Thursday, December 18, 2008
I'll tell you one of my darkest fears. I fear that the future of the personal car is going to look increasingly like that of the personal computer; fascinating, frustrating, full of unrealized promise and real disappointment. With that in mind I have been trying to re-envision my future without focusing on cars. Frankly I've been searching for something to take the sting out of my embrace of the broken automotive dream. In this spirit an idea came to me. Hoshi needs a cocktail!
So I'm really hoping that someone will come up with a bottle of celulosic ethanol for me this holiday season. Getting the ingredients right is going to take a lot of testing of course. I would really like to find a quafable variety of antifreeze though that would probably be redundant. I do like the aesthetics of the drink pictured above. Variations could include olives or olive oil as an homage to biodiesel. A cherry or cherry blossom to remind us of Japan would be good. This is going to take a lot of time. I welcome your suggestions for the "Hoshi" aka the Sidetrack.
Thursday, December 11, 2008
In a previous post I talked about the root problem for US automakers. Briefly stated it's that the American public doesn't look at them as AUTO makers but as TRUCK makers. And for many years the best selling vehicles in the United States have been............wait for it.........trucks. The Chevy Silverado/Ford F150 combo has dominated single model sales for a couple of decades. Each individually outsells even the most popular passenger cars including Camry and Accord; and by a wide margin. Both GM and Ford developed other more carlike vehicles (read SUVs) from these platforms and sold those in large numbers as well. Profits were high. Gas prices were low. Life was good. Only when gasoline reached the $4.00 per gallon level did the public hunger for these vehicles wane. It seems a bit unfair to call for Rick Wagoner's head for producing the vehicles America wanted to buy.
But Ford and GM are international corporations and while the US market is the world's largest and very profitable it is also unique. There is just not much demand for big thirsty trucks in the rest of the world. Certainly not as personal vehicles. So both manufacturers have large design teams in Europe making cars for the rest of the world. The world that somehow gets by on about half the energy per person that we do. These are cars that could be built here now and would at least stand a chance of remodeling the image of the industry giants. So what's the problem. Well uh...........government.
While European cars meet standards that are nearly identical to US standards for safety and emissions they are not EXACTLY the same. Consequently bringing a European model to the states requires a costly and lengthy certification process that really changes very little. The New York Times recently published a very informative article on this subject that I have linked here. The bottom line is that while Congress is demanding that GM become responsible for developing the consciousness of America it would do well to relax the regulatory gauntlet for existing European cars, at least on an interim basis. This would do more to insure the prompt introduction of modern, safe, green cars than any other measure. Simple, obvious, and politically feasible. Getting Americans to buy sensible green cars is another matter.
Tuesday, December 9, 2008
I actually feel embarrassed for GM CEO Rick Wagoner as he finds himself pleading with congress to save his company. It's like wrestling with the tar baby. The more you struggle the more you are stuck. Showing up the first time in the corporate jet was a mistake of course. Bringing the hybrid mule the next time just looked like pandering to anyone who was paying attention. I'm still struggling with the concept of lending many billions of dollars to a company you could buy on the open market for about 3 billion dollars. Why not dispense with the political theater and buy the company. Now they want his job of course. Maybe he should resign and wait to head up the oversight comittee that would follow the purchase of GM by the American people. It wouldn't pay nearly as much as his current position of course.
What's good for General Motors is good for America. Indeed.
As synchronicity would have it I passed by the magazine rack at the Y yesterday where someone had left the September 2008 issue of Hemmings Classic Car. A station wagon special edition. I couldn't resist. Here in the states SUV's replaced all the station wagons in the 90's. Now we are starting the slow slide back to common sense with a stopover at Crossover Vehicles which are really 4 wheel drive station wagons that are too big but still command the premium price of the SUV's of old. One feature was on the Studebaker Wagonaire. An early 60's attempt to save another failing car company. Just two years away from extinction and grasping at straws to redeem years of failed business strategies, Studebaker took a chance on this innovative design. Sort of an All American spin of the Citroen 2CV. Why can't we have useful modern versions of designs like this?
Imagine this at the local Costco with a 60" flatscreen TV rather than a refrigerator sized box. Tres chic.
