Thursday, July 31, 2008

T. Picken's Boon?

My my my how things do change. T. Boone Pickens, reviled funder of the even more reviled Swift Boat Vets who helped hull John "Rambo" Kerry's campaign below the waterline, bids fair to become the newest darling of the progressive chattering classes. His new energy independence plan focuses on wind power and the use of natural gas, in both of which he has invested heavily. I must say it's almost refreshing to witness such an unapologetic public display of naked self interest. If chutzpah is a necessary part of his plan he's exceedingly well covered on that score.

T. Boone's "plan" is to convince, goad, or force the country to build several hundred billion dollars worth of wind turbines that in the fullness of time will take over electrical generating duties of the many natural gas fired facilities that presently do the job. By some future techno magic this wind generated power will be temporarily stored thereby solving wind and solar power's principle Achilles heel which is of course that the wind don't always blow and the sun don't always shine. No technological solution is predicted, purported, or even guessed at. This will supposedly allow the much greater use of natural gas in motor vehicles in lieu of our current practice of paying abundant danegeld to those nasty furriners of our fevered imaginations who wring their hands and cackle like Snidely Whiplash as their bank accounts explode with oil cash.

T. Boone expects us to believe that his vast investments in wind power and natural gas should not taint our acceptance of this scheme. Perhaps it shouldn't but there's that little detail hiding in there of some putative future storage technology that rubs me quite the wrong way. Rather reminds me of a wonderful New Yorker cartoon. Two academic types stand in front of a blackboard covered in two separate sets of complex equations. Connecting the two sets of equations is the phrase, "Then a miracle occurs." One of the profs is pointing at the sentence saying, "I think you should be more specific in step two."

At least one of the pieces of this self-aggrandizing puzzle makes sense and that is to "encourage" fleet vehicle operators to switch to compressed natural gas. This is a fine idea but it's already happening with increasing frequency in response to higher fuel prices. The process needs no "encouragement" from the government or anyone else except the goad of self interest underlying all market decisions. In fact no part of the "alternative" energy spectrum whatever is deserving of government support since the much maligned market is doing a dandy job of encouraging switching to other fuel sources.

T. Boone is hopeful that the current deaf dumb and blind hysteria over global warming will cut the purse strings of various governmental entities and let the cash roll out, into his pockets naturally. In the current political climate it's a good bet for him and any others who want to profit from the runaway bandwagon of "climate change". Fine let 'em profit, if they can, without tax credits, subsidies, and the many other cost deferring mechanisms so beloved by the alternative energy industry. In T. Boone's case the state of Texas has been convinced (coerced?) to pony up nearly 5 billion clams to facilitate building the transmission infrastructure needed to get the juice created by all those loverly turbines to somewhere it might be used.

Just makes your heart glad don't it that Texas has seen fit to enable ol' T. Boone to make a few miserable extra billion to supplement his presently meager income. He's just going with the flow after all. He may well have become resigned to the Dems. perpetually intransigent quashing of every effort to increase oil exploration anywhere on U.S. soil so hey why not cash in where a wily old wildcatter can, while he still can. Sooner the better for there is the risk that the body politic will resist having the wholesale imposition of stupefyingly expensive AGW "solutions" forced upon them. They might rebel, congressionally speaking, and the alternative energy subsidy gravy train could jump the tracks.

Wildcatters understand risk however so I suppose it's not surprising he has placed his bets on the willfully blind economic philosophies of ascendant progressives who view free and open markets as an obsolete remnant of the unenlightened past. I only wish I could throw in with T. Boone as he seeks to profit from the economic turmoil that will inevitably follow the vast hyper-costly anti-carbon mandates being spurred on by the bizarre panic over global warming. There's extra sweet irony in one of the biggest profit hounds of the old age of crude oil exploration shrewdly attacking the soft underbelly of the environmental movement. Makes a body proud.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Yo Mama Earth

Saw a USGS report that crude reserves offshore in the Artic may be as much as 90 billion barrels. Of course we can't access it because a few dozen krill or possibly the odd walrus might be inconvenienced. On shore in the northern reaches of ANWR we could easily discomfit several million mosquitos with drilling rigs so that's right out. We must must must "save the planet" at all costs.

When you see pictures of a massive tsunami, a huge volcanic eruption, or the results of a major quake you just aren't left with the impression that the Earth is the timorous delicately fragile place so many seem to think it is these days. Plop a greenie yuppie alone in the middle of the Sahara, or the Amazon, or the Antarctic and they might not be so sure the planet is the gentle nurturing Mama Earth they thought it was when they nobly shelled out 28 large for a Prius to help out with global warming.

Good old Mom is one tough customer. She ain't a skeered of the likes of us by crackey. Show a little respect if you please for the all time champion queen of ruthless killers--Mother Earth. Not from nothing came the early religionists' injunctions for Man to exercise dominion over the Earth. The intent was for the believer to get busy and "tame" a landscape that too often seemed intent on erasing the thinking mammal's presence. Consider---floods, droughts, fires, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, tsunamis, heatstoke, sunburn, frostbite, hurricanes, typhoons, tornadoes, lightning, hail, sand storms, blizzards, heat stroke, hypothermia, poisonous snakes, poisonous plants, plagues, thorns, locusts, chiggers, ants, termites, wasps, mosquitoes, ticks, tapeworms, spiders, lice, mice, rats, wolves, lions, tigers, and bears oh frakkin' my. Quite a list and quite an incomplete one. Of course our environment is what sustains us but historically it has been just as intent, if not rather more so, on burying us.

