Archive for the ‘Car stuff’ Category

i know it’s an opinion piece, but the BBC should do better than this.

10 September 2012

BBC presenter Jon Stewart had an article published online today that claims we need a new kind of internal combustion engine, because the Otto cycle engines in common use still have “similar” fuel economy numbers to the Model T.

here’s a link to it. go read it and come back. i’ll wait.

now, let’s examine his argument. first, i’ll compare the Model T (the most popular car of its time) to the Toyota Corolla (most popular car now), instead of his entirely hypothetical “modern car.” this will allow me to use actual figures, rather than generalizations of questionable utility.

Stewart states that the Model T had “a claimed fuel economy of 13-21 miles per gallon” and the typical modern car has “a slightly improved fuel economy of somewhere in the range of 20-30mpg.” the base or standard model US-market Corolla gets 27-35 mpg; using his numbers, modern vehicles get around 50% better fuel economy than the Model T. the Corolla gets slightly better than that. either way is hardly “slightly improved.”

but, according to Stewart, this is not enough. a fair enough assertion, actually, given the environmental state of the planet and the sheer number of vehicles on the road. but is it really the ‘fault’ of the Otto-cycle engine? is it really lacking in ‘efficiency’?

the Model T, according to Stewart, got 20 hp out of a 2.9 liter engine. that’s about 6.9 hp/liter. his hypothetical “modern” car lacks a defined displacement, but produces 200 hp. our base US Corolla gets 132 hp out of a 1.8, for 73 (and a bit) hp/liter. ten times the specific output would seem quite a bit more efficient, depending on how one measures efficiency.

which is where the author throws in a slightly silly curve ball. he points out (via a quote from an engineer shilling the revolutionary new engine we’re supposed to be switching to) that the “efficiency” of the internal combustion engine has been stuck at 33% for “100 years.” well, yes. and at the same time, no.

what this engineer appears to be referring to is thermal efficiency, an entirely different thing from (although not unrelated subject to) fuel efficiency. the Otto cycle (which is really what we’re talking about here) is, in practice, often a bit less than 33% thermally efficient. numbers in the mid 20-percent range are much more rational. these numbers are entirely normal in the real world, particularly given the compression ratios required for spark-ignition petroleum engines. an ‘ideal’ Otto-cycle engine, working in a (nonexistent) perfect environment would have to near 16:1 compression before it approached 70% efficiency. the Model T had a paltry 4.5:1 compression ratio, and our Corolla example has a 9.8:1 ratio. in other words, thermal efficiency is a less-than-entirely useful measuring stick.

where modern engines excel is in the maximum extraction of heat from fuel; that’s why they have a greater specific output and (only) 50% or so better fuel efficiency than the Model T. if your heat efficiency is stuck by physics at 30% or so (as it is), then you would be best served by increasing the amount of heat you get from a specific volume or mass of fuel. modern engines burn leaner and hotter than their predecessors; they use less fuel to produce more heat. they may function at the same level of heat efficiency, but the actual fuel efficiency is much improved.

and, perhaps worst of all, he ignores the elephant in the room of the fuel economy argument: weight. the Model T weighed a paltry 1200 pounds; the modern Toyota Corolla is over 2800. this directly impacts fuel economy (and should impact any discussion of real-world efficiency); the Toyota’s engine must perform 2.5 times the work of the Model T’s. even if we assume the best case for published fuel economy (in miles per gallon) for the Ford and worst case for the Toyota, the modern car is still getting over twice the amount of work done per unit of fuel than the older.

are there still places to make improvements? of course. but that takes baby steps based in real-world observation. unfortunately, the incremental improvement towards a mature technology is ignored or denigrated by Stewart. he seems to seek a eureka solution, some great leap forward. that’s not really how technology works, dude.

quote of the day:

“Statistics are no substitute for judgment.” – Henry Clay

i want a…

11 January 2011

hybrid automobile.

and those of you out there who have heard me expound on the subject before are probably surprised.

