AutoSpeed in 2008

Posted on December 17th, 2007 in Driving Emotion,Opinion by Julian Edgar

This is my last blog post for this year: new posts and AutoSpeed articles will both resume January 8.

So what have we got planned for 2008?

Firstly, the new editorial approach that we’ve taken in the last 12 months or so will be strengthened and consolidated. In short, that’s a move that is in keeping with the rapidly changing times. 

Consider these points:

• Countries are now seeking to isolate themselves from the volatile politics of world oil by embracing alternative automotive fuels like ethanol, CNG and LPG. Sovereign energy self-sufficiency is of greater political and strategic importance now that at any time since World War II.

• The increasingly solid evidence being presented by scientists for global warming is making a huge impact not only at the ballot box but also in big company boardrooms around the world. Decreasing energy consumption – and so fossil-fuelled CO2 emissions – is likely to become the watchword for all human activities, including transport.

• Tightening legal restrictions on driving fun are already all around us. Having a modified road car with enormous power is becoming an increasingly silly aim, suitable only for dyno boasting competitions. On the other hand, having a frugal, responsive, good handling and technically advanced car is as rewarding as it has ever been.

• The car manufacturing industry is in its time of greatest philosophical change since the 1930s. Hybrid petrol-electric cars are now being actively developed and/or marketed by every major car company in the world. That represents an incredible change in just the last 5 years. With the legislated clean-up that’s now also occurring with diesel engine emissions, it’s quite easy to envisage a situation where, world-wide, traditional petrol engine cars will be in the minority of new cars.

In the context of these points, to keep on running articles about 350kW supercharged V8 modified road cars and the like is not only short-sighted, it does you all a disservice.

(On a personal level, this is an almost exact re-run of what was happening when I first started automotive journalism. Then, about 15 years ago, engine management was being introduced on all new cars. And, with that development, oh boy, was the automotive world ever changing! But at the time, nearly every modified car magazine continued writing about engines with carbies and points. It took years before the modified car media embraced the changing technology. But anyone with half a brain could have seen the writing was on the wall for the old technology, and that encouraging readers to stick with outdated ideas was doing them no favours.)

So for AutoSpeed, huge, thirsty and enormously powerful modified engines are out – we won’t be covering them.

But articles on techniques that improve car and engine efficiency – aerodynamics, turbocharging, intercooling, intakes, exhausts, headwork, tyres, suspension and brakes – are right on the money. Especially if those techniques are talked about in the context of cars that are already highly efficient….

We’re also really excited about another development for the coming year. Why? Well, we’re going to be presenting stories on a whole bunch of new electronic modules dedicated to do-it-yourself car modification.

Long-time readers will be familiar with the electronic kits developed by me in conjunction with Silicon Chip magazine and sold by Jaycar Electronics, but the new modules will be better again. So how will they be better? In short:

• They won’t be kits but instead be fully built and tested circuit boards, ready to be connected and then put in a box or simply wrapped in heat-shrink and placed up under the dash.

• They will be able to directly drive big electrical loads like fuel pumps, solenoids, radiator fans and the like. Or, if required, they will be able to operate relays or switch LEDs or warning lights or buzzers.

• Taking into account their high functionality and fully built status, they’ll be very cheap.

• They’ll be small, near-impossible to kill and be very simple to wire into place and set up.

The brain behind the electronics is eLabtronics, the company with which we developed the Intelligent Intercooler Water Spray Controller some 8 years ago. That product, still available, combines intercooler temperature and engine load sensing with a predictive ability that allows the intercooler spray to actually come on before it is even needed!

This time we approached eLabtronics with a proposition that they’ve very happily taken up – to build a single electronics module that can be software developed to have a myriad of different functions. By standardising the hardware, eLabtronics can make the product in greater numbers, bringing down prices. And by using software reprogramming to produce different modules, the designs can still be fully optimised for their particular functions.

We doubt that there will be any kind of modified car anywhere that can’t make good use of one (or more) of these planned modules.

And finally, in 2008 we’ll be making some major changes to the website. We’ll be introducing much greater facility for reader interaction (including with other readers); opening-up AutoSpeed to easy access by far more people; enabling easier content searching and linking; adding some more features and generally streamlining the site for better use by you.

As we’re fast heading for our tenth anniversary, I want AutoSpeed to keep being innovative, occasionally provocative, relevant and useful.

