Auto Manifesto

July 25, 2008

F1: Kinetic Energy Recovery System (KERS)

Formula One cars in 2009 have the option of using KERS to recapture braking energy and use it for acceleration. Until now that braking energy has just been wasted as heat to the atmosphere. The teams appear to be having some difficulty developing these systems as pointed out in this posting.

Since the 2009 Formula One regulations will allow the use of these systems the cars equipped will technically be hybrid vehicles. Energy can be recovered via mechanical (flywheel) or electrical (supercapacitors) means and will be restricted to a maximum output of 60 kW (about 80 hp), which will help the cars accelerate faster. These systems basically take brake energy and add them to acceleration energy.

Hybrid powertrains are a good concept and certainly this offers the sport a means of developing technology that might find its way to the street for the benefit of the public.

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OnStar to Track Mileage

It's a first step toward the ultimate in vehicle navigation. OnStar is reported to begin collecting information about how much vehicles equipped with the system are driven. It will be voluntary at first, with the idea that drivers could be eligible for insurance discounts. Of course, if that is possible then the opposite is also possible.

And while some people may have privacy concerns about this, cell phone location is already tracked. Plus a road network would likely need to know where the vehicles on it are at all times in order for driverless cars to operate smoothly. This is interesting technology.

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Minimum Fuel Prices

One of the biggest threats to the development of alternative energy sources and technologies is the possibility of a collapse in oil prices. Such an occurrence would pull the rug out from under such initiatives because available investment will dry up if fuel prices become more competitive (i.e. lower).

It's happened before with the previous oil crises. But this time if we want to make lasting changes (for the better I might add) oil prices need to remain at least at their current levels high. One way to ensure that would be to have a minimum tax.

In other words, the price of oil should be handicapped to buy time for alternative energy technologies to emerge and replace those that depend on oil. John McElroy at Ward's Auto wrote a good article proposing that gas prices permanently remain at a minimum of $3.50 per gallon. It's a good read.

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Mass Production of Carbon Fiber?

In an effort to lower vehicle weight Honda and Toyota will work together with Toray and Mitsubishi Rayon on developing carbon fiber for mass production and recyclability. The Japanese government will provide some funding. The partnership is expected to bear fruit around the middle of the next decade by enabling a 40% reduction in vehicle weight.

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July 24, 2008

Pick Up Trucks Plunge

Essentially for the last 30 years the best selling vehicle in America has been the Ford F-series pick up truck. The market has finally begun to correct itself in response to high fuel prices. Large pickup trucks are selling at heavily discounted prices. In some cases new ones are advertised at 50% (!) below their retail prices.

We are starting to see the extent to which people have bought big pickups to use as transportation. In other words, the public has been buying them for a long time due to want rather than need. A greater proportion of the people who are buying them now simply need them for work uses, while there are fewer "discretionary" buyers.

There are a lot fewer buyers now. In an article in this week's Automotive News, JD Power & Associates estimate that GM, Ford, Chrysler, Toyota, and Nissan will produce roughly 630,000 full size pick ups in the second half of 2008 compared to production of 1.1 7M units in the same period last year, and manufacturers are retooling truck plants to build smaller cars.

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July 22, 2008

F1: German Grand Prix


Quite uneventful. The only exciting things were that Sebastian Vettel made it to Q3 and the number of times pole position changed hands in the closing seconds with Lewis Hamilton finally taking it. Oh, and Heikki Kovalainen getting refueled with a sophisticated-looking, yet NASCAR-style fuel can. Never saw that before.


Note: I watched a recording of this on Monday evening having avoided all racing news since Saturday, as I had another appointment on Sunday during the broadcast.

The start was relatively uneventful. Robert Kubica and Vettel made a good start. Hockenheim’s current configuration seems good for passing as there are lots of different lines through many corners.

The Hondas are like moving chicanes this year; slow and obtrusive. Hamilton and Kubica were caught behind Jarno Trulli as they exited the pits. Bad luck or timing. Kimi Raikkonen got by Trulli, Vettel passed Fernando Alonso and then Vettel pulled a nice move to get by Timo Glock as well.

If I ran a team I would want Vettel as one of my drivers. He is doing way more with the Toro Rosso than expected, and he’s only 21 – world champion material. Mark my words. If his Red Bull car is decent next year he’ll become a familiar podium guest.

Glock had a big wreck coming out of a right hand turn after his right rear suspension brokes as he rode the curbing. The safety car was deployed and the pits closed for refueling. This rules needs to be changed as it could easily cause someone to either run out of fuel or suffer time penalty which serves no good purpose.

As soon as the pits reopened most cars came in. The pits were stacked, with drivers having to wait while the crews service their teammates. Clearly Hamilton came in ahead of Heikki Kovalainen but did not stop. It appeared McLaren made an error in their pit strategy.

As they exited the pits Vettel forced Alonso wide over the white line. I don’t think Alonso was penalized, and rightfully so as that was the only way he could avoid a collision.

The Vettel/Raikkonen/Alonso battle was terrific. David Coulthard running into Rubens Barrichello was completely Coulthard’s fault. He’s had his time and it’s a good thing he’s retiring at the end of the year to make room for new blood.

Speaking of new blood, Nelson Piquet managed to get his Renault into the lead because he stopped at just the right moment before the pit lane closed. Since he was on a one stop strategy, he was done with all his stops. So when the safety car pulled in and everyone else either went into the pits or had yet to make their final stop, he assumed the race lead. Pure luck.

When Hamilton finally made his stop it was under full green. He came out right behind his teammate Kovalainen. It seems Ron Dennis used team orders and told Kovalainen to let Hamilton by (it was a pretty clumsy pass). The main reason for this is because Hamilton is leading the championship and it’s a really tight battle. Another reason is probably that the team could not service Hamilton during the safety car period because Kovalainen was probably just about out of fuel.

