Monday, June 30, 2008

Your Laugh Mileage May Vary

My comment: Heh. Heh heh, Ha, HaHa, Ho Ho Ho, hardy har har, snort, chortle, fall on the floor in hysterics, dehydration from oceans of tears of laughter, etc. etc.

Joy thy name is Vindication.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Hyper Drive

Much is being made these days, unsurprisingly, of sundry fuel thrifty driving techniques lumped together as "hypermiling". Some of the techinques are just common sense, some are not nearly so common, and some are just downright dangerous. Accelerating slowly and coasting as much as possible are two that have been used for many years by the savvy fuel saver but others such as turning off engines when stopped are relatively new and controversial.

Some new vehicles use the engine stop technique but those presumably are designed to accomodate the increased wear and tear of such activity. If an engine is not specifically designed for it, with a heavy duty starter and other strengthened parts, then component breakage costs may largely offset fuel savings. This is one area where electrically driven vehicles have an advantage although it's not a large one. Having an engine stop and start repeatedly in stop-and-go traffic is seriously inadvisable on average engine designs.

Virtually all of the "new" techniques were used back in the 50s and 60s in an event that was a perennial feature of the automotive landscape, the Mobile Econony Run, which pitted "stock" vehicles of most of the manufacturers against each other for mileage bragging rights. Endless mechanical tricks and extreme driving discipline often resulted in fairly ridiculous numbers such as 35mpg for Cadillacs and Chrysler Imperials and of course much higher figures for smaller vehicles. The "winner" was not based on strict mileage but rather how much fuel per unit of vehicle weight was used in the test. This tended to favor larger vehicles so the winner of the event was frequently a large luxury vehicle even though its actual mileage may have been far less than the "compact" cars of the day. What this proved was, well, not a heck of a lot but much advertising "mileage" was gotten out of the results if nothing else. Gas prices were around 25 cents per gallon which is roughly half the price currently adusted for inflation. Still this was nowhere near the historically low prices of the 1990s so many people were interested in the results. I suspect that if such an event were to take place with current vehicles 100mpg plus figures would be common.

Success in hypermiling basically depends on how much hassle is tolerable to the average person and also what type of driving predominates for a given driver. Commutes in slow rush-hour traffic may require a lot more discipline that most are willing to employ and risk slowing traffic even more than otherwise. A whole thruway full of folks ever so gently accelerating and then carefully coasting sounds like an engraved invitation to road rage for the more impatient commuter. Out on the super-slab hypermiling techniques will have less effect percentage wise and may increase traffic speed differentials to a dangerous point. If you, as recommended by hypermilers, allow your car to coast up hills then you may be only going 30 or 40mph over the top which saves fuel but runs the clear risk of being smacked in the butt by an inattentive driver with his cruise control locked on a 70mph speed limit. A more generally effective and much safer method would be to just set the cruise control 5mph below the limit then take what you get and call it good enough because we all know what is the enemy of good-enough.

There is plenty of room between those extremes to do some good on the mileage front but regardless this sort of thing is going to require a level of situational awareness entirely foreign to the mass of the motoring public. People who drive while chatting to friends on the cell, draining a Big Gulp, and noshing on MacNuggets simultaneously are not good candidates for the significant additional mental processing required by hypermiling. There are darn few, alas perhaps, willing to pursue their daily driving tasks in a continuous state of quivering heightened awareness. A lot of folks might find the additional stress a poor tradeoff for saving a few bucks on fuel.

The increased situational awareness of hypermiling could well result in a lower traffic accident rate but trying to use the techniques where they are inappropriate could easily have the opposite effect. A moderate unobsessive approach to the "problem" will pay some dividends but don't expect to save hundreds of dollars per year. Dozens might be more like it. TANSTAAFL as usual. Up to you to decide if it's worth the trouble.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

The Car of Yesterday Here Tomorrow

Saddle up auto technoids for an extended ramble. Gonna be long one so settle in. A while back I ruminated on the current and possible future design of hybrid vehicles. Key to the my suggested concept was a newish piece of technology known as the "wheel motor". Sometimes called the in-wheel motor, the tech has more than a little promise for several reasons. First is the fact that due to its basic design the need for a reduction geartrain, otherwise known as a transmission, is eliminated. The design stems from a technology that has been percolating for a couple of decades generically referred to as the brushless motor. A brushless motor is controlled entirely by electronic means and does not rely on brushes to switch current as do most regular electric motors. This reduces friction, enhances efficiency and extends motor service life. In addition for the last few years this technology has been added to a new type of motor design.

