Auto Manifesto

January 30, 2008

NHTSA Roof Crush Resistance Proposal

Published in today's Federal Register, the Supplemental Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (SNPRM) requests public comment by March 17, 2008 on a proposal to change the standard (FMVSS 216). Note: This SNPRM does not apply to convertibles.

The basic idea is a plate is used to apply a force of 2.5 times the vehicle weight to the roof over the front seat area. The roof cannot collapse more than 127 mm (5 inches), or come in contact with the head of a seated 50th percentile male dummy. The current requirement is a force of 1.5 times vehicle weight (limited to 5,000 lbs), and does not prohibit roof component intrusion.

Looks like Toyota has done their homework best on FMVSS 216. All four of their 2007 vehicles tested were ranked near the top of both tests (Scion tC, Tacoma, Camry, Yaris) with the Scion tC ranked highest on the 2-sided test. The 2006 VW Jetta had the highest overall strength-to-weight ratio (SWR) in the single-sided test.

However, it must be added that when looking at roof strength alone, the absolute highest peak strength goes to the 2006 Volvo XC90 by a long shot with a rating of 90,188 N (20,268 lbs) which is a lot more than any of the other vehicles. It just happens to weigh 2,020 kg (4,453 lbs) which cuts down its SWR a bit. There is some truth in advertising - and this roof could theoretically support an adult male elephant.

Another interesting tidbit is that, in this test, the 2006 VW Jetta roof is stronger than that of the Hummer H3, which weighs 685 kg (1,510 lbs) more. The Subaru Tribeca also did well. The lowest strength result? The 2007 Pontiac G6 at 33,393 N (7,504 lbs).

The impact of this rule (no pun intended) will probably be diminished over time, which is a good thing as that means fewer people will be killed or injured through rollovers. The reason the effect may become less pronounced, as NHTSA points out, is the mandate for electronic stability control systems (ESC) starting in September 2011. This will reduce vehicles from rolling over in the first place.

Along with many other trends, this proposal indicates that future vehicles will have to be lighter, and yet have stronger structures. However, adding strength often adds weight, and vehicles don’t need more weight above the center of gravity, such as the roof. Conclusion: Wear your seatbelt, don't rollover, and you’ll probably be fine without this standard.

(full document available here - scroll down to National Highway Traffic Safety Administration for details)

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January 28, 2008

Budget Capping In Formula 1

There’s broad recognition that unless costs are reigned in, escalating costs in any racing series will eventually lead to a bust once the benefits of racing (PR, promotion, technology improvements, etc) are outweighed by the cost.

Typically at that point the rulemakers go back to the proverbial drawing board and come up with a new version that’s less cost intensive, and often more technically limited (e.g. IMSA GTP, German Touring Cars in the ‘90s, and CART/IRL/Champcar).

The problem is each time there is a bust, the disruption causes a major loss of interest from fans and participants. So when the new version comes out, not only are the cars often emaciated, so is the series – just a shadow of its former self.

Formula 1 has implemented a number of ideas over the last few years with the intention of reducing costs, but it seems budgets are no less these days – part of the reason being that teams will spend as much as they can, to be as competitive as they can be.

If one portion of the car becomes limited for development, such as using standard engine control units (ECU) or tires, the money the teams would have spent on these areas would simply diverted to other areas of research and development. Even if the cars were ‘spec’ (all identical to one another) there would still be competitive differences among team through testing and simulation.

Now F1 is thinking about budget caps to restrict spending, though from what I’ve seen it won’t include driver salaries or engine costs. I find the concept of regulating racing through accounting controls unpalatable. There are many ways to skirt the regulations when it comes to money.

Teams will use all resources their budgets allow. Limiting that with accounting controls isn’t going to cut costs. My guess is if a budget cap goes into effect, the probability that 5 years later the same teams that are winning now are winning then is quite high.

A budget cap will require total transparency in addition to watertight rules. The way the FIA went about last season’s hearings and scandals, the one thing that is completely obvious is that they haven’t quite gotten the grasp of operating transparently. So a budget cap is even less likely to work.

