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Is that a pusher?
September 5, 2011 4:06 PM   Subscribe

"Is that a pusher?" The amount of mass-market plug-in cars coming out today attests to the popularity and practicality of electric vehicles. The two big remaining concerns are the range of EVs, and the efficiency of plug-in hybrids. Some people have found the solution to both of these problems is a traditionally fueled pusher or genset trailer or booster.

It seems that this isn't just for hobbyists willing to risk trouble with the DMV, ("Hey, why is there still an engine in this trailer?") and the design considerations go way beyond towable generators. Toyota has been commissioning them, a company called EMAV has a design they hope will compliment the Nissan Leaf, and the CTO of Tesla Motors has built two of his own.
posted by brenton (72 comments total) 14 users marked this as a favorite

 
While I can see the idea of a towable genset working, the concept of a trailer pushing on a central ball hitch sounds ridiculously dangerous to me. Having had stability problems from poorly braked trailers - even under only slight pushing, any lack of sync of the pusher trailer and the lead vehicle suggests that home made versions of this are distinctly ill advised.

Stick to the towable genset, people. Pushers could very easily shove you into a hedge.
posted by Brockles at 4:22 PM on September 5, 2011 [2 favorites]


So quick to dismiss, Brockles. What if the pusher utilizes stabilizer bars as well? Or a different tow/hitch configuration
posted by mafted jacksie at 4:23 PM on September 5, 2011


That '88 civic pusher is a work of art -- huge grin. Where have I seen that before?
posted by eddydamascene at 4:26 PM on September 5, 2011


If I'm going to add an extra 800 lb to my load, why not just make it rechargeable batteries?

Avoids all this pushing business as well.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 4:27 PM on September 5, 2011 [6 favorites]


I'd rather live in a walkable city.
posted by dunkadunc at 4:27 PM on September 5, 2011 [4 favorites]


(D'oh! Forgot the EMAV link. Here you go: http://www.wired.com/autopia/2010/03/chrysler-to-build-fiat-500-ev/)
posted by brenton at 4:28 PM on September 5, 2011


We need wireless power boosters in roads linked to a speedpass. Charge as you sit in traffic.
posted by humanfont at 4:31 PM on September 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


(Ahh... wrong link! This is it, I promise: http://www.wired.com/autopia/2010/11/range-extending-trailer-charges-your-ev-carries-your-gear/)
posted by brenton at 4:31 PM on September 5, 2011


I'd rather the top of my Leaf were covered with solar panels and would charge as I drove. Then you could head out across country on longer trips without having to stop every hour and a half at someplace that had a fast charger...

My car doesn't have an engine, which is a pretty freaking weird idea when you first realize it, but also one of the reasons I like it. No way am I slapping an engine on there.
posted by Windopaene at 4:36 PM on September 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


If I'm going to add an extra 800 lb to my load, why not just make it rechargeable batteries?

The idea is that you only use the trailer for long, perhaps multi-day, trips where battery charging is going to be a problem.
posted by brenton at 4:38 PM on September 5, 2011


Maybe all those people in RVs towing SUVs behind them could take a hint from this and actually draw power from them.

Better yet, maybe they could go over a cliff.
posted by George_Spiggott at 4:38 PM on September 5, 2011 [3 favorites]


These are a better idea than a series hybrid how, again? Seems like you gain very little by trading being able to leave the gas engine behind on short trips for all the extra complexity, drag, and maneuverability compromises of a trailer.
posted by RogerB at 4:39 PM on September 5, 2011


Paging Rube Goldberg, Rube Goldberg to the courtesy phone.
posted by b1tr0t at 4:40 PM on September 5, 2011 [2 favorites]


Relevant article from Dansdata.

I reckon the generator trailer idea is brilliant. I'd love one. Living where I do I'd almost never exceed the range of a small battery-powered car, except for when I want to drive interstate - at which point I start measuring the driving in days. I expect this won't work for Americans who live in their cars schlepping between exurbs, but they'd be great for Australia.
posted by pompomtom at 4:55 PM on September 5, 2011 [2 favorites]


The amount of mass-market plug-in cars coming out today attests to the popularity and practicality of electric vehicles.

Actually, it attests to how much money the government is throwing at them through subsidies. I've seen a single electric vehicle on the road in the wild, and it was a Tesla Volt that I almost rear-ended in Boston maybe a year ago. That would have been expensive.
posted by unknownmosquito at 4:58 PM on September 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


So quick to dismiss, Brockles. What if the pusher utilizes stabilizer bars as well? Or a different tow/hitch configuration

Sure. Bolt the pusher firmly to the back of the car with at least 4 points that prevent any flex between the two parts of the vehicle and I'll stop dismissing it as a dumb arse and unstable idea. Hell, even the fact that there will be some torque steer under load from the configurations shown means that the pusher produces yaw in the lead vehicle when pushing at all. Making it essentially one vehicle without any flex between the two drive points should pretty much remove any of my concerns.

