Mechatronics is a difficult term. It covers a lot of territory and is, as one comment mentions, almost meaningless because it is so broad. I think the term is mecha- due to the fact that every application is bounded by its mechanical design as a starting point. The -tronics is intended to capture the electronics element as either control or power, and sometimes both.
But mechatronics includes pneumatic and hydraulic systems, and basically anything that moves. And what moves Americans more than our cars? So I return to an earlier comment that the electric car is the Ultimate Mechatronic Challenge.
But it doesn’t have to be electric. Hydraulic systems have traditionally been the highest energy density for application of pure power. Anyone who has seen a back hoe in action realizes how well hydraulics work for high power. The EPA is partnering with Eaton and Peterbuilt to make a clean diesel-hydraulic hybrid that may end up as the fleet vehicle for UPS delivery. Double the mileage and drastically reduced emissions are just part of the package.
Even pneumatic cars have been built with some success. Check out Guy Negre’s MDI company in Luxembourg. Its a controversial solution, but the fact that the demo vehicle is built and running means they have reached a certain level of success. The 5 seater minivan runs 60 miles a day before air is needed, with a forecast selling price of $16,500.
The Th!nk electric is in test in Norway and the new model is expected sell for $30K with lithium batteries from A123 and 120 mile driving range. This would be a fabulous entry into the market if everything works as planned.
The latest effort by the X Prize Foundation is a $10M prize for the best car design that reaches 100mpg or equivalent. There are currently 60 companies with letters of intent to compete. This is where real innovation takes place.
So there are some interesting lessons to be considered;
The vehicle fleet in the US was evenly divided between electric, steam and fuel solution in the teens and twenties. This is because no single technology solution is the right answer for every situation. When Ford’s assembly line process brought the cost of the car down dramatically so that many people could afford it, Rockefeller made a deal to deliver low cost gasoline as the fuel. That’s part of how we got to where we are today. But the real point is we should have a lot of technology choices as consumers.
Mechatronics is never more challenging than when we look at the car as a portable system and try to figure out the best overall solution, balancing the power source, manufacturing cost and overall system efficiency.
Big companies rarely innovate. Ford and GM have lost major ground in the low emission race, putting America’s industry at risk. When you think of all the steel, glass and fabric that goes into a car, there is a lot more at stake that the assembly worker in Detroit.
Government continues to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on R&D that should be the responsibility of the private companies that stand to gain from these efforts. Given the track record of the last 30 years, its hard to argue that Government needs to be involved. I just hope our tax dollars are being spent wisely.
And lastly, the energy question which is a two-part; shouldn’t government’s regulatory role be to insure that oil and natural gas are readily available from domestic sources instead of finding every excuse why we can’t? And how many of our petro-dollars find their way to funding violent anti-American organizations?
Just some things to think about.