What F1 needs to do is cut down force dramatically (make the wings standard and smaller), reduce the turbulent air behind the cars so they can race closer, and bring back slick tires. Finally, they need to tighten up the rules so we don’t have everyone waiting a month after the last race of the year to have a championship decision made in a faux court – it should be decided on track.

If F1 keeps going the way it’s going with all these shenanigans that have nothing to do with racing action, it will find itself in a bust sooner or later as the manufacturers outspend the smaller teams into oblivion and then pull out. It’s time for a change but budget caps will neither limit spending nor improve the racing.

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January 27, 2008

Spare Tires No Longer Necessary

When was the last time you looked at the spare tire in the trunk of your car? My guess is it’s been a while because more and more, there’s no need for it. Over the life of a vehicle, say 150,000 miles, how many times does the spare tire actually see duty?

Yet its weight is hauled around the entire time. A spare wheel and tire for a small car weighs in the neighborhood of 25 pounds. With ongoing and ever increasing need to lighten vehicles, that’s a big chunk of weight that can easily be lost. Plus the space that’s freed up would be useful – especially if we’re moving to lower density energy sources that take up more space than gasoline tanks, such as bulky batteries.

Of course people will still have flat tires but a number of factors will mitigate the need to carry a spare. With tire pressure monitoring systems (TPMS) now standard on new cars the risk of under inflation (a common cause of blowouts) is reduced – we’re less likely to experience a flat.

In the event that a tire goes flat, run flat technology enables vehicles to be driven to the nearest service center instead of being stranded roadside. There are downsides such as replacement cost and added weight which may not offset the weight of a spare, but it’s also an issue of security/peace of mind for some.

Further, being stranded roadside is better now than before with the widespread use and availability of cell phones, as well as growing use of in-vehicle communication systems such as GM’s On-Star. Motorists can have roadside assistance come their way much sooner.

Finally of course, tire technology continues to improve providing tougher, more durable tires. Overall the need for carrying a spare tire and wheel for the life of the vehicle has diminished, and it will likely eventually be phased out of most vehicles.

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Start Button Finally Makes Sense

It started as a gimmick. Now many sports and highline vehicles feature the start button. Not only do you need a key, but then you have the extra step of pressing the start button to fire up the engine. I like cars as much as the next guy but certainly wouldn’t want to bother with this Walter Mitty accessory every time I went to the store. Did anyone stop and ask why before these systems were installed? Seems like we were all getting by fine for the last hundred years or so without them.

But now they’re starting to make sense. With advanced key systems that no longer require insertion into a keyhole, as long as the driver has the key when getting in the car, just pressing the start button will enable the engine to start. Now there’s one less step to starting the car, and it becomes a convenience rather than an obstacle.

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January 24, 2008

AFS Trinity Recycles Stillborn Bugatti?

Stopped by to have a look at the AFS Trinity exhibit about their PHEV conversions and technology (see my previous entry here)

Lo and behold another one of their show cars is (I believe) intended to hint at their own design. But not so. Take a look and you’ll see it’s a disguised prototype Bugatti EB112 from circa 1993-1994. Different headlights, wheels, hood, grill, and rear window but it leaves little doubt that it’s the same car.

See the Bugatti EB112 pics here and decide for yourself:

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Vehicle Trend: Adventure Vehicles

Pick up trucks and SUVs are going to get smaller. Between the energy and environmental issues, vehicles will get lighter (not necessarily light but lighter), and have smaller footprints.

Granted, full size pick ups aren’t going to go away, especially if they’re used as work vehicles. But the ones used as personal vehicles that occasionally are used for hauling stuff around will transition the way that truck-based SUVs shifted to car-based crossovers.

Of course, the original adventure vehicle is the Jeep Wrangler which now enjoys stronger sales than ever. More recent examples that made it to production are the Honda Ridgeline and Toyota FJ Cruiser.

At this year’s Detroit show several concepts were unveiled that further explored this idea in varying shades such as the Toyota A-BAT, Hummer HX, Suzuki X-Head, and Jeep Renegade.

Much like the Mini, Audi A3, and Volvo C30 making the case for premium small cars, we’ll likely see the same with trucks as they morph into adventure vehicles with nicer interiors, innovative packaging, and multi-functional dimensions. Think of the new breed as Swiss Army Knives on wheels.

