making great cars lately – the new Taurus, Focus, Fiesta, and Explorer (not to mention the EcoBoost powertrains, as well as hybrids and pure electrics) are at the top of their class.  The new C-Max is impressive as well.  Ford was the only Detroit automaker that didn’t require government assistance – and now they’re flaunting it.

The Mercedes Benz SLS AMG isn’t nearly as attractive in person as it is in the pictures. Sad, but true.

Hyundai Sonata Hybrid

Right now, I’d rather be Hyundai than Toyota or Honda.  It used to be that the Korean imports could only hope to match the quality, performance, styling, and reliability of the two biggest Japanese brands.  Now Toyota and Honda would do well to aim for Hyundai.  Hyundai claims that the Sonata hybrid is designed to be the first hybrid you want to buy.  They may be right.

Mini is a brand. Sure, the modern Cooper has been around for a few years now, but it’s basically been thought of a sub-brand of BMW.  Now with the (ugly) Clubman and the (still ugly but I want one anyway) Countryman, they’ve got a whole line-up. And they don’t have any competition.  (Well, scratch that, due to my first observation above!)

Nissan may be a one-trick pony. With all the (well-deserved) hype about the Leaf, people may have forgotten that Nissan makes other vehicles, too.  Apparently, so has Nissan.  They still make some good cars, but their design language – which had gotten just a little avant-garde in a desirable sort of way – has taken a wrong turn.

2011 Audi RS5

Audi makes the best interiors.  And exteriors. VW’s premium brand gained a reputation for making the inside of their vehicles one of the most eye-pleasing environments into which a person could deposit him (or her) self.  That’s still true.  And the exteriors have followed suit.  Add to that cutting edge technologies such as Quattro, TDI, TFSI, and the aluminum space frame, and it’s no wonder Audi saw sales increase last year more than rivals BMW or Mercedes.

And finally, people need to be informed by folks who understand. The official auto show guide, in describing the 10 most efficient vehicles (as rated by the EPA), said that if a (all-electric) Nissan Leaf had a 14-gallon gas tank, it could travel over 1300 miles… What?  How does that work?  What good is a gas tank on an electric vehicle?… (OK, it works by calculating the energy content of gasoline – approximately 33.7 kWh per gallon – and falsely assuming that, because the EPA fuel economy label says that the Leaf uses about 34 kWh to travel 100 miles, it could travel over 1300 miles on the energy content of 14 gallons of gasoline.  The EPA fuel economy label also says the Leaf gets 99 MPG.  Which is a nonsensical metric for an electric vehicle.)

Sexism

January 19th, 2011 Comments off

This morning, while standing at the bus-stop waiting for the public transit system to take me to work, a woman walked up to the newspaper vending machine next to me to purchase her copy of the Post.  As she turned to walk away (after retrieving her print edition of what everybody else read online yesterday), she asked me, “Sir, would you like the Sports section?”

Now, I’m sure this unexpected gesture was born out of genuine kindness, pure and simple.  But, should I have been offended? I mean, if our roles had been reversed, and had I offered her the Style & Beauty section, would she have been right to feel insulted?

Bottom-line:  there are many things in this world which are, rightly or wrongly, associated with either men or women.  This includes cars.

There are vehicles that are traditionally for guys. Four-wheel-drive trucks.  Jeeps.  Muscle cars.  Anything with a loud exhaust.  And then there are “chick cars”. The VW New Beetle.  The Mazda Miata (until guys figured out it was fun as hell to drive around a race track).  And minivans.  (OK, minivans may be more stay-at-home-mom-schlepping-the-kids-all-around-town car than chick car.  But still.)

Of course, the lines are now blurring – at least when it comes to minivans.  And auto companies (or at least their marketing firms) realize it.  Take for example the “Rock Van” ads about the latest Honda Odyssey, or the “Swagger Wagon” spots about the Toyota Sienna.  (Meanwhile, OEMs like Chevrolet – who doesn’t have a minivan offering – position vehicles like the Traverse as the less demeaning alternative to the minivan.)

I wonder which gender-bin electric-drive vehicles will fall into, now that they’re becoming more and more available. I’ve been told that the Prius is a chick car.  I suspect that the Leaf may fall into that category as well, though the Volt has a more masculine presence.

The Tesla Model S?  I’ll take mine along with the Sports section, thank you very much.

A Christmas Poem from ThatCarBlog

December 23rd, 2010 Comments off

In honor of this holiday season, please enjoy this gift from ThatCarBlog to you.

May your stockings be filled with 5w30.

May the shine on your clearcoat never get dirty.

May your turbos spool quickly, your headers flow free.

May your camber be set to the perfect degree.

May your rotors be vented, as well as cross-drilled.

May your bottom end never need a rebuild.

May your rear differential be limited slip.

May your tire tread compound give you ultimate grip.

May you rapidly shift with your dual-clutch transmission.

May your dampers and springs provide well-tuned suspension.

May your crankshaft be forged, as well as your wheels.

May you have dancing visions of automobiles.

May your overhead cams have both lift and duration.

May your roadways be clear on your Christmas vacation.

                                    ~ThatCarBlog

Categories: Administrative, General Tags:

Scorpio

November 18th, 2010 Comments off

Karl Alberto Abarth was a Scorpio.

Scorpios are all about intensity and contradictions.  They appear cool and collected on the outside, while underneath boils tremendous power, strength, and passion.  They give the impression of being detached and unemotional, though they possess strong willpower and fierce determination.  They may appear small and frugal, but are a blast to drive.

