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Sunday, November 25, 2007


Why cars still use 19th century technology

One question I've sometimes seen is "Why do cars in the early 21st century still rely on technology invented in the 19th century?" Behind this question is an assumption that surely someone in the 20th century would have come up with a better operating principle for an engine. The trouble is, that isn't necessarily the case - while engineers can refine engines based on 19th century designs, most of the discoveries in the 20th century didn't provide useful ways to design a new engine. The biggest one, nuclear power, wasn't exactly a good power source for cars (and nuclear power plants still incorporate devices that would be recognizable to a 19th century engineer, as they're fundementally steam engines).

19th century engineers had at least a working knowledge of the types of science used to build motors - thermodynamics, kinematics, and electricity. Just about everything that's been talked about as an alternative to the internal combustion engine also, in fact, dates back to the 19th century or earlier. Steam engines existed before the 19th century, as did piston-cylinder devices and crankshafts. And the following devices were all available to a 19th century inventor, at least by the end of the century:

Trying to come up with a list of engine types that are entirely 20th century designs isn't easy. There were a few designs that you could argue are 20th century. The first gas turbine engine didn't appear until the 20th century, but it built on turbines that had been designed in the 19th. Felix Wankel came up with his magical spinning triangles in the 20th century, but there were steam powered rotary engines in the 19th century. Interestingly, there have been cars built that used both of these technologies - and neither one has proven to be so much better than four stroke piston engines to have replaced them or even picked up a large market share.

Of course, put a 21st century gasoline engine next to a 19th century one, and you'll notice huge differences. A modern gasoline engine will be made from much more advanced materials, spin at RPM ranges that Otto would have thought impossible, and make far more power while burning less gas. But it is still something Otto would have recognized as his four stroke engine.

So there's three reasons we still have 19th century technology in 21st century cars. One is that when you've got a design that works well, engineers don't usually scrap it as much as just make a lot of improvements. Second, there aren't really any new operating principles that 21st century scientists have for cars at the moment- it's either burn fuel to get heat, use a fuel cell, or store electricity in batteries, all of which could be done over a hundred years ago too. Third, the engineers in the 19th century weren't stupid.

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Saturday, November 17, 2007


Slant sixes on YouTube

Slant six racer Tom Drake (known as Turboslant6 on YouTube) has uploaded a few videos of slant six racing on YouTube. Most of them are of his turbocharged, alchohol burning Simca, including a video of the world's fastest slant six drag pass today. Yep, that was running high 9's in the quarter. Other videos include the Simca versus a '66 Dart (appears to be an 1/8 mile race), an in-car 1/8 mile video of his best 1/8 mile pass,, and another in-car 1/8 mile video. What's really amazing is that the engine uses the stock crank, pistons, and rods - he's achieved these results from a combination of octane, boost, and light weight.

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Friday, November 16, 2007


Me, a fashion designer?

Slant 6 Wear T-shirt

Why not? I've cooked up a logo and put it on a line of clothes I've called Slant 6 Wear. I originally bought a T-shirt for myself and was pleased with how it turned out, so I'm offering them for sale to fans. I plan to use all proceeds for unworthy causes, like paying for more parts for the Dart.

Edited to add: As of December 15th, I'm closing the Cafepress store. The T-shirt I ordered looked good at first, but I was disappointed at how quickly the ink wore out. I may bring these back but only if I can find a better printing option.



So that's what was wrong with the headlights...

Turns out I'd pulled a connector loose in the headlight harness when working on the right headlight. So it worked for a while, but then the connector got rattled around enough that it became disconnected. I've reconnected it tightly and the lights are now working just fine. Except that I'm back to having the left headlight (with the bronze gears) pop up more slowly than the right. Oh well. Eventually I may just go and put bronze gears on the other side too, but not now.


Monday, November 12, 2007


And speaking of bad ideas...

This guy is giving us C4 Corvette owners a bad name. But I couldn't pass up posting it anyway. Part of me hopes this is some sort of hoax, but I'm not so sure - I think he's serious. Two comments beyond "This is a monumentally bad idea" -

1. It somehow reminds me of the idea for a Comprex Supercharger, although trying to understand that patent I've linked to gives me a headache. Comprexes are weird critters.

2. If you had an engine powered by a fuel that doesn't need an external oxygen supply to burn, such an engine could run - but it would have serious problems with runaway boost levels. And, oddly enough, such an engine couldn't actually gain more horsepower from the increased manifold pressure. As they say in textbooks, the proof of this is left as an exercise to the reader. Although if you ask me nicely, I could write one up later.

