Auto Manifesto

May 30, 2008

Public Meeting on Quiet Cars

NHTSA published a notice of public meeting and request for information today regarding minimum motor vehicle noise levels. The meeting will be held in Washington DC on June 23, 2008, and written comments are due August 1, 2008.

This issue was brought to the attention of legislators and regulators through the efforts of the National Federation of the Blind. The problem is that hybrid and electric vehicles can be so quiet at low speeds that they are not audibly detectable, and represents a potential hazard to the blind.

Overall in the US in 2006 there were 65,404 recorded pedestrian crashes. It is uncertain how much of a problem quiet vehicles are in terms of safety, and that is the main reason this meeting is being held.

While it definitely is a valid concern for the blind, it’s also a concern for everyone else as well, so it makes a lot of sense to study the issue in more detail.

Scroll down to National Highway Traffic Safety Administration at this link for text and PDF versions:

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Night Vision Systems That Recognize People

Or is that recognition system that can identify people? Another indication that eventually the cars will (have to) drive themselves.

This system, while currently best suited to speeds below 40 mph, shows where we’re headed. It can recognize pedestrians walking along the road. As technology progresses I’m sure it will eventually enable recognition capabilities close to, if not superior to, those of people.

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May 25, 2008

Monaco Grand Prix

Heikki Kovalainen has to have some of the worst luck in F1 this year. It didn’t improve today when he either stalled on the grid or the engine failed to fire before the start of the formation lap, so he had to start from the pitlane (and dead last).

The race started off wet and Lewis Hamilton got a great start passing Kimi Raikkonen for second. Nico Rosberg damaged his front wing and drove a couple of laps with it dangling until pitting on lap 3.

Not long after Hamilton clipped the wall with his right rear and had to come in for a change. Then Fernando Alonso has an incident as well.

Raikkonen was then given a drive through penalty for not having his tires fitted within 3 minutes off when the cars rolled off for their formation lap. Granted the rules are the rules, but F1 issues a lot of penalties for the car and driver for non-track events, which is just plain stupid. As long as the car is ready for the start it should not matter. The FIA again ruined a good race with this one.

Also, the rule that does not allow refueling during a safety car period is ridiculous because it prevents everyone from refueling the entire time the safety car is on track, when all it is meant to do is prevent everyone from coming in simultaneously.

What the rule should do is simply limit the number of cars that can enter the pits during a safety period, and the cars in the pits can then have whatever service needed. If a car is damaged and the pit limit has been reached, the car should be allowed in but only then should refueling not be allowed.

Anyway, David Coulthard crashed into the armco coming up to the casino, and then he’s tagged by Sebastian Bourdais who spun as well. It looked like a slick spot caught both of them off guard.

Then Alonso tries a boneheaded move on the inside of Nick Heidfeld at the hairpin. Didn’t work, broke his wing. Kovalainen got a nudge from a Williams in the ensuing traffic jam though nothing seems to have been damaged.

Robert Kubica leads briefly after Felipe Massa misses the apex for St. Devote, and Adrian Sutil runs as high as 4th. Raikkonen has a moment or two.

Timo Glock had an interesting spin captured with his onboard camera looking back.

Alonso was the first to change to dry tires even as rain was predicted to arrive in 6 minutes. The rain never came and everyone else followed suit.

Nelson Piquet and Nico Rosberg were having a heck of a battle with Piquet doing his best to hold off Rosberg while on full rain tires to everyone else’s intermediate tires. Alonso started setting fast laps on slicks, Piquet not so much as he crashed out.

Rosberg later had a big crash leaving debris all over the road and bringing out the safety car. First to arrive were Heidfeld and, I believe, Kovalainen. Heidfeld punctured a tire.

Hamilton lost his 40 second cushion as the field closed up behind the safety car.

Adrian Sutil did the drive of the race but was robbed of a near certain points finish when Raikkonen lost control and had a huge tank slapper exiting the tunnel and running into Sutil’s right rear. Life just isn’t fair some times.

Well done Hamilton and Kubica. Rubens Barrichello and Kazaki Nakajima did very well, and Sebastian Vettel did a superb job in bringing his Toro Rosso from 18th to finish 5th. What a race.