Of course, this will mean it won't corner very well, but better that than being unstable through them if there is a power mismatch (and perhaps even if there isn't).
posted by Brockles at 5:00 PM on September 5, 2011


I'd rather the top of my Leaf were covered with solar panels and would charge as I drove.

Correct me if I'm wrong, but wouldn't 1m2 of solar paneling produce only ~150W of power? That's hardly significant, and I imagine the extra weight would put some extra drain on your battery.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 5:01 PM on September 5, 2011 [3 favorites]


The idea is that you only use the trailer for long, perhaps multi-day, trips where battery charging is going to be a problem.

Wouldn't it be much more environmentally friendly and easier to rent a regular car for that particular trip? A generator running in a trailer is going have zero emissions control and the MPG quoted, 35 for that special hybrid setup shown in a photo, was nothing to really write home about.

This seems a solution in search of a problem.
posted by maxwelton at 5:02 PM on September 5, 2011 [4 favorites]


I'd rather the top of my Leaf were covered with solar panels and would charge as I drove

On a sunny day, each square metre of surface area square-on to the sun sees roughly 1kW of solar radiation. Even if solar panels could be made to work at 100% efficiency, the roof of your Leaf would not collect enough juice to keep you rolling at anything like the speeds you're accustomed to driving at.

This is why the Solar Challenge is run in desert country, and why all the cars involved are huge, flat and streamlined at the expense of comfort and load space.
posted by flabdablet at 5:03 PM on September 5, 2011


I said what I would like to have happen. Haven't done the math or anything.

And even if you were schlepping between exurbs, is it really a 100 mile round trip? We really haven't come close to using a "full tank" in a single day. An awesome vehicle if you live in an urban or semi-urban environment. We spent $20 for "fuel" last month, with about 900 miles driven.

We just can't leave town...
posted by Windopaene at 5:14 PM on September 5, 2011


The real solution here is to drive lighter. There's a growing number of electric bikes in my area, and I don't see that trend slowing down anytime soon.

I've seen the future, and it's got an awful lot of those e-bikes in it.
posted by mhoye at 5:26 PM on September 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


Just buy a Chevy Volt - it includes the generator for extended range, and has an EPA fuel economy rating of 93 MPG to the Leaf's 99 (Full disclosure : I work for GM).
posted by rfs at 5:28 PM on September 5, 2011 [4 favorites]


This seems a solution in search of a problem.

This isn't the final goal. It's a stop-gap measure made to help people see plug-in electrics as a viable alternative while we develop the technology needed to give them the kind of range people desire in a vehicle. It's that thing we could be doing NOW as part of the transition away from all gasoline engines all the time.

I have no idea what it would be like to drive one, as I've never driven a vehicle set-up where the trailer was providing the propulsion. But I can easily see it as something that I could possibly own if I did have an all-electric vehicle so I could take trips longer than just driving around town.
posted by hippybear at 5:33 PM on September 5, 2011 [2 favorites]


Use the EV for your daily driving and just rent a gas-powered car when you need to take a long trip.
posted by LordSludge at 5:45 PM on September 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


It does seem odd to me that it would be a full car motor in the trailer.

Why not have some kind of set-up where you can add on a trailer which is a generator and add on the extra miles that way? Sort of like having a Prius or a Volt, but with the gas generator being a little trailer you could tow behind the vehicle or something for longer trips, detach for shorter ones?

Seems like that would be more efficient, although probably more complicated to engineer into the car itself, if it's not designed to run off a generator.
posted by hippybear at 5:49 PM on September 5, 2011


I like the look of these wheels claiming 92%
posted by hortense at 5:57 PM on September 5, 2011


The EMAV System linked in the comment above is more of the highly specialized design of the trailer, instead of someone just budging a car engine onto a frame to be towed behind the vehicle.

Specifically, it is a diesel generator that has it's own set of batteries (and power source) so it drives behind the EV instead of being towed by it. It also acts as a trailer that has some significant storage space for just normal things (suitcases, etc) along with powering the EV. So you have one car for driving around town, and then when you want to go on a road trip, you just attach the trailer and get on the road. The idea being to keep people down to one car, so they don't feel like they have to rent a car (is one available? which rental company? insurance issues? the trailer would just be a covered cost under your current insurance ideally, and still cost less than owning a second car) in cases where you need to go more than 100 miles.

