Thursday, November 4, 2010

Gas engines and buggy whips

I read this article today, Electric cars give Japan anxiety over fate of gas engines and I'm reminded of the stockholder meeting speech delivered by Danny DeVito's character Larry 'the Liquidator' Garfield in the movie Other People's Money when he said "I'll bet the last buggy whip maker made the best damned buggy whip you ever saw. How'd you like to own stock in that company?"

The point he was trying to make was that times change, and as they change, companies must change with them. Making buggy whips was big business when horses drew carriages. When the internal combustion engine became the heart of the horseless carriage, it was only a matter of time before the last horse-drawn cart would be left behind. The companies who accepted this reality and migrated their core competencies survived; those who held on to a dying paradigm died with it.

Which brings us to the gasoline engine, and the cloud of parts manufacturers surrounding it. Like the horse as a mode of transportation, and the ancillary components surrounding it such as buggy whips, it's all long in the tooth.

Sure, others would argue that the gasoline engine is "proven, known, at its highest efficiency levels ever" and they'd be right, technically speaking. Just like the product of the last buggy whip maker.

Now, I'm not suggesting that electric cars are the best future technology upon which to base the transportation economy. Right now, I much prefer the performance of diesel engines, especially running on biodiesel, especially given the infrastructure is already in place to fill up a tank without a massive socio-economic overhaul that appears destined to put off by Western governments for as long as possible. Have you driven a diesel engine lately? No need for private and public sector groups to sit around, scratching their heads playing the chicken-egg game of "we can't build the vehicles until there is charging infrastructure" vs "we can build the infrastructure until there is both sufficient demand a la increased market share and supply from the current patchwork grid we're still running with coal" (well, Ontario Power Generation generates approximately 5% of its output from five thermal stations, four of which burn coal. Note also that "thermal" is not to be confused with "geothermal", but I bet they wish we would, because it sounds a whole lot more technical and modern than "coal" does, doesn't it?)

However, if indeed EV is the best way to go and will eventually supplant the gasoline engine, then we might as well push towards this eventuality in earnest, and I believe governments should take a clear leadership position to move forward away from gasoline engines and create the economic environment in which private companies can start making plans and investment in future technologies.
I read somewhere about new materials that are much lighter yet equally strong for passenger safety - lighter vehicles would require less power to convey them, which would provide higher efficiency and demand less energy. All the R&D should not just be in "better batteries," but in all the various ways vehicles can be made more efficient.

As of today, there will likely not be many grand innovations that squeeze much more advanced mileage out of a gasoline engine. Hybrid technology is in vogue today, but that's still clinging to the gasoline engine. I'd like to see more diesel hybrids somewhere along the way to the end of the gasoline engine. Aerodynamics play a part; new materials that create less friction with air could/should also be part of the mix; tire compounds that may possibly reduced rolling resistance without compromising traction may or may not be possible; energy rescuing (like regenerative breaking or converting shock absorber motion into energy or the use of a turbo-like wind generator to convert air hitting the front fascia of a moving vehicle into electrical energy) is also a growing area of research and development.

Maybe hydrogen could emerge as the next standard. Germany is pushing for critical mass by 2015, a great real-world example not only of the necessity of government leadership, but of the potency of government to create an environment for progress that involves the public sector, private sector, utilities, media, education...the chicken-egg deadlock must be broken by leadership and decisions and society-wide cohesiveness and coordination are possible and required to make progress happen.

There are many ideas that are out there, but not being brought together in part because manufacturers (and parts makers, as the article is chiefly discussing) are all invested in (and perhaps blinded by) the components that work in a gasoline engine application.

Focusing these experienced, bright minds on future technology needs a boost. As the last line in the article says, this is "an opportunity" which should be seized upon.

The internal combustion engine (diesel first, then gasoline) is among the most significant inventions in human history, the crowning achievement of the Industrial Age - its mark on society is indelible, We get that. Like Stone Age, Bronze Age before it, we're straddling the new era of the Information Age. It's time to move on, because we know more than we did when dirty steam engines chugged out of train stations, black smoke billowing from their stacks from burning coal (notwithstanding the previous mention of coal-burning Ontario Power Generation), and one of the things we know is that there are ways to derive energy cleanly; current efficiency levels are limited, in my estimation, more by the relative lack of research going into figuring out better ways to do it, than by any inherent property of physics and chemistry.

So, if there's any "electric vehicle shock", it's being had by people who simply cannot get their heads around the notion that the times are changing; but changing times have been a part of "the times" since people first started talking about "the times." Change is not new; we are (since, chances are, no one reading this lived to have seen the Stone or Bronze or Iron Age, let alone be a party of the transition betwixt them), so it's up to us to decide to get with the program.

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