By the way, the GP2 race broadcast prior to the F1 race was quite interesting to watch. The cars are a bit slower but considering it costs maybe an average of 50 to 100 times as much to run an F1 car, that’s a good value that F1 might want to follow more closely.

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May 24, 2008

Monaco Grand Prix Qualifying

Always fascinating to watch Monaco.

It’s hard to draw conclusions from looking at the final times. This is because they are set in different sessions depending on a driver’s final qualifying position. We’re not comparing times from the same event.

On the surface the final times show that Fernando Alonso out-qualified his teammate by a mere 0.081 seconds. But the true gap is whatever Alonso’s time from Q1 was compared to Nelson Piquet’s final time, which was set in Q1 since he did not advance beyond that. Everyone remaining had a different fuel load in Q3 than they did in Q1 (and the track conditions also likely changed), so the times are not comparable. It’s not as close as it looks.

In other words, the final qualifying results do not accurately show the performance of the drivers. The first session is better for that.

The best driver in today’s event was Nico Rosberg, 0.8 seconds off the pole time but only trailing the Ferraris, McLarens, and one BMW which are currently the cars to beat.

Felipe Massa is possibly the strongest qualifier in F1 over the last two seasons, though he’s hot and cold. Kimi Raikkonen is more consistent in race performance. Ferrari’s line up is superb.

Lewis Hamilton might’ve been on pole considering his speed in the first sector but he struggled a little in the other two sectors. There’s something about the way he drives that is fast yet different from most of the others. Supposedly he is much harder on the front tires. Not sure how this will affect his race tomorrow, but I’m guessing he’ll have to make more than one pitstop, though that’s probably the faster strategy any way. McLaren’s drivers are quite strong but it’s too early to tell as they’re both only in their second year of F1.

David Coulthard had a big crash coming out of the tunnel though it looked like it may not have been driver error. Luckily he had more run off room there than anywhere else. The Red Bull doesn’t hang on to its wheels very well after impact.

Nick Heidfeld and Piquet were way off the pace, outqualified by their teammates by 8 and 10 positions, respectively. It seems Nick Heidfeld has all the speed needed but lacked motivation. Then when Robert Kubica joined the team it lit a fire under him but now he’s starting to accept that Kubica is faster and hasn’t done well lately. As for Piquet, he’s just not ready for F1. Renault should try to sign Vitantonio Luizzi for the rest of the year and put him in the car immediately.

The fact that positions 5 through 9 on the grid are occupied by different teams means that F1 is extremely competitive and the driver makes a big difference now that driver-aids have been eliminated, especially at Monaco. It will be a surprise to get through tomorrow’s race without a safety car period.

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May 23, 2008

Diesel Engine Notes From SAE (Belated)

Fascinating presentations on diesel engines. About 70% to 75% of an engine's energy input is lost to the atmosphere as waste heat and to the cooling system. Ten percent is lost to idling and auxiliaries, so only about 15% to 20% is effectively used for propulsion.

The projected solution to improve diesel engine efficiency is to use hybrid power to bring about a 15% to 20% improvement, engine stop/start to eliminate idling will save about 6 to 7%, and 10 to 15% optimization and electrification of auxiliaries, as well as another 7% to 10% improvement from downsizing the engine and downspeeding RPM.

Thirty years ago maximum injection pressure was 500 bar. Now it's close to 2,000 bar and direct injection allows for higher compression ratios, more torque and higher knock thresholds.

In addition to consuming less fuel, downspeeding results in lower friction and wear, and also keeps the weight down. Engines need forced induction for torque, and sequential turbos are even better to eliminate the turbo lag of one big turbo.

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Americans Now Driving Less

It appears that between the rising cost of fuel and the PITA (Pain In The....) factor people are finally starting to drive less. A Reuter's article cites Department of Transportation statistics which show a reduction 4.3 percent reduction in the miles driven in March of 2008 compared to March of 2007.

The same article goes on to say that gasoline use has slipped about 1 percent this year compared to last. Well, that's a start. If this trend keeps on going perhaps we'll one day have articles like this about post-car life in the US.

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May 22, 2008

Wrecked’em? Damn Near Killed'em!

