Auto Manifesto

November 24, 2008

Detroit Bailout

The American economy appears to be bracing to take a big hit if/when one or more of the Detroit 3 collapse. Millions of jobs, thousands of suppliers and the psychological impact on top of the financial impact will be a devastating loss.

If the government “lends” the companies tens of billions of dollars it will effectively amount to a grant if the companies fail. Not only that, it will shrink the tax base causing even more pain.

Such a loss would also be a drag on the pace of innovation and reduce consumer choice as overcapacity is reduced and supply is brought more in line with demand. The remaining companies will be stronger in the long term. This blog is supposed to be about automotive technology, but the financial events of late have had a serious impact on future direction and developments.

It likely isn’t whether or not one or more of the Detroit 3 will fail. It’s when one or more will. Chrysler and GM are likely to run out of cash. Ford may be in a slightly less precarious position due to having exercised their credit lines prior to the crisis.

So the real issue before Congress is not how the companies will repay any government “loan”. It’s how long they can survive until they fail, and will that be after an economic recovery of sorts so that the economy can better absorb the failure rather than further compound our present banking crisis.

It mostly depends on how prolonged and how deep of a recession we have.

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More ‘90s Automobile Flashbacks

Here's more interesting nostalgia by way of Automobile magazine from 1992-1993.

April 1992 (p. 15). Maserati Barchetta. A beautiful racing car.

March 1993 (p. 7). Speculation that Saturn is developing a roadster, either their own version of the front wheel drive Lotus Elan or a rear-wheel drive alternative based on Corvette suspension bits and powered by a 2.7 liter straight-six 175 hp version of their inline 4 cylinder.

May 1993 (p. 7). There are spy shots of a clay model of the upcoming Porsche 996. However, it appears to be a mid-engine layout and bears a striking resemblance to what ultimately became the Cayman, as well as the Boxster.

June 1993 (p. 9). Pininfarina Ethos 2. What a concept. A mid-engine (my favorite layout) sports car with a claimed drag coefficient of 0.19 powered by a two cylinder 800 cc 2 stroke engine. Good for 0-60 mph in 13 seconds, a top speed of 125 mph, and get this: 135 mpg at 56 mph. Regenerative braking and acceleration assist would improve acceleration.

So where are they now? Check out one of 2008’s best designs, the B0 (B Zero). Reminds me of the Pininfarina Ethos 3.

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‘90s Automobile Flashback

Lots of the great ideas being worked on today have been around for some time but generally haven’t seen the light of day due to lack of competitiveness, necessity and consumer interest. That is until fuel prices skyrocketed.

Here are some examples I found while perusing some issues of Automobile Magazine in my collection.

July 1991 (p. 13) - Mid-engine, electric hybrid concept from Audi featuring an aluminum body, 4 wheel steer, all wheel drive, and a twin clutch (PDK via Porsche) transmission described as “the world’s first ecologically relevant sports car.

December 1991 (p. 41) – David E. Davis on the Frankfurt auto show. There were a lot of electric cars present, mostly of the boring commuter type. A lot has changed since then (no available alternative to lead acid battery) but in some ways the challenges remain the same (limited range, battery environmental issues, California pushing legislative mandates). IAD displayed the LA301 a “range extended” vehicle.

Davis quotes Don Runkle (GM VP of Advanced Engineering at the time) as saying the IC engine will be a better deal than electric until gasoline prices nation-wide were at least $1.60. ($2.54 in 2008 adjusted for inflation). Energy density was very low. The GM Impact had 870 pounds of batteries.

In hindsight we see the political compromise resulting in today’s vehicles. CARB’s vision very clearly did not happen by Y2K but we did get hybrids and are now beginning to have choice of a few electric cars on the market.

In the same issue (p. 45) Robert Cumberford covers the Honda Beat, a $10,000 mid-engine, Japanese-market two seat roadster with a 656 cc engine capable of 38 mpg.

Seems like just yesterday.

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Fuel Prices

Now that the economy has slowed down and the markets have retreated, speculation on and demand for oil has dropped significantly for the short term. Gas at my local station was $1.69 per gallon the other day.

Guess what I observed? Lots of traffic. How quickly we forget. Let’s hope the importance of sustainability and conservation doesn’t track fuel prices.