Driving Fast

Posted on December 11th, 2007 in Driving Emotion,Opinion,Power,Safety by Julian Edgar

derestricted.jpgYears ago – say getting on for 15 or 20 years ago – people used to ask why I had a performance car.

“There’s no where you can drive fast,” they’d say, “so why bother?”

I’d enigmatically respond with something like: “Oh, there are still plenty of places left to drive fast.”

And, in those days, there were.

The Northern Territory had no open road speed limit, and while the other Australian states and territories had 110 km/h limits, the philosophy of enforcement was then completely different.

There were no speed cameras – all radars were hand-held and, a little later, mobile in-car. In most states, radar detectors were completely legal, and all police communications were unscrambled voice. Trucks didn’t have speed limiters and on the open road typically sat well over the speed limit. CB radios were constantly used by trucks to communicate the presence of police cars (“double bubbles”) and police motorcycles (“Evel Knievels”).

In my Commodore VL Turbo I ran a radar detector, CB radio and police scanning radio. And they weren’t there for looks.

My BMW 3.0si ran to an indicated 220 km/h, my Commodore Turbo to 210 km/h, my Liberty RS to 220 km/h (which seems slow but that’s what I remember), my Daihatsu Handi turbo to 180 km/h and my R32 GTR to 260 km/h. And none of these were figures I got from just reading a book…

Any tight, windy road was a challenge there to be taken: the chances of being caught were tiny. In addition, the speed limit for the stretch of road was seldom set on the basis of the corners, so it was common for a 100 km/h limit to be in place on a road that included corners with advisories down to 30 km/h.

In those days turn-in understeer at 150 km/h was a real consideration; lightness in the steering at over 200 km/h was a right pain in the butt, and anything less than 130 on the open road and you must have had Grandma on board. I remember I boiled the auto trans fluid in the Commodore when going for a top speed run – the car was slipping its clutch-packs and the fluid got so hot it came out of the breather onto the exhaust. A guy I know used to sit on 180 km/h on the open road, ear plugs firmly in place.

Without any doubt the roads today are much safer – I’m sure the enforcement of speed limits and low/zero blood alcohols have resulted in less fatalities and injuries.

But now there really aren’t any places to drive fast. These days, they literally put you in jail if you drive fast, and take away your car if you have a few quick traffic light races. I am not saying that’s bad; what I am saying is that the road use of a performance car is now so limited that I wonder at their purpose.

I live at the top of a steep and windy country road. There’s about 15 kilometres of it – and I know it far better than the back of my hand. I’ve at times driven it extremely quickly, but any time I have done so I’ve been risking my license – the speed limit is 60 km/h. At sixty I can go around every corner without slowing.

Apart from flicking through an urban roundabout quickly (so what…), there is nowhere – literally nowhere – that I can drive fast. And that’s living smack-bang in the middle of what many call the best drivers’ roads for hundreds of kilometres.

And is it any different for other people? I was in a workshop the other day and the proprietor told me how the Falcon XR6 Turbo out the front had 450kW at the wheels. Or was it 550? – I don’t know, I wasn’t really listening. The prop went on to say that it was a really hard car to dyno because of wheelspin. Apparently, on the road it wheelspins up to 4th.

Now, honestly, apart from dyno bragging rights, what is the point of having that much power in a road car? As I have implied, once upon a time it would have been really useful – 100 to 200 km/h in just a handful of seconds. But now, spinning wheels will cause a police booking, a quick traffic light race ditto, and exercising anything like the top-end potential would immediately result in jail time.

Wouldn’t it make a lot more sense for people to have cars so low in power that you can have fun at what can only be described as slow speeds? Or instead of spending money modifying an already powerful road car to make it even more powerful, invest in kart, budget open-wheeler or dedicated drag car?

Toyota and McDonalds

Posted on December 6th, 2007 in Driving Emotion,Hybrid Power by Julian Edgar

The car industry can be thought of as having parallels with the fast food industry. For example, Toyota is rather like McDonalds.

McDonalds is a company I’ve always found enormously impressive. For so long associated with the consumption of unhealthy food (every media story of obesity accompanied with a pic of a McDonalds burger) and gratuitous consumption (talk of “McMansions”), the company has in recent years undergone a wonderful metamorphosis.

You can now buy food as healthy as salads and apples; breakfast can be high-fibre cereal; and all is provided at the cost and quality (one low, one high) for which the company is famous. But, if you so desire, you can stick with the high fat fries and burgers – cos they’re all still available too.

