Monday, July 27, 2009

One Quart O' Goodness

There are a fairly healthy number of vehicles built in Europe and Asia that are known collectively as the "Liter Class" This refers to cars whose engines displace approximately one liter or about 60 cubic inches. Naturally these are all small vehicles but there is a wide variety of machinery from which to choose despite this "limitation".

Until the advent of the Smart Car the last vehicle with an engine that small was the FIAT roadster of the late 1960s and early 70s. The feisty little FIAT 850 was a blast to drive, had a handsome Bertone designed body, and it sold reasonably well. FIAT nixed the aging platform in the 70s and replaced it with the somewhat larger X1/9 roadster in the late 70s which was sold until FIAT fled the U.S. market in the late 80s. The encroachment of federal emissions and crash standards resulted in a serious weight gain from the 850's initial 1600lbs. to the X1/9's far porkier 2200lb. bulk. Ironically by today's standards this would make it among the lightest vehicles for sale in the U.S. today.

The 850 Spider originally had an 817cc engine rated at only 49HP but had a top speed of 90mph and would achieve well over 30mpg. This was hardly a rocket but the straight-line performance was on a par with a stock original Pinto and its Italian bred handling was a joy. Interestingly the engine size was, at, exempt from early emission regs that did not require engines smaller than to be in compliance. The reasoning behind this was unclear, possibly this rendered most motorcycles exempt, but nevertheless FIAT took advantage. Later the engine size was increased to 900cc which brought the full crushing weight of Uncle Sugar's regulatory iron fist down upon the neck of overseas manufacturers. This weight is principally what forced FIAT from this market and it will return only under the aegis of its merger with Chrysler.

There are many models sold in the European or Japanese markets that are not imported here because of the differences in the regulatory morass imposed on the U.S. auto industry that do not obtain abroad. These differences are for the most part entirely inconsequential but they are differences and that rules out U.S. certification. Converting an existing European spec vehicle to precisely conform to federal D.O.T specifications is an expensive and lengthy process that is rarely undertaken by U.S. or even Japanese manufacturers. Some, such as Mercedes and BMW build bespoke American versions of a number of their models but the percentage of vehicles sent to the U.S. is a fraction of what is available on the other side of the pond. There are also numerous car models built for the Japanese market that never see the light of the sun rising over the U.S. Most "Japanese" cars sold in this country are built here by and for Americans and most of them are not sold in Japan, especially the big SUVs and trucks.

Suffice to say that there are a large number of models that will carry two people, and sometimes four, that weigh on the order of 2000 lbs or less, have engines of around one liter of displacement, and achieve anywhere from 40-60mpg that are not for sale here. Aside from the considerable issues of federalization it has been accepted by most marketing types that Americans simply won't buy vehicles that small in numbers sufficient to promise profitability. After all it doesn't actually cost any less to build a mini-car rather than a subcompact, or even a mid-size, but folks in general will not pay the same for vehicles of differing sizes. Even high fuel prices affect this lamentable, to many, tendency only somewhat.

So the current situation is that car manufacturers are faced with increased govermental coercion to smartly increase fuel economy without building much smaller vehicles and without compromising crashability. This will be a very tall order indeed. Hybrid technologies promise to increase economy without too much of a performance deficit but they come with a high cost in weight, complexity, and naturally purchase price. A rock bottom minimum figure is in the range of $5000 and as vehicle size increases this cost escalates rapidly.

U.S. manufacturers are left with little recourse but to sink resources into trying to make larger vehicles get much better mileage since Americans won't buy small cars for prices that confer any profit potential and to make matters much worse their task has hugely complicated by the regulatory jackboots of the progressive climate-change political agenda. Time and fuel prices would alter this equation in something resembling an organic process but the new administration insists on a hot-house forcing of mileage stretching technologies irrespective of any economic considerations. An I do mean "irrespective". Fripperies such as "profits" are deemed entirely vulgar by those consumed by climate-change hysteria and anyone with the temerity to bring up such "irrelevancies" is perforce branded a traitor to the planet.

