Ronin of the Spirit

Because reality is beautiful.

The Ubuntu-mobile II

OK, so that’s Ubuntu.  And here’s why the open source car people are full of bologna.

What they are calling open source means they provide CAD/CAM drawing of the car, and these drawings and plans are open source.  That’s dumb.  Open source cannot be applied to the tangible.  Open source is a response to closed source.  Closed source = intangible.  You can’t open source the tangible.  If you can put a tape measure on something a measure it, by it’s mere tangible existence its already “open source”

You can open source software because it’s code is intangible. You can open source the die of a microchip because blueprinting the die is so bloody difficult it rates as intangible.

You catagorically cannot “open source” something you can blueprint quickly and easily.

Further, remember that Linux was developed by brilliant professionals doing what normal folk cannot.  Normal people CAN make car bodies. Fiberglass + Bondo + elbow grease = car body.

The hard part of car design, the things you really need professional help for is emissions and crash standards.  To control emissions you need software running on an Power Control Module (PCM.) There is one open source PCM available and it cannot be used on emission control vehicles because it has not been EPA approved.

Crash standards can be suggested by computational anysis but require regirous testing.  Once a basic chassis granted DOT approval the blueprints of that chassis could be open sourced.

But without EPA stamp on the PCM and engine, plus DOT approval of the chassis, the car is dead in the water.

The active community of users with wikis and forums and blogs is development of an effective product, not the cause of it.  The open source car, as it stands is a joke.

Finally, since cars do not reproduce flawlessly like software, a certify agency will have to put a stamp of approval on cars to show that they are open source compatable, and therefore, EPA and DOT approved, as well as sharing parts interchangability with other certified cars.

May 26, 2009 Posted by | Engines, Government, Linux, Microcar, skepticism, Small Car, Software, Transportation, Uncategorized | , , , , | Leave a comment

The Ubuntu-mobile I

I wish I could buy an Ubuntu car.

Now, there are people out there working on what they call an open source car, but I’m not super impressed with any of them yet.  Further, it think their basic premise is flawed, or frankly, stupid.

Open source is a response to closed source.  Had closed source not started it all, open source would not have had a reason to exist.  Let’s look at the cause of open source, Microsoft.

Microsoft wrote DOS.  DOS lets people talk to the computer, but DOS is still pretty obtuse.  Microsoft makes a bunch of pretty pictures than normal people can use, and those pictures can talk to the DOS to talk to the computer. That’s windows.  Windows was really popular, and computer code is easy to reproduce.  Microsoft, like all good companies was interesting in making profit for its owners so it took steps to make it hard to sell and reproduce the code that many thousands of Microsoft programmers had worked very hard on and need to be paid for.

Linux was created as a substitute for DOS, not for windows.  Essentially a guy named Linus re-wrote a old operating system for mainframes (Unix) into a new operating system for PCs.  He did it because he thought computers were a force of capital G Good in the world, and he didn’t want Microsoft’s bottom line to get in the way of people being able to use computers.

Later, just as Microsoft developed a graphic user interface for DOS, a graphic interface would be developed for Linux.  If fact many would be developed, the most popular is called Ubuntu.

Ubuntu is the most popular because it is, for all practical purposes, NOT Linux.  Though Linus’s original code is buried in Ubuntu, it has been improved by thousands of highly skilled programmers working tens of thousands of hours.  Further, Ubuntu contains a whole bundle of pre-packed goodies that make it a functional windows replacement.  Those goodies were all developed by yet more thousands of programmers working tens of thousands of hours.

Despite the fact that Ubuntu was developed for free, it was not developed by amuteures. It was developed by some of the best programmers in the world over a period of years, and in some parts of the source code, decades. (The original Unix kernal was written in 1969.)

What the programmers did was what you cannot do. They did the very hardest parts, the most esoteric parts that take the greatest level of technical proficiency.

Finally, Ubuntu has a tremendous support network.  Wikis and forums which explain each step in plain detail.  If you can’t handle that, often in the forums, there are links to blogs which will explain tiny steps in stupefying detail.

May 25, 2009 Posted by | Engines, Linux, Microcar, Science, Software, Transportation, Uncategorized | , , , , | Leave a comment

Electric Vehicle Review

Real changes in efficiency will require real change.

