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Tuesday, January 15, 2008

The car I'd like to drive

Most major car manufacturers are getting serious about electric cars and most of them are designing cars with all the bells and whistles. I hate to think what they will cost. I believe there is a massive market for a simple, basic, Volkswagen / model T ford / 2cv/Mini - type electric. It wouldn't be for everyone but I believe the market would be huge.

Not only would it be huge in third world countries but also in first world countries. So many of us are fed up with having such a big foot print on the world, fed up with being dependent on someone else to fix our gadgets and fed up with having to tie up a huge proportion of our wealth in a vehicle simply to get from A to B. For other people for whom their very concept of self worth is intimately entwined with driving a fancy car - carry on. Enjoy. The rest of us have a different self image.

So what would this car be like. It would be both very simple and very sophisticated. Simple in that it would have very few frills, a low selling price and it would be easy for a home mechanic of modest ability to maintain and repair. It would be sophisticated in that it would have the very best engineering and best materials providing reliability, longevity, safety, easy driving, fast charging and maximum range.

It would be upgradable as new technology became available.  For instance if the new graphene batteries prove to be better than Lithium batteries, one could change the batteries.  The critical factor is that the new batteries would fit the space where the old batteries lived.

If the engineers insist on producing a hybrid, it would be mostly electrical with a small emergency generator. (a turbine??)   However, consideration should be given to replacing even the emergency generator with more batteries on a weight to weight or volume to volume basis.  So what sort of a car would it be.

The styling would be distinctive.  It would be as recognizable as the  Volks Wagon Combi, Deux Cheveaux, Model T Ford or Mini.   Note that none of these cars were objects of beauty but they were distinctive.   Clearly it would have to be as aerodynamic as possible and this tends to converge the styling of all cars but there must be no doubt what vehicle you are looking at when you see one of these cars. Easy identification is necessary for the vehicle to become iconic . No changes would be made to the styling from year to year. None what so ever. The Beetle didn't need it, neither does our Peoples-Electric.   Not needing to retool for design changes contributes to a lower price.

Driving damage
Bumpers and mud guards should be bolt off and bolt on so that repairing a ding is a simple job of trading in your old part for repair or recycling and bolting on the new part. These easily damaged parts should be compatible for decades. A bumper from the first production model must fit the latest model and vice-versa. Some thought should be given to a hydraulic or pneumatic bumper which could sustain bumps of, say 5 or 10km/h without damage*.

*Nov 2011.  I just read of a jell bumper that a new electric car is using.  Good on you guys.

The Vehicle Manual
The vehicle manual would be straight out of America in their best tradition; the sort of manual that comes out of Time-Life or Readers Digest. They have the most incredible how-to-do manuals where everything is beautifully, clearly laid out and the illustrations are works of art. Once the car had been designed, the wives, secretaries and accountants of the company would be let loose on the car, with the manual, to see if they could change the electric motor, CV joints and anything else that might need to be replaced. If they could not do this, either the manual or the car or both would be redesigned. (No fair changing the secretary or accountant)  A copy of this manual would be standard equipment and would fit in a specially designed compartment in the car.

There would be a standard 'A' tool set and an optional 'B' tool set. The 'A' set would allow one to change a tire and tighten up a screw. The B tool kit would allow most procedures necessary to be done on the car. Very rare tools could be rented from the dealer.  If at all possible the car would be designed to use only conventional tools and to ensure that  a minimum of tools are necessary. The tool kit would fit in a specially built-
in compartment in the car.

The Chassis
Initially there would be only one medium size chassis but eventually there would be three sizes: small, medium and large. On to each of these chassis would bolt the body of a pick up truck (Ute, Bakkie, Tender), a family car, a people mover (van, Combi) or a sports car..... Well maybe not a sports car on the largest chassis but certainly on the medium and small chassis.

Wrecked or scrapped cars could be taken apart for parts and the parts would fit on any other car no matter what the vintage. Also, in so far as possible, fittings from one size of car would fit on the other sizes. All, for instance, would use the same head light bulb, door handle, radio mounting and so forth.

