Twenty years ago an anthropologist in my department was studying the relationship between teenagers and technologies - specifically how they adapted to new technologies quickly sometimes developing novel uses not seen by the inventors. She observed that although adults assumed the kids had some natural deep knowledge, in fact the teen models of how the technologies worked was paper thin and often wrong. The skill was a facility to use the technology. They were effectively technology idiot savants.
In a way we are all idiot savants with technology. On the desert island none of us could build even the simplest integrated circuit from sand, let alone something as simple as a steel knife. Civilization is built on accumulated knowledge with deep knowledge necessary for making being mostly narrow and isolated. Understanding how and where production methods can be used is essential in any kind of manufacturing. How would you go about making Saran Warp? How about a glass bottle? Where would hydrodynamic machining be useful? What are the variations of forming sheet metal? How do production techniques scale? When do you invest in an entirely new technique? Making It: Manufacturing Techniques for Product Design by Chris Lefteri is a terrific book. It isn't very deep - a page or two for a few hundred techniques, but Lefteri's explanations and illustrations are very clear and give a sense of what might be appropriate for a wide variety of products and scales. As a bonus you'll probably be the only person in your circle who knows about jiggering and jollying. Go for the 2nd edition physical book. The ebook is a disappointment.
Which brings us to Tesla. It was suggested I say something about the 'revolutionary' Model 3 given the fact that about 350 thousand people gave Tesla a thousand dollar interest free loan in exchange for a place in line for a car that hasn't been publicly tested and probably won't be produced in any volume until well into 2018.
I don't consider any of the Teslas to be revolutionary. I don't mean to take anything away from them - their cars are among the best in the world and they've managed to built an incredibly strong aspirational brand. If you want to make a car in low volume and don't worry too much about cost or making a profit, you can take a route similar to that of the Roadster .. buy a roller from an established company (Lotus), bolt on an electric power train assembled from off-the-shelf components, bolt on a body and focus the engineering on something that would surprise people. None of this is easy, but it can be done a few dozen engineers, a few years of hard work, good timing and the right financial backers. In fact a similar approach is used by many of the few dozen boutique supercar and hypercar makes.
The Model S was an exercise in understanding limited conventional production. Again there is no innovation (other than perhaps the sales model, but that exists outside of the US). There were teething problems, but they managed to keep their well-healed customers delighted and focused on performance that is desirable to that nice. It gives you the ability to build a nearly five thousand pound car that can accelerate nearly any Ferrari or Porsche - although it can only keep up this power level for a very short time before blowing through the battery's charge. The choice to follow a conservative path was prudent - mixing in innovation would probably have killed the company.
Musk has stated his goal is to get other car makers to go electric for the environment. A noble goal and the other makers will go electric by themselves, but I doubt many people buy Teslas for being green.1 They're buying the brand. With the Model 3 the company has to figure out volume production and profitability. Somehow the plant tour managed to impress the reporters, but it appears to be a rather conventional, albeit new, metal stamping facility. It can be done - there are several existence proofs, but there are also more than a few failures.
Transportation is enormously complex and has defined the layout and nature of our cities and suburbs. Commuting takes an average of about an hour out of our day. Some people are excited by the changes coming with self-driving cars, but general use is quite a way down the road.2 The size and energy use of a car is current fairly rigid and inefficient. To innovate transportation you need to do something besides the powertrain as that just leaves you with a functionally equivalent vehicle. Real change is most likely to take place in how cars are made. After all, the last major innovation in the US came from Toyota in the 70s with high quality vehicles made using just-in-time production and enabled and educated production workers.
Most cars are built using unit-body (monocoque) construction. Metal is bent and welded together to form a structure that replaces the older technique of bolting a body to a rigid frame. With proper design both techniques can produce safe vehicles, but unit-body is cost effective only with very large production runs. A set of dies to make a model goes for about $450 million and has a lead time of over two years. A maker tries to stretch out a design's life to recover the initial die cost. And this is just for one type of metal. Ford spent something north of two billion on their aluminum F-150. They'll probably be under a half billion on the next design change, but the material change was a big one.
Small production runs still use welded steel frames and increasingly some form of composite construction like carbon fiber.3 There are many ways to do this, but they've been slow and expensive. The best car production lines have a dwell time of about a minute - no production step can take longer. Carbon fiber has one step that, cure time, that is often measured in days. Until now that is. BMW has it down to about five minutes with the i3. Five minutes corresponds to about 250 cars per day or something around 80,000 per year. I'd wager five minutes will drop over the next decade.
