Auto Manifesto

March 25, 2008

F1 Wheel Cover

One of the finer points of last weekend’s F1 race in Malaysia was the front wheel covers on the McLaren team cars. Instead of rotating with the wheels they remain stationary while the car is in motion (click here for picture).

There is a brake duct on the inside of the assembly which channels air over and around the disc and caliper. It appears the vent in the wheel cover allows airflow from the interior of the wheel to exit more efficiently.

This enables greater temperature reduction by allowing more air to flow through the wheel and brake than with a rotating cover. On a rotating cover a vent or opening would probably only be effective for a portion of each revolution of the wheel, thus requiring more openings and inducing more aerodynamic drag.

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The Problem With Oil

We keep using more of it. The price keeps increasing. And the declining value of the dollar is making it even more expensive.

Aside from the environmental impact of extracting, refining, and burning oil, the financial impact of it is devastating. The US is practically giving itself away.

A lot of money is going to countries that don’t particularly share our values and interests – they just happen to be sitting on large deposits of the thing we’re addicted to. Combine that with the money that is flowing out to all the other nations that we have trade deficits with and basically we are selling the bricks of this house for firewood.

The irony of the situation is that the ingenuity and hard work of generations of Americans are being squandered away to support the oil (and other consumption) habit and transferring wealth to other nations, many of whom don’t have stellar records of achievement and don’t have much to offer in return. Yet they are buying up US assets at an unprecedented rate.

According to the US Bureau of Economic Analysis the net international investment position of the US went from 164.8 billion in 1976 to -2,540 billion (-2.54 trillion) in 2006. Roughly speaking we spent $2.7 trillion dollars more than we had.

Meanwhile, the US Energy Information Administration estimates that between 1955 and 2006 US importation of oil went from 880,000 to 12,278,000 barrels per day. That averages out to a 5.3% compounded annual increase. Even worse the price went from $1 per barrel in 1970 to $74 in 2006, and as of now we’re looking at the $110 range.

That means the US spent less than $1M per day for imported oil in 1970. But by 2006 it was spending $900M. Unless inflation has been running over 20% every year (it wasn’t), spending on oil is spiraling up. One look at this graph and it’s clear why the issue of sustainability is front and center now.

Aside from the slimmest chance of a miraculous breakthrough in technology, there really are no other options but to conserve massive amounts of energy and switch to environmentally sound sources.

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March 14, 2008

Vehicle to Grid Electric Infrastructure

Smart grids becoming a reality? Looks like Boulder, Colorado will be first. The sooner the better, though this article doesn’t give a definitive timeline. Have to complete the studies first.

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Robocab – Driverless Cars One Step Closer

One more step toward driverless cars. These cabs are pretty basic and use rudimentary artificial intelligence. But that’s all that’s needed for this application (airport shuttling). And it is apparently scheduled to be up and running this year.

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March 13, 2008

Stationary Emissions vs. Mobile Sources

Batteries and electricity are the perfect medium for powering cars. No pollution on board. Just need to focus on manufacture and recycling/disposal of batteries, not so much a tailpipe and what’s coming out if it.

Of course a lot of that electricity is currently (no pun intended) coming from non-renewable sources such as coal. Many say that is just shifting the problem. Not only do many studies that seem to indicate that overall emissions would be reduced (see presentations here), it’s a good move for another reason.

The beauty of moving emissions treatment upstream to stationary sources it that it makes it less difficult to reduce overall emissions. It’s a lot easier to clean up a stationary smokestack than by trying to control it on a rolling chemistry set that operates in all sorts of weather conditions while moving about, and expends even more energy carrying the weight of the emissions controls devices.

A powerplant is a lot more amenable to having aftertreatment devices fitted (if necessary). Weights not really an issue. It doesn’t have to be driven anywhere. Space constraints are far less restrictive than under the hood of a car. It makes sense. Let’s get mobile sources to be zero emissions, open up the stationary power generation sites to reducing overall emissions, and use electricity as the common energy source.

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March 12, 2008

Battery Recycling

According to a white paper by Firefly Energy (carbon foam cell battery maker) 90% of all lead acid batteries in the US are recycled. The infrastructure is all there because those batteries are considered to be hazardous waste.

Which begs the question, with the anticipated proliferation of PHEVs and BEVs how much of an issue is battery recycling going to be as we move toward non-lead acid technologies?

I read this article on AutoBlogGreen today, followed by this one on the Tesla Motors blog. Glad to see someone is addressing this.

If the claims are correct it seems like they went about it in a very clever way: Non-hazardous waste, modular, and with post-automotive applications in less critical areas (e.g. peak shaving).

Recycling programs need to be able to accommodate changing battery types and chemistries since technology is going to (hopefully) evolve at a much faster rate going forward.

