Don Davis

On Being American, Or, "A Hybrid? Not Unless It Has Tail Fins"

Filed By Don Davis | August 14, 2009 6:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Media, Politics
Tags: economic policy, LincVolt, Neil Young, transportation

It's great to see that people are starting to think about hybrid vehicles, but so far, they really haven't been for me.

You know why?

Because for the most part, they have

The Prius?
If you look at it sideways, and squint, it looks more like a pepita than a car.

The Insight?
They say it's stylish...but it looks like a Prius to me.

You know what I want?
I want someone to build the biggest, nastiest, most oversized hybrid the world has ever seen.

Something drenched with chrome, with seating for...many, and a convertible top; and maybe, if all my dreams come true: tail fins.

Something crazy.
Something ridiculous.

Well, guess what?

Somebody's already gone out and had one built--and ironically, that somebody is Neil Young, Canadian.

So let me tell you what Neil Young did: lately, he's been tearing around the countryside in a converted 1959 Lincoln Continental Mark IV that he calls the LincVolt.

Here's the good part: it's a "series hybrid" vehicle that gets 65 miles to the gallon.

To be more accurate, I should say today it gets 65 MPG.

The car reportedly will compete for the Automotive X Prize: a competition that seeks to award a vehicle that can (among other requirements) achieve the equivalent of 100 MPG and emits less than 200 "equivalent grams" of CO2 per mile...and the engineering team is confident they can pull it off.

lvbigpic-02.jpgNow here's the really good part: it is truly an American car: it's fast. It is indeed fact, it's just about 19 feet long. And it is dripping with chrome.

Tail fins?
This car is so over-the-top it has front fins.

The interior?
The usual: tuck-and-roll, tons of dashboard...and the requisite computer-aided status monitoring system.

"If all the cars in the United States were placed end to end, it would probably be Labor Day Weekend"

--Canadian Racing Champion Doug Larson

So what, you might ask, is a "series hybrid"?

The Technical Part

For all intents and purposes, it's the same propulsion design found on locomotives: an engine, powered by a fuel, turns a generator that supplies power to one or more electric motors that turn the wheels. (It's also the design that will be used in the Chevy Volt.)

The engine that turns the generator operates (as much as possible) at one constant speed. If the electric motor (or motors) that turn the wheels require extra power, additional current is provided from the electrical system, not the engine.

Constant speed operation of the generator's engine is more efficient than the acceleration and deceleration cycles of engines in today's cars...and because the electric propulsion system itself is more efficient than a mechanical power transfer system, a smaller engine (it can be 1/4 the size of a standard auto engine) and generator gets you more power with less energy input than today's car engines.

lvbigpic-35.jpgIn the case of the LincVolt, a variety of fuel capabilities are being built into the car, including natural gas, plug-in, and biodiesel.

Now this story did not start as a LincVolt story. The original intent of the story was to ask why someone doesn't throw a series hybrid engine/generator setup on electric motors, lose the fancy batteries, and produce some cheap 40 MPG pickups and minivans?

Well as it turns out, there are good reasons not to do that. One reason has to do with power storage. If the car is generating power it doesn't need at the moment, it can "reserve" that power in batteries--and when the batteries are full, the car can run with the engine and generator shut down until more charge is needed.

Later, if the car is climbing a steep hill, that extra power can be sent to the motor or motors; keeping voltage and the speed of the engine as constant as possible.

As it turns out, that same stored power can also be used to "brake" the electric motor system, making the process even more efficient.

Take The Show On The Road

It's quite a cruisin' car, the LincVolt is...and to make it even cooler, from time to time they do live webcasts from the car as it's driving down the road...which eventually become videos that can be seen at the LincVolt website or on LincVolt's YouTube channel.

(You can also view live telemetry from the car as it operates and view a fascinating gallery of time-lapse photography of the entire "build-out" of the car from start to finish.)

