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Think about the future

August 26, 2007 5 comments

License plates are not usually installed by mechanics.  Normally this chore is done by someone who does not make a living navigating the world of fasteners and corrosion.  So here is a little Public Service Announcement.

When you install license plates, remember that they will be subjected to years of exposure to salt water and extremes of weather.  And further remember that unless you intend to keep your car until it suddenly dissolves in a pile of entropy, some poor schmuck will have to change the license plates someday: Put a little grease on the threads!  Better yet, spend two bucks and get theft-resistant stainless steel fasteners and still put a little grease on the threads. Ask the guy or gal at the auto-parts store which fasteners to get for your car. 

That is all.

Thank you, and we now return to your regular programming.

(More about my new 1988 Honda Civic later.)

Minnesota Bridge Collapse, part One

August 5, 2007 3 comments

“For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled.”
- Richard Feynman

For some weird reason, manmade disasters are an avocation of mine.  I have two or three dozen books on various disasters ranging from the Johnstown flood to the Tenerife disaster, along with books on structural engineering, fracture mechanics, corrosion properties of metal, and related weather and geology.  The science and tech magazines I take often feature detailed disaster articles that I pore over the way some people read sports scores.  And of course, I’ve studied that other famous disaster, which I will NOT be mentioning here because I don’t want to get side-tracked on people’s whacky conspiracy theories

News reports, of course, focus on “human interest stories”, which dribble on endlessly about how people were scared, and are sad and upset, and that stuff is of little interest to me except for the sociology of disaster response or the technology of rescue.  The human-interest story that interests me is the one that took place before the disaster, and is just as important as, and often the indirect cause of, the corrosion fractures, etc.

Here’s an unlinked summary of what I’ve been able to find out so far (You can use Google as well as I can).  There’s a fair amount of “Duh!” in the mix:

  • The bridge had been found corroded and cracked, structurally deficient, as far back as 1990. A plan to reinforce cracked welds and rusted bolts was deemed prohibitively expensive.

  •   There are 77,000 bridges in the US in the ‘structurally deficient’ category, though Congress acting boldly in response to the disaster just earmarked $250m to rebuild this one.  In other news, this seems like a good spot to quote Mark Twain: “Suppose I were a congressman.  And suppose I were an idiot.  But I repeat myself.”
  • A plan to monitor its health electronically was dismissed in favor of routine inspections.  Apparently the bridge was designed without a redundant load-path to ground, so huge numbers of individual sensors would have been required.  Modern bridges are designed with redundant load paths, or at least they’re supposed to be.
  • The bridge was receiving a routine resurfacing with some very heavy road equipment at the time of the collapse.
  • Cell phone networks get overloaded when disasters happen.
  • Governor Pawlenty rejected an extra gas tax that would have funded better highway maintenance in his state, but now he’s reconsidering.

This story appears headed in an all-too-common direction, of politicians gambling with people’s lives while making themselves look like heroic tax-cutters.  (Of course, there’s always tax money for stadiums)

I’ll write about this in more detail when better information comes in.  If you’re interested in the “human-interest” stories, just turn on the television.  It’s pretty much wall-to-wall there with little information about the actual bridge or the political backstory. 

UPDATES:

  • In the context of this bridge collapse, Cajun reflects on the essential difference between engineers and politicians.

  • Michael O’Hare On engineering bridges
  • Math entrepreneur Stephen Wolfram has a design idea for new bridges using cellular automata – bridge designs generated by algorithm rather than designed by engineers.
  • Sensors are getting cheaper so it may be possible to equip bridges that would continuously watch the health of the bridge.

Very much doubt we’ll see those MPG’s

July 24, 2007 3 comments

Engineers are working on efficient, spark-free engines that could boost our cars a few more MPG’s.  By clever management of the fuel and unrestricted air, and switching between spark-operated and sparkless mode, they solve a timing problem that has troubled sparkless engines.

It’s good news, but I doubt we’ll see the extra fuel economy.  Since I started driving, engine power has just about doubled while gas mileage has stayed the same.  So we know how improvements in engine design end up being used. 

Happy freaking 4th… sigh…

July 4, 2007 Comments off

I don’t know whether to file this post under “Transportation” or “Stupidity”.  Just in time for our Independence Day celebration, Chrysler has announced they’re bringing in Chinese cars for the US market.  Perversely, this may not hurt our balance of trade if the Chinese cars get extremely good gas mileage because we’ll buy less foreign oil to drive them. 