Real changes in efficiency will require real change.

I am a big geek.  Do you know how some people have a feeling of the divine when the meditate?  I feel the divine when I ponder an amazing design.  Have you ever noticed that some products you pick up and use without ever needing to be told how to?  That’s design!  A truly brilliant design does something some perfectly that it seems perfectly intuitive.  So intuitive often, that unless you try to design things yourself, you don’t even realize how many blind alleys, rabbit trails, setbacks, and losses there are before you get to that perfect design. It is intuitive only retrospect.

When I opened a constant velocity joint for the the first time and saw how the balls and the cage and the hub all worked together, I felt something stir within me.  This is who I am, this is who genetics and environment crafted me to become.  I derive a sensual (though not sexual) pleasure from touching a great design. With car engines, I can feel the design teams successes and failures as I run my hands over the block.  Feeling the texture engine block, I know if it was sand, lost foam, or die cast.  This tells me how many engines the design team planned on making, and what compromises and pressures they were forced to make to the purity of the Ideal to get the engine made.

From the type of the casting and its complexities I know what alloys were used, and in turn the stress the block can was designed for.  I run my hands over the corners, feeling their sharpness, and I know the designers didn’t expect stress here, or simply didn’t care.  I visualize the cylinder bores, cast iron set in cast aluminum.  When the head is off, I can see how the cylinder bore meets the deck of the block.  Was the designer conservative or risky?  Was his company broke and scrappy (the parts are compromised to be produced on existing equipment) or flush and cocky (the parts are less compromised but require special tools to make and service)?  Did he plan on the engine being rebuilt or recycled? Did they plan nothing at all but simply moving the iron out the door? (Often the case on mid 70’s and  early 80’s American cars).  I can tell if the engineer thought the car he was designing would be around next year. (If you’ve ever turned a wrench on a ’81 Mustang 4 cylinder you know what I mean.)

Its not just cars, though.  A good door latch sets me a twitter.  A well designed building makes me warm inside.  When I stand in a kitchen that actually considered work/motion in its design I wish I could find the designer and shake his or her hand.  I want to tell them that I get it, that it matters to me too.

So when I say that I love design, I love it the way some love meditation, some love drink, and some love baseball.  Having established my credentials as a design freak, let me now say this.  I love electric cars.  I want one.  I think they are groovy.  When I think of driving down the road in near silence, with a handful of moving parts pushing me into a newer, greener, place I get weak in the knees.  That said, I now have to say something that amounts to near blasphemy in the eco community.

Electric cars are not being massed produced because people don’t want them.

I’m going to put the features of an electric car in the jargon of normal cars.

We have a car with a special power train.  The advantage of this special power train is that it gets 300 mpg.  But the unique power train is very bulky and heavy, so the car has limited cargo and passenger space.  Also, it has a very small gas tank, about a quart, and that tank takes 4 hours to fill. It will cost about as much as a normal car.

Note that these are real numbers.  To move an electric car takes about 1/10 the cost per mile as gas, so 30 mpg becomes 300 mpg.  Most have a range of about 75 miles in real driving conditions.  At 300 mpg thats about a quart of gas.  And the 4 hour fill time is accurate too.

Before you can sell a car you have to sell the need.  Before you can sell a car for $30,000 you must sell the idea that the purchaser wants the car more than they want $30,000.

I don’t want a car that gets 300 MPG and has a one quart gas tank that takes 4 hours to fill more than I want $30,000.  Neither do most people.

But, people do want EVs!

I want an EV.  I am very excited about getting the equivalent of 300 mpg. But I am not $30,000 excited.  Heck I’m not even $5,000 excited. Under 5 g’s and I can accept those compromises.  Over it, not so much.

But many people do want them that much!

That’s a fact. Many people do.  Those people are well served by the existing botique market.  To achieve significant reductions of cost on a car you need to make a minimum of 100,000 units a year for several years.  There are probably at least 100,000 people in the US who want this $30K, 300MPG, 4 hours to fill car. (Called the 3k3m4h from here forward) But are there half a million over 5 years?  Probably not.  And once initial demand is met then what?

Well most people have 2 cars, they could use the 3k3m4h as a second car.

