Auto Manifesto

February 26, 2008

Loremo Poised For Success

Of all the so-called “green” cars that are projected to reach production within the next 2 to 3 years, I think the Loremo (Low Resistance Mobile) has one of the better chances of actually making it to market.

Why? Because it’s been in the works for nearly 8 years, uses mostly existing technology and does not depend on the development of any electrical or alternative fuels technology. The car is based on the concept of using very low weight, somewhat unconventional packaging, and reducing power and thus fuel consumption.

It’s projected to attain 150 mpg running on diesel. There is also an electric version in the works, but that’s to come a little later. They’re keeping it simple and light, two things I think are essential to the chances of any start up automobile manufacturer in today’s world.

Finally, they’re planning on being in the Automotive X Prize competition, hence one possible motive for developing an electric version. Electric power is one of the available energy sources for the competition.

Here’s some background reading on the company and the car:

Official Loremo Site
Wikipedia article
Jalopnik article

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Hydrogen Falling Out of Favor

Policy needs to be set now for a long time to come. Yet if you look at all the rhetoric and proposals on the Federal and state levels, we’ve got a hodgepodge of all sorts of special interests clamoring for their piece of the action. With all these contenders jostling for position, someone’s going to fall off the wagon. And while I wouldn’t count it out, hydrogen looks like it’s been teetering a bit lately.

A headline this week from Automotive News (subscription required): “Hydrogen slips as a solution for the greening of autos”

The article contains a chart from the GAO (Government Accountability Office) which shows the current fuel production cost of hydrogen from renewable liquids as $4.40 per kilowatt-hour versus the US Department of Energy’s goal of less than $3 per kWh by the year 2017.

Does anyone see a problem with this? If it’s going to cost $3/kWh to make how much is it going to sell for? More right? And hydrogen is going to be used to do what in fuel cells? Make electricity. And for every 1 unit of hydrogen you put into a fuel cell, the theoretical maximum output you’ll get is 1 unit of electricity, but the reality will be somewhat less.

So how does this make sense when electricity is already less than $3 per kWh, the infrastructure to charge vehicles is further along than hydrogen refueling stations, and battery development will surely increase range to at least as good as hydrogen can get? Plus how is the infrastructure for hydrogen refueling going to come about?

All I’m saying is the sooner we start focusing efforts on programs that have the best chance of success because they are fundamentally sound and leverage existing technology and resources, the sooner we will come to a viable solution.

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Peak Shaving

There’s been a lot of attention given to Plug-In Hybrid Electric Vehicles and their advantages. One of these is the ability to charge overnight using electricity when the demand or load on the power grid is least, and the possibility of supplying excess power back to the grid from the vehicle (V2G) during the day, when power demand is high.

I listened to an AFVi (Alternative Fuel Vehicle Institute) webinar today about these vehicles. One interesting slide covered V2G, and how that could help the grid. It was labeled “peak shaving”, and showed the potential to smooth out some of the peaks and valleys in power grid demand throughout the day. This is analogous to a previous post where about smoothing out drive cycles.

Whether it’s a power plant or a car, it’s quite clear that maximum efficiency is achieved within a very narrow operating range. And because of that, whatever we can do to decouple supplies and demands, no matter the system, means that higher efficiencies as well as lower overall peak power capacity can be achieved.

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Open Standard Infotainment

Gary Shapiro, CEO of the Consumer Electronics Association was quoted by Automotive News:

He said open standards — or common specifications for devices and software — would enable consumers to update their vehicles’ phone, navigation and music systems so that new devices could be installed regardless of the ages or makes of the vehicles.

Here’s a link to the article (subscription required).

This is exactly what I meant in this post on automotive life cycles. As the cost of new vehicles continue to increase, and environmental issues continue to become more prominent, it makes sense to refresh and update vehicles over much longer periods.

Another benefit of this interchangeability is the potential for portability as well. A simple example being iPods. If the media is digital and already contained on devices such as iPods as compared to CD players, then it’s easy to dock the device in the car. This is already being done with music players of course, but it will also involve other devices a

It won’t be long before your smart phone will enable you to start the car simply by having it in your pocket, play music on your car’s speakers, provide navigation, and alert emergency response crews in case of an accident.

The goal isn’t just to have access to a lot of infotainment devices in your car, it’s to have infotainment wherever you are. And to do that the standards need to be open.

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February 23, 2008

Piaggio MP3 On the Street

Last night I stopped behind a scooter at a traffic light. Then I noticed the rider didn’t put his feet down. Upon closer inspection it appeared the front wheel was off set to the centerline of the bike.

I pulled up for a closer look and found that it had two front wheels side-by-side. Quickly I rolled down the window and asked the guy if it was a Piaggio. He said it was and that it was the MP3 model, it rides great, and that he really liked it. Then the light turned green and we had to go.

