[extropy-chat] Car of the (near) future

Hal Finney hal at finney.org
Mon May 23 16:47:19 UTC 2005

I've continued to read books on Peak Oil, which I still haven't reached
any significant conclusions about, but in the one by Peter Huber he had
an interesting picture of how cars would change in the next 10-20 years.
I saw a related article today about forecasts for the switchover to
hybrids, at http://www.futurepundit.com/archives/002783.html .

Huber predicts that we will see major changes in the design of cars in
the next decade.  He foresees a transition of most of the parts of car
engines and ancillary equipment from mechanical to electronic control.
Of course this is already underway; 30-40 years ago cars were mostly
mechanical, while today we have many electronic control systems.
Huber sees this process as being completed in the near future.

No longer will we have belts running from the engine to power the various
components.  No longer will we have all the mechanically operated valves,
lifters, cam shafts and other parts of the engine that relate to control.
Instead, these parts will all become electronic.  The fans, pumps and
other belt driven components will run off their own electric motors.
And even within the engine, each valve will be electronically activated,
with its own motor, solenoid or piezoelectronic actuator.

The payoff from all this will be reduction of weight.  A substantial part
of the weight of today's engines is in the ancillary control equipment.
Replacing these mechanical linkages with wires carrying electrical control
signals will allow a simplified engine design and greater efficiency.
Further efficiencies will come from the increased flexibility possible
in an electronic control system vs a mechanically oriented one, allowing
fine tuning of engine power output.

The ultimate step will take longer, but eventually the power train itself
will become electrical.  Instead of a drive shaft, engines will generate
electricity which will power motors located in wheel hubs.  Small, high
power electrical motors already exist which are able to efficiently
carry the load necessary to power the vehicle.  They're expensive now,
but they will appear first in high end vehicles and work their way
eventually down to every car.

At that point, the engine exists solely to power an electrical generator.
Everything else in the car runs off electricity.  This is the ultimate
evolution of the hybrid vehicle.

The next logical step is to allow hybrids to be plugged in at home so
they start the trip with a freshly charged set of batteries.  The article
I linked above talks about people who are already beginning to do this
today, modifying their hybrid cars (voiding warranties) to allow it.
Even the batteries in today's cars are good for a 5-6 mile trip, enough to
run to the store and back.  Such trips account for a substantial fraction
of gasoline usage.  Next generation batteries will hold even more.

(Huber even sees it going the other direction, where you could use your
car as an emergency household generator if the grid goes down, or during
peak usage times to help balance statewide load.)

Cars are less efficient as electrical generators than the big plants, due
to economies of scale.  And in terms of oil imports, electricity mostly
uses other fuels: coal, nuclear, natural gas.  Very little petroleum is
used for electricity.  So in the context of the Peak Oil scenario, if we
can shift energy usage from gasoline to electricity, as with the plug-in
hybrid, we can more easily adapt to a decrease in oil availability.


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