the kicker is that i want a hybrid car that doesn’t exist, and may never exist, due to the peculiar nature of the automobile market.

the U.S. is the world’s biggest market for hybrid cars; Europe is firmly (and wisely) wedded to diesel technology, while South America is likely to follow Brazil’s lead and emphasize ethanol. countries in the Far East, namely China and Russia, are also working to wean off of petroleum and onto alcohol fuels.

the reason the U.S. so likes hybrids is because it’s scared of diesels; ever since the horrendous crap GM produced in the 1970s and 1980s, “diesel” has been a dirty word for anything but trucks. couple this with the way U.S. fuel standards lagged behind the rest of the world in things like sulfur content, and it’s amazing there are many diesel cars in the U.S. at all.

but what i want is a diesel-electric hybrid. diesel engines have some telling efficiencies over gasoline, and diesel fuel contains more energy by volume than gasoline. so let me explain the details, and you all can tell me how crazy i am.

1. i want four-wheel drive. not for performance, but safety. make this thing a plug-in series-hybrid, where the diesel engine turns a generator to charge the batteries. put a motor at each wheel, and cycle them on or off as needed. don’t forget the regenerative braking.

2. i want a 60-mile electric-only range. don’t tell me it’s not possible. make the body and chassis out of reclaimed plastics and composites; make it light and safe. tiny garage companies have been doing it (and meeting safety regulations) since the 1990s… one of the big boys should be able to do the same.

and this one’s the kicker:

3. i want the car to function as a generator at home. in a power outage the charging station should disconnect the house from mains power, start the car, and then run the house grid from the generator output.

a boy can dream, can’t he?

quote of the day:

“If we go on the way we have, the fault is our greed and if we are not willing to change, we will disappear from the face of the globe, to be replaced by the insect.” – Jacques Yves Cousteau

i hate this part…

21 January 2010

you know, when you can’t think of anything to write about? i need some sort of note-taking thing that’s wired into my brain (c’mon DARPA, help me out here – i know you’re working on it) so i can “take notes” without having to take notes. clear?

it seems when just wandering (well, stumbling bemusedly) through my day, i have all these little random thoughts that seem really interesting at the time. i carry a notebook, but often these ideas hit me when it’s not accessible. or when it would be inappropriate to pull out and start scribbling. or dangerous; the morning commute comes to mind.

so, all my great internal flowerings of wit bloom and die, unseen by the outside world (that means y’all). you don’t know what you’re missing. and, honestly, neither do i. if i could remember them, i’d write them down.

so, some random space fillers, in no particular order:

1. the HCBC is gearing up for the new decade. we’ve got a work space, and plan to have regular hours for folks to come by and work on their bikes with our tools “real soon now.” we’re also going to move our workshops into the space, making them a “rain or shine” event for the future. keep an eye out for an open invitation to an upcoming open house.

2. i really wish they didn’t have the SPCA bring dogs on the radio that need adoption. not because i wish ill for the dogs or the SPCA, but because it makes me sad. and it’s hard to drive to work or class if i’m bummed out. i don’t have the room or the funds to adopt a dog right now (and let’s not dwell on my antipathy towards cats), but every time i hear about these critters on the radio i want to bring them home. so you have to do it for me.

3. did we really need a remake of Clash of the Titans? i mean, the greatest attraction of the original are the Harryhausen special effects. well, and Ursula Andress. but i digress. the new film will be all seamless CGI, like Avatar and the Star Wars prequels. it seems to me (though this may be my not-well-hidden inner curmudgeon creeping out) that back when the effects guys were actually trying to create a realistic effect in the corporeal world, it gave us a better experience than the “throw tons of cpu cycles at it” approach. i know that the spaceships in the prequels look “cooler” (or, at least, smother) than those in the original trilogy, but they are less “real” because of it. if you’re going to make a film about big blue people, put some dudes in rubber suits.