I don't know how long term practical it is, but considering the prevalence of LEAF's that are already popping up here in Portland, I would imagine that there could be some market for trailers for the folks who want to go camping but not have to find a second car to take with them for the weekend.
posted by mrzarquon at 5:58 PM on September 5, 2011


How about standardized batteries, and ubiquitous mechanical battery exchange vendors that allow you to stop at the filling station, drop off your spent battery pod and get a fresh, fully charged battery pod in moments. This would eliminate the distance issue, would speed up 'recharging', would allow for a replacement for the huge gas station industry (and grow the 'automatic battery replacement robot' industry), and would allow for a massive, concerted charging scheme to work directly with the power grid and producers to normalize and stabilize electric use.

You can make that check out to 'cash'.
posted by dirtdirt at 6:04 PM on September 5, 2011 [6 favorites]


At Seattle gas prices I'm getting around 125 "MPG".
posted by Windopaene at 6:06 PM on September 5, 2011


The way I see this evolving is so you have a car which looks like a Smart Car, say, for urban driving, and then has a mountable rear body segment which fits it like Lego bricks, making it a six-wheel car that resembles a minivan. The rear engine/generator component is, when properly mounted with a flush fairing, aerodynamically negligible and contributes few of the behavioral problems associated with trailers.
posted by dhartung at 6:13 PM on September 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


You can make that check out to 'cash'.

You say that like this is your original idea. Unless your real life name is Shia Agassi. (TED talk from 2009)
posted by hippybear at 6:13 PM on September 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


I love a super great terrible idea... and strapping a car to the back of your car to push it -- there's something so clever and awesome about that. What could possibly go wrong?
posted by ph00dz at 6:18 PM on September 5, 2011


Renault has a wild and quite affordable electric vehicle coming out soon, le Twizy- too bad it's only a one-seater so far.
They've made a cute ad for going electric too.

I love the idea of electric cars, for urban use anyway. I wonder if, in the future we'll just be able to recharge wherever we park; perhaps there'll be some sort of two-way system with the plug-in so the utility will know who to bill for the juice.
posted by Flashman at 6:19 PM on September 5, 2011


How about standardized batteries, and ubiquitous mechanical battery exchange vendors that allow you to stop at the filling station, drop off your spent battery pod and get a fresh, fully charged battery pod in moments.

I was about to post exactly this idea. I had most of it typed in but you beat me to it Dirtdirt. Great minds think alike I suppose.

Another benefit is that it would be easier to phase in more advanced batteries as technology improves.
posted by VTX at 6:20 PM on September 5, 2011 [2 favorites]


En reflet - I guess that is a two-seater. Le cool!
posted by Flashman at 6:20 PM on September 5, 2011


VTX - this is what Renault is proposing too.
posted by Flashman at 6:21 PM on September 5, 2011


I'm holding out for standardized sludge.
posted by flabdablet at 6:26 PM on September 5, 2011


I'll likely be buying a car in the next 4-6 months. Does anyone mind if I quasi-hijack this thread into a "What are the best hybrid/electric cars out there?" AskMe, as I've not been keeping up on the EV/hybrid market?

The Chevy Volt is really pricy, but looks great for being essentially a full EV daily-charge vehicle while also a small-tank regular car with effectively unlimited distance if I wanted to go on an infrequent roadtrip... but otherwise perfect for in-city (Seattle) driving. That freedom, even as an abstraction, is key to my decidedly all-American mindset. I can't get that with the Leaf, but can get that with traditional hybrids- but at far worse mileage. Are there other electric-but-with-tank-backup cars besides the Volt?

Also, the more "car like" the better (and why are sunroofs never an option on these types of cars?); I was pleasantly surprised when I first rode in a Prius just how roomy it turned out to be.
posted by hincandenza at 6:56 PM on September 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


Oh, I just saw the second link is a list of current and upcoming EV cars. Volvo has a station wagon plug-in hybrid coming?! Maybe not soon enough, although I'll admit with some embarrassment that I may be the one caucasian male under the age of 50 who thinks Volvos are sexy, and kind of sporty.

[/NOT SWEDENIST]
posted by hincandenza at 7:01 PM on September 5, 2011


I will tell you this about the Prius -- if you end up driving it in a crappy unexpected winter quasi-blizzard due to bad weather forecasting, you have to keep turning on the defroster every 15 minutes because it shuts off as an electricity-saving measure. And turning on the defroster is at least two selection levels deep on the touchscreen, which makes it a bitch when you're coping with crappy road conditions.

They don't mention that in the brochure.
posted by hippybear at 7:01 PM on September 5, 2011


We need wireless power boosters in roads linked to a speedpass. Charge as you sit in traffic.