Links to pics:

Hummer HX
Jeep Renegade
Suzuki X-Head
Toyota A-BAT

1/31/08 Update: Chrysler's Jim Press seems to agree

2/5/08 Update: Automotive News is reporting a rumor that Lexus is considering a "compact SUV for urban buyers".

2/14/08 Update: Toyota seriously considering A-BAT? And I neglected to add this a few days ago about the GMC Denali XT concept.

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Pontiac G8 GT: Best Value in Detroit

There were lots and lots of great cars in Detroit. But the one sleeper that surprised me most was the Pontiac G8 GT (aka Holden Commodore down under), a large rwd sedan with a 6.0 liter aluminum V8 making 355 hp for around $30k?

Built in Australia by Holden, shares a platform with the upcoming 2009 Chevy Camaro, and looks great. GM got it right. The company hasn’t received much press about it (yet) compared to Hyundai’s Genesis sedan, but it’s just as newsworthy.

The one thing it lacks is a manual transmission. But not to worry. It’s offered in Oz with a 6 speed manual, so it probably won’t be long before someone does a swap here. Plus the engine makes so much more power in other guises that it’s inevitable we’ll see 400+ hp specials.

Speaking of which, I’ll bet there’s ample opportunity for a US tuner to bring some speed parts and accessories stateside from “down under” straight from the V8 Supercars series. This had to be one of the best bargains at the show.


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The Automotive X Prize, Part 2

Looking over the rules further, it seems to me here’s what will happen. The Alternative class will have a lot more vehicles that succeed than the Mainstream class because the requirements are not as difficult.

Fewer passengers, less weight, fewer minimum wheels, and lower performance requirements for top speed, incline, and range. Three wheelers with two front wheels and one rear driving wheel are going to be all the rage. The reasons are because in the US they are legally considered to be motorcycles, and have far fewer regulatory hurdles to clear (airbags, bumpers, etc).

I’m hoping a few four wheelers will make it just to see if it can be done. But I’m convinced the Alternative class will see the bulk of the vehicles that can meet 100 MPGe.

The concepts behind building cars for any of these classes would likely be as follows:

Massive weight reduction. All vehicles will be very light, especially to climb and accelerate during city driving cycles.

Aerodynamic drag and rolling resistance will have to be minimized, so frontal area and drag coefficients will have to be low. But the rolling resistance will have to be high enough to provide adequate braking and cornering traction for the performance requirements. The necessity of these tradeoffs may result in active devices being used to expand the overall performance envelope.

In order to maximize energy efficiency the propulsion method will also use regenerative braking to recapture otherwise lost energy, and reduce the size of the conventional brakes. If an internal combustion engine is used there will be idle cut off and designs will strive to run at a near constant RPM.

The engine will provide only modest power, and will be assisted during acceleration by additional stored energy such as that saved from regenerative braking. Finally, energy captured from waste heat or solar sources will be used for accessory loads. Vehicles using solar sources would have to somehow hedge against extended dark or overcast periods to ensure adequate energy at all times – most likely using the vehicles fuel source directly as back up.

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January 14, 2008

NHTSA Final Rule on Event Data Recorders

Today the US NHTSA (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration) published the revised final rule for Event Data Recorders and responded to petitions for reconsideration. The rule applies to light vehicles (8,500 lbs GVWR or less) manufactured on or after September 1, 2012 that are equipped with EDR. Thus in principle it remains a voluntary standard. Here's the complete rule (scroll down to NHTSA):

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January 13, 2008

The Automotive X Prize, Part 1

This competition has been getting a lot of publicity recently, and that will increase as the 2009 Grand Prize Final approaches. I just reviewed the draft rules and it seems to be on heck of a challenge – I’m eager to see what vehicles the competitors will come up with.
By the way, the first X Prize ended up awarding a $10 million prize to the winning suborbital spaceflight team headed by Burt Rutan in 2004.

The premise of the AXP is to “inspire a new generation of super-efficient vehicles that help break our addiction to oil and stem the effects of climate change.” The competition will be a road race with varied drive cycles, terrain and driving conditions.

