Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Feeding the Beast

Political type post follows, be warned:

A classic phrase espoused by the right is "Starve the Beast." The meaning of this, succinctly, is that in order to reduce spending, you reduce taxes. By limiting the money in, you should in effect reduce money out. It makes sense. Most people run their households like that, don't spend more than you earn.

The problem is that Republicans have been really bad at this. They do reduce taxes (usually), which certainly reduces the income of the federal government, they have just failed to reduce spending to counter it. The two most dramatic spending increases in the last 50 years have occurred under Reagan (Cold War pt. II) and W (GWOT/Iraq). They have offset their increases in spending by cutting taxes, and supporting policies leading to inflation and ultimately recessions. Thus the largest budget deficits and increases to national debt where thanks to those two.

The current talking point is that we need to cut our spending, so unemployment insurance shouldn't be extended to cover those still out of work from before the last Republican left the Whitehouse. But we can't increase taxes for those making a lot of money. Anyone who believes that this is the way to stimulate an economy has no idea how money works. I could discuss this at length, but I wont for the time being.

So here is my recommendation for the Democrats struggling with carrying the weight of voting to raise taxes to levels that are still lower than they have been for 100 years (minus the previous couple of course). Allow the Republicans to bring forward a bill to extend the tax cuts for themselves and their friends, but amend the shit out of it with extensions for unemployment. There are enough votes for those amendments to pass, especially with how little it really costs. That way, there will be an ideological trap for them to fall in to. Do I vote to help my friends, but unfortunately help the common man who probably was in a union when he was employed? Or do I vote against cutting taxes so that I can further entrench poverty in massive swaths of America?

Taxes are good. Taxes are patriotic. Taxes provide you security, keep your roads drivable, keep books in your library, and pay my salary. Do they sometimes suck? Sure. Does that make them evil? No. If you have a job, you should play your part to help society, and helping society means helping the people who can't get a job until they can.

Monday, September 13, 2010

The Future is Not Quite Now. But Close

So I realized that i never finished my "future of the Automobile" post. And I was struck today by seeing a blog post on Gizmodo about the very system I see as the future.

So what is the future? The future is electric.

But haven't we already covered that? Well, yes and no. While there is a long history of electric cars, none of these are the way to the future. We have the problems of batteries, we have the problem of the time it takes to charge these batteries, and we have the problem of the lack of charging stations. I'll tackle each of these.

Batteries are bad. In every way. They are heavy, they are poisonous both to make and dispose of, and they are expensive. The main way i see to overcome this is the use of capacitors. These receive charge, then as soon as they stop receiving this charge they spit it right back out into the circuit. They are much lighter, usually smaller, and dont involve such exotic and expensive materials as batteries do. Another method of doing away with batteries has been shown recently in a few iterations. Starting with the Williams Formula 1 car in 2009, and currently working in the Porsche 911 GT3 RSR Hybrid is a system which uses a flywheel to capture energy during braking. Like current hybrids use regenerative braking to charge their batteries, these use the braking to spin a small flywheel up to 100,000 rpm, and can use that to return electric power to motors mounted to the crank shaft in the case of the F1 car, or the front wheels in the case of the Porsche. So this type of system could also be used to maintain the electrical energy, or at least regenerate energy.

Both of the energy storage methods are designed for short term storage, and not maintaining lots of kilowatts for days on end. So this is where the series hybrid comes in. A small engine, reconfigurable to a variety of engines depending on market, to provide electricity to the system when it is away from it's primary power source.

Primary power source? This is where we start getting in to the truly new technology. Charging stations are good for big batteries operating in urban environments. But to travel to Southern California from San Francisco would require multiple recharges, and take up a lot of time that could be spent on the road. The solution to this lays in inductive charging.

If you have seen the Powermat charger for cell phones, you know what inductive charging is. Admittedly, despite having a firm understanding a lot of the technology I talk about, this is one where I am a bit fuzzy. But it essentially works so that the power is sent through the air to the device. In an automotive scenario, there will be wires in the road that send the power to the car driving above it.

So how does it all come together? You have the car starting up and getting to the road with residual charge being held in capacitors. If there is no residual charge, the back up motor could provide the power for that short trip. As the car drives on public roads, it is powered by the inductive current coming from the road with the capacitors providing power if there are gaps with no cables in the road. The capacitors can also provide additional current for boosts of acceleration. If the car needs to drive off the road for an extended period of time, the engine can come back on line and power the car.

