Stories tagged cars

Here's a long, but very inspirational, report on a 14-year-old Michigan girl who is rebuilding a Pontiac Fiero car all on her own. Her goal, to drive it on her 16th birthday.

Oct
11
2010

I don't know: I just assumed that a stupid car would have its tongue hanging out. Like my dog.
I don't know: I just assumed that a stupid car would have its tongue hanging out. Like my dog.Courtesy IFCAR
We talk about alternative fuels and energy use and transportation pretty often on Science Buzz, so when news about the Chevy's upcoming car, the "Volt," and it's 230 mpg efficiency, came out last year, I thought that was pretty neat. (Admittedly, I was also sarcastic about it's price, but whatevs.)

Well, car magazines are finally getting a look at the Volt, and they're finding that its mileage is way less than 230 mpg. Like way, way less. 30 - 40 mpg, maybe. Also, it doesn't work how they said it would. It's more like a plug in hybrid car than an electric car with a gas generator, and once its low-range battery runs down, it's not a very good hybrid. But I guess it's still an intermediate step to more efficient transportation*. Just kind of a disappointing one.

*Almost a third of the energy we use in this country goes to transportation, and the vast majority of that is from non-renewable sources, so improving efficiency in this sector is a big deal.

Sep
03
2010

I've been thinking about cars a lot lately as I reflect on sustainable technologies and wait for the Th!nk to be sold in America. Even though cars aren't the worst offender when it comes to global warming, their impact is significant and I itch for the kinds of innovation that will reinvent the way we live again. So I hope you enjoy coming along on this little thought journey.

The Doble: A rad steam car that could have made steam the power of choice.
The Doble: A rad steam car that could have made steam the power of choice.Courtesy Norbert Schnitzler

I wasn't much interested in cars (beyond them getting me to work) until I had to research the history of automobiles for an exhibit. What got my attention was the process of innovation. In the late 1800s, there were three major technologies vying for supremacy: steam, electricity, and internal combustion.

The Detroit Electric: Seeing this ad and reading about new EVs makes me feel like I'm in a time warp.
The Detroit Electric: Seeing this ad and reading about new EVs makes me feel like I'm in a time warp.Courtesy Detroit Electric

At first, steam did best because it provided a lot of power. But steam cars took a long time to start and had to be refilled often. Ladies tended to prefer electric cars like the Detroit Electric because they were clean and silent, though they didn't go very fast, very far, or have a lot of torque. Going uphill was a pain. Early internal combustion cars were dirty and smelly, and starting one could really mess up your arm if it kicked back.

Hundreds of upstart companies created models using these three technologies with a variety of designs. Innovation was rampant. Nobody knew what a car looked like because it didn't exist before. Early cars mimicked buggies until it became clear that lowering the body on the wheels was more stable. All different kinds of designs were tried out, and companies came and went in the blink of an eye.

At first, there wasn't even a standard steering mechanism--some early cars used a tiller rather than a wheel. People could even buy engines and build their own cars at home. Over time, strong designs supported stable companies that stayed in business as others failed. It was a time of fast-paced innovation in America and other nations, and that was so exciting to think about as I researched. It sparked my imagination about our future.

The Model T: This car was available to the masses and was sold all over the world.
The Model T: This car was available to the masses and was sold all over the world.Courtesy Utah State Historical Society

I also felt a little nostalgic--steam and electric still have their advantages over internal combustion (IC). The reason IC engines became the dominant technology is that Henry Ford began mass-producing the Model T on a motorized assembly line in 1913. Although it wasn't the first mass-produced car in the US as is commonly believed (the 1901 Curved Dash Oldsmobile holds that title), the IC-driven Model T was affordable and you could buy most of the replacement parts at a hardware store.

Then in 1919, the Model T acquired one other asset--the electric starter. The starter took the danger out of starting IC engines, thereby removing one of the major setbacks of gasoline. These advantages helped cement internal combustion as the leading automotive technology, as well as establishing the success of the steering wheel.

But my nostalgia makes me wonder--what if the electric starter hadn't come around? What if Ford had made electric or steam vehicles? What if battery storage had made better progress? What would we be driving today? I think we could easily have built our transportation infrastructure to support any of those technologies.

The Citicar: I dig this little car.
The Citicar: I dig this little car.Courtesy Austinev.org

When the electric Citicar was built in the 1970s in response to the oil crisis, the company essentially started where electric cars left off in the 1920s. Part of what is taking electrics so long to catch on now is that we're having to re-invent the wheel so to speak. But I don't think that means we should lose heart. If we had spent the last 90 years working on electric vehicles, electric cars might well be running circles around internal combustion engines.

The same could be said for steam. In fact, a little known car called the Doble started nearly as quickly and easily as an IC car and could go farther before refilling, but in addition to bad management in the company, IC had already taken a strong lead by the time Dobles appeared on the market.

