A national talk-show host I listen to comments “I would rather have clarity than agreement”. I think that is a great platform for discussion. And I approach the blog with the same goal. This posting is an attempt to clarify my previous entry.
I got into the big debate on automobile technology in the 1980’s. It started with a duty cycle chart of engine horsepower and led me to join Unique Mobility in the late 80’s to try and help bring hybrid technology to the California low emission initiative. We were not successful. Primarily because none of the Big 3 automotive companies would agree to supply a vehicle platform for the drivetrain we developed. We did succeed in building a drivetrain for BMW’s EV-1 and EV-2 which were very successful steps along the way.
But the point of my earlier blog was simply to comment on “automobile technology” as the greatest mechatronic challenge of all. You can start with a simple F=ma approach and deal with how much mechanical power must be produced to move the vehicle, which the Big 3 have been messing around with for years. We have cars made out of plastic to reduce vehicle weight (the “m”) in an effort to get lower power solutions which mean more miles per gallon, you know the rest.
We have messed around with engine RPM producing higher speed engines with smaller displacements to get comparable horsepower with better miles per gallon. Various fuel injection schemes to stretch our gasoline dollar, fuel additives, etc. But while I am not an expert on emerging fuel technologies, it doesn’t seem to have gotten us very far. The national fleet average mileage hovers at 20mpg and hasn’t really changed in decades.
My point in mentioning the pneumatic and hydraulic approaches to solving the automobile “crisis” was not to advocate any of the proposed solutions, but simply to observe that there is more than one way to solve the problem. And in fact, that the US fleet of vehicle was historically evenly divided between steam, gasoline and electric. These are facts, not opinions. What is important to the topic of mechatronics is the diversity of solutions being proposed.
If you want to get into the “efficiency” discussion, you have to look at total system efficiency, and at component efficiency at the same time. The energy density of hydrogen is terrible, so you have to compare all the fuel candidates and their respective storage and conversion systems. Methanol reformers might be perfect for buses. Energy density of battery technologies is another huge area. Lead acid is simply too heavy, and in large part led to the demise of the GM EV-1 of the late 80’s. But that is not the point of this discussion.
What should be important to you and me as citizens is that the DOE has spent billions of dollars on “automobile technology” and the only low emission vehicles for sale in the US are made by Japanese manufacturers. Government bureaucracy has taken over large areas of engineering, and possibly because there is no criteria for performance, very little benefit is generated for the consumer/citizen. I have worked for companies that were DOE subcontractors and interviewed with NREL as a vehicle program manager, so its something I am a little familiar with.
The X Prize Foundation’s automotive competition puts this into focus. There are 60 companies, most of them American, who have filed letters of intent to submit working vehicle entries for the 100MPG equivalent goal of the program. The total program awards will be $10M, not the billions spend by the DOE, and none of the entries are from GM, Ford or Chrysler.
I will bet on good old American ingenuity in spite of the odds against them, and I hope I will be in a position to buy one of the products created by these gutsy, dare I say heroic, competitors in the near future.