Yearly Model Changes

This ridiculous system of planned
obsolescence must be scrapped .

Steering gear
Lets go for simple rack and pinion.  Check out all the cars that used this system and adopt the best one.  Power steering uses power and in a reasonably light car power steering is completely unnecessary.  Besides, Rack and Pinion is cheaper and easy to repair (if it ever needs repairing).  Our Peoples Electric will tend to be a light car with all the frills removed and eventually, as the technology allows, thermoplastic carbon fiber bodies so Rack and Pinion will be perfectly adequate.

Nothing wrong with wind up windows but make them of quality material so that they wind up smoothly when you buy the car and just a smoothly in 20 years.  Remember, no planned obsolescence.  Electric windows use power and are more expensive to build and repair than mechanical windows.

Car Magazine
A quarterly car magazine would give interesting hints on how to maintain your car, maps of places to exchange or charge your batteries and quirky stories of how someone had crossed the Sahara with the car fitted with solar panels and how someone else had fitted a chuck wagon stern to his vehicle and gone on roundup.  It would be interesting, informative amusing and iconic.

Solar cells
Solar cells must eventually be fitted on every possible surface. Very interesting work is being done on allowing all panels to contribute their full generation capacity despite a lack of co-linearity and despite some panels being partially shaded. When we have nano power point tracking for individual solar cells, these technologies will greatly increase the effectiveness of the solar cells which clad the car. At one time solar panels were stiff and flat.  Now one can buy flexible panels.  It should soon be possible to clad any shape.  In addition there is work on producing power from windows.

 Note that the solar panel retrofit on the Prius on the roof between the front and rear window is reputed to give about 10 km extra for a day in the sun. A nice little bonus. With advances in the technology and panels on the whole car, one might get, say, 25 extra km per sun-day*. We're not talking here about a completely solar car.  Just a nice little bonus for a day in the sun and the possibility of getting home if you forgot to charge and ran out of gas (sorry - electricity)

*Note that since the writing of this article there has been an item in the news (The NZ Press, feb 2010) that IBM has developed a solar panel using only "easy to find" minerals. If this development materializes, the cost of solar panels should plummet. They already are on a toboggan ride.  Standard panels coming out of China are already (2012) down to a dollar per nominal watt.

Mechanical Design
The designers would endeavor to use the most commonly available parts much like the Skunk Works does. The Skunk Works only innovates parts that are necessary for the special functioning of the aircraft in question. The rest is off the shelf. If a certain tire rim with a certain spacing of stud is the most common in other cars of the world, this size should be adopted. If a certain head-light bulb socket is most common all over the world, this one would be used and so forth. This would ensure that if you were stuck, you would have a good chance of finding parts that would get you by. Conversely, scrapped cars of this type would be a rich source of parts, even for other makes. Even better for the company, people with other types of vehicles would always try to buy from the company because of the high quality and competitive pricing of their parts.  Having your parts fit other cars would ensure a large market.

None, Nada, Zilch. This may sound revolutionary..... and at first, not having a warranty would be a negative selling point. At the very least, make it an optional extra.  As confidence builds up in the reliability of the car, people will relax about the lack of warranty. In fact, a lack of warranty will quickly become a major selling advantage. 

Warranties cost the company money and this is built into the price of their vehicles. The savings from the lack of warranty must be passed on to the customer. An added effect would be that people would not thrash their car during the warranty period. They would look after their cars from the start.

Besides, as mentioned above, the cars would be so easy to repair that any joker with a basic set of tools and the manual could repair any part of the car. By their nature, electric cars will be far simpler than petrol cars.  Moreover computer boards are simply unplugged and reprogrammed or a new one plugged in.  Computer chips are as cheap as,,,,, well chips, and software when spread over many users is also cheap.

Dealers would locate in the low rental industrial areas of cities or towns. Only one dealer would be allowed per city or town. In their warehouses they would sell the car and have a full stock of spares. They would never ever ever ever run out of spares. Their computer system would flag when they had to order parts to keep their inventory up to date. A dealer who couldn't do this would loose his dealership. All dealers and their staff would be sent to the factory to practice doing everything on the car that could be done but they would not be required to do repairs at their dealership. They would be there to provide advice and parts.