Perhaps, but I am not convinced.  Ten times the mileage is nice.  But the 4 hour fill time and 75 mile range mean that the car never leaves the city.  If more people were interested in accepting compromise and renting when ever they had a 4 hour drive to take, then they wouldn’t have two cars in the first place, they would have one small car, and rent a big car for trips.  The lack of that says most families want 2 fully non-compromised cars and collective mileage be damned.

What do you mean 75 miles?  Brand X’s  Electroflux car goes (insert 3 digit number here) miles on a single charge.

Yes, I don’t doubt that.  What I doubt that is that the average electric car buyer could afford the Electroflux.  If you can compare cost-is-no-object-celebrity projects like the Tesla Roadster, than I can do the same.  I choose the Microjoule Eco-Marathon car. 10,127.9 miles per gallon. Wow, that makes 300 mpg look like crap. Maybe we should just stick to more common ones.

Everything you are saying is true, but its only that way because of Big Oil conspiricy.

Conspiracies do happen. More castles fell to conspiracy that siege. Hitler consolidated his power with a conspiracy, and the Street Car conspiracy is real and documented. (GM manipulated city governments to replace street cars with GMC coaches.)  But you have to be careful with conspiracy theories.  They often contain a compliment to the originator. I don’t doubt that the car and oil companies have a lot of money, which I don’t doubt that they put to the normal use in Washington.  What happened to the EV1 was weird to the point of scary. BUT while that conspiracy might prevent pro EV legislation, it cannot prevent market forces from driving prices in certain critical components.  Like batteries. EV’s have cost benefits to production until you get to the battery.  The battery is not expensive because of a lack of production.  Mass production only makes things cheaper by changing the process, not the materials.  When the cost of materials is the primary cost, mass production will not appreciably bring down cost.  The “Big Oil Conspiracy” on this one allows people to say “Oh I would buy an EV if only there wasn’t a B O C.”  It allows people to feel environmental without actually doing anything.

The price will go down in mass production.

See above.

Well people shouldn’t be driving so much anyway.

I couldn’t agree more.  But the proper way to get better city planning (the lack of which is the cause of so much driving) it legislate proper city planning, not legislate a compromised technology.

It doesn’t mater what the cost is, it saves the earth.

Taking care of the planet is profoundly important, but personal transportation will always be more wasteful than mass transit. The solution is not electric personal transportation.  The solution is better designed cities and better mass transit.  If we must speak of doing things no mater what the cost to save the earth, a resource shift in personal vehicles isn’t really the best place to start.

You are just anti-electric car.

No I am pro-electric car and anti-stupid.  I think electric cars are great.  I think that the handful of companies making them everyday are great.  I just don’t believe they are the magic bullet being claimed.  If you want to talk about subsidies, the answer to stupid subsides is not smart ones.  Let’s get the extractive industries and car makers off the government tit before we offer it to another industry.

But they do reduce polution.

Never said they didn’t, and I support the reduction of polution.  Electric cars would cut polution in half, which is good.  But why not invest the money in mass transit and smart cities.  That would decrease the amount that people drive ANY kind of cars, and would make electric cars more viable.   I’m not saying they shouldn’t be made.  I’m saying legislation attempts to treat the symptom instead of the problem.

But they are zero emissions!

No, thats stupid.  They are reduced emissions.  The engine to wheel process of a normal car is about 20% efficient.  From power plant to wheel in an EV is about 31% efficient.  They pollute about 1/2 as much.  That’s good, but infinately more than zero.

OK that’s all I’ve got tonight.

July 21, 2008 Posted by | Ecology, Government, Politics, skepticism, Small Car, Uncategorized | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Tata Nano

Automobiles are one of the single largest things we do.  Transportation is a huge slice of the economy.  Where roads and bridges can and cannot go is a huge social issue.  The design of cities, land use, environmental concerns, tax laws, sustainable wage… all these things are touched and shaped by cars.  So cars a pretty good pulse on society.

Enter the Tata Nano.

In case you live in a cave, the Tata company in an Indian super company. It includes 98 companies selling in 85 countries. 20% of global steel production is by Tata.  Tata’s dealings make up 3.2% of India’s GDP, making them the de facto majority shareholder of an entire country, much like GE here.