4. the new Jaguar XJ is hot. i got to check it out up close, in detail at Baker Motor Company‘s launch event (now i just need a test drive). it’s got a very Citroën-inspired feel to the rear quarters. i like it a lot. but why are we only getting the V8 cars? i want the diesel! it’s only half a second slower to 60 mph than the non-supercharged V8 car (6 seconds versus 5.4), and gets 40 mpg combined. combined! did i mention significantly lower (than the petrol) CO2 emissions, with the same top speed (155 mph, in Europe)? and it runs around $11 thousand less for similar trim levels.

5. i’m beginning to loathe the term “graphic novel.” i really enjoy comic books. but not every comic book is a graphic novel. so stop calling them all that. Maus is a graphic novel. Pride of Baghdad is a graphic novel. Watchmen, V for Vendetta – graphic novels. some random storyline, contiguous in nature, collected in a single volume? Excalibur Classic, Vol. 1? not a graphic novel (good comic, though). just because it’s been collected and has a convenient unifying label hung on it doesn’t mean it’s a graphic novel. comic books are ongoing or single issue pamphlet-format works that tell a story without a preordained resolution. one could, perhaps, make the case for some one-shots as “graphic short stories,” but even most of them are beholden to external continuity. a graphic novel, on the other hand, is a story told through the same visual forms as the comic book (whether initially serialized or not) that has a beginning, middle and end. it is a contained story where the author is trying to either tell that story or expand on a larger theme. Maus, for example, tells the story of one man’s life during the Holocaust. it, therefore, is a contained story. Art Spiegelman is using the form of the comic to tell that story and make his points – he could have used other forms to do the same thing. Claremont and Davis really couldn’t have chosen another format for Excalibur, and there’s no resolution. the title ran on another 120 issues or so, through multiple creative teams, until it finally petered out. that’s not a novel, and neither are the smaller chunks – whatever titles you want to hang on them.


for not having anything to write about, i managed to burp out quite a bit. if you made it this far, i hope you enjoyed today’s maunderings. cheers!

quote of the day:

“Life and love are life and love, a bunch of violets is a bunch of violets, and to drag in the idea of a point is to ruin everything. Live and let live, love and let love, flower and fade, and follow the natural curve, which flows on, pointless.” – D.H. Lawrence

the fall of Kronos…

2 October 2009

with the 30 September termination of talks between Penske and GM on the sale of Saturn, another American car company is relegated to historical status. and, like the vast majority of failed car companies, deservedly so.

Saturn was an interesting experiment in the 1980s, an attempt to beat the Japanese in their own specialty. acknowledging the superiority of cars from Honda, Toyota and others, GM decided circa 1982 to build a new small car different from anything they’d done before. by 1985, they’d made the decision to do it with a new company. for a corporation that already had at least ten brands, what was one more?

the early Saturn cars were fairly sophisticated and forward-looking vehicles, as well. the plastic-paneled Z-body was lightweight and durable (if somewhat flammable). the aluminum castings in the car (including the engine block) were made using a (at the time) revolutionary lost-foam casting process. cars were sold at a set price, without the off-putting haggling other dealerships had. the EV1 was leased and serviced through Saturn dealers.

but before long (in historical terms, anyway), Saturn became just another brand at GM. instead of building its own cars, it used common platforms and engines with other GM models. the same thing that poisoned Pontiac/Buick/Oldsmobile/Chevrolet/Cadillac killed Saturn; instead of building cars people wanted, they built the same car as Pontiac/SAAB/GMC/Buick/Chevrolet/Opel/Vauxhall – just with a slightly revised grille or plastic on the dash.

and so the experiment ends; but this time, without a Golden Age to follow. Saturn is condemned instead to Tartarus.

quote of the day:

“A failure is a man who has blundered but is not capable of cashing in on the experience.” – Elbert Hubbard

Ich habe…

1 July 2009

ein neues Auto gekauft.

because i had to, mostly. the Hamster passed 310k miles recently and then pretty much said, “no more.”

well, actually, the Hamster passed 310k miles, broke some more (and yes, as in “was already broken and reached a new plateau of failure”), and I said “no more.”

