Saturday, May 30, 2009

Changing gears - 100 years of evolution and preferences

When you bought a car in the 60ies the choice of the transmission type was pretty clear, and often there wasn't even an alternative to the manual 4 gear transmission you could buy. Changing gears manually was a key skill trained and practiced in motoring for most of the 20iest century. Only luxury cars could be ordered with an automatic transmission, making driving easier, more comfortable and smoother. There was a period when fast cars were delivered with pre-selector gearboxes before the second world war. And Porsche pioneered the double clutch gearbox in Le Mans, but didn't bring it to the consumer world. Racing adopted sequential gear changes in the 90ies. And Daf enjoyed mostly lady drivers with the so called "Variomatic". The standard however was for a long time, even until recently, changing 4, 5 or 6 gears manually. With the introduction of computer power and with the progress in robot technologies though new forms of transmissions became possible. Alfa-Romeo (Selespeed), Ferrari (F1) and many others offered robotized manual gear changes. The clutch was operated by motors, same with the gear change. "Flappy paddles" behind the steering wheel were used to command the gear change. The first versions were not at all convincing, but with every new version the systems became better. In parallel Audi brought back the "Variomatic", now called "Multitronic". And Volkswagen and Audi again also introduced the "DSG", the modern version of the double clutch transmission, allowing for instant gear changes, in the meantime adopted also by BMW, Porsche, Nissan and many others. Traditional automatic transmissions were also improved and are now offering 7 and 8 gears, direct by-passes and therefore better fuel consumption. More and more cars today are sold without a clutch pedal, many don't even show a gear change stick. Welcome to the modern world of motoring.
Having driven most of these engineering wonders and having enjoyed the convenience and comfort of some of the solutions I still remain a fan of the old fashioned manual gear change. Automatic gear boxes are fine when I commute, drive for business and try to find parking spots in the city. But whenever I want to drive for fun and prefer to be engaged in a real driving experience, then my preference is changing gears manually, feeling the mechanics of the transmission and listening to the engine sound when going from one gear up or down. I know that many petrolheads feel the same. But besides this nostalgic perspective, manual boxes also offer some other advantages, as they are much simpler to repair, last usually longer, are lighter and allow for more changes, i.e. the gear ratios. The complex and electronically sophisticated solutions in modern cars will make it difficult to maintain these cars in 30 or 50 years, while you will always be able to find somebody to fix a manual transmission (hopefully).
What's your opinion here?

Jay Leno driving and investigating the Aptera

I have blogged already a number of times talking about the Aptera. Now, classic car lover Jay Leno has posted a video, summarizing the facts, talking to the Aptera CEO and test driving the car. Good stuff!

Friday, May 29, 2009

Can racing with electrical cars be exciting?

The Formula 1 has started to introduce hybrid technologies (KERS) to become more environmentally correct. And there are races for electrical cars here and there, but none of these make it really onto the front page. So, the question is, whether racing with electrical car could make sense and could be attractive. Let's look at it from different perspectives:
  1. From a spectator's perspective the lack of engine sound may be a disappointment, but from the race's dynamics point of view interesting competitions could be expected. Electrical engines are very torquee and therefore could allow for good overtaking.
  2. From a pilot's perspective, there cars could be interesting to drive and the lack of noise isn't really an issue for the driver. The type of noise might be somewhat an issue and the fact that energy saving might be an important skill and to some extent take some of the fun.
  3. From a regulator's point (i.e. the FIA) it can be assumed that defining the rules could be quite straight forward. Just ensure that everyone is using the same type of batteries and loading station (if needed), the rest could be kept fairly liberal.
  4. From a car manufacturer's perspective electrical car races will make sense as soon as there's something to be sold based on success in these races. Given Toyota, Honda, GM/Opel, BMW/Mini, Mercedes are preparing or selling hybrid and electical cars there should be some interest of these guys to start showcasing their technologies.
So, why isn't it happening? Well, one reason is, that today there's no real money behind electrical cars. Another reason is that until recently the battery capacity wouldn't have allowed for longer races and higher performance output and who would want to see a 10 minutes race with 80 km/h fast cars. But let's see, maybe we just need a bit of a kick? If racing really can help to develop street cars further then it certainly would be interesting to have a popular race series showcasing electrical cars.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Who is the winner - Lotus Evora, Porsche Cayman or Artega GT?