Therefore achieving "dominion", we'd phrase it as control, over this unremittingly hostile place was crucial if humans were to move past the primitive hunter/gatherer stage of social evolution. The supremely comfortable lives we lead today are the results of several thousand years of steady increases in keeping ever more of the alleged glories of the natural world at bay to the greatest extent possible. The last ten millenia have been an endless battle to carve out of the wilderness (everywhere was of course "wilderness" once) the relatively unharried unthreatening existence we, in the developed world at least, currently enjoy. Now that most of that grueling business is out of the way we can now apparently afford to recast the planet as the Goddess Gaia, exemplar of all that is good, true, and infinitely succoring. It has been said that the Universe is not cruel but merely indifferent. Same goes for the planet. It spins merrily away in its orbit supremely unconcerned about the doings of the thin tissue of carbon-based life on its surface.

There may be a few nutbars out there who think we humans might threaten the solid silicon/iron bulk of the planet but most, upon a little reflection, take the phrase "Save the Planet" to mean that our human busyness possibly threatens not the actual planet but rather our own safe serene existences. We should at least admit that we are concerned for our own comfort and all the factors that influence it and not really for some idealized phony-baloney new-agey idea that a planet can be an actual living organism. This puerile malarkey would be otherwise harmless if not for the contribution it makes towards inflating the huge alarmist bubble of fear that enrobes the whole subject of anthropogenically caused global warming.

There seems to be any number of people absolutely panicked by the prospect of a six inch sea level rise and a two or three degree rise in average global temperature. Even if I were to abandon my critical faculties entirely and accept the worst case scenarios shrilly bandied about, the fact remains that these scenarios are predictions and not guarantees. In fact there seem to be no shortage of qualifiers such as, "could result in", "projections are", "studies indicate", "as much as" and "computer modeling suggests". It takes a level of confidence in which I am not willing to indulge to uncritically accept the proposition that climate modeling is so keenly advanced and infallible when equivalently complex art renders mere meteorological predictions entirely useless past about ten days. I've heard the argument that long term changes are in some ways easier to predict than short term weather patterns but sorry just not buying it. It is the utter height of hubris to suggest that we know even a fraction of what we need to know about a system as stupendously complex and subtly interrelated as an entire planetary biosphere.

Cherry-picking data is the long-standing traditional dodge of activist groups who fear that any contrary indications might run the risk of ratcheting back the hysteria which is seen as crucial in heating up public demand for "action" on any given issue. Which is why the current years long spell of average temperature moderation is characterized as purely anomalous or merely the cool calm before the warm storm. Skepticism is growing and is getting much harder to pass off as the bleatings of paid industry shills but so many individuals and organizations are so deeply invested in climate change hysteria that even the barest smidgin of rhetorical backsliding cannot be tolerated. In fact the more the orthodoxy is challenged the greater the volume of alarmism becomes along with the inevitable descent into nasty ad-hominem attacks on those who dare challenge the sacred invocation "The Science Is Settled".

Pardon me but Science is never "settled". It is fundamental to the entire structure of the scientific enterprise that new data may, and frequently does, require adjustments in predictive physical models. Sure some things are pretty solidly defined such as the speed of light and the mathematical approximations of numerous physical phenomena large and small. What is clearly in its infancy is the ability of computer models to reliably predict the long term behavior of extremely complex inherently chaotic large scale systems such as a planet's biosphere with its dozens, if not hundreds, of variable factors, any one of which if nudged a bit one way or the other may result in wildly differing results. Add to that factors of which we are likely not yet aware which can and likely will modify predictive confidence levels.

I submit that while an extraordinarily high level of confidence is needed to countenance the expenditure of many trillions of dollars in the "fight" against global warming, no confidence at all is needed at all to assert that there is no such thing as some Edenic climate gold standard--that there is a "right" kind of global climate. Putting aside the difficulties in measuring average global temperatures in times past, which is the "correct" one. For which average temperature should we expend vast amounts of effort and treasure in an attempt to implement and maintain? What is the "right" average temp for earth-bound life? Which one is perfect for the vast array of microbes, animals, and plants that inhabit ecological niches ranging over nearly a thousand degrees of temperature difference? Go ahead, don't rush, take your time.

Is it only that in some ineffable way that warming is bad? How about cooling? That not so good either? Okay then which average global temp is correct? Last year's? 1965? 1842? 1306? 2000BC? I think that point is belabored enough but if the array of forces intent on spending oceans of cash on preventing a warming, of indeterminant strength with indeterminant (but always horrific) effects, prevails we will all get to find out just how much money one civilization can piss away on chasing a chimerical, and entirely arbitrary, perfection. Worse still it is entirely possible that all the proposed technological heavy lifting and vast expenditures envisioned to combat global warming could easily be out of phase with the planet's natural variability cycles. More plainly put all the massive efforts proposed could quite easily make the next inevitable large scale climatic temperature swing much worse than it might have been otherwise. Are we really that smart yet? Our record to date of futzing about with small scale biological problems has been spotty to put it as charitably as possible. Lousy would be another appropriate description. Each case of intervention, done with the best of intentions naturally, has made things worse more often than better.

