Electricity–I test drive a Tesla

DSC_0003

This may come as a shock to you folks that know my feelings toward electric cars, but last week I had the opportunity to actually test drive what is probably the pinnacle of electric powered automobiles, the Tesla.

Tesla Motors has a well deserved reputation as the premier design of dedicated electric cars.  Its made the decision to place all of its patents in the public domain so as to encourage and accelerate the technology required to make electric cars a practical alternative to the petroleum powered vehicles that dominate our roads.

In the very early days of the automobile electric cars were actually a large part of the vehicle population for reasons that make a lot of sense.  They were quiet.  The early gasoline vehicles were most certainly not.  They were pleasant, for the most part, to drive.  There was no danger of breaking your arm while crank-starting the gasoline engine because there was none.  The battery technology was lead-acid similar to what you find as part of the charging system of today’s gasoline powered cars.  In the early days gasoline was not as easy to find and its quality was often suspect.  Electricity, especially in urban areas, was available and clean.  Speed was not an issue and most commutes were only a few miles.

Thomas Edison was intrigued with the idea of an electric car and understood that the key to its success was to develop an efficient and powerful battery.  He made a statement that he felt that battery technology would be optimized in a year’s time.  He was optimistic, to say the least.  It has been about 100 years and battery technology is still in the process of being perfected.  Automotive engineers and materials scientists understand that this is the key to market penetration and acceptance. Today PEV cars amount to about 0.75% of the market.

True Car did a study to better understand what factors drove the electric car market.  The conclusion was that people with higher incomes purchase battery powered cars.  Buyers of the Ford Focus EV had an average household income of $199,000 a year while buyers of the gasoline powered Ford Focus averaged $77,000 annual income.  Buyers of the Fiat 500e averaged an income of $145,000 per year versus the regular Fiat 500 owners having $73,000 average yearly incomes.

With all that to think about I joined a small group of people who were interested in test driving a Tesla sedan.

DSC_0006

DSC_0007

Since Tesla Motors has come out with AWD (all wheel drive) versions of its sedan early adopters have been trading in their RWD (rear wheel drive) versions for the enhanced models.  So my test drive was in a relatively new, but RWD sedan.

Myself and another test driver climbed in and the sales manager rode in the back seat ready to help us through any unique differences in the driving experience.  I was riding shotgun for the first half of the drive and that gave me a good opportunity to experience the ride quality and interior accoutrements. On the dashboard, between the two front seats was the world’s largest iPad.  It was a large, touch screen, graphical interface that could be used to tune the suspension, set a course, and many other things.

DSC_0004

One of the first things you notice is how different the noises are in the Tesla.  Tire noise becomes much more of a factor than engine noise.  You became acutely aware of the differences in road surfaces and what changes they made to the sound level and tempo.

There is no transmission. There is a stalk to the right of the steering wheel that appears to shift you from park to neutral to drive.  Because the drive motor is electric torque is pretty much instantaneous. So is deceleration as the car relies on kinetic energy recovery when you are not on the accelerator.  When you press the brake pedal there is far greater deceleration.  As you get used to the action of the throttle pedal you can sit at many intersections without actually pressing the brake pedal.

DSC_0008

Acceleration is excellent.  On a model with AWD and more performance acceleration from zero to sixty is in the 2.8 second range.  Although a bit older, this model Tesla was no slouch, and all that torque meant that you accelerated rapidly.

Because of the energy recovery going on when not acceleration I found that you could have a lot of fun with the Tesla’s braking characteristics.  You could dive hard into a corner, ease of the accelerator, squeeze artfully on the brakes, and then accelerate with gusto through a tight corner.  It really felt very fulfilling.

I enjoyed my test drive and also had a good discussion with the service representative.  I was wondering, what with the lack of service items – what did the service department have to do on a Tesla car?

There are no oil changes, no filter changes, the brakes are likely to last the service life of the car and about the only item that might need service is the R134 refrigerant in the air-conditioning system.  Software updates can be done through the owners home Wi-Fi.

