By on June 28, 2008

montgolfier2.jpgBack in 1783, Paris was all abuzz with the exploits of the Montgolfier brothers’ balloons. Using a simple bag and a lot of hot air, men (and sheep) were able to fly (or at least float). One of the observers was none other than Ben Franklin, who was fascinated by the display. An onlooker was less impressed “What use is it?” America’s founding dirty-old-man smiled and replied, “Of what use is a newborn baby?"

To get your head around some of the fancier experiments going on in auto-land you have to keep in mind that what we’re seeing now is the proof of concept. Practical applications may be a long way off, and require extensive infrastructure creation or modification. The important thing is not to confuse technological issues with infrastructure challenges.  

History shows that if the technology catches on, the framework will catch up (and quickly). I remember getting excited when I upgraded to a 1200 baud modem. I thought I was on the cutting edge. Broadband was less than a decade away. On the auto front, Henry Ford started selling Model Ts when the USA had less than 100 miles of paved roads. In short, pay very little attention to grousing about lack of stations to re-fill/charge prototypes. If they take off, the infrastructure will be there in less than a model cycle.    

For example, Honda's hydrogen fuel-cell Clarity is being rolled-out in what is essentially a beta-test. There is no way to judge real-world sales success from a handful of 20K ($600 x 36) leases. There are hardly enough filling stations to support the test. But Honda wants some basic real-world information about how the car handles in real-world traffic (and attendant publicity of course). We won’t really know whether the whole hydrogen fuel-cell thing is the tip of the iceberg– or the next turbine car– for at least five years.

Slagging the Clarity for being a power-shuffler is legit, if a bit obvious. Energy has to come from somewhere, even for electric cars. Fuel cells and hydrogen cars need some means to produce their fuel (natural gas or electricity being the most likely sources). Electrics (and plug-in hybrids) need to connect to a grid somehow. There is no such thing as a free lunch.  

While complaining that “green” vehicles use power is slightly disingenuous, bitching about the availability (or lack thereof) of green power sources to motivate them is significantly less so. It's a legitimate beef that should be part of any up-front discussion of alt powered vehicles. Expanding the electric grid to handle fuel cell or EV-powered cars won’t be cheap or easy, but it's doable. Finding enough cropland to “grow our own” gasoline may not be.    

When digging through all the auto-related “greenery” it's best to try to figure out what axe each commentator has to grind. Old-school gas-burner types seem to favor the infrastructure argument (being short-sighted goes with the territory). Occasionally they shift into the “battery disposal” mode. The “greens” are much worse, quite enough to make Eyore seem cheerful. Their problem is that there is no getting around the fact that doing work requires power, which requires energy, and that is always going to be less than perfectly efficient (if they can even bring themselves to admit we need to move things and people).  

All “green” systems have trade-offs. Hybrids don’t take gasoline completely out of the equation, but remove fairly little in "end user" capabilities. Electrics pretty much eliminate pollution at the sharp end (and one power-plant scrubber is much cheaper than 100,000 catalytic converters), and offer massive torque. But have significant range and weight issues. Hydrogen can be used in a standard ICE engine or to run an electric motor via fuel cells.

In either case, end use pollution is virtually gone. The biggest obstacle is cost both from making the fuel and the power source. The other issue with fuel cells versus batteries: the cells can go farther, but are not as energy efficient as batteries. Cells take more energy to store the same power, but use less space and weight. That’s the reason we went to the moon on fuel cells, not batteries.    

The one absolutely game-changing effect most of this distant tech promises is fully electrical drive. Forget about the environment for a moment. Imagine getting rid of gears and gaining maximum torque from a standstill. Still not convinced? How about individual motors in each wheel? If you can’t do some seriously crazy things with that, you aren’t trying. Of course, most of the really fun stuff is a good ways away, but it will happen.

We are living in an interesting era. Right now, there are multiple alternatively-powered cars nearing practicality. Some will succeed. But if you’re trying to pick the “winners,” look for problems of production, not logistics. If they need it, it will be built.   

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30 Comments on “Back in 1783…...”