What I am very confident about is that the media fueled, and completely unwarranted, panic which we are subjected to daily is likely to result in a string of hyper-costly policy decisions that, when looked back upon, will result in the all too familiar hindsight of "What the hell could we have been thinking?".

Our pathetic efforts pale against the mass destruction the turbulent innards of the planet itself can rain down upon the biosphere. A single modest volcanic eruption can spew more noxious effluvia than humankind can in centuries of trying. Not to worry. Mom's big rock bod is tough enough to survive even her own attempted knockout punches. The biosphere has not been so lucky. A little event called the Permian Extinction killed off 95% of all species due possibly to cataclysmically vast outpourings of magma and gasses from montrous vents in present day Siberia some 250 million years ago. One of the possible causes of the Cretaceous Extinction (Dinosaurs) 65 million years ago was an immense asteroid walloping into the Yucatan area. 640 thousand years ago the immense Yellowstone caldera popped its big cork and savaged North America while creating a world wide volcanic winter that may have lasted decades. As little as 75 thousand years ago Mt. Toba in Sumatra blew big enough to convince some researchers that Earth's small human colonies only narrowly survived the effects. 13,000 years ago North American megafauna and the then thriving Clovis neolithic culture were wiped out in a stroke by as yet undetermined but likely meteoric or cometary pummelings. Humanity's own puny efforts to affect the biosphere are small beer by comparison. Worry less about what we have done to our dear sainted Mither and more about what she can do to us.

Sunday, July 13, 2008


As old Sam Clemens might have said you shouldn't read this post without you have read the one directly below so go do that and report back here stat. Okay then, onward. In this design exercise I will use as a notional base the approximate shape, size, and weight, of the aforementioned 1975 Scirocco. This size is large enough to be comfortable, sporty, utilitarian, and efficient in ways that tiny city micro cars can never be. Vehicles with near vestigial back seats such as the Scirocco are sometimes referred to as "two plus twos". This refers to the fact that although a car may have a back seat it is only meant for very occasional use by either children or very accomodating adults for short distances. Since this notional vehicle is intended as a second car for commuting or as a primary vehicle for a single or couple I propose eliminating the back seat altogether and incorporating the resulting space into flat load carrying area. Many vehicles have back seats that will fold down and extend the load floor but in this case the elimination of this seat will save as much as a hundred pounds of weight and allow it to carry an amount of cargo, if desired, that would rival a small SUV.

This seems like a trivial savings but, as any engineer knows, each additional pound of weight added to a car ripples through the design and construction of the rest of it. The goal in this case is to optimize the weight of all of the components to accomplish the task intended and no more except for small margins in the interests of service life and load carrying capability. Add a hundred pounds of back seat and associated attachments and that decision will race across the spreadsheet of the design like wildfire increasing slightly the size and weight of all the major components of a given vehicle. That hundred pounds can easily result in an overall weight gain of two or three times that much because the decision triggers a weight increasing feedback loop throughout the design. Additionally current vehicle designs incorporate much room for expansion into the engine/chassis/body architecture against contemplated future power increases which results in vehicles almost always weighing several hundred pounds more than strictly necessary. This phenomenon in concert with numerous weight increasing safety mandates is precisely the reason for the common 50% weight gain of vehicles in the last three decades.

The targets I have chosen for this notional vehicle are thus: An empty weight of less than 2000lbs with an engine that produces approximately 70 horsepower and 100lb/ft of torque in a front-engined rear drive configuration that seats two comfortably with a flat rear load floor contained in a low sleek longer than normal body style with two doors and a rear mounted hatchback style liftgate. Projected selling price in 2008 dollars would be in the 12 to 15 thousand dollar range. Mileage targets would be 50mpg highway and 35-40mpg city.

To begin this design exercise let's start with the engine. I see no reason why the engine in a sub 2000lb. car need be any larger in displacement than 1500cc. I also see no reason why this engine need develop any more than about 80HP and around 100lb.ft. of peak torque . This seems like a low bar by today's standards in which engines this size routinely develop a hundred plus horsepower but keeping power at a modest level would enhance efficiency and flatten the torque curve which makes for much more flexibility in surface street driving. Further I propose that as the vehicle were updated over the years that any such updates be in the realm of efficiency and not maximum power. A torquey eighty horsepower engine would push a slippery coupe to well over 100mph while its flat torque curve would minimize shifting while in town and provide plenty of oomph for situations such as passing slower traffic or entering freeway onramps.

The displacement of 1500cc is only suggested for it is entirely possible that modern engine design would permit the target power at a smaller size. This is undoubtedly true for the maximum power output but might be problematic in terms of the broad torque characteristics desired. A one liter engine could easily be tuned to deliver 70-80 horsepower, many motorcycle engines this size produce much more, but only with relatively high rotational speeds which could result in peaky power delivery, reduced service life, and poor operational flexibility in something much heavier than a motorcycle. Plus I'm skeptical that the torque target could be met by a powerplant that small without forced induction of some kind which further ups the ante in terms of the stronger/heavier internal parts required. It is not clear that a smaller much more highly tuned engine would deliver the same fuel economy as a larger engine which would be operating in a much more relaxed and flexible manner in daily driving. It is certainly possible that a lower level of horsepower and torque could deliver adequate performance, the 1975 Scirocco was significantly more than adequate performance wise, so efficiency might be enhanced without serious operational drawbacks by reducing power even further. An engine in the range of one liter of displacement, 61 cubic inches, would likely be fine if vehicle weight could be reduced below 1800lbs.