Many other countries' vehicle fleets do better mileage-wise than in the U.S. but this has been primarily due to extremely coercive tax policies that have resulted in fuel prices as high as three times what they are in the U.S. Progressive pols would love to do this but if they were seen as being responsible for the tripling of fuel prices then they might lose the votes of even the most radically green constituents or at least those who have an actual job to which they must commute. So to avoid electoral suicide they are attacking the "problem" from the other end by mandating big jumps in fuel economy in a short period of time from the manufacturers who can be conveniently painted as moral criminals if they resist. Seven dollar a gallon gas may not fly even in academe or other liberal bastions but beating the drum of corporate villainy is ever popular. Even the auto firms that for whatever reasons have not been forced to take the King's Schilling suffer the same regulatory browbeating that the bailout recipients are being forced to endure.

Some keen little machines are on offer in the Orient and on the Continent but however slick and fuel efficient they may be it will be some trick to force U.S.buyers into dealerships to buy similar product if they do not want to. Progressives can attempt to ban a great many things but good luck to them in getting the obstreperous and fickle U.S. public to want to buy vehicles that they do not like. I personally will welcome the U.S. advent of vehicles such as the Fiat 500, the Toyota iQ, and other such pint-sized, with quart sized engines, bumblebees. I do not dislike small cars, quite the opposite, and in fact have no brief against them whatever but I do not make the mistake that Prog. pols are doing by projecting (and then forcing) my likes and wants onto others in the pursuit of highly debatable policy objectives.

To the true fascist temperament it is not the least bothersome that the "people" might require being dragged kicking and screaming into lockstep adoration of all things good and, frak help us, GREEN.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Light Fantastic

Time for some new auto tech people.

Ford Motor Company, along with scientists at, oddly, the University of Liverpool, have reportedly developed a new ICE ignition system that replaces the venerable spark plug with, wait for it, lasers. The laser pulses will be delivered by fiber optics and will be able to ignite a gas/air charge farther down in the cylinder which should increase efficiency. Also it is claimed it takes less energy to power the laser than a conventional high voltage ignition system.

Foidamoah the fiber optics will have the additional quirk of being able to "observe" the combustion process in the cylinder and "report" back to the ECU which will make appropriate changes in the timing of all the relevant events.

Outstandingly cool tech if it turns out to be viable. What is likely is that it will be fairly expensive to implement, really expensive to replace or repair, and entirely out of the league of the good 'ol shade tree mechanic. It would have to increase combustion efficiency quite a bit to be worth the expense but it does sound promising. Such a high level of combustion initiation may give an engine the ability to run more efficiently on a variety of fuel types.

In other tech news the swells at Mitsubishi plan to field a pneumatic valve actuation system, similar in kind to that used on Formula One engines, that will supposedly have the advantages of the problematic electromechanical systems that have been in development. Interestingly they report that the system extracts more power from the engine as speed increases, just as valve springs do, and that it reaches parity in those terms at higher engine revs. So no big cigar there but it will still have the timing flexibility that is sought in having a valve actuation system separate from crankshaft rotation.

In most engines the crankshaft mechanically drives its camshaft/s mechanically via gears or chains. Very basic stuff and this method has worked well for a hundred years in thousands of different engine designs. Unfortunately a camshaft can only really be completely optimized for its job over a fairly narrow range of engine rpm. Below or above that rev band any engine's performance is compromised to some degree. Much tech wizardry has been employed in recent decades to achieve "variable valve timing" via purely mechanical means with varying degrees of success.

The idea of being able to operate an engine's valves entirely independently of the restrictions of conventional systems has been a holy grail of engine designers for some time now. Most efforts have concentrated on using electromechanical systems, magnets basically, to achieve this but success has been elusive. An actuator stout enough to slam open and close a valve thousands of times a minute and with the finesse to finely time those events has proven very tricky. Pneumatic systems have had more success, in cost-no-object racing engines especially. Nothing simple about any of these systems, to put it mildly, which has made implementation, even in exoticars, uneconomical.