There are two classes of vehicles. One is mainstream with four wheels and seating for four or more, and used for conventional purposes (how many times can I say 4 in a sentence). The other is alternative which requires a minimum accommodation of 2 passengers (side-by-side, which precludes motorcycles).

Minimum performance for mainstream designs is 0-60 mph in less than 12 seconds, top speed of 100 mph, range of more than 200 miles, 60-0 MPH braking less than 170 feet, 0.70 g on a 300 ft diameter skidpad, a 600 ft slalom speed of 55 MPH, drive-by noise of less than 74 db, and at least 55 MPH on a 7.5% grade.

The requirements are similar for Alternative class designs, the differences being a minimum top speed of 80 MPH, range of 100 miles, and 45 MPH on a 7.5% grade.

All vehicles are required to have minimum safety features such as windshields, wipers, mirrors, lighting, horn, indicators, and brake lights.

Vehicles are to be intended for a 10,000 unit/year production level, competitors will have to produce detailed specifications and a business case.

The Qualifying event will require a minimum of 75 MPGe, and the Grand Prize Final will require competitors to average a minimum of 100 MPGe over the entire event. MPGe stands for Miles Per Gallon of Gasoline Energy Equivalent, “a measure that expresses fuel economy in terms of the energy content of a gallon of petroleum-based gasoline.”

Beyond that vehicles will have to meet a total CO2 emissions requirement of 200 g/mi, and meet US EPA Tier II, bin 5 emissions standards which entails 120,000 mile compliance. Why they are mixing metric and standard units like the EPA I’ll never know, but I digress.

Anyway, 200 g/mi works out to 125 g/km which is close to the 120 g/km figure proposed by for Europe for 2012. But the key difference is that the 125 g/km would include all upstream emissions used to generate the fuel (electricity, gasoline, etc).

Finally, AXP will supply all the fuel during tests and races to help ensure parity. They intend at this time to supply gasoline, diesel, electricity, natural gas (presumably liquid form), biodiesel, and E85. More to follow soon (click here for AXP site).

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January 11, 2008

The 150 MPG Fallacy

Electric cars are the way of the future. I’m convinced. But one of the biggest concerns I have is that media and proponents of electric hybrids continue to mislead and falsely state inflated fuel economy figures. For example, I saw this CNN clip today about an extreme-hybrid “car of the future”. And it’s inaccurate.

The energy required to move a vehicle is the same as before. It’s a modified Saturn VUE. So the drag and weight aren’t much different from stock. If anything it weighs more due to extra batteries and the electric motor. But for the sake of discussion it’s the same car.

That means it takes the same amount of energy to physically move it from Point A to Point B. Now instead of doing it with gasoline, you’re using electricity for much of the trip.

It should be acknowledged how much net energy is consumed during driving. There needs to be a way to equate total energy consumed for distance traveled. The reason is that a PHEV (Plug-In Hybrid Electric Vehicle) is often recharged by plugging it into an outlet, and the electricity is coming from somewhere. A 150 mpg figure is misleading for PHEVs. It makes for great headlines but it isn’t real.

It’s analogous to saying you got by last week by eating only 2 hamburgers (i.e. gasoline) and neglecting to mention the 20 helpings of spaghetti (i.e. electricity) you also ate to get through the week. If you use energy from sources additional to the gasoline in a car’s tank, it should be included in the fuel economy calculation.

Finally, it is important to recognize that the true significance here is not that the car get’s better mileage or not. It’s the fact that it offers a way to wean ourselves off of oil because electricity can come from many different sources.

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Fisker Karma Debut in Detroit

Saw this story about the Fisker Karma and had to comment. I'm cautiously optimistic that they will deliver as announced. It seemingly came out of nowhere in a very short amount of time. Last I heard Fisker had just finished the two BMW and Mercedes based coachbuild series, and was starting on a new car project.

It's a gorgeous set of photos. I wonder how much regenerative braking it will do. There are some mighty big conventional disc brakes behind those wheels. Anyway, it reminds me of the BMW Concept CS car shown in Shanghai and I would love to see it on the road before 2010.