But it is sad because US car makers have been whining about how CAFE regulations are “anti- auto industry”.  Apparently other countries manage it somehow.  When GM says they have “over 30 models that get over 30 mpg” they mean “cars designed and in some cases built by foreign companies.” When it came to their own cars, Detroit spent literally millions lobbying against fuel economy regulations and millions more shaping public demand – often at taxpayer expense, for ever bigger, more profitable (and CAFE-exempt)  “cars”.

Factoid; my Dad’s ‘53 Mercury with ‘overdrive’ got 21 mpg on the highway.  Detroit is still building lots full of passenger cars that get less mileage than that.  As I recall, the first “Declaration of independence” was followed by some sacrifices and a pitched battle to make it a reality.  Over two centuries later our once-great car companies will just become brokers for foreign technology, and while the Chinese are selling us goods (and now cars) they’re also financing our deficit spending.  We need a different kind of declaration, and a different kind of battle this time.

Obama speaks truth, shoots self in foot

May 10, 2007 8 comments

UPDATE: 12may07 – the Senate has approved a bill which would require the total fleet average to rise to 35mpg by 2020.  Golly gee, how exciting.  I think we probably have the technology to do that, like, NOW… why do we have to wait until 2020?


Senator Barack Obama was criticized for taking the auto industry to task this week:

“For years, while foreign competitors were investing in more fuel-efficient technology for their vehicles, American automakers were spending their time investing in bigger, faster cars,” he said, according to a text of his remarks. “And whenever an attempt was made to raise our fuel efficiency standards, the auto companies would lobby furiously against it, spending millions to prevent the very reform that could’ve saved their industry.”

He’s in good company.  Ah-nuld Schwarzenegger told the auto industry “Get off your butts” after Michigan congressjerk Joe Knollenberg whined about the Governator’s advocacy of higher fuel-economy standards

“Now, there’s a billboard in Michigan that accuses me of costing the car industry $85 billion,” Schwarzenegger said at a speech in Washington. “The billboard says, ‘Arnold to Michigan: Drop dead.’ The fact of the matter is what I’m saying is, Arnold to Michigan: Get off your butt. Get off your butt and join us. What we are doing is we are pushing them to make changes, to make the changes so they can sell their cars in California,” he said. “And we all know—let’s be honest—that if they don’t change, someone will. The Japanese will. The Chinese will. The South Koreans will. The Germans will.”

In response to Obama, representatives of an industry group (that even included some Japanese car makers) complained:

[calling for increased fuel-efficiency] but only to “the maximum feasible level.” “Let’s get on with the show,” Stanton said in an interview Wednesday. “Congress should act, but not arbitrarily pick a number, because it could be the wrong number.”

My one request of the auto lobbyists?  Shut the hell up.  Your “maximum feasible level” will be a gnat’s eyelash above current levels.  Your “right number” will be whatever allows you to sit on your butts, you corporate whiners.

Obama’s right that the American auto industry has done everything it can to keep strip-mining the auto market with high-profit, padded light trucks they promoted to evade auto regulations.  They created and energized the SUV market and now people are driving 7,000 lb vehicles with “Support the troops” magnets on them.  Every time someone proposes less pollution or better fuel economy they haul out their indignation and say the legislation is “anti auto-industry”.

Worried about Congress “picking the wrong number”?  Fine, here’s a number: 35 mpg.  Back in 1968 our family bought a 4-door Fiat 124g sedan.  It was roomy and comfortable (my dad was 6’2”) and had an enormous trunk.  It handled great and had 4-wheel disk brakes.  When cruising at 75 mph it got 35 mpg.  That was 39 years ago.  Anyone think we should be making cars that get worse mileage now?

In 1973 I remember watching Henry Ford II on television, claiming with a straight face that “a practical 35mpg car is still ten years away.”  Sure… ten years in the past.  I am sick and tired of excuses from the American auto industry.  I am tired of reading headlines about automakers laying off workers while Honda and Toyota and Hyundai build factories here. 

I was really hoping Obama would have a shot at the presidency, too.  But then he went and told the truth, so his chances are probably reduced.  And we complain that our politicians lie and tell people what they want to hear.  Obama went to Detroit to say this stuff!  The man has cajones of chrome-vanadium tool steel. 

The Chicago Tribune says gas will be $5 a gallon this summer. 
- and the automakers have started another ad blitz to fight ever having to do the right thing.

Insanity in government and business

February 18, 2007 10 comments

The Washington Post reports that The governments of Spain and Morocco want to build an underwater tunnel from Cape Malabata, Morocco, to Punta Paloma, Spain.  It will run 25 miles under nearly a thousand feet of water, in a “geologically tormented” region.  They think they can get it done by 2025, for only “6.5bn through $13bn.”

(Question: what’s with the “.5” when you can’t even narrow it down to a factor of two? )

OK, neat.  That’s slightly shorter, but through five times deeper water and much worse geology by far, than the British/French “Chunnel” which ended up costing almost twice as much as the largest estimate for their tunnel, and has bobbled around the bankruptcy point since it was built.

What is it about governments, civic boosters, and other hucksters that they always say; “We’ll do it in less time for half the cost!  It’ll make tons of money!”  It reminds me of the Simpsons’ “Monorail” episode.  I have no problem with the idea of the tunnel.  It’ll probably help Africa, help the countries involved, and be one of the great engineering wonders of the world. But stop lying about what it will cost.

This is a universal problem.  My little town of Normal, Illinois is restructuring its downtown, and the same thing is happening – we’re building a tunnel to Morocco.  No wait, that isn’t it; we’re just buying a lot of land through eminent domain and mismanaging it to grease wealthy companies after the voters said “no” to the whole project.  (Project was re-worded and presto! now it’s a different project! Nearby Bloomington did the same thing when voters said “no” to a civic arena.)

The local paper says:

“The $75 million Uptown Normal project outlined by OneMain Development builds on a vision and creates the energy needed to continue Normal’s push into the future.”

Well as long as we’re building on a vision and creating energy, then.  Gotta push into the future, y’know.  (Oh, they officially changed the name of the area from “downtown Normal” to “Uptown Normal” because it sounded more, well, uptown.)

I think it’s high time that “civic boosterism” be recognized as a mental disease. 

59mpg in a plain old Accord… beat that, punk

January 30, 2007 2 comments

While I’m not a ‘hypermiler’, I do usually get better mileage than most people do with the same model car.  It’s a game to me to mesh smoothly with traffic, and drive all the way through town without ever tapping the brake.  But this guy totally has me beat:

Drafting 18-wheelers with the engine off, taking death turns at 52 miles an hour, and other lessons learned while riding shotgun with the king of the hypermilers… Around Wayne is madness in motion: Drivers in four lanes are accelerating hard, weaving erratically, or grinding to a halt. To Wayne, these are the driving habits of the ignorant and the wasteful—which is to say, nearly all of us. Wayne’s car glides to a stop as if it has run out of gas. Wayne has stopped without braking…
- Mother Jones: “This guy can get 59mpg in a plain old Accord.  Beat that, punk.

Wayne’s probably pretty extreme in traffic – there’s something to learn from him but it would be maddening to drive behind him as he coasts to a stop.  One suggestion if you want better gas mileage is; ride a bicycle.  When you are the engine, you become conscious of energy usage relative to acceleration.  You learn that braking is the enemy.  You learn to plan ahead, which you can apply in your car.

There’s a general principle here; no machine is better than its user, and an attentive user can get the most out of any machine.  Want a faster computer?  Learn a few keyboard shortcuts, you’ll save way more time than a new processor will.  Tired of giving your money to the Ay-rabs?  Put down your cell phone and drive.  Think you need a better camera?  Read a book on composition and lighting.  No matter how good our gadgets get, it still comes down to the human.

But don’t draft semi trucks; leave that to Wayne. 

Toyota’s new 3-cylinder car

September 19, 2006 5 comments

I bet the new Toyota AvGo is a perfectly ordinary car that they already sell in other countries, and they were just waiting for Americans to wake up and realize how cool it would be to have a 51-mpg urban car.

Don’t let the 3-cylinder engine fool you; it’ll get around just fine.  I once had a Geo Metro XFI with a 3-cyl engine, and it had plenty of zoom (just not insane amounts of zoom).  It also got 50 mpg in town, which was a nice feature. 

But I didn’t like its flimsy construction, (stuff was always breaking) and it lacked air conditioning which made it unpopular with MrsDoF.  The new Toyota comes with a 5-star collision rating and being a Toyota, will probably beat the Suzuki-made Geo on durability as well.

Probably won’t be able to drive it down a creek bed like my Beetle, though.