Saturday, December 30, 2006

December Progress Report on the Ideal Plug-In Hybrid Diesel-Electric Vehicle

More updates on the progress being made in the industry to produce my ideal plug-in hybrid diesel-electric vehicle (previous update here:

I've purchased a 1987 Mercedes 300TD Turbo Wagon to replace the Saturn in the interim between now and post-2010, when more advanced diesel-hybrids are expected to hit the U.S. Market. I plan on making some modifications to "Eleanor," as she has been named, which will allow her to run on either regular petro-diesel, biodiesel or straight vegetable oil, in any combination, in her main fuel tank -- as well as modifications to perhaps hydrogen-charge her engine for greater fuel efficiency, increased power and decreased emissions.

A British company has developed a diesel-hybrid 5-door compact that gets 45-88 mpg and tops 120mph.

Thanks to their recent purchase of a 5.9% stake in Isuzu, Toyota has announced plans to produce a diesel-hybrid subcompact for the Japanese market by 2010. No word yet on when a diesel-hybrid powerplant might make its way into the rest of their lineup.

More to come soon. :-)

Meet Eleanor -- the new 1987 Mercedes-Benz 300TD Turbo Wagon

So, we went for it & picked up a new Mercedes on December 16th (2006). We've decided to name her Eleanor.

She's a 1987 300TD Turbo, which is a 7-seat turbo diesel touring wagon, originally from Germany, but imported into the U.S. by her original owner while he was in the service. We purchased her from his nephew. She's got a wonderful & comfy velour interior that matches her bronze-copper exterior. Her stereo has been upgraded to feature a CD player & an aux-in port for an external device (.mp3 player or whatever).

We plan on upgrading her to run off of either biodiesel, straight vegetable oil or regular diesel, but when we purchased her she still had a tank full of petrodiesel. Right now, after driving her up to Portland (Oregon) and back for the holidays and fueling up with as much biodiesel as possible along the way (including some B99 in Santa Rosa), she's running on what probably amounts to B60.

Now, it's just a matter of finding the right buyer for the Saturn. We spent all day on Sunday the 17th cleaning both vehicles thoroughly, inside & out -- really detailing them. Eleanor because she needed it, and the Saturn in anticipation of showing to a potential buyer. The Saturn has been a great vehicle, but my beautiful yet not quite fearless girlfriend Carryh has deemed it to be "too fast!" So, it's out with the Saturn and in with Eleanor.

Another modification that I'm considering for Eleanor is to install a hydrogen-boost system, such as this one. The idea is that a line from the alternator powers an electrolysis tank, which electrolyzes straight water into hydrogen ion (and oxygen ion). This output is fed directly into the air intake of the engine. Once inside the cylinder, it mixes with the diesel fuel, causing it to combust more rapidly. The principle has been explained this way: Imagine a prairie brush fire, moving in a line through dry grass. It moves at the speed that it can jump from blade to blade. Now, imagine if a line of gasoline is laid in front of it. Once it reaches the gasoline, it combusts more quickly than it did with just the straight prairie grass. The hydrogen ion acts in much the same manner with the diesel fuel, causing it to combust more quickly, and thus at a slightly higher temperature. The effect is to produce more power per stroke, meaning less fuel is needed to perform the same work. The net effect should be increased fuel economy, increased power and decreased emissions (since the fuel is combusted moe fully within the cylinder).

We shall see if this proves to be the case with Eleanor. First, I must sell the Saturn. Then, I can invest a little bit more in the new vehicle.

Some notes on how she operates now: After giving her an oil change and replacing/repairing some of the vacuum tubes under her hood, she drove the 1400 round trip miles between San Francisco and Portland like a dream... like floating on air. No real problems to speak of (knock on wood). Her 148 horsepower turbocharged 6-cylinder engine brought her up to speed quite nicely, and kept her there without trouble. Only thing is, she weighs 3388 pounds empty (1.7 tons), so on some of the mountain passes, she slowed down considerably... from 80 mph to 65 mph or a bit less. Much of this was because I'm a bit reluctant to use the kickdown gears just for the sake of speed, since I know how much fuel that causes her to use! She can pull up a hill at 75 mph if she's floored and drops down into 3rd gear, but that's got to really suck the diesel for a 5 mi long hill! Better to let her cruise up it at 65mph or 60mph, then make up the time on the downhill side or the straightaway, and save a little fuel.