So I had this idea several months ago, yet had never seen it done (or heard of it being done). But it did happen. These guys got a lightweight, super aerodynamic car to drive 31 mph with no internal power source. It is in infantile stages, but it is a huge leap in what is the next step.

(Pics credit Jalopnik, Powermat, and University of Karlsruhe respecitvely)

Thursday, July 8, 2010

It's Electric

Electric cars have been around since the very beginning of the automobile. Much like the uncertainty today, in the early days of the car there was a lot of debate between the ideal method of motivation; whether it would be gasoline, diesel, steam or electricity. Mainstream electric cars faded off pretty quickly due to the weaknesses inherent in the contemporary battery technology, but they continued in the small scale since. In the early 90s General Motors released the EV-1 which was the first real attempt to produce a modern mainstream electric car. It was popular among its owners, and could have been successful, but low gas prices, the still relatively archaic battery technology, and the high cost of development spelled its end. Check out Who Killed the Electric Car for a full explanation.

There is now a new boom of electric cars. With new companies like Tesla starting up, and established companies like Nissan and BMW stepping into the game, there is becoming a public awareness of these cars. With cars like Nissan's Leaf, they are getting to be affordable and are now plausible replacements for at least one of the cars in your garage. I could even see myself owning one of these in the next few years (to offset one of my poor mileage sports cars).

There are problems with the current concepts of electric cars though. They require large amounts of batteries. The Tesla's batteries weigh 992 lbs., which is over 1/3 of the car's total weight. Weight is the principle hindrance to economy, and because they built it off of the featherweight Lotus Elise chassis, they have minimized all other weight. Once this system is implemented in a larger chassis, they will necessarily have to add more batteries (and weight) to get comparable distance performance. The batteries also have the problem of being taxing on the environment on both ends of the life cycle. Batteries, especially the lithium ion type found in most modern electric cars, use a lot of rare earth metals, and are not just driving up the prices of them, they are actually causing global shortages of them. Disposal of batteries is something that will likely cause issues for generations, recycling can take care of some of the waste, but certainly not all.

Range is a large problem of electric vehicles (or maybe a small problem). Most electric vehicles struggle to cover 100 miles between chargings, well shy of the 250-400 mile ranges of a comparably sized internal combustion powered car. And while it takes just a minute or two to refill an empty gas tank, it can take hours to charge an electric car with US standard 110V power. 220V or more power stations lessen this time, but it is still a substantially longer time than a quick pit stop at the gas station.

This is where the Range Extender concept comes in. Also known as a series hybrid (told you I would come back to this), this type of car powers its wheels with electric power at all times, but has an ICE powered generator to recharge on the go. This is in my estimation the single best short term solution. The much touted Chevrolet Volt works on this concept, as do several other concept cars not currently slated for production. Like an electric car, you plug the cars in at night, and let the batteries recharge. In the morning you drive off silently operating on an all electric mode, if you run long enough to push toward the end of the range, it will automatically start up the engine and recharge while you drive.

There are many positives to this set up. ICEs are most efficient running at a constant speed, not the up and down they are usually subjected to in a car, so they can run the generator at an RPM for which it is designed to run optimally. They can use big laggy turbochargers, direct injection, and all sort of other technology that may be less than ideal for a car engine, but can optimize a small engine to be as fuel efficient as possible. It also means you can use all sorts of different engines without major retooling, assuming they are built with modular designs. The Volt uses a gasoline engine, whereas its Opel sibling for Europe is diesel powered; other concepts use a single rotor Wankel engine. It is possible to use all sorts of engines and fuels (like biofuel, which isn't inherently bad, just some of it), and a small gas turbine engine isn't unreasonable in this application. They also require fewer batteries which can only be a good thing.

As an enthusiast there is a big draw for electric power. The motors have high torque available from low RPMs, which is good for acceleration, and there are methods of eking out more power by upping the current. So I am positive on electrical power to the wheels, and I think the series hybrid is an excellent concept to take us to the future. But for what I actually think is the future, keep reading.

