Mazda’s approach to sustainability

Reading “Mazda SkyActiv is a novel approach to fuel efficiency; will it work?” over at Autoblog Green got me thinking. The article outlines how Mazda is eschewing hybrid and EV technologies (in the short term) to instead focus on light-weighting and efficiency.

It’s an interesting approach. I’ve written before about the “hyper car” concept outlined in Natural Capitalism by Paul Hawken, Amory Lovins and L. Hunter Lovins. Whereas the Lotus vehicle I was responding to in that post was just a concept, it’s interesting to see a mainstream brand like Mazda (which seems to be a bit more prominent in the Australian market than the US based on the Autoblog Green article) taking this approach to market. (It’s interesting to note that Audi have also announced a carbon-fibre project using an Australian partner.)

Autoblog Green ask if it will work — indeed, will it sell more cars. I think it’s actually a reasonably smart approach. The jury is still out on EVs and hybrids and the specific technologies that might “win” the race (including hydrogen fuel cells). With EVs taking a little while to gain traction in the market, there is a strong argument to holding off significant R&D expenditure in this area until the market is more mature.

(That said, I still think that electric vehicles will end up being the technology of choice, regardless of power source. And it is definitely important that some manufacturers lead the way, as Tesla and Nissan, among others, are doing.)

Regardless of which technology gets up, the measures that Mazda is exploring will all be relevant. And in the short term, with consumer uncertainty (and the high relative up-front cost of hybrid and EV vehicles), focusing efforts in this area can only provide benefits to the Mazda brand. That is to say, for those customers that aren’t ready to make the switch to EV/hybrid, the fuel efficiency benefits would likely be of appeal (and therefore to have an impact on sales). But it won’t be long before Mazda will need to start investing more heavily in alternative fuel/power train technologies. I’m sure, however, that they are keeping a close eye on developments and will be ready once a dominant approach appears. Definitely one worth watching…

Where did Subaru’s design go?

Ang and I have been tossing around the idea of getting a new car soon. We’re not actively in the market, but enough so that I started to look around at what’s available at the moment.

I have a couple of friends that have (second hand) Subarus, so I thought I’d check out the current range, only to be very disappointed. There are a number of great looking Subaru’s out there, but the current range look terrible. They seem to have lost their way some time around 2006/2007.

The New XV holds a little bit of promise (provided you like orange — which I do), but apart from that, I have trouble telling the Forester, Outback and Tribeca apart, and they all look very ordinary — I’m not sure which market segment they were targeting exactly, but they seem to have missed the mark terribly. This is from the company that developed the WRX and Impreza, which are now just shadows of their former glory.

Contrast this with Mazda’s appealing KODO design language across the range. This is a wonderful example of how to translate a design and brand concept across a wide variety of products, to great effect I think. Most directly look at the Tribeca compared to the CX-7. Yes, they are probably very different cars, but I think are compatible in intent/market (certainly they come across that way to a lay-person like myself). The CX-7 is not the most attractive vehicle in the fleet, and given the form factor was probably very difficult to translate the KODO design to. But the CX-7 has so much more character than the Subaru.

So, if we do go ahead and get a new (for us) car, I think we’ll be skipping the Subarus and looking elsewhere. At best, we’ll keep our search to pre-2007 models. Much as I would love to go on those fab recommendations from friends, the lack of good design is just too much to skip over…

Initial impressions of the HPI Bullet 3.0 ST Flux

This post is a bit of a departure from the usual fair on this blog, but I wanted to document my experiences as there seems to be a dearth of information around about the radio control car I recently bought — the HPI Bullet 3.0 ST Flux.  My wife Ang took this great snap of it in action:

HPI Bullet 3.0 ST Flux on dirt

I haven’t had an RC car since I was a teenager (I had a Tamiya Frog which I’d modified pretty heavily by the time I’d finished with it, and an ill-fated Mugen Mercury) so I’ve spent a bit of time “re-learning” with regards to maintenance etc.

For this post I’m not going to go over what’s in the kit — there are some good reviews already around for that.  Instead, over the jump I go into more detail on the learnings I’ve made in use, perhaps providing some insight into what other owners might expect if they get a Bullet Flux themselves.

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Hydrogen car future?

I was interested to read Dan Gray’s take on the Top Gear team’s enthusiastic reception of the hydrogen fuel-cell Honda Clarity — suggesting that such a response in such a mainstream channel was a “profound” moment.

My interpretation of Dan’s key point is that the Honda is “just like the car of today” and therefore would be more accepted by the average punter due to reduced barriers (at least perceived barriers) of filling up and the speed of refuelling.

