Sunday, November 16, 2008

Four Die in High Speed Crash

Just a brief note about four Pacific Union college students who died in a terrible crash early on November 16 2008. Such a needless waste of lives, cut down in their prime age, because the driver was speeding. Just another of the "good externalities" of limiting the mechanical top speed of all road vehicles to 34mph (55kmph) would be the tremendous reduction in tragic deaths and accidents. The California Highway Patrol would probably trim to 10% of its current size. Autobody shops, employing over 240,000 people in the USA at present, would no doubt be reduced substantially, but... that is a good thing!

Deaths from high speed chases...remember this blog when you hear of one.

The Demise of the Big Three Automakers

Here in the eleventh month of 2008, much media conversation is taking place regarding the massive financial losses at GM, Ford, and Chrysler, and what can be done. Unfortunately, my prescription for low speed will do nothing to help them survive. If a virus of enlightenment stormed the planet, and everyone decided, "Yes, let's limit top speed, to save gasoline and the resources going into building vehicles." the impact would be a negative as far as earnings for the Big Three, going forward. Unit costs for vehicles would drop for materials, even with the addition of a mechanical escapement to limit top speeds. Worse though, the existing national fleet of vehicles would extend their mechanical lives with the reduction in mechanical wear, and fewer crashes. Sales of slower cars manufactured after a "top speed" imposition would probably drop to 50% of current sales. Sales of retrofit drive trains (e.g., small two-cylinder engines and variable-speed transmissions) would be gobbled up by OEMs eager to replace reduced component orders from the Big Three. Ford, GM, Chrysler, are simply too large to be nimble, and would be beat at the retrofit game.

At present, the automakers have worked themselves into a corner from which there is no escape. Competition from better made cars from Nissan and Toyota have forced them to create a quality of car that is more expensive, but is replaced less frequently. There has been a concomitant increase in the cost of labor and materials for this quality, and an inability to reduce costs by workforce reduction. A laid-off UAW worker retains 95% of his working salary.

The US government loan to the managements of these firms will do nothing but allow a swollen inventory of unsold vehicles to increase. Bankruptcy will stop all payments to suppliers, perhaps negate the UAW contracts. The federal government should then make long term, substantial loans to suppliers and unions, to take away the costs to the Big Three as the receivership managements work to restructure the three large automakers into corporations that have an economic future.

Currently, no automaker in its current form, whether Toyota, Honda, Ford, GM, has a future past 2020. We might as well begin the death and rebirth of the transportation industry now in 2008.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

How to Retrofit Current Vehicles

If it was legislated that all motorized vehicles could attain a maximum of 34 miles-per-hour, downhill, in neutral, fully-loaded, gas pedal mashed to the floor.... how would this be possible? How could you possibly prevent any existing vehicle from traveling over 34 mph? What would make this possible?

Answer: by use of one of the mechanical marvels that is the cornerstone of our modern civilization: the escapement mechanism.

About 95% of adults over 25 are familiar with grandfather clocks, and clocks not powered by electricity. How are these clocks powered? Well, in most instances, either weights or a spring.

One might wonder, since you can rapidly lift the weights in a grandfather clock by pulling the chains, or wind a timer or small clock or wristwatch in a matter of seconds, why doesn't the clock hands, the timer pointer, the second hand, just spin very fast and unwind at the same speed as you wound the clock?? Why does a clock that took seconds to wind up, take hours and hours to wind down?

The answer lies in an invention created over five hundred years ago: the escapement. This mechanism enabled clockmakers to create accurate time pieces and create a modern society where time could be accurately told without a sun-dial, or by dripping water (which were pretty inaccurate anyway).

Without going into details, an escapement is a basically a toothed wheel and lever arrangement, the interaction of which creates a "tick tock tick tock" sound you hear with a mechanical clock.

Here is a wikipedia animated view of an escapement in action:

This toothed wheel and lever set-up has been created in an amazing varieties of ways, all to do one thing: to limit the maximum speed at which the rotation of a drive shaft(no matter how great or small the energy stored in the weights or springs) will attain.

So that is the key: an escapement mechanically limits the top speed. An inexpensive escapement could be fitted to one or both rear axles on an existing vehicle, to be "tick tocked" by a peg or pegs fixed inside the rotating rear wheel. No matter how much engine power was applied, the wheel could only turn so fast before the escapement mechanism reached its maximum velocity.