Typically the center portion of an electric motor is what rotates and sends torque to whatever device is connected. This design goes back to the infancy of motor technology and is about as "mature" as any technology can be. In the past decade a design was introduced that reversed the normal architecture of the electric motor. In the new design, sometimes called an "outrunner", the portion of the motor that rotates is the entire outside case which is then attached to the driven mechanism. This design does not increase the overall power output of the motor per se but it does drastically increase the torque that the motor can apply to a mechanism. Horsepower is torque times RPM so if the HP of an outrunner is the same but the torque is much higher then the RPM will be concommitantly lower. So what you say? Well this much increased torque in many applications is better matched to the real world needs of mechanical devices. A good example of the difference can be found in the world of electric model airplanes. Before the high-torque outrunner design became common electric models often required a reduction gearbox so that the engine could turn a larger propellor than it could otherwise and slow turning large props are considerably more efficient than fast turning small ones. The new design allows the motor to turn larger propellors at a slower speed thereby matching the powerplant far better to larger more efficient props. The motor is attached to the airframe at the stationary backpiece and the entire outer case and prop mounting assembly turn as a single unit.

The reverse approach of this idea can work very nicely as well An extreme example is the the small electric motor used to drive the main drum in a clothes dryer. The motor pulley is only an inch or two across but the thin rubber drive belt goes all the way around the two or three foot wide drum meaning that the "final drive ratio" is very large. In this way a small fast turning motor can properly drive a large drum that can be very heavy with 20 or 30 pounds of wet clothes. The large gear ratio turns the drum at the slow and deliberate speed needed and is not very sensitive to how much weight is loaded into it. A dryer could no doubt be built that used a "wheel motor" that was the same size as the drum and would be quite efficient but few are in the market for a clothes dryer that costs several thousand dollars. The object in either, or any really, case is to maximize utility and energy while minimizing cost. Advantage goes to the automoble in this case because the wheel motor would eliminate as much as several thousand dollars in mechanical parts.

Virtually all electrically driven car designs, whether pure or hybrid use conventional motors that work through more or less conventional geartrains. In the case of hyrids this is necessary because the electric motor must work in tandem with the internal combustion engine. Pure electrics have been few and far between but in general they have used some sort of transmission between the motor and the wheels because of the use of conventional motors either AC or DC. The new Chevy Volt design along with the ultra expensive Tesla Roadster eschew the use of a multi-speed transmission but do use a reduction gear train to take avantage of their motors' power characteristics.

The wheel motor designs that have been in developement for a while now are versions of the brushless outrunner design. The rotor of the motor, catchy huh, is essentially the inner surface of the wheel rim. Like the small outrunner designs this means that the wheel motor can develop far more torque than a conventional motor. This much greater torque and consequent lower RPM happily matches up with the real-world rotational speeds of a typical wheel/tire unit. The most salutary result is that no gearing is required anywhere in the system which means a very substantial weight reduction in the vehicle's design. No clutches, transmissions, driveshafts or final-drive gearsets needed--a savings of several hundred pounds at least with a healthy reduction in gear friction as a bonus.

Several manufacturers have explored such designs with varying degrees of success. One company that has attracted the attention of outfits as mainstream as Volvo and as quirky as the ZAP company is PML Flightlink which has a very promising product which appears to work well. There are inevitably downsides. One is the fact that no matter how efficiently the system is designed it will always add a significant amount of weight to a wheel. The weight of wheels, tires, and half of all the moving parts of a car's suspension is known as unsprung weight and too much of it can seriously affect ride quality. Wheel motors can easily double the unsprung weight of a given installation. Not so good. Another problem is the service life of the power cables that tranfer electricity to the wheel. They clearly are under a lot more bending and general mechanical stress than electrical wiring is normally. A third problem is how braking is handled. Some designs incorporate a small disc brake into the motor which works okay but complicates things and increases unsprung weight even further. Other designs dispense with a conventional brake altogether and use the car's computer controlled electrical system to provide braking. This supposedly works fine but would I think make the typical engineer quite nervous about just how to make this setup fail-safe. Two more factors are weatherproofing problems and cost effectiveness. Mitsubishi attempted to develop this technology a few years back but dropped it for reasons that likely include at least one of the above mentioned. Others are pursuing it though because of its obvious potential.

Despite the problems this technology has great promise for hybrid vehicles. Clearly there would be huge advantage in weight reduction and system complexity if the wheels could be driven directly by electrical current. Instead of the rather high complexity of overlaying an electrical drive system onto an internal combustion drivetrain the whole business could be simplified significantly if a small IC engine could be used to drive a generator which would provide not only power to charge a modestly sized battery but also to drive the vehicle directly. Add a plug-in recharge capability and we're really starting starting to cook.