Johnathan Goodwin, who did this conversion, is famous for building "Eco-Hummers" that run on biodiesel, get 25 miles to the gallon...and still manage to put up 650 horsepower or better.

Neil Young and the LincVolt appeared at San Francisco's DreamForce Conference in November of 2008; since then the car has appeared around the country, and the website offers hints of a cross-country live-webcasting adventure to come.

So how about that?

We started with a question about generators and batteries, and we ended up with a 65 MPG multifuel/plug-in version of one of the largest passenger cars ever known to grace the surface of the planet...and in true American fashion, 65 MPG wasn't good now they're "kicking it up a notch" and shooting for 100 MPG and the Automotive X Prize.

Which leads me to the one and only conclusion that we can draw from today's conversation:

When we finally take over Canada, Neil Young's gonna fit right in.

UPDATE 5/26/09:

A commenter at the DailyKos site had questions about the methodology Johnathan Goodwin uses in his performance claims.

This is an excerpt from one of his comments:

"So, how can a car that's heavy and has a bad drag coefficient get 65mpg? Simple: the PHEV game.

Question: How much mpg does a PHEV that is running purely in electric mode get?
Answer: Infinite

Realizing this, you can see that it's trivial to give an arbitrary PHEV any mpg figure you want -- you just have it run in a scenario where you make X% electric and Y% gas, and you pick the percents. That's exactly what they've done here. Not to mention that that 65mpg number isn't for the US06 drivecycle -- it's for steady-state driving, so even if they weren't cheating, it still wouldn't be comparable to EPA figures.

I hate this sort of dishonesty, yet it's pervasive in the PHEV industry. The federal government really needs to step in and regulate it. Goodwin is a particularly bad example of this -- he always plays the PHEV game and never uses proper drivecycles."

I sent that excerpt to Johnathan Goodwin for a response.
He did reply by email, and this was the comment I received:

This is Goodwin, I see many out there doing the backwards math. To date i have only stated what i do in the mannor of simple math. Fill the tank, drive the car 100 miles and refill the tank. The consumption for a distance gives you your fuel econimy. I am not a fan of plug ins. I am a fan of fuel efficiancy without sacrifice in power or room. A train is one of the most fuel efficiant modes to date. This car is a posterchild to old technoligy in a new way. What i have done is made a 6k car have 500lb tourque and 50+ mpg with a 650 cu inch motor. The efficiancy of the small generator is were you get great results. Not the electric side. I only use that for the power end. I wish those that critisize would spend there time assisting the ones who are trying to make changes. We would get there much faster.

Author's Note: This is another one of those "from the archive" stories that you'll be seeing as the next couple of weeks roll by...which is an exercise that, hopefully, is fun for everyone.

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If you want an environmentally friendly car with plenty of style, check out the Tesla, a totally electric car, made in California, and currently available. It goes from zero to 60 in 3.9 seconds, faster than a Lamborghini. (Sorry, but it's not big enough to haul around the entire soccer team.)

Don't wear out your calculator on figuring out the mileage --- for most of us, the difficult math comes when figuring out how to pay $100K for it.

You know what I want? I want someone to build the biggest, nastiest, most oversized hybrid the world has ever seen.

Perhaps you should indeed consider a railroad locomotive.

My point being, perhaps it is finally time for Americans to re-consider why they drive cars --- treating them as status symbols and indications of our masculinity is much of what got us into this problem. On our current path, no matter how big and nasty your vehicle is, the oil sheiks in the Middle East will have a whole fleet of bigger and nastier ones. And we paid for them.

did you know that there's a $50,000 tesla?

there is, and if you're looking at a bmw 5 series, or a jag, or an entry level benz--here's a car in the same price range that will never use a drop of gas--and is fully capable of outperformaing any of those three.

you may recall my saying that this story was not supposed to be about this car.

the original intent was to ask why a tesla-like vehicle (or a chevy volt-like vehicle) couldn't be made more cheaply, but the answer brought us to this story.

the original intent was to ask why a tesla-like vehicle (or a chevy volt-like vehicle) couldn't be made more cheaply ...