I tried to snap a pic with my phone as he turned the next corner but didn’t quite manage a good one. Here’s an Autoblog write up on the MP3:

The front suspension is really innovative, opens up scooter use to a larger audience and enables the bike to be used in more conditions. With the proliferation in three-wheel vehicle design proposals and prototypes, this might be game changing technology we’re witnessing.

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IndyCar Reunion

While egos got in the way of sound business decisions for the last dozen plus years with Champ Car and the Indy Racing League bickering over their slices of the pie, Nascar ate their lunch and totally transformed racing in America.

Open wheel and road racing have been mismanaged from top to bottom for decades and the results are obvious. As far as racing goes, Nascar has become the undisputed owner of the public’s mindshare. Ask ten random people off the street what they think of when they think of racing and most will probably say “Nascar”.

All along the series had all the access they needed to cars, tracks, drivers, and media. But by splitting they confused the public, diffused their brands and reach, and hurt their teams’ sponsorship efforts.

In the past ex-F1 drivers (Emerson Fittipaldi, Mansell, Johansson, etc) would come to the US to race open wheel. These days they all go to Nascar (Montoya, Villeneuve, Speed, etc). In the end the two series sort of crawled back to one another, well maybe one more so than the other.

Now that the series have reunited, let’s hope they get it all sorted out soon enough to start making up some of that ground they lost. Hopefully it’s not too late.

More info here:

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February 22, 2008

Chinese Cars In Detroit, Part 2

Let me ask you this. A lot of your clothes and shoes might have been made in places like Bangladesh, Vietnam, and Thailand. And they’re pretty good right? But who designed them, selected the materials, and set up the supply chain to deliver finished product stateside?

It’s only a matter of time before Chinese made cars are brought here. Aren’t many (most?) of the products you and I use made in China? They’re the world’s factory. A lot of the stuff made there is really, really good. Computers for example.

They contain a lot of parts from companies based in other countries. Perhaps they contain a fair amount of parts made in other countries. But your Chinese made or assembled laptop is probably well designed and manufactured, or you wouldn’t have bought it.

In time I don’t believe it will be any different for a car, another complex machine assembled from a large number of components. It could come from anywhere. The Chinese automobile industry is going to progress faster than the Japanese and Koreans did. The trail was already blazed. The only thing that might rival their pace is that of the Indians.

There is no doubt we are going to see some massive change. And I think that pace of change has been and is being accelerated by the world’s automobile manufacturers and suppliers setting up shop in China and combining their skills with the manufacturing capabilities that exist there.

If I were to guess which Chinese made vehicles will succeed in the US market first, I’m going to place my bet on a non-Chinese company that already successfully sells vehicles in the US, and has strong ties to a Chinese partner. That’s the firm that has the least steep learning curve.

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Beyond Biking to Work, Part 2

Following up on yesterday about making bicycles a viable alternative mode of transportation, the way to do that is to build or dedicate bicycle lanes between hubs within areas of a city to maximize potential usage and minimize cyclist exposure to motorized traffic, and provide showers and changing facilities there on a membership basis – like a gym without the space requirements of exercise machines. Pairing that with bike sharing programs like those initiated or proposed in various cities would really boost the number of participants. Here's more info:

Bike paths have to be accessible most of the time. That means day and night (need lighting) and throughout most or all of the year, in varying weather conditions. Currently the best way to deal with that is by wearing the appropriate attire for a given temperature, and being prepared for changes by carrying rain gear. It’s do-able, and not too cumbersome.

However, to get maximum long term benefit out of these concepts, the landscape will have to adapt as well. Some cities such as Minneapolis, Des Moines, and Indianapolis make use of elevated “sky walks”, enclosed, climate controlled walkways between major downtown buildings. Wouldn’t slightly larger versions of these be useful for pedestrian and bicycle transportation, especially in colder or rainy climates?

Finally, to extend the range of bicycles, electric assistance can do that. There are range extenders on the market now that will help propel a rider and bicycle many miles, depending on the amount of user effort. Imagine riding a bicycle that requires so little effort you always feel like you’re going downhill. The ultimate PHEV is a human-electric bicycle.

Yes, I said it. Automotive engineer, racing enthusiast, and die hard car fan that I am, I believe the automobile has become a victim of its own success. When this many people use them they start to lose their utility, the cost is starting to exceed the value. And it’s only going to get worse as the developing world attains lifestyles that we in America have now.

If we’re going to change the way we live for the better, the place to start isn’t so much building more automobiles. It starts with redeveloping cities and towns in ways that reduce our dependency on them, and encouraging cleaner, safer, and more convenient modes of transportation. And the final kicker? Barring inclement weather I can usually arrive at my destination faster on a bike (without trying) than a car if it’s within 2 miles of where I start.

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February 21, 2008

Chinese Cars In Detroit, Part 1

Here are some observations I made about Chinese cars I saw at the Detroit auto show last month. Everyone says they have a long way to go and I agree.

If you could buy a Chinese car in the US right now you would have only one reason to do so: The short term price advantage. The car would probably fall apart and end up costing far more in the long run than buying a quality used car. I see 3 major weaknesses: Design, quality, and marketing.