…What?…

Abarth began converting run-of-the-mill Fiats into small, affordable sports cars in the 1950s, under the sign of the scorpion, and since then, the scorpion-badged cars have represented race-bred performance at a reasonable price.  So, imagine my giddiness when I found out today that the Abarth version of the Fiat 500 will be making it’s way to the U.S.!

As someone who follows the auto industry, I’ve known – and been excited about – the fact that Fiat will soon be returning to the U.S., due to their recently consummated relationship with Chrysler.  I was even more excited upon finding out a few months ago that Fiat’s reintroduction would begin with the diminutive 500.  It’s obvious from this post over a year ago that I’m a fan of small-but-fun cars.  And I don’t mean the slow, decontented ones we typically get here in the States.  The fact that the Abarth is one of the flavors that will be available to us is unexpected icing on the automotive cake! (Go over to the website and build one for yourself!  …Unfortunately, the Abarth option isn’t active yet…)

Fiat 500 Abarth

I’m hopeful that the 500 will do well here.  In my opinion, it should.  It’s in the same vein as the Mini Cooper, albeit slightly smaller.  (Though not so small as the not-so-Smart.)  The Abarth is like the Mini Cooper S – after a brief stay in juvie.  It’s the badass little econobox that says, in a cute little Italian accent, “Per favore, mi scusi,” while punching you in the face.

It’s a Scorpio.


Categories: Auto Companies, Small Cars Tags:

At Least It’s an Op-Ed Column

November 13th, 2010 Comments off

George F. Will is an idiot.

In his Washington Post Op-Ed, dated Sunday, November 14 (which is odd, since today’s only the 13th), Will pens a sarcastic piece trivializing the technology contained within the Chevy Volt, and ridiculing the U.S. government’s role in preventing General Motors’ complete collapse.  I’d like to correct a few of his statements.

Will writes that “the Volt is not quite an electric car, or not the sort GM deliberately misled Americans into expecting.”  He explains that it’s “just another hybrid,” and claims the public was duped when it was revealed that, under certain operating conditions, “the gas engine will power the wheels.”  It’s true that the Volt is a hybrid – effectively, a series hybrid – which everyone even remotely involved in the auto industry has acknowledged for quite some time now.  (Sure, GM describes it as an extended-range electric vehicle, to emphasize the fact that it is the electric motor that is responsible for making the car go.)

GM's Patent Application: Output-Split Electrically Variable Transmission with Electric Propulsion Using One or Two Motors

GM never deliberately misled anyone.  Will, like a few other folks, is making a big deal out of the fact that, when GM’s patent application for the Volt’s transmission was discovered recently, it was realized that there exists a potential mechanical path linking the engine with the wheels.  It doesn’t seem to matter that, the vast majority of the time, this path will not be engaged.  (Those of us who have seen the maps illustrating the operational controls of the Volt’s transmission understand this.)  Nor does it seem to matter that, when this path is engaged, it does so simply to increase the efficiency of the complete drivetrain as a whole – the engine can never provide motive force to the wheels on its own.  …Nope, Will has been duped.  And he is pissed.

Will goes on to complain that, in a recent Volt ad, the fine print explains that the car will only available in 6 states plus Washington DC at the end of 2010.  Of course, he fails to mention (or simply is ignorant of the fact) that, come March 2011, several more states will receive Volts.  By the end of 2011, the Volt will be available in most places around the country.  By mid 2012, the car will be available nationwide.  So don’t worry, Will – you’ll be able to get yours soon enough.

Next on Will’s gripe-list are the numbers:  $41,000 for a car that only seats four, before the $7,500 “bribe” that the feds will pay you to buy it, not to mention state-level subsidies for both the car and a Level 2 charger.  He adds that gasoline will have to cost $9 a gallon before these cars will make it “on their own merit.”  (He makes no mention of the subsidies that we already pay to keep gasoline from being $9 a gallon.)  He also dings GM for predicting they’d produce 60,000 Volts in the first year of production; however, the citation he gives is anything but a forecast.  Instead, it’s a news story from over three years ago – when the Volt prototype was first revealed, and well before the implosion of the North American auto industry – describing potential volume levels needed to drive the price of the car down.

Will also trivializes the environmental impact of the Volt, saying it simply stores electricity produced by coal- and gas-fired power plants.  Of course, only about half of our nation’s power plants are coal-powered.  A substantial portion is nuclear.  There’s also quite a bit of hydro power.  And while renewables such as wind and solar play only a small role now, their impact is certainly growing.  (It doesn’t take a lot of effort to predict what Will’s opinion of federal money going towards accelerating the market viability of these technologies would be…)  The point is, electric motors are much more efficient than gasoline engines, and on the balance, electric-drive powertrains are an environmental win.

Will concludes his obtuse argument by criticizing the financial position in which GM currently finds itself, having had its bankruptcy financed by the U.S. and Canadian governments.  The pitfalls and benefits of the government preventing the loss of tens and hundreds of thousands of jobs associated with The General and its supply-chain can be debated forever.  History will tell us whether it was the “right” decision or not.  We may not have to wait that long, however, as GM plans for its IPO.  Then again, it may be investors in Asia and the Middle East that end up laughing all the way to the bank.

I’m in no position – nor do I have any ammunition with which – to defend GM.  But I do understand automotive technology.  Obviously, George Will doesn’t.  OK, so maybe that doesn’t make him an idiot.  But it should give him pause before scripting an ill-informed Op-Ed about it.