Here is an interesting observation: most drivers don’t want to be there.
Unlike enthusiasts, such as myself, who really get a deep enjoyment and fulfilment from driving, in the mass market most car owners don’t actually like driving at all, it’s just become a necessity of modern life. That’s why so many of them don’t pay attention and would rather chat on the phone, listen to the radio or just stare into the distance like a slack jawed zombie.
Cars are a very strange phenomenon in that respect, where else would you find a large, heavy and complex piece of machinery that is bought and operated by almost everyone regardless of whether they are interested in that machine or not? It wouldn’t happen with lathes, welding kit or submarines, but with cars we just accept it. In fact the buying profile of cars is more like toasters or kettles, everyone thinks they need one but has not interest in how to work them properly.
And because of the non-professional nature of the vast majority of car owners, technology is being developed to meet their needs. That is; making the car make most of the decisions. We are entering the beginning of a time when cars become more autonomous, adaptive cruise control will adjust the car speed to the traffic conditions, lane assist can nudge the steering to stop you drifting off your chosen path, we even have auto parking systems. It is a logical step to bring all these ideas together and link them to the sat nav to create fully autonomous cars, Google are investing heavily in this idea. Once the systems become common there will be increasing pressure to ban manual driving, after all an autonomous car doesn’t get road rage, doesn’t speed, can see through fog, never gets distracted and should never crash. All those computer systems running all those programs written by thousands of different people at different times in different places and controlling your car….
Autonomous cars have the potential to reduce journey times, slash road deaths and injuries, reduce insurance costs, reduce financial losses, and reduce emissions. Manufacturers also benefit from a reduction in warranty costs caused by customers abusing their cars. And intriguingly once a car becomes autonomous the interior design focus changes dramatically towards being an entertainment or business centre, windows become less important, seats facing forward is no longer mandatory, just imagine the possibilities.
Fully autonomous cars are now being trialled, you just get in, tell it where to go and it drives you there. To many this is automotive heaven, just like having a chauffeur, and takes the irritating burden of ‘having to do some driving’ out of a journey completely. Plus there are safety advantages which make a very compelling argument, the fact is that nearly all accidents are caused by the driver doing something really dumb, so by taking the driver out of the system lives would be saved. And that argument alone is powerful enough to kill the ‘drivers car’ stone dead, no arguments, it is simply infeasible to argue that autonomous cars should not be compulsory just because we want to have a little bit of fun.
But to enthusiasts this is automotive hell, no control, no involvement, no enjoyment, nothing.
And it also take a lot of skill and judgement away too, what if I want to drive on the left of my lane to get a good view past the truck I am about to overtake? Will the lane control system let me? What if I need to gently nudge my driveway gate open because its blown shut? Will the collision avoidance system let me?
And this brings me to a very important point; cars are so reliable these days that people are totally unable to cope with a simple problem; I would have thought that if the pedal stays down then either put your toe under it and pull it up or drop it in neutral, park up and switch off. Easy, but most people have lost the ability to cope with any sort of problem, and that is scary.
I say scary because we depend more and more on technology, cars, electricity supply, computers, the internet, mobile phones, the list goes on. And for the most part the technology serves us amazingly well, but like all things it can fail.
I remember in the 70’s there were power cuts, no problem; the lights went out so we lit candles, life goes on. We communicated by actually talking to people, we were entertained by actually doing things, we worked by going out and making physical things.
But now, oh dear, if the power fails we seem to be doomed to sitting in a freezing dark house unable to phone a friend or do any work on the computer. ‘Doomed I say, doomed, captain’ (although that phrase probably wont mean a thing to younger readers).
Now don’t get me wrong, I am a great fan of technology. As an engineer I work on car technology that won’t see the glowing lights of a showroom for maybe seven years, as a writer I would be lost without the word processor and its fantastic ability to correct my abysmal spelling. Oh yes indeedey I just cant get enough of the techy stuff.
What I am scared of is the way people are loosing the ability to do things for themselves. To even bother trying to solve problems seems to great a challenge, the mind is being numbed and switched off, its like intentionally loosing the ability to walk just because you can afford a wheel chair.
The first thought when a problem hits now seems to be ‘who should I call about this problem’, and not what it should be ‘what can I do to solve this problem’.
People have to be more proactive, just like we used to be, and much less reactive and just plain pathetic.
But what drives technological development is consumer demand, so if we want cars to be ‘drivers cars’, totally under our command, then we have to make our voice heard. Not only that but the voice must have a strong and sound argument, and it has to be heard right now.
Now modern cars are introducing collision avoidance, lane control and other complex systems which all have to work in harmony with all the other systems in all the infinite combinations of circumstance.
The complexity is so great that I believe it is now impossible to accurately asses how such a car will react in all conditions. Complexity hides secrets, usually unintentional.
This is true not only for cars, but in many of the systems we rely on today which are also hugely complex and have chunks of third party software in the control system, from automatic number plate recognition and speeding fines, military automatic targeting and smart weapons, to the DNA database and even the way we use the internet.
The potential for technology to assist is immense, but it has to be understood that we have now lost control of every detail. So how far do we let the machines dictate to us, and how much override can we allow to fallible humans? It is one of the most important debates we should be having today.
The answer to this will dictate the future of society and quite possibly our fate as a species.
Ralph Hosier is a Chartered Engineer with over 25 years in the cutting edge of vehicle development and research. He has written several automotive books and many articles. He also teaches engineering at the UK forces motorsport charity Mission Motorsport.
For engineering enquiries, project advice or media requests please email on email@example.com and look at the company website www.rhel.co.uk for more details.
The media has given UK industry a bit of a battering in the last few years, in fact ever since the high profile industrial collapses in the 70’s the media has focused on doom and gloom stories rather than all the good news that the industrial sector has consistently produced.
I was talking to a bloke last weekend at an arts festival, was was an ordinary chap who happened to have no real interest in cars but as he knew I am a motoring journalist he made conversation by asking what car I would recommend. Being very proud of the UK car industry I immediately replied ‘any car as long as its made in Britain’, he looked quite astonished and said ‘I didn’t think there were any cars still made here’!
This shocked me, the UK makes over 2 million cars a year with factories churning out products from Jaguar, Land Rover, Lotus, Morgan, Ford, Vauxhall, Nissan, Honda and BMW to name but a few. All of these bring revenue and prosperity to the country and use British skills, both in manufacturing and engineering design. But we very rarely hear anything about this on the news, in fact when Lotus dropped a few hundred jobs last year it made national news, but when Jaguar recruit about 3500 this year there is no national coverage, I find this very frustrating and also more than a little suspicious.
I am sure the fact that most of the big media organisations are tied up with the financial sector has absolutely no influence on their bias, but it is remarkable how even the phraseology favours the ‘markets’ at the expense of industry. For instance take a look at exchange rates, to sell things we make abroad we need the pound to be cheap and affordable, but the media call this situation a ‘weak’ pound. But when the pound is expensive and unaffordable, which crushes foreign sales, reduces production and leads to job losses, they refer to that situation as a ‘strong’ pound. Its ridiculous, until you look at the financial sector who benefit greatly when the pound is expensive, and suffer when its cheap.
And the whole idea of being ruled by a stock market that panics like a frightened weasel, thus taking support investment away when its most needed, is utterly ludicrous. A system where a few chaps in blazers in London transfer money when they see their bonuses start to drop, causing a hard working company many miles away to loose several jobs even though they have a full order book, must surely be immoral?
So you might argue that as there are so many people now working in the financial sector that it balances out, when money is tight in industry it must be flowing in the financial sector? Well maybe it does, but the thing I notice is the difference in the way that money is distributed.
I read a report a while ago comparing average wages, I think it was something like average car industry wages were 25k and finance was 36k, or something like that. But the distribution of those wages is dramatically different, many people I have met who work in the city earn less than 20k, normal average office workers, many earn less than 18k and really struggle to pay the bills. The equivalent in the car industry might be factory line workers who earn a basic of about 25k and with usual overtime could be on 35 to 40k, thus allowing them more spare cash to pump back into the economy.
By comparison at the top end of the pay scale things are the other way around, senior managers in the car industry might be on 60k, but their counterpart in finance may be on double that. At director level the difference is even greater, there are no million pound bonuses in the car industry, no seven figure salaries, and all the better for it.
There are two results of this, firstly the car industry benefits more of its employees, the wages are more evenly distributed and more of the cash finds its way into the local economy. But secondly the car industry is much less appealing to the super rich, the rewards are slimmer for directors and for investors the dividends are modest.