There's quite a bit of competition in the market for smaller and lightweight mid engined 6 cylinder sports cars. The Porsche Cayman has been here for quite some time, but was just recently refreshed with PDK, direct injection and more power. The Artega GT was announced last year and should be in production by now. And the Lotus Evora with its four seats (!) is brand new. They all look good and they all probably do the job of bringing the driver and co-driver from A to B. There are some interesting differences between the cars. The Artega GT for example weighs only 1116 kg, some 200 kg less than the Lotus or the Porsche. The Lotus is the only of the three with four seats. And Porscheis the only one with its bespoke engine while the other two take their heart from either Toyota (Lotus) or Volkwagen (Artega). But there are similarities also. The Porsche nips 9.4 l per 100 km (in S and PDF disguise), the Lotus 8.7 l, the Artega 8.9/9.1 l. Performance is also comparable with 5.1 s from 0 to 100 km/h for the Lotus and the Porsche, 4.8 for the Artega GT. So, all in all, these three cars should attract similar audiences and their owners shouldn't need to feel to bad about destroying the environment. BUT, will they (all) be a success? I doubt it. They all are quite expensive, 3 to 4 times a VW Golf (subject to specs). And they have born into the midst of a worldwide financial crisis. So it's going to be tough! Let's see. They certainly add some colors to the traffic on our roads and I am looking forward driving the one or the other of this breed.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

The Rise and Fall of the Ignition Key

Most of us grew up with the knowledge that a car can only be started with the Ignition Key. While there wasn't really a standard place to position they key most people were easily able to find the key lock. In a Porsche it's on the left of the steering column, in a Saab in the center console and in most cars on the right side of the steering column (in a left hand driven car). Racing cars usually didn't need an ignition key to start the engine, a simple switch to turn on the ignition and a button to activate the starter motor were enough. Vintage cars (especially pre war) also usually didn't have ignition keys, they worked similar than modern race cars in that sense. And today? More and more cars are equipped with systems where you can have the "key" in your pocket and press a button again to start and stop the engine - it's called "keyless go" and marketed as a great invention. Of course today's systems are very sophisticated. The "key" or "batch" you have in your pocket identifies you as the owner/driver of the car, tells the car whether you like the aircondition on and controls the position of mirrors and seat adjustment. And if you try to lock the car, but have left the key/batch in the car, the system warns you with some nasty sounds.
Well, I really wonder, whether all of these inventiions are really valuable for the driver. I never had a real issue with putting the key and turning it. And it was way more predictable and logical than the today's systems.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Rolling Museum at the Gaisberg

Classic car events are able to gather impressive collections of historic cars. Last week (May 20-24, 2009) the well known Gaisberg Race took place around the city of Salzburg. What an impressive "starting grid"! From the BMW 328 Mille Miglia (see picture) to one of the 15 Porsche RSK built, from old Bentleys to a Porsche 908, from the Borgward 1500 RS to a Trojero-MG, from Citroen Traction Avant to DS. Many of these cars probably haven't been seen in Austria for years, others (such as the JWF Milano GT) even made it the first time to an event in continental Europe.
It's so much better to see the cars on the road than in a museum. The sound of the engines, the smell, the breath they take, the moment, when the engine starts, all this belongs to a car and can't be imagined in a museum really.
The drivers clearly love the event. It's a combination of a city circuit in Salzburg (with speed limits for safety reasons), a few laps on the Salzburgring, a 150 km rallye around the Salzkammergut and finally three runs onto the famous Gaisberg (approximately 8 km long). The hillclimb is what tradition is based on. And it's interesting to know that the street on the hill was built in the 1920ies with the idea of a hillclimb race in mind. It's sort of a Nurburgring Nordschleife that only goes into one direction.
Today as many other events the Gaisberg race is run as a regularity event. But many drivers still enjoy the blast to the hill and don't care about the imposed time limit. Around 4:30 was the time the Porsche 908 achieved, this means an average speed of roughly 100 km/h, not too bad for a narrow old road onto the top of a mountain. Gladly enough no really bad accidents happened, so that the race will be organized again next year. Most of the drivers will certainly return as it's quite a unique event. See you again next year!
P.S. The JWF Milano GT behaved very well, no bad habits at all.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Can race car safety be applied to regular consumer cars?

