Category Archives: Transportation

ford and microsoft partner for a better electric car

As auto producers continue to unveil plans for developing all-electric (EV) and plug-in-hybrid vehicles (PHEV) for the near-future market, there are still many questions regarding the broader implications of building a larger EV infrastructure.  Many of the use models for electric cars involve some form of recharging strategy relying on a direct interface with our current energy grid. This is no simple proposition.  Though it is improving, much of our energy grid is quite antiquated.  Just this week, as the summer temperatures started setting in here in New York, we had small scale brown outs and power shortages in several highly populated portions of north Brooklyn.

In order to prepare for the impeding influx of electric vehicles on US streets, solutions for managing their use of the power grid will need to be implemented.  We’ve already seen a lot of these “smart grid” technologies hit the market for home energy management.  Google among other companies have developed energy management tools that help users understand their home energy use and make changes to improve their efficiency.  Recharging a car would add an immense load to the average household energy needs making the need for such technologies that much more important.  To be successful, energy management tools will need to not only monitor the use of your appliances and heating and cooling systems but also your new electric car.

The Ford Motor Co. has already got a jump on this need by partnering with Microsoft to integrate energy management software into it’s future line of electric vehicles. Ford is planning on releasing a all-electric version of their popular Focus model as soon as 2011.  Microsoft’s Hohm software will assist owners in determining how to  to recharge their vehicle’s batteries in the most efficient, responsible, and affordable way.  The primary goal of the software will be to lessen the strain of car charging on the power grid during peak hours, and to help utilities better manage the rising need.  To accomplish this Ford and Microsoft will also be working directly with individual cities and utilities to bring them into the development process creating a true “systems” approach.

IT has been an increasingly important part of auto design, most recently in the form of integrating the myriad of mobile technologies we have come to rely on. Ford’s partnership with Microsoft takes this relationship a step further by involving the still emerging field of smart grid technology into the future automobile.  Regardless of weather  Electric vehicles represent the best long-term solution to the countries car-dependency, the EVs are certainly here and are going to be a influential part of the future energy needs.

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the high-speed rail enigma

Last year, the government designated $8 billion for the development of high-speed rail lines in the US, adding another $2.5 billion this past December.  This was welcome news to those who have long hoped to see a rail revival in this country, especially one with modern trains like those in europe and asia that can travel in excess of 200mph. This however, may just be wishful thinking given the actual challenges to creating such an infrastructure in the US.  The problems are numerous, and compounded by one overarching issue, cost.  Modern rail, apparently, is one of the most expensive forms of infrastructure there is.

This past week, The gov announced they would be allotting the first big chunk of that money, $2.5 billion to the state of Florida, which has completed plans for a high-speed link-up between Tampa and Orlando.  This is just the 1st phase of a state-wide network which will eventually connect with other major cities like Miami.  However, the estimated cost of just this 1st phase is about $3.5 billion! That’s pretty steep considering the route is only 85 miles across the pancake-flat I-40 corridor. Don’t get me wrong, I still think it’s great, I’m just not holding out hope for anyone to announce my dream line from New York to Chicago any time soon. At over $41 million per mile, even more if there’s any significant terrain to cross, that’s gonna be tough sell in this economy.

But Kudos to Florida for getting their act together.  Most states have completely forsaken whatever potential there is left for rail in their regions, and at this rate don’t stand much of a chance of getting their hands on any of that high-speed cheese.  With two major airports and destinations like Disney World, maybe shorter routes like this make the most sense.  It’s tough to say, but I will remain optimistic, mostly because I just love trains.