Over the decades the press has made industry seem grubby and declining which has damaged its image severely, now UK industry is struggling to recruit the people it needs for continued growth because generations of young workers have been put off by the media image, preferring the relative ‘glamour’ of finance or retail.
Career choice at an early age obviously shapes the subjects kids study at school, and the exams they take at the end. The media bias has driven huge numbers to study softer subjects, and whilst I have absolutely no objection to anyone taking these subjects, we desperately need to rekindle the enthusiasm for learning how to make things, how to design and engineer things, how to turn dreams into tangible working products that people can buy. This mismatch of candidates skills and job requirements, coupled with the apathy toward industrial work puts the country in the ridiculous position of having a large pool of unemployed youngsters and an industry being forced to recruit from abroad.
This situation has to change, the notion that an economy can run on the service and financial sectors alone is clearly flawed, how can a country prosper when all it does is sell someone else’s products to its own populous?
Also the idea that we can be solely a ‘knowledge’ economy, where we design stuff but make it elsewhere is idiotic. All that happens is the detailed knowledge of a product gained by actually making it gradually migrates to the place where it is made, all the product knowledge seeps away until the manufacturing area has greater understanding and technical expertise than we do. Then what do we design? ‘For Sale’ signs maybe.
I don’t know what the solution is, but I know what I see is terribly unfair and inefficient, like a misfiring engine it sort of works some times but keeps stalling at junctions. I think its time this country had a new engine, one driven by selling world class products globally, building real skills and doing useful jobs that benefit everyone.
Time travel is a wonderful thing, you get a great view of time as you warp through the decades. The recent PetrolBlog big day out at
Vauxhall took me right back to the dawn of my motoring career, the sounds and smells of old engines are so amazingly evocative of the age before fuel injection and catalysts. And this got me thinking about just how far we have come, there have been some remarkable advances in areas such as performance and refinement, but also we seem to have lost something along the way.
Fienza HP (Droop Snoot)
My first drive of the day, and one that instantly transported me back to my first ever car; a Cavalier mk1. There is the smell of fuel you only get with carburettor cars, it’s raw, pure, and for people of my
generation it’s hugely evocative of an era when just getting your car to start was an achievement.
This car was a complete bare shell restoration which I covered for Practical Classics a few years ago, absolutely everything had to be rebuilt from the ground up and is
another great example of the fantastic work that master mechanic Andrew Boddy at the Vauxhall Heritage Centre undertakes, and it is wonderful to see the car fully finished. It’s even more wonderful to drive it.
Immediately the car feels direct and delightfully connected to the road, with non-assisted steering you can feel the road under the wheels, it feels alive. Even before I get out the car park I’m smiling like a lunatic, but once out in the country lanes this car delivers joy in great bucket loads. It’s by no means perfect, the 185 tyres seem skinny by modern standards and let go readily, but delightfully progressively making it deeply rewarding to drive. Would I take this car out just for the thrill of it? Well yes, but half the thrill would be wondering if it will make it back in one piece. This is an old car, there are a few clonks and rattles, but it all adds to the theatre of this marvellous car. And when I finally get out of the car and walk away, I just cant help looking back at it and enjoying the superb lines and proportions of this classic beauty. Surely that’s a sign they must have got something really very right.
Astra GTE MK1
Now this was a very interesting car, because my colleagues formed a notably different view of it to me. This highlights how personal car
tests actually are, our view of a car depends on our own preferences, past experiences, expectations and driving style. Every road test is as much a reflection of the tester as it is of the car.
This car was from a far simpler age, non-assisted steering giving lovely feedback through the spindly steering wheel, the view from the large windows is complemented by the low waist line so you can see everything on the road with no blind spots. But that’s where the fun stopped for me.
On the road the performance of the 1.8 8 valve engine is modest, maybe I’m spoilt by the thrust of modern performance cars but this one just didn’t sing for me, despite not having a rev limiter. The handling is poor by modern standards, but very much the norm for small hatches of that era, go into a corner fast and it understeers horribly, and if you have to back off for some reason mid corner the understeer immediately translates into annoying oversteer. Not that slowing down is that easy, the brakes really don’t do much, press the pedal hard and you really don’t slow down very much, press it harder and a wheel locks up, and you still don’t slow down very much.
But this is in itself important, it’s stable mates at that time had even more pedestrian engines which didn’t overly tax the brakes and handling. By taking the standard car and fitting a slightly more powerful engine they created a dynasty that leads directly to today’s Astra VXR.
Astra GTE MK2
With the MK2 they put a decent engine in, in fact that 16 valve 2.0 litre lump became a legend in racing circles and managed to dislodge
the Ford Pinto as the engine of choice in many club racing specials. In the GTE it’s pleasantly nippy and buzzes along with happy eagerness, the understeer is still there but less intrusive, and the lift off oversteer is much better. The brakes are still inadequate when ‘making good progress’, it
doesn’t really do emergency stops as such but at least it has the ability to slow down a bit, unlike its predecessor. It is quite a fun car, but still doesn’t quite work as a complete package.
Now, our illustrious leader Major Gav has actually owned two of these fine motorcars, so I was a bit worried when he joined me for a quick blast through the countryside, was I about to show myself up at the wheel of one of his favourite machines?
This particular version is the higher powered version, still based on the Lotus Elese but with the suspension and engine tuned by Opel. It seems to be set up for a race track, with very hard suspension that is not helped by the non standard ultra low profile tyres, it crashes and bangs over irregularities and pot holes are like a kick in the butt. It’s not nice.
But on smooth stretches it sticks to the road quite well and picks up pace briskly, the steering is direct and it changes direction swiftly. It’s quite a lot of fun and begs to be pushed harder, and somehow as it wears a Vauxhall badge and not a Lotus one it seems a bit more humble, I like that.
The last stop on the time machine was the present day, and here I had the opportunity to sample the descendants of these old cars and see exactly what their future held.
Now, those who know me will be wondering what witchcraft managed
to get me into this sort of car. It’s not a fire breathing supercar or a go anywhere off road superhero, but putting my own preferences to one side I find that this sort of car is a very good idea. Its big inside, not too big on the outside, it goes and stops as it should and doesn’t use too much fuel. Normally that formula could be dangerously close to dull, so the splash of stainless steel and the nice blend of colours adds a touch of interest. In short it’s a perfectly good car. If you like that sort of thing.
This was a surprise. Again not my usual sort of test car, it has very little power and has no noticeable acceleration. Inside it is very roomy for two adults and two small kids at the back, an ideal car for a young
family, and I think that is a useful focus for this test. The car is painted to look sporty, it has stripes and graphics, even the headlining is a massive chequered flag, which initially seems at odds with its lack of performance and its super soft suspension, but I actually think it makes sense. If
you have just started a family you might not want to give up on the idea of a sports car, but even if you had one you would drive it gently with your new family installed, so this car works; it has a fun and sporty image yet delivers sensible family practicality.
I drove this on a test track last year, but driving it through the heart of Luton was a far more realistic test, particularly accelerating between speedbumps up some of the towns steep hills. Now, you might expect me to slate electric cars, as I spend most of my time testing things like
Bentleys, Jaguars and Porsches, but actually I am a strong believer in electric cars, which are in many ways still in their infancy but will increasingly meet an exceed the abilities of internal combustion.
But this car should not be judged as an electric car, it should be judged as a normal small family car, and that is something it does very well, in fact in many ways it does it better than the Adam. It has reasonable performance, it’s quicker than many other conventional cars in this class and handles acceptably well too, although the low ground clearance at the front can be an issue on speedbumps. The interior is well equipped and spacious, not massive by any means but certainly big enough for most things.
In short this is a good car in it’s own right, and if I had the cash I would probably buy one.
So in summary, there are many things that are good such as ABS and crash safety, but there are many things that are a bit of a sad loss too. Being able to feel the road through the steering wheel in such a vivid way that you know how much traction the tyres have has completely gone, and whilst it may be true that you don’t need to read the road any more because the car stability control does that all for you it also means that drivers aren’t compelled to concentrate on the road like they used to. One result being that crashes keep getting more frequent, and now for the first time in decades road deaths are increasing.
The styling of cars is much more intense than it used to be, we are cocooned and protected with styling flourishes here there and everywhere. The window glass area is increasing, front screens are massive now, but the view out is getting more restrictive. A pillars are huge, mirrors are multifunction colossus, waistlines are getting higher, our actual view of the road is diminishing. In fact it is quite easy to loose sight of a car behind the mirror and A pillar whilst waiting at a T junction or roundabout on a modern car, by comparison a car of the ’70s with its spindly A pillar, tiny mirror mounted lower and not obstructing your line of sight forward, all makes for a far better view of the road, I felt much more a part of the traffic in an old-timer than in a new car.