Rather than hold up Kovalainen they just had Hamilton drive on through so they could get Kovalainen refueled, and Hamilton had to pit under green and make up the time through his own speed. Through a series of fast laps he was able to stay in touch with Massa’s Ferrari which was in second place.

So the team orders were a way to correct the team’s mistake. Shades of McLaren’s pit mix up with Mika Hakkinen and David Coulthard in the Australian Grand Prix in 1998.

For all the credit that the broadcasters give Alonso, he has not performed as well as he should. Yes, he is fast and makes the Renault look better than it is. But in a number of races he’s throwing away track position with a string of avoidable errors (Monaco, France, Germany) by spinning, and generally pushing over the limit and ultimately losing time, position and points.

Raikkonen just could not get the performance he needed, and Felipe Massa just about fell off the road trying to stay ahead of Hamilton. He didn’t appear to put up much of a fight. It didn’t seem much different to when Hamilton passed Piquet for the lead. Massa is fast but does not cope well with pressure. It would’ve been the biggest fluke if Piquet won the race. He was gifted second place. For his part Hamilton drove a superb race and earned the win.

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July 17, 2008

The Future of Motorsport – Part 1

Racing is great. I love it – actually I’m fanatical about it. But one has to wonder how sustainable it is in today’s increasingly environmentally conscious world. Is there a benefit or purpose to auto racing? I believe the answer is yes – if changes are made. But it’s going to take some explaining

First and foremost racing is entertainment. Any racing series that isn’t entertaining enough will fail. And that all depends on people: Fans, sponsors, teams, drivers, and the organizers. Get the word out, make it easy for people to watch and participate, and get them to come back time and again.

On track the racing action has to be exciting and close. Once they can exceed a certain speed, it doesn’t matter how fast the cars are. It’s how close the racing is, and how many different drivers have a genuine chance of winning a given race that matters.

Second, how can it be beneficial to society at large? It can advance the state of the art by encouraging the development of better automotive technologies. I’ll go into more detail about this in part 2, but in these days of fuel conservation and environmental concerns, any series that is not exploring its potential for encouraging the development of technologies that have real world benefits in energy conservation is at risk of becoming driven out of business because it will become irrelevant.

Finally, how do we go about doing this? We do this by making it accessible and enabling more participation on every level: Driving, team ownership, event promotion, and media. And much of that has to do with keeping costs down which, if done well, has the added benefit of increasing value.

The more people there are involved with a given series, and the more passionate they are about it, the better the show will become and the faster the innovations will come; provided the series was well run and the rules were solid. Innovation and stability are hard to balance. But it is by no means impossible.

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July 7, 2008

Raw Material Deals

The cost of raw materials has risen so much (metals, plastics, rubber, oil, etc) that Tata (and virtually every other automaker) is having a hard time controlling and absorbing costs.

There doesn’t appear to be any good long term way of hedging against rising prices other than to reduce use, as several Japanese manufacturers have announced.

Reductions would come in the form of using less in the vehicles (lighter weight) as well as reducing waste in the manufacturing process, and making cars that last a lot longer but are upgradeable. Again, I would suggest that’s why we need to take a long look at longer auto lifecycles.

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F1: British Grand Prix


Not too exciting until Q3 where the BMW crew were panicking to get Robert Kubica back out but couldn’t due to a technical problem they couldn’t fix in time. Lewis Hamilton was very fast in the first two sectors but had trouble in the third one, overdriving the car and locking wheels under braking.

At the very end Mark Webber had provisional pole only for McLaren’s Heikki Kovalainen to take it away at the very end and earn his first pole position. McLaren team boss Ron Dennis didn’t look pleased. Hamilton was fourth.

The Ferrari team were struggling and off pace. Kimi Raikkonen was third while Felipe Massa was well back due to the team not being able to change a rear tire for his last qualifying run.


The race was super exciting due to heavy rain and constantly changing conditions. It really highlighted the difference in tire choices. Everyone started on “intermediate” tires but there were a couple of drivers who switched to full wets during the course of the race.

Hamilton made an incredible start going from fourth to second by the first corner, tagging teammate Kovalainen’s right rear wheel and nearly taking him out but for a nice save by Heikki. Raikkonen was boxed in by Mark Webber who left the door open for Hamilton to charge by on the inside.

Webber then spun and was well down the order, while his teammate David Coulthard, who announced he will retire from F1 racing at the end of the season, collided with Sebastian Vettel on the first lap and took them both out.

Fernando Alonso and Kimi Raikkonen did not change tires during the first round of pit stops which would cost them dearly in terms of lap times. It appears their teams thought the rain would abate and the already worn intermediate tires would provide a performance advantage.

However, the rain increased and slowed them up considerably while Hamilton had switched to new intermediates and was miles up the road by the end. He also appears to be quite hard on his tires so not changing tires probably wasn’t an option.

Rubens Barrichello made the change to full rain tires and was rewarded handsomely as he drove his Honda, normally one of the slowest cars on the grid, to an unthinkable third place finish.

Hamilton drove a near perfect race and stormed to a dominant win. Nearly everyone else had at least one spin during the event. Sebastian Bourdais probably came as close as possible to being taken out without actually being taken out when Adrian Sutil spun in front of him. Sutil was lucky not to flip as his car went airborne sideways a few times over the wet British countryside.

Quote of the day from Speed TV’s Bob Varsha, “Someone get Matchett a tranquilizer!” Nick Heidfeld drove a great race to finish second. He seems very quick when his job is under threat but otherwise no so much.

So now we have a 3 way tie for the lead in the driver standings. This season will probably go down to the wire, just like last year.

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