Despite all that, when Tata announced that their automobile division would make a car for $2500 no one really cared.  It was assumed that they would make yet another auto rickshaw.  But, Tata had been underestimated.  What they produced was not some spindly three-wheeler. It was a real car in every way. Observe the specs:

SOHC 624cc Fuel injected Twin

12″ wheels

4 wheel hydraulic brakes

Meets current India and EEU emissions and safety requirements.

So naturally, everyone hated it.  Now, I shouldn’t say everyone. The people of India were pretty excited, actually.  But people who will never buy one are really upset.

The number one complaint: because it is so cheap people who didn’t own cars before will buy them increasing global warming and reducing available fuel supply, raising prices.

Well, thats just plain dumb.  People who can afford the Tata Nano are using motorcycles and auto rickshaws.  The vast portion of which are fitted with early model 2 cycle engines.  World wide, two strokers make up about 5% of the engines.  And 32% of the pollution.  Replacing wheezing 2 strokes with Nanos reduces emissions.

Number two complaint: its not safe.

Again, just plain dumb.  Nothing is 100% safe. Life is risk. Successful life is risk management. Yes, driving a Tata Nano is not as safe as hidding in bunker.  Who cares? The people who are buying Nanos are people who were driving motorcycles previously.  They are safer in Nanos than on motorcycles.  Again net reduction in problems.  They also meet EEU standards.  Since pollution is based on parts per million of pollutants rather than pollutants per car, even that doesn’t tell the whole story.  A Tata Nano puts out significantly less pollution per car than a Volkswagen Golf, because the Tato has a significantly smaller engine of approximately the same efficiency per cc.

Third complaint: They will reduce global fuel supply.  *sigh*  Ok, there might be some truth in this, but I just can’t get my underwear in bunch about it.  As long as SUVs are the prefered form of transportation in the US, I don’t think anyone in the US has right to complain about a 12′ long car that gets over 50 MPG.

Fourth complaint: No, I’m not joking.  People really complain about this: the wheels are too small.  This is too is very dumb. To this issue and all the above I raise the issue of the kei car.  Kei cars are a special legal qualification of cars in Japan.  If a car meets certain kei car guidelines it can be sold as a kei car, saving both the purchaser and the producer a bundle of money. The requirements are 11′ feet long, 4.5′ wide, 6.5″ tall (they make kei spec vans and four by fours as well, hence the generous height) and a 650cc engines.  In one form or another the Japanese have been making kei cars for more than 50 years.  As of 2004, they were making 2 million of them a year.   Many a kei jidosha (light car) has the similar features to the Nano.

So why has the Nano raised such ire in a country it can’t even be sold in?

Here’s the human issue that the first paragraph eluded to: though people complain that they shouldn’t be sold because they are unsafe, I never here this argument about motorcycles and bicycles, which offer no protection what-so-ever in a crash.  So there must be an underlying emotional reason that people feel they are unsafe.  I think people have an emotional need to drive a very large gas guzzling car.  The existence of people who don’t have that need offends them, so they invent data (which is wrong) that says those people shouldn’t be alowed to buy the car.

The person who drives a car purely out of regard for safety and makes the majority of their other decisions out of a sense of what is safe, is leading a small boring life.  Relationships consist of risk.  People who take no risks have no relationships.  So these people end up pretty unfulfilled.  When they see people taking risks and getting more enjoyment out of their life, it really pisses them off, so they try and legislate any risks others might want to take about of existence.

May 26, 2008 Posted by | Ecology, Microcar, Small Car | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

One bazillion miles per gallon

So, I really don’t have much to say tonight, but I don’t want to blog tomorrow, because I have spent the whole evening answering emails tonight and I need to spend some time with my daughter tomorrow.

So, here is the Aptera

Its a slippery little car made by a composites company.  It gets 300 mpg.  (Actually it doesn’t, more on that latter.)  It looks funny because for a car it has obscenely good aerodynamics.  Drag coefficient is a what is called a dimensionless number, or what I think of as a magic number.  No mater how big or small something is, it’s shape has a C/d.  The lower the C/d the less energy it takes to push the shape through the air.  (The truth is bit more complicated, but thats pretty much it.)