Riding home from work yesterday, it started raining. It’s two miles. I only have to ride about two blocks on neighborhood streets. The rest of the way it’s a bike path. I’ve ridden it literally hundreds of times.

On a downhill stretch half a mile from home I’m going about 25 to 30 mph. Head and tail light on. My rain coat is in my backpack. A pick up truck is headed the other way when he begins to turn left, directly in front of my intended path. There’s no intersection there, just a driveway to a utility access area.

I can’t stop in time and I have nowhere to swerve. On one side there is curbing and trees. The other side is oncoming traffic. Proverbial rock and a hard place. I scrub off as much speed as I can while yelling at the driver, and low side the bike. I continue sliding toward the side of the pick up on my side and back with the bike still between my legs until it abruptly stops when it hits just ahead of the truck’s rear tire.

The driver is still unaware of me and proceeds to drive over the intertwined mass of my bike’s back wheel and my legs, while I struggle to avoid getting run over. It happens so fast I cannot even tell for sure if my legs were run over.

I stand up for a moment to check if I’m ok, hope adrenaline isn’t giving me false hopes, and then decide I’d better sit back down. Then I roll over and crawl to the curb while the driver comes out and checks on me. He pulls my bike to the curb, tells me that he didn’t see me coming. I believe him. No one would do something like that on purpose. And actually stop.

I lay there for a minute trying to be sure I’m all right and deciding what to do. In the end, I get up and he gives me a ride home. Just a guy going to the park with his two little kids who didn't see a bike coming.

This morning I brought the bike to the shop and handed it over “as wrecked”. It’ll be ready June 3rd. Before I began to protest that it’s entirely too long, I realized I might not be ready to ride by then.

Afterward I went to visit my doctor. He examined me and found nothing more than superficial injuries. I got away with a slightly strained rotator cuff in my left shoulder, a mildly sprained finger, and some road rash. I should be as good as new in about 3 weeks. It could’ve been a lot worse. Reminds me of Chris Farley in the movie “Black Sheep” when he says “Wrecked’em? Damn near killed’em!” (say it aloud).

How does this relate to the blog? As more modes of transportation are used, especially in densely populated areas, compatibility issues are inevitably going to arise. The interaction between different types of vehicles is increasingly important.

There is a huge inequity in some of these interactions. If you are a bicyclist (or pedestrian or motorcyclist) around a car driver, and THEY make a mistake YOU still pay. That’s a bad bet and I’m just damn lucky I didn’t lose much this time.


May 16, 2008

Wind Power Circa 2030

The AP reports this week that a study by the Energy Department indicates that wind power could generate 20% of the nation's electricity by the year 2030, the same portion currently produced by nuclear reactors. Right now wind energy accounts for roughly 1% of the country's electricity.

The report indicates that electricity has the potential to be generated for less than half a cent per kilowatt hour using wind turbines. To reach the 20% share, there'd have to be more than 75,000 new turbines installed as well as a major expansion of the power grid as electricity from high wind generating areas to places where the electricity is needed. But it would make a significant difference in the quest for renewable energy.

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SAE Government/Industry Meeting Notes

SAE Government/Industry Meeting Notes

John German from Honda made some excellent points during his presentation in a session about fuel economy, CO2, and CAFE. Since 1987 advances have been used to improve attributes other than fuel economy ( If the benefits had been directed entirely toward fuel economy we would be averaging 38 mpg today.

The reason it hasn't been so is because the market wants other benefits more than pure fuel economy (according to their surveys fuel econ has been low on the list of top considerations by consumers). And when/if the price of fuel stops rising a lot of current behavior changes. People will revert to the way they behaved before.

There are currently far too many technical options, requiring manufacturers to hedge their bets. What's needed is a clear path, not technology du jour. This is because there's a limited number of engineers. If there are multiple standards, their efforts would be diluted and thus progress would be slowed in order to comply with the differing standards.

The Internal combustion engine (ICE) continues to be the benchmark by which alternative technologies are compared. However, it is a moving target as it too continues to improve.

Later in that same session, Keith Cole from GM made an informative presentation with regard to three things. One is the so-called 3 legged stool for reducing greenhouse gases which consists of improving vehicle efficiency, reducing the carbon content of fuel, and reducing vehicle miles traveled/reducing congestion/improving infrastructure.