Now you're on the right track!

(Maybe the $50K Tesla will be $100K by the time you get the custom tail fins on it ... but I hope not.)

as it turns out, there's not really a way to do this type of vehicle with fewer components (for reasons we talk about just a bit in the story above), and for technical reasons it's probably going to be a while before motors at the wheels replaces a large motor turning a i'm thinking we're going to have to find a way to reduce battery costs to drive total vehicle cost down.

Marja Erwin | August 14, 2009 7:59 PM

"You know what I want? I want someone to build the biggest, nastiest, most oversized hybrid the world has ever seen."

It's been done, if only in prototypes:

very impressive--and in a tactical world that requires mobility, by road and by air, my guess is that there will probably never be another combat vehicle developed that will come close to the weight of that thing.

the germans developed enormous (and basically impractical) artillery pieces as well, which i assume was based on the theory that they would never be fighting outside of continental europe.

Sounds like you're more into vulgarity than style. The best style is simple, modest, functional, educated, and civic minded. Simplicity is the very heart of elegance.
The Prius totally qualifies. It looks fine and says cultured and educated driver. That's my kind of style.

this is hardly a new argument, and in various forms it has lasted through the renaissance, and the construction of versailles and st. petersburg...and, for that matter, in the design of the forbidden city and the presence of gargoyle downspouts in gothic architecture.

i'm a fan of tribal art as well, which would also be unkilely to find its way into a collection of japanese calligraphy.

i will admit, if this is vulgarity, i'm guilty of liking it.

i will also admit that i am unnaturally fascinated by the archie mcphee store, which i visit regularly.

to me, however, these types of vehicles are rollng sclupture...and if you really want to see vulgarity in action, check out the austin art car parade, which borders on being just plain wrong...which, of course, is also why it's so charming, in its own vulgar way.

love it!!
I only drive lincolns.
and in the 3 accidents i've had in the last 20 yrs( non my fault), I have come away with broken lenses wilst the other cars needed extensive repairs or were totaled.

Robert Ganshorn Robert Ganshorn | August 15, 2009 8:31 AM

Volvo drivers used to say that to me all the time.

i'm curious how volvo will approach a high-mileage vehicle and how that vehicle will compare to the volvo reputation for not breaking easily.

as for impact resistance: at 5 mph, i'm all for it...but at 40 mph i'm very supportive of the "crumple zone" concept, and in that situation i'd gladly trade auto body damage for me body damage.

we're on our third subaru forester, and in the pacific northwest they (and subarus generally) are incredibly popular.

they crash well and they are exceptionally easy to drive in miserable weather due to the all-wheel drive and low center of gravity.

(by the way, all-wheel drive is a "traction device" equal to chains in washington state, with mountain pass reports requiring "chains or all-wheel drive" to cross on some winter days.)

twinkie1cat | August 15, 2009 2:03 AM

yes! We need a big comfortable hybrid that gets great gas mileage and has style. Yes, even tail fins. It also needs strength, maybe titanium bumpers instead of those plastic ones that don't crunch at 5MPH and actually protect the car and passengers instead of being decorations. And it needs to be able to pull a trailer! Give it some torque or at least a gear to run it in so it can start the car off with the trailer and then keep going. Some of them I think have the little toy motors you buy at Radio Shack. To catch on in the long run these plastic cars need to be safe and useful as well as look good and have room inside. Tailfins are a great idea!

there is a lot at stake in the refitting of the american auto fleet to either a high-mileage car or a transit-based configuration--and retailers are right at the heart of it.

who among us shops at costco or home depot--and who brought home their own 40" flat-screen tv?

in a world where vehicles either "small down" or we rely more and more on transit, out ability to bring home a sheet of plywood-or whatever--will change, and that will change the patterns of retail business in ways we probably aren't thinking much about today.

i'm with you: if it's possible to put vehicles on the road that have some size to them--and are a bit of fun, too--and are easy on the environment, then why not?

and just to stimulate some discussion: how do we do retail in a world with a higher reliance on transit?

does everyone have to deliver, does all shopping happen only within a neighborhood, does a hybrid develop where a store might have "see and touch" inventory but rely heavily on ups to get the product to the customer's house, or do you envision other options?

discuss amongst yourselves...