Mitsu has apparently been able to get around some of this complexity and looks to apply the tech to engines in the near future.

It strikes me that a completely variable valve timing system could benefit big engines much more than small ones. No matter what its valve timing a 2 liter engine isn't going to have the torque capability of an engine two or three times that size. With internal friction coming under much better control these days and with all the ignition, injection, and other tech coming on stream the possibility of a large engine acting very much like a small engine in cruise mode is greatly enhanced but will instantly be able to deliver whatever power level is demanded. A five liter V8 could conceivably get nearly the same highway mileage as a two liter four cylinder. With sufficient developement that V8 could conceivably masquerade as a 50mpg fuel miser and if demanded (by your right foot) it could ramp up power instantly to tire shredding fury when needed or wanted. None of this may ultimately matter.

Climate hysteria has made hybrids, pure electrics, and alternative fuel vehicles into media darlings with endless inane blather about "sustainability", "green jobs", "low carbon footprints" and "reducing our reliance on foreign oil imports". Our new administration is completely seduced by the crunchy green groovitational fabulosity of it all and is in maximum coercion mode these days as they attempt to hammer-forge the auto industry into "compliance" with an endless laundry list of dubious and costly enviro-flummery. What all these progressive techno-scenario rearrangers do not seem to be familiar with is basic math which inconveniently tends to put a damper on the high-flying grandiloquence of self-righteous savers of the "planet".

In the progressive new math two plus two equals six if you include the inevitable government subsidy of two. Hardly surprising when one has an attitude that social engineering trumps actual engineering. Progs are busy attempting to convert a vehicle purchase from a mere exercise in consumer preference into a litmus test of one's environmental saintliness. And it's hardly only the province of automobile purchasing. Every class of consumer product is feeling the green lash of government bullying as climate hysteria is used as pretext for unprecedented control of everything we eat, drink, drive, or use for any purpose whatsoever.

Sorry for the digression into the political swamps but it is becoming plain to me that even if a gasoline powered vehicle could be made that got five hundred miles per gallon and its exhaust could be used as room freshener the soggy proggy 'tude that regardless of any efficiencies achieved that in the whole and the parts of their malign influences hydrocarbon powered devices are prime despoilers of the sacred planet. It's a cultural divorce action. We proles must be forcibly separated from our reliance on four-wheeled stinkmobiles and any diminution of our freedom of movement is just unfortunate collateral damage in the grand hubristic "fight" to avert climate change. Of course few pols are dumb enough to actually say that even if some of their more radical constituencies are convinced of it.

So the fact that the internal combustion engine is managing to stay ahead of the technological curve by getting ever cleaner and more flexible may not matter to those who consider the very concept of a cost/benefit analysis a grubby remnant of the old discredited and exploitative mechano-cultural Eurocentric hegemony. A blast of laser light may be able to pierce many things but preening environmental smugness is not one of them.

Monday, July 6, 2009


The House recently passed the Waxman-Markey bill and sent it to the Senate for consideration. Not a single congress critter claims to have read the whole thing and that's not hard to believe since it's around 1500 pages long. Go ahead and dip a toe in. Read any small piece of it, any part or parts at all. It will become immediately obvious that this "cap and trade" legislation has far grander intentions than merely addressing climate change. Indeed in its whole and parts it is easily the most grandiose, the most far-reaching, and the most stupefyingly minutial invasion of the affairs of the private citizenry that has ever been attempted. In fact it makes the New Deal seem utterly conservative and libertarian in its scope.

I recently read a column by, of all people, the actress Victoria Jackson (a seemingly unlikely commentator to put it mildly), on the website Big Hollywood that dared to use, as she called it, the C word. That word is "communism". If ever a word was more deserving of scare quotes it escapes me but she and a few others may be on to something. Certainly use of the word conjures up the HUAC, the blacklist, Tailgunner Joe, Alger Hiss, and three fourths of a century of red-baiting by a long list of pols & pundits labeled "paranoid right-wingers" by an equally long list of progressive solons and panjandrums. With some, if far from full, justification the word communist in the 40s and 50s became a convenient shorthand for "bad" in the way that fascist is used today--merely code for "something we don't like."