I have to respectfully disagree with the notion that hydrogen fuel cell vehicles will create a significant impact in the mainstream market (at least in the short- to medium-term — e.g. 5–10 years), and would like to throw a few points forward as to why I think electric vehicles, using battery technology, is more likely to become the new standard for cars in that period.

  • While most manufacturers have been working on hydrogen powered vehicles for some time, most have seemingly reduced their investment due to a number of critical issues (some of which I’ll expand on below).  On the flipside, most major manufacturers (Nissan, VW, Audi, GM to name just a few) have announced electric drive-train vehicles, or at least plug-in hybrids (in the case of Toyota and GM), as their preferred platform for alternative vehicle systems.  In the case of GM and Nissan, plans are to have production-ready vehicles as early as next year.  Honda is, I think, the only maker continuing to actively promote hydrogen fuel-cells as their platform of choice.
  • The infrastructure for electric vehicles already exists to a degree that is suitable for most people’s driving patterns (< 50 miles per day) — and it’s sitting in every person’s garage.  Additional infrastructure for in-transit recharging is required, but not as critical, for these common trips.  That’s what allows Tesla and Nissan to launch electric vehicles within a 12 month time-frame, not 5 or 10 years.  Hydrogen vehicles will need significant investment in hydrogen fuel distribution before the first vehicle can roll off the line.  This is what really annoyed me about Top Gear’s coverage — it completely ignored the fact that hydrogen vehicles can’t operate in the same way as petrol-fueled vehicles until this infrastructure is in place, and it will be sporadic at best in the early stages of deployment, in which case it has exactly the same issues as they claimed for electric vehicles.
  • Hydrogen fuel generation is an energy-intensive process, and my understanding is that it is far less efficient than battery technology in terms of energy conversion (i.e. while hydrogen has more energy per unit of storage, creating the fuel is less efficient than charging a battery).  For example, see the “Efficiency” section of this article for a summary — approx 22% efficiency for fuel cells vs. 85% for batteries.  Another paper (PDF 66 KB) from the European Fuel Cell Forum estimates the ratio as 22% vs. 66% respectively.  While I’ve read of some promising advances in using biological and chemical processes to generate hydrogen, these are still very experimental and are some years off production-ready.
  • Battery-powered vehicles can take advantage of long-running trends in battery technology improvement that is shared across the consumer electronics, electrical-industrial production and other industries.  Portable hydrogen fuel-cells are (mostly) automotive industry specific, which has a big potential to impact economies of scale and innovation moving forward.
  • Innovative concepts such as A Better Place are trialling alternative models to reduce the “recharge” time to an average of a a minute (technically this is not recharging — they switch over batteries that have been charged over a longer period).  While A Better Place relies on significant infrastructure investment, the experience will be closely equivalent to “refuelling”, overcoming the cognitive barriers that the Top Gear team claim hydrogen overcomes.  In other words, there’s more than one way to respond to the barriers to extending travel distance for battery-based vehicles.

Most importantly, though — electric vehicles and related technologies are available today and are viable given current infrastructure for a significant proportion of every-day use.  They are also a lot less expensive than hydrogen-based vehicles to produce, bringing them into range of conventional vehicles on a total cost of ownership basis, and even more so with government clean-vehicle subsidies (where available).  Economies of scale and technology improvements are likely to close the existing gap pretty rapidly.

As an aside, I think there are other significant issues with comparing the Tesla Roadster with the Clarity, especially in the context of a program like Top Gear.  For a start, the Tesla is a sports car, built on a Lotus rolling chassis modelled on the Elise, and the Top Gear team did give it a thrashing — I doubt expectations of performance would be so high for the Clarity.

As a counter-point to the finding that the battery lacked staying power, a Tesla Roadster here in Australia completed 500+ km (300 miles) on a single charge.  Additionally, the Tesla is the first vehicle from a new manufacturer that is deliberately provocative (thus the sports car styling and positioning that makes it much more expensive than comparable vehicles), and pioneered a new approach to battery technology that future electric vehicles are leveraging to achieve rapidly increasing ranges.

I think that a comparison between the Clarity the up-coming Tesla S will be a much fairer comparison, and the S will be taking advantage of newer battery technology and much learning by Tesla from the experience of developing, producing and rolling out the Roadster, so is likely to perform better on many levels.