One final note about her fuel tank: The hose doesn't go all the way down to the bottom of the tank. It apparently stops short, about 3/4 of the way there. We ran out of diesel the first day that we took delivery of her, because we decided to cruise up to Fairfax in Marin County for lunch and back, with a bit les than half a tank of fuel in her. Well, on Hwy 101 on the big hill before the tunnel on the approach to the Golden Gate Bridge from the Marin side, we were trucking along at 75 in the fast lane... and then 65.. and then 40... and pretty soon, Carryh was leaning out the window and I had the 4-way flashers on and we were pulling over to the exit ramp just shy of the crest of the hill. Couldn't even make it over the summit! She just plain petered out. Called the previous owner, and sure enough -- out of fuel with 1/4 tank showing on the guage still! Luckily for us, a nice couple had followed us onto the ramp, and they offered me a ride back into Mill Valley to get a spare tank of fuel and bring it back. They were sure our guardian angels that day, as we needed to make it back to my place to play host to a MoveOn showing of Al Gore's _An Inconvenient Truth_!! (Ironically fitting somehow, huh?)

More news is sure to come on this latest chapter in vehicle adventures. I always said that my next vehicle should outperform the Saturn in every way. Well... I meant my next *new* vehicle. Though, Eleanor may still find a way to meet that criteria yet, if the Hydrogen Boost kit is installed and able to perform wonders for her fuel efficiency!!

And finally -- I look forward to doing all my own work on her (or as much as will be possible given my lack of a full service shop or any professional mechanical training). Especially after paying $125+ an hour for service at the Saturn dealer on the Satty!! The oil change and the vacuum hose servicing was just the tip of the iceberg... I can't wait to dive in & keep her in tip-top shape!

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Bicycle Congestion on the Hawthorne Bridge. Possible Solutions?

It has been pointed out that the Hawthorne Bridge is currently experiencing a bit of bicycle congestion, especially considering the new lane stripings. Various solutions have been proposed to fix this issue on the Hawthorne, by dividing up the available space differently. (It has also been suggested that the Morrison Bridge will get bike lanes soon, and that perhaps a new bike-only bridge is needed.) Here's what the new striping looks like on the Hawthorne:

I think the best solution here is to just expand the pie, not try to make the slices smaller.

Hawthorne seems set to me. It's got bicycle access, ped access, probably will get a trolley, already has buses, cars, trucks, etc. Set. No problems there, really. It's approaching perfection in many ways.

The problem is lack of parallel bike crossings, which results in too many people using Hawthorne who could be using another bridge if one existed that was convenient to bikes.

I remember when the Morrison had temporary bike lanes, during the temporary closure of the Hawthorne for the retrofit during the 90s. I believe it was a two-way lane on the south side of the bridge, if memory serves, and it worked well. Something like that in 2008/9 (when the Morrison is due for a retrofit itself) should provide a little bit of bicycle congestion relief to the Hawthorne.

Another idea, which it seems people are tip-toeing around, is to construct a new Salmon Street Bridge that would be bike/ped only. My suggestion: Make it extra-wide, say 40-60 feet or so. Use the extra space for retail. Even been to Venice or Florence, Italy? They've got retail bridges there. Like the Ponte Vecchio:

It's an amazing experience to go shopping on a bridge. Bikes could get lanes on the outside of the brige, peds could walk through the center of the bridge and shop. The rent from the shops could be bonded against and used to construct the bridge. Call it a public/private partnership. The Portland Spirit dock would need to be moved, and a new I-5 crossing would probably need to be figured out on the east side to get Salmon Street bike boulevard users across the f('ing)-way, but I think it could work. Here's what the Ponte Vecchio looks like from the pedestrian perspective:

That'd be WONDERFUL. Call it the Cadillac (or Mercedes) solution to bike/ped river crossings. Only issue: It would need to raise up and down. Would shops be willing to make the ride, or would it need to have a central plaza between the shops for the lifty bit?

Third solution: The Caruthers Crossing. It will probably be built sometime in the teens, given current trends, though by 2010 isn't completely out of the question yet. 2012 is more likely and 2014 realistic. When it gets constructed, bike/ped access should be an absolute *requirement*. This will help everybody coming from Division street or further south get across the river. However, it's going to have a bit of a slope to it, so there will be more of a hill to get up over -- it won't be a lifty bridge, so it'll need to be high enough to allow ships to pass beneath it unimpeded, as per Coast Guard regulations. But, that sure would help the SoWa neighborhood get more connected to the hip east side, too!! Here's a photo of what it's supposed to look like:

Maybe shops & retail could also go on the new Caruthers bridge... I think it's certainly an idea worth exploring. Yet another opportunity for a public/private partnership.

Anyways, food for thought.


Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Infrastructure for Employment: National Rail System

I never thought I'd find myself agreeing with Joel Kotkin. However, in his most recent LA Times op-ed piece, he advocates for a new national infrastructure project, as a way to create jobs and rebuild the economy -- ala the Works Progress Administration of the 1930s Depression, or the Eisenhower's freeway initiative of the 1950s.

I couldn't agree more.

Except that I think that the specific infrastructure program that is needed is this:

* Build a national high speed rail system (200+mph) to connect the major cities with one another along the logical national corridors (West Coast, Vancouver B.C. to Tijuana; East Coast, Maine to Florida; Texas to Chicago via Kansas City; etc.).
* Make each station both a major transfer point to local transit, and a major focus for transit-oriented development
* Build out local baby-bullet services (120mph or so) to connect up the national high-speed rail backbone service with other nearby cities. For instance, in the Portland region, the High Speed Rail stop would be downtown. Salem and Eugene would probably also receive stops (and maybe Oregon City, if they committed to enough TOD to turn themselves into a place worth stopping at). However, baby-bullet services would allow passengers to transfer once and get to... Hood River, the Dalles, Pendleton, St. Helens, McMinnville, etc.
* Expand supporting transit services to complement both the baby-bullet and the high speed rail services
* Make all the trainsets in America, preferably at multiple locations so that many regions get these jobs
* Hire American firms to do the work
* Use start-up incubators in many of the TOD locations to really give a shot in the arm to these station areas.

I'm not sure that this represents a winning political platform for any politicians seeking election... but if any sitting politician really wants to leave a legacy (ala Eisenhower or Roosevelt), they should seriously give this vision some thought.

Otherwise, it's going to probably be a long time before I'm electable to an office that would allow me to implement this as my own vision!! I'd like to be able to actually ride this system a long time before that!

NASA: New Permanent Moon Base Coming Soon!

According to this article, NASA plans to build a new permanent base on the Moon (of Earth) by 2024.

Having read Ben Bova's fantastic 1998 novel _Moonwar_, as well as its sequels and every other book related to it... I think this is a fantastic idea. As Bova lays out in his science-fiction scenario, nanotech is essentially banned on Earth due to a confluence of environmentalists and fundamentalists who are afraid of it for very different reasons. As a result, the Moon is the only legal place for nanotech research to continue, and as a result, the economy on the Moon flourishes. To the point that it declares independence from the Earth and becomes its own country/independent political entity. It is able to do so because it becomes mostly self-sufficient, and only needs to import mostly non-essential items from Earth.

So, the common complaint about science fiction is that, well, it's fiction. This presumes that it is not likely to become reality.

However, the very name "science fiction" involves some rooting in reality. And I think that the common theme, as we move deeper into the 21st century and continue to experience technological innovation, is that of science fiction becoming science fact. And sometimes, political and social fact, to the extent that science fiction has often been used as a vehicle for social and political analysis (just about as often as it has been used as a vehicle for the proposal of future technological innovations, actually).

So, I hereby raise a toast to our future moon base. And after that, the independent nation of Luna.


Progress Report: My Ideal Hybrid-Electric Vehicle

Reports are emerging that GM is working on a plug-in electric hybrid vehicle, one that would run primarily off an electric engine, but also use a diesel or electric engine as a generator. According to this LA Times article, a prototype may be revealed at the North America Auto Show in Detroit in early 2007, but production would be a ways off after that.

Even if GM delays or doesn't actually come to produce this particular vehicle, this is a good sign. Lithium-ion battery development has made plug-in hybrids into a very feasible alternative to the traditional internal-combustion vehicle, and the batteries just keep getting better.

Ford also appears to be heading in this direction, according to recent promotional materials.

So, it now appears that Ford & GM are the top front-runners in the race to produce my ideal diesel-electric hybrid vehicle. Unless Toyota announces plans to upgrade their hybrid system significantly, make a plug-in electric version, and make a version that runs on diesel, that is...

This just in: A British company has taken a Mini Cooper, tossed out the engine, transmission, exhaust system, transaxle and braking system, and replaced them with electric wheels (electric engine on each wheel) plus capacitors, batteries, central computer, in-vehicle display... and a very small fixed-RPM internal combustion engine, which acts as a generator. The thing can apparently go at least 30 miles purely on electricity, outrun a Porsche 911 off the line, get up to 150mph top speed, and average 60-80mpg when running in mixed mode off the battery. Capacitors, apparently, are the key to the vehicle, as they allow electricity from braking to be stored and then released immediately at 10x the rate of batteries, allowing for kick-arse acceleration and braking power. Note that I didn't mention brakes? The electric engines *are* the brakes, and special software allows them to provide both anti-lock braking and anti-skid acceleration!!