If you've got tons of traffic, and enough cash to be willing to sink induction coils into many miles of highway, you'd probably be better served by building some train tracks or a busway. Those technologies are already proven, and can benefit everyone from the moment that they're constructed.

Cars are wasteful and bad for the environment. Even electric ones.
posted by schmod at 7:32 PM on September 5, 2011


Um, what? Did they redesign the defroster on the new Prii? I have a 2007 and turning on the defroster is as simple as touching a button on the steering wheel (one for the front, one for the back). The back one does turn off after awhile, but that's hardly unique to the Prius - most electric defrosters do that.
posted by adamg at 7:34 PM on September 5, 2011


The back one does turn off after awhile, but that's hardly unique to the Prius - most electric defrosters do that.

I have no idea about model and make or any of that. I only know that I spent a terrifying 9 hour ride through a snowstorm trying to keep the windows defrosted while the driver concentrated on keeping us on the road. (The drive should have been 4 hours.)

And no, "most electric defrosters" do not shut off after a while. Out of the 5 vehicles I've owned in the past and the two vehicles in our household now, the electric defrosters are either on or off, they don't shut off on their own after 15 minutes.
posted by hippybear at 7:37 PM on September 5, 2011


I think you're talking about two different things. The rear defroster - the little wires in the back screen - will turn off after a set amount of time, once it figures its work there is done. The front one, i.e. the defogger, the fan blowing up at the inside of the windshield, should definitely not turn off until you ask it to.
posted by Flashman at 7:46 PM on September 5, 2011


You say that like this is your original idea

You say that like it isn't. Parallel developments, my good bear!
posted by dirtdirt at 7:53 PM on September 5, 2011


Flashman: I'm talking about both of them. The rear defroster and the front blower thing were both shutting off in their own intervals. In that Prius. On that drive.

I don't own one, can't give you any more information than that singular experience, but it was horrible, and everyone in the car is glad that I was sitting in the front passenger seat and figured out I had to keep refreshing the "on" status of both of those functions.
posted by hippybear at 7:54 PM on September 5, 2011


I admit I've never driven nine hours straight in a Prius, but in four years driving one around the Boston area (which does get a bit of snow in the winter), two of them with a 50-mile roundtrip daily commute, I've never had the front defroster just turn itself off (the rear one, yes). Maybe it was something off about that one particular car?
posted by adamg at 8:18 PM on September 5, 2011


You know, the ultimate solution to electric vehicle rang issues is ground-level power supply, basically wires or electro magnets built into highways that only go live when signaled by a passing electric vehicle. Ground-level power would extend the electric vehicle range arbitrarily far and open the door for cheaper vehicle with smaller batteries and less off highway range.
posted by jeffburdges at 8:21 PM on September 5, 2011


Man, a small shaft drive turbine would be just the ticket for a towable genset. It might even be small enough you could just strap it to the roof of your car like a cargo pod when you needed extended range for your pure EV.
posted by loquacious at 8:50 PM on September 5, 2011 [3 favorites]


In terms of extended range electric vehicles (or gas assisted electric cars, i.e. the volt design vs the prius design of efficient engine with electric boost), Audi has one in development that uses a single rotor Wankel engine to power the alternator for the electric motor.
posted by mrzarquon at 8:58 PM on September 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


My car doesn't have an engine

You mean, your car doesn't have an internal combustion engine...
posted by inparticularity at 9:26 PM on September 5, 2011


It seems like a more market-friendly solution would be some sort of sealed "range extender" module that you could sit in the trunk of your EV, perhaps locking into some sort of integrated intake/exhaust/electrical/control connection in the vehicle, that would give the vehicle hybrid-like powers. I'd bet that you could make a 5-6 HP model out of a generator pretty easily that would still be light enough for a well-built person to install and remove on their own (no worse, say, than a typical minivan's removable rear seat). Maybe more if you were only removing the internal-combustion part and utilizing existing systems in the car for the generator side.

You'd probably have to do some fussing around with the regulators to get the exhaust system approved (might be hard to do, not to mention loud, in a hatchback where it wouldn't be sealed off from the passenger compartment), but in general it seems like it would be an attractive optional feature for a lot of EV buyers. Just the fact that something like it exists would probably make all-electric EVs more appealing to people who want to retain the ability to go on a long trip, even if they rarely or never actually do.
posted by Kadin2048 at 9:42 PM on September 5, 2011


Let's just build some train tracks. Or trolley tracks. Or busways. Or even monorails.


and maybe even reroute the piles of federal money subsidizing these electric daydreams into public mass transit.
posted by LiteOpera at 10:09 PM on September 5, 2011 [4 favorites]


You know, Europe has both good public transit and cars, LiteOpera.
posted by jeffburdges at 10:55 PM on September 5, 2011


Europe has both good public transit and cars
Sure, but cars (at least in my experience of relatively-undeveloped Poland) are primarily a way to get to places the train or bus won't take you. Poles (and of course I'm generalizing based on my own experiences) would far prefer it if there were just a train or streetcar stop everywhere they wanted to go, but that's not the case so sometimes they have to use private passenger cars.