Chinese Design

They don’t get it – yet. The serious cars are complete knock-offs of models from other manufacturers based in other countries. BYD (Build Your Dreams) for example, helped themselves to a Toyota Corolla design, with some previous generation Camry rearend thrown into the mix.

What happens when you cross a Mercedes SL with a Volkswagen Eos?

And here’s a faithful reproduction of the last generation Honda Accord, accentuated with a subtle BMW 7-series Bangle-Butt:

It’s readily apparent that intellectual property is a serious issue. Without respecting IP it makes it hard for an industry or a society to innovate because there’s less incentive to do so. You create something new, everyone copies you and undercuts you while you have higher costs because you had to invest in R&D. This is why counterfeit and pirated goods are so harmful to the economy (more info here). They need to differentiate themselves from others by building unique products the market wants.

Chinese Quality

They don’t get it – yet. Paint, fit and finish, and trim are all below par. A two foot long piece of plastic trim promptly fell off the trunklid of one car I touched. There is also apparently one main door handle supplier in China, or they all copy from one another. Note the handle that won’t retract. It makes you wonder how well their engines and transmissions are made.

Chinese Marketing

They don’t get it – yet. The brochures I read were full of spelling and grammatical mistakes. Not only that, the use of language often didn’t make sense. Something is definitely lost in the translation. If they want to succeed here, they need to get native PR and marketing people to get the message out. Here’s another example:

Serial or item number as vehicle name isn't going to be memorable for the right reasons.

Despite all these shortcomings, I think Chinese made cars are going to be here sooner rather than later. They will eventually get it. To be continued….

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Beyond Biking to Work, Part 1

Besides using my bike to commute, I also use it for fitness/recreation, and I’ve also used it on occasion for other transportation. In the DC-area there are miles and miles of bike trails, as well as bike-able roads. Some trips I’ve taken include going to the grocery store, doctor, bike shop, post office, bank, and even Target.

Keep in mind however that I live close to everything. Still, I only use the bike for errands occasionally. The thought has crossed my mind to sell my car and get a Zipcar membership but when I worked out how little it costs me to keep my car (paid for, not depreciating any more, very low property tax and maintenance, liability insurance only, etc) it’s more convenient for me just to keep it.

Anyway, the reason I still have a car is because I regularly go on overnight trips. But if I just stayed in town biking, combined with car sharing, would probably work very well. It would be even better if two things would happen: Bicycle transportation was made more user friendly, and bicycle use could be extended.

What I mean by making bicycle transportation more user friendly is for communities to endorse and support it with meaningful changes, some small and some more ambitious.

For example, it’s difficult to go shopping by bike because while finding a place to lock it is easy, there’s often no place to store your gear (helmet, backpack, etc) while there. Bike racks and lockers would be a great start. I would also get a set of panniers to haul groceries. Those saddlebags would be useful for lots of things, yet easily removed for times when you don’t need them. These are small changes that would increase bicycle use by people who already use them to commute, people like me.

The second part of it is to make bicycle transportation a viable alternative to other modes of transportation for the masses. I’ll cover that in a post tomorrow.

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February 20, 2008

Why I Bike to Work, Part 3

In the first two parts of this series I talked about taking up the option of biking to work as a result of my office moving, and then the practicality of doing so. In this part I’ll take a look at the costs and savings in doing so, and other times I can use the bike instead of the car.

First, here’s a list of gear I had to get to start. Since I already had some of the items I’m like the bicycle, helmet, and backpack I’m going to focus on the incremental items. But just for background I bought the bike nine years ago for $900, and the helmet and backpack ran about $75 for both. So I had already spent about $1,000 for recreation that I can now also use for commuting.

The incremental items were as follows:

So my additional cost was about $300. With a two mile commute I’d be driving about 20 miles a week or 1,000 miles a year. Assuming my car gets 20 mpg on such a short commute (fuel economy would improve a little on a longer commute – I’d get about 23 mpg around town), and fuel at $3 per gallon, it would cost about $150 a year in fuel. After two years of biking to work I would finally break even.

But that doesn’t account for parking ($100/month pre-tax, so say $70/month net), maintenance and other expenses with the car, nor does it account for bicycle maintenance (which, by the way is negligible). From a financial standpoint though, it’s not like I’m saving a lot of money one way or the other if I don’t park in the office garage. If I did though it would be an extra $840 per year. So I’m easily saving several hundred a year compared to garage parking.

More importantly though, I get an additional 1,000 miles a year of bicycle riding (exercise), don’t have to look for or pay for parking. I also save 10 minutes a day in walking to and from the car (33 hours/year at 200 work days) compared to street parking. Granted that’s exercise too, but I like biking better and it’s more vigorous.

In a nutshell, biking to work has been good in every way now that I have that choice. In my case, it costs less than driving, gets me to work sooner, causes far less stress and hassle, is great exercise, and is do-able year round. Oh, and I also happen to like where I live now much more than before. So I would definitely recommend considering it.

