Early this morning I was reviewing a paper that proposed a novel mechanism for addressing memory on computers. Really clever, but dozens of schemes are much better than what we currently use and it is unlikely any will displace the current decades old model.
With new technologies there is an early period - some call it a mini cambrian explosion - where dozens or hundreds of approaches are tried and a few manage to emerge as commercial successes. Displacing those successes can be difficult and is often done by people who, rather than trying incremental improvements, take a very different approach that is sometimes initially ridiculed and rejected by "experts".
I found myself thinking about that as I listened to Horace Dediu's new AsymCAR podcast during my morning exercise session. Horace loves to think about change and has begun by talking about what it would take to disrupt the automobile industry.1 Take an hour and listen to it - I'm in strong agreement on many points.
It is unlikely much can be easily done in North America. Cars are components of very large systems that tightly bind society and technology erecting huge barriers to entry. I agree with Horace that studying the larger system makes more sense than just focusing on automobile technologies. An interesting place to start is to look at roads.
In 1890 the safety bicycle was taking over Europe and America. It made short trips in towns and cities much more practical, but there were a couple of little problems. Mud and manure. Any amount of rain would turn the mostly primative dirt roads into mud swamps and the means of transit the bike was beginning to displace created a lot of pollution. One account of Manhattan in 1890 suggested horses left about two and a half million pounds of manure and sixty thousand gallons of urine every day. Hot summers must have been somewhat less desirable than what we now experience.
Early automobiles, problematic as they were, represented such an improvement over the horse that people flocked to them. Crazy and not so crazy ideas were tried and something that seemed like a modern car emerged by around 1930. Just as important was the infrastructure. A serious national road system was proposed for bicycles with real work on automobile highways taking place in the teens. Much of what became the Interstate system was on the drawing board by the mid 1930s.
Since it is Summer a few recommended reads - necessary if you are interested in the intersection of society, technology and transportation.
The Big Roads by Earl Swift It won't win any literary awards, but it is the best history of the American road system I've come across. How and why it happened is enormously complex and the impact it made on society by redefining the value of place makes it a compelling read.
Walkable City by Jeff Speck is another must read. Speck examines urban and suburban architecture as dictated by our transportation choices and notes that many of the "rules" developed just after WWII are far from optimal. Several books have been written on the subject, but I haven't come across any that cover the territory as well as this one.
City Cycling edited by John Pucher and Ralph Buehler is another essential read.2 When you study the weather on Earth it is useful to study that on Jupiter and Mars for the contrast... This set of papers is highly readable and examines what it takes to make active (where the propulsive power comes from human muscles) transportation a workable option. As one thinks about Megacity cars, understanding the architecture of these systems may be extremely important.
A few comments on the devices of transportation. My belief is one possible path to a disruptive megacity vehicle for the next billion cars could be based on the velomobile. Velomobiles are usually recumbent bicycles or tricycles with aerodynamically slick bodies. The power necessary to overcome air resistance increases as the cube of speed and is something of a limiting factor on bicycles. Only a few thousand exist and mostly in the Netherlands, Germany and Denmark. They nearly double the useful speed of a bike and thus increase its useful range. The shells also provide protection from the weather. Current examples are in the $5,000 to $10,000 range, but they can be made almost anywhere and there is no reason why modest manufacturing volumes and redesign for manufacture couldn't reduce that to under $2,000 ... perhaps well under...
Velomobiles are designed to work with a human engine - maybe about 150 watts for someone in reasonable shape on a normal ride. While there are fantastic exercise benefits that come with cycling, it would be very easy to add a small motor - a few hundred watts - and a very small lithium ion battery of under one kWh. The vehicle could be used as a human electric hybrid and 100 mile ranges on electricity alone would probably only add $1,000 to the total cost with modest manufacturing volumes.
Regular readers have seen several posts on the subject, but if you want an efficient vehicle you want to lower the cost of acceleration as well as wind resistance. Addressing the former means making it light. The automobile/road/legal/social system we've evolved in the US gives us vehicles that weigh at least 3,500 pounds that mostly haul around a passenger who usually weighs under 200 pounds. A human-electric hybrid velomobile can weigh 60 pounds or less. It turns out a common bicycle can deliver the equivalent of about 1,000 miles per gallon.3
This might work in some Northern European cities with velomobile/bicycle friendly infrastructure. If you had the chance to start something new in emerging third world cities the thought of a sub 50 kg vehicle that literally runs on pennies a day and costs under a few thousand dollars - perhaps well under - and can be built locally in a factory that is basically a kickstarter project is .. well .. attractive. You can also imagine a range of vehicles that are variations on this theme. There are many things that can be done at under 500 kg.4
Of course vehicles can be shared, but that is yet another story...
1 One of his main foci in automotive disruption is manufacturing. Follow him at Asymco.
2 John Pucher is probably the expert on active transportation infrastructure in the US.
3 I've measured this with my friend Colleen. She is about 36 times as fuel efficient as a 30 mpg car - the added benefit is riding it combines exercise and transportation. A bit more here.
4 A really interesting concept is the Edison2 Very Light Car project that has sprung from the Automotive X-Prize. Way too much to write about here, but ping me if you want detailed information on it or other interesting concepts. The VLC is interesting as it does not require conventional automotive factories and is at the border of what might be practical in the US or Europe. Way more clever than the Tesla with a real potential of innovation.
Another fascinating concept is from racing designer Gordon Murray. A very efficient microcar, but perhaps more important is his streamlined iStream manufacturing process.
Zero Mayo Potato Salad
° 2 pounds fingerling potatoes
° big handful (1/2 cup) fresh basil leaves
° big handful (1/2 cup) fresh parsley leaves
° juice of two lemons
° 2 tbl good balsamic vinegar
° 4 cloves garlic
° 1 tbl extra virgin olive oil
* 1 tbl tahini
° 1 tsp maple syrup (B grade works best)
° freshly ground pepper
° quarter the potatoes and dump them in a pot with water to cover. Add a bit of salt. Cover and bring to a boil - reduce to a simmer until tender (about 8 to 10 minutes for me)
° put everything else in a food processor and whir away until the herbs and garlic are finely chopped. Don't go too far though...
° drain the potatoes and rise them with cold water to stop the cooking. Transfer them to a large bowl and toss with the herb and spice mixture. Adjust the seasoning - usually pepper and perhaps a bit of salt.