Our connection to the road and to the traffic is reduced, our responsibility in terms of controlling the car and observing traffic have been eroded. But it is possible to design a car with the best of both old and new, spindly A pillars made out of stronger modern materials, mirrors replaced by cameras and a head up display, nicely assisted steering but with the soft compliant isolation removed etc. Driving both old and new on the same day brings it all into sharp focus.
And a final observation, not about cars but about our car industry in the UK. Currently UK automotive is doing very well indeed, the car sector is probably better than it has ever been. But there is a sobering reminder of how things can change for the worse in the Vauxhal
museum, there is a map of the site from the early ’80s, it shows the massive scale of the sprawling complex, with roads and railways running through the site. Some areas are marked up for planned expansion, there are research and development facilities, prototype workshops, a styling studio as well as a myriad of huge production buildings. Thousands of people worked there, the streets around the plant housed thousands of families dependent on the thriving factory, for every job at the plant it is reckoned that about 5 further jobs were supported in support activities such as parts suppliers, transport drivers, sales staff and even the local shops and restaurants. The whole town fed this plant, and the plant fed the whole town.
And it’s all gone. Only a skeleton crew remain, some marketing people and a few support activities, even the fantastic array of cars in the heritage centre are restored and maintained by just one bloke. The streets reflect this change, there is not so much money about round there at the moment.
And this is not a case of me dreaming of a bygone industry, I’m not lamenting the passing of steam engines of horse drawn ploughs, no I’m cross because all those jobs went somewhere else. Vauxhall make more cars now than they did back then, the demand for there product is there, production is marching on, research and development is busier than ever, the jobs exist, but not here.
I’ve driven some very impressive cars here today, and I thank Vauxhall very much for the opportunity, but as I drive away through old streets, past the large retail site that has been built on part of the old factory, I feel a bit sad that all those jobs have gone. And with that loss the skills have gone, the real heritage of a hundred years of Vauxhalls, the stories, the effort, the stress of pushing out a new model, the dramas, all become fading memories.
People often ask me what the future of motoring holds, after all my day job is working with car companies to develop prototypes of the cars of the future. But the long term plans of the big car companies is only part of this story.
It’s true they try to guess the future, often a new car design will be in production for seven years with a facelift half way through, and it takes between three and five years to do all the engineering so all in all a totally new model may still be going strong a decade after the initial plan was agreed. And when you are investing billions in factories and engineering facilities you need to feel that your guesses will be fairly close to what the future will actually hold.
So many experts are consulted; economists, engineers, scientists, sociologists and pundits all make contributions in one way or another, and gradually a fuzzy picture of the future coalesces.
But times are changing.
Oil supply is uncertain, it’s not so much that it’s running out, more that politics and economics mean that prices will carry on going up and the reliability of supply is less certain than ten years ago. And when a critical factor like oil becomes iffy then long term plans become impossible to make, this means that it is far safer to plan for alternative fuels, and electric drives seem relatively easy to plan for (see a previous post). But even the role of alternatives is not clear cut, there is renewed interest in making fuel by reversing the combustion process with electricity. Petrol and diesel burn and turn mostly into water and carbon dioxide whilst releasing energy, so by combining water and carbon dioxide and putting loads of energy back in you get fuel. So depending on where the electricity comes from this has the potential to be carbon neutral and also has the benefit that the car industry doesn’t have to invent new engines. This could be the next big thing, really very big. Unless it’s easier to plan for electric drives or some other technology, in which case this will get too little investment and never get anywhere.
Fuel is a hugely contentious issue these days, both for its cost and its environmental effect.
Have you ever seen people complaining that they don’t get the claimed fuel economy from their car? The problem is drivers are hugely inconsistent, I am famed for squeezing higher fuel economy figures from almost any car, but a colleague of mine usually manages to use twice as much fuel as me on the same journey! And it’s not just MPG, its how many litres of fuel you have to pay for each month, and part of that is what route you choose and traffic flow.
But there are some bigger issues that will influence the future, did you know that road deaths in the UK have just started going up? About two thousand people are killed on the UK roads every year, that is an astonishing statistic, how the hell can we live with this situation? Almost all of these are caused by driver error.
These problems are contributing to the drive towards fully autonomous cars, although the main drive is the fact that most drivers hate driving and would rather be on the internet or chatting to friends, so having a robot chauffeur is a real selling point. We have already seen self parking cars gain popularity, and Volvo were the first to introduce collision avoidance where the car will do an emergency stop if it gets worried. All the car companies I know of are working on autonomous cars, they are still many years off, but within a decade they will be widely available.
Autonomous cars have the potential to reduce journey times, slash road deaths and injuries, reduce insurance costs, reduce financial losses, and reduce emissions. Manufacturers also benefit from a reduction in warranty costs caused by customers abusing their cars. And intriguingly once a car becomes autonomous the interior design focus changes dramatically towards being an entertainment or business centre, windows become less important, seats facing forward is no longer mandatory, just imagine the possibilities.
But in the shorter term there is still a lot of work going on refining existing technologies.
You may have noticed that engines are getting smaller again, coupled with much higher boost levels, such as the lovely little Ford three cylinder unit or the sprightly VW Tsi. This trend is set to continue over the next ten years at least, with a greater presence of electric hybrid drives to ensure the engine is used only at its best efficiency.
But something is coming that might make these plans irrelevant.
And it’s the weather.
People have noticed that the weather is becoming increasingly inconvenient. The climate is warming up, in the UK this means that crops are getting ruined year after year. I’m fairly close to the farming community and a startling thing is that most farmers I’ve spoken to can’t remember when they last had two consecutive good years. This year our food prices will go up, although to be fair we have very cheap food in the UK to start with, and there may be shortages of certain types of food. Initially grains will be diverted from animal feed stocks to feeding us directly,, driving up animal feed and thus meat prices will be the first to go up. This will drive inflation up and this in turn worries politicians, and when politicians get worried they usually pass some badly thought out laws.
But it’s not just food, floods have caused huge damage and disruption costing the country a fortune.
You can see where this is going can’t you? Yes it’s our old foe climate change, for decades people have been warning that there was a problem, and for over a decade the car industry has taken this very seriously but the problem has always been that the message we’ve been receiving has been confused and complex, making it impossible to know who to believe and so what to plan for. This is partly because the climate is a hugely complex thing, and our understanding of it is still in it’s infancy, what’s shocking is the lack of funding for this science, which takes us back to politicians.
Politicians react to popular opinion, more so near an election. So no matter what the real truth of the matter is (how about massive investment and incentives for zero carbon drives and proper funding for climate research? No, ok then spend the money on nuclear weapons we will never use.) politicians now have a population with ridiculously expensive fuel, flooded homes and food shortages. The people want this mess sorted out, so the standard scenario is that in this situation politicians choose someone to blame and pass laws to restrict the ‘bad thing’ that is the alleged cause of the problem.
Car companies are a bit worried about this situation, not knowing what laws will be passed on emissions or what taxes will be applied to fuel and different types of car means that long term plans are near impossible. Obviously 6.0 litre V8s will get hammered, but what about a 2.0 or a 1.5 litre turbo unit? If the top of your current range has a 3.0 V6, what should you plan to be using in ten years time? Maybe even a sub one litre engine will still get hammered?
And what about the cars due for release in 2013, many years of work and many millions, sometimes over a billion, have gone into getting each one into production. They simply have to be in production for their intended production life span or the company may suffer serious damage, and for very high volume producers like Ford or VW loosing the market on a new car because it gets taxed to oblivion or fails new emissions limits could bring it to its knees. This is serious stuff.
But more serious is the very real change in our climate, if greenhouse gasses are the problem then we have to engineer a technical way of ripping it out of the atmosphere in astonishing volumes, after all we’ve been pumping tons of shit into the air for hundreds of years and there is one hell of a lot of it up there now. And it’s not just CO2, Methane is far worse and a lot of that comes from our passion for meat, there are many factors and it all needs sorting out.
If the politics dictate that petrol and diesel suddenly face being taxed to death, or even banned, then all of a sudden getting funding for reformed fuel or electric drives will become a lot easier, because investors can see the benefit.
But time is running out, and what we need is some sort of certainty so long term plans can be made and investments made. Tell the car industry that cars in ten years time will have to be all electric and we know what we have to work with, sure it will be hard but it will get done. If its gas or reformed fuel or whatever, just let us know.
So what’s the next big thing? Could be reformed petrol, could be hydrogen, could be electric, could even be banning cars and everyone working from home (ok, not that). One thing that I have seen across the board is that there is an increased focus on putting more fun into motoring, there are some fabulous drivers cars in the pipeline. Longer term there are loads of fascinating technologies in their infancy that could change our lives fundamentally, some are being funded and some are just starting out. But in all honestly it all depends on politics, and one thing no one can predict is politicians.
