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??

1 comment:

Akrotiri21 said...

Scott - I found your site through your recent post at R-Squared and am delighted to see someone writing on this topic. I couldn't agree more: while I closely follow efforts in the car industry to develop an electric car, I am continually blown away by our perceived need to replicate current cars -- their size, weight, speeds, etc. I also lit on the need to reduce car speeds, but for a different reason: in conversation with people about their car choices, they often refer to being on the road with other BIG cars and feeling like they need a big car for safety reasons. They also often mentioned that they felt safer in big cars at higher speeds, and that led me to thinking about the difference between riding in a Hummer and in a Geo metro -- the metro does feel a lot less safe at 70+ and so if we reduced speeds, we wouldn't need the bigger cars (so my thinking went).

All that to say that I agree with your assessment that we are "addicted to speed" but there are also other factors -- some just psychological -- that are reinforced by the higher speeds. If we slow down, we also won't feel like we need such big cars, all cars can get smaller, and we can all feel safer.

I don't know if this change would ever happen voluntarily, but if gas prices get very expensive and the big auto makers can't mass produce big electric cars, it seems to me that the next natural move will be along the lines you advocate -- and it will be good for us.