so, what did i buy?

behold, the Blue Beetle!


technically, it’s not actually blue. it’s more of a purple.

but i say it’s blue, so sod off if you can’t take a joke.

so, the gory details:

2001 VW Beetle GLS TDI, 90 hp, 155 lb-ft, ~12 seconds 0-60, 110 mph top speed. which makes it both quicker and faster than my old MGB “sports car.”

for those who are surprised (given my avowed and obvious fascination with fast cars) that i would buy a diesel, you must understand the first car i ever bought for myself was a diesel – a 1976 Peugeot 504 A90 sedan, to be precise. 2.3 liters, 4 speeds, and nonexistent performance.

but it ruined me for gasoline cars forever.

well, not really. but i do love diesel. i think it’s something about the smell.

absolute worst fuel economy so far has been 36.5 mpg (around town). best was 38.6 on a road trip to Charlotte (with highway speeds up to 95 mph – so it’s not like i was dawdling). would have gotten better mileage there, but for all the other idiots on the road unable to pick a speed and stick with it.

i like it, and that’s what’s important.

for those wondering about my “fast car guy” outlook, i did consider both an Audi S4 and Saab 9-3 Viggen before latching onto the Beetle.

like i said, i think it’s the smell.

quote of the day:

“As a rule, when I drive, I drive very carefully and sensibly. Tonight was an exception to the rule.” – Harry Dresden

what killed…

3 April 2009

the fuel-efficient car?

i was listening to Rush Limbaugh earlier this week, and the question came up. a listener who drives a Geo Metro called in, pointing out that the Metro and the Honda CR-X (specifically the HF model, though he didn’t point this out) were no longer available from new in the US market.

the Metro can get over 40 mpg in city driving, and the CR-X is almost as frugal. both could acheive seemingly absurd highway fuel economies, with reports of well over 50 mpg common.

but the only way to get close to these numbers with a new car today is with a vehicle like the Toyota Prius (or other hybrids).

and the caller wanted to know why.

El Rushbo, with his right-wing slant, proposed the idea that it was government regulation – specifically CAFE standards affecting fleet buying habits – that killed these cheap, frugal cars.

and, in a way, he was right. though completely wrong in the details.

it was government regulations that killed the cheap, fuel efficient car. but not fuel economy regulations – safety regulations. the nanny state, in its infinite, benificent wisdom, decided our cars were dangerous. too many people were dying or being injured in crashes. so, instead of looking to the horrendous state of driver education, they decided it was the cars.

passive restraint systems, airbags, revised crumple zones, you name it: all of these were added or expanded in the twenty or so years since the CR-X HF came on the scene. and all of these things add something other than safety: weight.

the closest surviving “relative” to the Honda CR-X is the Honda Civic. the CR-X was, essentially, a 2-seat Civic coupé. the 1988 Civic hatchback weighed less than 2000 pounds; a 2009 Civic coupé weighs 600 pounds more. over a ten percent increase in weight – thanks primarily to increased safety equipment – can have nothing but a negative effect on fuel economy. combine that with the demand from the buying public for ever better performance – leading to ever larger engines – and you’re going to have a significant fall in fuel economy.

there are conventional modern cars with similar fuel economies to the old Metro and CR-X; Tata’s Nano gets over 45 mpg, and the US-spec smart fortwo gets over 40 mpg highway. but neither of these cars is acceptable to the mass consumer in the USA; the smart is too pricy and too tiny, while the Nano wouldn’t likely pass US safety or emissions regulations, much less be driveable on our roads (14 seconds to 43 mph probably wouldn’t fly here). and it’s tiny.

but cars get heavier over time anyway (as much as i hate that fact). the 1955 Chevrolet Bel Air tipped the scales at 3140 pounds; the current Corvette Z06 weighs 3180. but the Bel Air is a “mid-size” (today, it would be a full-size) car, a smidge over 16 feet long, loaded with pretty much all the “luxury” appointments of the day. the Corvette is a “lightweight” or “stripper” model, with creature comforts omitted for performance reasons (although it’s far from Spartan). the ‘Vette is also about a foot and a half shorter than the ’55, with a body made from plastic (sorry, “composite and carbon fiber“). the ’55? steel frame, steel chassis. steel just about everything, really. the 1955 engine is cast iron, too (while the Corvette’s is all-aluminium).