A four cylinder engine this size is inherently very smooth and would not require a heavy power-sapping balance shaft as do many larger fours and most V6 engines--a dozen or more pounds, and several horsepower, saved right there. Made mostly from aluminum alloy this engine should weigh no more than about two hundred pounds. Very reasonable and achievable today without the use of materials any more exotic than aluminum and steel. The rest of the engine can be as advanced as possible in today's terms incorporating high-pressure direct injection, low friction internals, and all the various tricks of the modern engine designer's trade. Contributing to the light weight of the engine is that internal parts such as pistons, connecting rods, crankshafts etc. should only be as strong as they need to be, plus a small safety margin, for the modest power level the engine would develop as well as the relatively low r.p.m. range involved. There would be no need to build unused strength into the engine's base structure and components as a hedge against future power increases in this design philosophy which I will admit seems anathema to virtually all manufacturers. Many current engine designs will allow huge increases in power without excessively stressing the internal components. This is understandable in vehicles that are marketed to the street tuner performance crowd but that approach is counterproductive in this design exercise.

This decision, a dramatic departure from current practice, would have several salutary effects. The rest of the drivetrain, the transmission and final drive assemblies, would need to be no stronger or heavier than necessary since engine output would increase little in subsequent model years. Why use a transmission design that can absorb two hundred lb/ft of torque when only around one hundred pounds will ever be generated? Why use a final drive assembly, or brakes, or wheels, or tires, or an overly stout body structure? Freezing the engine weight and power at modest levels will allow the rest of the vehicle to be designed with this carefully optimized approach which will be relative child's play for modern computer aided design systems. Limiting other operational parameters would further reduce weight.

A target braking distance of 120ft. from 60mph is a not unreasonable goal which allows more than adequate performance without requiring excessively heavy brake components. A target of about .75g of cornering force would allow crisp and sprightly handling without requiring a stiffly sprung suspension or wide wheels with rough riding low-profile tires. Ride comfort is a problem in small cars so achieving good handling without a harsh ride is definitely a bonus. There is no inherent reason whatsoever that a vehicle such as this cannot be pleasurable to drive, even fun, and building in a little driving sportiness is not contrary to the vehicle's primary missions of efficiency, utility, and cost-effectiveness.

As far as the look of this vehicle I propose dimensions similar to the notional Scirroco with a relatively low seating position, a longish nose which will increase crashworthiness and sufficient rear floor length to accomodate, say a couple of bicyles, and a carrying capacity of two to three hundred pounds of cargo. This would suffice for ninety plus percent plus of most people's daily needs. A lower longer body shape is far more aerodynamically efficient than the stubby upright style of today's small cars in general and micro-vehicles such as the Smart Car in particular. This is the most salient reason that they do not get the highway mileage that their small size appears to promise. As an illustration the relatively huge Ford Crown Victoria which weighs two tons can achieve close to 30mpg in careful highway driving. It is a large heavy car but it's aerodynamics are very good due to its length and slippery profile. In fact its inherent aero efficiency puts to shame the Smart Car. Emulating this longer sleeker profile to the maximum extent practical would pay off significantly in terms of highway mileage without greatly affecting city mileage.

With the use of wind tunnels and advanced computer simulations designing a sleek body should be easy if the design considerations encourage it. In this case a long nose, a low roof line and a longish properly truncated rear end will result in much enhanced efficiency as well as lower wind noise. Many people think that a low roof line involves both an uncomfortable seating position and is less conducive of the sort of traffic awareness that is touted so much in the world of the SUV. This is simply plain wrong in both cases. Comfortable seating is not that hard to design and proper adjustability, in the thigh support area especially, would eliminate any discomfort for either short or long trips. In terms of traffic awareness even the lowest sportscar is not deficient in this regard because the erratic, frequently curvilinear, nature of flowing traffic virtually always affords the drivers of even the lowest vehicles abundant situational awareness of what lies ahead. A Tahoe driver is not functionally able to anticipate traffic problems any better than a Miata driver. Even the smallest lowest vehicles I have ever driven seemed to have no trouble whatsoever in this regard and conversely sitting far higher and much more upright did not seem to confer any appreciable advantage. Indeed I am firmly in the camp that a light highly maneuverable vehicle will avoid most of the accident situations that a large clumsy SUV will simply blunder into due to its inferior braking and handling qualities. Given the choice between large unwieldy masses of damage absorbing steel and agile handling characteristics I am ever inclined to choose the latter.

It has become an engineering truism that front wheel drive (FWD) vehicles are inherently more efficient. I am not entirely convinced of this but it is true that FWD allows greater packaging efficiency in passenger vehicles. That is to say FWD will allow the maximum interior space for any given vehicle platform all else being equal. This increase in interior room is due largely to the lack of need of a driveshaft running through the center of the floorpan as required by rear wheel drive (RWD). Also some putative weight reductions are possible because the transmission and final drive assemblies can be contained in a single housing instead of the usual two for RWD.