This is but temporary relief. In the long term we must keep our eye on the ball of reducing oil dependence and consumption. Seventy (70%) percent of the US economy is estimated to be based on consumer spending. Hence it can be very cyclical and fluctuate greatly with consumer confidence.

We need to keep focused on the essentials and keep looking for ways to improve efficiency and reduce use so as to minimize dependency on any one resource.

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Chevy Volt

An article in Automobile magazine (Dec. 2008) speculates on tax incentives for purchasers that I estimate would put the full retail sticker at around $45,000.

The car itself will feature a 1.4 liter iron-block gasoline engine, producing 53 kW (71 hp), and the batteries will be kept in a 30% to 80% state of charge. The generator will only be used to power the car, not charge the batteries.

Reading between the lines, this is a way to obtain the maximum fuel economy rating and save money.

In theory the mpg rating will be determined by the distance traveled divided by the amount of electricity and gasoline used. But if the EPA is using the term miles per gallon I could see them not counting the electricity used. For example, if the car travels 70 miles on one battery charge and a gallon of gasoline, and the battery range is 40 miles, it is possible the mpg would be calculated as 70 miles / 1 gallon = 70 mpg, which as I’ve stated before would be misleading and inaccurate. I’ve seen articles guessing 100+ mpg.

Anyway, since electricity is less costly than gasoline, it makes more sense not to use electricity generated by gasoline to charge the batteries. Instead the electricity from gasoline is only used to propel the car once it runs out of battery electricity obtained via the power grid.

The motor, generator, and engine form one assembly. This indicates the architecture is intended to be modular and scalable for other vehicle models and platforms. Future developments will likely include running HCCI (Homogeneous Charge Compression Ignition) at a constant RPM. According to Automotive Engineering magazine, that’d be worth about 15% additional efficiency without the added expense and complexity of a diesel engine’s emissions control system.

It’s likely tuners and small volume manufacturers will offer upgrades and performance projects, provided parts and components are available and not too scarce. Can you imagine, say a mid-engine sports car, using a powertrain based on the Volt?

This car is a game changer. There’s plenty of risk as it is, but I’m concerned that it could be game over for General Motors if they don’t survive the current downturn. Hope it makes it to market and GM is around to continue development.

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November 7, 2008


One man. One town. Funding for incentives for electric vehicles and charging stations. Ten years ago.

This is a fascinating article which highlights the challenges of changing to electric vehicles, a classic chicken and egg problem that's still as prevalent now as it was ten years ago:

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Autonomous Truck Braking

WABCO will be launching an autonomous braking system for heavy trucks in Europe in 2010, with the US market to follow some time after.

I’ve been in a truck equipped with this during a demonstration and it was quite impressive. The challenge at the time was reliably determining which objects were threats and which were not.

It’s a tough balancing act because to err one way or another is unacceptable. If there are frequent false alarms drivers will tune out valid warnings. And if there are not enough alarms imminent collisions could go undetected when most needed.

The system now uses two technologies in conjunction with one another; video and laser. It’s capable of detecting threats as small as a motorcycle, but not bicycles or pedestrians. That would require considerably more computing power.

The way it works is that it first issues a visual and audible warning when it detects a possible collision. Then it reduces engine torque. Finally, if an impact is unavoidable, a full brake application is provided.

Note the interesting point about convoying (aka platooning) in the 4th paragraph from the end.

As the company says it will be expensive at first. But as with most things, as the production volume increases the costs should come down.

More info here:

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November 6, 2008

F1: Brazilian Grand Prix

The start of the race was delayed by 10 minutes due to a brief downpour. The extra time was used to allow the teams to change to rain tires. The start was clean, at least at the front of the field. None of the first several positions changed as everyone duly made it around turn one without drama.

Further back Nico Rosberg hit David Coulthard (in his final F1 race) and causing him to spin. He was then collected by Kaz Nakajima and his race was over. Nelson Piquet also spun out and retired.

Rosberg was later one of the first (if not the first) driver to come in for dry tires as the rain abated and the track dried out. Shortly after everyone else came in for dry tires as well.

Lewis Hamilton (McLaren) emerged in 7th place having run 4th prior to that. Felipe Massa had led from the start in his Ferrari.