Even more significant, I want to see independent companies successfully producing electric cars, which would mean the commercial availability of electric powertrains. That would be a huge boost to the industry. And it would take away many of the reasons the established manufacturers have not built electric cars on a large scale.

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Regenerative Braking Energy

Regenerative braking is a significant part of the increased efficiency of hybrid vehicles. Out of curiosity, I did a few back-of-the-envelope calculations to figure out how much energy is involved with stopping different vehicles from different speeds.

The basic equation is 0.5mv^2 where m is the vehicle mass and v is velocity. Let’s take a look at a few different vehicles and the amount of energy that might be recouped during a stop. Most of the following calculations are done in metric units.

Assuming a 3,300 lb (1,500 kg – how convenient) sedan coming to a stop from 50 mph (22.4 m/s). That works out to 376 kilo Joules (kJ).

For a 44,000 lb (20,000 kg) vehicle such as a refuse truck making a stop from 20 mph (say 9 m/s) that’s 810 kJ.

A tractor-trailer loaded to 60,000 lb (27,270 kg) at 65 mph (29.1 m/s) 23,092.5 would need to scrub off 23,093 kJ.

Checking Wikipedia for the energy content of gasoline and diesel yields estimates of (32-34.8 MJ/L and 40.3 MJ/L respectively. As an aside, ethanol has estimated energy content of 18.4 to 21.2 MJ/L, seemingly barely half of that of diesel.

Another figure I’ve come across is from a NextEnergy brochure about hydraulic hybrid vehicles can “capture and reuse over 70% of the energy normally wasted during braking”. If you could do that for the above 3 scenarios, each of those stops would regenerate 263 kJ, 567 kJ, and 16,165 kJ respectively.

However, assuming gasoline engine efficiency of 25% and diesel engine efficiency of 35% (my SWAG) you would need 1,052 kJ (263 kJ / 0.25), 1,620 kJ (567 kJ/ 0.35), and 46,186 kJ respectively to generate that power from fuel. In other words, to get the tractor-trailer in this example moving from a stop to 65 mph takes about 1/3 gallon of diesel fuel.

All this energy is currently just wasted to the atmosphere as heat from regular disc or drum brakes to bring things to a stop. Depending on a vehicle’s typical drive cycle, there is substantial potential savings in regenerative braking. Which is why they’re starting to be used on heavy vehicles that do a lot of stop-and-go driving such as refuse trucks and delivery vans.

It comes down to balancing space requirements, added weight, cost, the volume and maximum pressure capability of the accumulator, and fuel savings. I wonder what applications they’ll appear on next.

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General Motors: Vision for the Future

Rick Wagoner's speech at the Consumer Electronics Show covered much of what I've been thinking about the future of the automobile. I was very impressed with the breadth and depth of GM's vision as I read the transcript.

Three points that stand out are driverless vehicles, vehicle-to-vehicle (and network) communication, and electric drive. I've touched on these things in other posts. Certainly not the only one, so it seems there is some conceptual convergence within the automotive industry.

In the speech there was also discussion of hydrogen and other advance propulsion methods. But ultimately, it all comes down to voltage and current. No matter where the energy comes from, whether it's oil, coal, biofuel, or nuclear, the future is electric.

There's a long road from vision to reality. It's anybody's guess how events will eventually unfold but it is abundantly clear that General Motors does not lack vision. I hope and believe it will come to pass.

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January 9, 2008

Venezuelan Oil "Assistance"

As if we needed another example of the perils of depending on foreign oil, I heard a radio commercial yesterday from CITGO, proclaiming it was owned by the Venezuelan “people” (government) and offering millions of gallons of oil free to needy Americans. The commercial used vivid language describing poor Americans in effect "hanging blankets between rooms to stay warm" and "shivering by the stove every night".

Is there some requirement that oil has to come from shaking, unstable countries that are hostile to the US? Or is because of oil that the areas around where it is sourced become that way? Either way it would be good to kick the habit.

Venezuela "helping" the US by donating oil? The US is far from perfect but perhaps Venezuela, and more specifically the regime of Hugo Chavez, would have more credibility if its own house was in order. Such as having a reasonably fair election, a per capita GDP a couple of times more than $7,200 as they did in 2006, and not having an "elected" dictator in power. Blatant propaganda, with help from spokesman Joe Kennedy.