There are downsides. Packaging all this equipment into the confined space of an engine compartment can be challenging and can make routine maintenance a genuine nightmare in many cases. An additional factor is that a flexible joint is needed at both ends of the twin driveshafts so that the engine can transmit power evenly to the front wheels which must be able to turn and move vertically. These CV joints as they are called are very smooth and efficient but they are much more complex and heavier than the simple universal joint found in typical RWD vehicles. Another issue is that a CV joint will only operate over a limited angular range with the consequence that the turning circle of the vehicle will be significantly greater than that of a normal RWD configuration. Lastly FWD is often viewed as a better choice in slippery weather conditions when a vehicle is driven by the typically inexpert driver. Modern anti-lock braking and traction control systems can greatly alleviate most of the handling problems associated with bad weather and rear wheel drive.

I cannot ignore the efficiencies of FWD but is my feeling that a more or less conventional rear wheel drive layout would be a good choice for our notional vehicle. When only needing to package two adults in front and with only a flat load floor behind then running a driveshaft through the floorpan is of little consequence. The driveshaft in such a low power application would be very compact, very light, and would use simple inexpensive universal joints which are wildly cheaper to replace than CV joints. The transmission would be relatively small in this application so it would not greatly intrude into the passenger compartment. Positioning the engine in a fore-aft configuration greatly simplifies under-hood packaging and maintenance and with no CV joints attached to the front wheels they can turn at much sharper angles which would reduce the turning circle and make manuevering into tight spaces easier.

Modern high performance vehicles tend to be RWD and often use an independent rear suspension (IRS) for the best possible handling. This solution works extremely well but requires a far higher parts count than the simple solid rear axle used in most American cars for a century. There is no inherent reason that a lightweight alloy solid axle could not be used for our project. An alloy unit designed to handle only the limited power output of this notional project could be very lightweight indeed and the parts count, and subsequent expense, would be dramatic lower than an IRS. We are considering a vehicle that would undoubtedly be fun to drive on twisty roads but would not intended as a canyon carver or a hot-lapper at the track. A simple solid axle suspended by two parallel composite springs would, if properly designed, result in a simple low cost reliable rear suspension. This sounds distinctly old school but if too much advanced (expensive) technology is used in the design then the price target could not reasonably be met. An independent rear suspension would certainly benefit handling and ride but its cost could be as much as a thousand dollars more than the notional alloy solid axle/composite leaf spring setup.

For this vehicle I propose to limit the transmission choices to one--a six speed manual. An automatic would not be offered and in any case would be contrary to efficiency goals. More exotic choices such as the Constant Velocity Transmission (CVT) can eke out a small increases in mileage but at the cost of far more complexity and consequent higher price. The standard flywheel/clutch/multi-speed transmission/driveshaft/solid rear axle configuration is about as mature and reliable a technology as exists today and it is conducive not only to low maintenance costs but also flexibility in traffic and, not inconsequentially, the fun of driving. The only question here is whether or not it should be a five or six speed manual. Six speed manual transmissions are becoming much more common and there is no reason not to take advantage of such hardware since it bears directly not only on efficiency but also on extracting the best performance from the limited power available. If designed specifically for the limited torque of the proposed powerplant the transmission, even with six speeds, could be very light, compact, and would shift very easily.

Moving on I suggest 14 inch alloy wheels with a tire in the 175/60/14 size. This would provide plenty of traction for spirited driving and good braking without increasing rolling resistance to unaceptable levels. No skinny over-inflated rubber doughnuts wanted here. Expensive low rolling resistance tires affect efficiency relatively little because resistance is it low at city speeds and at highway speeds it is inconsequential compared to air resistance. Very low aspect-ratio tires such as are found on high performance cars are not needful for this vehicle's mission and the greater air volume of the 60 series tires would contribute to ride quality with little sacrifice in traction. The front suspension could be made from lightweight alloy components with minimal cost impact and with less weight burdening the front tires the need for power-steering could be eliminated thereby reducing cost and weight enough to compensate somewhat for the expense of the suspension pieces. A front to rear weight balance of about 52%/48% would result in crisp handling without courting dangerous oversteer or invoking sluggish understeer.

If it's not clear already let me state definitively that I have no desire to suggest the automotive equivalent of a hair shirt or a puritanical device used primarily to burnish one's green credentials. If a vehicle is a mere appliance for ekeing out mileage then few, myself included, would be interested but this is a tradeoff that need not be made.

Since this notional vehicle would spend only a tiny fraction of the time anywhere near its top speed the body's aerodynamic design characteristics could be more optimized in the direction of low drag than is possible on many high performance vehicles. All the aerodynamic effluvia seen on cars such as air dams, rear wings, side skirting, etc help to keep a car from developing dangerous lift at high speeds but few of those add-ons do anything at legal speeds except increase drag. Modern aerodynamic design is perfectly capable of producing an attractive body style that has minimal drag with good highway manners if performance parameters are held in check as would be the case here.

In terms of interior appointments I of course have my own preferences but the styling motifs used would be largely irrelevant to the vehicle's core mission. Reducing the quantity of sound deadening material from current levels is recommended. The interior noise levels of small cars of 30 years ago were not all that onerous or tiring and it's my contention that a certain level of outside noise intrusion greatly increases a driver's situational awareness. I don't really consider airconditioning to be optional and it should be thoroughly integrated into the engine/body package. There is a fuel efficiency price to be paid of course but most people would prefer to at least have the option of using it in hot weather.

