Archive for the ‘Technology’ Category

The Car Chick’s 2008 Car Show Kudos Award

Tuesday, December 16th, 2008

My Kudos Award for the 2008 Charlotte Auto Show goes to Ford Motor Company!  Yes, you read that correctly – Ford.  Not only was Ford the only manufacturer to bring their A-game to the auto show this year, including some cool concept cars, they also earned the Kudos award for environmental responsibility.

Ford knows that “going green” means a lot more than spitting out hybrid vehicles.  Although the company said that hybrid and electric vehicles will be fast-tracked as a part of their bailout plan, Ford is looking at the bigger picture.   In the 2008 Mustang, Ford introduced the industry’s first soy-based seat foam which replaced the previously petroleum-based foam.  This not only helps reduce our oil dependence, but it reduces 605,000 pounds of carbon dioxide annually (based on Mustang production alone).  This eco-friendly technology is now being rolled out to almost all of the Ford and Lincoln line. 

To literally top the seat foam, Ford’s seat fabrics are make from 100% post-industrial waste materials such as recycled plastics and un-dyed polyester fibers.   This use of recycled materials that would otherwise be sent straight to the landfill saves an estimated 600,000 gallons of water, 1.8 million pounds of carbon dioxide equivalents and more than 7 million kilowatt hours of electricity annually. 

In their luxury Lincoln division, the seats are wrapped in beautiful leather made with vegetable dyes and an environmentally responsible chromium-free process that makes the material recyclable.  The rich wood grain trim in the vehicles is even made from recycled furniture! 

Between Ford’s improvements in overall quality and reliability and their dedication to truly green technologies and practices, these guys may be worth bailing out after all.

Run Your Car on Water?

Sunday, July 6th, 2008

With everyone in a frenzy over fuel prices, all kinds of crazy devices are now flooding the market and promising to slash your gas bill by improving your mileage.  The most common claim is that for a couple hundred bucks, you can convert your existing car to burn a combination of water and gas, doubling your gas mileage! 

But are these things for real, or are they just a scam by a clever snake oil salesman?  Being a naturally skeptical person, I set out to find the truth – can you really run your car on water?   

When in doubt, I tend to turn to the laws of physics (and people who actually understand them).  These so called “hydrogen fuel cells” are actually nothing more than a simple electrolysis device that uses electricity to split water into its constituent components — two atoms of hydrogen and one of oxygen.   The gases generated by the electrolysis of water can be recombined by way of combustion to release energy.  This is not new technology – electrolysis has been around for decades. 

Sounds pretty good, huh?  Unfortunately, the first law of thermodynamics states unequivocally that the energy generated by recombining the hydrogen and oxygen through combustion can only ever be equal to the amount of energy it took to separate them.
Even worse, there are multiple energy losses involved in the generation of the electricity, the delivery of it to the electrolysis cell and then the combustion process.  We actually recover far less energy from burning the hydrogen than it took to create it!  Therefore, these magic “water-for-gas” devices actually cause your car to burn MORE fuel in order to heat the water in the electrolysis cell. 

Besides, don’t you think that if cars could easily run on water and gas that the auto manufacturers wouldn’t have jumped on it by now as a means of selling those slow-moving, large SUVs?  Just remember that old adage about things that sound too good to be true…

 (Special thanks to Bruce Simpson of the Aardvark Daily for explaining the physics.)

Geek My Ride: Cool New Car Technologies

Saturday, April 12th, 2008

I admit it – I’m a geek.  Between my passion for cars and a background in Information Technology, I really had no choice.  I was doomed from the start.  So, naturally, I love to keep up with the latest technology they are shoving into cars these days. 

It wasn’t too many years ago that navigation systems and DVD players were the newest gizmos and considered rare luxuries.  Now, most people wouldn’t even consider buying a luxury vehicle without navigation or an SUV without a rear entertainment system for fear of reduced resale value.  Many auto manufacturers, like Honda, Ford and GM have caught up with the times and offer iPod / MP3 interfaces or onboard MP3 hard drive systems for your listening pleasure.  Some luxury brands, like BMW, are upping the sound quality ante with new, digital audio technologies like DVD-Audio and HD digital radio.  In just a few more years, CD players in cars will likely be as archaic as tape decks are today.

The techno gadgetry is not limited to entertainment systems, however.  A popular feature to emerge in the last couple of years is the reverse parking assist system, available on many large SUVs.  The simple version uses ultrasonic technology to determine how close the vehicle is to an object.  As you get closer to the object, a warning alarm inside the vehicle becomes louder and more insistent.  Some systems also use a series of lights on the dashboard to visually alert the driver.  The more advanced version of the parking-assist system utilizes a small camera mounted in a protected area on the rear of the vehicle, usually near the license plate. A wide-angle view of the area immediately behind the vehicle is projected on the display screen of the vehicle’s navigation system.  The purpose of the parking assist system is not only to help you maneuver your behemoth SUV out of a parking space, but to keep you from running over small children in the process.

Lexus has taken this technology one step further and offers an automated parking system on its flagship sedan, the LS460.  Yes, the car parallel parks itself.  Really.  The system requires the target parking space to be a minimum of 6.5 feet longer than the car, and it uses a total of 10 sonar sensors to detect the other two vehicles and the gap between.  The car’s computer does the math, steers the wheel, applies the brakes and maneuvers the car perfectly into the space.  (Don’t believe me?  Watch the video.  BMW and Mercedes offer similar systems on their top-of-the-line sedans.  The systems are usually packaged with other options and cost an average of $3,000.

Automobile manufacturers have not only developed systems to help you park your car, but to help you drive it as well.  Several different manufacturers, from Lexus to Chrysler, offer adaptive cruise control, a system that uses either radar or a laser to keep pace with the vehicle in front of you.  Some systems also feature a collision warning and avoidance system, which warns the driver and/or automatically hits the brakes and tightens the seatbelts if there is a high risk of a rear-end collision.  These systems typically run at least $2,000.  The laser-based system is less expensive, but it is also less reliable in adverse weather conditions and in tracking extremely dirty vehicles.

Some car makers are also helping you drive better in the dark with night vision systems.  If you are envisioning yourself driving down a dark, country road wearing military-issue night vision goggles, you are not far off.  These systems use the same infrared technology but, thankfully, without the dorky goggles.  Infrared sensors mounted on the front of the car use thermal imaging to “see” animals, people and objects in the vehicle’s path before the driver can see them in the headlights. The images are then transmitted onto the vehicle’s navigation screen. The more heat the object gives off, the brighter it appears on the screen.  Most systems cover a range of up to 1,000 feet ahead of the car and cost around $2,000.  Both BMW and Mercedes offer night vision systems on certain models, but Lexus has dropped this technology for 2008 due to high production costs and low demand.

Thanks to these technology innovations, you can now safely drive backwards, forwards and park your car both during the day and at night.  That is, if you have the money to pay for both the pricey vehicles and the extra options.  But, as with any technology, these options will no doubt come down in price over time and become available on vehicles the average person can afford.  So, what’s next?  Autopilot?  Flying cars?  They may not be as far off as you think.