And Venezuela is far from the worst of our oil suppliers. It's just bad US policy to be at the mercy of something as essential as energy, and one more reason we should all be working to avoid being dependent on unstable sources. Dependency is really no different than addiction.

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January 8, 2008

GM Driverless Cars, Part II

Well a day was all that was needed to find out what the buzz was about regarding GM’s driverless car announcement. Autobloggreen reports that Larry Burns (GM VP of R&D) says that we could start to see cars park themselves within 5 years.

Makes sense to me. If you have specially outfitted parking lots or garages to accommodate autonomous vehicles (and no people driving around in them) it would make for a very good proving ground to demonstrate their effectiveness and take a first step toward full vehicle autonomy. Plus lots and garages are often private property so there would be fewer hurdles to obtaining approval.

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January 7, 2008

Driverless Cars Need Driverless Roads

In order for driverless cars to be widely deployed the road system must be capable of accommodating them. The technology is going to become available much sooner than we think but the establishment of standards, a proven safety record, and deployment of those technologies is going to take more time.

So where will these driverless cars appear first? My guess is in retirement communities and/or maybe college towns, some sort of urban-esque community that doesn’t have as much in/out traffic as a typical metropolis. Most likely retirement communities though. Two main reasons for this.

First because that’s where many of the Low Speed Vehicles (LSV) are operated. These are vehicles designated by NHTSA (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration) as such because they cannot exceed 25 mph and are basically used for transportation in certain areas. Geographic limitations, lower speeds and (generally) nice weather would make it easier to implement a driverless car program.

The second reason is because retirement communities have the most people who are losing their ability to drive. But with driverless cars they may still be able to remain semi-independent longer. These communities may have the most need for this type of vehicle. That’s why I think that’s where they’ll first appear.

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GM to Announce Driverless Cars Within A Decade?

Time will tell if it’s premature PR-spin but the web is abuzz today with word that GM CEO Rick Wagoner is going to announce tomorrow that GM will begin to put driverless cars on the road within a decade. A bunch of blogs are saying it. Here’s the scoop at Autoblog.

As explained in a previous post, I totally believe driverless cars for transportation is inevitable. A decade time frame is much too soon though. The reason is because it’s not just a matter of building the cars that can do it.

The road infrastructure has to be there and that’s not going to change as quickly. Cars will not be able to drive themselves on every road and in all conditions safely enough for them to be deployed in large numbers until the infrastructure is “networked” and the communication between vehicles and roads is proven.

Maybe it will happen first in another country, one with fewer roads, fewer cars, and a more cohesive highway policy. Maybe it will happen in limited geographic areas (see my next post). But for these changes to take place and then be proven enough within a decade for cars to drive themselves? That would be one hell of an accomplishment – especially in light of the current state of US automobile manufacturers. I wouldn’t bet on it.

The Lexus LS460 and (Japanese-market) Toyota Prius being able to parallel park themselves was the first step. Then we’re likely going to go through phases with limited deployment in a few areas and have cars for a time that have two modes, one where they can drive themselves and another where they can still be driven, albeit with varying levels of electronic assistance for safety reasons. And those vehicles will be able to drive themselves in those deployment areas.

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January 5, 2008

Why Drive In Cities?

The American landscape is primarily based on automobile travel. Everything from roads and interstates to home garages, driveways, parking lots, drive-through lanes, tollbooths, parking garages, rest areas, gas stations, and shopping malls cater to a lifestyle that centers around using automobiles.

That’s a problem now that, in many areas, it’s reached the point of diminishing returns once congestion, pollution, safety, and parking costs are accounted for. It’s a royal pain to drive through Manhattan or any number of other cities.

Following up on electric propulsion, here are some more potential contributing factors. With many states and localities already restricting idling of vehicles (primarily trucks, click here for more info) it’s going to become more and more difficult to operate a vehicle that emits anything. Combined with efforts to reduce gridlock, we need better ways to get around.

Different areas are going to require different modes of transportation to enable the most efficient, environmentally-friendly, and cost effective form for particular conditions (e.g. urban, suburban, rural, etc). In order to accomplish this, one size does not fit all.