but the Corvette, for all its absurdist 198 mph top speed and plastic body, is the safer car. thanks to all the fancy safety systems that help make it porkier than its elderly relative.

it’s up to you whether this is a good or bad thing, as it’s the way that cars have gone since Herr Benz built his Patent Motorwagen in the 19th century. personally, i’m not a fan – i prefer light, small cars. but they’re pretty much dead and gone in affordable price ranges.

and the government’s why.

quote of the day:

“Simplify and add lightness.” – Colin Chapman


9 March 2009

thankfully, this day’s about over.

life has been a little nuts lately (resulting in my lack of posting). but that’s o.k. – nuts is better than staid and boring.

some highlights:

  • had the non-drive crank arm fall off my town bike while riding down Calhoun Street. since i (mistakenly, apparently) chose to use a super-beefy downhill chainset, nobody has a crankarm fixing bolt to hand. so i’ll just have to ride one of my other bikes. such a hardship.
  • got some work done on the project car. almost ready to turn it around and work on the other side. hopefully, work will accelerate at this point, as the hardest fab work is done.
  • midterms are past. ow. but i feel better this semester at this point than i did last semester, so that’s a plus.
  • the weather seems to have turned around. pretty soon, i’ll be kvetching about heat instead of cold.
  • who thought it was a good idea to have spring break end the day after the daylight savings change? really?
  • i like bats. got to watch several of them Saturday evening, waiting for the box office to open at Theater 99.
  • the 60th anniversary of the Commonwealth is next month. they’re looking for new members, too. wonder who i’d have to convince to let us in?
  • i’ve decided to ignore the economy. y’all should too. it’s depressing, and for no good reason.
  • Watchmen was o.k. not “the greatest movie ever” or even “the greatest comic movie ever,” but o.k. certainly better than i expected. *see note below.
  • i got a speeding ticket. and i didn’t even mean to be speeding. but the State Trooper was really cool, and the ticket isn’t too terribly expensive.
  • on that note, the Honda is still running. every day, i’m pleasantly surprised. let’s hope it continues.
  • the Bridge Run (and Wholly Cow ride) are both coming up soon-ish. hope you’ve registered.
  • and baseball is back.

happy spring, everybody.

quote of the day:

“The kind of man who wants the government to adopt and enforce his ideas is always the kind of man whose ideas are idiotic.” – H.L. Mencken

* just for those who are wondering, the greatest comic book movie ever is The Rocketeer.

this is a gorgeous car…

9 February 2009

and, had i four and a half million dollars lying around, i’d have been sorely tempted.


the 1937 Bugatti Type 57S “found” in a British garage late last December sold at Bonhams on Saturday for 3.4 million Euros.


i can only hope that the new owner elects to preserve the car, rather than restore it.

yet, for my money, the deal of the sale was this pretty little 1947 Citroen. it was used as a promotional vehicle for Miko ice cream during the 1958 Tour de France (won by Charly Gaul, the “Angel of the Mountains”).


the car sold for a mere €4,600 (a smidge under $6,000 US).

(all photos Bonhams)

quote of the day:

“Value is what you get.” – Warren Buffett

this year is the 50th anniversary of…

12 January 2009

a revolution. no, i’m not referring to that revolution. although it’s been 50 years since it as well.

the revolution i’m referring to is the Mini.


launched in August of 1959 as the Austin Seven and Morris Mini-Minor, project ADO15 was the first modern economy car. it was the first water-cooled, transverse-engine, front-wheel drive production car and it had unibody construction with a powertrain subframe assembly – both design elements that happen to dominate the modern automotive industry.

while a Mini is certainly somewhat spartan by today’s standards (power windows? climate control?), it’s still amazing how forward thinking Alec Issigonis and his team were. the Mk I Golf and Honda Civic of the 1970s are obvious direct descendants of the little wonder, as are the newest Toyota Prius and Ford Focus – even down to their two-box body designs.


fantastic, indeed.

quote of the day:

“If you build bloody good cars, they’ll sell themselves.” – Leonard Percy Lord, 1st Baron Lambury, KBE

you realize the auto industry doesn’t NEED a bailout, right?