Far from being disappointing, my nostalgia makes me hopeful that we can return to that state of openness and innovation--that we can build on electric and other technologies to develop not just a replacement for internal combustion, but something better. When I sit with my grandchildren someday, I want to tell them the amazing story of how we avoided a crisis not by sacrifice but by being so gosh darn creative. I want to see something so cool that it makes gasoline a quaint throwback to an earlier era. And I want to see it happen for agriculture, power plants, and the economy, too.

What do you think? Is it too tall an order? Or can we invent our way to a better world? Got any ideas for how to do it?

Mar
14
2010

Are sticky floor mats to blame?: Not likely.
Are sticky floor mats to blame?: Not likely.Courtesy Ian Hampton

There's been a lot of news lately about "unintended acceleration" -- cars suddenly gaining high speed and drivers unable to stop them. Some observers question whether the problem lies with the car or with the driver. But whatever the cause, unintended acceleration is a deadly danger to the driving public.

Or is it?

Popular Mechanics crunched the numbers. They found unintended acceleration causes 3.2 deaths per year. This compares to:

  • 1,550 deaths caused by drivers falling asleep at the wheel
  • 6,000 deaths from distracted driving -- texting, cell phone use, etc.
  • 7,400 traffic deaths attributable to bad weather
  • about 11,800 deaths every year due to drunken driving

If you find your car accelerating, slam on the brakes, throw it into neutral, and steer to the side of the road. But don't waste time worrying about it. Instead, you should spend your effort avoiding bad weather, distractions, and above all not driving under the influence.

Aug
11
2009

This jump is brought to you by: Joy.
This jump is brought to you by: Joy.Courtesy tbonzzz_6
Get your bells out, everybody, and ring them! The Chevy Volt is here! (In a year.)

GM released new details today about its new gas and electric hybrid car, the Chevy Volt. Using a plug-in battery (as opposed to current, unmodified hybrid cars, which recharge only via the gas engine), GM claims that the Volt should be able to achieve approximately 320 miles to the gallon during city driving. Estimates haven’t been completed for combined city and highway driving, by officials are confident that fuel economy will remain in the triple digits.

The car should have a range of about 40 miles, using its battery alone, at which point the gas engine would kick in. Nearly 80% of Americans, however, commute less than 40 miles each day, so most of the expended energy could come from the electrical grid (the car will plug into a standard outlet), instead of from gasoline.

GM’s chief executive calls the Volt a “game changer.”

Finally, a game-changing American car. Not like those sissy Prius drivers, making smug environmental statements by purchasing impractically expensive vehicles. Sure, the Volt will be entering the game about 9 years late, but it does so with the confidence that every environmentally conscious working-class American with $40,000 to drop on a sweet new car will… wait, what?

What about the rest of GM’s 2010 lineup? They’re cutting more than half of their 30+ mpg cars? But a few Volts on the road should bring that fleet average up, right?

And GM is pushing for environmental responsibility in other areas, at least, right? Oh, they’re pulling out of a partnership that collects toxic mercury from their old scrapped cars?

Well, it was a nice thought. And it’s comforting to hear someone say something like “game changer” now and again.

Update:
Weeellllll... it looks like the volt may be kind of an unremarkable car after all. Despite their claims last year that it would get something like 230 miles to the gallon, auto trade magazines are test driving it now, and saying it actually gets mileage in the 30 - 40 mpg range. That's less than a Prius. But don't worry, it's still super expensive. Huh. I mean, I couldn't design a "game-changing" car, but, then again, I never said I would. It turns out, too, that even though GM insisted that it wasn't really a hybrid car, and that the gasoline powered engine would only drive a generator for the battery... that's all not true. The gas engine does charge the battery, but it also will drive the wheels. Prove me wrong, Chevy (or commenters), but is this actually a crappy idea, and not a significant step towards changing our energy use?

May
06
2009

Green machine: This race car is made from sustainable materials and burn a biodiesel fuel composed of waste material used in making chocolate.
Green machine: This race car is made from sustainable materials and burn a biodiesel fuel composed of waste material used in making chocolate.Courtesy Yahoo UK
Powered by the byproducts created in making chocolate and constructed out of materials created from vegetables, this is no ordinary race car.

In fact, the WorldFirst Formula 3 race car unveiled this week in Great Britain bills itself at the world’s first sustainable race car. The car, which is being prepped for racing in the Formula 3 series, is opening eyes on may levels.

Initial tests had the car going at 60 miles per hour. With a few more tweaks, designers estimate that it should go at around at a competitive 145 miles per hour.

Powering that speed is a special turbo-diesel engine that runs on bio-diesel fuel. The current fuel formulation uses waste products leftover from making chocolate.

Other “green” components of the car include a steering wheel made from a polymer created out of carrots, wing mirrors constructed from a potato starch base and brake pads that have cashew nut shells as a component. The car’s seat includes materials created out of flax fiber and soy bean oil.