Sunday, December 7, 2008
Which illustrates the problem for thinking Americans. It's one thing to think about global warming and energy independence when your wallet is emptying on a daily basis. But we live in a society that has been designed to take maximum advantage of cheap energy and it's pretty damn inconvenient to have a conscience at these prices. Here's hoping that Obama fella is a good salesman.
Friday, December 5, 2008
What is needed is nothing less than a design revolution that reaches into every phase of our lives from the design of cars and housing to the design of cities. The new economy will be based on increasingly intelligent, shared transportation to destinations that are increasingly local and convenient. Perversely, our progress toward a low energy consumption future will sometimes result in lower prices for fossil fuel. This will tend to undermine the public will necessary to invest in the technologies and designs needed for the future. Failing to make that investment or being lulled back by the siren song of cheap energy will only increase the shock of the inevitable transition.
Thursday, November 20, 2008
This is the old model Ford Ka which held up admirably and unchanged over it's 12 year run in Europe. Ford never considered bringing them to the States; no buyers they said.
Which undoubtedly was true. It is rather small. It's only virtues may be that it is useful, fun to drive, pleasing to look at and gets about 45mpg. The point is that Ford and GM have been developing good cars for the 21st century in Europe but have always presented only token efforts in the United States. Nothing says "Buy a Toyota" like the stateside Ford Focus. Ford conceded every market segment but the SUV and Truck market to the Japanese long ago. That made them a lot of money for a long time. $4 a gallon gas cut the heart out of their US business model. Citizens of the US just don't think of Ford or GM as CARmakers.
Here's the new Ka, which is Fiat based and also a little small for most tastes; though I did see a new Smart car on my block this week and it seems much less useful, more expensive and gets the same gas mileage.
Here's the Smart. What do you think?
More promising is the new Ford Fiesta which is closer to what Americans might consider a real car. It gives up a little fuel economy for a lot more space and better quality interiors. The question is whether Ford can convince US buyer that it is serious about cars now; and sell them in enough numbers, fast enough, and against well known Japanese competitors, to stay in business.
Tuesday, November 11, 2008
Japanese manufacturers have done a lot of things right for a long time. We now have cars that last a long time, are very safe, require almost no maintenance for 100,000 miles and are very likely to go as far as you can drive them in 20 years. But when it comes to making a quality small car or even a comfortable big one they have pretty much missed the boat.
Another friend stopped by the same day with the news that he was feeling pretty much crippled after a 500 mile journey in his new Accord V6. He also has a company car, a two year old Volkswagen Passat. This is a car I wouldn't own outside of the warranty period for love or money. It has already spent many days at the dealership correcting problems with the automatic transmission and has less than 20,000 miles on the odometer. Yet the difference in driver comfort is undeniable. Honda's similarly priced product is distinctly inferior. And this is in their $30,000 dollar car.
Things get even worse when you look in the Civic/Corolla range. Quality shines in the European cars in this class. The BMW 1 and 3 series and especially the Audi A3 are examples of how to build a quality small car. With tongue only slightly in cheek I have suggested a Civic "Comfort" range that would have an interior subcontracted to Renault or Peugeot who know how to build comfortable seats in even their $15,000 cars.
But the Japanese have taken a bad turn on the way to the American market. Having bought into the domestic "small means cheap" mentality they are now stuck with an inventory of V6 powered large SUVs and family sedans that seem out of place in the current market. Civics are outselling Accords for the first time since the Accord was introduced some 32 years ago.
So my personal wish? How about a Civic based Audi A3 copycat in the Acura range. A four wheel drive wagon of compact dimensions built as a premium car from the ground up. Lots of sound deadening material. Quality plastics and attention to detail. Priced around $28,000. And while I'm dreaming, have Citroen design the seats.
Friday, October 24, 2008
We're gonna have to leave a lot of stuff behind though.
Wednesday, August 27, 2008
4Car is an English site and therefore a good source of Euro centric car news and reviews. Recently they covered the launch of Tesla's sports car and followed with a retrospective of notable electric cars. I especially like the Sinclair which incorporated a number of construction techniques pioneered by Lotus. Read about it here.
The New York Times had a pair of interesting articles. (Note: registration may be required to view these links but it is well worth it.) First is a slide show of dream cars from GM. These images I found took me right back to my youth.