19 November 2008

if the Gub’mint doesn’t give the big three billions of taxpayer dollars, they won’t go away. GM, Ford and Chrysler won’t suddenly cease to exist.

they might be bought by other auto companies or joint-venture firms and then restructured – but they won’t just disappear.

it is possible to make money building cars in the USA; just ask Honda, Toyota, Nissan, Mitsubishi, Subaru, Mazda, BMW and Mercedes. they build over a third of the cars made in the US each year.

and they’re not junk; compare the quality (actual and perceived) of just about any of these brands to that of the big three – and the “foreign” cars win almost every time.

maybe it would be a good thing if GM failed and was bought by Hyundai.

the big three build poorly designed, shoddily assembled vehicles from substandard materials. at a rather high cost. if the government wants to “save” the big three, this is what needs to be addressed – and not by handing them $25bn with an assurance that they’ll “do better.”

one of the first things that the government should do is bring US safety and emissions regulations in line with the rest of the world. Europe and India share the same emissions regulations, based at least in part on the Kyoto Agreement. the vast majority of the world (excepting the United States) follows the UN ECE regulations for safety.

but since the US charts its own course, it makes it difficult (or sometimes impossible) to import more efficient vehicles or export those that might be profitable in foreign markets.

bringing US regulations into agreement with the rest of the world would at the same time open new overseas markets for US manufacturers and foster healthy competition in the US domestic market.

the government (once again, assuming it should interfere) must also force concessions on the unions. some union wages are absurd; until the 2007 renegotiation with the UAW, US auto makers were forced to pay new hires $28 an hour. that’s $58,000 a year to bolt seats down. with no experience. some current UAW employees make over $80 an hour – $166,000 a year to assemble cars. which isn’t rocket surgery.

and they still do a piss-poor job of it. the vast majority of “American” cars are shoddily assembled when compared to their competition. the sinecure of these union jobs has lead to an understandable amount of laziness on the part of many workers.

i suspect the choice of inferior materials by many US manufacturers is partially attributable to the huge payroll costs – they have to cut somewhere to keep retail costs down.

don’t assume by all this that i’m anti-union, however. many of the things that we take for granted in the US (the five-day work week, the eight-hour work day, and the minimum wage) are due to the work of unions.

but something that unions in general (and the UAW in particular) seem to have forgotten is that the worker has a responsibility to his employer: employment is not a one-way street. the unions must work cooperatively so their employers can survive, rather than as parasites.

management isn’t blameless, however. the big three have been badly mismanaged for decades, constantly resisting upgrading plant infrastructure, modernizing vehicle designs and streamlining operations. they have instead gone for the quick buck – building SUVs with huge profit margins (that didn’t have to meet many emissions or safety standards, because of their classification as trucks). instead of concentrating on sustainable future powertrain technologies, they have been left behind by foreign competitors like Honda, Toyota and Volkswagen.

i don’t have a problem with management receiving huge paychecks – but compensation must be tied to performance. not the managers’ performance – the company’s. even if the management does everything right, if the company loses money they shouldn’t get a huge bonus. or any bonus, really – unless it’s something like stock or future-maturing stock options. incentive to turn things around, as it were.

so a bailout isn’t the way to go. let the big three “fail.” they won’t disappear; instead, they’ll come out leaner and stronger than before. the as-proposed bailout is simply reinforcing defeat, however many “conditions” it has.

quote of the day:

“The nine most terrifying words in the English language are, ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help.’ ” – Ronald Reagan