The weight savings could be used for increased battery capacity and greater range or simply to reduce the weight of hybrid vehicles from their present porky avoirdupois. A much smaller IC engine could be used if its primary function was charging the battery and would also be used as a range extender. Since it only requires about 10 to 15 horsepower to maintain steady highway speeds in modern aerodynamic vehicles the engine, if sized correctly, could power the vehicle at safe interstate speeds even if the battery were completely depleted.

Obviously there would be losses incurred from engine to generator to wheel motors but with proper engineering they might not be much if any worse that what is experienced by typical mechanical drivetrains. The big payoff here would be two-fold. Due to the plug-in design many short trips could be managed without ever having the IC engine engaged. Naturally battery capacity would determine electric only range but with the weight reduction inherent in the use of wheel motors higher capacity battery packs can be used that would give an electric only range of say 20-30 miles which is easily twice what most hybrids can achieve. This would suffice for most commutes. The vehicle could either plug in while at work or the engine could run, in a very efficient range, to recharge the battery for the drive home. Longer commutes, and trips of essentially any length could be accomodated by the engine running to both recharge the battery and drive the vehicle directly for any distance that the fuel tank would allow.

I'm guessing that an engine of no more than 40 horsepower would be needed by for a small four seat sedan. In direct drive mode the top speed would be 80 plus and a steady 70 could be easily be maintained while charging the battery at the same time. I'm convinced that a small two door four-place sedan properly configured could achieve a minumum of 50 mpg on the highway and as much as a hundred effective mpg in city driving. Acceleration, starting, passing, and hill-climbing duties would be abetted by the battery. Long grades could be a problem but something has to give somewhere I suppose.

Even if wheel motors do not deliver on their promise the high-efficency design of the outrunner brushless motor could be engineered into an independent suspension and would power the wheels through small driveshafts. This would allow much lower unsprung weights and the use of conventional brakes. I feel sure that this is the type of hybrid we will see in the mature phase of the technology. What is available now is just interim stuff that manufactures have slapped together out of the parts bins as much as possible to minimize their investments. They will likely soon "go all the way" under the lash of escalating fuel prices. Whether or not wheel motor tech is used driving the car directly from the battery with an IC engine on board to charge the battery this is an architecture too good to pass up especially when combined with plug-in capability.

Pure electrics are going to fail to capture significant market share for a long time to come. They simply are too limited in their ranges and operating parameters for people to spend large amounts of cash on them in any kind of numbers. Pure electrics are unsuitable for almost any climate except the California coast. Both air conditioning and/or heaters will drain any battery system in a fat hurry. A pure electric would have diddly for range on either a below zero morning or a 100 degree afternoon. Having an IC engine on board gets you the AC and heat that is crucial in most parts of the country. The 40 horsepower engine I referred to above should let a small vehicle cruise at highway speeds, charge the battery for passing and hills and at the same time provide heat in the winter and air conditioning in the summer.

It's true of course that ol' Debbil' carbon would still around but it would be dramatically reduced for a high percentage of the vehicle's operation. There's no reason that the IC engine used in this architure should be any less techologically advanced than any other. In a high-tech ultra low emission configuration a 40 horsepower engine should not need to be larger than about .75 liter in displacement and could easily be only a three or even just a two cylinder design. The carbon footprint of such a vehicle is going to be at nearly irreducible levels in terms of real world solutions. The countless alternative fuel proposals and schemes that clutter the news are not only impractical or implausible but even worse they are impractical in economic terms even with gas going for 4 dollars a gallon.

Any alternative fuel proposal has to account for the vast scale of motor fuel usage in this country. Even the most absurdly optimistic proposals for alternative fuels are wildly inadequate to the task of replacing the 190 billion gallons used each year. Combined they are inadequate. Combined and octupled they are inadequate. If fuel usage were to collapse to half its current levels any combination of alternatives would still be hopelessly inadequate. It is desperately unrealistic to consider that a variety of different fuels will help. Fragmenting the motor fuels infrastructure to accomodate several competing fuels will dramatically elevate delivery costs and complicate vehicle design. My guess is that gsoline will have to rocket above 10 dollars a gallon to cause a serious stampede to alternatives. Even if the economics start to work for alternatives the volume and distribution problems will remain.