Further more, hopefully battery life will continue to improve so that we will be able to recycle them less often, and when they are recycled the environmental impacts are also lower. We need to stretch the intervals.

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March 11, 2008

Mobile Battery Charging

Some thoughts on the issue of charging batteries quickly. It seems to be the second biggest stumbling block with electric vehicles, the first being range. Right now, as far as I know, there are two main ways of storing electrical energy.

One is with batteries, the other is with capacitors. Capacitors charge and discharge very quickly but aren’t suited for slow discharges. Also, they have lower energy density than batteries. It takes multiple capacitor charges to equal the energy in a battery of comparable size.

What if there was a way to increase the energy of a capacitor to match that of a battery, and then find a way to charge batteries on-board a vehicle while it is in motion with a capacitor that’s quickly charged while stationary?

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March 10, 2008

Hydrogen Smokescreen

Call me a cynic but I’m calling media spin on this one.

There’s no future in hydrogen* and the backpedalling by GM and Toyota in this article is merely an attempt not to upset the hydrogen political apple cart. In other words, the companies know it’s a dead horse but they have to ride it anyway and hedge their bets.

* - Unless there are a series of miraculous breakthroughs the magnitude of which the world has never witnessed before.

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Mass Customization Gathering Steam

From the early days of the automobile until recently, there were basically two routes to a custom automobile. You either had to pay big money for one the way you wanted it, or you had to do it yourself. The end result is that today there are more and easier options.

As an example, think of the coachbuilders of the early 20th century. If you were wealthy you simply had them design and build a body for your chassis. Likewise, if you wanted to modify your car in the 1950’s you would do a lot of the work yourself. Tinkering in the garage, fabricating, machining, and welding in the shop, and putting it all together to create your very own ‘special’.

You had to pay with either cash or sweat or both.

Then came the folks who had the knowledge and experience of so-called ‘hot rodding’ who took things up a notch. They built turn-key limited runs of tuned automobiles for prices that, while still considerably higher than mass market, were usually less than stratospheric. Some of these cars were available through established OEM dealer networks. These were names like Shelby, Callaway, Saleen, Alpina, AMG, Brabus, and RUF.

The 1990’s saw import tuners take off and the aftermarket industry’s rise to dizzying heights which continues today. Automotive Aftermarket Industry Week is now the biggest event in Las Vegas each year.

Many automobile manufacturers now offer aftermarket parts through their own performance brands such as SVT, Goodwrench, Mopar, TRD, MazdaSpeed, Nismo, and so on. Toyota’s Scion brand even installs many accessories at the port right per buyer’s spec before shipping it to the dealer.

Now we’re starting to see high end automobile manufacturers offer personalization programs. Ferrari One-to-One and Lamborghini Ad Personam are but two examples among at least half a dozen which let customers choose from a variety of interior and exterior colors, materials, and design elements.

What’s Next?

It won’t be long before the ability to personalize your car before it’s built trickles down to everyday vehicles. The market demands it. The ability to spec your car just the way you want it from a huge variety of options is coming.

We’re going to see greater input from customers, more component choices, and more standards for ease of interchangeability and certification. Think of how common it is to see aftermarket wheels. Why are they so prevalent? Because they’re among the most interchangeable and visible parts on a car.

Modular designs, rapid manufacturing, less finished goods in inventory, and an overall bigger pie (market) is what I see coming down the pike. The result is going to be more affordable and more convenient customization that takes place further up the supply chain.

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March 7, 2008

MIT RoboScooter

This type of vehicle is going to play a major role in urban transportation in the future. All the technology is already here, well understood, and most importantly it's usable.

Scooters don't have to go very far, very fast, and they're light. Those factors combined make them one of the most practical applications for battery power which has far lower energy density than gasoline. Yet they're simple. The article brings up a good point about the perception that EVs won't be ready until they "have the range to travel cross-country", which is a stumbling block of perception and not available technology if we focus on using different modes of transportation for different types of trips. One size does not fit all, and scooters are well matched with present EV constraints.

The more advanced features discussed in the article such as folding frames and computer controlled wheels can wait. If simplicity and clean mobility is desired why not release this right now and start developing a market for them?

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How to Not Effect Change

Save everyone a whole lot of time. If you're going to petition NHTSA to change a regulation, especially one that affects as many people and companies as FMVSS 121 (air brake systems) then have some data to back up your claim... otherwise you might wait a year and a half from the time you petition to the time you get rejected.

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See More Batt

As previously suggested, hydrogen is a dead end that will not likely be overcome from the simple fact that if you can make hydrogen you can probably generate electricity for a whole lot less. I'm glad to see at least a few companies publicly expressing doubts on something they've researched.