When you watch modern racing then you certainly are impressed by modern safety standards. Formula 1 drivers crash with 200+ km/h into walls and climb out of the car themselves, rallye drivers survive really horrible crashes without any injuries, there has been barely any touring car accident lately with drivers being severely hurt. How is this possible despite the low weight of cars, the lack of airbags and crash deformation zones? There are a number of reasons. The cars are very stiff and have usually a safety cell, there's a roll cage, drivers were helmets and the "HANS" system that stabilizes the head and of course they all have six point safety belts attached very tightly. So if this is making racing all that safe why not apply some of this to our regular cars, the daily drivers. Well, some actually could be applied, but on the cost of convenience and partially also usability. It takes a bit of time for example to attach a six point safety belt and you can't really move in there if you would like to change the CD in your radio. Helmets also are not very convient in normal traffic and a roll cage makes getting into and out of the car quite a climbing exercise. On the other side though safey precautions have made our normal cars very heavy. All these airbags, crash deformation zones, etc. add today some 100 to 300 kg compared to a car two centuries before. So if we were to go for very light cars to bring fuel consumption down then maybe some of the race proven safety means could be applied to daily drivers. Let's see what innovative car manufacturers will be coming up with.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Does the car industry give us the cars we want?

Toyota has introduced a Toyota Prius to arrive this summer, but it's still the same thing with very a limited electricity-only range (2-3 km). The batteries are still of the old kind and despite the car being very low in terms of CO2 emissions, it's not what many Prius owner has hoped for as a next generation Hybrid. The so called Plug-In Hybrid will come later, much later, probably 2011, first field tests are starting this years but only for fleet owners.
Interesting enough there's a company TODAY in the Netherlands to retro fit a Toyota Prius with better batteries and some electronics to convert it to a plug-in hybrid, a car you can charge up at home and then drive some 40-60 kms with electricity only. The company's name is TTd. The means applied to engineer this car seem to be fairly simple and straight forward, so why doesn't sell us Toyota the same thing. Reasons may be the price (I estimate some 20k Euros on top of a standard Prius) and more importantly the reliability. Modern hybrid cars are complex, lots of "decisions" need to be taken by the car, i.e. when to warm up the engine, when to load and unload the batteries, keeping the batteries in the optimal loading condition, break management, etc. But at the end, a key question should be, what customers want also. And I am pretty sure that pioneering users would love the plug-in principle as the best thing about the Prius is to run it quietly with the electrical motor only. So, Toyota, please speed up!

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Breaking down with the Tuscan - a positive experience?

It's always special to take an old car for a ride and have the old machinery warm up, sound and smell.
Sometimes, of course, things don't work out as planned. Old cars are certainly less reliable than modern cars. They were less reliable when they were new and of course after 40+ years this probably hasn't got better, despite better materials here and there and components that last longer. So, today, I took my dear TVR Tuscan (1969) for a blast and it let me down, after 30 kms it just rolled out and didn't start again. No power at the ignition. Nothing big, but enough to not reach the target on time and to get the fingers dirty. The good thing about old cars is that many of these problems can be solved on the spot or at least a work around can be found and the drive can continue. With modern cars it's often the opposite: first you need the infrastructure (mostly a computer) to actually find out what's wrong and then most of the time you need a spare part to actually solve the problem. And of course these things are not with you when you drive through the country. So, the TVR broke down, but we were able to fix it and this fact makes the car actually rather more interesting than the other way around, doesn't it?