On most cars built in the last 14 years there is a little yellow warning light with a picture of an engine on. This ‘Check Engine light, sometimes called the MIL light (Malfunction Indicator Light), comes on when something is gone wrong with the engine, it might not be a big problem but the engine’s computer thinks it’s at least bad enough for the car to fail an emissions test.
The great thing about these cars is that you and I can read its mind.
It’s been a long time since On Board Diagnostics (OBD) became standard on cars. There have been a few variations on the theme, such as K line or CAN, but these days there are a respectable number of fairly cheap devices that can read fault codes, making looking after your car that bit easier. In fact I would encourage any car enthusiast to get one.
For instance I use an application for my Android phone, it’s called Torque (I reviewed it in Evo magazine last year) and it cost me the princely sum of £2.92. To be able to physically talk to the car I connect it using a Bluetooth OBD interface based on the ELM327 chip, which cost about £12 off eBay. This allows me to read fault codes from the engine, and when appropriate to clear them. It also allows me to look at the values from sensors such as coolant temperature, engine speed and the signals from the oxygen sensors.
This is very handy when you like playing with bargain bangers, which tend to be about ten years old and frequently come pre-equipped with a host of minor faults. In fact I used it on the last car I bought, I must confess that I did something that I always advise other people not to do and bid on a car on eBay without viewing it! So when I went to pick it up I plugged my phone in to the OBD port and listed off the current faults, then had a chat with the seller about their claim that the car was ‘faultless’. We came to an arrangement.
They say knowledge is power, and knowledge of what’s on a cars mind certainly does give you bargaining power.
And all power came for less than £15, not bad.
I use this kit for servicing and maintenance, it can indicate when a small exhaust leak has just started or when an air meter is dirty and is reducing performance and economy. But I also use it for tuning, I’ve tried different spark plugs and checked the knock reading as well as watching the fuel flow to see if the efficiency has improved. As the phone has GPS I can compare the actual road speed to the speed the car thinks it’s doing, handy for calibrating the speedo when fitting bigger tyres. For someone who like to play with their cars this info is very useful, years ago kit to measure these things would have cost thousands, but now it’s cheaper than a large box of chocolates.
In fact I even use it when I’m working on prototype and experimental cars, as a first line in fault finding and making sure a car is running correctly before an important test.
I also have kit that does indeed cost many thousands, but it is bulky and needs a laptop (for those in the know I’m talking about INCA and an ES592 with all the leads and faf) so if I just need to have a quick look at the basics then I’ll use my phone instead.
Amazingly the app is so good that it can record data from the phone’s other features at the same time, so I can do a few laps of a test circuit and record critical values such as temperatures, air flow, fuel flow, lambda end engine speed, whist at the same time recording G forces from the Android phone’s inbuilt sensor and also record video from its camera. This gives me a very useful log file showing exactly what went on in the engine as I throw the car through the twisty bits.
Of course it doesn’t do everything that full professional kit does, but it gets pretty damn close for a fraction of the price. I am still impressed one year on.
But even for the normal car enthusiast this kit is really useful, even if you only use it for fault code reading and resetting the ‘Check Engine’ light. I have seen many dealers charging around £250 for this service, so if you only ever use it once you’ve saved a packet.
I should mention at this point that there are two completely separate sets of fault codes from the engine, the set used here is the standard set that is dictated by law, all cars use this set and it includes the ability to clear codes and reset the fault light. But there is also a second set that is manufacturer specific, this allows for unique design features and gives more detail, a simple reader won’t usually understand these codes. Some companies such as VAG make heavy use of these special codes, but even so a basic reader will still tell you if something is not right.
However I have to sound a warning, these fault codes are not to be taken too literally. A common problem is a slightly corroded connector leading to an incorrect diagnosis of a failed sensor, imagine a little bit of moisture creeping into the engine speed sensor connector, leave it a few years and a tiny spot of corrosion forms. Some days when you go to start the engine it doesn’t get a signal from the sensor and so flags up a sensor fault. You take the car to a dealer who plugs in the diagnostic tool, see the fault code and immediately replaces the perfectly good sensor with a new one. When they plug the new sensor in the tiny spot of corrosion is scraped off and all seems fine again. Two things happen, firstly you get charged for a sensor you didn’t need, and secondly about a year later the same fault re-appears. All it needed was the connector cleaning and a quick squirt of contact grease.
Another classic fault is an oxygen sensor reading too lean, but rather than the sensor being at fault it is more likely to be a small exhaust leak that’s causing the problem.
So you see, fault codes can be misleading. They are great for telling you the area that has a problem, but this is only the start of the investigation for a competent mechanic.
It’s one thing to read fault codes, it’s another to actually understand them.
But don’t worry if you are not a trained engineer, owning a code reader is still great because you can read the codes and go onto your car’s model forum and ask the collective expertise what might be causing it. The internet is great for this kind of wisdom, and one thing car enthusiasts are good at is talking about problems and solutions. We are no longer limited to just the contents of our own brain.
There are limitations to the ability of cheap devices, most wont read codes from your ABS system or be able to program new keys to your car, but for the rare times you might need one of these features there is usually someone from the forum or club near you who has the kit and is only too pleased to help.
Your car diagnostics should not be a mystery to you, codes were standardized by law to make sure we all had the ability to fix and maintain our cars, so go on, splash the cash on a new gadget and explore your motors mind.
And yes, I am full expecting to get bombarded with questions about codes on my Twitter account now! 😉
When I was little I remember listening to old people talking about a time when there where no cars, the feeling of excitement and wonder when they saw their firs one, a feeling mixed with a little fear as the mechanical marvel seemed to take over every aspect of life. Where once they played in the road now the car was king, and a ruthless one at that. Communities divided by a constant steam of deadly traffic.
Of course today we take the car for granted. Many have moved away from the workers slums into suburbia and now rely on the car to support this freedom.
We teach our children ‘road sense’ so they can cross the road safely. Most drivers are not deadly speed demons (although in town most people still speed, 40 in a 30 zone IS deadly). Society adjusts and we move on.
Now it seems that its my turn to sound old because I remember a time when there were no PCs.
I remember the excitement of my first Sinclair ZX80, the awe of seeing the colour ZX Spectrum.
But now I feel the fear.
Now don’t get me wrong here, I am a great believer in the usefulness of computers, I have a degree in computer systems engineering, I have made a career out of devising and tweaking computer control systems for cars.
But still, now I feel the fear.
When I was studying to become and engineer, every step of the way I was told of the importance of doing things properly. With a large computer program one has to exactly and correctly specify what it should do in every detail. One must also specify what it must not do! Once the program is written then it must be tested against this specification and every possible combination of circumstances must be tested. That way there are no ‘bugs’ and unexpected effects.
But life is not like that.
The software (and also hardware now) on almost everything is so complex that it requires a computer program just to be able to test it.
No one programmer can do the whole thing, its just too big, so we have teams. So now we have programs to help the teams work together without bits getting left out and prevent miss interpretations etc.
But we live in a capitalist society. Its not just the engineers that create products, its corporations. Many individuals with their own beliefs on how things should be done dictating the boundaries and detail of what the engineer can do but without a sound understanding of the technicalities.
Money has too be made (exceptions include Linux (three cheers)) and so whole chunks of code from other programs are grafted in to new programs, the people producing this new program may not know the details of how this chunk was written and all its effects. Sometimes there may be a ‘surprise’ effect caused by the interaction of this chunk with the rest of the program, other chunks grafted in or indeed other programs running on the same machine or network.
Testing takes time and money and delays the launch date. Some things just cant be tested completely due to their nature, for example if your program predicts the weather then how do you test every possible combination of weather across the whole world and still meet the deadlines.
Also the hardware too is so complex that it is not commercially viable to test everything, or indeed possible. With several million transistors on a single chip is never going to get tested for the effects of every combination of individual transistor failures.
So that’s where we are today. Our systems are only partially tested and often a patchwork of other peoples work all stuck together with hope and optimism. Or indeed sometimes cynicism.
Many consumer products are made by inexperienced teams and pushed out by unscrupulous corporations (particularly in countries where software standards are not enforced) and are largely unproven.
Many of us have experienced the result of this growing problem, such as the PC just locking up when you try a new program or simply getting slower and slower as time goes by. These bug and software faults are so common that many people think it is normal for computers to behave like this. For instance the PC I am writing this on is twelve years old, it still does everything it was designed to and since running Linux it hasn’t slowed right down or ground to a halt, yet still most people accept that computers need replacing every other year and expect it to slow down over time. It must be realised that it doesn’t have to be this way, technically, but commercial pressures will continue to make the problem worse and this will be compounded as more and more code is piled on to bring use ever more features.