The biggest owner service complaint is noise.  With the lack of an internal combustion engine making background racket things that would be unnoticed or trivial – such as minor squeaks or rattles become areas of concern.  Its that quiet.

What about the practical range of a vehicle like Tesla?  I was assured that you could expect a range in the order of 270 miles on a full charge.  Stop and go traffic actually worked to the cars advantage with the energy recovery of braking.  Recharge time varied with your source charging.  If all you had access to was 110 volt, well I hope that you like to sleep.  But if 240v was available a dead battery could be 100% in about eight hours.  Typically you would probably drive until battery levels were in the 10-20% range so recharging could take even less time.

So am I in love with the Tesla?  Well I loved the experience, but I am still not in love with electric cars.  When the “god” battery arrives with 300 miles of range and $100/kWh, I might be tempted.  I also try to take into account the reality of what toll is taken on the environment to create the batteries and the high efficiency motors.  Nothing is perfect, and certainly not the gasoline powered brethren, but for the moment I’ll stick with the drone of the internal combustion engine.

Posted in Automobiles, Car Stuff, Cars, Electric Cars | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

24 Hour ChumpCar Racing at VIR

As I wound my way to Virginia yesterday I thought about the excitement of going back to one of my favorite tracks, Virginia International Raceway.  It is just about a half mile over the North Carolina boarder, but it takes you into another world.  The world of racing, with all its sights, sounds, and smells.

P1050298

This was a special racing event for a couple of important reasons.  It was part of the ChumpCar series which means that it is real grassroots racing.  Sure, the professional series such as NASCAR, Indy, and F1 are spectacular, but it takes huge fortunes just to get on the grid, but the ChumpCar series is one that is affordable and allows participation in many ways in the sport of competitive driving.

P1050310

P1050336

P1050346

This event was a 24 hour race.  That means to finish first, you must first finish.  Having a fast car is nice, but having a reliable car is paramount. 

P1050347

The team my visit focused on had done very well in the previous event at Watkins Glen and reliability was core to how their car performed. 

P1050353

Being a 24 hour event meant refueling and driver changes as well as the inevitable attrition of a field of nearly 100 cars.

P1050379

People love these races because they are so accessible and fun to watch.  There is a family atmosphere that is lacking in the big-time professional series. 

P1050437

The people on the teams are just as competitive, but they also understand the value of helping each other out with parts, advice, and even lending a hand.

P1050476

The teams spent a great deal of time preparing their cars and their people.  Rehearsing fueling procedures and going over checklists to ensure that everything is ready prior to getting on the grid.

P1050482

P1050490

The pit boxes are arranged with tools, tires, and radios.  Duties are discussed and contingencies are planned for. 

P1050549

P1050524P1050555

P1050529

Once the car is on the grid the driver is focused on the start where staying in the front of the pack really makes a difference.

As the start approaches the tension mounts.

P1050527

Then the cars are off and the teams real work begins.  In the first two hours there are offs which result in yellow flags slowing the cars down as a safety car leads them around the track while crews clean up and tow the unfortunate car back to the teams pit area or garage.

P1050593

P1050662

P1050660

After the first two hours it was approaching the time when cars would come in for fuel and a change of drivers. 

P1050604

P1050607

P1050610

Attrition is the reality of a 24 hour endurance race.  The team whose car was so reliable had to deal with an on track, car-to-car impact, that took out two of their wheels.

P1050618P1050623

Hours ticked by as injured parts were scrounged and replaced.

P1050614

P1050630

Back in the pits the long hours were wearing folks down.  Sleep was taken where it could be taken.

P1050644

With four hours to go teams discussed concerns and strategies.

P1050645

P1050648

P1050589

The cars would continue to run as the time ticked by.

P1050643

P1050652

P1050657

This is a ChumpCar event where you can experience a race as a spectator or as a part of the crew.  The sound of engines being asked to provide as much power as possible.  The smell of hot brake pads and loads of burned and unburned hydrocarbons, mix with the sights of triumph and failure. 