Another update:
This blog post is a nice, articulate cry for more diesel-electric hybrids. I think a lot of people are now coming to realize that diesel-electric hybrids really will bring the best of both worlds, and allow for the greatest versatility. Especially if they're plug-in diesel-electric hybrids.

So, the technology is slowly coming together, folks. The vehicles of the future are almost here. My 2000 Saturn SL2 may finally be eclipsed by a vehicle that outperforms it in every way, including fuel economy, acceleration, deceleration, passenger/freight capacity, and ability to traverse rough terrain/high clearance areas.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

What If Treasure Island Sinks?

There's been a lot of buzz recently about the Treasure Island Redevelopment Plan, which seeks to build about 6,000 new homes, bringing 13,500 new residents to the island, along with shops, services & supporting features.

Treasure Island was completed in 1938 for the 1939 World's Fair, then taken over by the Navy during World War II. It was created by filling in the bay, or actually by constructing a stone sea wall and filling it with sand and gravel dredgings from the bay and the Sacramento River Delta. (The name comes from the assumption that there would be gold in the dredgings.) The entire island (Treasure Island, that is -- not including the attached Yerba Buena island to the south, which is a natural island made mostly of solid rock that sits several hundred feet above sea level) is generally around four to six feet or so above sea level.

The Redevelopment Plan would put giant concrete columns around the edge of the island driven deep into the bay much to shore it up and stabilize it, so that during an earthquake, liquifaction would not cause it to sink into the Bay or cause its buildings to topple.

However, new urban neighborhoods, to be truly sustainable, must be built to last. Every effort has been made to make the new Treasure Island Revelopment Plan as sustainable as possible by building a carbon-neutral community, with an organic farm, solar and wind power, congestion pricing and limited parking to reduce automobile use. But once global warming kicks into full swing, and places like Greenland and the non-floating portions of Antarctica begin to melt, the sea level will begin to rise rapidly. By the end of this century, the sea level is currently projected to have risen by between 1 and 3 feet -- and that's the conservative estimate. By 2150, the sea level could be perhaps as much as 18 feet higher than it is today, given historical high-water marks for inter-glacial periods.

So, this is the question: What will need to be done to prevent Treasure Island from slipping beneath the waves during the lifetimes of our grandchildren, if current trends continue, the planet continues to warm, and sea levels continue to rise? Should planners now be thinking about a Treasure Island with a more Venetian layout, with canals between the buildings and tall buildings whose lower floors could be sealed against the water as it continues to rise, without rendering the entire structure useless or uninhabitable?

Or is this just so much useless speculation?

Post-Republican Era Marshall Plan Needed for the United States

The Bush Administration and the Republican-led Congress have been a disaster for the United States, on par with a war or a major natural disaster. As such, we need to come up with a Marshall Plan to re-build our country in the aftermath. It needs to deal with taking the money out of politics, cleaning up elections by mandating paper trails and possibly nationwide vote-by-mail, removing corruption from the halls of government, and rebuilding our nation by instituting an initiative such as the construction of a nationwide high-speed rail system that will tie together our regional economies, create employment and act as a dynamo for economic, social and political change throughout this great landscape.

I think it's important to have a focus on re-building our own country, as well as to re-focus our foreign policy to a true re-building of the rest of the world.

I'll continue to post more on this thread soon, but I wanted to get this thought out into the void for discussion now.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

A Regional Transit Smart Card for Portland

Recently on the blog BlueOregon, it was suggested that Tri-Met (or somebody) should consider instituting a regional transit smart card in the Portland, Oregon metropolitan region, modeled after the Octopus card in Hong Kong. (Note: Hong Kong's Octopus card, developed I believe by ERG, is widely hailed as the best-implemented transit smart card in the world. It is the flagship implementation that ERG and other consultants use to sell the concept to new customers worldwide.)

While this might bring many benefits to the region over time, there may also be many pitfalls in the implementation process. For an example of this, I look to the nearest system to Portland to attempt to implement a Smart Card, the San Francisco Bay Area (as opposed to some metro area halfway around the world). The Bay Area has been attempting to implement the Translink Smart Card system to integrate fare collection for its 24+ transit operators... since the early 1990s. (The original pilot program for TransLink debuted in 1993 with mag-stripe cards, but it didn't work reliably due to problems with keeping card-readers operational on buses with high levels of constant vibration.) Currently, upwards of $150 million has been spent on the system (depending on how you calculate the costs), and it still is not operational for the core regional transit service: BART. (As of November 2006, it is up and running on Golden Gate and AC Transit services, and there is a planned eventual roll-out to the rest of the transit operators.)