Friday, May 15, 2009

Is the Aptera to wide for European roads?

I have been writing about the Aptera before and I really think they are up to something. And despite the lack of interest from the Aptera management to deliver to the Rest of the World (outside of California) and their issues dealing with the fact that with only 3 wheels the car is a motocycle and can't receive US government funding or "Abwrackprämien" in Germany, I am still a fan of the concept.
But, having just gone through the Aptera brochure I must admit that there are some design decisions that will make it difficult to market the car (which is still an interest of mine), especially in Europe. Looking at the length/width/height indicated with 173/91/53 inch or in meters 4.39/2.31/1.35 the Aptera is presenting itself as being very wide!
2.31 m is approx. 50 cm more than the today's average family car. Very few cars today are more than 2 m wide. And, as I pointed out in an earlier comment, the parking spots often are still designed for the cars in the 80ies and 90ies (or before), when an average car was 1.5-1.7 m wide.
So going with a 2.31 m wide car for shopping will not work out at all, no parking spot in the city is wide enough and the regulation says that you need to fit all the wheels into the parking spot, otherwise you receive a nice fine.
So, guys at Aptera, please think again, as even for the US where everything tends to be bigger, a car wider than a Hummer (2.2 m) will be difficult to sell, and I can only assume that many owners will have quite a bit of trouble with such a biiig vehicle and risk damage to their front wheels.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

The problems with noise regulations for cars

Cars have always and to a certain extent will always produce noise. Usually it's a combination of sounds coming from the engine, the exhaust, the wheels and the air passing the car. Due to the fact that more and more cars were driving around, the authorities created laws, measurement approaches and maximum noise level thresholds to get the problem under control. Over time these laws and maximum noise levels were made stricter. The "machine" to create and update laws though is quite slow and inflexible, as for example in the EU consensus and agreement needs to be reached before a new or updated law can be published. Because of this technology advances much faster and the car manufacturers (and tuning companies) invent new technical approaches to deliver what (some of) their customers want to buy - a well sounding and not too quiet car. If you look at the latest Aston Martins, Maseratis, Porsches or Ferraris, they all come with a sophisticated exhaust system that uses different channels conrolled by flaps and gates to emit the noise, depending on the driving condition or a (sport) switch in the car. When the car is homologated and measured based the rules stipulated through the law these cars of course emit the minimum noise level allowed and nobody would hit the special (sports) switch in the car. As a result these cars are substantially noisier than some cars in the 80ies or 90ies that were ruled out by the laws at that time. Thanks to the fact that complex exhaust systems are expensive this hasn't become a major problem, but it illustrates the problems the legislation suffers from when trying to lay out rules for technology. Where it becomes very irritating is when you try to road register older cars (for example after having imported them from one country to another) and therefore have to comply with the rules from the date when the car was manufacturer (or registered the first time).
As a petrol head I love the noise that well engineered cars produce. I think that the new Maserati Grandsport sounds terrific and would really be disappointed if an Aston Martin DB9 couldn't show off its well orchestrated V12 noise. And I would consider the sound output of a Ferrari 250 GTO, Jaguary D Type or Porsche Carrera 6 almost as music. But I must also admit that life would be hell in cities if all vehicles produced the noise level of these mentioned machines and therefore understand the need to regulate noise emission very well. But ...

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Electrical cars cheaper than gasoline or diesel cars?