P1050599

P1050664

This is racing that is accessible to people at a grassroots level.  Take the time to find out when an event like this comes to a track near you and go and have the time of your life.

P1050635

Posted in Automobiles, Car Stuff, Cars, Racing, Road Racing, Road Trips, Sports Cars | Tagged , | 3 Comments

Taggart Autosport–in Cary, NC

DSC_0013

Tonight we attended the grand opening of Taggart Autosport in Cary, NC.  While Jim Taggart has occupied this 20,000 square foot facility for the past six months, this was the first time that everything was put together for a truly spectacular opening that featured not only their signature Rally Fighter cars, but many others including their Maserati race car.

DSC_0016 

DSC_0014

DSC_0019

DSC_0023DSC_0028

DSC_0025

Cary, North Carolina, has become a racing center with many of some of the best road racing venues in the country within an hour or two of this city.  Not the least of which is Virginia International Raceway, commonly known as VIR.

This superb road racing track is but and hour and twenty minutes away and just a few hundred yards over the North Carolina border. 

DSC_0033 

DSC_0032

The local racing fraternity flocked to this opening.

DSC_0018 

DSC_0020

DSC_0027

Some day Cary will become as well known in racing circles as Charlotte, NC.

Posted in Automobiles, Car Stuff, Cars, Garages, Great Drivers, Life and Cars, Modifying Cars, Racing, Rally Cars, Road Racing, Sports Cars | 1 Comment

Automotive Shops–Torque

Automotive service shops are a tough game to play in.  The dealerships do everything they can to hold their customers captive to their own service department.  Obtaining factory diagnostic tools and information can be difficult and is always very expensive.

Cars continue to get more and more sophisticated and have become, quite literally, high speed networked computers and sensors on four wheels. Even something as seemingly simple as a brake job may require the assistance from the car’s computer to accomplish.  Alignments on cars with electric power steering will also need to be done in sync with the car’s computer in order to ensure the steering knows where center is.

Independent automotive service facilities must make a big investment in equipment as well as technically astute personnel needed to operate them if they are to stay competitive with dealership service.

Still independents abound and jumping into the fray takes skill, business knowledge, money, and having the confidence to know that you can make it.

P1050113

This morning I visited a new shop in Raleigh, Torque Automotive, and was prepared to find a guy who maybe had worked in a local dealership for a few years and got the yen to try his hand at his own business.  Then I met Simon.

Simon started out in South Africa and worked at dealerships there for several years until he moved to Dubai where he got a job at the largest BMW dealership in the world.  He started out as one of nearly 90 technicians there and worked his way up in a few years to managing them.

Simon had a dream of moving to the United States and had applied well in advance of the day when he was granted the move back in 2012. By then his resume was complete with experience in many European makes as well as being a master tech with BMW.  So you would expect him to end up at a dealership or an independent that specialized in those makes.  But he took a little different path.

Even four years after the recession, finding that kind of work in the area was tough and so he went looking for existing automotive service businesses for sale.  One promising opportunity popped up and he went to check it out.  The service side of an independent car sales shop was losing money.  That part of the business was for sale, but it turned out to be well above Simon’s resources at the time.  So he negotiated a deal where he would manage the service side of the business for a percentage.  Over time things improved greatly.  Within a year a profit was seen and by the end of three years the staff had grown from one tech to three.

Now he was ready – and so was born Torque Automotive.

Simon gave me a tour of the shop, which is only a month or two old at this point, but he already had five cars in for service and plenty of space to accommodate them.

P1050120

The shop has been freshly painted and the floors in the shop area have been professionally coated with a heavy duty epoxy finish that not only reflects light under the cars, but is easily kept clean as it is impervious to any fluids used in servicing.

P1050114

He has a unique company car, a Smart Car, by Mercedes Benz, with a twist, Tesla has converted it to an all electric.

P1050125 

It is Simon’s daily driver and has an eighty mile range.  The perfect commuter car and a great way to let people know about his shop.