Commentators have suggested that the McDonalds reinvention is all a façade, that the vast majority of people still eat the unhealthy food but they feel better at attending a McDonalds restaurant because there’s also healthy food available. The same commentators say that while some food looks – and is – healthy, by the time you add the available condiments, the scales tip the other way.

Both points are probably to a degree right, but in my view the company still needs to be congratulated for making a huge cultural shift in the foods it makes available to the public.

In short, it sniffed the breeze of social change and took decisive action.

And Toyota is much the same. Over a decade ago it looked at long-term cultural change and realised that it needed to produce some very different products. The hybrid petrol/electric Prius was the first result.

But, like McDonalds, Toyota didn’t disenfranchise its existing customer base: salty high fat Landcruisers continued (and continue) to be produced. The parallels persist: some commentators suggest that the Prius is really for people who only want to appear to be green; that the environmental reality is actually quite different. And that the hybrid Lexus 600hL is really a huge, fat and greasy burger – but with a low kilojoule dressing and sold in a green box.

Like other fast food franchises that originally laughed at McDonalds healthy food move (but now do imitation garden salads and low-fat health burgers), car companies that were once happy to state that hybrids were a dead-end fad are now developing or selling hybrid cars.

But at this stage, those ‘me too’ products lack the cut-through decisiveness of the originals.

Both McDonalds and Toyota have been bold and brave. They’ve copped criticism – some with an element of truth – but by their foresight, they’ve changed the product paradigm. Rather than being driven by their current customer demands, they’ve looked at their goods in a far wider social sense, innovating rather than defending the status quo.

You can see why, in a world context, both companies and so successful…

Designing mechanisms

Posted on December 4th, 2007 in Opinion by Julian Edgar

They’re rare but if you look long enough you’ll find some.

What I am referring to are books that show just mechanisms. These are the basic underpinnings of all machines, distilled down to their elements. Things like all the ways in that shafts can be joined; all the ratchet systems ever invented; all the ways in which variable ratio gears can be enacted; 2-link, 3-link, 4-link mechanisms; and so on.

mechanism-design.jpgOne of the best on the topic is Mechanisms in Modern Engineering Design, a five-volume series written by I. I. Artobolevbsky and published by Mir Publishers of Moscow. Publication date was 1976, making it one of the few engineering books published in Soviet Union times that gained widespread popularity in the West. Well, ‘widespread popularity’ is of course a relative term – the books are still very rare.

I have the set, purchased on eBay at great expense.

The books have proved so useful – especially in a ‘food-for-thought’ way – that when I saw another, similar, book on eBay I bought it. And this one was quite cheap.

barber.jpgIt’s called The Engineer’s Sketch Book and it’s by Thomas Walter Barber. Publication date is 1934. The subtitle gives you a feel for the contents: Mechanical movements, devices and details – with nearly 3000 designs and drawings classified and arranged for easy reference.

Chapter headings include everything from Ball and Socket Joints to Turbines, from Winding Apparatus to Mincing, from Ratchet and Pawl Motions to Springs. Like the Artobolevbsky volumes, it’s an absolute Godsend for someone groping their way towards the design of a mechanism required to achieve a particular outcome.

But what put a smile on my face was the Introduction to the second edition. Writes Mr Barber:

In view of the criticism of this work which has occasionally found expression by certain readers, who appear to have expected to find in it designs of Machines, Structures, etc., and complaints, based on the same misunderstanding, that the book is, consequently, not kept up to date, the Author has thought it desirable to append a few explanatory observations.

These impressions it may be stated arise from a complete misunderstanding of the intention of the Author and the purpose of the book.

This work is not a treatise on Design, nor a textbook on Mechanical Construction. Its object is to supply the designer with the basic elements of mechanical and structural composition, classified and displayed in such a way as to facilitate the selection of those details which may be most efficiently combined into an effective and harmonious whole.

And so on goes the author, obviously writing through gritted teeth! In fact, to avoid any more misunderstandings of his genuinely fabulous book, Mr Barber then takes the reader on a step by step detailed tour of the design of a reciprocating carriage, showing how each part of the design can be developed with reference to the different sections of his book.

If you like designing mechanical devices, keep an eye out for this type of book. But remember Mr Barber’s warning: they’re meant to show lots of different ideas, not do the full machine design for you!