  • avatar
    ZoomZoom

    Yeah, we need to change our paradigm of measuring energy usage. Miles Per Gallon doesn’t tell us enough of the whole story if your vehicle has multiple end-inputs.

    In fact, MPG is already innacurate, what with Ethanol mixes and the associated decreas in available BTUs. Plugins will make this even less meaningful.

    What good is 100 MPG (as a way of measuring energy usage) when you have to plug in at night and consume more kwh’s and/or pay more on your power bill every month?

    We need a consistent, easily understandable, easily comparable method for measuring energy consumption, regardless of the energy source.

  • avatar
    LoserBoy

    In either case, end use pollution is virtually gone.

    Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. There are a lot of gas-burners on the planet right now, and they won’t all vanish overnight.

  • avatar
    ttacgreg

    Fuel cell hydrogen powered car is one half of the equation. Now, the other half is generating that hydrogen with renewable, preferably solar power. Sustainable motoring is entirely possible.

  • avatar
    eh_political

    Excellent article! Puts the mish mash of conflicting ideas into perspective. One caveat, like VHS vs Betamax, a less effective technology could win out with deep enough pockets and influence. Corn to ethanol would be a more relevant example, perhaps.

  • avatar
    Captain Tungsten

    That’s a nice article, Andrew. I’ts interesting in these debates how little cost is discussed. We are much more effectively motivated by how much we have to pay for something, than by it’s political ramifications.

  • avatar
    Geotpf

    Well, you can buy a hybrid right now, from any standard dealer, and you don’t have to be a movie star to do so (Honda is leasing the Claritys to VIPs only, including some actors). Plus, it uses standard gasoline. Of course, you might have to wait a month or three, but that’s a temporary thing (and there were no waiting lists on Priuses as recently as April).

    The step from a regular hybrid to a plug-in hybrid is minimal-all you do is add a standard electrical cord. And, if you don’t happen to have a place to plug it in (like many apartment dwellers), a plug-in hybrid acts exactly like a regular hybrid (the plug-in part is completely optional).

    I don’t see hydrogen is part of the solution. I see hybrids of all sorts being the solution. As they advance, they will use more electricity and less gasoline, over time. The Volt is a good example of a mainstream, production level hybrid-in 2015 or 2020 or so. However, in 2010, it will either have to either be vastly overpriced and therefore won’t sell, or GM will have to lose tens of thousands of dollars on each one they sell. And GM can’t really afford loss leaders at this point. Toyota can, however, so if the Volt shows promise, they can bring out their own version of a similiar idea at any time and undercut GM on pricing. That is, if they want GM to go bankrupt-which they don’t, since they still can’t fully capitalize on such.

    Toyota could have driven any or all of the Detroit 3 to bankruptcy years ago, and certainly could do so now. They don’t want to, because they are worried about the political fallout, plus they still don’t have the capacity to fully exploit the hole in the market if one or all of the Detroit 3 disappear (although they are more able to do so in 2008 than in 2007, since their sales are down and they still have several more plants coming on line soon).

    Toyota’s plan is for the Detroit 3 to shrink so slowly that nobody actually notices, but by the time they are gone nobody actually cares. So far it’s been working, although the recent oil shock has sped up the process (although in a way that looks good for Toyota, in that the Detroit 3 look very stupid for not investing in cars in general and small cars in particular, while Toyota (and Honda and Hyundai and…) have).

  • avatar
    mfgreen40

    Thanks, Andy

    Well writen realistic article concerning future transporation.

  • avatar
    Phil Ressler

    The one absolutely game-changing effect most of this distant tech promises is fully electrical drive.

    Absolutely, and this is why we have to see the Volt as a virtue rather than a liability, even if it takes an extra year or two. GM has been imaginative about electric drive platforms that re-imagine the automobile, from actual production of the EV1, to the AUTOnomy and Hy-Wire concepts built on a “skateboard” electric chassis, to the plug-in-serial-hybrid-in-development Volt. They’ve been poor at running these projects on a common rail of evolution, however, wasting some time and engineering efficiency. But Volt, being a serial hybrid in which the IC engine powering the on-board electric generator can have multiple fuel options is a bridge to a more fully realized electric drive car once the platform is mature. The Prius/Volt debate about comparative mpg in 2011 is a hand-wringing distraction from the true value of the all-electric drive evolution vector that serial hybrid architecture enables. The parallel hybrid by contrast is backward-looking.