The C/d for the Aptera is 0.11.  Now, that is very good for a car.  The Honda Insight (which is no boxy fuel hog) has comparitively icky 0.25.   However, a Boeing 747 has 0.0331.  If a 747 and the Aptera had the same cross sectional area, the Aptera would take 3 times more energy to go the same speed as the 747.

This is where that whole 300 mpg thing ties in.  The Aptera doesn’t get 300 mpg.  It gets 120 mpg.  When being used as a plug-in-hybrid it gets 300, but the straight performance is 120.  (For more about plug-in-hybrids click here) And, quite frankly, 120 isn’t good enough for a vehicle that must be licensed as a motorcycle.

Here is a car that gets 75 mpg, seats 2, and is street legal.  It was also made by some dude in his garage.

Out of a 1989 Geo Metro.  See, when some guy with a hacksaw can make an insurable, drivable, 4 wheeled car, that meets all the crash and emissions standards for its year of manufacture with no engine modifications…

Lets just say I am a little suspicious that 120 out of pure carbon fiber is really even trying that hard.  May I remind everyone, that elite cyclist have a maximum output of about 2000 watts in a sprint.  The land speed record for a fully faired bike is…81 mpg.  On 2.6 horsepower.  The Aptera is cool.  I hope they sell.  But we can really, really, do better.

April 18, 2008 Posted by | Ecology, Microcar, skepticism, Small Car, Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Sterling Engine Analysis

In 1816, the Reverend Robert Stirling invented a engine. From time to time an astute reader will hear about this engine as the solution to the world’s problems in general, and as the perfect candidate for automotive hybrids specifically. Pure bunk and here’s why.

First, you have to know a little about hot gas. (Gas like air or CO2, not like gasoline.) When gas is heated, it wants to get bigger (ie. increase in volume). When it has its heat removed (cooled), it wants to decrease in volume. If it is in a sealed container, it can’t increase its volume, so it presses against the walls of the container all the harder when heated (pressure). That’s why aerosol cans say to not expose to temperatures of more than 120 degrees. They are full of gas at a certain pressure and if they get too hot, the pressure gets too high and they pop. (Also, if you have a weak container, like an empty closed pop bottle and stick it in the freezer, it will collapse. The removal of the gas’s heat causes a reduction in volume, which reduces the pressure, meaning the air pressure on the outside is higher, and it squishes in.) There are mathematical formulas that describe these relationships of pressure, volume and temperature called gas laws.

Nice suit!

A man named Carnot (above) put all of the gas laws together and drew some rational conclusions. He performed a thought experiment about the perfect heat engine. (An engine being a device for turning heat energy into mechanical energy.) The perfect heat engine would be made out of a magic material which would let heat in but not out at one point, and out but not in at another. It would have no friction, and would never leak. That way, any energy flow could be controlled and monitored.

(1.) Heat would be added perfectly instep with the expansion of the gas, so that no energy was wasted. (Heat is added but the temperature doesn’t increase, because it’s expanding instep.) It expands while taking heat, pushing the piston down.

(2.)The heat in the gas is then “used up” as the gas continues to expand without new heat. It expands while cooling, still pushing the piston down.

(3.)The heat is then removed from the gas, causing the gas to shrink (reduce in volume), pulling the piston in.

(4.) Now the piston is pushed in (further reduced in volume), raising the temperature of the gas back to the temperature it was before the heat was added in step 1.

For various reasons deduced from the gas laws, Carnot’s engine is the most efficient on earth. Since we know what perfect is, we know the best way to design any engine on earth.

Though every part of Carnot’s cycle is right, none of them are true, and therein lies the problem. There is no material which can conduct heat only in one direction, give us choice of direction, and switch direction at whim. There is no gas which behaves exactly as the gas laws say they should, though hydrogen approaches it. There is no material that is totally frictionless and perfectly sealing at the same time. Carnot’s engines says the key to efficiency is the difference between the temperature of the heat input in step (1) and the heat removed in step (2).

Material science is the kicker. The engine’s material must be a good conductor of heat or the heat in it will build up until it melts. But it must not be too good a conductor of heat or it will take heat out of the engine which the engine is supposed to be making power out of. It must allow a tight seal for the piston but without to much friction.

Long story short, the engine must be all at once: a good conductor, insulator, bearing surface, and pressure vessel. Due to the properties of combustion, it must do all of this while white hot and resistant to corrosion.