The video (a tip of the hat to Horace Dediu for pointing it out) interviews Sandy Munro, principal at the legendary automobile fabrication cost analysis firm of Munro & Associates on their tear-down of the BMW i3. They're famous for aircraft and automobile costing analysis - completely tearing down something not only to understand what went into it, but how it was made. Sandy calls the i3 the today's Model T. They've torn apart several hundred vehicles and this is the one that blew their minds.
BMW's composite tooling for the i3 is costs a third to a quarter as much as conventional unit-body tooling. It should be quicker to bring a new model on line and you don't need to build a million units to recover your cost. On the other hand it doesn't scale past 80,000 units per year, but perhaps the design flexibility offered by an electric vehicle offers to make a much wider range of vehicles better targeted to user needs and regions. BMW mentioned that Apple visited for talks. It isn't clear where the discussions went, but almost certainly i3 production technique was the central topic.
In a decade imagine a smaller electric car (the i1?) that has a top speed of under 35 mph and is only used in an urban environment as part of their transportation infrastructure. Some European cities are talking about excluding gasoline cars from downtown regions. Paris' Sunday without cars was wildly popular. Highly constrained driverless cars will be possible in five to ten years depending on city and how strong new traffic flows can be enforced (think China and a few European cities). They'd use much less energy to get around and pollution released in the city is little or nothing. A city like Paris might buy a large number as an extension of their transit system - or perhaps companies would compete. With maintenance and a modular electronic and battery design they might have a service life exceeding 30 years. Something like this might be a plausible early major step towards autonomous vehicles.
1 An electric car is a rather poor use of resources if your goal is reducing carbon emissions in the short term. Given the current mix of electric power generation and localized distribution some parts of the county an electric vehicle is currently counterproductive. But the advantages, other than limited range, are huge and it makes sense to support early production as the generation mix will hopefully become cleaner with time. It will take awhile as fewer than ten percent of the fleet is replaced every year. When unsubsidized prices cars with a 200 mile rang appear there will be an issue with battery production and charging facilities. All of that will sort out, but production ramps rarely align in complex technologies.
Would I buy a Model 3 or a GM Bolt? Perhaps. I've driven several electrics and although I'm impressed none of them currently meet my needs and budget. We tend to buy cars thinking about the three standard deviation uses. The sort of thing that makes people who rarely haul things buy a large pickup. We only have one car, but a 200 mile range certainly covers 99% of our driving. We could rent for the outliers. But we'll see...
If you really want to be green that is a different conversation... Some of the most cost effective strategies aren't obvious.
2 There will be limited use on clear and low density freeways fairly soon which will probably be followed by restricted very low speed urban use - probably beginning in China in five to ten years. What most of us will see is an increasingly smart car that helps us with the task of driving.
3 Composite covers an enormous range. As a teenager I made composite model airplane wings with styrofoam/balsa structures. Carbon fiber usually refers to a carbon fiber reinforced plastic. Lots of flavors, but CFRP - carbon fiber reinforced plastic - is a common variation.
Bicycles point to some of the most interesting CF construction techniques and CF bikes are now the norm in the over $2k class of road bike. I don't like the ride quality compared with some of the more exotic steel and titanium frames, but that's just personal taste. There is no arguing with the fact that carbon frames are lighter weight.
no recipe today, but a comment on energy
If you divide the energy used by the country by population you find that the average American uses about 14,000 watts of power around the clock. An electric range element on high takes about 1,500 watts - so think about almost 10 of them running constantly - that's what the average American uses. Multiply that by the hours in a day, week or year and you get the energy used for the period. I've attempted the calculation from the bottom up. It turns out to be impossible to do accurately - you have to account for the embedded energy in stuff you buy the food you eat and even that used by government - but with a few assumptions you get in the ball park. I can account for a rough average of 14 kilowatts and Sukie and I have reduced our individual consumption to about 6,500 watts each. Europeans tend to be in the 5 to 7 kilowatt range, so our household is sort of European. It hasn't been easy and it would be very difficult to go lower.
Going vegan saves about 500 watts. Adding 10,000 air miles adds about 1,000 watts. (think of 15,000 miles of flying as turning on an extra electric element on a range and leaving it on constantly). Using Uber adds as the average Uber car only has a passenger for a bit more than half of the miles driven, plus urban Uber users are statistically shifting from more efficient mass transit. Upper middle class people tend to go well over 14kW each. Note I've avoiding talking about how that energy is produced.
Now think about the 14 kilowatt level. The back of the envelope way of looking at it is ~ 125,000 kWh of energy a year (a year is a bit under 9,000 hours). If your electricity is 10 cents a kWh that's $12,500 a year. Of course electricity is more expensive at the residential level and a bit cheaper at the industrial level. Plus much of the energy is in the form of hydrocarbons which are less expensive (coal is a couple of cents per kWh). In any case energy costs are often hidden, but are non-trivial.