My point is this. If more and more cities decide to adopt congestion pricing for automobiles, restrict vehicle emissions, and parking steadily becomes more difficult there’s going to be a point where we may as well not have any cars in the cities.

But in order to do so there have to be some better alternatives, holistic systems that enable people and goods to go from Point A to Point B within a city in a way that is faster, cheaper and better for the environment than we’re doing today.

Whatever system(s) supplants automobile traffic as we know it is likely to require 2 things: Some combination of electric and human propulsion and extensive changes to the landscape. If you don’t have cars any more the roads would naturally be used for something else.

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January 4, 2008

The Future Is Electric

Tomorrow’s cars and trucks will be powered by electricity. Why electricity? Because electricity is a common denominator, a form of energy that all others can be converted to and stored in a battery, whether it’s petroleum, coal, natural gas, hydroelectric, solar, wind, or nuclear. That standardizes the infrastructure and puts all sources on even footing, allowing them to be compared to one another on the same basis in terms of cost, emissions, and efficiency. Plus electric vehicles are quiet, don’t idle, and can easily capture otherwise wasted energy with regenerative braking.

There will be many interim solutions between now and then. Parallel hybrids were the first step. These were cars like the Toyota Prius which used a convention internal combustion engine (ICE) augmented by battery electric power. Next we have the PHEV (Plug-In Hybrid Electric Vehicle) which lets owners plug into an electrical outlet charge the batteries, as well as drive them in pure electric mode for short trips.

Next we’ll see series hybrids such as the forthcoming Chevrolet Volt. Not only is it a PHEV but it’s also a series hybrid in the sense that that ICE is only used as a generator to charge the batteries.

Electric isn’t the only means of energy storage used in hybrids either. Hydraulic pressure is one alternative being used on larger vehicles such as refuse trucks and delivery vans. Hydrogen and fuel cell development continues.

But ultimately it seems the most direct (and final) solution is pure electric vehicles with batteries that are capable of providing performance, range, and recharging comparable to today’s vehicles equipped with ICE engines.

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January 3, 2008

Advantages of Autonomous Vehicles, Part II

Further exploring potential benefits of autonomous vehicles, aside from the tremendous safety and energy benefits that would come with their use, there will be increased transportation access. The young, the old, the disabled, the poor, and even those who don’t speak or read English can safely travel. It’ll be like having a taxi, chauffeur, or train station every where you go.

Why would someone have to be 16 years old to decide they want to go somewhere by automobile? Similarly, why should someone who’s mentally sound at 90 years of age not take a trip by car, even though they may not be able to drive anymore? The same goes for the disabled.

As for those who don’t speak or read English, road signs and signals can be transmitted directly to the vehicle in any number of languages. The technology to do so, I believe will become far more prevalent in the coming years as there is more and more interaction between people from many different parts of the world.

Vehicle packaging and styling will see limitless new possibilities open up that can’t be done with today’s constraints. You’ll never have to park your car again. It’ll park itself. Cars may not have windows or glass at all. Video screens could show the outside when you want to have a look. Engines, driveshafts, transmissions, fuel tanks, may be totally obsolete. Even tires and wheels may not be recognizable as we know them today. And on and on and on.

It may take many decades but I firmly believe it will happen, perhaps in 30 to 70 years. The future is very bright, and it just may take an oil induced crisis or two in the nearer term to spur development of a fully automated road network.

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Advantages of Autonomous Vehicles

Imagine that all obstacles were sufficiently overcome and that autonomous vehicles were a daily reality. What would some of the benefits include? Let’s take a cursory look.

First, there would be huge safety gains. Since most road accidents are due to driver error, assuming 2002 crash rates and miles traveled, if 90% of the 43,005 fatalities were reduced 38,704 lives would be saved. According to this 2002 press release by NHTSA they estimate each highway death costs society about $5.3m. If you multiply the two we could potentially be saving over $205 billion per year. Not only would nearly 40,000 lives be saved, imagine how many millions of injuries a year would be avoided.

Further, from an energy and efficiency standpoint we know that people are not the best drivers either. Having computers drive is going to save tremendous energy. But since vehicles will be networked and traffic flow synchronized, it’s not an apples-to-apples comparison.