Complexity is a big problem and is the subject of many a professors career, things are getting more and more complex and there is no proper engineering control on it.
Now, the reason that I am writing this is not just to have a good whinge about my computer crashing or indeed to complain about commercial forces ruining good engineering. Those things make me angry, but they are not the cause of my fear.
The fear stems from how we are using these systems as a society, how we are relying on the unreliable.
Computer systems are now increasingly being used as part of the law enforcement system, finance control, travel systems and even food production
Speed cameras always cause a good argument so I will stir thing up a bit further. Now I know very well that excessive speed increases danger of injury and general twisting of machinery and putting a speed camera outside a school is no bad thing.
The issue for me comes from the fact that the picture generates an automatic fine for a person. There is no human judgement in the loop, bang, guilty until proven innocent. And that’s wrong.
A friend of mine suffered from a theft from his car, not the usual sort of theft, the number plates were stolen. It turns out that persons of criminal persuasion are stealing a car then cruising round till they find an identical type of car and putting those plate on theirs. Then they can generate speeding fines and parking tickets with impunity and even commit serious crime knowing full well that the system will point the finger at some one else. It even cause the police to waste time with the wrong chap, keeping the heat off the criminals long enough for them to make their escape.
Guilty until proven innocent, trial by computer, not good, not very British.
Maybe soon we will all have ID cards. This means that criminals only need to forge one item instead of a string off items as at present, thus making their life easier. The systems used for security are simply to complex to be testable, and driven down on price so the quality is marginal. Its simply not reliable.
If you want quality you have to pay for it because quality systems take more time to engineer and more time to test and it all costs money.
We are entering the beginning of a time when cars become more autonomous, adaptive cruise control will adjust the car speed to the traffic conditions, lane assist can nudge the steering to stop you drifting off your chosen path, we even have auto parking systems. It is a logical step to bring all these ideas together and link them to the sat nav to create fully autonomous cars, Google are investing heavily in this idea. Once the systems become common there will be increasing pressure to ban manual driving, after all an autonomous car doesn’t get road rage, doesn’t speed, can see through fog, never gets distracted and should never crash. All those computer systems running all those programs written by thousands of different people at different times in different places and controlling your car….
In the near future there will be an attempt to make remote vehicle arrestors mandatory on all new cars. This system uses ABS systems that have full authority breaking and engine management systems to bring a car to a halt using a radio command that only police will have. In a simplistic world this is great, you report your car stolen and the police can bring it to a halt when the conditions are safe. No more getaway cars. Well, unless criminals use older cars, but that loophole is easily solved by making classic cars illegal and crushing them all!
The problems include accidental stopping of the car (you cant prove the software completely due to its complexity and you cant prove the hardware completely because you cant test every failure and every type of possible radio interference etc), incorrect use by the police or other agencies, vehicle being stopped by criminals equipped with illicit stopping systems for the purpose of car jacking. Finally there is always a way to bypass the system, always a loop hole, a bug, a back door or an ‘unintentional feature’.
I was on a train in Germany last year which suddenly stopped in the middle of no where without warning, brakes full on. Luckily I had finished my coffee so the cup was empty when it slid of the table. The cause of this potentially dangerous emergency stop was a software error in the very system that is supposed to protect the train from crashes.
Our corporate based society does not allow for well written systems to be made as profitably as the quickly written ones.
This is a real problem and is getting worse as more systems are used.
In my life I rely on a mobile phone, I rely on my car, my computer, email, bank direct debits, automatic payments, alarm clock, microwave, fridge, washing machine, traffic lights etc. The power feeding my home is controlled by systems all linked together in a network. The amount of chlorine in the water I drink is monitored electronically. Aeroplanes are flown expertly by computers over my head, the air traffic is controlled by other computers.
I use my switch card to pay for car tax, the little computer in the post office reads my details and talks to one of many networked computers at the bank, the figure in my account file is reduced and a message sent to the post office bank computer to tell it to increase the number in its account. Then a message is sent to a computer at DVLA and it changes the value of a variable in a file so that when another program does its daily check of who has tax it will not automatically send a message to another computer to send me a fine and automatically turn me into a criminal. I never see these computers and they never see me. But they can bankrupt me accidentally or send me to jail.
These systems are not designed completely by engineers, the specifications and design constraints are created by politicians and computer sales executives who simply don’t understand.
When I was a child, I was proud to be British, a country that believed in tolerance, understanding and fair play. I was proud of my country.
Now I am scared of my country and the automatic systems that rule my life.
My bank local branch has just got rid of all its cashiers, you have to use the machines now. Signatures have been replaced with PINs.
Make no mistake, these systems give us great ability as a society and as in individual. The principles of the systems are very good, it’s often empowering and can change lives for the better. Even this blog site gives me a platform to express my beliefs and concerns in a way that was impossible a generation ago. I am a great believer in technology.
But as far as I can see if we are to rely on systems then they must be reliable.
Also, there must always be a human in the loop when ever civil liberty is at stake.
And finally, there must always be a manual back up for those odd days when thing don’t quite work the way they should.
Or at least the truth from an engineering perspective. And that is an important distinction because of course the main catalyst for the change is political, there may be some very fine environmental and technical reasons for the change too, but politics holds all the aces. It can make oil prices prohibitive, it can subsidise new technologies that herald breakthrough innovations.
You see, every life changing new technology had to start somewhere, it usually starts off prohibitively expensive and a bit unreliable. Just think about those early mobile phones the size of a suitcase with a battery life of only a few minuets and call costs a hundred times greater than a normal land line. Or even the first computers, the size of a large room and less brains than a digital watch. The format is well established; pour loads of funding into research, laugh at boffins making experimental machines with questionable ability, wait for a company to spot the potential, get it into production and within ten years every competitor is developing better versions.
But electric cars are a bit of an exception because at the dawn of motoring they were a front runner, even Porche’s first car was electric. 130 years ago petrol was not readily available, you bought it in cans for quite a lot of money, car journeys were very short and cars were so expensive that only those with a large estate could afford one. Electric cars had the advantage over those first fledgling petrol cars in many ways, they were faster, quieter, much more reliable and had no starting problems. They didn’t even need a gearbox or clutch mechanism, so driving them was a far simpler affair than a crash box piston powered chariot.
But the materials technology needed to advance battery design was simply not there, the early EV hit a performance limit that it couldn’t break free from. The second problem was in motor control, all they had was switches, and as motors became more powerful the need for fine control at low speed became more problematic.
By comparison funding poured into petrol engine design, at that time it was far easier to improve than electric cars and oil companies were understandably keen to see this new product thrive. A couple of world wars forced engine design ahead very rapidly, not least to power aircraft from the humble Tiger Moth to the magnificent Spitfire.
Very rapidly it became far easier to make a high power, low cost petrol engine, opening up the possibility of cheap mass market motor cars.
Electric vehicles didn’t stand a chance. Half a century ago there was simply no reason to invest in electric vehicle research, emissions concerns had not yet manifested, climate change was unheard of and oil supplies were plentiful. A few enthusiasts continued to attempt to make electric vehicles, enjoying their simplicity and quietness, but materials technology would still limit their capability.
But times change, and now with political difficulties in oil supply, a far greater and ever developing understanding of emissions problems and climate change, coupled with massive advancements in technology there is an overwhelming desire to find alternatives to petrol and diesel.
This means that funding is now pouring into research in electric vehicles. But as mentioned above this is merely the first stage in a product becoming a commercial success, early adopters such as Honda with the Insight and more recently Toyota with the Prius have been suffering the commercial pain of subsidising less than ideal technology, but remember this is another essential stage in a technology’s development.
I hope that gives you an idea of where we are; about half way to getting a really useful, cheap and effective electric vehicle. There is now sufficient funding from a sufficiently large range of institutions, governments and corporations that the rest of the development process is pretty much inevitable, after all they all want to see a return on their investments.
Of course electric cars are not the only option for reducing CO2, existing piston engines could be re-engineered to run on hydrogen, and that fuel could be obtained by electrolysis of water. Storing hydrogen is a bit tricky unfortunately, but there are some exciting new developments that could make it a viable option. This has the advantage of using existing engine technology, but introduces large inefficiencies due to the process of hydrogen manufacture, its transport and the low efficiency of the internal combustion engine. You’d be lucky to turn 15% of the electrical energy used in hydrogen production into energy at the car’s wheels. and as ever you loose all that energy as soon as you apply the brakes.