Undoubtedly, there will be  computer chips in the car. How about using one of those computer memory sticks (flash drives) that people use to transfer information from computer to computer. Have it plug in to the dash board. Taking it out and plugging it into your PC would run a diagnostic and you could reprogram the chip for maximum efficiency or maximum performance or for whatever other options were available right from your PC.  Hardware is expensive.  Software, when spread over many units is cheap.

The Battery
This is out of the hands of the company but every effort should be made to standardize batteries between different makes and models of cars. For instance, the battery of a Tesla should fit a Volt and vice versa. It would be well worth while looking at the Project Better Place option.  At the very least, a new company developing an electric car could adopt the battery design of other cars right from the outset and build the car around that design. Apparently the lithium ion battery is now obsolete and the Lithium titanate, lithium iron phosphate and lithium polymer batteries are far longer lasting.  The polymer battery, is apparently much lighter. Graphene batteries are on the horizon with the discovery that with an addition of water, the layers of grapene do not fuse.   Batteries can be upgraded as technology allows but can still have the same outer aspect so that they can be used in older vehicles. The batteries might be based on a standard cell of 2x3x5 cm that could be combined in series and parallel to achieve whatever voltage the particular car uses and combined in different physical configurations to fit virtually any available space.  Incidentally, such batteries would find uses in a wide variety of other applications including power storage for the home.

All components of the car must be designed to be completely recyclable. All parts will have a core charge just as is done with glass bottles and given back when the part is returned. This would ensure that worn out cars would not litter the environment. People who are too rich or too lazy to recycle their vehicles would find any number of people who would take the vehicles off their hands to recycle parts or to get the return fee.

A great beauty of electric cars is not only that you save on fuel but also on lubricants. An electric car can be built today that needs no lubricant except perhaps a little 3 in 1 oil for the door hinges. Remember all the grease points we used to have to attend to at each service. These don't exist on modern cars.  Electric cars do not have an oil sump.  More saving of our too-valuable-to-burn fossil fuels.

Electric motors are so reliable that one could have a car quite soon that would last almost a lifetime. You would probably change the upholstery 4 or 5 times before the car wore out. Israel is about to convert to electric cars provided by Renault-Nissan with reticulation and battery exchange provided by Project Better Place. If successful, this will cause a paradigm shift in the car market. A very attractive option is to for a new car builder to build a car with a battery that can be changed by Project Better Place stations.

The world is ready for a simple affordable car. Renault is now building the Logan which already goes some way towards a "peoples car" and demand has outstripped anything the company expected. Of course it is a petrol car but they have tapped a market that they didn't know existed. Renault has been absolutely amazed by the response of the public in France. Tata in India has done the same. Obviously a simple car is not for everyone but all over the world there is a longing for simplicity, for having a smaller footprint on the world and for being able to look after yourself rather than having to depend on a specialist for all your needs. If Renault "keeps the faith" and isn't tempted to slowly turn the Logan into a conventional car, it will sweep the world. By the time other manufacturers wake up and smell the flowers, the Logan should have captured the imagination of the world and a huge chunk of its markets. How much more would a simple electric car capture our imagination.

And finally
If a car manufacturer does this, eventually it will have to down-size. Such a car will saturate even the world market and The Company will then be providing top up cars and parts. And ultimately, isn't this what we want: a much smaller car manufacturing sector, using less raw materials and energy and producing usable, long lasting cars for the public. We are just on the brink of an ecological melt down and must reduce our foot print on the world. We don't all want to be living the way the kids were in the winner of this year's (2009)Oscars*.

*Slum Dog Millionaire

What is certain is that the car manufacturer that twigs on to this philosophy first will capture a huge share of the market.  If this car comes from America, the world is their market.  If it comes from some other country, America and the rest of the world is their market.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

New Zealand Rabbit - a real oportunity

From time to time my boys go out into the near by field and bring back a wild rabbit. One rabbit - one very tasty meal. But.........