People talk about a "methanol economy" or a "hydrogen economy", yet those systems require vast (40 billion dollars? 400 billion dollars??!!) expenditures just for fueling. And what about cars and trucks?? How many thousands of dollars to retrofit the vehicles? You cannot retrofit.

"Oh, it's impractical! You'll have to buy a new car!"

The Vice Chairman of General Motors, Bob Lutz, recently spoke at a seminar on fuel-efficient vehicles. He stated that meeting the 35-mpg CAFE standard set for 2020 will cost new car buyers and additional $6000 to $7000! An add-on escapement mechanism that could keep any existing vehicle to 34 miles per hour would cost less than $50 when mass-produced!

It would not take much ingenuity to create an escapement device that would NOT hinder operating speed until it was activated. Once everyone was set up, a date could be set (July 4th, 2010?) where everyone pulled out the cable, activating the device, and we'd all drive more slowly, simultaneously.

Isn't it time our society got reasonable about transportation and saving itself??

Monday, February 18, 2008

The "putt putt car" misconception

If you talk to people about imposing a physical top speed on motor vehicles, and thus reducing the engine size to something on the order of five horsepower, right away people have the vision of a noisy "ridable lawnmower" as the ill-received "trade" they will receive for their current automobile. Cars such as the S.M.A.R.T. and other "mini-boxes" are often hailed as "solutions" to urban driving, even though the aesthetics of such vehicles are viewed by 95% of the population as "ugly" and "undesirable". Visions of tiny Messerschmidts, Isettas, F.I.A.T.s, Renault Dauphines, and VW Beetles fill the mind!

There is simply no reason in the world that lightweight vehicles have to be small, or that small engines have to be noisy and simplistic.

A car that only travels a maximum of 35 mph can get away with a lot more aerodynamic "problems" or compromises than one that needs to go over 55mph. Remember that as speed increases, the effects of drag and the power to overcome aerodynamic drag increase substantially. The cube of the speed!

We live in a non-linear world, best explained by calculus, but only a vanishingly small number of society is aware of this. And pushing a vehicle through the atmosphere, and the relative efficiency of how we do this is unknown to most people. In the 19th century, steam trains operated widely and successfully, and everywhere with a thermal efficiency of only three percent!

Cars do not have to be small if they have a small engine, so long as that engine doesn't have to propel the car at a high speed. Typical bicyclists, bad aerodynamics and all, can go all day at 15 mph using about 1/7th horsepower. One-seventh! Contests where human-powered vehicles, utilizing maximum aerodynamic shape and top-conditioned atheletes, have on surpassed 50 mph for over an hour, on a test track.

Take a large "van" type vehicle used for carpooling and large families. If its maximum speed were only 35 mph, you could have lighter tires, lighter wheels, plastic glazing, lighter doors, lighter seats, a smaller engine with a variable speed transmission (these work best when not attempting to transmit more than twenty horsepower) and would still get from "A" to "B" in an urban setting, with only (guessing) about 10% more time required, and, no question, 100% better gas mileage.

Unknown to most people, the automotive industry spends a lot of money quieting "noise", and cylinder head noise emission has been the subject of vast spending. Only because people tolerate gas mowers, gas weed wackers, and don't make purchases based on quiet operation, do these IC engines emit so much noise. Honda has a "quiet generator", and if buried within an engine compartment, could probably be even quieter.

So, in sum, not going so fast does not mean reverting to small, tiny vehicles. It was the necessity of the ability to travel at sustained highway speeds of 55-70 mph, with European-legislated tiny gasoline engines, that forced the overall size and weight of the 1950s vehicles like the Messerschmidt and the Isetta BMW, to be small. But, if you only need to travel 34 mph top speed, your vehicle can be sizeable and keep up with traffic, even with a very modest engine.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

If the Max Top Speed is 55 kmph: Externalities

In the field of economics, "externalities" is a descriptive terminology necessary to encompass and add to the economic accounting, all effects of particular activity. The "short and sweet" example of an externality in years gone by was this simple observation: a power plant burns coal, and the smoke goes out over everyone and across borders and continents, to places and people who don't even buy the electricity. Ironically, fifty years ago that was considered a "benign" externality by most accounts!