(Pics top and bottom courtesy Commons, EV-1 picture courtesy General Motors, Tesla picture copyright me)

Hydrocarbons and Hydrogen

So I will start with what everyone is aware of right now: hybrid cars. I will touch more on them later, but I will focus here on the current technology. Nearly all of the current production hybrids are called parallel systems, meaning the electric motors sometimes drive the wheels at low speeds, and the engine usually drives the wheels at higher speeds and when the battery is depleted. Some versions, like Ford's, some of Honda's and different European brands', don't ever actually drive the wheels with electricity, they just use it to power the auxiliaries like air conditioning. The problem with these are the continued reliance on an internal combustion engine for propulsion, and the need for it to run continuously even at moderate speeds. These have long been called a stopgap, but they have stood in the way of too much development of alternate means. For many they have become not a stop gap, but the endpoint of development.

There are notable exceptions, namely Honda, Mazda, and Mercedes. They have been proponents of the hydrogen. As far as I know Mazda is the only company that has used hydrogen as a fuel for an internal combustion engine, in the form of a Wankel rotary engine. They have made several concepts, including at least one with twin tanks, one for hydrogen for commuting, and the other for gasoline for sporty driving. I like this idea as an enthusiast, but again it isn't really progress. The others use a fuel cell, which converts hydrogen to electricity, this then goes to electric motors to drive the cars. I also like this idea. But the biggest problem for hydrogen is the hydrogen. It takes a lot of energy to get the hydrogen, it requires a lot of infrastructure to move and store it, and it has a relatively low specific energy. Whether it is burned or converted it takes a lot of volume to equal the output of petroleum.

(Photos Courtesy of Ford and Honda respectively)

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Driving into the Future

In light of the oil spill I have been thinking a lot more about the role of oil in our lives. As a car guy, my hobbies are rather dependent on the stuff, and in a lot of ways that is depressing. At a recent race I attended, the car I was pulling to win was a BP sponsored car (actually since it was a race in California, they chose to use a very nice looking Arco livery for the second year in a row, but there were probably some pressures as it was a week or two after the start of the spill), and I felt a bit dirty for it.

I really like motorsports, driving, and everything associated with the motor vehicle, but even I realize that there is only a limited future for cars as we know them. Since in addition to being a car guy, I am also a bit of a geek, I am frequently asked what the future of the car is going to be. Where are we going after oil? So I decided to put down my vision of the future, and what won't make it to the future with us.

So as to not have another book length post, I will break it up over a few separate posts to follow shortly.

Monday, May 31, 2010


Back in January the Supreme Court made a very controversial ruling. In the Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission, they overruled a century of rulings to determine that corporations had the same rights as individuals when it came to participation in elections. It is truly an appalling decision on many levels, but I think there can be a silver lining to this ruling.

The popular belief of the same people that support that decision is that the oil spill is just an accident and that BP should pay for the cleanup but not anything more. I submit that BP should be treated like an individual, and the persons involved held criminally liable for destroying the environment. Maybe if there is a real penalty, something other than passing some additional costs on to the shareholders, there may be some impetus to do things the way they should have all along.

It's the same logic they use for the death penalty.

Friday, May 21, 2010


So I am in a bit of a funk.

I have been sick for the last few days. Well, I have actually been sick for about 2 weeks; getting mildly sick, nurturing the illness through continued healthy-like-behavior, then getting absolutely debilitated for a few days. So for the last 3 days or so, I have been pretty much worthless to the world with constant coughing, little capability to speak eloquently, and very little motivation to do much of anything.

I am on a weird schedule at school and so I only have a single class that meets twice a week. So I barely even get the privilege of speaking to human beings other than my wife.

So how do I pass the time? Well generally I sit on the couch in the same place I always do. I stare at Facebook and the other sites I read daily (or constantly would be more appropriate) waiting for something to happen. And I watch the news.

Nothing is more depressing that sitting at home watching the news.

As best as I can tell, the Tea Party is made up predominantly of young people that are out of work, and retired seniors. (Or at least the non-corporate sponsored members.) Both of these groups spend a lot of their day as I have been spending mine. Sitting at home and watching the news. And as I am discovering, there are few better ways than this very activity to make you hate everyone in government, and to feel depressed and helpless as to affecting the system. So I can see why they go out, put on their silly hats, hold up their misspelled signs, and yell at things they don't understand. If this was my life for an extended period of time, I could see myself descending down that road. Maybe with different things to yell at, since my core beliefs are about as far from Libertarianism as they could get, but I would certainly find a way to get out of the house and let out some of my impotent rage (as the wise Jon Stewart calls it).