One last gripe with the Top Gear comparison — Jeremy took great pleasure in dissing the Tesla for its likely reliance on coal-powered electricity, which of course also produces greenhouse gas emissions.  This is demonstrably misleading.  Based on the US energy mix an electric vehicle, even if powered by coal-generated electricity, an electric vehicle still achieves approx. 30% less emissions.  Buyers can choose GreenPower (offset) or have renewable capacity installed — in fact I believe that Tesla offer solar and renewable energy options as part of the purchase of the vehicle in the US — and given both the price premium and the nature of the market for such a vehicle, one would expect most owners would opt for a zero-emissions option.

Old ideas painted new

Over the past few years I’ve been following the automotive industry, especially in relation to electric cars and efficiency improvements.  I have had a long time love of cars from an aesthetic/design perspective, probably rooted in the many drawings and lego vehicles I made when I was a kid.

Perhaps it was watching Who Killed the Electric Car, the talk of biofuels (and their positive and negative aspects) and hydrogen (with many questions relating to hype vs. reality) – I’m not sure which, but something clicked over the past few years that really opened my eyes to just how little innovation had actually been happening in the space, and I suppose piqued my interest from a sustainability perspective.  I also think that the industry is somewhat of a bellweather for the broader market shift to sustainable technologies.

I was interested to note that this week Lotus Engineering have unveiled a concept car design, based on the Toyota Venza, that achieved a 30% weight reduction – a critical component of efficiency – over the Toyota design.

2020 Toyota Venza concept by Lotus Engineering

GoAuto.com.au reports:

With a combination of lightweight materials and efficient design, Lotus claims to have achieved a 38 per cent reduction in vehicle mass, excluding the powertrain, for only a three per cent increase in component costs.

In other words, the Venza’s 1290kg mass was reduced to just 800kg on the Lotus-engineered 2020 concept.

… The company’s findings were released this week by the International Council on Clean Transportation and show how significant reductions in fuel consumption and CO2 emissions can be achieved for a regular mass-market vehicle through means other than the powertrain.

(egmCarTech has published an article of their own exploring the concept with further pictures.)

Over the past few weeks I’ve been reading the excellent book Natural Capitalism by Paul Hawkins and Amory and L. Hunter Lovins.  In the chapter entitled Reinventing the Wheels the authors outline how lighter materials, better aerodynamics and alternative drive-trains (hybrid-electric) can radically improve the efficiency of cars.  They call this concept the “Hypercar”, and note:

Detroit has long focused on improving the efficiency of the drive-line – the fraction of the fuel’s energy that’s converted by the engine into torque and then transmitted by the drivetrain to the wheels.  But there is an even better approach.  The Hypercar concept attacks the problem from the other end, by reducing the amount of power that is needed at the wheels in the first place.

They go on to outline how efficient use of more expensive but lighter, stronger and more adaptable materials can reduce weight and manufacturing complexity with only mild increases in costs while at the same time reducing the resource intensity (how many resources are required in energy, labour and natural resources) of the car.  Lotus’s concept seems to be taking this approach directly:

Still committed to founder Colin Chapman’s ethos of “performance through light weight”, Lotus Engineering says the 2020 vehicle architecture uses a mix of stronger and lighter weight materials, a high degree of component integration and advanced joining and assembly techniques.

Whereas the benchmark Venza’s body-in-white contained more than 400 parts, the 2020 model reduced that number to 211.

Body materials in the Venza were 100 per cent steel, while the 2020 concept uses 37 per cent aluminium, 30 per cent magnesium, 21 per cent composites and seven per cent high-strength steel – which Lotus says reduces the structure mass by 42 per cent, from 382kg to 221kg.

This is great news, and fantastic that Lotus is taking the initiative.  It’s noteworthy, I think, that Lotus are heavily involved in Tesla Motors‘ development.  However, I can’t help but have a twinge of disappointment that it’s taken over 10 years since Natural Capitalism was written (it was first published in 1999) for these techniques to be seriously considered, for a 2017 horizon.

Perhaps the technology and costs are only just starting to catch up to the vision, but I suspect it has more to do with the recent spur of activity in the automotive industry around electric vehicles that have resulted in this approach being applied.

Hopefully more of the ideas in the book start to come to fruition in the same way soon…

Tesla’s CARB presentation

Hilarious: High CARB diet.

However, we are actually delighted by the way this [fuel cell] bias finds implementation in the ZEV [Zero Emission Vehicle] mandate. For the results of this mandate is that all of our potential EV competitors – all the big car companies – remain mired in non-productive, deeply-expensive fuel cell programs, keeping them out of the EV marketplace, and indeed out of the serious ZEV marketplace entirely.