Simon understand where the automotive service business is going and is quite prepared to keep up with the changes looming on the horizon.  He is also building a following of loyal customers.

P1050129

Its nice to see these better alternatives to being a captive of the car manufacturers and the dealerships that sell them. 

Posted in Automobiles, Car Stuff, Care and Feeding, Cars, Servicing Cars | 5 Comments

Be Careful What You Wish For…

You may remember an oft told tale of a genie that immerged from a magic lamp and would grant three wishes to a mortal human.  You may also remember how, in the story, that the human struggled to deal with the opportunity to ask for anything – and the consequences of receiving their wish.

ETHANOL

Remember when prices for gasoline were forever increasing and it appeared that petroleum was looked at as a necessary evil that we wished we could tame?  Then along came the idea of turning corn into fuel.  Ethanol, to be specific.  Our government reacted to our cries of woe much like a parent trying to quiet the tantrums of a screaming child.  They would save us by mandating the inclusion of 10% ethanol in our gasoline.  On top of that they would raise the highway tax on our fuel.  On top of that they would subsidize the use of ethanol in gasoline, or in other words, they would tax us again.

Soon the miracle of ethanol became part of our energy system and the price of corn went up.  Then it was discovered that our automotive vehicles were not compatible with ethanol and had to be modified in order to ingest it without causing problems in the fuel system.  In addition it was found that ethanol is a corrosive so that in concentrations higher than 10% (some say that any amount is a problem) it is incompatible with storage tanks and fuel station pumps as well as the entire fuel system of cars.  In fact for model years 2001 through 2011 manufacturers contend that nothing more than a 10% blend with gasoline can be used.  Less than half of cars built after 2011 can contend with a higher percentage.

Yet the government is refusing to admit that ethanol is not the wonder fuel it was thought to be, and is advocating a 15% mixture be mandated so that the subsidies can continue.  It is believed that only 6% of vehicles on the road today can possibly contend with an ethanol mix in that high a concentration.

So why do we bother?  Why don’t we end the experiment and admit that it was not as good idea as it once appeared?  Go back to using a food grain as a food grain.  End the expense of subsidies. 

Nah, let’s see how screwed up things can get first.

 

Air Bags

Look at the dashboard of your interior and you will likely spot the initials SRS.  In case you don’t know, these letters stand for Supplemental Restraint System.  What a lovely sounding name.  Almost as lovely as “Airbag”. 

“Airbag” conjures up visions of a soft pillow coming to life at just the time you need it and gently cushioning the potential trauma of an accident.   In truth of fact airbags are not gentle. They are an explosive device that inflates with noxious gasses for an instant and then lose any ability it might have to cushion an impact.

Perhaps you are aware of the massive Takata airbag recall. It involves millions upon millions of vehicles and will take years to rectify the problems.  Toyota has over 1.5 million vehicles affected, Chrysler has over 4.75 million, Honda over 5.5 million.  Figures that high make BMW’s affected vehicle number of 765,000 seem almost paltry.

How did we get here?  Well, we wished for cars that would be safer in an accident.  We didn’t want to be bothered with the safety devices that had been proven effective in automobile racing.  Who would want to contend with maneuvering their body past a roll cage side bar?  Or wear protective suits and helmets. Who would want to deal with form fitting protective seats and strap themselves in with multiple harness belts?  Nope, we just wanted to be able to get in and out of our vehicles with as much ease as possible and let a magical bag of air save us from the bad effects of a collision. 

Only there was no magical bag of air.  Instead we got multiple exploding bags to surround us and discover that they suffer with the consequences of humidity degrading the chemical composition of the explosive charge set off by a complex computer program that was monitoring various sensors that would alert the computer to deploy them properly in a collision.  Maybe.