... in addition, it would be really nice if it were capable of inter-galactic space flight ... totally solar-powered ... in complete style and comfort, of course.

that was actually something i always worried about with "the jetsons": what happens if the "hovercar" breaks down? does it fall?

we don't need hovercars yet.

maybe singapore can handle it...but we can't.

Bill Perdue Bill Perdue | August 15, 2009 3:45 AM

The LincVolt is not so much a PHEV (Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicle) as a PEV (Penile Enhancement Vehicle).

But that's OK.

i have to say that i know a lot of people who would love to own a "guiltless" pev; and if you could combine 40-80 miles per charge with a rapid-recharge capability, i suspect you would see a lot of new ford f-150 "battery trucks" on the road.

"series hybrid", however, will be the big electric option for trucks, i'm guessing, the unlimited range being one of the driving facotrs in my thinking here, and a "low-guilt" pev might also sell pretty well.

Bill Perdue Bill Perdue | August 15, 2009 10:09 AM

I drove big SUVs and big SuperDuty 250's for the railroad for decades on remote trackside roads all over the west.

I'd love a hybrid F150, especially a six. I live in Vegas just a few hours from the Grand Canyon and a days drive from the canyon country of southern Utah - Bryce, Kanab, Goblin Valley - and the four corners. The scenery takes your breath away and the Mormon and Navajo guys aren't too hard on the eyes either.

I'd love the luxury of knowing I could go anywhere cheaply and cleanly, good roads or not.

you would probably be looking at a gasoline engine much smaller than what you expect: the chevy volt will be using a 1.4l engine to drive a generator that will be the actual power source.

a 2.5l would provide lots of amperage--and if it was fitted as a work vehicle, you could put a transformer and breaker box onboard and use the same engine and generator to power 120v or 240v on-site equipment, instead of having to have a second gasoline generator in the bed.

the best part: excess amperage could be diverted to charging the truck's batteries, which cuts your fuel usage later on.

Bill Perdue Bill Perdue | August 16, 2009 7:02 AM

Whoever does that first and cheaply wins the truck wars.

no kidding,

imagine having 200 amps available...per truck...for every truck on the jobsite--and then try to imagine what that would mean in a disaster recovery situation.

Robert Ganshorn Robert Ganshorn | August 15, 2009 1:08 PM

Ah, fellow ARU member. My father had a 50 year pin. The answer is more mass transit. City streetcars were put out of business with pressure from Detroit hawking cars. If we choose to live where mass transit is available and that becomes the prime real esteate we will be making a wise decision.

And yes, rent a big vehicle when you need one and haul your plywood or TV set.

i had not considered how retail might provide "quick rental" vehicles, but i wouldn't be surprised if that approach becomes more common (and for the record, home depot does offer hourly truck rentals today).

if you extend that line of thought, there would also seem to be a potential market for a new type of taxi/delivery service that could fill this gap.

picture a 5-passenger version of a dodge sprinter that would meet you at costco, or the nusrery, or whatever, and run you and your plants home.

(the downside? this enables "point-to-point" errand running, but still makes running multiple errands in the same trip either tougher or substantially more expensive than it is today.)

outside of the most densely populated areas the zipcar model would seem to make sense, if it wasn't for the fact that the cars can't just be left in your driveway.

rapid butterfly | August 15, 2009 8:52 AM

It's an exciting story and I plan to learn more about it; but I do rather hope that Mr. Goodwin is better at engineering than he is at spelling.

i debated how to approach that response.

i considered synopsizing it, and p[resenting it exactly as it arrived, and in the end it seemed that the only way to go was to present it exactly as it is.