The mandated twin front airbags should be all that's needed here and in fact I recommend that the relevant mandates in any area should not be exceeded. Safety levels are high enough now. Besides if a car is designed for survivability in a 25mph frontal impact it does not become a catastrophic death trap at 26mph. In this case the longer than normal nose and distance between the occupants and the rear of the car will result in better inherent crash resistance than would otherwise be the case. The width of the car likely would need to be a couple of inches more than the Scirocco because let's face it the average American of today has been rather upsized from his 1975 counterpart. With the room available behind the seats long-legged folks should easily be accommodated despite the lower than normal roofline. Proper wheel and shifter positioning plus having the seats on inclined tracks should readily accommodate shorter drivers. An adjustable front seat bolster would give decent thigh support to the tall drink of water and a slightly flat-bottomed steering wheel would better accommodate the vertically challenged.

An effective free flowing ventilation system with several adjustable vents would reduce the need for air conditioning use substantially especially at speeds and temperatures that may not really need the AC to be on but would require the windows to be down for decent airflow. At 70 having the windows down sometimes increases drag enough to make the use of the air conditioner actually more efficient. This is particularly true in designs that are very highly optimized for low drag. Lowering the windows on a sleek optimized body shape will result in a larger percentage of drag increase than doing the same on something as inherently poor in this respect as a full size pickup.

It seems to me that minimizing the number (and weight) of all the electronic geegaws rampant on modern cars should be minimized. It will hardly inconvenience anyone to not have GPS navigation, or 400 watt six speaker sound systems, or DVD players, or electric mirrors, or rear view cameras, or blah blah blah. I'd recommend keeping the suite of electrical gimcrackery to a modest audio system with two speakers and decent instrumentation with a tachometer, speedometer, water temp, oil pressure, alternator, and fuel gauges. The buyer would be free to add whatever they deemed appropriate but for the standard configuration of the vehicle reducing the electrical load would mean that a smaller alternator and battery could be used. A smaller alternator would save a pound or three and reduce power sapping drag on the engine. It also might be practical, due to the single unit needed, that an advanced lithium type battery could be used to save possibly as much as twenty pounds.

The rumors of the death of the internal combustion engine (ICE) are premature, to put it mildly. This proposed concept would address the real needs of working-class folks far better than any of the pricey complex "alternative" vehicles out there. Making a vehicle such as this available would improve fleet mileage as much or more than the current hyrid crop that has a minumum buy-in of 25K. The key is optimization. If this, largely unused, approach were seen more often the gains in all classes of vehicle could be huge. The ICE has a lot of life left in it with this approach and using it is about the only way to build a true "peoples car" that is reasonably priced and more than adequately efficient. This philosophy should be able to be scaled up to almost any size vehicle. The temptation for manufacturers to overbuild is extremely strong however. That's the way they've done it, all of them, from time immemorial.

A frantic scramble to implement new technology is underway, in many cases prematurely, and inevitably those of us who won't be able to afford 30-40K for one of the flock of new whiz-bang hybrids or pure electrics will left out in the automotive cold. Self-styled progressives seem resolutely hung up on giving short or no shrift to "old" technology along with active opposition to increasing our oil supply which will have the effect of freezing out their supposedly beloved "workers" constituency from the green tea party. Perhaps we aren't all that beloved after all.

It will take a brave manufacturer to build such as has been suggested but if such were available right now they would be in extreme demand. With the unfortunately long lead times of vehicle design and manufacturing the soonest something like this can appear would be three years even with a hyperkinetic crash program. If the car companies can avoid being seduced entirely by the latest green chic there is hope. Not much it's true but it's there.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

A Modest Proposal

As I've pointed out before, in obvious understatement, if you want to save gas buy a small car. The problem is, after three decades of weight increasing safety mandates and consequent increases in power requirements, the choices available in the U.S. market are not nearly as "small" as they used to be. The weight increases of similarly sized vehicles from 1975 to 2008 are in the range of 500 on the lean side to well over a thousand pounds on the porky side. Equally obvious is that every one of those pounds uses additional fuel to accelerate it up to speed.

It's certainly true that cars are safer, and wildly cleaner, than they were 30 years ago but weight increases of 25 to over 50 percent have done nothing salutary for efficiency. It would even worse without advanced designs with their extensive electronic engine control systems but if engines did not have to drag along an extra half-ton then urban mileage figures would jump upward smartly.

Being an official old-fart I fondly remember the 1975 VW Scirocco I owned. It was about the size of a current Civic but weighed only 1900lbs as opposed to a 2008 Civic's 2600lbs. Even though it had a relatively primitive carbureted 1600cc engine and a four speed non-overdrive transmission it routinely got better than 30mpg. If I had ever attempted to hypermile it I no doubt would have seen the far side of 40mpg. That 700lb. difference is mainly why the Civic only does a little better on mileage than the Scirocco despite the fact it is significantly more aerodynamic than the relatively boxy Scirocco and benefits from over 30 years of engine design advances.