Nice huh? Actually it seems a little retro contemporary. For more go here.
Times are tough for automakers in the US. Even mighty Toyota has taken a hit after gearing up to steal the truck market from US builders. Honda however appears to be weathering the storm with a small profit. Credit their long standing commitment to a "do more with less" design philosophy which sometimes put them at odds with their US dealers. It also put them ahead of the curve when gas prices rose. A neat synopsis is available here from the NYT business section.
Thursday, August 14, 2008
This article courtesy of Jalopnik via Automobile Magazine.
Lotus Engineering is starting up a project they're calling "Omnivore," a task which, if successful, could see traditional internal combustion engines go the way of the dodo. Lotus is planning to meld the two-cycle engine with new technologies — direct injection and a variable compression ratio — to create an engine able to run on almost any fuel. If you've ever wondered what the future of the internal combustion looked like, you're getting a peek now. Put your propeller cap on and join us for a pocket protector talk after the jump.
Used to be that a gas engine was a gas engine and a diesel was a diesel. With the advent of reliable direct injection, variable displacement cylinder heads that don't turn into grenades, and incredibly sensitive monitoring and control systems, it's now possible to run an engine in ways would have never worked in the past. Consider the main barrier to high-compression gasoline engines in the past — preignition. High octane numbers were a band-aid for that problem, but that also caused fuel economy to plummet. Direct injection virtually eliminates the issue, allowing engineers to put the fuel right into the chamber exactly when it's needed, high pressure be damned. It's even conceivable to run a gasoline engine on the diesel cycle with direct injection.Now add the idea of operating with a two-cycle engine to the mix and things get really weird. Two-strokes are traditionally dirty, dirty engines to run. The huge amount of fuel used and inelegant combustion leads to lots of pollution but huge amounts of power, since you've got twice as many power strokes compared to a four-stroke. However, a two-stroke with direct injection and a variable compression ratio would be able to burn almost anything under super-high compression ratios, resulting in temperatures and pressures sufficient to completely burn almost any fuel. Of course, that assumes you can build powerful enough injectors and internal components that don't turn into Swiss cheese in extreme conditions. Let's just say this: Lotus is setting out on a path that's going to get a lot of powertrain engineering PhD's hot and bothered. If they succeed, future car engines will shrink and be more powerful as a result.
Thursday, August 7, 2008
We're addicted to oil. Pretty much everything in our economy is produced using what used to be cheap energy. Energy isn't cheap anymore. We have no alternative sources of energy available right now. The price of everything is going to go up. It isn't inflation, it's a lifestyle changing,paradigm busting,cataclysmic cultural event. We should prepare to be a part of it. We can reduce the pain but there will certainly be a good deal of pain involved.
I for one think that if this message were delivered honestly, Americans would respond positively to it. Fossil fuels are limited even if you don't believe in global warming. There are more people using larger amounts of them every day. Think of them as the batteries the planet came with. We've only got a little time to create a sustainable substitute. If we don't the consequences are really unthinkable, if not for us for some future humans.
Expensive energy really does have the ability to change people's choices. Witness Ford and GM shutting down truck assembly lines in a heartbeat. People respond when the truth is delivered in the market- with a price tag. A positive narrative does help to ease the pain. It can be our little project.
And we really have a vast reservoir of conservation that remains untapped. Here is a small chart of per capita energy use compiled by the World Resources Institute.
2003 Total energy consumption per capita
Units: Kilograms of oil equivalent (kgoe) per person
United States 7,794.8
Somehow those damn Italians manage a modern lifestyle using less than half the energy of Americans. Even the relatively profligate French use just slightly more than half. The US has a lot of room for improvement. The longer we dawdle the more world resentment is likely to grow.
Wednesday, July 30, 2008
In the short run we face a sort of patchwork quilt of solutions that move us toward a sustainable future. After all, if the perfect car went on sale tomorrow; you know the one with a negative carbon footprint that was powered by the sun; just changing over the automotive fleet would take years. What is more likely to happen is a little bit of this and a little bit of that. A true plug-in hybrid that was affordable would be a huge step but right now its a bit of an oxymoron. Also with the current electrical generation realities it would really be running on coal. Hydrogen currently implies much the same scenario. Thanks to big agriculture biofuels seem likely to displace food crops and require lots of oil driven fertilizers and intensive motorized farming. That's not a winning formula.