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February 19, 2008

Hydrogen Emits More Than Water Vapor

I’ve just read another article (Automotive Engineering, February 2008, p. 30) that mentions that the only emissions from hydrogen fueled vehicles is water. Not true. This is just like saying electric vehicles powered by batteries emit nothing. Why is the media constantly hyping this? Sure, running a vehicle on hydrogen is clean but most ways of making hydrogen aren’t. Just like most ways of making electricity.

The whole truth is not well known by the public, but the second half of it is very sound-bite friendly. While I’m not an expert on hydrogen, the sheer level of hype surrounding its use as a fuel makes me cynical. It is not a panacea.

Hydrogen fueled vehicles can be divided into two basic groups: Internal combustion engines running on hydrogen fuel, and electric vehicles powered by hydrogen fuel cells.

In either case, you have to get hydrogen and compress it to store enough of it to power the vehicle an appreciable amount.

In either case you have to make, storage, and transport hydrogen. It takes a lot of energy to make hydrogen. And energy usually results in emissions. Then you use the hydrogen to make electricity. So let me ask you this. Why not just use the energy to make hydrogen to make electricity instead? Is that not a more direct and efficient process that will yield fewer emissions? Two words: Rube Goldberg.

It’s debatable which is more feasible: Developing an electric battery that can be recharged quickly, provide enough vehicle range to be useful, and be durable enough to last 100,000 miles, or developing a hydrogen fuel cell that can do the same. But batteries already exist for all sorts of applications. Do you have a fuel cell powered-anything?

Here’s a quote from “The Car and Fuel of the Future: A Technology and Policy Overview” prepared by the National Commission on Energy Policy by The Center for Energy and Climate Solutions (June 2004) on hydrogen funding:

..currently getting funding and policy attention that is vastly disproportionate to both its probability of success and likely environmental benefits.

Hydrogen compared to battery electric or other energy storage method is like VHS versus Beta max, Apple versus PC, and Xbox versus PlayStation all over again. All it really comes down to is finding practical storage media for energy and establishing a dominant standard. Hydrogen as a storage medium seems redundant, like copying a VHS tape into Beta or running PC apps on an Apple.

My guess is that most (all?) hydrogen fuel cell research programs by major companies serve as advanced research for hedging bets in case a breakthrough happens and for PR purposes. No one who is going to build a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle that you and I can buy for any reasonable amount of money any time soon and turn a profit. Not only because they’re very expensive, but also because where are we going to refuel? File this under not-going-to-happen-anytime-soon-unless-there’s-a-lot-of-major-breakthroughs.

Sorry for the rant. I’m just calling out what I see as misleading reporting.

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Why I Bike to Work, Part 2

Most people I’ve talked with think it’s great to bike to work, it’s just not for them. They can see the benefits but they can’t see themselves making the changes in their lives to do so. The changes are not that big.

The key to commuting is obviously your Point A and Point B. They have to be within a comfortable distance of each other, and there has to be a reasonably safe route for biking. Both need to have showers, and a place to store your clothes. In my case all these criteria are met. Most of my ride is on a bike trail, and there’s only one main intersection I have to cross. Every other consideration can be adapted to. Here’s what I did.

First, there’s a bicycle rack by the door of the building where I work, the best parking space of all. And it’s covered. Since no one else uses it, I leave my bike lock on it when I go home so I don’t have to carry it around (dead weight).

Next, I bought a wardrobe from Home Depot and put it in my office, put my work clothes in it. Now I don’t have to carry each day’s change with me. I use two plastic storage bins for storing socks and undergarments, and another one as a hamper. Since we wear business attire here my slacks and suits only need to be dry cleaned once in a while. I’ll take them to the cleaners with my car. On a weekly basis I’m hauling my hamper home in my backpack with my undergarments, shirts, and socks. I also iron the shirts in the office so I don’t have to worry about them getting wrinkled in transit. Ok, so clothes are taken care of.

Everything else is just an accessory to make the actual bike riding part safer and more comfortable. Most important are lights, for me to see the road at night (the bike trail is not lit) and for others to be able to see me, especially cars. The first headlight I had didn’t work too well. It was dim and only used two AA batteries so I switched to an LED type that uses four AA batteries. On the back I have a highly visible flashing red LED. Every we weeks I recharge the batteries.

So night riding is accounted for. The only other conditions to consider are temperature and precipitation. Hot days are easy. Just wear less. Cold days require varying layers of clothing. I find a ski cap, gloves, long johns, a sweatshirt, exercise pants, and a sleeveless fleece are comfortable down to about 20 degrees (F) – and it rarely gets that cold. I have a balaclava which covers my whole head except for the eyes, but found I’m allergic to it so I don’t use it any more. Also, I use reflective velcro straps for my pant legs to keep them from making contact with the chain (and provide some additional night time visibility), and I switched from clipless pedals to flat pedals so I can wear normal shoes..