There is little inherent reason why this proposed architecture could not be scaled to any size vehicle although in the case of big trucks the cost differentials may be so extreme that it will not be commercially viable. The steady speeds and lengthy trip profiles of big cargo trucks are in an operational regime least likely to result in serious benefit from this architecture or any other hybrid design for that matter.

Even as we speak fuel prices are starting to improve overall fleet mileage. Economic incentives are always more powerful than government mandates. It's going to hurt. The economy's adjustment to permanently higher fuel costs will take time and will have turbulent political consequences. It happened in the early 80s and we survived but it wasn't much fun.

Eww Factor

What is it about nuclear power that drives enviros completely 'round the bend? Why does the Sierra Club and every other environmental watchdog group practically lapse into hysterics at the mere mention of it? Easy answer---Three Mile Island. The accident in 1979 catalyzed the growing anti-nuke movement, a subset of the anti-nuclear war ethic, into a roar of disapproval for nuclear power in general. We are about to hit the 30 year anniversary of TMI and the anti-nuke movement is poised to do whatever it can to torpedo any plans for new reactors which are being contemplated in the wake of escalating energy prices.

In the decades since the accident the anti-nuclear power stance has become a deeply imbedded article of faith in the broader environmental movement. "Faith" is a weak word really for the intense fervor displayed by opponents of nuclear power. Snarling white-hot hatred comes much closer to the mark. Anything, anything at all, that smacks of a renewed intent to build new nuclear power stations is reflexively leaped upon with every obstructionist method in the extensive toolbox of the modern environmental extremist.

In the oil producing states here in the U.S. there was a phrase of some currency during the 80's oil boom that said "Let 'em freeze in the dark". This bit of oil patch hubris expressed contempt for the people in non-oil producing sections of the country who were complaining about high oil prices. By all appearances the very model of the modern greenie zeitgeist would be perfectly willing for large parts of the country to sit in the dark and freeze rather than allow any new nuclear power plants to be built. This sentiment is not expressed directly as such of course but is ranged about with endless maundering about how conservation and alternative energy sources will be our salvation so the dreaded nukes need not be employed.

Time and technology do not stand still. There have been numerous reactor designs that have been proposed in the last 29 years that are far safer than the 50s-60s tech not only of TMI but of virtually all other existing powerplants. This matters not a whit to the anti-everything crowd. It really wouldn't matter how safe a proposed design is because to a great many the concept, the every idea itself, is so inchoately horrifying that no argument in favor of nuclear power can be allowed to gain the slightest public traction by the environmental movement. Any such idea is attacked mercilessly, derided and demeaned relentlessly, vasty legal action threatened, media events staged, mailings issued, etc. etc. along with any other tactic, fair or foul, to derail nascent thoughts of nuclear power.

This unbelievably intense fervor has descended into the neurotically paranoiac and will likely remain there for some time. Even the current extremities of global warming alarmism are insufficient for all but a few environmentalists to countenance the idea that nuclear power could be a big contributor to the lowering of our carbon footprint. The anti-nuke propaganda has been so successful over the years that the average person, when he thinks about it at all, probably considers the whole idea as just, well, icky. This "Ewww factor" is more than just a vague public unease with the whole idea. Encouraged and abetted by the anti-nuclear lobbies it is a crushing impediment to the lowering of our usage of fossil fuels and lowering our CO2 atmospheric contributions.

The part about lowering CO2 output doesn't particularly bother me but the left's eternal nuclear kibosh is obstructing our ability to reduce our use of fossil fuels. No other single enterprise, no overpriced impractical inadequate "alternative", has a similar potential to directly reduce fossil fuel use by millions of tons per year. But no it is not to be allowed and no better, sweeter, definition of irony is possible than that the left's hysteria over nukes is in direct conflict with its other salient hysteria, global warming.

The current runup in motor fuel prices is causing a few chinks in this obstructionist armor but we're far away from a major policy retreat by the anti-nukers. The usual last extremity of the anti argument is that we haven't "solved" the technical problems of how to safely store nuclear waste. The general public assumes this is true due to endless propagandizing by the no-nukes for three decades. This assertion is entirely false. We have handily solved the technical problems but what we cannot seem to solve are the political problems. NIMBY NIMBY NIMBY Sounds like a playground taunt when said that way but the cultural juvenilia exemplified by Not In My Backyard is precisely what impedes our nuclear waste solution.