The second item consists of next generation ethanol, and why GM invested in Coskata and Mascoma (sounds like a disease). According to him, Coskata's feedstocks for ethanol can come from multiple non-food sources, and resulted in an 84% reduction in greenhouse gases (GHG) compared with regular gasoline on a well-to-wheel basis. He further claimed that the energy produced is 7.7 times as much as the energy it takes to make it, and that it costs producers less than $1 per gallon to make it (didn't specify if that was with or without the tax credit).

Finally, he made an excellent point that CARB's proposal to regulate CO2 of vehicles sold in California would not be effective for national fuel economy. This is because increasing the average fuel economy of vehicles in that state would enable a manufacturer to have a lower average elsewhere in the nation if the CAFE (Federal) standard was lower than the California standard. In the end, the national average would still be dictated by the national standard.

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May 12, 2008

Audi R10 On Display

I’m attending this annual conference in DC this week and have a lot of notes to follow up on soon. But a pleasant surprise was walking out to the front of the hotel and finding a diesel-powered Audi R10 race car parked like any other car. So I whipped out the camera phone and snapped away. A real treat.

As you can see I’m no photographer but there are some interesting tidbits about the car. The steering wheel is not real – kind of like the TVs you find in a furniture store, it’s for display only. Notice the bottle of Mother’s wax in the interior. Lots of ducts, vents and scoops.

For more on the R10, Wikipedia has a good article, as does Mulsanne’s Corner.

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May 11, 2008

Cars Should Be Plug & Play

Cars are too complicated, a pain to work on in many ways. But a lot better than buildings and homes. Still, nothing is simple to unbolt/unscrew and replace.

Check out the heater on my MR2. The slider for the temperature control was stuck. After completely tearing out the center console to pull the HVAC panel out (along with the stereo, cigarette lighter, hazard light switch, and vent ducts) I got to the bottom of it. Hopefully it’ll all go back together ok.

This is a good illustration of the basic problem. Things aren’t made to be replaced. The whole vehicle is. There should be clearer boundaries between subsystems, making it easier to replace specific components.

Take my MP3 player. I can plug it into a computer with a USB cable and swap files between the two, as well as charge it.

Then I can plug in earbuds when I’m out and about or I can hook it up to speakers when I’m home. There are very few things to break or fail with solid state electronics. If something fails, I just get a replacement.

The HVAC controls in a car should be like that. The old school way of a bunch of wires and cables, while generally reliable, is out of date and a pain to work with.

Imagine if you could dissect a car almost as easily as a Lego set. There’d be a lot less scrap because cars would last longer and be easily upgraded. Like remodeling your house without the hassle of redoing drywall. This is what I meant in this previous post.

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Turkish Grand Prix

It was kind of a snoozer. The most interesting thing so far is that Super Aguri went out of business, which leads to the debate about the health of F1. Peter Windsor interviewed Bernie Ecclestone on Speed TV and he said the sport is healthy and growing with new events being added to the calendar. I disagree.

There are now only 20 cars. It is simply too expensive and consequently there are fewer cars now. There even used to be pre-qualifying because there were only a maximum of 26 (?) slots on the grid.

Governments can and will subsidize races for a multitude of reasons. Not all of them are for sporting purposes. But industry has to fund the teams and you can see there’s not enough funding to go around in the current sports climate.

Anyway, the start of the race was a downer. The safety car has been getting a lot of use this season. Both Heikki Kovalainen and Kimi Raikkonen made poor starts. Lewis Hamilton, Robert Kubica, and Fernando Alonso made up places at the start.

Is Kovalainen generally unlucky? He qualified well but between losing out to the safety car period in Australia, the massive accident in Spain when his wheel failed, and today’s extra pit stop, I’m wondering how well he’ll turn his season around. Still he provided some great racing dicing with Timo Glock and Nico Rosberg further down the grid today.

Another driver having a tough time is Nelson Piquet. While he had a nice scrap with Jenson Button, his driving has been ragged and he’s made a lot of mistakes.

Don’t know what happened to Vettel, but at least he survived the first lap and finished the race but had to make 4 stops which is why he finished last.

