Everything Old is New Again
Technology and the development of technology, never seems to travel in a straight line. The Wright Brothers developed the aircraft, after years of careful study and continual development. The brothers were the research scientists of their day, working out each problem individually, until they’d built a working airplane, principles the new Boeing 787 use were first developed by the Wrights. Automotive technology by comparison, has been a jumble. While maybe a hundred or so wide-eyed, half-crazed inventors dreamt of building aircraft, there were thousands of backyard automobile designers, some well-educated, others just tinkerer’s.
Funny thing, sometimes the tinkerer’s, did a better job of it than the engineers. 113 years ago when most automotive development was done in barns and empty buildings, the breakdown for the U.S. automotive fleet was as follows:
Number of Automobiles registered – 33,842
40% were powered by steam
38% were powered by electricity
22% were powered by gasoline
Steam of course, was just a logical progression, as the trains, farms and factories of the day, all ran on steam-power. But steam-power was limited by long start-up times, as long as 45 minutes. The efficiency of a steam engine is in direct proportion to the quality of the operator, requiring almost constant attention. In the end, all these factors contributed to eliminating steam from the automotive competition. If it takes a ton of coal to propel a steamship at twenty miles per hour, it will take two tons to propel it at twenty-five miles per hour. Steam engine development had reached its maximum capacity. There were no new innovations or progress, forthcoming in steam and because of its short-comings; it lost out, becoming a curiosity.
Yes and electric cars were going to be the wave of the future! This was in the days of Thomas Edison; everything was going to be electrified. But electric cars had a major marketing problem, only 20% of Americans had electricity and for the rest, it was a hard sell. Even if you did have electricity, a car with a forty mile range, when you live 18 miles from town, could be cutting the margins pretty close. The electric car did have some advantages; compression starting a gasoline engine was dangerous. The electric car offered similar speeds to gasoline powered cars at around 20 mph. The electric cars were quiet and didn’t vibrate, like the gas models and didn’t have the fumes associated with the crude gas-burners.
So here’s where we hit the design wall, head on. Tinkerer’s and back-yard mechanics could easily modify a gasoline engine. But how does a tinkerer improve an electric vehicle, how do they design a new high-tech storage battery? Technology is like a coral reef, building on the backs of what’s comes before. Steam had gone as far as it could go, but, electricity was brand new. The Wright’s designed their aircraft from the drawings of gliders, they learned to fly a glider and then they motorized it. Electric cars had a flat development curve, having no role models to follow. The gasoline powered automobile quite literally, over took the electrics.
Larger valves, more accurate camshafts and higher compression meant by 1912, gasoline cars were much faster than electrics. The muffler had been invented and more efficient carburetors meant less fumes, and besides, tooling along at thirty or forty miles per hour, left the fumes far behind. The electrics languished, each company closing its doors or moving on to different products. Electric cars were labeled as ladies cars, further tarnishing their reputation in a male dominated market.
The continual development of the internal combustion engine has been non-stop for more than a century. Until, everything which could be done has been done, since the advent of computer control of the engine. The power plants in our cars today might be made of lighter materials or of exotic designs, but are basically the same as they were in 1950’s. Fuel injection dates back to 1902, the first Hemi’s 1905 and 1907 and Gottlieb Daimler, patented turbo charging back in 1885. The exhaust driven turbo chargers we know today were patented in 1905.
The Wankel rotary engine was first new power-plant development in half a century and that was in 1957, Over half a century since, has shown the rotary engine to be practical, but clearly, not the answer for the future. Even water injection goes back to WW II, when gasoline was more precious than new engines. It was during WWII, when designers first faced the limitations of piston powered aircraft. As aircraft neared the speed of sound, air could no longer flow over wing surfaces fast enough and caused a buffeting and loss of control. Adding larger engines was no longer an option; a 2000Hp Wright cyclone engine wouldn’t fly twice as a fast by adding another.
Like our steamship, the answer was in replacing steam with diesel power and the piston-powered fighter aircraft were replaced by jet propulsion. Even after the buffeting problem was solved by swept wings, the piston engines just couldn’t be made to go any faster. Of course, jet powered cars are only for movies and cartoons, as jets are wholly unsuited for automotive use. For years the stories have persisted about black boxes or carburetors claiming, a 150 MPG crushed or otherwise smothered by the big auto manufactures.
So you’re the CEO of a struggling auto company and you have in your desk drawer, plans for a device or a carburetor that will put your company, light years ahead of the competition. And you’re going to bury it because…? You’re loyal to your competitors or to big oil; maybe you’d rather face an angry Board of Directors? Yes, I know, GM killed the electric car, and wouldn’t sell them. GM had proprietary developments in the car, and just because they weren’t going to sell them, didn’t mean they’d just give the technology away. Could we be witnessing a change in automotive technology today? Just as gas and diesel once overtook steam and electric cars, could that tide be turning?
“Just what the public demands in a stylish yet conservative car – A genuine automobile – not an electrically driven coach. It has increased roominess; Full limousine back; longer wheel base; graceful, low-hung body lines, with both interior and exterior conveniences and appointments which have set a new mark in motor car refinement.”
~ Baker Electric car ad 1913
The Motor Trend Car of the Year 2013. “By any measure, the Tesla S is a truly remarkable automobile. It’s the performance that won us over. The crazy speed builds silently and then pulls back the edges of your face. It had all of us endangering our licenses”.
The Tesla S isn’t an electrically driven coach; it’s a performance luxury sedan. It rivals the best from Europe or Japan in roominess, features and conveniences. This isn’t just an electric car; this is an automobile which is electrically powered.
With a 264 mile range between charging, it rivals gas / diesel in range. Most Americans, drive less than fifty miles per day and this car will do that five times over. The Tesla S isn’t just the best electrically power car on the market, it’s the best electrically powered vehicle in the world, bar none. It’s not from Stuttgart or Tokyo, it’s manufactured in Fremont, California.
Yes, it’s expensive, so was your first color TV, DVD player or microwave oven. The original Tesla roadster sold less than 3,000 units world-wide, so far, the Tesla S has already sold 13,000 vehicles in little more than a year of production. Ladies and Gentleman…the future has arrived.