Americans (and of course I am generalizing based on much more extensive experience in the relatively underdeveloped United States), by contrast, would prefer there to be cheap gas and free parking everywhere, but if that's not possible, well then "goddamn it, put in a parking lot and why doesn't someone do something about gas prices?"
posted by LiteOpera at 11:07 PM on September 5, 2011



I admit I've never driven nine hours straight in a Prius, but in four years driving one around the Boston area (which does get a bit of snow in the winter), two of them with a 50-mile roundtrip daily commute, I've never had the front defroster just turn itself off (the rear one, yes). Maybe it was something off about that one particular car?


I have driven 9-12 hours straight in a Prius in winter blizzard conditions, multiple times. The front defroster stays on when I tell it to stay on (using a button on the steering wheel). The rear one works fine, whether it's technically turning itself off or not.

Can we put that derail to bed and talk about how ridiculous the ideas in the original post are instead?
posted by mmoncur at 1:48 AM on September 6, 2011


It's almost entirely a non-issue. A psychological thing. Once electric cars are common, people won't bother with range extenders because they find they don't use them. These products exist mainly to fight the unsubstantiated fear holding back people from buying, they're not actually necessary - as some owners whose only car now is EV, seem to be already concluding. Road trips are more infrequent than we think they are, so it makes more sense to just rent (either a genset, or an entire car)
posted by -harlequin- at 2:02 AM on September 6, 2011


How about standardized batteries, and ubiquitous mechanical battery exchange vendors that allow you to stop at the filling station, drop off your spent battery pod and get a fresh, fully charged battery pod in moments. This would eliminate the distance issue, would speed up 'recharging', would allow for a replacement for the huge gas station industry (and grow the 'automatic battery replacement robot' industry), and would allow for a massive, concerted charging scheme to work directly with the power grid and producers to normalize and stabilize electric use.

In theory, I'm all over this, but then I remember the other place where this model rules: propane tanks. You take your tank in to get charged, and most places just swap it out with an already-charged tank that someone else brought in a few days ago. I would describe the net effect of this model as "a race to the bottom," except it is not a race; the first time you swap out your tank, you have lost the race, because you have swapped your pristine tank for a rusted out piece of shit whose ability to store highly explosive propane is suspect at best.

Now imagine that instead of a $15 propane tank, you do this with multi-thousand-dollar battery packs. And the quality/age of the battery unit directly impacts the maximum range of your car. And that every person involved in this scheme is directly motivated to take their old battery pack (which is slowly leaking acid and heavy metals all over the road and has 75% the range of a new pack, in addition to a higher risk of exploding or causing horrible problems if you're in a car accident), and add it to the communal pool, and then, upon receiving their less awful battery pack in exchange, to resume private ownership and charging thereof. When you incentivize people to do terrible things, and don't provide any enforcement mechanism to stop them from doing so, you end up with a bunch of scary looking battery packs down at Chevron.
posted by Mayor West at 6:01 AM on September 6, 2011 [6 favorites]


In theory, I'm all over this, but then I remember the other place where this model rules: propane tanks.

Mayor West nails it: That's my big worry about slow charge/battery swap.

With propane powered cars, you could have big tanks and pump into your tank. Wait, we just invented gas! If we could solve fast charge*, then we get to the "I take my battery in and get my battery back" situation.

But yeah, the idea of swapping my possibly explosive battery for a random one bothers me badly.


* Problem: Show how much power a fast-charge station needs.
posted by eriko at 6:51 AM on September 6, 2011


I just can't figure out the economics of EVs. I'm a rather low mileage driver (something like 3000 miles per year of "in town" driving + various >100mile trips). Call it 5000 miles a year by over-estimating the number of ~120-mile round trips to the nearby million-inhabitant city (even though that's outside the range of the leaf!).

I could choose an inexpensive, and relatively fuel-efficent gasoline car like the Honda Fit (MSRP $15175) or I could choose an EV like the Nissan Leaf (MSRP $35200) for more than twice as much money.

Assuming that other costs like maintenance are the same for both cars, that's about $20k I have to save on fuel. Let's further stack things in favor of the leaf: electricity is free, gas is $10/gal, and in the Fit I get only 25mpg average. With these fantasy numbers, I can actually make up that $20k difference after owning the car for a decade. With real numbers, particularly by taking away the 120-mile trips the leaf is not capable of, there's just no way to come out ahead with the EV.