Raikkonen’s race was essentially blown at the start and when he lost 1.2 seconds to Hamilton during the last round of pit stops (7.1 seconds vs 5.9 seconds), finishing 0.5 seconds adrift.

Jarno Trulli’s race engineer often gives him comically obvious motivational advice via radio to catch up to the drivers ahead. Trulli’s response today was “Don’t worry, I’m already pushing like hell”.

On to the technical details, the items of interest this time around were the thermal imaging cameras of the cars as they pitted. Interesting to note how white hot the exhaust, transmissions, and rear brakes were. I’d like to see a side profile of the cars and the front brakes with these cameras.

Also, Steve Matchett had some insightful comments on McLaren’s struggles running with the soft compound tires. Finally, there was talk about the margin of safety of the cars and the weight of various components. It seems like if the FIA wants to improve safety, they should specify minimum weights for certain components such as wheels, in addition to the overall minimum weight of car and driver.

Oh, and Felipe Massa won the race for Ferrari. The next race is Monaco in two weeks.

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May 8, 2008

Detroit vs. Denmark

Last Sunday I flew to Detroit ahead of several days of meetings. While waiting for my rental car I was reading the current issue of Bicycling Magazine and was blown away by the contrast.

Here I was an automotive engineer in Detroit waiting for a rental car. What could be more mobile than that? But I was transfixed on the article about Denmark and the use of bicycles there for transportation, and how well it worked.

Meanwhile, after half an hour of waiting in line (they were understaffed) I got the car. After pulling out of the lot I followed signs for I-94. Within a few blocks I almost stopped the car because it looked like the road had ended. Upon further inspection, the road was just a gigantic series of potholes and patches. It looked like a test track for evaluating durability.

The car I had was a newly redesigned compact from a domestic nameplate and it rode the bumps surprisingly well. But once out on smooth highway it was numb, as if the front tires were underinflated (they weren’t). Why the manufacturer bothered to redesign it I’ll never know. Let’s call this model Mediocrity 2.0 (M2.0).

So I’m motoring along just fine in Michigan and I’m thinking, as a visitor to the area, I didn’t know of a practical way I could bike from Detroit to Ann Arbor. But according to the article about Denmark, people there routinely bike the same distances, and their quality of life is supposedly higher than here in the US.

There is bicycling hope in the States though. The article mentioned a number of US cities that either are already bicycle friendly or are becoming more bicycle friendly such as Portland, Seattle, Boulder, Colorado, Washington DC (yes!), and so on.

I must say I was impressed with the anonymous government agency (begins with the letters E.P.A.) bike room in Ann Arbor where employees store their transportation. It was no more than a parking space but it did indeed hold a dozen bikes, just like the stats from Bicycling Magazine.

My whole point? The M2.0 is a product of its environment. Developed by a company based in Detroit, it’s reasonably well suited to cushioning the bumps of pockmarked roads and getting people from A to B in about as dull and numb a manner as possible. On the other hand, the environment in Denmark has enabled bicycle use, and its use has become an integral part of daily life there.

We need enablers. If the American landscape were more bicycle friendly, more people would ride instead of drive, not just for recreational purposes but also for transportation. It’s refreshing to see some of the changes occurring here, and I hope it’s a trend that continues.


Ralph Nader's Boat

Automotive News published an article on Ralph Nader’s efforts to state a protest outside of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) headquarters about auto safety. I didn’t even know he was still running for President. Here’s an excerpt from the article ( requires login):

In a statement, Nader said NHTSA, which is charged with adopting lifesaving safety standards, instead "has now become a pathetic consulting firm for the motor vehicle manufacturers."

I’m all for automotive safety but these advocates are usually barking up the wrong tree. To his credit he's been a central figure over the last four decades to the tremendous improvement in automobile safety. But we’ve reached the point of diminishing returns on safety while people are still driving.

If you really want to make a difference in highway safety, pursue improved driver training, cracking down on impaired/distracted driving, getting incompetent drivers off the road, and pushing for driverless cars. The cars themselves are quite safe today and making them safer isn't going to reduce the number of accidents.

