Back in 1783…

Andrew Dederer
by Andrew Dederer
back in 1783 8230

Back 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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2 of 30 comments
  • Martin Albright Martin Albright on Jul 01, 2008
    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.

  • David C. Holzman David C. Holzman on Jul 01, 2008
    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.

  • Analoggrotto Knew about it all along but only now did the risk analysis tilt against leaving it there.
  • Mike Beranek Funny story about the '80 T-bird. My old man's Dart Sport had given up the ghost so he was car-shopping. He & I dropped my mom at a store and then went to the Ford dealer, where we test-drove the new T-Bird (with digital dash!)So we pull up to the store to pick mom up. She walks out and dad says "We just bought it.". Mom stares at the Mulroney- almost 13 grand- and just about fell over.Dad had not in fact bought the T-Bird, instead he got a Cordoba for only 9 grand.
  • EngineerfromBaja_1990 I'd love a well preserved Mark VII LSC with the HO 5.0 for a weekend cruiser. Its design aged better than both the VI and VIII. Although I'd gladly take the latter as well (quad cam V8 and wrap around interior FTW)
  • Teddyc73 The Mark VIII was the first car I lusted over as a young new auto enthusiast. Still think it's a beauty after all these years.
  • Art Vandelay wish They’d do an SS version of the Bolt. We need more electric hot hatches and this is a clean enough design that it would look good