This pandemic porkiness can be observed even in such extreme cases as the Smart car which depite its tiny size weighs only 200lbs less than the 1975 Scirocco. Being built by Daimler-Benz I have no doubt that it meets or exceeds all relevant vehicle crash standards but its weight illustrates the phenomenon that the smaller the vehicle the stouter the central "cage" of the body must be until, in the case of the Smart Car, the central cage must be far heavier in proportion to its size than say a Ford Crown Victoria. This poundage is what is mostly responsible for the relatively unimpressive mileage of the vehicle which looks like it would just have to get 50mpg but doesn't come anywhere close to that in the real world. This tendency can be resisted to some degree with lightweight aluminum alloys or composite materials but costs escalate rapidly out of sight with this approach. Few would be much interested in a 1200lb Smart car that cost $40,000 even if it did get 50mpg or even higher.

It's plain that cars are safer than they used to be but it's equally plain that the roads were not littered with the maimed bodies of hapless Scirocco drivers in the mid 70s. Late model cars may be much "safer" than the Scirocco but the Scirocco was significantly safer than cars of the 50s and 60s and wildly safer than cars of the 30s and 40s. In the 70s vehicles were beginning to approach the limits of safety design in a distinctly asymptotic fashion. More plainly put it means that more and more engineering effort, and consequent increases in weight, has been expended in pursuit of ever smaller safety advantages.

Each new test of a vehicle that exceeds federal safety standards is heralded and others that may be 99.9% as "good" are all but labled as deathtraps. One aspect of this trend is that cars are much more disposable than before. Surviving a 35mph barrier crash may leave the occupants unharmed but the vehicle is almost certain to be irreparable and must perforce be pitched on the junk heap. Decades ago vehicles were of such design that allowed repair and reconstruction even in fairly intense crash scenarios. It is presumed by the safety establishment that anyone would be nuts to argue that this tradeoff is a bad thing but very few are aware how much these "advances" have cost them not only at the pump but at the body shop and the insurance office as well.

Militant safety advocates have little truck with such plebian irrelevancies as cost/benefit analyses. Presumably they would fervently applaud a Civic that could crash into Hoover Dam at 100mph with the occupants not subjected to even a hangnail but we poor slobs who would be expected to operate that vehicle would not be thrilled that it would cost 75 grand, weigh 4 tons, be shaped like a beachball, and get about 10 miles per gallon of fuel.

The weight increases in vehicles have demanded ever more powerful engines to propel them resulting in a horsepower race that thankfully seems to be coming to an end. Until the Smart Car appeared on these shores there has not been a single vehicle sold in this country for a couple of decades that had less than a 100 horsepower engine. The aforementioned Scirocco had an engine rated at only 70HP, had a top speed of over 100mph and could get over 30mpg. Hardly surprising since even with its relatively primitive engine design it had 700lbs. less than a Civic to drag around. It also made for a very sporty vehicle that was hailed at the time as one of the best handling fun-to-drive little coupes to ever roll down the old pike. The current iteration of the Scirocco has 200 horspower and weighs no less than a half a ton more. This is progress?

The current mid-size class sales leader, the Honda Accord, is available with a 260HP engine, and weighs an incredible 1300 pounds more than when it was introduced in the late 70s. Even the four cylinder base powerplant has nearly 200HP and the whole vehicle is only a couple of hundred pounds lighter than the big boy. That it gets decent mileage at all is a testament to the engineering genius of Honda but however sharp those boys are they cannot repeal the laws of physics.

This horsepower race in modern vehicles was abetted largely, and perhaps illogically to some, by emissions reducing electronic engine controls and until fuel prices spiked showed little sign of abating. If that 260HP Accord were not speed governed it would likely have a top end of near 150mph. That is a horsepower to weight ratio that would have done a Ferrari of the 1960s quite proud. This race has resulted in sports cars and retro styled muscle-cars that have acceleration capabilities that make their big bad 60s namesakes look positively pathetic by comparison. Current top-rank supercars such as Ferraris, Lamborghinis, and even the far less dear Corvette all have stupendous power levels, many exceeding 600HP, top speeds approaching or above 200mph, and 0-60 times that make a 1968 Hemi-Challenger look like a garbage truck with a flat tire. An Accord is faster than that Hemi-Challenger for pete's sake. Presumably if you can afford a supercar you won't be bothered by high fuel prices but that Accord owner would welcome 10 more mpg with open arms.

If fuel prices had remained at the low levels of the nineties I do not doubt that in due course that we would have seen the advent of a 400 horsepower Accord and the 1000HP sports car would be common. Except in the world of the supercar this horsepower race is presumably over in light of fuel prices but the long product development cycles of modern automobile manufacturing will not result in smaller thriftier engines for a while yet. Power levels can only drop so far for a given vehicle weight before operationally adequate performance suffers and the heavy vehicles of today will be hamstrung by much smaller powerplants. The decision of manufacturers to begin importing smaller vehicles already in production elsewhere will not have anything like immediate results. A vehicle not specifically built to American safety and crash standards will require many millions of dollars and several years to be brought into "compliance" with the vast welter of U.S. federal regulations. Plus if it isn't built in the U.S. its pricing will suffer from disadvantageous exchange rates

A not inconsequential driver of increased weight is the huge array of electronic and convenience gizmos--multiple airbags, high-power stereos, GPS navigation systems, DVD players, rear mounted cameras, that are rampant in new cars not to mention much greater (heavier) amounts of sound deadening materials. Even the smallest meanest economy car has an array of weight adding features designed to convince buyers they are getting a small luxury vehicle instead of an econobox. Virtually all major manufacturers view any reversal of this trend as unilateral disarmament in the advertising wars.