Want to learn more? Here are links to two different stories on the WorldFirst Formula 3 car.

With the Indy 500 coming up, this new eco-friendly car could prove to be a boost to drivers in that marathon race. If they get hungry during the race, they could just take a bite of the steering wheel or driver’s seat.

Maybe I've been watching "Speeders" too much on TruTV, but this item in the new caught my eye. A group of volunteer engineers are converting a jet plane into a car, if you can call it that, to try to smash the land speed record. A similar group of professionals are attempting the same thing in the U.K. Click this link to learn more, including photos and video.

Mar
24
2009

Tata Nano: solution or pollution?

Just like Ford's Model-T, Tata motor's Nano will make owning an automobile possible for several hundred million families. Use this link to Wired Magazine to learn more about India's 50-MPG Tata Nano.

Test driving the Tata Nano

Huge demand the $2000 Tata Nano

Demand for the Tata Nano is so high the company is using a lottery system to select the first 100,000 lucky owners.

At the moment, the Nano will be offered only overseas, but the company insists a version could be headed to North America in three years. Wired

Will the Tata Nano lead to $5 gas?

If hundreds of millions of poor families can now afford to drive a car, won't that demand raise the price of gas? Millions of new automobile users will surely emit additional carbon dioxide into the world's atmosphere.

The Nano supposedly emits 30 grams of carbon dioxide per kilometer, well below the 160 g/km average of Europe's cars and far less than the 130 g/km standard the European Union will adopt in 2012. Wired (click link to learn more)

What impact will the Nano car have?

Nano - the wonder car: Available March 23, 2009
Nano - the wonder car: Available March 23, 2009Courtesy SanDev

Tata's Nano car on sale

The ultra cheap ($2050) Nano car hits the market in India tomorrow. It is 10.2 feet (3.1 meters) long, has one windshield wiper, a 623cc rear engine, and a diminutive trunk. Newsvine

Jan
16
2009

Cold: Cold and snowy.
Cold: Cold and snowy.Courtesy jpmatth
JK! It’s science, of course.

Usually science loves us, and we love science, but when the temperature drops (or, here in Minnesota, when the temperature drops and drops and drops) science starts to hate us just a little bit.

How do I know this? Because, like so many other lost and lonely souls, when I went out to start my car this morning… it did nothing. And I think I heard it mutter an awful, awful word at me from one of the dash vents.

So what gives, science? Yes, I understand that I would die if I were left out all night in -30 degree weather, but my car is a robot, and robots can’t even comprehend the weaknesses of humans, much less experience them. Why did my car die?

The car died, of course, because the battery died, and the engine couldn’t be started.

Why do batteries die in the cold?

It boils down to my old acquaintance, Chemistry. (I’m Science now. Pretend I’m Science.) Batteries can work in the first place thanks to a chemical reaction taking place between the positive and negative terminals. In a car battery, the terminals (to which you clamp jumper cables) are made of lead and lead dioxide (which is a lead atom with two oxygen atoms). Between the terminals is sulfuric acid (which is a sulfur atom with four oxygen atoms and two hydrogen atoms). The lead terminal wants to react with the sulfuric acid, and so it does—it kicks the hydrogen atoms off the sulfuric acid, and combines with what’s left to create lead sulfate (which is a lead atom a sulfur atom, and those four oxygen atoms). When the hydrogen is kicked out of the sulfuric acid, an electron is also released. On the lead dioxide side, hydrogen is getting kicked off the acid, and oxygen is getting kicked off the lead dioxide. Lead sulfate is formed again, and, with the help of the free electron from the lead terminal side, that spare oxygen and hydrogen combines to form water (which we all know is two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom).

All of this is only going to happen, however, if there’s a wire connecting the lead dioxide and lead plates outside the battery, so electrons can flow from the negative (lead dioxide) terminal to the positive (lead) terminal. If there’s something in the middle of that wire, like the starter for an engine, those electrons can do some work.

Unfortunately, this chemical reaction also depends on temperature. The colder it is, the less willing all these molecules will be to mess around with each other, and fewer electrons will be tossed around. If it’s really cold, there may not be enough of a reaction to start your car. Also, because the reaction produces water, there’s a chance that the water could freeze if it gets cold enough, cracking the battery case altogether. Then you’re really up Brown Creek.

If you’re battery is just low, and the cold has made it weaker, you might try jump-starting it (remember, positive terminal to positive terminal, negative terminal on the live car to a metal spot on the dead car). With the help of a fresh battery, your weak battery could build up enough charge to start your engine, which would warm the battery and start to recharge it. If your battery is frozen, however, don’t try to jump it—it could explode. Now, an explosion would be kind of awesome, but flying battery acid is scary, and it doesn’t matter if it’s science’s fault or not if your face gets burned off.

So that’s why our cars didn’t start this morning. Feel better? No? Me neither.