TPMS

No, not the TPS reports from the movie Office Space.  TPMS is part of the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards known as Tire Pressure Monitoring Systems.  It is supposed to alert the driver of a 25% to 30% tire under-inflation condition.  It does this by having a device installed in each tire that monitors the pressure.  So if your tires should be inflated to 32 pounds per square inch of air pressure you will be alerted when that pressure drops by 8 psi. So by that time your tire is inflated to 24 psi and if you haven’t already noticed that your handling is getting squirrely, your tire may have already overheated and either exploded or incurred damage to its structure.

But at least you don’t have to concern yourself with manually checking your tire pressures.

Of course you do have to contend with the cost of replacing the in-wheel sensors that can get damaged during tire mounting and balancing.  The costs can vary from $45 to $150+, depending upon the make and model.  Oh yes, and the annoyance of the TPMS light going off because your spare has lost air, or the routine and expense of re-programming the TPMS system of your tire sensors after new tires have been mounted.

On the same topic many car companies have eliminated the irritation of a spare tire by mandating “run-flat” tires on their cars.  These mean that if you have a leak you can continue to travel on the deflated tire at no more than 50 mph for about 50 miles.  Not to worry that these are premium priced tires and that if you get a large puncture or sidewall damage all bets are off.  Oh yes, the ride sucks, too.

 

ESC

What, another acronym? ESC stands for Electronic Stability Control.  It is part of a comprehensive plan by the NHTSA (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration) to reduce the serious risk of rollover crashes and the risk of death and serious injury in those crashes.  Obviously the NHTSA really does care about our safety.

For our benefit they have established Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard No. 126 to ensure our safety.  The ESC system uses automatic (you have no control or choice) computer-controlled braking of individual wheels to assist the driver in maintaining control (actually pretending to let you control) in critical driving situations (as determined by the computer programming based on data returned by multiple sensors).  The NHTSA contends that these systems will reduce single-vehicle crashes of passenger cars by 34%.  Hallelujah!

This mandate also means that it is more than the brake system that is under control.  Much more.  Your accelerator is now no longer mechanically connected to the throttle.  It is “drive-by-wire”.  That means the computer interprets what input you have on the accelerator pedal and determines just how much acceleration it will allow.  It is also the same for steering input.  The power steering is now controlled by a computer program that decides what the wheels should really be doing. 

From 2012 on all light vehicles are mandated to have this system and it was instituted in many cars prior to that year.  Kinda of gives you a warm feeling to know that you are being watched over so well.  Your vehicle is now fully networked with sensors and actuators that are under the control of the miracle of computer programming.  You hardly have to worry about driving at all.

And what could go wrong?  I mean, airbags have been around for ages and whatever went wrong with them?

 

Self-Driving Car

Google has been at the forefront of this revolution in driving and transportation.  It has been testing in the state of California with amazing success.  Sort of.

It has been involved in 13 minor “fender benders” in 1 million miles of autonomous driving.  Not bad!  Well, it would be if you were a driver between the ages of 16-19.  They average 20.12 involvements per million miles.  Oh yeah, and drivers 75 and older who average 12.23 per million miles.  If you are between 40 and 64 the number is 7.2.

The reality is that the Google cars drive like an 80 year old.  They’re never the first off the line at a stop light, they don’t accelerate quickly, they don’t speed, and they never take any chances with lane changes.  In other words they are irritating and their behavior is at odds with typical human driving habits.  So they get rear-ended at stop lights by human drivers.

The current iterations would fail in superb fashion if they had to negotiate patches of snow-covered roads, driving at night, or highly urban traffic such as you would find in Boston and New York City.  In other words they drive like your 80-year-old grandmother in Florida.

Not to worry, Google is now getting into the vehicle insurance business as well.  Not content with acquiring all the data on regular Google users search and buying habits, they now have Google Compare to gather all your demographic and vehicle information and “helping” you search for the best deal in auto insurance.  Thank you Google.

Google Compare has gone live in the UK and offers a comparison of quotes from 124 insurance companies.  The UK already approve the testing of driverless cars on public roads, as well. 

Can you see where this is going?  In the future Google will position itself to underwrite its own policies and in particular for its autonomous cars. 