ecoboost

Ford EcoBoost TechnologyWith all the recent attention on hybrid and electric vehicles it’s easy to forget that the near-term global demand for new vehicles is still very much the uncontended domain of the internal combustion engine.  That’s what makes Ford’s new EcoBoost engine platform so exciting.  The EcoBoost is a new Gasoline Turbocharged, Direct-injection (GTDI) engine that can achieve 20% better fuel economy, 15% lower CO2 emissions, and vastly improved performance over larger displacement engines.  Beginging this summer Ford will begin offering a 3.5-liter V6 EcoBoost in their Flex and Lincoln MKS models.  This will be followed by it’s deployment in the new Taurus SHO and Lincoln MKT. Ford has also announced the development of a smaller 1.6 and 2.0-liter V4 EcoBoost that will be available starting in 2013.  This will help the company better meet the growing consumer trend towrds smaller, more efficiant cars, a market they have already gained a foothold in with models like the Focus.

Though the EcoBoosts’ claimed environmental advantage over conventional engines may seem nominal compared to, say an all electric vehicle, it’s important to consider the factor of scalability. Ford has said it would like to offer these engines in over 80% of their models by 2012, and have set a target of putting around 500,000 EcoBoosts on the road every year.  While the number for hybrid-electrics will undoubtedly continue to grow, it will still represent a far smaller share of the market than conventional vehicles for many years to come.  Additionally, the technology costs for hybrids have continued to push higher price points, leading many to argue they are a less economical choice for many potential buyers.  According to Ford Global Product Development VP Derrick Kuzak, when  you consider the entry level-cost for various technologies, the role for new, more efficient gasoline engines like the EcoBoost is clear.  Kuzak further explained the rational for Ford’s commitment to GTDI technology by comparing payback times based on fuel savings for various technologies. He claims a four cylinder hybrid drive-train has a pay-back time of about 11.5 years. A comparable four cylinder diesel has a 7.5 year payback. A four cylinder GTDI will save enough fuel to recover the extra cost in 2.5 years. Those figures are based on gasoline at $2.87/gallon, diesel at $2.90/gallon and 15,000 miles per year of driving.  While these numbers can be corroborated by many sources, there are a myriad of additional considerations to be had when making such a comparison.  Regardless, there is certainly a role for what are clearly better engines in meeting the current global demand for new and affordable automobiles.

How Ford EcoBoost Technology Works

I’ll admit that when I first heard about the EcoBoost or “TwinForce” as it was formerly called, I was skeptical.  In my, somewhat brief experience with cars (15 years or so) I have been consistently let-down by our domestic auto producers when it came to engine technology.  However, as the reviews of the EcoBoost begin to trickle in, it appears a new standard of American performance is emerging, ironically, amidst the industry’s darkest hour.

electric avenue

dusk-interstate-trafficNew Energy Technologies, Inc. a company specializing in the the development of alternative energy solutions, recently announced the completion of a prototype device, designed to generate electricity form moving vehicles.  The technology, called MotionPower(tm), employs a mechanical system to capture energy created my moving vehicles and they come in contact with the device. While only in the prototype phase, the company reports that the final product, will be a portable, easy-to-install solution, suitable to a variety of roadway applications. Once in place it can produce enough electricity to power street lights, signals, adjacent buildings, or simply hold the energy in reserve for emergency use.  Sounds great!

I should mention however, that there is not a lot of details being released about MotionPower(tm), which more than warrants some degree of skepticism.  But I thought I’d include it on the blog anyways because I think the application of kinetic energy harvesting is kinda cool.  There has been a lot of attention in recent years to similar ‘kinetic’ concepts, most focusing on capturing energy from human motion.  Many of these concepts seem to prefer the use of piezoelectric technology for energy generation and have been proposed for everything from sidewalks, to dance floors, to baby rockers.