The observant amongst you will know that lost energy from braking could be recovered by hooking up generators to the wheels and using the recovered energy to power the wheels on the next acceleration, as in KERS and other regenerative brake systems, but then you are carrying part of the weight and financial burden of the electric car but without all the benefit.
When you consider the total path from the source to the wheel the electric car can work out significantly better, potentially getting 50% of the source energy to the car wheels.
The other interesting possibility is gaining some, or possibly all, of the electricity from solar cells built into the car body. Various companies are developing composite body panels and special paints that act as solar panels that can be unobtrusively incorporated into the car design. In the UK the average energy from the sun through our legendary gloomy cloud is enough to power a small family car for about ten miles each day, so if all the car does is the school run and weekly shop then there could potentially be no fuel cost. Although as ever with new technology the first cars to have this feature will be hideously expensive and totally negate this benefit, but in time it will become a viable option.
Emissions are not the only reason for going electric, as the technology matures and becomes cheaper it will eventually become far cheaper to make an electric car than a combustion engined one. On a modern small car the engine and associated emissions systems can easily cost more than the rest of the entire car, getting this cost down is a huge incentive to car companies that struggle to make a profit at the best of times. in fact car companies have been trying to get up into electric cars for decades, remember the Ford Think?
There are many other benefits too, electric drives lend themselves to the ever increasing demands of advanced traction and stability control systems. As driver aids such as auto parking gradually evolve into fully autonomous self driving cars, having a simple method of accurately controlling the torque at each wheel becomes increasingly important.
When you put all these factors together the case for electric vehicles becomes compelling, and when you add in the political desire to reduce dependence on unstable oil producing countries the argument becomes overwhelming.
Obviously we are not quite there yet, historically the big problem has always been the battery. Old methods resulted in heavy, expensive and physically large units with limited range, they haven’t really changed in over a century. But in the last ten years or so there has been renewed investment, finally, and whilst there is still a long way to go we are definitely on the road to success already.
In fact as the ‘power density’ of batteries improves, eventually it will exceed that of petrol. This means that eventually electric cars will be lighter for the same power when compared to a petrol or diesel car, or more interesting to a racer like me, an electric car will be more powerful for the same weight. Imagine massively powerful electric supercars with precise control of the torque at each wheel from its four wheel motors, the ultimate in performance. The future world of electric vehicles is a very exciting place.
So there it is, electric cars offer huge benefits to the environment, car companies, drivers and world politics. They are not perfect yet, but within a decade or two they will be as ubiquitous as mobile phones.
And yes, before you ask, I still prefer the sound of a V8. But as long as the car accelerates as if it had one then maybe I could cope, after all we can always simulate the sound!
For more news about electric cars why not follow Robert Llewellyn, a superb ambassador for the EV revolution:bobbyllew
And you must follow Jonny Smith and his fabulous drag racing electric car ‘Flux Capacitor’: Carpervert
The car industry is a very spacial environment, with some very special people in. It seem to attract an amazing mix of personalities and a huge range of talents. Making cars fires some people with an enthusiasm that drives them far beyond the limits of their own talent, it’s a curios business, not quite like any other area of industry.
The history of the car industry is littered with the corpses of dead dreams, idealists, optimists, dreamers have all had a hand in making the story, but equally so have rogues, villains and cheats. It’s even more colourful than the newspaper industry!
Sometimes it’s just one name that signifies the loss of hope, the crushing of dreams and the tragic culling of ordinary hard working decent folk’s jobs. Names like Delorean are well known, but he is unusual in being almost universally held guilty, more often opinion is ferociously split. Names like Eagan, one camp see him as securing the future of Jaguar
with a wealthy parent (Ford), others view his skill in presenting a failing company as being a raging success as nothing more than a traditional used car salesman, some love him, some hate him, this is more often the case with the main characters in the industry.
There are a couple of key facts that are far too often overlooked when bloated executives prepare a new daring business plan for a car company. Firstly it takes a hell of a lot of money, time and people to develop a good car. I think the Ford Focus cost something like four billion dollars, seven years and a couple of thousand people to develop. That’s a huge investment, and a really long wait for a return, remember that is four billion over seven years and not one salable car produced, it would be many years after production started before any return on investment was made. In the Focus case it turned out rather well, but that’s not guaranteed, remember the Scorpio? That was designed many years before launch, as are all cars, can you predict what cars will look like in five years? Can you make a style that will fit in nicely on the high street in ten years time? It’s really easy to poke fun at the tragedy of the Scorpio, a car that lost Ford the D sector market so utterly that they found it more cost effective to just buy Volvo instead of trying to resurrect it, but when you look at the Mercedes that came out a few years later it looks very similar so they were not that far off.
Car design is a massive gamble, huge in fact. Not only does the product have to meet all the customers expectations, but it must meet incredibly stringent legal requirements too. I won’t bang on about the incredible scale and breadth of technical challenges, suffices to say it makes rocket science seem easy by comparison. I’m struggling to thing of another high tech, multi computer controlled, real time systems that has to function in specific ways even whilst being crashed.
It’s a sad fact that throughout the history of car design incompetent management have made the tragic mistake of thinking that the technical things they don’t know about must be easy. Just look at the once magnificent Rover K series engine, originally designed with a closed deck block, no head gasket worries there, solid and robust. But a decision was made to stretch it to a capacity well above it’s original design limits, this is not an engineers decision, this is a managers decision. This decision necessitated the loss of the closed deck and the inevitable sensitivity of the head gasket, but the mangers did what they so often do and pushed it through. Then they had a the clever idea of saving money by making the smaller engines in the same way, thus making the formally robust 1.4 just as fragile as the 1.8. The rest is history.
This is just one example of management not understanding the importance of investing in new designs to meet new targets. This problem is often scaled up to include whole companies, not just one car part. Trying to produce a new model without the correct investment in time, money and people results in inadequate products. Inadequate products result in reduced sales, and so less revenue coming in. Now a clever management team would spot this and invest in a new product to get sales up again, this is a long term strategy and makes successful companies. But a poor management team will notice the falling revenue and react the wrong way by tightening spending, reducing investment and continuing to bang out inadequate cars but with shinier badges and brighter paint.
When BMW sold Rover they had already made the investment in the 75, from that point on not one new model was developed. The Phoenix chaps made no obvious attempt to replace the old Honda derived 400/45/MGZwhateverthehellitwas etc. Remember it costs billions to develop a new car, they ‘invested’ millions, so no new platforms, no new engines, no new sales. From the moment they announced their plans most people inside the industry knew it was just a matter of time before the company sputtered to a tragic and unnecessary halt. The fact the the government also were convinced to invest millions into the failing company merely shows that ministers were either clueless or had other motives for handing over money to the increasingly wealthy board members.
Compare this with Jaguar, a company that had suffered inadequate investment since the grim days of the ’70s. When Ford took stock of what they bought and found out the truth they swallowed hard and started investing in making new models such as the XK8 and the S type, they also invested heavily on a complete redesign of the XJ plus they funded the development of Jaguars own legendary V8 even though Ford had a wealth of V8 engines available. They invested heavily and sales increased. No one is perfect and the idea that the X type would out sell the BMW 3 series was flawed, that decision cost them dearly. And the conservative styling of the S type and the XJ limited appeal. But again they saw struggling revenues and invested in new models, the current stunning XJ, XF and XKR were all funded by Ford. They bought Land Rover when BMW split up the Rover group and used the Jaguar engines in a range of new models there too. Unfortunately for Ford their own cash flow problems meant they had to sell Jaguar Land Rover before they saw the return on the investment, but their decision to invest in new engineering has resulted in Jaguar Land Rover posting billion dollar profits.
The same success from investment can be seen at companies such as Rolls Royce and Bentley. Morgan is a fascinating departure from the norm, they have steadfastly remained focused on doing what they do best, on servicing their unique customers demands, resisting the brainless call to expand excessively. They have stayed small but crucially stayed profitable, it is a very clever model and one that any aspiring business leader should make time to understand. But even they have understood the need to invest in new models, but where they could not afford to design their own parts they have bought in parts that meet their needs, benefiting from someone else’s investment and avoiding the trap of under investing in designing their own engines etc.
Focused investment at the right level generates success. Under investment generates failure.
So you see, if a mainstream car company announces it is going to make new models then there needs to be a large amount of money behind it to work, billions not millions. It also need the facilities and people to make it happen, thousands, not hundreds.
If you see a company that historically designs only one new model at a time then they will have the facilities and people to do only that. If they announce that they will suddenly make five new models at once then they will need five times more people, larger facilities and huge investment.