Strengthening the roof, while not a bad thing (within reason) is not going to do a thing to fix the fact that a car has flipped over because of human error. It’s people like Mr. Nader who keep diverting the public’s attention from the bigger issue of safety. Get the cars to drive themselves and we won’t have to deal with the aftermath of human drivers.

If more than 40,000 people die each year on the highways, and at worst 10% of these are caused by technical or road issues then the other 90% are due to driver or pedestrian error. Shouldn't we focus on preventing those mistakes in the first place rather than trying to save people after the fact?

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May 7, 2008

The Shift: Energy Limitations

In the past automobiles were performance limited. Components and systems such as engines, brakes, suspension and tires were the items that dictated the boundaries of their performance envelopes. Not so much the fuel. Gasoline, while more sophisticated today, has not been the limiting factor in performance for a long, long time.

Today, the vehicles we have are not really limited by much at all in terms of both performance and their energy sources, predominantly gasoline. If you want a car that can accelerate like it was shot out of a cannon, cruise all day at 100 mph, and stop on a dime, there are many alternatives to choose from.

As we move forward and develop alternatives to oil-based energy sources, we’re finding that we’re now on the other side of the coin. Chassis capable of handling the aforementioned performance criteria are plentiful. But alternative energy sources of propelling a vehicle to those lofty levels are not measuring up to the performance of good old-fashioned petroleum.

Now it is about energy density because the energy issue is upstream of the performance issue. Solving that will affect performance – at least in the near term. We’ll have to take what seems like a step backward in order to go forward.

While oil has such high energy density that nearly everything from marine engines to lawn mowers can be powered by internal combustion engines scaled for each application, tomorrow it will be a case of different horses for different courses. What might work for locomotives won’t work for automobiles, which will again be different from trucks and planes.

Right now it looks like electric cars are the next step. But that might not work for many other applications such as long haul trucks. Or rail. Or construction equipment.

In the foreseeable future, I just don’t see oil getting completely displaced by alternatives until big breakthroughs are made. Not only do we need to concentrate on making those breakthroughs, we need to be mindful of using less of everything. It’s a two pronged approach to accelerating the end of oil: Developing viable alternatives AND reducing our overall energy needs.


The Midas Touch – Not Always Good

This is not about the muffler repair chain. This is about the value of commodities when demand increases, specifically it is about ethanol and corn. Corn is at about an all-time high closing at $6.13/bushel today on the Chicago Board of Trade.

Let me illustrate why corn to ethanol is not a scalable solution. The USDA estimates 86 million acres of corn will be planted in 2008. For conversation’s sake, let’s just make it an even 100 million acres.

My back-of-the-envelope calculations (using these conversion factors) show that if all the corn the US produced was turned into Ethanol for automobile use, we’d end up with 27.24 billion gallons of ethanol. Now think of what that would do to food prices and political stability around the world. Nothing good. Not to mention the water and energy that goes into producing ethanol.

Ok, but continuing down this path where does that leave us? Wikipedia shows 34.6 MJ/L for gasoline and 20 MJ/L for ethanol. That means 1 gallon of ethanol contains about 70% of the energy of a gallon of gasoline. So the 27.24 billion gallons of ethanol would equate to about 19 billion gallons of gasoline.

How much gasoline does the US use each year? The EIA figure for 2006 was 388.6 million gallons per day, or almost 142 billion gallons per year. That means if we used all the corn (and then some) grown in 2008 and turned it into ethanol, we can expect it to replace about 13.5% of the gasoline used.

You’ve seen the headlines of food shortages and price increases in many parts of the world. Certainly there are a variety of factors causing this. But on more than one occasion corn-based fuel has been cited as a concern. Right now the amount of corn used for fuel is miniscule, and already we’re seeing price issues.

Irrational markets driven not only by demand but also by projections and fear are putting a huge risk premium on the price of many commodities.

Whenever demand for something increases or potentially increases, the price will increase and in some cases skyrocket. Corn is no exception. There is simply too much demand for, and fear over it.

Corn does not seem to be a scalable solution to our energy problems. In fact, there don’t seem to be many possibilities that offer a scalable silver bullet. The heart of the problem is that the world currently consumes too much energy in proportion to what is able to economically produce, which in turn will cause price increases in the production of every energy source there is.

Go here for more about recent corn price activity:

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