Getting there from here

(Previously, with a libertarian bent.)

I’m an environmentalist.  I don’t get particularly eschatological about it, but there’s a certain logic to the edict of “don’t shit where you eat” that I find compelling.  (I also like the idea of oil independence, if only because it makes people like Hugo Chavez cry.)  But societies and circumstances mostly change — in good ways, at least — at a slow, steady pace, even though we rarely notice the changes until they’re dramatic enough to seem game-breaking.  Before the breathtaking space race of the ’50s and ’60s, Wernher von Braun had been building solid- and liquid-fuelled rockets for going on thirty years — and orbital mechanics has its roots in Newton’s development of calculus.  Cheap software and the “microcomputer revolution” goes back to Ada Lovelace in the mid-19th century.  With that in mind, I’m not impressed by the flights of fancy to which popular environmentalist thinkers are given.

Sure, I think it would be fantastic* if we could harness wind and solar power for residential electricity; transmission costs being what they are, I think we’ll end up with some form of local power generation sooner or later.  But we don’t have the technology to get all of our juice from sun and storm just yet, and even if we did, we don’t have anywhere near the infrastructure we’d need to store it against times when it gets calm or cloudy.  We could (and should) build a big whack of fission powerplants — sure, the waste is scaaaaawwwy, but unlike coal-plant exhaust it can easily be kept in one place — but a CANDU reactor, say, isn’t exactly something you throw together over a weekend.  Local solar and wind plus enough large-scale fission to make a difference is a glancingly plausible medium-term strategy: we know how to do it; it’s just an engineering (or in the case of fission, testicle-finding) problem at this point.  I’d bet that honest-to-balls fusion power becomes practical before large-scale solar and wind does.

But well-understood engineering problems aren’t exactly rhetorical scaffolds suitable for grandiose demagoguery, now are they?  So instead we get wild pipe dreams about “solar farms” pumping compressed air into abandoned mines and beaming “energy” across the country with the magical power of benevolent unicorns.  That’s nice and all, but if we can’t get there from here it doesn’t do the rest of us a fuck of a lot of good.

Audi Sport’s head of engine development, Ulrich Baretzki, has a pretty good grasp of  how to get there from here.  (He has, after all, been designing high-performance endurance-racing engines for an ever more fuel efficiency-conscious racing series for a decade or more.  Oh, and they’ve been winning the 24 Hours of le Mans every year.)

Baretzki’s team built the Audi R8‘s 3.6l V8, the Audi R10‘s more powerful and more efficient 5.5l diesel V12, and most recently the Audi R15‘s 5.5l diesel V10.  Their engines have to be more and more efficient year after year, because the sanctioning bodies under which they race keep reducing engine restrictors and available downforce in vain attempts to slow the cars down.  Their steady incremental changes have produced startling results.  This anecdote (from the above) makes my point rather well:

“We are saving the world more than we are killing it,” Baretzky declared. “I made a presentation last year about the R10 and its efficiency and when we were finished a young girl, an ecologist, came to me and said, ’How can you sleep at night with all the CO2 your engines are producing?’ And I said, ’I’m sleeping extremely well and I can tell you why.’

“In 2001 we introduced [fuel-stratified injection] technology at Le Mans. The benefit was an increased performance and reduction in consumption by ten percent. In 2006 the VW Group introduced this technology over all its gasoline engines and 3 million of these engines have been sold each year. If you calculate that the average car goes 10,000 kilometers per year with a reduction in consumption by ten percent thanks to FSI then in three years more than 3 billion liters of fuel have been saved. So now you know why I sleep well.”

Funny how much you can get done when you have the imagination and tenacity to make incremental improvements on what you already have, rather than simply inventing magical** solutions and whining when “the market” can’t provide them.

Then you get General Motors.  I hate to bag on them in this context, because the C6.R GT1 programme was a really good (and well-executed) idea, but this electric-car-Real-Soon-Now thing has got to stop.  Jalopnik explains:

What we aren’t so great at yet is batteries. At least, not batteries that can provide high power draws with a 100% duty cycle in extreme environmental situations without catching on fire and blowing up without warning — that’s what the engineering and scientific community is feverishly working on right now.

From a technological perspective the only barrier between now and an EV future is a battery that’s cheap, reliable, able to charge quickly and last a very long time in environments ranging from the humid Central American jungles to the frozen tundras of Canada.

(Apropos of nothing, did anyone else see Kimi Räikkönen’s KERS battery blow up and catch fire during practice at Sepang last weekend?  That looked exciting… in a bad way.)

Anyway, this battery issue — and many like it — hasn’t stopped GM from announcing yet another Car Of The Future.  Only this time they’ve partnered themselves up with Segway.


puma_pod_live(Image link goes to Jalopnik article)

You have got to be fucking kidding me.

The interesting thing here [is] its vehicle-to-vehicle communication. Not only does the P.U.M.A. talk to other units, but it can detect the presence of other types of vehicles, pedestrians and cyclists; using that info to avoid collisions. It can also join together with other P.U.M.A.s to form high-speed (if you can call 35 MPH high speed) cross-city trains capable of using special lanes for uninterrupted travel.

So, the only thing that makes this more useful than a bicycle is predicated on (a) massive consumer adoption of the things and (b) ubiquitous specialized urban infrastructure?  That’s clever.

I guess now that GM’s effectively owned by the federal government we should get used to ideas like this.


* In both the literal and the colloquial sense

** By Clarke’s Law, any technology sufficiently advanced to solve the world’s energy problem subject to the constraints of a typical upper-middle-class environweenie would be indistinguishable from magic

8 Responses to “Getting there from here”

  1. April 9, 2009 at 07:07

    There is a fusion technology with very good prospects for relatively quick development.

    Bussard’s IEC Fusion Technology (Polywell Fusion) Explained
    Why hasn’t Polywell Fusion been fully funded by the Obama administration?

    BTW I blogged this article, which is fucking brilliant, at GM Announces Electric Car Of The Future

  2. 2 Matt Dernoga
    April 10, 2009 at 14:08

    check out the electric car coming out in a couple years


  3. April 12, 2009 at 08:08

    Edward Reed was prescient in 1996 when he wrote “It is difficult not to be puzzled by the ironies of our so-called information age. The technology for processing and transmitting information has progressed rapidly in recent decades, but in spite of this technological progress there has been considerable regress in meaningful communication among people…”

    In “The Necessity of Experience” he posits that when we rely too strongly on digital information we suffer from deficits in what he refers to as “ecological information” – the information we can only acquire in direct experience of the world around us. For many people today the balance between primary/ecological and secondary/indirect experience has been shifted dangerously to the purely artificial secondary mode. It’s like they spend their lives engaged in an extended game of “telephone” where the information they take in has been changed in successive tellings until the original meaning is utterly lost.

  4. April 12, 2009 at 08:23

    How ironic is this – I just realized I posted this comment to the wrong entry. This *should have been* a reply to “victims in everything.”

    (apparently I’ve been spending too much time on-line…)

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