So how would we combat this? I don't pretend to be an expert, or even really knowledgeable on the subject of social psychology, but I think there are some things that may cause the movement to collapse. The worst possible way for it would be to actually let them get their way. This is a phenomenally bad idea, as their policies are as unsustainable in the modern world as Communism is ever, and way more fraught with peril for the position of the US in the international community. There needs to not just be a strong central government that has the capability of controlling the country within its borders, but a unified one that can operate as the sole representative of everyone in the country. This is why the Articles of Confederation failed, and why it wasn't until the consolidation of power following the Civil War that the US wasn't just an also-ran in world politics. The Libertarian world view is hard to describe as a world view; it is merely a castration of central power, and empowerment of the individual states. This would disadvantage the US economically; it would provide a much greater hurdle to sustaining a modern and superior military, and make international relations much more difficult to engage in.

There is also the option of merely electing one or more (but certainly not a plurality) of their candidates to a high office, such as the Senate. This is certainly reasonable, especially given the popularity of candidates such as Ron and Rand Paul. The reason I accept this as a potential positive is twofold: one, it takes away from the republican voting bloc since a Libertarian/Tea Party office holder would ostensibly vote to the contrary of a lot of mainstream Conservative ideals (large military, pro war, etc); two, it will show the innate flaws of electing hard line political idealists. It is neither beneficial to the country nor your constituents to be unwilling to compromise. The idea of meeting in the middle to find a better way forward has long been the guiding principle of representative governments such as our own. By voting against any legislation that empowers the federal government, that representative will probably vote in favor of very little legislation. But the eventuality that these candidates will need to reach is the necessity of compromise. Sometimes to get something that is in line with your ideology, you have to give up a little, make some concessions that maybe don’t quite reach that ideal. In order to get health insurance reform passed, universal coverage was given up in order to garner the votes necessary for passage. What the budding Tea Party has shown in their year or two of existence is a complete opposition to compromise. It is what has gotten several dyed in the wool Republicans removed from office (and even on the left there has been increasing resistance to compromise, but it there is still the overt desire for bipartisanship). Once their candidates have proven that they are not opposed to the federal government, but in fact they are politicians, they will lose their credibility with their electorate, and there will be a quickly revolving door of disappointment leading to the further marginalization of the movement. I am not sure this would kill the large scale aspirations of the party, but it would prevent expansion past the replacement of candidates already in place.

The best way I can picture of minimizing the typical types of protesters is to actually enact all of the social programs they are speaking out so vehemently against. I realize that there are a good number of actual Libertarians that have rightly dissociated themselves from the Tea Party because of their innate insanity and their poor understanding of what they are actually protesting, so I exclude them from this portion because they will still oppose these things, and likely not even partake in them. The groups mentioned above that are the principal make up of the Tea Party stand to benefit the most from expansive social programs. Many of these people in fact already owe a lot to the 'socialist' programs like Medicare, Social Security, unemployment insurance, and food stamps. Because of the financial disaster helped in part by the laissez faire economics they promote, the recently unemployed in the group go often for several months with no health insurance coverage, or enroll in Medicaid. They subsist off of unemployment, food stamps, and probably blamed the government for not assisting them when their houses were foreclosed upon. If there were further programs put in place to help them, it is possible they could turn around and come to like the idea of a government 'for the people' . . . who am I kidding, they will always complain about it.

What I have learned through the last few years is that people will believe what they want to believe. Believing that the programs the current administration is trying to implement equates to socialism isn’t actually very fair to socialism. And it shows a complete misunderstanding of what socialism actually is. Believing that the President wants to destroy the country is just appalling. The misinformation labeled as fact on ‘news’ channels is disheartening, and sadly we are a nation full of people that don’t research the things we hear.

So this trend is not going to go away, especially as long as people self-censor the sources of their news intake. I try and read and watch news from all sides, and I think everyone else should as well. But again, who am I kidding? MSNBC is full of communists (or Nazis if you believe certain Fox News commentators), CNN is the Communist News Network, the New York Times is full of Democratic Party hacks, etc. Of course Fox News is just a wing of the Republican Party, as is the New York Post and the Wall Street Journal. All of these are true, and false. There is wheat, and there is chaff. In the case of some of these there is a lot more chaff. But my diatribe on media is for another day.

Well, it is time for me to get some work done. This is a rant that I have had in my head for a long time, and will continue to evolve. Comment below if you like. Otherwise, do some research and see how off base I am, or if I am right. Either way, learning is the most important part.