    We have plenty of hydrocarbons remaining in the planet for extraction and use as fuel, but there will be benefits even to extending the multi-century supply of American shale oil by using less of that and more solar and clean coal for generating power to be stored in batteries, whether chemical or elemental, e.g. hydrogen. Scaled solar power generation is just over the horizon, and clean coal + fixed location power generation allows centralized emissions controls and carbon sequestering (for those who actually worry about climate change as an anthropogenic proposition).

    I agree lack of existing infrastructure for new technologies should not be an argument against their adoption. If the advantage of a new fuel lacking current distribution is sufficiently strong, resources will flow to relieving the obstacle to adoption. But in your example of broadband being less than a decade distant from your upgrade to a 1200 baud modem, that over-the-horizon bandwidth still arrived over copper, for most. Now we’re beginning to pull it out of thin air. When Ford introduced the T in an era lacking paved roads, there were nevertheless roads and trails, and Model Ts could use many of them when weather allowed. The on-ramp to a reduced-oil future will likely be paved by the technology that depends on incremental rather than wholesale change. We’ll see about hydrogen. But for now, it looks like leveraging the electric power grid + the liquid fuel distribution system we have will lubricate the transition to what’s next.

    One way to give electric cars more practical range would be for automakers to standardize the packaging of battery packs so “fuel stations” could simply exchange charged pack(s) for depleted ones, which they would rapid charge for another customer.

    Phil

  • avatar
    Autobraz

    “We need a consistent, easily understandable, easily comparable method for measuring energy consumption, regardless of the energy source.”

    Zoom Zoom, you gave one possible answer yourself: kWh – Just say that car X uses Y kWh/km

    I’d rather we used J(Joules)/km (you probably already noticed I am S.I. biased).

  • avatar
    jurisb

    Actually there is no need for hydrogen or electric vehicles unless we consider environmental issues. But do you realize how many car exhausts you need just to counterweight one primitive coal burning US powerstation?What is the use of CO2 quotas if US and China deny them.This year in the whole human history Arctic will be free of ice by september . But profits make the world go round, not value of life.Actually there is astounding reserve of oil worldwide, Iraq has reserve for 140 years kuwait for 90 years. Check out The Economist last issue.Canadian tar sand composite stands far beyond trillion barrels, more than all arab countries combined. The prices are inflated because of greed which is sustained by no substitute commodity for vehicle gas .We can`t do much about it, just stand up and refuse to buy fuel. And while they are rich and they have Vertu phones and De Beers diamonds and Bentley Azures , looking at those cash thirsty tycoons closer , you will see poor souls, owerweight and sweaty pigs , bald and lonely, with none to share that 10k champagne bottle with, with clock ticking their tiny lives away in a faked substance and meaningness of guilded WCs and lobtsered swedish tables.

  • avatar
    menno

    How about Kilometers per Joule?

    Figures could be: overall average, city and highway (just as the EPA figures are now).

    For gasoline and diesel fuelled vehicles, both MPG and Km/J would be listed.

    Here’s the definition: ” The joule (pronounced DJOOL) is the standard unit of energy in electronics and general scientific applications. One joule is defined as the amount of energy exerted when a force of one newton is applied over a displacement of one meter. One joule is the equivalent of one watt of power radiated or dissipated for one second.
    In some applications, the British thermal unit (Btu) is used to express energy. One Btu is equivalent to approximately 1055 joules. ”

    The problem with BTU’s is that there are 3 definitions – one Canadian, the other British (I presume) and a third, ISO.

  • avatar
    FRE

    At the present time, it looks as though electric cars are the most likely way to go. Probably we already have enough electrical power available to recharge them since they could be recharged at night when the amount of power avaialble exceeds usage.

    The range problems may be solved by advanced battery technology. If not, the solution may be plug-in hybrids with which most driving would be done without the engine, and the engine would be used only to extend the range.

    Making predictions is risky. There may be solutions which have not yet been considered.