Some interesting stats mentioned by the broadcast team on SpeedTV included McLaren supposedly spending $7.5m in development in the last few weeks to improve their car by 0.15 seconds per lap (a lap of Interlagos?), and that the car is about 2.5 seconds per lap faster now than it was at the first race of the season. Impressive.

However, this brings up the point that F1 racing is also ridiculously expensive. $7.5m is plenty of money to do an entire season of racing in many, many other series. This is the dilemma faced by the F1 teams.

Teams will use whatever resources available to them. As the sport is currently structured, no matter what they do, whoever has the most money is likely going to be able to develop the fastest car. It’s an arms race and any rule change aiming to reduce costs is unlikely going to result in the intended outcome.

Anyway, back to the racing. Sebastian Vettel (Toro Rosso) was in fine form running a strong second for a long time, with Fernando Alonso (Renault) third. Robert Kubica has been hot and cold in his BMW in the last few races, the pace of development of Ferrari and McLaren clearly increasing relative to BMW.

Near the end he was lapped by Hamilton but managed to stay with him after. Much had to do with their relative fuel loads and tire compounds/condition, but it was noticeable.

With about 10 laps to go Massa was clear out front followed by Alonso, Kimi Raikkonen (Ferrari), Timo Glock (Toyota), and Hamilton. As they ran, Hamilton would win the world championship.

Hamilton was clearly driving conservatively or struggling with the set up (see qualifying post on parc ferme and set up). Then it started to rain again. Vettel caught up to Hamilton. With about two laps to go, Kubica unlapped himself by passing Hamilton, and Vettel used that opportunity to go by as well.

That pushed Hamilton back to 6th place meaning Massa would win the championship if it stayed that way. Vettel appeared to be pulling away. Then just two corners from the finish line on the last lap Timo Glock, who had (bravely) stayed out on dry tires, faltered slightly and Hamilton passed him for 5th position and thus regaining the title.

Massa did everything he needed to do the whole weekend, but such was Hamilton’s points lead coming into the event that he was not able to overcome it.

The final outcome for the season was good for the sport, the last race will surely go down in history as one of the most memorable races ever (Hollywood couldn’t write it better), and hopefully F1 has started to make amends for its shenanigans of the past 2 seasons.

McLaren showed incredible reliability (Hamilton’s car anyway) and Ferrari took the Constructor’s title. What a season it’s been.

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November 2, 2008

F1: Brazilian GP Qualifying

The weather was perfect, though the prediction for race day is that it will rain. This again highlights the need to change parc ferme rules which require wing settings to be fixed before qualifying.

Every team has to decide what configuration to run the cars in qualifying and the race. But if ambient conditions change it becomes a lottery, which can greatly affect the quality of the racing for the worse.

This will be David Coulthard’s final grand prix as a driver. There is a new helmet mounted camera to give the TV audience footage from the driver’s view. It’s pretty neat but the view is quite limited and it depends on where the driver looks, which is often not where the car is pointed. And there’s a lot of bobbing around. The car mounted cameras are much more TV-friendly.

In Q1 the Ferraris of Felipe Massa and Kimi Raikkonen topped the time sheets. Lewis Hamilton was third in his McLaren – not clear who’s running how much wing and fuel.

Q2 was quite spectacular with the top ten drivers separated by just 0.339 seconds. Heikki Kovalainen was first in his McLaren followed by Sebastian Vettel in a Toro Rosso. Robert Kubica did not make it past Q2 having struggled with his BMW.

Q3 was all Massa as he posted the fastest time. When all the major players began their final laps, Massa was out front and timed it just right to be able to get 2 laps on the rest of the pack after the clock ran out. He ended up improving his time further to take pole, followed by Jarno Trulli (Toyota), Raikkonen, Hamilton, Kovalainen, Fernando Alonso (Renault), and Vettel.

Massa, always fast at Interlagos, really needs to win and have Hamilton finish lower than 5th in order to take the driver’s championship. Ferrari looks likely to take the constructor’s title, but the driver’s title at this point depends strongly on how clean of a start we get.

Tomorrow’s race is looking mighty exciting. I won’t be able to catch it until Wednesday but will be eager to take notes about it.

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