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On Being American, Or, “A Hybrid? Not Unless It Has Tail Fins” May 22, 2009

It’s great to see that people are starting to think about hybrid vehicles, but so far, they really haven’t been for me.

You know why?

Because for the most part, they have no…style.

The Prius?
If you look at it sideways, and squint, it looks more like a pepita than a car.

The Insight?
They say it’s stylish…but it looks like a Prius to me.

You know what I want?
I want someone to build the biggest, nastiest, most oversized hybrid the world has ever seen.

Something drenched with chrome, with seating for…many, and a convertible top; and maybe, if all my dreams come true: tail fins.

Something crazy.
Something ridiculous.
Something…American.

Well, guess what?

Somebody’s already gone out and had one built—and ironically, that somebody is Neil Young, Canadian.

So let me tell you what Neil Young did: lately, he’s been tearing around the countryside in a converted 1959 Lincoln Continental Mark IV that he calls the LincVolt.

Here’s the good part: it’s a “series hybrid” vehicle that gets 65 miles to the gallon.

To be more accurate, I should say today it gets 65 MPG.

The car reportedly will compete for the Automotive X Prize: a competition that seeks to award a vehicle that can (among other requirements) achieve the equivalent of 100 MPG and emits less than 200 “equivalent grams” of CO2 per mile…and the engineering team is confident they can pull it off.

Now here’s the really good part: it is truly an American car: it’s fast. It is indeed huge…in fact, it’s just about 19 feet long. And it is dripping with chrome.

Tail fins?
This car is so over-the-top it has front fins.

The interior?
The usual: tuck-and-roll, tons of dashboard…and the requisite computer-aided status monitoring system.

“If all the cars in the United States were placed end to end, it would probably be Labor Day Weekend”

–Canadian Racing Champion Doug Larson

So what, you might ask, is a “series hybrid”?

For all intents and purposes, it’s the same propulsion design found on locomotives: an engine, powered by a fuel, turns a generator that supplies power to one or more electric motors that turn the wheels. (It’s also the design that will be used in the Chevy Volt.)

The engine that turns the generator operates (as much as possible) at one constant speed. If the electric motor (or motors) that turn the wheels require extra power, additional current is provided from the electrical system, not the engine.

Constant speed operation of the generator’s engine is more efficient than the acceleration and deceleration cycles of engines in today’s cars…and because the electric propulsion system itself is more efficient than a mechanical power transfer system, a smaller engine (it can be 1/4 the size of a standard auto engine) and generator gets you more power with less energy input than today’s car engines.

In the case of the LincVolt, a variety of fuel capabilities are being built into the car, including natural gas, plug-in, and biodiesel.

Now this story did not start as a LincVolt story. The original intent of the story was to ask why someone doesn’t throw a series hybrid engine/generator setup on electric motors, lose the fancy batteries, and produce some cheap 40 MPG pickups and minivans?

Well as it turns out, there are good reasons not to do that. One reason has to do with power storage. If the car is generating power it doesn’t need at the moment, it can “reserve” that power in batteries—and when the batteries are full, the car can run with the engine and generator shut down until more charge is needed.

Later, if the car is climbing a steep hill, that extra power can be sent to the motor or motors; keeping voltage and the speed of the engine as constant as possible.

As it turns out, that same stored power can also be used to “brake” the electric motor system, making the process even more efficient.

It’s quite a cruisin’ car, the LincVolt is…and to make it even cooler, from time to time they do live webcasts from the car as it’s driving down the road…which eventually become videos that can be seen at the LincVolt website or on LincVolt’s YouTube channel.

(You can also view live telemetry from the car as it operates and view a fascinating gallery of time-lapse photography of the entire “build-out” of the car from start to finish.)

Johnathan Goodwin, who did this conversion, is famous for building “Eco-Hummers” that run on biodiesel, get 25 miles to the gallon…and still manage to put up 650 horsepower or better.

Neil Young and the LincVolt appeared at San Francisco’s DreamForce Conference in November of 2008; since then the car has appeared around the country, and the website offers hints of a cross-country live-webcasting adventure to come.

So how about that?

We started with a question about generators and batteries, and we ended up with a 65 MPG multifuel/plug-in version of one of the largest passenger cars ever known to grace the surface of the planet…and in true American fashion, 65 MPG wasn’t good enough…so now they’re “kicking it up a notch” and shooting for 100 MPG and the Automotive X Prize.

Which leads me to the one and only conclusion that we can draw from today’s conversation:

When we finally take over Canada, Neil Young’s gonna fit right in.

UPDATE 5/26/09:

A commenter at the DailyKos site had questions about the methodology Johnathan Goodwin uses in his performance claims.

This is an excerpt from one of his comments:

“So, how can a car that’s heavy and has a bad drag coefficient get 65mpg? Simple: the PHEV game.

Question: How much mpg does a PHEV that is running purely in electric mode get?
Answer: Infinite

Realizing this, you can see that it’s trivial to give an arbitrary PHEV any mpg figure you want — you just have it run in a scenario where you make X% electric and Y% gas, and you pick the percents. That’s exactly what they’ve done here. Not to mention that that 65mpg number isn’t for the US06 drivecycle — it’s for steady-state driving, so even if they weren’t cheating, it still wouldn’t be comparable to EPA figures.

I hate this sort of dishonesty, yet it’s pervasive in the PHEV industry. The federal government really needs to step in and regulate it. Goodwin is a particularly bad example of this — he always plays the PHEV game and never uses proper drivecycles.”

I sent that excerpt to Johnathan Goodwin for a response.
He did reply by email, and this was the comment I received:

“This is Goodwin, I see many out there doing the backwards math. To date i have only stated what i do in the mannor of simple math. Fill the tank, drive the car 100 miles and refill the tank. The consumption for a distance gives you your fuel econimy. I am not a fan of plug ins. I am a fan of fuel efficiancy without sacrifice in power or room. A train is one of the most fuel efficiant modes to date. This car is a posterchild to old technoligy in a new way. What i have done is made a 6k car have 500lb tourque and 50+ mpg with a 650 cu inch motor. The efficiancy of the small generator is were you get great results. Not the electric side. I only use that for the power end. I wish those that critisize would spend there time assisting the ones who are trying to make changes. We would get there much faster.”

WARNING—Self-promotion ahead: I am competing for a Netroots Nation scholarship, and I was not selected in the first round of voting. There are two more chances to be selected, and the voting has restarted from scratch…so even if you’ve done so before, I still have to ask you to stop by the Democracy for America site and click on the “Add your support” link to offer your support for me again. Thanks for your patience, and we now return you to your regular programming.

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One Response to “On Being American, Or, “A Hybrid? Not Unless It Has Tail Fins””

  1. […] res­t is­ here: On­ B­e­i­n­g Am­e­ri­can­, Or, “A Hy­b­ri&… Share and […]


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