Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Crazy Quilt Future

Sitting in the United States in 2008 its compelling to imagine an automotive future much like the automotive present only with a different fuel. ( Well actually there are those who think the present fuel is just fine if we could only pump more of it but we will leave them at the curb for the moment.)The future is a world full of personal cars powered by hydrogen or switchgrass ethanol or hemp seed diesel or windmill electricity available at the home outlet. All of these are worthy successors to fossil fuel but no single one is likely to take the mantle of king of fuels. In fact I think in the long run a major overhaul in our concept of transportation and the design of our living spaces is going to sneak up and render the personal car rather quaint.

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 and start talking it up.

I hope you enjoy the next ride as much!

Behind the Beat prefers not to get involved in electoral politics. In fact I think its very likely we live in a time when government can only respond to the critical problems facing us after the fact. For better or worse the changes that must be made will need to be made personally and en masse. Nonetheless, I can't keep my eyes off this photo or my mind off its many unspoken narratives, real and imagined. Enjoy.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Down on the street-Boulder Edition

With apologies to the ongoing feature at the blog Jalopnik

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 where there are a large number of strange transplants revealed in exquisite detail.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Globe Trotting

Back in the day it was said rather famously that what was good for General Motors was good for America. The Big Three were in the driver's seat of the US economy and oil poured into America's fleet on one end and spewed out the tailpipe at the other. When the Japanese began to make credible and virtually unbreakable passenger cars the Bigs all but gave them the small car market and sat by while they relentlessly grew larger and stole more market share. Sometime in the Carter years they hitched their wagons to SUVs and pickup trucks and began a very profitable 25 year ride. Size was everything, fuel economy irrelevant and using truck platforms insured development costs were low. A true cash cow. Now their indolence and lack of investment has come full circle and lots full of vehicles languish like dinosaurs in another era of climate change.

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

Letting Go - Your next car may not be yours

Recently I sat down with my 18 year old son and did some back of the napkin figuring about the actual cost of owning a car. Since he is an American Male under the age of 25 he can expect to pay at least $1200 a year for liability insurance alone. Figure it at $3 a day. Even though he is a good friend of the mechanic (me) it's hard to get by on less than $1000 per year for either car payments or maintenance costs. This figure is low, trust me, and basically involves buying a cheap car and driving it till it drops. Figure another $3 a day for these costs.

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

At the dawn of the automotive age there were those who built chassis and those who built bodies. A whole car involved at least one of each. This arrangement resulted in hundreds of "automakers" in the United States. Over time, exploiting economies of scale the industry came to be known as the "Big Three". However bigness has its downside too and the majors find it impossible to anticipate where the market is going en masse. Exploiting small niches profitably is also difficult. Factories are shuttered. Layoffs announced. Hands are wrung.

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

Thinking about the sustainable car.

I'm currently enjoying the flood of unanticipated consequences flowing from $4+ gasoline. Of course this has generated a surge in interest in the cars I love best. Small, quirky and diesel. For the first time in history, Honda reports that Civics are selling in larger numbers than Accords. But interest like this is still a knee jerk reaction. What is really required is no less than a design revolution, one that encompasses every aspect of our lives and one that ultimately makes the personal car as we know it obsolete. More on this later.

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.