It is sad to see that there are such companies about in the UK, making bold plans but with a fraction of the required investment. The same old story, with inevitably the same old ending; lots of trouble, usually serious.
There is a saying in the army; something like the first casualty of any war is the plan. This reflects the fact that in adversity normal rules fail, but it is not restricted to war zones, there is a battle raging on all around us and on our streets right now.
If you starve a colony of rats they will eventually start killing each other, so I’m reliably told, to reduce the burden on the available food supply. They start by turning on the weak and old, then turn on the outsiders and any member of the community who is unusual in any way. We do the same, in fact most creatures do this to survive.
The instinct to turn on some members of the community when times get hard can be seen in the ridiculous way that some drivers demonise drivers of other types of vehicle. We all feel the pinch from fuel prices and many of us feel guilt at CO2 output, and whilst this drives some of us to find better ways to get about and to develop better cars, it also drives some people to blame minorities for their own perceived plight. One example that effects me is the way 4x4s are attacked. We have two Land Rovers, and they are used for heavy jobs but not for long journeys so their annual CO2 footprint is quite small, but that doesn’t stop 4×4 haters putting anonymous hate mail under the wipers and campaigning to ban them. The fact that a 20k mile a year Micra chucks out twice as much nasty each year seems to escape them.
This is just one example where society fragments and one section turns on another. Unfortunately all this does is consume energy and resources for no useful result, surely their cause would be better served if our energy is whole heatedly put into solving the problems of CO2 rather than banning this or that sub set of the community. In the UK 4×4 all terrain vehicles count for a very small percentage of the cars on the road, and their lower average mileage means that even with a slight increase in fuel consumption they contribute a minority of the road vehicle CO2, so banning them is not going to help anyway, and crucially all the media attention takes attention away from the truly important debate on how we stop CO2 emissions completely. (And before you go off on one; yes this does assume the CO2 issue is real, I am not going to get involved in that debate as I don’t have enough detailed knowledge to make a positive contribution, but in the context of this article it serves to illustrate how society fragments and how this is counter productive. So please don’t have a go at me about CO2)
Manufacturers are chucking huge quantities of money and resources into solving these big problems, but making plans for future eco products is hampered by the car buying populous constantly bickering amongst themselves about what sort of car is best, for example Ford has repeatedly tried to sell electric city cars such as the Think which was available a decade ago, but no one bought them. We have the hybrid fanciers and the hybrid haters, each throwing salvoes of misinterpreted data at each other to prove their own point of view. We have the big car lobby and the small car evangelists undermining each others right to exist on the road. Performance car enthusiasts are put against green car preachers, each striving to point out the pointlessness of the other’s point of view. The fact is we all have the same right to be here, we are all part of the problem and simply fragmenting will not solve anything.
Imagine if instead of finger pointing we actually joined forces, with car sharing on each part of the street so that one families diesel estate got used by many families for their annual holiday, or the neighbours 4×4 was available to anyone in the community to borrow for really big jobs and getting provisions in the snow. There is no technical obstacle to this, but there is a massive attitude problem which kills the idea dead. In any scheme like this someone always get disproportionately more benefit than someone else, but so what? As long as everyone in that group gets enough benefit what does it matter if someone else gets even more? But most humans rarely think like that.
Of course it is not just the car world that has this problem, recently we saw public sector strikes that seemed to resolve everybody’s opinions either for or against, most opinions seemed to be formed with the minimum of data and the maximum of social prejudice. For my part I voiced the opinion that I found it difficult to agree with the strike when we were all suffering from financial hardships, notice I did not say I disagreed with it, just that I found it difficult. In this example there are genuine grievances, if I signed up for a job on the promise of a good pension and several years of hard work later it suddenly gets taken away then I too would be bloody fuming. Clearly this aspect is a very bad thing to do. But when we look at the other side we find that there simply is not enough money to pay for this as well as everything else, this is a very big problem that has been brewing for many years and is suffered by most western countries. In this case both sides are right, the solution is to generate more wealth to pay for the promises whilst adjusting the terms of employment for new recruits, or something along those lines possibly. But rather than have a national debate about how to fix this and coming up with ideas, we are instead once again fragmenting into ‘sides’ and just having a slanging match.
Then there is the current hatred for rich people, it seems that anyone who has managed to amass a decent wedge must be vilified for the obviously evil methods they used to steal the cash of the hard working whatever. Again this is pointless, there are freeloading useless people in every sector of society, no one has a monopoly on bastards. But instead of discussing how we can all get a bit better off the argument descends into taking money off rich people to give to poor people, and in doing so fragments society into those who have money and those who don’t, rather than joining forces and generating new businesses that add value and generate wealth.
My message is a simple one; stop attacking and start building. Time is running short, and there’s a storm coming.
There have been many stories of genius inventors making a car that runs on water, only to be silenced by the evil oil companies, never to be seen again.
I was intrigued by the sheer volume of technical claims, despite decades working at the cutting edge of automotive technology and being immersed in scientific theory I am acutely aware there is always room for doubt, and for new ideas to surprise and change the way we think. Ideas like these are rare but happen often enough to make keeping an open mind and essential part of the make up of the modern engineer.
The traditional view is that water is basically hydrogen that has already been burnt, so it has no usable energy content left. Because of this fact there is a tendency to think that all these people who believe in water power are all nutters who probably have been abducted by aliens and experimented on for a laugh and are a tiny minority. But nothing prepared me for the depth and complexity of the technical explanations and the shear volume of conspiracy theory’s involving governments, car makers and oil companies all in cahoots to keep us buying expensive oil.
Well, let me assure you that car makers would quite happily stab the oil companies in the back if they could sell a few more cars, and one that ran on water would sell rather well, don’t you think?
So, how do you run your car on water?
Well, you will need a big plastic jar (screw top with a good seal), a small plastic jar, some tubing, a few strips of metal, some small bolts, a fuse and some wire.
But before I go into details, I want to talk about electrolysis. I found a number of amusing web sites that propose the use of hydrogen made from passing current through water. So far that’s not a bad idea, many car companies are investing quite a lot in converting petrol engines to run on hydrogen.
Where these sites go off the rails is when they generate the gas on board the car, using electricity from the alternator, which is of course powered by the engine.
Here are some basic figures for you, a good car engine will convert 33% of the energy released from the fuel into usable power at full throttle, it goes down to about 10% at light loads. An old carb engine might be as poor as 20% at full tilt. Oddly enough big engines can be more thermally efficient than small ones, its all to do with heat loss and the ratio of volume vs surface area, the most efficient piston engines in the world are the cathedral engines in super tankers, such as the 25 thousand litre Wartsila-Sulzer RTA96-C turbocharged two-stroke 14 cylinder, which gets up to 50% efficiency. You may recal I did a blog post about it last month, its very impressive but at 2300 tons you would struggle to get it in a car.
So, going back to our in-car hydrogen plant, with the precious little power left at the crank we drive the alternator, which usually has quite a good efficiency, converting about 90% of the power fed into it into electrical energy.
Then there is electrolysis, at the molecular level, the energy you put in to separating water into hydrogen and oxygen is the same energy you get back when you set fire to it. Interestingly, some of that energy can come from heat from the environment, ie the heat from the engine.
So, when you add up all those efficiencies up, to produce 1bhp worth of hydrogen, the engine has to burn nearly 4bhp worth to make the process work.
Guess why it doesn’t work!
Mind you, if you generate the electricity away from the car, say from a wind turbine in your back garden, store the gas in huge explosive bags attached to the roof of your car then you are on to a winner. Until it imitates the Hindenburg.
So once again I have shown that you can’t run your car on water. So now I will finally get round to showing you how to do it.
One of the reasons that the efficiency of car engines is so low is that not all the petrol gets burnt, and some gets partially burnt. The actual combustion process is very complicated, with molecules decomposing into sub species before reforming into exhaust gasses. The flame front travel across the cylinder is also semi-chaotic and some molecules get passed by entirely. Some start burning then hit the cold cylinder walls and stop burning, some start burning at the end of the process when the piston is to far down to convert it into usable energy. Petrol mixtures burn at a rate of about 40 to 50 centimeters per second depending on loads of factors like pressure, turbulence and temperature. That’s one of the reasons that big engines run slower as it takes longer for the flame to travel across the bigger combustion chamber, for instance that super tanker engine I mentioned produces 5 million ftlb of torque at just over 100 rpm.
If we could speed up the burning process then more of the petrol’s energy can be converted into useful work on the piston. Also, if we could put in something that would mix more readily with the air and bridge the gaps in the fuel mixture we could avoid those dead spots.
Ooh, hydrogen does that, it mixes very readily and burns faster. So all we need is a very small amount of hydrogen and we can improve the efficiency of the petrol.
