Everybody on my friends list, it seems, is breathless with anticipation over the iPhone. It seems terribly over-hyped to me, for what it delivers: a $600 Newton Phone in last year's Motorola Razr case with a faux Web 2.0 user interface. *shrug* Whatever. Other than having a bit more RAM and a slightly better user interface, it doesn't do anything more than what my $80 Ericsson w300i does, and I'm not paying $500+ for chrome. Nor am I clear on who would, except for people with more money than sense.
No, the technology demo that came out this month that I'm excited about is one that feels to me like it's not getting enough hype: the Chevrolet Volt, a concept car that was demonstrated at the Detroit Auto Show. And I suspect that's because not nearly enough people, even in the automotive press, understand the history of the hybrid automobile.
You see, the hybrid is something that came out of a government-funded (Energy Dept? I forget) think tank study, where they got together the best minds in mechanical engineering with the best minds in electronics and the best minds in environmental engineering and not a few of the best minds in automobile design and asked: what's the theoretical upper limit on fuel efficiency for a passenger automobile? And to everybody there's vast surprise, they actually came up with something that nobody had ever thought of before. And when they crunched the numbers, and built a few partial lab prototypes, the results they came up with for this particular design were so stunning that they called it the SuperCar.
You know, nobody has ever made any statistically significant progress on any economic, ecological, social, or even really military problem by asking the American people to make sacrifices for the greater good. Even in World War II, when people on the home front really were making sacrifices for the war effort, the War Department had better sense than to call them that. They called them investments, they called them competitions, they called them participation in a heroic victory. The word "sacrifice" is a total non-starter with the American people. The Bush White House found that out when they trial-ballooned it for tonight's speech last week. But more relevantly to the SuperCar, consider what happened when Jimmy Carter, seeking to lower America's energy imports in order to give him better leverage while negotiating our surrender terms with the Egyptians and the Saudis, went on TV and asked the American people to make energy sacrifices, to drive less and more slowly, and to suffer much colder rooms in the winter and much hotter rooms in the summer. He was roundly mocked, and net energy consumption actually went up, not down. No, the energy saving measures that get adopted are the ones that let people do more with less: more energy efficient appliances that make kitchens less annoyingly noisy, better insulation that makes the house more comfortable as well as cheaper to heat and cool, and especially the ever-increasingly popular compact flourescent bulb that is, in almost every way, not just better for the environment but substantially superior to the old fashioned incandescent bulb -- hence the fact that it's been back in the news recently. (See Michael Barbaro, "Wal-Mart Puts Some Muscle Behind Power-Sipping Bulbs," New York Times, 1/2/07.)
So the original team that invented the SuperCar were incredibly pleased with themselves when they realized that, using existing technology, they really could make an automobile that not only got three times the gas mileage of current automobiles, but had so much better acceleration than existing cars that it could beat any nitro-fueled funny-car on the quarter mile track, maybe even custom-built dragsters. But automakers both here and in Japan were nervous about it. They weren't sure the public would be interested. The assembly lines would require enough retooling that it'd be hard to justify the expensive makeover for whole factories while the public was buying existing cars. And they weren't sure they trusted some of the necessary technologies, especially continuously-variable transmissions and regenerative braking. So when they did start building "hybrid" cars, they did so with such a half-hearted and sloppily compromised version of the SuperCar design that they threw away almost all of the potential fuel savings.
Here's what the SuperCar team realized was the key to making insanely great and insanely fuel efficient cars. You can tune a gasoline engine to at least three times the efficiency of a standard automobile engine. Customized gasoline and diesel engines for specific applications often do produce three times the horsepower for the same amount of fuel. What's the trade-off? You fine-tune it for absolute maximum efficiency at a constant speed, under a constant load. An engine that fine-tuned actually has worse performance when you get out of that "sweet spot" in its power curve, but nothing can come near it when it's under optimum conditions. So here's the math they did. Take the total energy consumption it takes to move your car for a month. Divide that by the number of hours per month that you're going to drive it. Optimize your gasoline engine to produce exactly that much power per hour. Now disconnect that engine from the wheels altogether, and hook it up to an electricity generator. Put a battery pack between it and the electric motors that power the wheels. When you need more power than the generator is producing, like going uphill or accelerating from a stop, the batteries run down. When you need less power, like going down hill or coasting at constant speed, the batteries recharge. Now figure out what the likely difference is going to be, that is to say, under normal usage what's the worst that that battery bank is going to be drawn down before it starts getting recharged again? That's all the batteries you need. Brilliant. Oh, maybe you go ahead and give it an extension cord anyway. Why? Because when the driver gets it to home or work, having just driven it start and stop in local traffic, the battery may not be maxed out. So get them in the habit of recharging it. Or not; one version of the design simply allowed the motor to continue running after the person got out if the batteries needed to be recharged, but that creates carbon monoxide worries if it was parked in a garage. So yeah, better to get people in the habit of topping off the batteries from the grid. But on long hauls, where the power usage averages out, you can run it forever and still easily get up to three times the gas mileage of a comparable car, like potentially well over a hundred miles per gallon for a subcompact.
The reason that cars like the Toyota Prius don't get that kind of gas mileage is that Toyota, and all the other current "hybrid" manufacturers out there, to minimize their engineering and redesign costs, wimped out. Instead they built a car that only runs on the electric motor at low load, and which starts and stops the variable-speed gasoline engine at all other times. Considering how much torque is wasted on starting the pistons and the flywheel going every time you start a gasoline engine, it's a miracle that the resulting design isn't actually worse than standard automobiles under some conditions. And, indeed, I've seen complaints from some hybrid drivers that their gas mileage savings have been minimal to nearly non-existent. And that's why I'm so excited about the Volt: Chevy actually has the guts, or the desperation, to be putting a prototype model actual hybrid, an actual SuperCar with a forecast fuel economyof 150 MPG, in front of reporters to see what they'd say.