But at what cost?

For the Bay Area -- which is admittedly a much larger region than Portland, with many more transit operators -- the cost is broken down as follows:

Phase 1 (Pilot Program for 6,000 users on BART, AC Transit, MUNI & Golden Gate Ferry, began in 2002 following the signing of a contract with Motorola/ERG in 1999. Users reportedly loved it!): $19 million
Phase 2 (Initial roll out using existing fare structures of the 24+ transit operators): $77 million
Agency Integration (between the two consultants-- ERG for MTC, and Cubic for BART -- & the various transit operators): $27 million
Design Changes: $17 million
Site Preparation: $5 million
Technical Support: $4 million

Grand total: $149 million (not including $77 million or so for a new set of faregates for BART that as delivered was not Translink-compatible, even though BART knew about the need for Translink as well as its specific design and technical requirements prior to ordering their faregates)

On the flip side, the operating cost for each transit operator will be about $0.04 per ride, which does not include the capital investment. This represents more or less a break-even fare collection cost to operators vis a vis their current fare collection systems.

TransLink is projected to serve 600,000 daily customers (1.2 million trips/day), or about 420 million transactions per year. In the future, it will offer limited use paper tickets for infrequent users, as well as explore the possibility of offering a Regional Transit Pass and integration with parking meters in participating jurisdictions throughout the region. Other future avenues of exploration, following final implementation of the transit fare card on all 24+ transit operators, may include payment of taxi fares and rewards programs with participating sponsors.

The TransLink rider experience gets rave reviews. TransLink automatically calculates rider discounts to give the rider the best deal possible -- monthly passes or other discounts first, then the E-cash second. It will auto-load when the balance dips below $10 in e-cash; as well as loading a new monthly pass the first time that the card is tagged during a month. Anonymous cards are available, but they cannot be replaced if lost (replacement cards are $10 for registered users). The maximum amount of value at one time on a cards is $300, due to on-board memory limitations.

As for operations: Translink is currently operational for a transit agency with a tiered (zoned) fare structure, but there's a hitch: Golden Gate Transit buses operate through six zones, but they do all loading and unloading through the front door only (the rear door is reserved for disabled passengers). All other current Translink-using bus operators operate within a single fare zone. This means that the particular implementation issues that Tri-Met would have if it decided to adopt a smart card with is existing fare structure (riders having to tag on and off each bus via either the front or rear doors) have not yet been fully tested.

Caltrain, which operates a commuter rail service mainly between San Jose (Silicon Valley) and San Francisco, represents the equivalent of MAX light rail operations, but it will not roll out TransLink service until late 2007. Riders will tag in at their origin platform, board the train, then tag out once they reach their destination platform. They will be charged the maximum Caltrain fare when they tag in, then the difference between the maximum and their actual fare will be given back to them when they tag out. This is probably the closest equivalent to the system that Tri-Met would implement, so Portlanders should watch its implementation closely.

I bring this up for two reasons:

1) Portland needs to very carefully examine the lessons from the Bay Area before embarking down the path of smart-card fare payment. I think that if you ask the Tri-Met managers about this, they will tell you that they are letting other regions take the lead on this issue, to see where the pitfalls are before they commit any of their own capital to the idea. And rightfully so. I'd much rather see one more streetcar, light rail or frequent bus service added to the system -- real additional functionality -- than a bunch of money wasted on what amounts to basically just a different way to collect the fare.

2) When all is said and done, the Translink system will be a *HUGE* benefit to the riding public in the Bay Area. It is currently *extremely* confusing, time-consuming and expensive to attempt to make multiple-operator trips from one part of the region to another. Heck, it's a P.I.T.A. just to travel on ONE operator, BART, due to the complexities of their own paper-ticket fare-collection system and the byzantine fare-collection machines, fare gates and unfriendly station agents associated with it. Translink will definitely help to simplify all this, and when I was a participant in the pilot program and able to use it for travel between selected stations on BART, when it worked, it worked satisfyingly well.

That is to say -- there is a benefit from these smart card transit fare collection systems, but there are also enormous pitfalls associated with implementing them. Aside from the initial capital expense, there is the difficulty of navigating entrenched bureaucracies who are wedded to the current way of doing things, as well as the ongoing operating expenses and the pitfalls of dealing with international consultants who may have their own agendas.

Tread this road with extreme caution, for the promises of benefit are huge and the potential for averse consequences even larger.