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The surest evidence there is no conspiracy: They haven't sent me an invitation to join them

Last week I made a post about the ridiculous budget a popular conspiracy theory - that Big Oil is bribing the auto makers to keep some Big Secret to fuel efficient cars off the road. The large budget isn't the only problem with this conspiracy theory, however, or necessarily the biggest. The biggest problem with such a conspiracy existing in real life is the incredible number of people who would need to be in on it. And it's interesting that you don't see an ex-conspirator step forward; instead, the people alleging such a conspiracy are usually those furthest from the people who would need to be on the inside.

In fact, if there was such a conspiracy, they'd probably want to recruit me for it. I've corresponded with designers aiming to enter all sorts of gas mileage contests, from the Shell Eco-Marathon (I wonder where that fits in oil conspiracy theories?) to the Automotive X Prize. If there were actually a big secret out there for effortless fuel economy gains, I'm one of the people who could potentially be in a position to have heard about it and passed it on. But I've never had some shadowy group of THEM show up and offer me either bribes or threats.

Most of the versions of the secret fuel economy device conspiracy either come from people who are clearly outsiders, or occasionally claim their source was someone who temporarily had the device in his car. But how often have you heard a version of the rumor that claimed to originate with someone on the inside? In the myth, the shadowy character who makes Uncle Joe a million dollar offer for that 100 mpg Chevy Caprice that Joe accidentally drove off with never has a last minute conscience attack and spills the beans.

Tom Clancy once said that the probability of a secret being blown is proportional to the square of the number of people in on it. Given how many people this urban legend would need to have acting together, it seems very unlikely that any conspiracy could have put such a thing together without having to deal with someone who both has the strength of character to blow the whistle on such a scheme and enough sanity to not be dismissed by the press as some sort of lunatic.



Well, that's a bit better

When working on the AC, the mechanics at AutoFab noticed I had a problem with the serpentine belt tensioner, so they replaced it. The results took me by surprise. The Corvette had always rattled a lot. I figured that was because it's a 20 year old car, and Corvettes have both a harsh ride and lots of plastic. So I didn't think much of it. Well, replacing the tensioner's just about cut the interior noise in half. Since the sound seemed to be everywhere (and there are little sources of noise just about everywhere in that car), I had expected this to be a lot harder to quiet down the car. I didn't think one replacement would make so much difference.

I also swapped out the steering wheel this weekend for a reproduction I'd picked up on eBay. That takes care of the most beat up feeling bit of the interior. It's pretty simple to remove the steering wheel on a Corvette, but only if you have the right tool, a steering wheel puller. Luckily you can get a serviceable puller for around $12. I have pulled the steering wheel in the Spitfire without one, but in the Corvette it was stuck on there too hard.

Now I just need to deal with that pesky left headlight. It's stuck in the down position again, apparently an electrical glitch. At least now it's staying down, which will make it easier to troubleshoot. There's nothing more irritating than trying to troubleshoot an electrical problem that comes and goes - and is usually gone when you have a voltmeter handy.


Sunday, November 04, 2007


How big a bribe would Big Oil need?

One conspiracy theory I've often seen is the claim that Detroit is being bribed by the oil industry to keep a 100 mpg car off the market. The classic version of this conspiracy theory also stipulates that this is a relatively normal car (in some versions, it's even the size of a Chevy Caprice) and neither some sort of microcar with a 50 cc motor or some sort of $100,000 techno-beasty with a carbon fiber body, a two stroke diesel-electric hybrid powertrain, and virtually every other trick in the book applied at once regardless of cost. No, the usual version of the conspiracy theory claims this 100+ mpg car is also affordable and practical. And it passes all EPA regulations - or the EPA's in on it and put some regulation on the books specifically to ban these cars.

One of my favorite things to do with conspiracy theories is figure out what it would take to implement them - that's a lot more fun than trying to turn up evidence that there isn't a systematic campaign of bribery. That sort of debunking would take too much actual research. Instead, I'll explore the question of how big a bribe Big Oil would need to perpetuate this conspiracy.

As a starting point, we'll look at some sample information about how much money some of the major players make. In 2006, GM's total sales were $207 billion, and they lost about $2 billion. Honda had $84 billion in sales, and $5 billion in net income. Exxon-Mobile had $365 billion in sales, and nearly $40 billion in net income.

We have to figure that this bribe, if it were to exist, would need to be big enough to make it worthwhile for the auto manufacturers to keep this off the market. An automaker that rolled out a 100 mpg car at a reasonable price could sell a lot of them - I don't think a million in the first year would be out of the question, and it seems reasonable that maybe they'd sell at least 250,000 a year equipped with such technology even after the hype dies down. And such a car would sell at a premium - let's say they could make an extra $1,000 per car on each car with this mileage technology. That doesn't sound unreasonable, does it? So you're looking at a $250 million extra profit from rolling out this technology, each year. So let's say that Big Oil has to pay double that to keep it off the market - half a billion.