Which is why I did buy and do drive a Fit. (at the time I made that choice, the comparison vehicle was the Toyota Prius. Again, you had to put the price of gas at well over $10 in order for it to look like a bargain over 10 years)
posted by jepler at 7:13 AM on September 6, 2011 [2 favorites]


Just buy a Chevy Volt

Just convince your scummy dealer network to let me buy one, instead of selling them to themselves, claiming the tax credit, then selling them as used cars at full MSRP (or more).
posted by hwyengr at 9:22 AM on September 6, 2011 [3 favorites]


In theory, I'm all over this, but then I remember the other place where this model rules: propane tanks. You take your tank in to get charged, and most places just swap it out with an already-charged tank that someone else brought in a few days ago. I would describe the net effect of this model as "a race to the bottom," except it is not a race; the first time you swap out your tank, you have lost the race, because you have swapped your pristine tank for a rusted out piece of shit whose ability to store highly explosive propane is suspect at best.

Wow, the propane swap services where you live must be really shitty, because that's exactly NOT what you get when you swap them out using any of the two or three primary services here in eastern WA which one finds at grocery stores and such.

What you get is a full tank which has been inspected both for physical condition and the integrity of the valve and auto-fill shutoff mechanism inside the tank. It's been freshly painted if it required that kind of upkeep. Finally, the inspection can be traced back to an individual within the company (usually via a sticker on the tank) so if there are any problems, when you report the problems to the company they can do follow-up and make sure they don't happen again.

So sorry to hear you live in a shithole which doesn't have quality propane tank swapout services. Maybe you should move?
posted by hippybear at 3:13 PM on September 6, 2011


To be honest, in the USA our transporation system is a bit outdated compared to Europe and Asian (pretty much all countries).. It's sad really, but perhaps too many areas are just too rural to see it worthwhile. While in the US military for 7 years, I've lived in a good share of countries and it's sad how lack of trains, streetcars, and so forth we are lacking. Most of these services are all electric powered, which most likely makes them far superior to the ancient trains we have carrying freight. In these countries you could travel 100 to 200 miles an hour and go from one major city to another, and back in one afternoon! It wasn't that expensive (tickets), that many just don't see the benefit of owning a car.
posted by radioguy at 10:30 PM on October 1, 2011


Most of these services are all electric powered, which most likely makes them far superior to the ancient trains we have carrying freight.

While I agree with your general point, namely that public transit infrastructure in many other countries is leaps and bounds ahead of the US, I think you're a bit off in the criticism of the freight rail network. Freight rail in the US is second to none. When it comes to moving really large quantities of crap around using trains, as cheaply as possible (given an environment of high labor costs and sane safety standards, anyway), pretty much everyone else in the world could, and does, learn from the US.

Europe and the US took a very different path after the war; Europe's freight-rail system, which is hobbled by a gauge difference between Western Europe and the former Soviet bloc countries, didn't see much improvement, while lots of public investment went into passenger rail. In the US, the public investment went into highways, and the railroads scaled back passenger operations (which were never terribly profitable anyway) and concentrated on freight. And in particular, on the types of freight that they could make compete with over-the-road trucking: bulk shipping (ore, coal, grain, etc.) and later containerized movements. The net result is that more stuff moves by train in the US than in Europe, as a result of the efficiency of the rail system, and inherent rail/truck tradeoffs that are easier to realize in the US than in Europe (if it's under 500 miles it's tough to make freight rail pay off).

Rail equipment in the US and in Europe isn't even very much alike, except for both running on steel rails. Most Continental trains don't even have automatic couplers, which vastly increases the manpower required to set up or break apart a consist, and eliminates one of the great (and, frankly, spectacular and a little ridiculous) labor-saving innovations of US rail logistics: the humping yard.

The issue, which we are slowly starting to realize, is that freight rail and passenger rail are two very different beasts that probably shouldn't be penned up together. If you have passenger service running on the same rails as 10,000+ ton coal trains, suddenly your passenger trains need to withstand a possible collision -- and that means that they need to be built very differently than European or Japanese fast-passenger trains. (The Acela apparently weighs twice what the TGV does per car, due to the FRA safety standards.) And all that weight means lots more energy to get them into motion, which means different electrical requirements (if you want them to be electric), or using diesel instead (which is what the freight railroads do).