Regardless, the idea of high traffic areas generating a little extra juice has some merrit.  One could imagine that installing a bank of these devices at a large concentrations of toll booths, or extrmely busy intersections could have some actual impact, maybe even produce enough power to be self-sustaining.  But lets not get ahead of ourselves, I’ll reserve judgment for when some more facts on MotionPower(tm) become available.

building a hydrogen infrastructure

air_products_hydrogen_fueling_statin_300x199Las month, the small Long Island town of Hempstead began construction of the areas first hydrogen fueling station.  The project is a collaboration between the town of Hempsted, New York State Energy Research Development Authority (NYSERDA) and the electric utility National Grid. The initial goal of the station, other than providing fuel, will be to educate the local population about alternative fuels for transportation.  The station will utilize technology from Air Products to handle three fuel types; pure hydrogen, hydrogen with compressed natural gas, and natural gas.   Though there are only a few scattered facilities such as this in the region as a whole, the plan is to eventually link them all together under the New York State Hydrogen Energy Roadmap.

I’m always encouraged when I see hydrogen being put to greater task as an energy source because I feel it has  very strong long-term potential.  However, despite the slow but steady efforts by many governments and leading companies to continue investing in hydrogen research and technology development, it has been receiving growing criticism in recent years.  In fact, there seems to be a lot of people out there that have written-off hydrogen all together for use in transportation.  Some of the most commonly cited reasons for dismissing hydrogen are the limited production and distribution infrastructures currently available and the high cost of available fuel cell technology.  These are very good points, but they don’t seem to acknowledge that there is currently no demand for hydrogen as a transportation fuel, so why would there be an infrastructure to provide it? It’s the same “build it, and they will come” debate so often run into when advocating new technologies, and it has no good answer.

Those who support Hybrid and conventional electric solutions have had to deal with the same issues regarding batteries.  Though battery technology is improving daily, the capacity to produce large amounts of high-quality, vehicle-ready units is quite limited in total scale, and almost nonexistent as an industry in the U.S.  Additionally, batteries wear out after a certain period of use and require very significant amounts of raw material extraction and specialized disposal or recycling.  These issues seem to epitomize the battery’s role as a “temporary” transportation solution. This makes it difficult to compare such solutions directly to the still emergent use of hydrogen fuel-cell Technology.

The reality is that those who are willing to start making more sustainable lifestyle decisions have a tendency to want to do so immediately.  Thus a Hydrogen transportation infrastructure that may be 15-25 years down the road will invariably be brushed aside for the relatively cheap and easy alternative of a plug in hybrid or electric vehicle that is “theoretically” available right now.  But I for one am very skeptical of the battery becoming our next transportation backbone, especially with regard to EVs which contrary to the on going media frenzy will not be flooding the entry-level market anytime soon.  In the meantime however those companies already deeply invested in creating a variety of divergent technologies, will carry forward whatever plans they have in place, and we the public will be required to wade through the complex challenge of determining the best alternative to fossil fuel transportation.

energy generating shock absorbers

genshockprotA team of undergraduate students at MIT’s department of Materials Science and Engineering have pioneered a new technology allowing vehicle shock absorbers to generate electricity from the bumps in the road.  The prototype shocks function by using a hydraulic system to push fluid through a turbine attached to a generator. As a vehicle passes over a bump the resulting jolt sends a charge back into the vehicles electrical system that can be used to recharge batteries or power electrical devices.  The shocks are also designed to be controlled by an active electronic system that optimizes their dampening to provide an even smoother ride, further improving the vehicles overall efficiency.

This is a great example of how designers and engineers can create new levels of vehicle efficiency by focusing on the areas where energy is wasted.  These Regenerative solutions have received much attention as of recently, due primarily to the successful application of regenerative braking systems in hybrid electric automobiles. The concept itself however is nothing terribly new, electric vehicles such as trains have employed regenerative braking for decades.  But the MIT team sought to break new ground by taking on a somewhat over looked source of potential energy – vehicle suspension.

The team is already claiming they can achieve improved fuel efficiency of around 10%.  Testing has shown that when installed on a 6-shock heavy truck, each shock absorber could generate up to an average of 1 kW — enough power to completely displace the large alternator load in heavy vehicles.  The team has patented the shock absorbers, and formed a company, called Levant Power Corp., to develop and commercialize the product.

Full speed ahead.