Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Addicted to Speed, NOT Addicted to Oil

The further that the words and deeds of President George W. Bush fade into history's unvisited areas, the better I feel. These days, the phrase "Addicted to Oil" isn't heard too much. What should enter the conscience of a world that currently builds a new car every 4.5 seconds, is the phrase "Addicted to Speed". As a spectator sport, auto racing is among the most patronized of all sporting events in the world. And the onlookers do not swoon and gasp at the sight of fuel loading or fuel consumption.

Every adult is addicted to speed! Faster times getting to work, getting anything done, communicating...Top highway speeds in the 1940s were less than 50 mph. Off-the-assembly-line vehicles before 1950 had engines that produced well under 100 horsepower, even for the most luxurious production cars.

What I advocate with this blog is making every vehicle on the roadways and highways mechanically constrained, so that no vehicle (well, perhaps bicycles), not a car or truck or motorcycle, could travel faster than 34 miles per hour...downhill, pedal to the floor, all out engine screaming....55 KM per hour... that would be it. It would affect less than twenty percent of the time we spend traveling, increase gas mileage tremendously, and cut manufacturing costs dramatically.

Now, not one of the high volume producers of automobiles would dream of advertising less horsepower, less acceleration, less ultimate maximum speed. In a perverse way of explaining their performance parameters, some manufacturers claim their cars are "electronically limited" to a top speed, usually this "limited speed" is in the neighborhood of 130 miles-per-hour!! This is an insane speed to attempt to attain on any highway, anywhere, as road hazards, side traffic, other vehicles, as well as the driver's skill make it nearly certain that a bad outcome would ensue after a very short period of traveling at such a speed. Yet these kind of technical "wow's" are what sell cars. And, they drive up the price of cars.

If road vehicles were physically constrained to attain a maximum speed of 55 kilometers-per-hour (34 mph) the benefits would be enormous and long-lasting. Read some of my very first entries into this blog, but notice the mileage of the 2008 SAE Supermileage winners to the right of this message. How did they do so well? They had no big "design and engineering" groups aiding their effort, and, they were all students! Here are the three reasons:

  • The vehicles were very light
  • The engines were very small
  • The aerodynamic drag created by a vehicle below 35 mph is very small

Remember, as speed increases, the aerodynamic drag goes up by a power of three: if it takes two horsepower to move a vehicle at 30mph, it takes eight horsepower to move the same vehicle 60mph! And by the way, the amount of horsepower it takes to move your typical 3000-lb car at a constant rate of 60 miles per hour??? Fourteen horsepower!

So why do cars have big V8 engines, touting 300 horsepower??

Everywhere you look, advertising for passenger vehicles tout acceleration numbers and top speed numbers. Being able to accelerate briskly to 60 mph is a major selling point. A recent Ford Mustang commercial showed a "father and son" out at night in a new Mustang, with the father admonishing the son, "This is not a toy..." and then uses the car as the ultimate toy by burning rubber and accelerating wildly, then stomping on the brakes to illustrate, "THIS IS FUN"!

It is a toy! Ford wishes you to lust after a toy! That is what sells cars.

The best part about a change to a mechanically-fixed maximum speed: present vehicles can be retrofitted. Instead of waiting for a turnover in the current 220 million cars and trucks on the road in the United States, they can be set up with inexpensive escapement mechanisms, similar to those that regulate the speed of a mechanical clock or watch. You don't have to wait five, ten, or twenty eyars for a big impact. A big impact can arrive in as little as twelve months after the decision is made. New industries that would (1) build the escapement kits (2) build and retrofit engines of smaller size and lighter weight would be welcome in a time of high unemployment.

Talk about "saving the planet" with electric cars and hybrids makes no sense when you consider the numbers: there are 220 million cars and trucks current extant, on the road, in the United States!


People are talking about the impact the Chevrolet Volt might have..when it ramps up to a million vehicles a year...it is a minor number compared to the operating fleet! If a million hybrids, a million electrics, all hit the road and replaced a vehicle, it still would take twenty-five years to convert to a sizeable number of the overall fleet!

My idea of speed-reduced vehicles won't save Detroit, or the rest of the current automotive industry. Because of factors of scale, current manufacturers cannot save themselves. Lighter cars with lighter engines do not need to be smaller, but they will be easier to manufacture, because the ability to travel safely at high speeds means heavier frames, heavier motors, heavier tires.... all these things are more expensive, the higher the potential top end speed. Can you name one golfcart manufacturer? No, but it's not an automotible firm like Ford or Nissan.

If the top speed were a mechanical constraint (not a roadsign or law to be voluntarily obeyed) it would be less than two years before vehicles getting 200 miles-per-gallon were manufactured and sold. And not "Dodge-'em" looking vehicles, either. The reason the "SMART car" and others of a similar nature are so small, is that they must be able to go over sixty miles an hour, or no one would buy them. And, they could not reach that speed and be large, because the dimensions-x-speed require a heavier frame, heavier wheels, a larger frontal area with more air resistance at sixty...there goes the mileage!!!

A commitment to mechanically-constraining all vehicles to a slower speed would create all sorts of beneficial externalities, including cheaper roadbuilding. It would take less commitment than World War II, where there was a complete cessation of personal cars being manufactured, and fuel was rationed.

It would be a commitment to a saner, safer, "cooler" world (less carbon dioxide emissions).