What we need to do, bluntly, is leave the freight rail system alone. It does its job, does it very well, and doesn't need passenger rail messing with it. (I suspect that in carbon-savings terms, there's probably as much to be gained by Europe implementing an integrated, American-style freight system across Eurasia, as there is the US implementing a European-style high speed rail network, but I'm not going to hold my breath.) What we need to do is find ways of separating passenger and freight rail, either literally or with modern train control systems, so that we can run light, fast, off-the-shelf trains from Europe and Asia on high-traffic inter-city corridors.
posted by Kadin2048 at 9:01 AM on October 2, 2011 [1 favorite]


When you incentivize people to do terrible things, and don't provide any enforcement mechanism to stop them from doing so, you end up with a bunch of scary looking battery packs down at Chevron.

Fixing that would involve

(a) standardizing on a few battery pack form factors, much as has been done for little batteries (think AAA, AA, C and D sizes)

(b) making it normal for EVs to come with a reduced-capacity "starter" pack, kind of like the initial toner carts that come with laser printers, to get you from the car dealership to your preferred battery supplier

(c) including condition-monitoring electronics inside car battery packs whose ownership is always retained by suppliers who

(d) charge a service-life fee that reflects the difference between battery condition at issue and condition at return, as well as a fee reflecting the difference in state of charge at supply and return.

Access to battery-swap outlets would work much like present-day access to cell phone networks or ATMs or cable/ADSL internet. Suppliers would normally only exchange batteries provided by themselves or partner suppliers, but would perhaps allow an inter-network swap for an additional fee. They would not exchange privately-owned packs at all, ever; if you're buying your own pack, charging arrangements are your own problem.
posted by flabdablet at 4:22 AM on October 3, 2011


standardizing on a few battery pack form factors, much as has been done for little batteries (think AAA, AA, C and D sizes)

I think that part of the issue with doing that is the relatively infantile level of battery development. Batteries change in terms of internal structure as well as chemicals and so many need different styles of charging cycles. Your car would either need to accommodate all of them, be configurable (hence potentially uninformed consumer choice of battery style) or just limit to one type of battery anyway (even if that battery then has several manufacturers within it).

While standardisation is possibly the right way to go, I think we're way too early in the understanding or development of the technology. It seems to me that we have pushed the electric car into the consumer market place possibly 20 years before it really suits being there. This is, without doubt, the only think that will generate the interest and revenue to allow the product to be developed at a reasonable rate, but I can't help thinking that trying to standardise it before it has fully revealed the best direction will lead to crippling the technology somehow.

Think Betamax...

I think they need to be as open as possible for a few years and let the best versions (and new alternatives) prove their worth.
posted by Brockles at 6:48 AM on October 3, 2011


Think Betamax...

Not sure what you're getting at there. Betamax is technically a better videocassette format than VHS for several reasons, and was contemporary with it; VHS didn't "prove its worth" on technical grounds but was more effectively marketed into the consumer device space. The superiority of Betamax just didn't matter to most people - VHS was good enough, VHS was everywhere and it didn't take long before most households had a VHS machine installed under the telly.

Similarly, I think having a good-enough battery swap technology would go a long way toward making electric cars good enough, which I think would be a good thing. And it's not like a set of standard form factors is even much of a limiting thing. When I was a kid, all you could get were Standard and Heavy Duty zinc-carbon batteries. When Duracell alkalines first appeared they did so in standard AA, C and D form factors. And look at the variety of AA cell chemistries you can buy now to make your digital camera go.
posted by flabdablet at 6:57 AM on October 3, 2011


Not sure what you're getting at there.

Really? That something better was pushed to the side by standardisation that happened toward a lesser alternative?

I'm advocating the opposite of what happened with Betamax.

Battery tech is in it's infancy, though. New stuff is being developed all the time and leaving standardisation off for as long as possible will allow better flexibility on all fronts - perhaps even for a complete redesign for how electric cars work (how they charge, for instance). Standardisation will hinder creativity.

I think having a good-enough battery swap technology would go a long way toward making electric cars good enough

I think it may make them short term tolerable for a limited customer base, but be an obstruction to them ever being a genuine alternative to IC engines. They are a long, long way from that now.
posted by Brockles at 7:23 AM on October 3, 2011


New stuff is being developed all the time and leaving standardisation off for as long as possible will allow better flexibility on all fronts - perhaps even for a complete redesign for how electric cars work (how they charge, for instance).

This is kind of nonsensical. Sure, battery technology is evolving, but the interface remains the same. You need positive and negative DC terminals and a way to deliver a lot of amps. Battery technology only matters in that it influences how many amps can be received per unit time without going boom.

Standardisation will hinder creativity.

Not exactly. The problem with standardization is that electric vehicles require a LOT more amps than ordinary home circuits can provide. They need them in a relatively short burst, and that's a major problem for the electric company. If you standardize now, you'd end up with an interface that trickles amps out at a slow rate - perfect for the electric company but terrible for electric vehicles.