What happens if it rains? That’s the question I get a lot. Well the short answer is you get wet. I have a rain jacket. One at home and one at work prevents . It’s rarely needed, though in the spring I might need it more often. The other thing is a rear fender for the bike to prevent your backside from getting splashed by the tire. It’s very effective. And if the weather gets really bad, I still have the option of driving.

I’ve been commuting this way for about 7 months, from summer to fall and through winter. It requires a paradigm shift but is ultimately better and more rewarding. The bicycle is an incredible mode of transportation, and I can’t imagine going back to the grind and commuting every day with a car and all the hassle that comes with it.

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February 18, 2008

Why I Bike to Work, Part 1

In years past I would wake up earlier than a person should (6 am; I’m not an early morning sort), shower, get dressed, grab a bunch of personal effects and… what’s the word I’m looking for? Walking out the door is too graceful a phrase. I barged out the door with a bunch of stuff. I hate carrying stuff. Then I’d get in my car and drive to work by myself and run into the same gridlock in the same spots every day. The trip took 45 minutes, except when there were accidents which were not uncommon. I felt like I was stuck in a sea of ignorance.

For a time I tried the commuter train (VRE here in Virginia). Let me tell you about being on someone else’s schedule and running for a train while carrying a bunch of stuff. You have to get up earlier and it takes even longer. And then there are delays due to track problems. One time the train derailed. Luckily, I didn’t ride it that day. Public transportation, in general, can be as much of a pain as driving.

Last summer my office moved. It had been planned and discussed for a couple of years in advance so I had plenty of time to prepare. I drove it a few mornings to see how long my commute would be. No matter which way I tried, and I tried a number of them, I couldn’t get there in less than 75 minutes. And the drive home was at least that much unless I stayed at the office until 8 pm. No dice. I decided to move close to the new office.

I went house hunting with my bicycle in the back of the car. Every place I looked at, I’d bike from it to the new office to see how the commute would be. In the end I settled on a condo two miles away. It’s been one of the best moves I’ve ever made.

These days I generally roll out of bed at 7:30, change into my workout clothes, bike ten minutes to work, and I always get the best parking space. After I shower and dress, I have breakfast and then start my day.

I drive a lot less now. Once every few weeks I’ll drive to work if I need to. It takes ten minutes to drive. I’m not paying $100/month to park in the garage at work so add another five to ten to find street parking and walk in. In this case biking is way easier than driving. And if I hadn’t moved I’d be spending 2.5 hours a day sitting in traffic, compared to spending 20 minutes a day exercising and commuting. In terms of cost and quality-of-life, there’s no contest.

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The Cost of Electricity vs. Gasoline

Just looked at one of my recent electric bills here in Virginia and my average annual cost for a kilowatt hour of electricity is 6.3 cents. Let’s put this in perspective and see how it compares with gasoline.

According to Wikipedia, gasoline has 32 to 34.8 MJ/L. So let’s assume 33 MJ/L. A gallon is 3.78 L so that’s 124.74 MJ/gal. A mega-Joule is a million Joules. So that’s 124,740,000 Joules in a gallon. A Watt is a Joule/second. So a Watt-hour then is equivalent to 3,600 (seconds/hour) times a Joule = 3,600 Joules.

A gallon of gasoline is equivalent to 124,740,000/3,600 = 34,650 Watt hours = 34.65 kWh. So let’s see, my cost to obtain a gallon of gasoline in electricity is 34.65 x 6.3 cents = $2.18295 or about $2.19. That’s not bad.

But it looks even better when I consider tank-to-wheel efficiency. A gasoline engine is maybe 30% efficient at best? Whereas when you compound the losses from a battery to an electric motor, it’s probably more than 60% efficient (say 70% battery efficiency, 85% motor efficiency). So if gasoline is at $3/gallon you’d have to buy $7 of it to get the equivalent work of $2.19 in electricity (70%/30% = 2.33; $3/gallon x 2.33 = $6.999).

Granted I don’t know if the electric meter in a house accounts for transmission losses from the power plant to the house, but I’m going to guess it doesn’t. So the electricity that comes out of your outlet is essentially what’s measured and what you’re getting charged for.

Not considering the environmental side of coal-fired power plants (or any other source) electricity seems to be very competitive with gasoline in terms of fuel cost.

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Automotive Performance Envelopes

Every vehicle design is a compromise of many different demands. There are a number of major considerations that go into the design and development of each one. Here are eight off the top of my head: Weight, power, cost, fuel economy, safety, emissions, comfort, and reliability. Within these major considerations are many subgroups of further considerations or constraints.

Depending on the type of vehicle, there will be more emphasis on some of these characteristics than others. In the case of eight considerations, the envelope is an octagon. Each side of the octagon represents one characteristic or constraint.

The distance between the center of the octagon and a characteristic represents the state-of-the-art in automotive technology at the time the vehicle is developed, what is presently attainable. The design team decides how far along each of those spectrums they will emphasize or push. The closer to the edge of the octagon, the more emphasis there is. The area encompassed by the lines that connect the points on each of those spectrums is the performance envelope of the product. The larger the area, the more difficult the challenge.