In the case of the Otto engine (the kind most likely in your car), you can add to all of those challenges this: the heat is not made outside the engine, but in it, and the gas not heated by an outside source, but within the cylinder itself by flame. Furthermore, there are the complexities of piping the gas in and out.

At this point one might cry, “Wait a moment! Do you mean to tell me that the efficiency of an engine is based of the difference between the temperatures at the beginning and end of the cycle? My exhaust manifold GLOWS red! I must be throwing away a huge amount of energy!” Yup.

And that’s a very good thing. The reason you can afford a car is because the Otto cycle, with all its oddities of valves and spark plugs and not reusing the working gas, dumps excess heat out the exhaust stream. If it didn’t, the engine block would need to be made of the same alloys that jet engines are made of, instead of cast aluminum or cast iron.

So, here’s the danger of a little information. (And full circle back to the Stirling engine.) The Stirling engine does not burn inside the engine, it burns outside of it. Its gas is sealed away inside. Of all the engines in the world, Sterling comes the closest to Carnot’s imaginary engine in its cycle. Only in its cycle. Remember that Carnot’s engine is imaginary and made of unobtanium? Carnot’s cycle only has meaning as a thought experiment because you can’t make an engine out of magic alloys which do not exist.

People read that the Stirling engine is theoretically the most efficient heat engine and assume they don’t have one under their hood because it was simply never maximized. Actually it is not that it has not been maximized but that it CANNOT be maximized. Though combustion creates temperatures of thousands of degrees, the Otto engine need not operate at that temperature. If a Stirling was going to operate at that temperature the heat would have to move through the engine and then into the gas. So the engine block, under full power generating stress, must be hotter than the low stress exhaust pipes of an Otto cycle.

Though invented in 1816 to save people from the danger of boiler explosions, the Stirling was never widely used. Steam engines are also external combustion engines, but they have the boiling of water to serve as a temperature regulator. Stirlings do not have this, and a frequent and persistent complaint is burnt out parts.

Another HUGE misunderstanding about Stirling engines is their ability to use very low temperature differentials; that is to say, freakishly small differences between input temperature and output temperature. It’s true. In a 72 degree room, a small Stirling can run off the heat of your palm. These tiny engines create just enough power to overcome their own friction. What would happen if you scaled it up? You would have an enormous engine with equally enormous bearings. Again, the engine would create just enough power to overcome its own friction.

But just for the sake of argument, let’s say you had a truly enormous engine, one the size of a house. The hot part is in the sunshine, and the cool part is in the shade. The low temperature difference would be overcome by the truly enormous amount of energy available, right?

A qualified no. The smaller the temperature difference, the greater amount of gas the engine has to pump around to get the same amount of power. There’s no free lunch. For the same amount of power, high temp = small working mass, low temp = large working gas. The losses to pumping all that gas through the small passages necessary for heat reclaiming mount up very quickly. For this reason, efficiencies are very low. While low efficiencies with free power (like solar) are OK, it’s a niche application.

Another route to efficiency is high pressure. Reverend Robert made his Stirlings low pressure and large (For instance, about a cubic foot of displacement per horsepower, or 172,800% larger than an Otto cycle of the same HP.). The modern trend is to make them high pressure and small. But then they must be filled with inert gas and sealed just so, because if air and lube oil are pressurized and heated the Stirling engine becomes a bomb. This is also why Rev. Stirling could make his engines with a foundryman and bricklayer and modern engines are “lab queens” in college physics departments.

Finally, another story that pops up now and then is Ford’s Stirling research in the 1970’s. Yes, they made a Stirling engine. No, they didn’t produce it. They didn’t produce it for the exact same reason Chrysler didn’t produce its turbines nor GM its Wankle. Material science could not mass produce certain key components at low enough cost to get enough people buying. This, in turn, means mass production could not be used, further raising the price and decreasing the market in a vicious catch-22.

Don’t get me wrong. I think Stirlings are cool. I think they have applications to green science. But we will never see one in a car produced by market forces. Further, if you want to invest in expensive technologies, fuel cells have higher real world efficiencies than Stirling’s theoretical ones.

April 9, 2008 Posted by | Ecology, Engines, skepticism, Small Car, Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments