GM’s CityCar Future

A while back, we commented on a book from MIT called “Reinventing the Automobile.” The premise is that urban transportation; cars and everything associated with them – the DNA of automobiles – have to be radically rethought with safety, efficiency and zero emissions in mind.

Now, GM has weighed in on the topic, publishing a so-called “Blue Paper” on its vision of sustainable urban mobility. Nice to know that the General still has a sense of humor!

GM’s vision of sustainable urban mobility is similar to MIT’s vision. No surprise, since GM collaborated on “Reinventing the Automobile.”

But the fact that GM has taken a public stand on the topic, via it’s recently published corporate-colored “Blue Paper” lends credence to a future of vehicle electrification, continuous connection to a communications network, electronic controls, networked crash avoidance systems and autonomous drive when you want, and flexible design for specific use.

To get this done, a few of the things GM proposes and supports are a comprehensive urban charging infrastructure, a smart power grid, diverse source, low-emission pathways to electrification, high-quality wireless communications for vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) real time positional communication.

But here’s the important concept that sews the package together: the idea is to Integrate all these electric-powered, wi-fi connected vehicles into a transport system that links up highly efficient inter-city transport, intra-city transportation systems, like subways and busses, regular old utility trucks and delivery vehicles, and specialized city cars.

Think of a divided avenue that is transformed for safe use by pedestrians, a bike lane, and citycars on one side of the divider, and busses, trucks, and bigger cars on the other.

Automakers have been fooling around for a while with “Mild Hybrid” technology. A simple mild hybrid is an Internal Combustion Engine powered vehicle, with a cheap seats approach to saving fuel and lowering emissions, by shutting the engine off at idle.

If you’ve not experienced this before, a mild panic may ensue… but, plan on getting used to it… it’s the way of the future.

Ford committed to bring its patented engine idle-off technology, called “Auto Stop/Start”, to the U.S. market in 2012, where it will find its way into conventional cars, crossovers and SUVs.

Idle-off technology is a standard feature in hybrid vehicles. If you don’t drive a hybrid, and you’ve been stuck in traffic, or waiting in a fast food drive-in line, you’ll immediately see the value of engine idle-off technology. Basically, you and your fellow drivers will no longer stink up the place. On top of that, Ford believes that the average driver will see a four percent increase in fuel economy, and may see as much as ten percent.

There are three key components to Ford’s system: an enhanced 12-volt battery, a beefier starter motor and a “voltage quality module” which makes sure that all the accessories function while the engine’s off. So, come to a stop, foot on the brake and the engine shuts off – YAY zero emissions! Take your foot off the brake and the engine restarts and you’re on your way. A light on the dash provides additional feedback when the engine’s off and a tachometer sends the RPM indicator to the “Green” zone.

The Belt Alternator Starter system, or BAS-hybrid, is an even cheaper-seats version of Ford’s more-sophisticated, and patented, technology. GM used this type of system in its now-defunct Saturn VUE Green Line (below).

Stop/Start technology is one of many small steps to lower our dependence on oil.

Socialist Biking…


This is rather old news; but, it is none the less amusing. One wonders where in their own mind such folks live.  You may remember the actor and former governor of Minnesota, Jesse Ventura, whose movie line, “This stuff will make you a g**d*m*** sexual tyrannosaurus, just like me” - Predator, was more memorable than his thespian skill.

What you might not know is that the ex-politico had another avocation, and that was his short run cable TV series called Conspiracy Theory. “Conspiracy Theory covered the kind of thing that tickles the fancy of people fond of mental intrigue. Stuff like the 911 tragedy was an inside job and that the World Trade Center was blown up by government conspirators… you know, juicy stuff that you can’t prove, but which provides endless speculation and argument, and the ability to keep saying “Am I the only one here who sees this??”

What do conspiracy theories and politicians have in common, and how does it relate to lowering our dependence on oil? Ask Tea Party Republican candidate for Mayor of Denver, Dan Maes, who has discovered something nefarious in the mile-high city.

It seems that in 1992, Denver became part of an organization called the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives (ICLEI), which promotes sustainable development. About 1,200 communities, half of which are in the United States, are ICLEI members.

Tea Party candidate Maes claims that his opponent, Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper, who has promoted a bicycle-sharing program called B-cycle, is “converting Denver into a United Nations community.”

B-cycle bike with basket (Credit: B-cycle)

Huh? Well, since ICLEI is affiliated with the U.N, riding a bike in Denver has deeper implications. To quote Maes: “At first, I thought, ‘Gosh, public transportation, what’s wrong with that? But if you do your homework and research, you realize ICLEI is part of a greater strategy to rein in American cities under a United Nations treaty,”

By the way, that hotbed of coastal communism, Santa Cruz, is an ICLEI member; but then again, so is Little Rock, Arkansas.

I have to admit that for me, this kind of thing is not the source of wet dreams. But, it does beg the question: What does the Tea Party candidate think of pedestrians?

Update on Dan Maes: Still a candidate in the race for the governorship of the State of Colorado, Maes is fond of fantasies. Apparently, he’s been accused of cooking up a tale about being an undercover cop in Kansas; and, now even the Tea Party is abandoning ship. I’m sure it’s a U.N, conspiracy to deprive Maes of his precious bodily fluids.

Fuel Cells

The scoop on fuel cells is that no matter how they’re configured the principle is pretty much the same. They produce electricity by breaking up the atoms of a very basic element, typically… Hydrogen.

First a wee review of atomic structure:

Atoms are made up of 3 types of particles: electrons, protons and neutrons, each with a different property.

  • Electrons are tiny, very light particles that have a negative electrical charge.
  • Protons are much larger and heavier than electrons and have a positive electrical charge.
  • Neutrons have no electrical charge, so we’ll ignore them.

Since electricity is simply the flow of electrons from point A to point B, if we can separate electrons from the Hydrogen (H2) atom, and get them to move, then, hey!  We have a source of electricity, right?

How do we separate electrons from the Hydrogen atom?

In one type of fuel cell you cause a chemical reaction that splits off electrons, leaving very lonely positively-charged Hydrogen atoms, called ions, and very excited negatively-charged electrons, behind.

How do you get the electrons to move?

Well, you get oxygen to wag its tail within sight of those lonely Hydrogen ions, which then cozy up to the oxygen and make little water together,

But wait! The electrons don’t want to be left out of the action, so they take the fast lane through a wire for a ménage a trois, on the other side of the fuel cell.


Electricity! And water.

If you stack up a bunch of these things, and runs the electrons through a motor. you might even get enough electricity to power…

a car!

(click on the pic – courtesy of the government of Australia – to see a full-size version)


Fuel Cell Notes:

The first fuel cell was built in 1889 by Welsh scientist Sir William Grove. Sir Bill found out that when he immersed separate platinum electrodes in sulfuric acid and then place the other end of each electrode in sealed containers of oxygen and hydrogen, he got a constant flow of current in the circuit. He combined a few cells in a series and thus discovered his “gas battery.”

Fuel cell development of  continued more or less as a curiosity for about 75 years. New, better electrodes, electrolytes and reactants were developed. And then, in the ’60s, the U.S space program decided that fuel cells were a lot less risky than nuclear power plants and lighter and more compact than expensive, huge solar panels. Thus, interest in fuel cells as compact and efficient generators of electricity has continued.

For use with cars, the main problems have been expense and durability.

Types of Fuel Cells

Here are some examples of fuel cells, courtesy of About.com… click on the blue links to see a diagram of each.

  • Proton Exchange Membrane (PEM) - Efficiency is 40 to 50 percent at about 175 degrees F. Cell output ranges from 50 to 250 kW. The electrolyte is a flexible polymer. Their relatively low operating temperature and flexible electrolyte make them ideal for automotive use.
  • Alkaline - Operate at about 70 percent efficiency at temperatures between 300 and 400 degrees F. Cell output range is 300W to 5kW and they use a liquid electrolyte of potassium hydroxide (KOH) and water and can potentially leak.
  • Molten Carbonate - Operate at about 60 to 80 percent efficiency at temperatures of about 1200 degrees F. Cell output is about 200 MW. Carbonate ions from the electrolyte are depleted in the reactions and require the injection of additional carbon dioxide.
  • Phosphoric Acid - Efficiency ranges from 40 to 80 percent at about 300 to 400 degrees F. Cell output is around 200 kW. The phosphoric acid electrolyte is corrosive to internal cell parts.
  • Solid Oxide - Operational efficiency is about 60 percent at temperatures of 1800 degrees F. Cell output is up to 100kW. The solid electrolyte is prone to cracking.

It’s Life in the Fast Lane Day of Reckoning!

The socio-economic and environmental consequences of British Petroleum’s oil drilling accident on the Gulf states will be reckoned for a long time to come; but, figuring out what it costs you to own and drive your car is a lot easier. And it might open your eyes to the price we directly pay for the vehicles we drive.

If you’ve ever had reason to claim reimbursement for your automobile expense, then you’ll be familiar with the standard mileage rate for business the IRS uses for calculating your tax deduction. The figure is based on an annual study of the fixed and variable costs of operating an automobile, and for 2010, it is fifty cents per mile.

So, how does that work? Well, let’s break it down:

Let’s say took out a loan to buy a nice, new mid-size car, like a Camry, a Malibu or an Accord, you drive 15,000 miles per year and gas costs $3 a gallon.

According to AAA, your annual Operating Costs – what it costs you to use the car – would roughly be:

  • $1850 for gasoline,
  • $700 for maintenance,
  • $172 for tires,

for a total of $2670.

Now, according to AAA, the annual cost just to OWN the car  - even if you do nothing with it – is about:

  • $900 for insurance,
  • $560 for license, registration and taxes,
  • $3,360 for depreciation (that’s the worth you lose every year); and
  • $770 a year for financing (assuming 10% down, and 5 years at 6%),

for a total of $5590.

Total annual cost to own and operate, about $8260. That’s about fifty cents per mile!



Clever readers that you are, you’ve already figured out that the way to win, tax-wise, at the above series of calculations is to buy a used, highly fuel efficient car, such as a Toyota Matrix or a Prius. Gasoline and maintenance drop, and if you buy it outright, there’s no financing involved. Since it’s already depreciated some – being a used car – depreciation is considerably less.

Also, keeping a car for a REALLY long time has similar implications, except of course that maintenance may go considerably higher with age. Also, unless your old reliable beast is fuel-efficient, you’ll pay probably double the above figure for gas each year.

Want to know about new technologies that may help to end our dependence on fossil fuels?

Then please join me every Tuesday and Thursday, at 7:33am and 4:33pm, for ‘Life in the Fast Lane” on KUSP 88.9 FM, listener supported, community based, Central Coast Public Radio in Santa Cruz, California!

We’re on the web at http://www.kusp.org/shows/fast.html

Get us as an NPR Podcast at the iTunes store… search for ‘KUSP’s Life in the Fast Lane‘ for a free subscription, or go to http://www.kusp.org/pod/ and subscribe via RSS or iTunes link!

Thanks for visiting and we’ll see you ’round the ‘Blogosphere!


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