A big inhibitor to modern electrical (and even hybrid) cars today are the high costs of batteries and the rather marginal reach. A recent study of IFA (in Germany) now said that by 2020 electrical cars will be more economical than their oil fuelled counterparts. They assumed decreasing costs for the batteries and increasing costs for fuel (3 Euros by 2020, instead of 1.20-1.50 or so today). This seems to be a quite realistic scenario, maybe the assumptions were even taken with too much care. The progress around battery technologies is astonishing and it's quite clear that there's only so much oil still to be found.
A key problem of course remains how the electricity is produced. It is already possible to produce your own energy on the roof of your house with solar panels. But again, it's not quite economical to do so. So we also need some real progress here if the whole chain is supposed to make sense.
Let's see and continue to observe this space!

Monday, May 11, 2009

Really rare cars

When thinking about collector's cars then usually premium brands pop up, such as Ferrari, Porsche, Bentley, Jaguar, Maserati and the likes. Thinking a bit longer the list may be extended by companies such as Lotus, Alfa-Romeo, Bugatti and more. But few people actually are able to name small production car manufacturers such as TVR, Marcos, Ginetta, Bizzarini or Monteverdi. And these produced significant numbers of cars. Beyond these there have been a quite a few very small companies that produced cars in the two digit number range: Diva, J.W.F., Devin, Apollo, Scarab, Bollwell, Connaught to list just a few. Isn't it so much more attractive to drive one of these cars? An Apollo 5000 is substantially more exclusive than a Ferrari Daytona, a Diva GT beats any GTO in terms of rarity, you probably will never meet another Connaught on the street if you drive one. But still these cars fetch much less value than some of the better known classic cars from the better known brands. Value isn't though the only measure. Isn't it more about pleasure and fun to drive something that only exists in extremely small numbers and is somewhat unique? People following this blog have seen the post on the JWF Milano GT earlier this year. From the approximately built 30 cars only about 10 still do exist and each and every one is quite different in terms of components used and history. And that's why I love these cars so much.

3.9 liter gasoline (europlus) for 100 km with a Toyota Prius

Well, not exactly. At the end, when I was able to take the picture, the fuel consumption was 4 liters per 100 km. But still, it's not a Diesel, it's unleaded gasoline and it's a car of 4.5 m lenght with 5 seats and all the comfort we are used today. So, not bad at all. The display is shown the German language, but the bar chart is understandable anyway. With a modern hybrid car you can stay substantially below 5 liters and most of the time below 4 liters even. The 80 kms included city traffic, highway and other streets, nothing artificial. Average speed probably something like 70 km/h. I must admit that I tried really to safe fuel, for example by not using the air condition (it wasn't hot anyway) and by not rushing up the hill. The good thing about the Prius is that it motivates the driver to save energy. But it takes experience also and it's not well enough explained in the manual. For example, braking isn't braking all the times, it depends on how much you step your foot on the pedal. I actually think Toyota should do a campaign with pictures like this (ideally with a number 2 or 3 for the consumption), this could be impressive.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Where has the temperature gauge gone?

People know less and less about the cars they drive. There's no need to deal with the technology and the mechanics of a car today any more. Computers and electronics will tell the driver when something is wrong. Not even the simplest maintenance or checking work needs to be done any more. When have you last time looked after the oil in your modern car? Why should you? If something is missing you'll get a text message in your onboard display ....
But isn't this sad too? Old cars do usually had a number of dials and gauges telling you about oil pressure, oil temperature, water temperature, energy household (volt and ampere gauges). And in the old times this was often crucial, for example because the cooling ventilator had to be manually operated if there was one at all. If the temperature was getting too high, then the driver had to do something! And the combination of dials told a lot about the health of the engine. Hot water and cold oil is something different than hot water and hot oil. No oil pressure, better stop the engine quickly. If the water stays cold and the engine oil gets hotter and hotter something else must be wrong. Etc. etc. No surprise that in the early times of motoring people needed to have a pretty good understanding of technology and engineering. In the first half of the 20iest century these skills were even checked when you wanted to have a permission to drive a car. Modern technology makes things easier but also much more boring.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Do we need new Car Controls?