Mining, nuclear power generation, improved medical care in the underdeveloped world, even roadbuilding, they all create one or more external problems that affect everyone in a negative way. But as there are negatives, there are also positives for many societal methods and businesses.

What would be the "good" externalities to physically restricting the maximum attainable speed of motor vehicles to 34 miles per hour, or 55 kilometers per hour?

I don't need to give details about the "bad externalities" of speed restriction, as they all revolve around "lost time" and getting from "A" to "B" more slowly. So let me review some of the "good things" that could happen.

First, alternate public transportation that went faster than 55 KmPH would become attractive. A dedicated "bus lane", with commuter buses whizzing by at 120 KmPH while you poked along at less than half that speed would make you more strongly consider leaving your car at home.

Passenger Rail transportation between cities would get a large boost. I regard the current passenger rail system, and especially the so-called, oxymoronic "light rail", in need of a complete rethinking: we still regard a track system that is under-utilized for passenger transport as "properly engineered". The key element to concentrate upon is "axle load".

In Australia, some iron ore rail cars successfully move 60-ton loads in cars weighing 20-tons empty. Potentially, this same track system has the ability to move individual passenger cars loaded with 600 passengers per car. Clearly, freight systems make underutilized passenger systems. They should be separated, and such a separation has long been considered "equal to more than the sum of the parts" (Albro Martin, "Railroads Triumphant").

What is needed for passenger trains is provided by the examples of high-speed roller coasters at amusement parks: a narrow track and individual cars, much smaller than current 20-ton "communal" cars (and those are "light-rail" cars.... ??!!)। Remember, inertia is a major contributor to fuel usage। A much narrower track (especially my two-track Dorrwey system, shown above) means more tracks for a given right-of-way. Individual small passenger cars means higher speeds, higher acceleration. Higher speeds and more tracks per right-of-way area means a higher frequency of scheduled service. Not having to wait thirty minutes between trains, only to have to sit next to a sleeping homeless individual or menacing social misfit would take away the two most significant negatives attached to current "public rail" transportation.

So these two "externalities", bus usage and rail reform, might result from a physical restriction on the top speed of cars and trucks, motorcycles, anything on the roads, to 34 miles per hour. What about "externalities" to the automobile industry itself?

I will here mention two, but they are worth noting. More are out there, many more, but I want to keep this particular post relatively short.

First, engine size will go down, and the casting of smaller engine blocks will consume much less energy in the world of metal manufacturing. Extrapolate this energy savings over other components as well, and the carbon output of manufacturing is decreased. Electric cars can also benefit from reduced battery packs, as traveling at a maximum reduced speed increases their range and reduces the acceleration requirement that hinders the usage of a smaller battery set-up than current performance criteria dictate.

Small engines and small battery requirements creates a wonderful (in my estimation at least-not so if you're a GM or Toyota executive) opportunity to increase the number of car manufacturers. I prefer to see a variety of different shapes and sizes of vehicles on the road, including custom manufacturers of "sheet metal art" as well as other bodywork material. With a 34-mph top speed, I think plastic windshields (wind screens) would become acceptable, as well as car "skin" that would be fabric instead of painted metal and plastic. Consider those cardboard inserts that inhabit new shoes: those are cheaply pressed out, recyclable, compound curves. Compound curved fenders and roofs are an easy reach from those shoe forms. And, imagine covering those with "wet look" brilliant red fabric one day, leopard spot fabric the next! I think "artistry in autos" would receive a big boost with slower speeds, not to mention we could more easily observe that art if it cruised by more slowly.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

"Cars That Can Only Go 34 mph Max??"

Try suggesting to people that all cars, trucks, and civilian vehicles (police and fire excepted) be physically modified, or originally created, so that they would be physically restrained to a top speed of 34 mph (55kmph) in order to solve a vast selection of problems.

Man, get ready for the wild verbal breakdancing. Whoa, whoa, whoa!

"I'd rather switch to Islam".

That "switch" idea was the most original reaction. Somehow, being a Moslem gets you access to unlimited fuel! And thus, drive anything, any speed, you want!

The usual reaction is simple disbelief: "You're joking.... right??!"

"Impossible." "That is the nuttiest idea I've ever heard."