Below are diagrams I sketched for a race car, a luxury car, and an economy car. As you can see, since everything is a compromise it is impossible to cover the entire area.

Over time as technology improves the spectrums get longer and the octagon (in this case) gets larger. This explains why today’s economy cars, whose designs don’t emphasize power, are more powerful than many sports cars of yesteryear. The performance envelopes have expanded greatly.

So where does this lead us? This is nothing new. But what should be developed is a standardized composite ranking across multiple characteristics by which many vehicles can be evaluated in an apples-to-apples comparison, and averages compiled. Combining that data with information from an automotive “dashboard” or snapshot (link), we can identify areas that most need improvement.

In other words, vehicles should be judged and measured in a consistent way against what is possible at that time, the state of vehicle technology should be monitored and tracked as it changes over time, and stakeholders (consumers, manufacturers, suppliers, regulators, etc) should have access to that information in order to make sound decisions. I think all the data is already out there but it’s currently piecemeal and needs to be neatly packaged in one location.

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Transportation Dashboard

Here’s a question. Is there a dashboard that summarizes the state of automotive transportation by tracking crucial measures? There’s a need for a snapshot of where we are in terms of safety, environmental, and vehicles. I’m guessing there’s someone already compiling this somewhere on the web?

For example, the number of fatalities, injuries, crashes, and cost to the US economy is well documented. How about the distance people and goods are moved, the fuel used to do so? Pollutants emitted? Congestion and travel times?

People and cargo moved. People moving seems hard to track. Maybe what’s more important is how many miles people travel on average, such as population per VMT. Even that seems difficult to estimate since the census is taken only once every 10 years. But there must be some sort of estimate.

How about taxes and fees collected related to the sale of fuel, tolls, vehicle registration, sales tax, and insurance? How about metrics pertaining to operating, maintaining, repairing, and scrapping our vehicle fleet? It should all be available somewhere right?

It would be useful in determining an index or ratio of output divided by input, a work to cost ratio if you will. It would have a few key indicators of safety, emissions, fuel used, costs, and freight and passengers moved.

This kind of information could be the foundation on which policy discussions and changes that pertain to transportation are based. And a summary should be available on one page on the web. Does anyone know if this already exists and where it can be found?

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February 16, 2008

Bought An MR2 Off CraigsList

Usually I write about future vehicle technology. But now and then things happen in today’s world that are worth mentioning. I’ve been casually looking for a second generation Toyota MR2 for a while and happened upon one last weekend on CraigsList. I’ve always wanted one just for the fun of it because it’s a fascinating car.

The normally aspirated hardtop 1991 to 1995 MR2 is a rare car. It’s especially hard to find one equipped with a manual transmission that has not been wrecked or modified. The 1991 I found (with later model wheels) was in good condition and only requires minor touch ups and repairs. The only modification it has is a TRD short throw shift kit.

Some observations, both pros and cons, I made from a few hours behind the wheel and tinkering with it in the garage are as follows. The pros include quick steering, sharp handling, low cg, good all around visibility, and lots of bins and storage space. The trunk is surprisingly large for such a small, mid-engine car.

The cons include a lot of noise since the engine is directly behind the passenger compartment, a notchy gearbox that makes it hard to shift with a light touch (Hondas have the smoothest gearboxes I’ve ever driven), and finally it is geared way too low. At about 100 km/h (62.5 mph) it is turning 3000 RPM, and at 70 mph it is turning just a tick under 3500 RPM. The gear ratios are also very closely spaced and as a result the engine almost never lugs or bogs, which is good, but the car could certainly use another gear or two.

Many of the parts in the car are familiar. To borrow a line from many an article about cars, Toyota made liberal use of the corporate parts bin in developing the MR2, and that’s NOT a bad thing. It was a good bin. Keeping in mind that this is a car with 150k miles on it, it’s not exactly like it was the day it drove off the showroom floor. But overall it is a fantastic package. Toyota should be awarded honors (I believe they were) for producing this. It’s amazing that 17 years after its launch this car is still this good. I wish they’d make a new model.

When it came out it was proclaimed as the poor man’s Ferrari. Looking at it today one might think of a Lotus Elise, also powered by a 4 cylinder Toyota engine, albeit with more power, less weight, and uncompromising in its mission of providing thrills. And of course there is the well publicized electric car that is based on an Elise. Perhaps in today’s context the MR2 could be converted into a poor man’s Tesla?

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Revolutionary Pizza Delivery

We’re eventually going to see a whole new class of autonomous vehicles. They won’t have drivers, they won’t carry people. Because of that they can be small, and will serve a variety of different purposes.