If you think about it then what we use today to control a car is pretty much what has been invented hundred years ago. We have a steering wheel, throttle, clutch and brake pedals and some stick to change gears. Most of the millions and millions of cars on earth are built that way. If you compare this with airplanes then there's really very little evolution! Modern (passenger) airplanes are steered with joy sticks, they call this approach fly by wire.

Of course there's a down side when you change the way cars are controlled. People would need to change, to learn to use a different kind of control mechanism. Maybe even standard reflexes wouldn't work any more (like moving your foot from the right throttle pedal to the middle brake pedal when there's some danger). On the other side, our kids grow up with joysticks, gamepads and other pointing devices, but not with steering wheels. Maybe our children would have more control over a car using a device that they know from the Playstation or the Gameboy? Maybe we could even come up with a much more "efficient" car interior design if we hadn't to place this huge steering wheel in front of the driver? Maybe we could even steer the car from both sides of the car, handing over control like in an airplane? Think about this dialogue:
A: Hey I don't know exactly the direction, do you?
B: Yes, I do, why don't you hand over control to me and I drive?
A: Good idea, handing over control ....
Also parking might be much easier (if there's any skill needed for this in the future, thanks to all the electronic gismo in the cars) if you could switch control to the person sitting on the parking spot side. And so on.
From a technical stand point most is prepared for new ways of controlling a car. Drive by wire is almost reality already today, as throttle pedals are not anymore directly connected to the engine, and even the steering is electrical (assisted) today.
So, dear car manufacturers, why not trying to be a bit more innovative and brave? Maybe we would love to change?

Do Petrol Heads like Diesel?

When you talk to people you will find lots of people who drive and even like Diesel engine cars, others are the opposite and put Diesel engines in the truck corner, but would never use one in a sport car for example. Well, a lot has changed during the last 20 or 30 years. I remember the Diesel cars in the 70ies, for example the first Golf Diesel or the famous Mercedes 200D (the typical German cab). These were quite horrible cars, limited power output and very dirty. But technology has advanced a lot. With modern technology Diesels have become much cleaner, thanks to filters and bluetech and other high tech stuff. And they have become a lot more powerful. I recently drove a BMW 335d. Wow, this thing accelerates pretty much in the (super) sports car league, really impressive. And modern Diesels are very economical, drinking some 6-8 liters per 100 km. Car manufacturers even offer Diesel convertibles and coupés these days. But, do I like them? No! Despite all engineering and technical improvements the sound of a Diesel is still quite disappointing, not to compare with traditional fuel engines. Just listen to the noise a BMW 330 i does compared to the 330d. And the Diesel engines still don't run as smooth as their gasoline competitor. And it takes a lot of technology to make Diesels as clean as a gasoline engine and burning Diesel produces more CO2 per liter than gasoline. So, all in all, I will never like Diesels really, even if I am impressed with the power output. Maybe in the future Diesel engines will be good "range extenders" for hybrid and electrical cars. But they never will win my heart.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Can riding a bicycle be just like flying?

We all have used bicycles for most of our life and for quite some time it probably was our only transportation tool even. It's quiet and it's good for the personal fitness, so there are many good arguments speaking for it.
But often we find the bicycle not convenient enough and we decide to take the car or public transport instead. Also the sensation probably has suffered a bit over time and we don't feel like heros anymore when wer are sitting on a bike, different to when we were kids. But recently I sat on a (Swiss made) Flyer C6 biycle. It's supported by an electro motor and a small but powerful battery pack, which amplifies what ever you do by some factors. It's really a great feeling going up the hill with fairly little effort and being so fast. It's like I felt when I was young and riding a bike the first time. Really cool. I understand that people love these vehicles. And I am seriously considering buying one too, just for the sensation.