Driverless cars won’t have to deal with congestion and stop-and-go traffic as we do today. Travel will become faster, more predictable, and passengers will have time to do other things while in transit.

The vehicles will also be much lighter. They won’t need to be designed for surviving impacts with today’s heavy vehicles driven by error prone humans, nor will they need to be equipped with safety devices to protect us from ourselves (e.g. crumple zones, airbags, or even seatbelts).

The cars of tomorrow will be far safer, much lighter, and there will be little to no congestion. If a clear national plan is created and implemented, the future can be very bright indeed.

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January 2, 2008

How to Improve Highway Safety

From a safety standpoint it is obvious that there is no way of drastically reducing the number of fatalities and injuries from highway accidents unless the drivers become much better. That simply isn’t going to happen with the human population.

There are steps that can be taken that will help, but it’s unlikely that any of these potential steps would be politically palatable. Plus they won’t make enough of a dent. The first step is to reduce the VMT (Vehicle Miles Traveled). For a given fatality or injury rate, the fewer miles driven, the fewer accidents will happen.

Discretionary travel would have to be reduced. We’d have to cut the maximum speed limit to under 55 mph (about 51% of all traffic fatalities in 2006 occurred in places with speed limits 55 mph or higher according to NHTSA). Not too many Americans would be willing to do that.

How about annual driver certification to make sure everyone who is licensed can driver properly? Taking away licenses of those who don’t pass isn’t going to look good – especially if they’re AARP members. Stiffer penalties for those who break traffic laws? Draconian penalties for DUI convictions? The end result is going to be a lot of people are not going to be able to get around unless public transportation is available. And that’s going to create a whole host of other problems.

Instead of reducing the number of people who have access to individual transportation, how about increasing it while simultaneously improving safety? Is it possible?

The way we’re headed, yes. It’s quite clear that if we want to drastically improve highway safety we have to take human drivers out of the equation. The advantages and reasons are numerous. The technical, social, and economic hurdles considerable but it will happen. Yes, the future belongs to driverless cars. You just get in, tell it where to go, sit back, and enjoy the ride.

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January 1, 2008

The Future of Automotive Transportation

This is my opening post of what will become a repository for various ideas, thoughts, and concepts pertaining to the future of automotive transportation. I have a collection of notes scribbled on Post-It notes and scraps of paper. They’re not doing anyone any good in their current state, not even me (too disorganized for my tastes).

We live in an interesting and fast changing era. Much will change and nothing is certain. But it’s safe to assume people will still conceive, design, develop, regulate, manufacture, transport, sell, service, and recycle the vehicles of the future. By examining current trends we can begin to see what may be in store down the road.

Essentially there are only three fundamental issues with the automotive industry today. Environmental, safety, and economic. The first two are regulated in the United States by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) as well as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

The economic issue centers around dependency on foreign sources of petroleum. Many of those sources are hostile to the US and therefore represent a threat to both national and economic security.

Beyond the economic and national security issue, it has become apparent to many that the use of petroleum is not sustainable. We can’t go on consuming it at the rate that we have been. As if that wasn’t bad enough, due to the growth in demand from developing (China, India, et al) and industrialized (US) nations it’s becoming less sustainable even faster. Depending on who you ask there’s a strong possibility the world is going to run out of usable oil within 50 to 100 years.

Not only that, drilling for oil, transporting, refining, and burning it is not doing anything good for the environment. It doesn’t matter if you believe it’s a contributing factor to global warming. The fact is that every pound of fuel burned results in more pounds of carbon dioxide (as well as other substances) being released into the atmosphere . In a way it’s like smoking. You may not get lung cancer from it, but isn’t the act of burning something and inhaling it unnatural? There are going to be side effects.

Finally, from a safety standpoint roughly 40,000 people die each year on American highways from vehicle-related accidents, and millions are injured (about 3.3 million in 2006 according to the Centers for Disease Control).

All these factors combined clearly indicate that the automotive industry will undergo massive changes. I’m here to talk about the problems, provoke discussion, and hopefully help find solutions to these issues that we face.

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