So "communism", whatever any academic considerations as a system of government there might have been, became code for dictatorial repression and insidious anti-American dealings rather than anything that would have ever crossed the minds of Marx and Engels.

It would be difficult to find in the fuzzy logic of Das Capital or the "Communist Manifesto" any apprehensions or approvals of the 70 year long human tragedy of the imperialist expansionist utterly dictatorial Soviet regime. Indeed the Soviet Union's suppression of the private sector and its embrace of the most inefficient sort of command economy ever attempted was the most proximate cause of its eventual collapse.

Apologists for ideas of socialism and communism are heard to say from time to time that we don't know that communism doesn't work because it's never been really tried outside the environs of a totalitarian state. I'd rather not get into that endless debate but suffice to say that a "command" economy is labeled thus because obstreperous humans have not proven keen to participate in great numbers in such schemes absent the presence of the metaphorical and literal gun barrels of an overwhelmingly repressive police state. No it hasn't worked so far but rollerskating elephants, perpetual motion machines, and supersonic flying pigs have not eventuated so far. Indeed I expect to see all of those absurdities occur before the first successful command economy comes to pass.

These days even elements of the far fringes of the socialist, and even unabashedly Marxist, world view seem to think that since they consider themselves "good people" who are so filled with the light of tolerance and diversity that they cannot in any way be considered as "Communists" since in their minds that requires the full apparatus of a coercive police state run by evil "bad" people and they are above all that messy sort of thing. But seen in terms of the ideals of the original socialist and communist theorists we are coming closer and closer to implementing many of those collectivist visions which have been rehabilitated and dressed in the brightly inclusive and multi-tolerant robes of modern progressivism. Expunging not only the words socialist and communist but also tying sundry "necessary" collective actions to the hysteria of climate-change has resulted in a wholesale emotional defanging of the socio-communal bugbear of decades past.

And no I do not believe there is some putative "international communist conspiracy" behind all this collective action. There may have been one at one time but if so its spectacular incompetence, in economics especially, doomed it to failure. No we're all much more "enlightened" now, supposedly immune to the specter of a Soviet style police state. "How droll, how old-fashioned, how 1950s" we now dismissively declare. Consequently as long as we can claim that we are not "communists" (i.e. bad people) and are convinced that we are neck deep in a full blown climate crisis then any action, any at all, however extreme and intrusive, is perfectly acceptable for a cause as noble as "saving the planet". In this enlightened state of grace any insistence on applying outmoded "labels" on such activities is seen as either reactionary fiddling while the planet burns or simple inchoate villainy.

So now governmental intrusiveness on a scale that would have embarrassed Uncle Joe or Mao and astonished Marx or Engels is seen by many as vital to the long-term survival of humanity. Oh please I hear you say. Get real. Couldn't be that bad. You're just an old cold warrior, reactionary to the core, un-nuanced, unlettered, and one of those witless goobers who deny the "settled science" of climate change. Hmmm. Read Waxman-Markey, if you dare, and then get back to me on my pathetic delusions.

I suspect, sincerely hope, that Waxman-Markey will be gutted in the Senate. It will be if anyone bothers to read the bloody thing. And any Republican who votes for this thing might as well just switch parties as the same time for no one with even the remotest pretense of a conservative mindset could ever vote for this galloping herd of progressive hobbyhorses all of which will require truly unprecedented federal coercion to implement. One can only hope that the Blue Dogs will outnumber the RINOs and consign this grandiose boulliabasse of progressive overreach to the seventh circle of heck. If it does pass mostly intact by some anti-miracle then I recommend you start searching for a federal government job immediately for few others will be particularly safe.

Perhaps you might comfort yourself with a variation of a catchy mantra adopted by certain right-wingers back in the 60s. To wit: Extremism in the defense of the environment is no vice.