Sure they have their agendas but we're just waiting on better batteries with electricity, not a whole series of miracles to happen like an efficiency breakthrough in hydrogen generation, a standard and widespread fueling infrastructure, breakthroughs in fuel cells to convert hydrogen to electricity in a cost effective way. And then many fuel cell concept cars still have batteries to store electricity. So where's the benefit in hydrogen?

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March 6, 2008

Predictive Cruise Control

How sophisticated is cruise control really? How does it adapt to elevation changes? If you're cruising on the interstate and about to go up a long grade, is cruise control really going to do a more efficient job than a good human driver would? It's going to do a good job of keeping the vehicle close to the speed you set it at. But it might use much more fuel to do so than a person who can anticipate the hill and carry that momentum up the hill.

The issue is that cruise control systems only react to conditions that it is already experiencing. Adaptive cruise control is beginning to make inroads on anticipating emergency conditions and taking preventive action. That's for safety. Let's talk about energy efficiency.

Thinking along the lines of moving from cars that are driven to cars that are driverless, let's say you're driving your daily commute. It's the same route day in and day out, and there are some hills both ways. Now let's say this route is over an interstate and you're running predictive cruise control (call it PCC) in the peak efficiency speed range. As you come up to the hill the system speeds the car up by a couple of miles per hour in order to build momentum and help push you up the grade. But as it nears the peak it backs off a hair because on the other side you're going to exceed your set speed anyway as you start going downhill. This way it takes less energy to move the car over that hill.

This is repeated for every grade you encounter on the portion of the drive where you use PCC. It will end up saving a lot of fuel. Not only is that important from an environmental perspective, it's also going to be more important in electric vehicles while battery storage capacity is still far behind gasoline and diesel. There just won't be nearly as much energy on board, and PCC can stretch the car's range a little bit more.

Now, how does the system know how to predict a grade, where it begins to rise and where it peaks? GPS is one possibility. If the car's navigation system knew where it was headed and what the grades were, it could map where to adjust speeds. It could also "learn" routes it regularly travels on and build up a knowledge base. Then there's always DSRC. If it gets implemented and provides local road data to passing vehicles, topographical data could be included.

Vehicles with these capabilities are already being tested, and they're going to be important technologies as we move forward.

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March 3, 2008

Mercedes Hybrids to Use Lithium-Ion Batteries

Automotive News reports that Mercedes will be the first automaker to introduce a hybrid using lithium-ion battery technology with the debut of the S400 in 2009. It will be powered by a 3.5 V6 gasoline engine teamed with an electric motor in the transmission that’s good for close to a total of 300 hp and 30 mpg. Further…

The S400 will be followed by a second lithium-ion hybrid, the S300 Bluetec Hybrid that will combine a 2.2-liter, twin-turbocharged, four-cylinder diesel engine with an electric motor. The powertrain will produce 221 hp, 413 lb-ft of torque and a whopping 43.6 mpg, Mercedes says. The S300 hybrid will likely go on sale in North America in 2010.

Continental will supply the electronic modules using batteries made by the joint venture between Johnson Controls and Saft in France.

Related posts:

60 MPG Hummers?
Lifecycle Environmental Impact.

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60 MPG Hummers?

Generally speaking the lighter the car the less fuel it uses, and the heavier it is the more it consumes. We typically measure that as miles per gallon (MPG). But just exactly how would different vehicles compare if they were measured on the basis of weight moved for a given unit of fuel? This is the most accurate metric because it shows how far one ton of weight can be moved with one gallon of fuel by a particular vehicle.

Below is a chart of different current model vehicles and their ton-mile results. Weight data was mostly sourced from the March 2008 issue of Road & Track magazine, as well as Wikipedia (Hummer, Jeep Grand Cherokee), and (Smart ForTwo). MPG information is from the EPA’s new 2008 ratings, except for the Hummer H2 which is not rated. I used this article to obtain the estimate for the H2. According to EPA, the Hummer H3 gets 16 MPG highway so 13 for the H2 is not unreasonable.

For comparison I threw in ballpark tractor-trailer figures. Regular ones are allowed to weigh up to a total of 80,000 lbs GVWR. But not all trucks haul the maximum at all times so I estimated 60,000 lbs and corresponding MPG figures.

It turns out the most efficient vehicle on a ton-mile per gallon basis is, in fact, a tractor-trailer. No surprise there since they’re designed strictly for business use. Passenger vehicles on the other hand are not rational designs. They also have to meet subjective requirements. The most efficient vehicle there is the Toyota Prius.

Taking the efficiency of a Prius and applying it to all the other vehicles (next to last column), we arrive at theoretical MPG figures all the other vehicles might attain. If we really go out on a limb and compare the truck MPG with light vehicles, we’d find that if a Hummer H2 were as efficient as a real truck it would achieve around 60 MPG. Obviously this is not entirely scientific, and trucks use higher efficiency diesel fuel, but it gives us an idea of the kind of room we have for improvement using largely existing technology. It can be done, and I’m convinced the contenders for the Automotive X-Prize will prove it.