The stark facts indicate the car as we know it is likely to be the transport of choice for some time to come. Current engine technology is extremely clean. Fuel economy can be improved dramatically by downsizing, down powering, saving weight and using diesel. Simple known technology. The problem for the most part is we are addicted to driving alone and the current design of most habitable regions requires the use of an automobile to perform the functions necessary to sustain life. I'm talking about going to the grocery store, any store actually, the bank, the doctor, the daycare center. Did I mention going to work? Unless you live in New York City you probably aren't going to abandon your car for taxis and public transportation. It's just too inconvenient and time consuming.
If I could implement one technology to reduce car use or eliminate it all together in most urban areas it would be something like this. You call a number. You tell them where you are and where you want to go. If you don't like cell phones you do this on your computer or at a dedicated kiosk. Within five minutes a nice diesel powered van arrives. One that has plenty of space for your groceries. It takes you where you need to go picking up other passengers using dynamic routing that allows it to pick up nearby travelers going to local destinations along the way. No long waits. No long walks to the bus stop. Just a charge of perhaps a dollar a mile and an opportunity to meet the community or listen to your iPod. As you wish.
All of this is easily possible using existing technologies. It's just that we are inside the public transportation prison of the past. This is a simple, affordable, economically feasible and desirable solution. Of course taxi franchises and public transport will resist mightily. It just requires thinking outside of the current parameters. For those interested in an elaboration of this idea that describes a current pilot system in operation visit www.taxibus.org.uk and start talking it up.
Monday, July 28, 2008
A few days ago I was shopping at the Safeway near my house when what to my wondering eyes should appear but one of these motoring through the parking lot.
I have to say I frantically dug into my pockets in an attempt to activate the camera in my phone before it disappeared. No Luck. My head is full of a lot of old English cars and I recognized the DNA but for the life of me I couldn't come up with a name. Bugged the hell out of me to tell the truth. So imagine my surprise when I pulled into Costco for the weekly stockup and saw this at the pumps.
I quickly pulled to the curb to interrogate. Turns out there was a good reason I didn't recognize it. This was a true Vanden Plas Princess nee Austin A90. And there are less than 3400 of them in creation. Probably far less given that most of them stayed in the UK (the queen had one for a limo), sheet metal in the 50's and 60's had a shelf life of about 5 years and the activity of the tinworm in that clime is relentless.
This survivor has had the British lump of a six removed and replaced with the drivetrain from a Nissan 280Z thus making life a lot sunnier for all but the purists. My favorite part was the interior. With a real bench seat in front! I'm such a sucker for that.
Now it would be hard to advocate the use of obscure, low volume English cars as a green solution. Or even a reasonable transportation solution. But if you think about the amount of energy involved in making a new automobile you might make a case for automotive recycling of this sort. You can read more about this car at BritishV8.org where there are a large number of strange transplants revealed in exquisite detail.
Thursday, July 24, 2008
Fortunately Ford and GM have had to develop cars for a European market that had no interest in trucks. Adversity has forced them to fill their US market gaps with cars from overseas and to get those idle truck assembly lines back to work making 5 door hatchbacks (YEAH). Perhaps this explains the absence of my favorite Chevrolet Malibu Maxx from the newly remodeled lineup. These models are also figuring in the rebirth of the Saturn and Mercury lineups. You can read more about that here.
Monday, July 21, 2008
So before you put any gas in at $4 per gallon you are going to be out $42 per week in expenses. Drive only 100 miles per week at 20mpg and you have pretty much consumed a day's wages at my son's usual pay grade. Granted my insurance costs are lower but if I want a safer more modern car my costs will be the same or more. I figure a bare bones cost of 60 cents per mile. If I drive an SUV or carry comprehensive insurance on a newer car it will easily be $1 a mile or more to drive only 5000 miles a year!
My feeling is that people usually take these large fixed costs for insurance and maintenance for granted. The convenience of having a car available on demand is worth a lot to them. But what if you really could live without a car most of the time? If you make a couple of shopping trips a week for things too big to fit on your bike or the bus, what would you be willing to pay for a car on demand?
