Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Car of the Future

There's an interesting program showing on PBS these days; I caught it last night, would recommend it.

It's a Nova episode called "Car of the Future." It's hosted by "Click and Clack, the Tappett Brothers," who host "Car Talk" on public radio.

The premise: their 1952 MG roadster (what an awesome ride!) is finally giving up the ghost, and they go in search of a replacement.

The first stop is the Detroit Auto Show, where, among other vehicles, they see a 500HP Mustang Cobra. And they speak of the visceral attraction of piloting a powerful machine. (I can identify!) They also talk about how horsepower and performance has always sold cars, particularly in America, and speculate on whether fuel economy can become the new major selling point. (Maybe it already is.)

Some interesting facts: There are currently 800 million motor vehicles in use worldwide, 95% of them burning hydrocarbon fuels in an internal-combustion engine. By 2020, the number of vehicles will likely be 2 billion. Amazingly - I did not know this - the average weight of motor vehicles has increased by 1000 pounds since 1985. So they need more power than ever before, for the same level of performance.

Here's something scary: "A quarter of all the petroleum ever consumed in the history of the world was consumed in the last 10 years."

Another startling "fact" (presented as fact on this program) - only one percent of a car's power is actually used to transport the occupant(s). 90% of the power is lost through inefficiency - "between the engine and the rear wheels." And 9% is used to move the mass of metal and plastic and rubber.

Click and Clack go on to visit an "alternative energy vehicle fair" in Boston. A lab that's trying to make ethanol more efficiently. The country of Iceland, which has abundant renewable energy (hydro and geothermal) and also has the only commercial hydrogen filling station. (They also have a fleet of hydrogen fuel cell buses up there.)

My favorite car, besides the MG, was the Tesla sports car. It has an electric motor (plug in to recharge overnight), a 200+ mile range, and zero to 60 in 4 seconds. The first generation is currently being hand-built in Europe at $94K a copy. That's certainly not "mass production," but hopefully they'll catch on, and the price will drop a little.

The conclusion seemed to be that slow progress is being made, but it might take 50 years to phase out internal combustion in a big way. (Dang it! I might not last that long!)

In the meantime, I've been so VERY satisfied with my current transportation model - human power and infinite-MPG for my local transportation, with the internal combustion standing by when warranted. If those 800 million vehicles were only used now and then when needed, rather than for everything, gas would probably cost $1/gallon, rather than $4.


Anonymous said...

My son and I are in the planning stage of converting our 1972 VW Camper Bus to electric propulsion.

Les Schwab is gonna love our battery order!

It's easier than one might imagine, and we are going to add a few things like a Mitsubishi Photoelectric Panel to the roof, to increase time between charges.

If anyone's interested, there's a great book (available at the Boise Public Library) entitled: "Convert It". ISBN 1-879857-94-4.

It's an outstanding introduction to infernal combustion-to-electric vehicle conversions.

Bikeboy said...

picayune... the main obstacle, according to the Tesla guy and other electric aficionados, is current battery technology. (The Tesla uses Li-Ion batteries which are many times more powerful, power-to-weight, than lead acid batteries. But even they aren't comparable at this point to the power that can be stored in "hydrocarbon" form.) I guess that's why McCain is proposing a $250 million government prize. (Which IMO is ludicrous... the "prize" will be the billion$ raked in when the battery technology goes to market! Free enterprise, baby!)

Clancy said...

Pretty impressive figures about car and fuel consumption. Also very scary.

Battery technology is progressing but needs wider adoption by manufactures. Interestingly, Idaho has some of the largest and most pure Cobalt deposits. Cobalt is used in the lithium ion batteries.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the tip on the program, Bikeboy. I recorded it last night and am planning to watch it soon.

With the program stating that cars are about 10% efficient I was wondering if any studies had been done regarding the efficiency of a bicycle. I did a quick search and found this link.

Anonymous said...


You're correct about the batteries.

That's what makes the VW Bus a good candidate for me, because of the ample room it allows for about 20 Deep Cycle Golf Cart Batteries, the light weight of the gas engine stripped vehicle, and beefier suspension (because it's a semi-stripped camper).

It certainly would be nice to be able to use smaller batteries (i.e. Lithium Ion)that don't require a 2nd mortgage to purchase.

Anonymous said...

For something a little more practical and feasible than the Tesla, take a look at: I have driven this one, and it is nice. If I wanted a motor vehicle, this would be it. What I really want is a bigger, heavier bike. Val

Anonymous said...

I don't want to be a nay-sayer, but if there were simple solutions to these problems, these problems wouldn't be problems.

The math doesn't work on "electric" vehicles. Here in Idaho, about 87% of the electricity is generated by fish (hydro), but nationwide, about 70% is fossil-fuel based, meaning your "electric" car is still 70% hydrocarbon-powered. Electric cars may be zero emissions in themselves, but they still pollute at the power plant where their juice is generated.

Real-life electric power plants (fossil fuel, geothermal, and nuke are all about the same.) are about 30% efficient tops. Add to that transmission line losses, battery losses, and electric motor losses, plus the fact that you have to carry heavy batteries around, not to mention the increased energy to manufacture them, and electric cars aren't much, if at all, better than good old internal combustion engines running at 20% efficiency.

Oh, and if you placed a 100W solar panel on your roof and allowed it to charge a perfectly efficient battery for 8 hours, you'd generate enough electricity to run a 1 horsepower motor for about 1 hour.

Don't get me wrong. I love that people are thinking about energy and trying to find new ways to do things. I honestly believe that this is an opportunity for some budding young engineer to make a fortune thinking outside the box. Until then, remember that there are lots of snake oil salesmen out there.

Bikeboy said...

I'm always amazed at the depth of knowledge of you people who post comments. (With the occasional exception of yokels who post their links to dubious commercial websites. Speaking of "snake oil." But I try to stay on top of that.)

Scott... indeed you are right about electric cars just relocating the pollution-generating power source. And buyers - particularly environment-conscious buyers - should weigh that.

Stay tuned... more about "vehicle efficiency" soon to follow.

db said...

Thanks for the link on bicycle efficiency. Unfortunately it confirms my hypothesis: the bike isn't inefficient - I am.