It's time to stop the horsepower and weight race. Modern vehicles are almost universally as safe now as they will ever need to be. Finding ways to squelch the safety lobby's incessant demands need to be found so that vehicle weights will not continue their upward spiral. And don't regale me with tales of the crunchy greenie goodness of hybrids. The Prius, which is not a whit larger than a Civic, weighs 3000lbs which cannot but adversely affect its crashworthiness and its handling/braking performance. Larger hybrids suffer from even more weight gain to the point where the hybrid Chevy Tahoe weighs well north of 3 tons. Again what part of this sounds like progress?

I propose a freeze on all increases in federally mandated crashworthiness and indeed a scaling back of mandates on vehicles weighing 2500 lbs. or less. It is conceivable, but quite unlikely, that this might result in a few extra deaths per 100 million miles driven, the relevant metric, but the current rate is at historic lows and it is unlikely that reducing, for instance, the barrier crash requirements from 30 to 25mph will make any notable difference.

My aforementioned 1975 Scirroco undoubtedly would not come close to passing current crashworthiness standards but again the country was not heaped with corpses extracted from mangled V-dubs in the late 70s. It has been often stated that highway deaths per 100 million miles decreased every year after extensive governmental safety mandates went into affect. This is correct but it is equally correct that automobile deaths per mile driven have decreased, and by similar amounts, every year that records have been kept. This situation has changed in the last few years with deaths reaching a seemingly intractable plateau, to the distress of activist safety advocates, but this is merely a reflection of the fact that we have essentially reached the limits of what technology can accomplish without truly spectacular cost increases.

I have expounded previously on the concept of the serial hybrid configuration but there needs to be more consideration of vehicle designs that the average wage earner can not only afford but might be willing to buy as a second vehicle for commuting duties. I am convinced that there is a need for this and the seemingly relentless hybridization of the fleet makes the affordability question much worse not better. The bottom end of the hybrid market is around $25,000 which means that the "working class", so allegedly beloved by progressive panjandrums, is shut out of the "green" vehicle market. Using a goodly number of fresh sheets of paper and a different marketing attitude will service this market nicely and result in not only much lower fuel usage but also in lowered CO2 emissions.

Tiny city vehicles like the Smart Car are attractive possibilities but in the mix of driving experienced by the average person their highway performance leaves a lot to be desired. So what you say? Well few low to middle income wage earners, who may be able to afford only a single vehicle, are willing to buy a car with such a limited all-around utility. If you need, on short notice, to go see your sick brother in Des Moines and you live in Kansas City then it's likely you're going to leave the Smart Car in the garage and take something with some decent highway legs even if it means a somewhat more expensive trip.

Now if you live in Connecticut and your brother is in San Diego then you'll likely opt for a plane ride instead but think back in your life and driving career when having the option of driving a couple of hundred miles was a lot more attractive proposition than entering the time consuming realm of airline transport. From the time you leave your house in KC you'll be in Des Moines in a few leisurely hours. It's easily conceivable that the plane ride could take twice as long door to door and cost twice as much. Trips inside five hundred miles or so are more attractive now than before, even considering high fuel costs when the protracted hassles of negotiating airports are taken into consideration.

Environmentalists natter on about how deficient we are in cross-country mass transit and claim that the only real "solution" to this is a wildly increased level of rail transport. Current rail infrastructure simply cannot service a greatly increased level of passenger traffic which means new infrastructure would have to be built to accomodate it. This would cost many hundreds of billions of dollars, at a minimum, and not even in the most wildy optimistic scenarios would this address the needs of the person who needs to get to say Topeka from St. Joseph, Houston from Texarkana, San Francisco from Vegas, Boston from Bangor, etc. etc, etc.

There already exists a perfectly usable system of artery highways that, although expensive to build and not cheap to maintain, are at least already largely paid for. This issue, as are so many others, is not a zero sum game but it sure seems to me that increasing the fleet's efficiency is far more likely to pay major dividends than blanketing the country in new rail lines without requiring several trillion dollars in new infrastructure. Pie-in-the-sky schemes such as Maglev trains will remain that way due primarily to the fact that they cost well over a thousand dollars per inch of installed structure. There is exactly one operational commercial Maglev train in the world, in China, and it is an underutilized asset that generates only the tiniest fraction of its stupendous operating and construction costs. It cost two billion dollars to build, with far cheaper Chinese labor, and is all of eighteen miles long which works out to 110 million dollars per mile, 21,000 thousand dollars per foot and over 1700 dollars per inch. The distance from New York to L.A. is 135 times as long. You do the math if you have the nerve.

No? Okay I will. It works out to over a quarter of a trillion dollars and to think that it could be built here for anywhere near that is ludicrous. Likely twice that or more. And that's only one major cross country route. To service the country in anything like a comprehensive manner would require an investment that would exceed the cost of the interstate highway system by a couple of orders of magnitude. This scenario doesn't even merit the status of a pipe dream.

Sorry for the digression but that costly chimera needed to be subjected to the rational analysis it rarely gets. In fact my digressions have run this post to an excessive length so I will continue it above with a discussion of what kind of vehicle I think would materially contribute to our lowering of fuel usage without being out of the financial reach by the likes of thee and me. See the above post for a discussion of a vehicle concept that can address the needs of the average person in this nervous age.