Last fall I was in Seattle where one of the many public transportation programs available was FlexCar now ZipCar. In strategic locations throughout the city were dedicated parking spots for on demand rental cars and trucks of all sorts. After subscribing to the service you could open the vehicle of your choice with a smart card passed over a reader inside the car. The car would open and give you access to the key. From there you could drive the car anywhere you wanted for $10 an hour. The price includes gasoline and insurance. As a university town Boulder is ideal for such a service. I have linked to ZipCar near Ohio State University for the curious.
The beauty of the system is that you have a choice of many vehicles. Need a minivan for visiting relatives arriving at the airport or a pickup for a building project? You can get one when you need it and drive a Civic Hybrid for other tasks.Think of several strategic locations around town. Perhaps a dozen cars in each Park and Ride location and city parking garage sitting in always available parking places.For the same cost as the cheapest car you could have this fleet available to you 6 hours a week! Boulder CarShare operates a service right now at a similar cost.
I find thinking of a "transportation budget" a rather liberating concept. To truly wean driver's from the personal car we have to move toward some sort of always available on demand alternative. ZipCar still has some drawbacks. You have to get from where you are to where the car is and return the car to the starting point when you are done. The cost of your time to deal with these barriers is going to be the real cost of owning a private car. A door to door service available on demand would be better for many people. Think of it as a taxi that you can get on five minutes notice that programs itself on the fly so you are always sharing the fare with others. A cell phone with text messaging and GPS capability should be enough to make this dream a reality. More on this later.
Thursday, July 17, 2008
The design process that once required a small army of engineers and support staff can now be done on relatively inexpensive CAD/CAM equipment. If you have development money you can beat the bigs to the small profitable niches and outsource the actual building of the car. Thus we see Tesla Motors funded by Elon Musk who made his nut at PayPal and Fisker Automotive led by Henrik Fisker and his impressive design portfolio from BMW, Aston Martin and others combining with eager venture capitalists to become the new car manufacturers.
If these new conglomerations succeed, we could be witnessing the dawn of a new automotive industry. These cars are aimed at a small but lucrative segment where the price of entry is $100.000 and up. These cars will never sell in numbers that make sense to GM or Ford but there are certainly 5000+ buyers a year for someone who can deliver the green performance car well heeled motorists desire. Fisker and Musk are looking to leverage the technology pioneered on these cars into larger numbers of cheaper, mainstream vehicles.
As automotive suppliers become suppliers of components to an ever more modular and computer-centric auto industry, one can imagine the emergence of completely new manufacturing entities. The Dell Dynamo? How about a GoogleCar?
Monday, July 14, 2008
What piqued my interest most recently was press about the Eco Elise from Lotus. Unless you are a car nut you probably have never heard of them. An English company founded by Colin Chapman in the 1950's they have worked a little niche building racing cars and sports cars. Chapman was known for being a nut for making cars light. He readily embraced new technologies that allowed him to make his cars lighter and stronger and therefore faster. Making more with less or as Buckminster Fuller would have it "ephemeralization". The Elise is the basis for the all electric Tesla sports car currently sold in the US.
Lotus has had trouble surviving as a car company but its engineering arm is alive and vital. Consider the amount of energy involved in manufacturing a car. My guess is that mining the materials, forming the plastics, and transporting everything to the showroom in finished form uses as much or more fossil fuel as you are likely to burn in the tank in a car's lifetime. (Anyone who has actually researched this should let me know!) Suddenly Lotus's less is more engineering techniques are very desirable.
So what does a respectable, forward thinking automotive engineer do next? How about planting your own hemp field! In pursuit of new and sustainable materials that is just what Lotus has done. The Eco Elise demonstrates the use of natural, renewable substances not only in the places you expect, like the upholstery and trim, but in the places you don't, like the seat frames and fittings. Lotus has developed a new composite using hemp and resins to replace many of the hard fittings in the car. Elsewhere hemp, sisal and natural wool replace traditional interior materials.
Currently Lotus must use oil based polyester resins for the hemp composite parts but they are committed to finding a more natural binder for this purpose. And more power too them I say. Other manufacturers are making progress toward the recyclable car but are concentrating on nonrenewable resources like aluminum and plastics. If Lotus succeeds, their efforts would represent an important step forward on the path to truly sustainable resources.Read about it here.