Except that would be half a billion to just one company. Limiting this to Detroit would be incredibly shortsighted. You'd need to bribe every major automotive company out there - and just about any company with some level of volume production capacity would become a major automotive company overnight if they rolled out this hypothetical technology. You couldn't just stick to bribing US manufacturers; you'd need to bribe Japanese, Chinese, and European ones too. After all, US gas prices are pretty low - the other countries would have even more reason to want this technology. So figure you have to bribe Ford, GM, Chrysler, Mercedes, BMW, the VW-Audi Group, Fiat, Renault, Hyundai, Nissan, SsangYong, Toyota, Honda, Geely, Diahatsu, Subaru, Tata, and a couple others I can't remember. Figure you have to pay 25 companies a half billion each, that's $12.5 billion in bribes each year.

But that's not all. This secret would have to be something a fair number of executives, engineers, even some of the testing crew are aware of. And these employees become ex-employees eventually, not always on friendly terms. What's to prevent an ex-employee from deciding, "Oh, I'll go to a venture capitalist and sell that secret - it's got to be worth a couple million." The conspiracy theory answer would have to be more bribery - or at least some hit men and a cover-up, but either way, it'd cost money. Let's assume that there's 100 people per automotive company in any year that need to be dealt with, and it costs a million dollars a person. That's another $100 million per company, bringing our total up to $15 billion in bribe payouts.

However, it's not likely you would have to stop your bribery campaign there. If there really were a secret to an easy 100 mpg car, there's others who would be in a position to find it and promote it through the aftermarket industry. What's to stop Bruce Crower - a fellow smart enough to have invented a new type of engine cycle - from coming up with it? Or how about NASCAR - after all, if this could somehow be built according to NASCAR rules or sneaked on through, it would cut down the number of pit stops dramatically, and word could leak out from there. Government funded or private research institutes might pick up on the secret, too, and would need to be bribed. Another example of something that you might have to worry about would be if it were a tuning secret - suppose you had to keep an eye on things like every EFI 101 class to make sure Ben Strader's not disseminating your secret, or worse, have to bribe every dyno shop in the US not to use the secret calibration on customer's cars! More bribes to go around.

So the bribery would need to amount to $15 to $20 billion, with thousands of people who either take the bribe and don't blow the whistle. Although a company like Exxon does indeed have the ability to spend $20 billion on such a program, that's not chump change, even for Big Oil. Plus, that kind of spending isn't easy to hide; about the only place where it seems possible to hide that kind of money is Pentagon budgets. Worst of all, it also runs the risk that somebody out there would decide that they could make more money selling 100 mpg cars than they're making from bribes (or having a conscience attack and putting them into production anyway).

That seems to be the biggest weakness of the conspiracy theory - that with at least 25 CEOs who could potentially bring it down at any time, there isn't one who has decided to secretly tool up for production, get a big jump on the competition who would be caught with no tooling to build such a thing, and make money hand-over-fist for a couple of years selling 100 mpg cars before the competition can catch up. Sure, there could be some additional element to the conspiracy theory, that Big Oil's made some sort of threats for CEOs who don't take the bribe, but face it - as the head of a multibillion dollar corporation, in conspiracy world, an automotive exec should have the same level of access to hired thugs, bribed politicians, and black helicopters that an oil exec would have.

Then again, this sort of conspiracy theory doesn't have to make sense to be believed. It just has to have enough people wishing they could have a 100 mpg car without any downsides, and looking for something to blame besides the laws of physics.

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Saturday, November 03, 2007


eBay score: LS1 coils

Remember when I put a crank trigger wheel on the Dart? I've been pondering going to a distributorless ignition along with the crank triggering. LS1 coils have been pretty popular in the Megasquirt world, so today I went and bought a set of them on eBay. It was only $76 (including shipping) for a set of 8. I hope to pit them against the MSD 6AL I currently have on there in a dyno shootout once I have the Dart running.



Some repairs on the Corvette

Well, last Monday I figured out the issue with the Corvette's headlight - I had the gears in correctly, but the bucket lined up wrong. Now it's lined up and popping up correctly. The headlights no longer raise at the same speed; evidently the brass gears have more friction or their weight is enough to have an effect.

Also, AutoFab completed their repairs on the AC. They replaced nearly half the system - compressor, condenser, and drier - but it's working now.


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