Well, if its so good why hasn’t it been done before? Well, it turns out that this method has been used for many years and some reasonable research has gone into it, have a trawl through the SAE web site and you will see that many respected institutions and big companies have published papers on the subject. Some use methane which is broken into hydrogen and carbon dioxide by the use of rather hot steam. Of course you then have a hydrogen car that produces co2 which is sort of bad really.
So here is the theory; you get a bucket of water strapped to the car, stick two bits of metal in it (electrodes) connected to the battery (via a switch and fuse). The lid on the bucket has a hose to transport the explosive hydrogen and oxygen gas to another bottle where any water is removed (don’t want to hydraulic the engine). Finally the hose is stuffed somewhere in the intake to allow the gas in.
Great, but how much gas do we need? Well, to make 1g of hydrogen you need to apply 285Kj of energy to the water, luckily the water tends to use energy from the environment during the process, so potentially about 48 Kj of heat will come from the engine bay, leaving our electrics to provide about 237Kj per gram.
Now, power in Watts is Joules per second. So 1.4Kw (1 HP) is 1.4Kj per second. Which works out equivalent to burning about 0.006 grams of hydrogen per second, or in volume terms that’s about 0.066 litres per second, a steady stream of small bubbles.
So for a cars electric system to put in 14Kw of power at 14v the current will be 100 amps, which is a lot.
But remember we are not talking about using the hydrogen to power the engine, but to help get more useful energy from burning the petrol. So the big question is how much do we actually need? The web sites suggest one litre of water will last up to 900 miles. That works out at about 1.1g per mile, and of that 1.1g of water there is only 0.12g of hydrogen per mile. At average speeds this works out at about 0.0013g/s, about one fifth of a bhp, less than 1% of the overall fuelling and will draw about 10 amps in the electrolysis bucket.
To get a sensible answer to all this, I nailed some scrap metal into an old washing powder tub and tried out some combinations.
The first version was one recommended on an American web site, claiming up to 40% gains in efficiency. It consists of a one litre plastic container with two bolts in as electrodes. But even with a little salt added to my copy it only managed to draw 0.1 amps and no detectable gas flowed out of the outlet hose. In short, it was useless and had no effect on the engine.
Clearly we need more power, one of my favourite sayings. So next we have a system with drastically increased conductor length by using wire, wound round a cross shaped former, still in the one litre pot. This has the effect of drawing 10 amps, about where most of the internet products are, and a steady stream of bubbles.
This very small amount of gas will have the most dramatic effect on the engine at lower loads and idle because that is where it will be the biggest proportion of the total mixture, so I fitted the system to the intake and watched the injector pulse widths and lambda compensations so see what effect it had. Well, the web sites suggest a 30% fuel saving overall, so at idle it must be huge, but no, there was absolutely no difference on average.
I even drove it round for a few weeks, and at first I though I could just detect an improvement in power and the fuel bill seemed to be dropping. But then it went up again; it turned out that it was just me driving more carefully as I paid more attention to what I was doing after fitting the kit. This is a very common phenomenon.
So how much gas do I need then? Well, some very useful research has been done by NASA and various universities. Basically to get a 30% increase in efficiency (power out vs fuel in) we need to run 90% hydrogen/10% petrol!
At 50 % hydrogen the efficiency improvement is only 15%, but what does that mean in a normal car? Well, if you are cruising down the motorway you might be using about 20kw of engine power, if you only run 50% HHO then that’s 10kw of electricity running through your jam jar, at 14v that’s over 710 amps out of your alternator! But then that power comes from the engine so it would now have to produce over 30kw, which would mean a 30% increase in petrol use in order to gain a 15% efficiency saving….. Hmmmmm..
Now, bear in mind that the average driver can improve their fuel economy by up to 30% just by learning better driving techniques, and that on an average commute fuel economy can vary by 20% easily depending on what mood the driver is in. So subjective assessment of 10% economy gain is meaningless, it has to be checked on a proper test facility.
There are of course other ways of generating hydrogen on board a car, using chemical reactions, and this would take the alternator problem out of the loop, but generally the chemicals are rather nasty/expensive and leave a chemical waste problem.
One of the favourites being explored by the car industry is called ‘reformate’ where the petrol is partly separated into CO2 and Hydrogen using a catalysts and exhaust heat. At the moment the fuel savings don’t justify the expense of the extra equipment, but I am sure that will change in time.
Water has a number of other benefits in a traditional engine, I am sure you know about water injection which turns a bit more of the heat energy from combustion into pressure energy. It also reduces cylinder temperatures and so reduces knock, allowing a bit more advance. But also a small amount of water, up to 5%, if well mixed in the fuel before its injected can increase power by up to 7%. Unfortunately you cannot just chuck a cup of water in the fuel tank, because it wont mix, you need some reasonably clever and accurate mixing machinery.
In short, there is a lot you can do with water. However, if you google ‘water car’ then the myriad of websites that appear generally talk complete twaddle and make excessive claims for there own brand of hocus. Whilst I am talking about the web sites, there were a few claims that I feel are potentially harmful.
First is the matter of your cars warrantee, unlikely anyone thinking of doing this will have any, but the point is that despite the various web site claims, fitting absolutely anything to your engine will invalidate the warrantee. In the car industry we spend a huge amount of time and effort checking the car works under all sorts of conditions, it takes years for each model to complete all the tests before being ready for production. Modern engines are so finely tuned that any disturbance will cock things up, and that includes those plug in chip tunes by the way. So plumbing in a bottle of water to your intake will definitely lose any warrantee.
Next, some sites sell you electronic devices to bias engine sensors to make it run lean, best fuel economy generally happens when you run 10% lean of stoich, which is fine at part load on a non cat car, but obviously not at full load because things overheat and fail, and if you have a cat it will stop working eventually. And as these are sold without checking the engine on a dyno the potential for detonation or catalyst damage is rather significant.
Then there is the matter of additives in the water, remember it all goes somewhere and some chemicals will put quite nasty things into the atmosphere. Some sites advocate volatile fuel additives too, again the reason the car industry doesn’t do this is that it poisons the catalyst and puts very nasty stuff into the air. Fuels with super chemicals that don’t pollute as much are readily available, such as Shell Optimax or BP Ultimate which have over 200 chemicals in to get the best performance.
Safety seems to get a fairly low priority too. Remember that as we separate the water we get a perfectly explosive mix of hydrogen and oxygen, albeit in very small amounts. If the pot you generate the gas in is not ventilated then any slight spark could leave you pot-less and potentially destroy things under the bonnet. Luckily most of these systems produce so little gas that it is unlikely to be a problem!
So in summary, yes you can run your car on water, but not using a jam jar and some wire.
Don’t just take my word for it; here are some of the research papers I used in my research:
SAE 841399 1984
SAE 740187 1974
Lean burn with Hydrogen supplementation
General Motors Corp.
SAE 810921 1981
Lean burn with Hydrogen supplementation
University of Michigan
Hydrogen reformate (H + CO2)
Robert Bosch GmbH
SAE 760469 1976
Hydrogen reformate in aircraft engines
Jet Propulsion lab
What are the losses?
The heat released from fuel is mostly wasted, about a third goes down the exhaust pipe (turbos can recoup a small fraction of this) and another third goes into the oil and coolant. A smaller amount is wasted as noise and vibration.
At part load the throttle causes an obstruction that wastes power too. A better solution at part load is to replace the unwanted air with an inert gas, this allows the throttle to open up and reduce losses. That is why Exhaust Gas Recirculation (EGR) can improve economy by 5%.
What is reformate?
This is where the petrol is broken down into hydrogen and carbon dioxide. The CO2 is inert and at part loads is used as ‘padding’ allowing higher throttle openings, this reduces the throttle losses and also improves efficiency. This double benefit is why the car industry is concentrating on this way of making Hydrogen. But with the petrol engine’s days numbered, the technology may never mature.
What is HHO, Oxy-hydrogen or ‘Browns Gas’?
This is what you get from electrolysing water, it is simply oxygen and hydrogen in a gas. There is a lot of myth about it, but here are the facts: It burns at about 2800 C, compared to about 2000 C for petrol in air, or about 3000 C for oxyacetylene welding kit. In fact it was one of the first gasses for welding, but in slightly richer proportions. When HHO is burnt in air, as in our engine example, the flame temperature drops to similar values to petrol.
When it burns it expands, and so can be used to power piston engines, then it forms water vapour and starts to condense, rapidly contracting into just water.
The gas has been the subject of many hoaxes, frauds and misguided optimistic claims.
It’s not magic, just nature. Although personally I thing nature is pretty magic.