  • avatar
    Paul Niedermeyer

    So, what use are hot air balloons?

  • avatar
    Autobraz

    @menmo:
    it depends. do you want to know how many km 1 joule gives you or how many joules you spend to drive 1 km? ;)

    It is one of the strange things about Brazil (among many): we measure fuel use in km/l instead of the global standard (as far as I know) of MPG or l/km. That’s where my answer came from.

  • avatar
    Tavert

    A story I like to tell that illuminates the differing approaches that have been taken to fuel cell research compared to pure-electric battery technology is that of the solar-powered UAV. You may have heard of the Pathfinder/Helios program by NASA and Aerovironment (the company that developed the EV1 for GM), they spent probably millions of dollars on R&D and achieved quite a few program milestones, like near-100,000-foot sustained flight. In development was a closed-cycle hydrogen/oxygen fuel cell system that would use excess solar electricity during the day to store up enough chemical energy to continue flying on fuel cells overnight. I don’t think they ever achieved continuous overnight flight before the prototype crashed.

    The other side of the story is the battery electric solar UAV. AC Propulsion, the company that developed much of the underlying technology Tesla licensed for their Roadster, developed a relatively small solar UAV called SoLong. It was much much smaller, lower-altitude, and lighter-weight than the Helios/Pathfinder, but on a much smaller budget they achieved 48-hour uninterrupted flight in 2005. No complicated expensive fuel cells or closed-cycle hydrogen storage system, just off-the-shelf lithium ion batteries, off-the-shelf solar cells, and an efficient little induction motor. And the damn thing worked.

  • avatar
    Samir

    The Hot Air Balloon is indeed a curiosity today, Paul, but I still think the premise of the article holds.

    The first muskets couldn’t fire reliably and needed significant time between re-loads, so much so that bows were still a weapon of war long after guns were invented. Today, who uses bows other than biathlon competitors?

  • avatar
    fisher72

    I would really just like tolerable train service between most medium/large cities in the US. Not asking for a moon shot 1st rate systems like in France or Japan. More a 3rd rate system like Italy, Bulgaria, Argentina or similar. Is this too much to ask?

  • avatar
    folkdancer

    Thank you Mr. Dederer. Wonderful editorial. Lets have fun understanding all the experiments and see what works.

  • avatar
    Paul Niedermeyer

    Samir: The Hot Air Balloon is indeed a curiosity today, Paul, but I still think the premise of the article holds.

    I agree.

  • avatar
    ZoomZoom

    Samir :

    Today, who uses bows other than biathlon competitors?

    Hunters and survivalists. And some native people in third world countries, as well as (probably) some militias, too.

  • avatar
    ZoomZoom

    LoserBoy :

    In either case, end use pollution is virtually gone.

    Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. There are a lot of gas-burners on the planet right now, and they won’t all vanish overnight.

    I’m still convinced that we’ll run out of oil long before we could possibly pollute the planet to an unlivable level, but that’s a conversation for another day.

    However, if pollution MUST be part of the consideration, then we should consider the pollution (and probably the oil needed) on the manufacturing side of the equation. How much pollution must the factory release on behalf of a Tundra? Or a Prius? Or a Fit? Or an Explorer? And how many barrels of oil are needed to make one of those?

  • avatar
    bluecon

    And then after a 140 more years a couple genius bike mechanics figured out controlable powered flight and something useful was born.(note: at the same time the US government spent a whole lot of money to crash their plane in the lake)

    There is nothing wrong with burning oil and there is lots of it in the world. Drill for the oil and build a few nuclear plants and the energy problem is solved. The government runs the energy program similar to that plane they paid for that dove in the lake.

  • avatar
    ZoomZoom

    bluecon :

    There is nothing wrong with burning oil and there is lots of it in the world. Drill for the oil and build a few nuclear plants and the energy problem is solved.

    I agree, there’s nothing wrong with burning it. I believe that is exactly what it’s there for. And yes, government is incompetent at just about everything it does. It’s amazing that we keep giving government even MORE to do!

    However, I didn’t read “infinite,” so let’s define “lots.” What is “lots”, in the context of how much the world uses (aout 85-90 million barrels a day), and more importantly, how long will it last given today’s usage, and expected increased demand from China, India, Russia, and the rest of the world?