The Yucca Mountain nuclear waste storage site in the Nevada Desert is the safest storage solution that mere humans are going to able to achieve on this planet. It's not perfect but the old saying that "better is the enemy of good enough" applies in spades here. Yucca Mountain is far far better than "good enough". The site is spang in the middle of a vast trackless desert and deep underground in strata as tectonically stable and leakage resistant as exists anywhere in the country and probably the world. Opposition to it is NIMBY writ large and that sentiment is abetted and encouraged as much as possible by the no-nukers. All this in spite of the fact that no Nevadan, casino owner, gay activist, sharpei, toad, or scorpion is likely to be even slightly inconvenienced or nanoscopically exposed to radiation in any way--ever.

Not good enough apparently. Scientists, not being idiots, cannot absolutely 100.00000000000000000000% guarantee that some small leakage of radioactive material could not occur in the next 100,000 years. So long as there is the remotest possibility that there might be a 1 at the end of those 20 zeros then the Yucca site, or any other site, will be resisted to the last desperate gasp by, well, you know. In the final analysis nuclear power, or for that matter nuclear anything, seems to elicit a primal revulsion in activists that submits to no rational argument. What we as a society can do to allay this fear is unknowable but its continued neurotic persistence is a clear threat to our long term economic well-being.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Barley-Bean Or-----

A recent tome about the viability of the conservative movement has caused a new trope to emerge to the delight of the progressive chattering classes. Supposedly the conservative movement has a dearth of "new ideas" to address the multitudinous problems faced by the country. As I scribble, George Will is being mushily interrogated by Charlie Rose who is attempting to force GW into cognizance of this "fact". George dodges and counter-punches effectively but to predictably little effect on the Rosemiester.

The most common pungent riposte to this trope is that liberals have ideas while conservatives have principles. This is a calumny. Liberals/progressives do have principles or rather a principle. It is that there is no perceived ill or alleged lack in the human condition or the "environment" that is not amenable to governmental amelioration--period. All else flows from this. Since the ills of the human condition and the environment can essentially be considered as infinite then a concommitant infinity of government "assistance" is desirable. Since this requires an infinity of resources and an economy is not infinite then resources must perforce be channeled away from non-governmental economic activity to the utter maximum extent possible. If this requires the private sector economy to shrink then so be it. Europe is currently exploring these limits and it ain't pretty but I digress.

The maximum extent possible means that "everyone should pay their fair share". Anyone sharper than, as Foghorn Leghorn put it, "a bag of wet mice", knows that "everyone" really means "rich people" or that slightly more neutral word, the "wealthy". Who are the wealthy? The progressive line maintains that anyone making over a couple hundred K per year is wealthy. Pretty much anything beyond that is "undeserved" wealth and so any "excess" is fair game. The wealthy are also seen as inherently less principled than the poor. They thoughtlessly spend their ill-gotten gains on socially irresponsible and venal fripperies such as large houses and expensive automobiles. To a progressive every "excess" dollar a wealthy person controls becomes a dollar denied the poor and needy. That all this "excess" wealth might be an important part of an economy's macroeconomic engine is discounted entirely. And it is not merely discounted--progressives actively and loudly sneer at the very concept.

Persons of a cranky persuasion used to say there wasn't a dime's worth of difference between Democrats and Republicans. However true that may have been of the actual political parties how that dime is now viewed by philosophical progressives and conservatives could not be any more starkly different. The progressive governmental mindset magnanimously forbears to let you keep some percentage of an earned dime while the conservative mindset laments whatever portion you are forced upon pain of punishment to surrender to the government. Philosophical divides do not get any deeper than that.

Conservatives don't need "new" ideas to replace old principles. The old principles are just as operationally responsive and flexible as they used to be which is to say not very and thank heaven for it. The old principles encourage much reflection and consideration before haring off in new untried directions. This reflection is absolutely critical in an age where all current and proposed governmental activity carries an inescapable and crushing load of unintended consequences.

Progressives clamor after "new ideas" because both the body politic and "the planet" are in continual and unrelenting "crisis" so new ideas, things, strategies, and approaches must be tried NOW to avoid onrushing cultural and environmental Armageddon. And if this or that ill-conceived approach is a miserable counterproductive failure then let us not reflect and consider but rather let us seize upon the next proposed panacea. Above all let's do something, anything, and do it now!

The Divide is abundantly represented signifcantly by the choices in this year's election--rather more so than in the recent past--if not especially savory in either case. Our choice in November now appears to be between the Obamessiah and The Old Guy--between a RINO and a young feller that makes George McGovern look like a Neocon--between Nurse Ratchet and the asylum inmates. An old Monty Python restaurant sketch gave a diner the choice between "barley-bean or turd soup". The diner's response was "Remarkably easy choice." I care little for McCain's barley-bean soup but even so it's a remarkably easy choice.