One example is a delivery vehicle. We’ll use the example of a pizza delivery. Currently it’s done by people driving cars. Let’s say the average delivery trip is five miles round trip., the average car weighs 3,000 lbs, and the driver another 175 lbs. The mass of a pizza and the box by comparison, is maybe two or three pounds. The weight of the objects used to deliver the pizza is about a thousand times the weight of the pizza itself. We’re going to move about 3,200 pounds 5 miles to deliver a couple of pizzas. Not very efficient.

What if an autonomous delivery drone delivered the pizza? The customer places the order and pays electronically. Then the pizza is made and put in with a batch of pizzas for other nearby customers. The drone then goes and delivers each of the pizzas, dispensing the correct one at each stop. The pizza parlor could track the progress of the vehicle and always have real time data about where it is, when it will be at which destination, and how much power it has in reserve should the itinerary change. If there’s a need for human intervention beyond using a telephone, on-board audio/video capability would likely be used to interact with customers.

If the drone weighs 200 lbs and does the same exact trip as the car example above, it’ll require only about 1/16th of the energy – and no driver. Plus it won’t take up nearly as much space as a car, and the transportation network it travels on will be vastly more efficient. Your pizzas will arrive much more consistently because delivery times would be much more precise.

This is just one example of the life changing technologies that will occur. I haven’t even begun to explore the concept of personal drones for running errands autonomously, or as a gopher to guide or follow people around while serving them. The information revolution will drastically alter the physical world in many ways.

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February 12, 2008

Tiered Tolling Proposed In NYC For Trucks

NYC is considering a $21 toll for pre-2007 emission-standards trucks making deliveries in Manhattan during peak hours, compared to $7 for those meeting the ’07 standards. Full article here.

It brings up a point I made last month about this type of restriction becoming more prevalent along with congestion pricing. There are also blanket tolls proposed for passenger vehicles during peak hours as well.

Update: Right after I wrote the above paragraphs, saw this post too.

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NHTSA Grants Tesla Airbag Exemption

This is late but the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) granted Tesla's petition for an exemption on advanced airbags on January 28th. The roadsters will, however, be equipped with standard dual airbags (like the ones that were around before "smart" airbags). Read the full PDF here.

AutoBlogGreen quoted my comments to NHTSA on the Tesla petition for a 3 year waiver on advanced airbags. Here's the letter I wrote last year (PDF) in support of the exemption.

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February 8, 2008

Reshaping Drive Cycles

Every vehicle goes through a number of states during each use. It accelerates, cruises at a constant speed, decelerates, and stops. This even occurs when cruising, though the magnitude of the changes is smaller. Below is an example illustration.

Since most (all?) highway vehicle engines were, until recently, directly coupled to the drivetrain and wheels, there was no way to decouple the speed of the engine from the speed of the vehicle. The engine had to turn a certain rpm and the gears had to be a certain ratio to power the vehicle at a particular speed.

Not anymore. Hybrid powertrains have enabled engineers to smooth drive cycles out by recapturing energy during braking and using it to enhance acceleration. Start/stop engine technologies have also enabled automatic engine cutoff when the vehicle comes to a stop, further conserving fuel.

Instead of using powerful but thirsty engines to accelerate quickly and to reach high terminal velocities (or in some cases electronically limiting them) engines are being scaled down not just because they’re now more efficient than before, but also because less outright power is necessary when these engines are coupled with hybrid systems that enable stored energy to boost acceleration.

For example a 200 hp engine is no longer needed to accelerate a 3,000 lb car when a 100 hp engine, running at its “sweet spot” is used in conjunction with electric or hydraulic assist. Yet the 100 hp engine will consume less fuel. Toss in more efficient engine designs, control strategies such as start-stop, and weight reduction and you could have a far superior end result.

In fact, the only power needed is whatever it takes to power the car to the desired top speed up a certain grade, and powering accessories such as air conditioning. It takes a lot less than 200 hp for your average car.

Of course efficiency gains will depend on a number of factors. If a drive cycle is mostly cruising such as highway driving, the savings may not be there to justify the added vehicle cost. For commercial vehicles it’s a business decision. For consumers it’s less so but it’s still a factor.

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February 5, 2008

More Use of Magneto Rheological Dampers

As vehicles get lighter in the future there’s going to be more need for variable shock absorbers such as magneto rheological (MR) dampers. The reason is because as vehicle mass goes down but payloads (passengers) stay about the same, the payloads will make up a larger percentage of the overall mass, and suspensions are going to become more sensitive to changes in payloads. It becomes more difficult to make the vehicle meet performance criteria with regular (passive) dampers over the same variety of conditions.

Consider that on a bicycle you can use your body weight to drastically influence the dynamics of a bicycle, less so on a motorcycle, and not much in a regular car. Active suspension will be the key to improving handling, comfort, and safety.

Considering that MR dampers are proven, have been deployed in some higher end vehicles such as Ferraris, Corvettes, and Audis, it is only a matter of time before they migrate further down market. Here’s a brief summary of MR dampers from Wikipedia.