Like I said – Be Careful What You Wish For

Posted in Automobiles, Car Stuff, Care and Feeding, Cars, Engines, Life and Cars, Servicing Cars | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Indy 500 2015–flipping with the stars

With Formula 1 evolving its way into becoming a spec series with a hierarchy, it is time to turn our eyes to the Indy series and the Indy 500 race where the month of May is reserved for the teams to perfect their cars for this enormous track event.

The Indy series is slowly evolving out of a spec series and into something akin to a true racing series.  Yes, they still all use the same brand of tires and all teams use a Dallara chassis, but now there are two engine manufacturers involved and this year aerodynamic modifications are allowed that are specific to the two brands, Honda and Chevrolet.

While the first races of the series this year were road courses and had aero features that are reminiscent of what you would find in F1, the Indy 500 is an “oval” track and the aero features are much more basic looking although the challenges are far more complex.

Wednesday, Helio Castroneves caught air in a bad way and flipped his Chevrolet car in spectacular fashion landing on four wheels.  Then yesterday Josef Newgarden took a similar ride in his Chevy powered car.  Both drivers appear to be unhurt although no one can be subjected to those kind of forces and not be affected.

The speeds this year are astounding – with Ed Carpenter reaching a top speed of  227.422 mph that was exceeded by Simon Pagenaud by a slight margin at 227.628 mph.  Neither of these were the result of an aerodynamic “tow” by a car in front.

These speeds are well beyond the take-off speeds of commercial jet passenger planes. Aerodynamics must provide down-force to keep these race cars in touch with the track surface, but not too much.  Because down-force includes a penalty of drag which limits top speed.  Race car drivers hate limitations.

wb or

(the above photo copyright Marshall Pruett)

As Marshall’s photo above shows, there is a center wicker bill on the cars.  Well, there was.  Apparently the Honda cars could not pass the lateral lift tests without it, but when dancing boy crashed on Wednesday, the Chevy teams were told to cut it off their cars.

Some say that the bigger problem is the rear bodywork acting as air brakes and in certain conditions the front wants to flip.

The Indy track is known for its wicked cross winds which will interfere with production of down force, and in traffic, lead cars produce enormous amounts of turbulence making it difficult for the cars following.  The fact that aerodynamic aids are static makes it difficult for a car in the wake of another to cope.  Yes, this is dangerous folks.  No, I don’t wish for any injuries, let alone fatalities, but this is what automobile racing is all about.  Finding the edge of the envelope and pushing beyond.

For that reason this year’s Indy 500 is more than worth watching.  Not in anticipation of carnage, but in the skill of the engineers and drivers, supported by their teams, racing.  Racing on the edge with some much needed individuality in the cars.

Posted in Automobiles, Car Stuff, Cars, Indy 500, Racing | 2 Comments

Could Vettel have been Sandbagging?

Watching Sebastian Vettel last season was watching someone who just didn’t like racing any more.  There was no enthusiasm from the four-time winner.  He complained about the sound of the power units ( I didn’t like them either) and said that he felt the car was just not right.

Meanwhile Daniel Ricardo was driving the Red Bull car and having a blast.  He would grab a podium at every opportunity while Vettel would have a lackluster race that quite often ended early for him with some kind of failure.

Formula One World Championship 

Then the word is out that Sebastian is moving to Ferrari while Alonso moves to McLaren providing Vettel with his seat. 

Tongues were wagging about Vettel being quickly past his prime since he couldn’t seem to cope with the new formula.  Was it that he could only win when his car had a blown diffuser and a mighty V8? 

With the Australian GP opener for this year’s F1 season Vettel  came in third and by the next race he qualified second and finished first!

Was last year’s poor performance an act so that RB would not hold him to his contract?  So he could slip over to Ferrari who couldn’t seem to put together a competitive ride for Kimi or Alonso? 

Suddenly Sebastian is making the new Ferrari fly and is joking with the Mercedes team.

It sure looks like a case of sandbagging to this viewer.

Posted in Cars | Leave a comment