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March 2, 2008

Going "Back" to the Future

No sign of Marty or Doc...

Acceleration Assist

As we work toward developing the driverless car, a number of advancements have to be made. Such a car would have the ability to accelerate, brake, and steer on its own. With the electrification of those systems, controlling them is not difficult. It’s the decision making process behind controlling those systems that represents an immense challenge. The complete removal of people from the driving process will have to take place in stages.

Here’s one area where automation may become adopted first. Cars with traction control have been available for years. Some models now have launch assist, designed to minimize wheelspin and maximize traction for blazing quick acceleration.

Could these systems not be used then to minimize energy use during acceleration, and maximize smoothness in heavy traffic areas? With the use of DSRC (Dedicated Short Range Communication, see Wikipedia stub here) at busy intersections, we could start to see cars networking with one another to platoon and ease congestion. If a vehicle’s intended destination is already entered in its navigation system, as it approaches a busy intersection, the network will have a good idea of where it’s headed.

Imagine you come to a stop at a red light. You set a button in your car for acceleration assist. As the light turns green, all the cars waiting for it start to move forward in synch, including yours. No delays from the accordion effect of each car waiting for the one in front to start moving before it starts moving. Each car equipped with acceleration assist would have radar or sonar to maintain a safe distance and speed from the vehicle in front, especially if the vehicle in front is not equipped with acceleration assist.

The end result is there would be less stop-and-go and traffic would flow more smoothly. The network at the intersection knows the number of vehicles there, where they’re headed, and can adjust its timing accordingly to maximize throughput. And drivers could lay off the throttle, only steering (and braking should the need arise). Think of it as cruise control for accelerating. Something like this scenario is likely to play out as we gradually shift to driverless cars.

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Lifecycle Environmental Impact

With much focus on the environmental benefits of lower emissions vehicles, one aspect that is often overlooked is the environmental impact of manufacturing vehicles, and scrapping them at the end of their useful lives. I suspect this is due in large part to the difficulty of addressing those impacts, whereas it is easy to compare mpg figures for different vehicles.

Take a look at the chart and graph below which assume hypothetical (unit-less) environmental impacts from making a vehicle, operating it for ten years, and scrapping it. The numbers aren’t important. What is the important is the concept.

If it hasn’t already been done this kind of information should be compiled in order to provide us with a useful method to directly compare the impact of each vehicle model. The information could come from combining studies of the manufacturers and their processes, the average miles driven per year for each model and their average life spans, and studies on vehicle scrap. Surely between the in-use estimates could come from various state motor vehicle departments and information services such as Carfax.

The most relevant figure to derive from this data then is the environmental impact per unit of work. For passenger cars that metric is VMT (Vehicle Miles Traveled) or perhaps passenger miles traveled. VMT is much easier to calculate. The passenger miles may be more accurate, but it is virtually impossible, certainly impractical, to determine how many occupants are in a car over what portion of total mileage a vehicle accumulates.

When figures from different vehicles over their lifetimes and distances traveled are compared, one conclusion will likely stand out. Lighter vehicles will have less environmental impact overall. It takes less to manufacture them, propel them, and ultimately to scrap them (see my post on longer automotive lifecycles).

Let’s not lose sight of the total picture. Assuming environmental impact is greatest from vehicle manufacturing relative to operating them, it makes great sense to lengthen the duration of their lifecycles, especially if they can be periodically upgraded to reduce in-service emissions output.

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March 1, 2008

Peak Oil

Burning oil to produce work is the most effective large scale means we have now. The entire economy is underpinned by massive consumption of petroleum. Of course it has major negative side effects, namely pollution, political instability and national security threats, and economic problems of supply and demand.

However, what is almost certain is demand will outpace supply capability over time. This would cause the price of oil to rise substantially, hampering (reversing?) economic growth.

Between all the scientific unknowns and political spin, the possibility of peak oil adds up to uncertainty of gigantic proportions. No one is certain if it will happen, and if it does then when it will occur.

But if there is a finite supply of oil, and I’ll venture a guess that there is, the likelihood that there’s a finite amount we can economically (i.e. afford) to extract is even greater. Meanwhile, the greater the demand becomes, and the faster it grows, the sooner demand will outstrip supply, causing price escalation and shortages.

I think the market is beginning to factor that risk into the price of oil, resulting in the increases we’ve seen over the last few years.

The conclusion one arrives at then is that the odds are likely that peak oil will happen, and the faster petroleum demand increases the more overwhelming the odds become that it’s only a matter of time before there is a crisis - unless significant portions of the world wean themselves off of it. In a word, the current trends of oil consumption are unsustainable.

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