  • avatar
    geeber

    Andrew Dederer: On the auto front, Henry Ford started selling Model Ts when the USA had less than 100 miles of paved roads.

    In all fairness, a big reason for the Model T’s success was that it didn’t need paved roads. Henry Ford I designed the car to be operated on the rutted farm paths that passed for roads in rural areas at that time. So that may not be a good example…

  • avatar
    Martin Albright

    The bugaboo with energy has always been how to store it until it’s needed. That’s the beauty of coal, oil and nuclear. We can use the energy when and where we need it. Batteries are notoriously inefficient ways to store energy and probably will be for the forseeable future.

    Hydrogen fuel cells offer a way to store energy until it can be used and that is their advantage. Furthermore, since it only requires electricity and water hydrogen can be made, in theory, any place where those two things exist. Which means that hydrogen plants can be put near sources of coal or geothermal or other types of power, the power is then used to make an energy source that will store the energy until it’s needed.

    The other advantage is “displacement.” Which is a nice way of saying you can put the polluting electrical plants out in the boonies where there aren’t many people and keep it out of the big cities. We already do this with electrical power, there’s no reason we couldn’t do it with hydrogen plants if the technology shows itself to be viable. And as for whether the folks out there in the boonies would put up with it, like I said, they already do: In fact, they often fall all over themselves to get big power plants because it means big money for an otherwise moribund economy.

    And in the great scheme of things, the pollution isn’t that bad. After all, a coal-power plant in the middle of a million-plus population city adds pollution on top of pollution. A coal power plant in the middle of Wyoming or Colorado doesn’t pollute any more than a decent sized forest fire.

    Electricity is a great idea but until the whole country is wired with some kind of a mobile electricity grid it’s not practical for vehicles, since electricity that is produced has to be used within a few seconds of being produced or else it’s wasted.

  • avatar
    skor

    Yes, Ben Franklin was a dirty old man. Vice President Aaron Burr shot and killed Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton in Weehawken, NJ because “Hamilton expressed “a still more despicable opinion” of the vice president at an upstate New York dinner party.”

    This country was founded by a bunch of drunken, disagreeable, Indian-shooting, slave-holding, women molesting, motherf*****s. They carved the greatest country the world had ever seen out of a wilderness.

    Today American girlie-boys burst into tears because the price of a gallon of gas goes up another quarter. Aaron Burr would have been so disgusted, he’d have shot the entire lot of you.

  • avatar

    While complaining that “green” vehicles use power is slightly disingenuous, bitching about the availability (or lack thereof) of green power sources to motivate them is significantly less so. It’s a legitimate beef that should be part of any up-front discussion of alt powered vehicles.

    No. I disagree. Your whole premise is that technology will bring us some interesting and innovative cars in the next wahtever years. Having written a moderate amount about green electricity, and knowing how quickly wind is being added to the world’s grids, and how quickly PV costs are going down, I think that stuff is less far out than either fuel cell cars or a battery that will give us the kind of versatility that 98.5% of TTAC readers want in their cars.

  • avatar

    NUCLEAR POWER

    problem solved

    (just not in my back yard)

  • avatar
    Martin Albright

    Yes, Ben Franklin was a dirty old man. Vice President Aaron Burr shot and killed Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton in Weehawken, NJ because “Hamilton expressed “a still more despicable opinion” of the vice president at an upstate New York dinner party.”

    This country was founded by a bunch of drunken, disagreeable, Indian-shooting, slave-holding, women molesting, motherf*****s. They carved the greatest country the world had ever seen out of a wilderness.

    Today American girlie-boys burst into tears because the price of a gallon of gas goes up another quarter. Aaron Burr would have been so disgusted, he’d have shot the entire lot of you.

    BEST. COMMENT. EVER.

  • avatar

    The bugaboo with energy has always been how to store it until it’s needed. That’s the beauty of coal, oil and nuclear. We can use the energy when and where we need it.

    Nuclear can only be used to produce electricity. You have to either produce the electricity to precisely match demand, or else have a way of storing it. For practical purposes that is also true of coal in the developed world.


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