Now, I want to tie this in with a few other thoughts. Regenerative braking is widely used with hybrid vehicles. It captures kinetic energy that would otherwise be dissipated by brakes as heat to the atmosphere. Dampers also take kinetic energy from suspension movement and ultimately dissipate it to the atmosphere as heat. And they’ve been known to overheat in extreme conditions such as racing.

The second thought is that there are watches and flashlights, among other devices, that convert motion to electricity.

Would it be possible to develop a suspension system that uses a smart fluid to provide better vehicle handling and at the same time generate the electricity needed to control it from its own damping action, maybe even power accessories on the vehicle?

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February 4, 2008

Idea du Jour: Automatic Headlights

Time and again I see people driving with lights off in the dark. This seems to be second only to how frequently I’ve observed people driving with severely under inflated tires, which is why there’s now a requirement for tire pressure monitoring systems on new cars.

This leads to the question why aren’t there (are there?) cars out there today that have their headlight switches tied into a photo sensor so that when the ignition is on when it is dark outside, the lights automatically come on.

Another item is the ability to leave your lights on when you cut the engine off. Plenty of cars will chime when you leave the lights on and take the key out of the ignition. So if they already know that, why not just have the lights turn off automatically? Is there a regulation that requires the headlights be operable when the key is not in the ignition?

If there truly were some need to be able to either drive with your lights off at night or to be able to leave your lights on without the key, a photo sensor and a manual override switch would seem to cover the bases. Any thoughts?

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Longer Automotive Lifecycles

Following up on my last post, in the future automobile lifecycles should be longer – much longer. It’s wasteful to make and dispose of them while only using them for a short amount of time (say 10 years and about 150,000 miles). Why not keep them around for 30, 40 or 50 years and make fewer?

As we head toward fully electric vehicles, what’s going to happen is people are going to use more and varied modes of transportation. Different tools for different needs and different times. Urban, suburban, rural, and highway travel are very different from each other and the notion that one (car) is suitable for all of them is going to change.

Each of the vehicles in those areas will become specialized, and therefore get less use per year on average. They’ll simply take longer to wear out. On top of that, they should be designed to be disassembled and overhauled.

Why throw away an entire vehicle when you can simply and systematically remove parts or sections you don’t want and replace it with ones you do, much like with a computer or a building. This could be done with body panels, interiors, and chassis components in addition to powertrain elements.

Electric vehicles will be much simpler to modify and rebuild. There are only three basic components: motors, control systems, and batteries. Eventually everything will be like PCs with plug-and-play. You want to upgrade the motors? Change the wheels. You want to change batteries? Unplug them, take them out, and drop in new ones.

Because if vehicles can’t easily be upgraded, they may become obsolete in a very short amount of time, perhaps a year or two as new and vastly improved technologies hit the market.

And in the medium term why wouldn’t all those car company performance divisions provide the array of parts for people to customize their cars? Sure you might keep the same car for 40 years but you could always revamp it every few years with an endless stream of parts from the likes of AMG, SVT, Mopar, M, F, and TRD.

Cars should be designed for regular upgrading and enhancement, not planned obsolescence.

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February 1, 2008

Advantages of Lighter Vehicles

Clearly there’s a need to reduce mass. Here are some reasons why lighter is better:

-Takes less energy to move.
-Takes fewer resources to manufacture.
-Takes fewer resources to recycle, dismantle, and dispose.

If people feel that heavier is safer, it simply won’t matter in the distant future of driverless vehicles. There simply won’t be collisions like we have today.

In the shorter term, everything will start to get lighter in small increments. We’ve probably seen cars as heavy as they’re going to get unless the issue of greenhouse gases suddenly goes away or an abundant source of clean energy is commercialized.

Smaller displacement engines will be lighter and use less fuel. New technologies will contribute to ever increasing efficiencies of the IC engine until the electric motor supplants it.

Lightening the engine will have a knock on effect with the rest of the car. Lighter engines can mean lighter drivetrains, wheels, brakes, tires, shocks, and chassis. According to Gordon Murray Design that’s going to have a meaningful impact on the environment beyond fuel savings:

The energy consumed to produce a car is multiples of what that car will use in one year and this energy is approximately equivalent to the size and weight of the vehicle.

Combine that thought with the points John McElroy points out about new car sales leveling off in the US despite population growth, and you get a sense that new cars are expensive, somewhat gratuitous, and entirely unnecessary from a personal finance point of view. Tens of millions of people say so each year by buying a used car.

The world doesn’t need so many cars. Especially having so many parked most of the time. Then hauling all that deadweight when they’re in use. It’s a shrine to excess consumption. Don’t get me wrong. I like consumption, but on the scale that it’s being done now, it simply isn’t sustainable.

The industry has already started thinking outside the box and will eventually stop doing what’s always been done. Cars of the near future will probably lose a few hundred pounds from today as they head toward 2020's CAFE standard (among others). Beyond that we're going to see dramatic weight reduction as the "one size fits all" mentality gives way to more specialized modes of transportation. My next post will address the auto lifecycle.

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