Most Americans don't realize that in Japan, the "Kei" classification of cars has been in existence for many years... since 1949! At the time of the original car, engine size was restricted to 150cc's (about 9 cubic inch displacement!) Since then it has been raised to 660 cc's. The basic restriction imposed upon Kei cars is their size: about ten feet long, and 4.5 feet wide...max. The small 660 cc engines (about 38 cubic inches) do not have power restrictions, so "stock" engines of this size can be sixty-plus horsepower out the factory door. Check wikipedia for "Kei" car history and particulars.

Of particular interest to me is that Kei cars have a favorable "crash" history compared to deaths and injuries associated with larger vehicles. Typically-produced "kei" cars in the 1990s weighed about 1600 lbs., about half the weight of typical small American passenger cars.

Lighter cars get better mileage. Inertia (getting the speed from zero to thirty) consumes about 60% of the fuel used in urban driving. Reduce the weight, reduce the gallons of fuel used.


Wednesday, January 9, 2008

A Physical Maximum for Vehicular Speed=55 KmpH

The time is now to begin the process of transforming the world of automobiles. As a world of people, we have to agree that 55 kilometers per hour will be the maximum attainable speed that any motor vehicle on the public highway or roadway, will physically be able to attain. Why such a sloooow speed?

The slow speed of 55 kph (or, 34 miles per hour) will enable all vehicles to attain superb, excellent mileage. Want tangible proof? Peruse this link:

Check out the "2007 results" link. The winning entry got 1541 miles per gallon!!
If a "normal car" with normal accouterments got one-tenth of that mileage, it would be a "breakthrough". Yet it is very possible. The winning cars in the SAE contest are very efficient at cutting through the air, the largest component of force needed when traveling in a vehicle from "A" to "B". Air resistance to "moving through space" goes up exponentially as the speed increases. By restricting all cars to a maximum of 34 mph (55 kph), a lot of energy will be saved in not pushing aside so much air. In fact, I'm speculating that if cars that could not exceed the 55 kph limit went into production for a few years, I think a mileage of 400 miles to the gallon would be routine! Why? Weight.

Beyond the aerodynamics, the other killer of efficiency in internal-combustion-powered-vehicles is weight. Is it any wonder all the "SUV"s of the world are only getting between 15 and 24 miles to the gallon? Heck, in 1987, my own 1986 Toyota Camry I consistently got 38 miles to the gallon, on long freeway jaunts, traveling at 65 miles an hour?? What changed??

Weight. All the "car columns" profiling the latest and greatest cars tout "top speed" and "0-60", but usually downplay the weight. That is because SUVS routinely weigh two tons! So if cars are used 85% of the time to haul one person, the situation becomes one where a vehicle weighing 4000 pounds is used to haul around a 200 lb. human (more or less). Isn't this absurd, when a bicycle weighing 25 pounds can haul around the same 200 lb.?

So, what's with all the weight? Speed. If you are the manufacturer and your little compact can hold 800+ pounds of people plus 100 more in luggage, your compact better be able to stay on the road, stop, and get on a freeway, so you have overbuild the suspension for that max load, the brakes, the power steering, the airbags for a high speed crash, the rollover protection, ...all because the compact CAN go down a steep mountain road, fully loaded at 85 mph! For safety at high speed, you need more weigh. More weight means beefier components ...on and on it goes.

A car that cannot physically go faster than 34 miles per hour; why, that car can meet all possible performance tests with thinner lighter tires, which need less braking, less power steering (if any is even needed) and less structure for rollover, and probably no airbags. Even the glass windows would weigh less; polycarbonate could be used.

A car of current, average size and weight traveling at a constant 60 miles per hour needs about fourteen horsepower to maintain that 60 miles per hour. Fourteen horsepower!! Why do we have 400 horsepower muscle cars?? Because we are addicted to the sense of acceleration. Cars with sluggish acceleration don't sell.

How much power would be required to hit the 34 mph top speed? Let's be generous and say a whopping ten horsepower would give us brisk acceleration in a lightweight car. A single occupant vehicle would need maybe four horsepower to run all day at 34 mph... maybe less. Can you imagine how small that engine could be? You'd never have to "leave your car at the shop". Heck, if your car engine completely blew apart the AAA rescue vehicle could bring you another engine, stick it in, take the bad one away, and you're on your way! Oil change? You'd simply unscrew the reservoir/filter, and screw on a new reservoir/filter.

Except for Interstate Highway travel, most people would not even notice that they could not go faster than 34 mph.