They are a long, long way from that now.

Very true. If I had a lot of money, I'd much rather have a Tesla than a Ferrari. But if I was looking for a new commuting vehicle, I'd look at a small-displacement internal combustion car.
posted by b1tr0t at 8:28 AM on October 3, 2011


This is kind of nonsensical. Sure, battery technology is evolving, but the interface remains the same. You need positive and negative DC terminals and a way to deliver a lot of amps.

Er, yes. You also need a common voltage to standardise batteries, which is probably not such a great road to clamp down on. The physical interface remains the same but the charging cycle and outputs of batteries of the same nominal size could vary widely and so preclude standardisation as mentioned (like big D or AA batteries).

The problem with standardization is that electric vehicles require a LOT more amps than ordinary home circuits can provide.

I'm confused. Why on earth would standardisation of electric car battery cells have anything at all to do with the electricity companies? Or even remotely relate to domestic circuitry? They wouldn't be the ones setting the standard, they'd only be involved in the charging interface if the cars were also fixed-line charged overnight.
posted by Brockles at 9:41 AM on October 3, 2011


I'm confused.

My bad - I was responding to the idea of standardizing the interface for charging batteries. I agree that standardizing the batteries doesn't make sense. It might make sense to standardize the interface, but as we are both saying the volt-amp ratio is the real issue.

It has been a few years since I've closely followed the state of the art of EV power systems, but I'm going to guess that EV-size batteries can still take more current than residential power systems can deliver. Back when I was more active in this space, power companies were scared to death of electric cars because if even a small minority of consumers adopt them, they could easily brown out the existing power infrastructure.

This is exactly the same problem that consumers are having with telecom companies - ATT built out their cell network to handle the 1-5 Mb/month typical of early '00s smart phones, and really can't handle heavy modern users. So they throw up bandwidth caps and overage fees. The only difference is that while telecom companies make infrastructure plans in the 10-year range, power companies are thinking of 50-60 year amortizations.

So the power companies will do everything they can to prevent a high-speed charging interface that could rapidly fill a fleet of EVs.
posted by b1tr0t at 11:39 AM on October 3, 2011


I'm advocating the opposite of what happened with Betamax.

OK, sure. I sympathize with the desire to do that. But the simple fact remains that VHS was good enough for its target market; technically inferior to Betamax for sure, but not enough to matter to most people. And now digital media have made both tape formats obsolete and the argument is moot.

The x86 processor architecture is another case in point. It sucks balls compared to almost any other CPU architecture, but its having become some kind of de-facto standard has sold an awful lot of PCs for an awful lot of manufacturers. And as smartphones start to bite into the PC market, x86 may well end up yielding a lot of sales to ARM, which is a far nicer architecture.

The point is that in both cases, just having a standard - even if it wasn't the best possible standard, not even when limiting the choice to contemporary designs - drove a flood of sales that would not have happened otherwise.

You also need a common voltage to standardise batteries

Not necessarily. It's quite feasible to design automotive power control electronics that are almost completely insensitive to battery terminal voltage (think about universal computer power supplies rated for 90V-250V mains input). Obviously there would need to be some limits on the range of working terminal voltages, but these would not need to be anywhere near as restrictive as is customary for small batteries. If EV batteries adopted a standard comms architecture as well as a smallish standard set of physical form factors, they could tell the car's power controller what to expect and how to treat them.

Part of a standard form factor would be a standard charge capacity, a standard power transfer capacity and a standard service life, and an expectation that all of those numbers would go up as technology improves.

I'm going to guess that EV-size batteries can still take more current than residential power systems can deliver. Back when I was more active in this space, power companies were scared to death of electric cars because if even a small minority of consumers adopt them, they could easily brown out the existing power infrastructure.

That's precisely why it makes sense to look at making battery swap-out the standard way to do things. There are many fewer service stations than residences, which considerably reduces the number of industrial-grade electricity feeds that need to be provided.

There's actually also some benefit for electricity supply companies in the widespread adoption of EVs, in that cars tend to be parked near the people who use them, which means that stored energy will generally be available near its consumers at peak times. If I could suck power from the grid into my EV battery when power was cheap due to capacity exceeding demand, and supply it back to the grid when power was expensive due to demand exceeding capacity, then not only would I make a little money off my EV investment but I'd be helping flatten out the power generators' demand curve. If this kind of thing became widespread it would considerably reduce the need for always-on "baseline" power sources and improve the ROI on intermittent renewable sources like solar PV and wind.
posted by flabdablet at 7:43 PM on October 3, 2011


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