I'm not trying to be the blog-police, but for the record, when quoting someone's email I routinely correct their spelling --- sometimes I notate that I did it, and sometimes I don't, depending upon the extent of the corrections. Everyone net-savvy knows that emails are shot off quickly, and that people make typos even when they do know how to spell (God knows I sure do!). I am merely "doing unto others as I would have them do unto me".

My unsolicited advice, take it or leave it.

as i say, i did consider that advice...but for an opposing point of view, consider the huffington post's "citizen journalism standards":

"When quoting people, it is essential to be meticulous and preserve their statements exactly as they were expressed. Don't add words, clean them up to hide poor grammar or slang. If you are concerned that a quote may embarrass a speaker, then paraphrase their comments without using direct quotes."

Well, Don, I realize there are two schools of thought here --- but, again, I do not want to be the "blog police" and I'm not sure that Huffington Post should be, either.

There is also, I will admit, a subtle element of judgment when correcting someone else's spelling or grammar --- if the bad grammar conveys an emotion, or a sense of style in itself, such as the way the use of the non-word "ain't" sometimes does --- or if there is any chance that "fixing" will change the meaning or the impact --- then I agree, don't do it.

The quote from Goodwin, above, is pretty much simply a technical discussion --- the misspellings and grammar problems are not part of the total message. I would have cleaned it up, but I'm not criticizing you for doing it your way, either, because it's a judgment call, and your way has pros and cons just as mine does.

right off the bat, let's go back to my comment that i really did have to think long and hard about which way to go here, and that was precisely because there were strong arguments for both approaches.

in the end, the huffington post's opinion was persuasive for me...but what also made me present this unchanged was that it did give me a completely different view of who this guy is.

after i read it, i saw him in a completely different light, and i thought that was important to present to the larger public.

now none of this is meant to come across as "me good, you bad"; instead, it's just an attempt to walk you through the thought process i employed in making that call.

Style has not been a issue for many years...a fellow tail-fin lover.

speaking of tail fins...check this out.

angerla Brightfeather | August 16, 2009 12:52 PM

I don't know why they could not have released the Chevy Volt about ten years ago, but I am a bit excited to see how it preforms and read a few honest critiques about it from knowleageable car buffs. Like any new model, it will take a few years to shake out the demons in it.

But I love my Tahoe!!! No doubt about it. I have driven about every popular SUV and work truck over the past 20 years in my business as a contractor and rate the Tahoe right up there with anything I have driven before for durability, looks and sheer guts to haul a 20' Sea Pro boat. Which is something that no one here is considering at all. How are these little gas savers going to haul the toys around in the garage, like the Harley to Sturgis and the boat to the nearest lake or that camping pop-up trailer?

As far as I am concerned, it's not the SUV's duty to provide extra imaginary inches below the beltline. But it is the SUV's duty to be able to tow a boat or camping trailer, without it having to swing from one lane to the other and take the hills on the way to places away from home. My bet is that you may be able to drive that gas saver to work and back and on light trips to see grandma, but if your hauling anything from bags of compost from Home Depot to a decent boat, your going to need two vehicles in the garage and the need to keep your gas card handy.

believe it or not, electic vehicles will change how you think about towing--and for the better.

electric motors provide 100% of available torque at 0 rpm...which means you do not have to "ease into" forward motion while waiting for engine revs. instead, you'll get pull the second you hit the "gas".

same with "midrange acceleration": the delay that you're used to when going from 40 to 60 mph will disappear, and acceleration will feel more like a car than a truck under load.

Forgive me;
But til the technology and the comfort improve more than a bit, I will stay with sports cars with above 30 mph rating.

to tell you the truth, it's really about cost.

the tesla roadster is based on the lotus elan (and the bodies and chassis are produced by lotus), and it's very comfortable.

it's also more or less $100,000.

the tesla model s is even more comfortable, costs about $50,000, and travels 300 miles on a charge, which costs about $2. (there's also a three-hour rapid charge feature.)