In New Zealand, rabbits are a plague. They breed like... well like rabbits and each 7 rabbits is said to eat the same amount of forage as one sheep. In a country that has sheep, dairy cattle and beef cattle as its main enterprises, it is not surprising that bunnies are not the national icon. Such interesting customs have grown up over the years as the "Easter Bunny Hunt" . Not surprisingly this happens at Easter and anyone who can shoot a 22 goes out and tries to slaughter as many bunnies as possible.

We have brought in Myxomatosis and Calki-Virus which worked for a short while and sometimes poison carrots are spread around to get ahead of the bunnies. All farmers have 22's and most of them are crack shots. All these measures give limited and short lived success. And yet, in many countries, a prime rabbit sells for a good price in the corner butcher shop. In England, for instance, a bunny is a rarely indulged in luxury.

And the meat is lean, tasty and tender. My boys have learned that if they want their mom to serve bunny for dinner, it must be presented skinned, quartered and in plastic. There is something about a plastic bag that confers official "from the super market" status to the meal rather than "something from the adjacent field". Sure she knows exactly where the bunny comes from but presentation is everything. While some people in New Zealand, eat bunny, most consider it a plague and won't touch it. Go figure?

It shouldn't be all that difficult to turn our plague into a currency earning resource. A couple of elements have to come together. The first is easy. Picture a large, truck kitted out as a processing and canning factory. We have a similar units for our wine industry. Many vineyards make their own wine but don't want to do the bottling so we have large trucks with built in bottling factories. They turn up on request and since this is all they do all year, they are very good at their job. After suitable development work by some top class industrial chefs, canning trucks would be able to produce beautiful, boned spiced canned rabbit for the supermarkets of the world. The meat would be quickly pressure cooked off the bone and packed tightly in the cans with a spicy sauce. Rabbit Parisian, curried rabbit, rabbit creole etc.

A second truck would be kitted out as a chiller and processing unit. This is the truck that would go to the individual farms to collect the bunnies, skin and gut them and hang them in the chiller truck for later processing. The canning truck would stay in some central location in the district while the chiller truck would ferry in the rabbit from nearby farms.

The last, and most difficult element, is a way to harvest the bunnies. They can't be shot. When a 22 bullet hits bone, a certain amount of lead is smeared off the bullet and this would be totally unacceptable for a food product. I picture easily erected fences made from hurdles with cone access guiding bunnies to one compartment. Attractive baits or availability of water might be used. Systems might be set up ahead of time allowing the bunnies to get used to them before the final hurdles are put in place, only allowing the bunnies to go one way and so forth. My sons dig the bunnies out since I refuse to eat a shot rabbit and this might work in some cases. I really don't know how the harvest would be done. However, we are fortunate in New Zealand to have a farming and hunting fraternity that is very familiar with bunnies. I suspect that with some work and refinement, they could come up with a way to mass harvest bunnies. The hunters would enter a district ahead of the processing unit and would get everything set up while the processing truck was finishing the run in the previous district.

At present farmers spend large amounts of money to keep control of their bunnies and, as I understand it, they are legally obliged to do so. Not much use for one farmer to control his bunnies if the neighbour is letting them run wild. At the very least, the mass trapping of bunnies would relieve the farmers of this expense. At best, a small royalty could be paid to the farmers on a per-can basis. Initially, I am pretty certain that the farmers would be extremely grateful for anyone that would remove a couple of thousand bunnies from their farms.

And as a bonus, the meat is likely to be as free of pesticides and other unwanted pollutants as any meat can be these days. The rabbits are at the very base of the food chain and pesticides are not used on our pastures. One might have to be a bit careful in areas where historically DDT was used to control grass grub but if any such areas are still dangerous, this would be soon discovered.

A by product of this industry could be rabbit skins. The skin is very fine and the fur very soft and warm. With the huge quantities of skins without bullet holes a whole new industry could grow up around rabbit coverlets for beds, rabbit skin vests, gloves and so forth.

We have huge numbers of bunnies in New Zealand. Like recycling, lets try to see it as a resource rather than a problem and see where we come out. The whole project needs government support until it is past the pilot plant stage and the place to start is in the mass harvesting methods. The rest is easy.