Archive for the ‘Environment’ Category

A perspective on disability   Leave a comment

A story

So, I have a disability:  I can’t run 60 mph, and snow and rain slows me down even further, but luckily I have really great piece of adaptive hardware (A Volvo V70) that allows me to have a normal life.  Of course, since I can’t afford one of the better power chairs (Like a Ford Expedition or a M1 Abrams tank), I’m almost totally dependent on the government to provide me an infrastructure that my mostly-smooth-surface Volvo can handle.   Again, fortunately for me, there is a fantastic infrastructure available.  I can use my adaptive device almost everywhere.  There’s hundreds of thousands of miles of paved trails that are designated for people who share this disability.  In fact, normal people, without the same adaptive equipment aren’t even allowed to use OUR infrastructure so there is more room for us, and the unique needs of our power chairs.

Yesterday it snowed, and the city didn’t clear the hill by my house, making it a slippery, icy mess.  All my similarly disabled friends were infuriated by how we were following our civic duty and paying taxes, but the city wasn’t following it’s civic duty and maintaining the infrastructure that allows all of us disabled people to use the different parts of the city.  This is fairly rare.  Usually the city really takes us into consideration with everything it does.  It never builds a park unless we can get to it, and it regularly improves the infrastructure so that I and all my disabled friends to get to more places.  A lot of people have a similar disability, in that they can’t carry up to 40 tons of cargo.  Almost identical infrastructure is needed for their adaptive equipment (Peterbuilts and Macs and such), and every effort is made to make sure they can get to all the stores around town.  For them we make paths a little wider, a little stronger, and parking a little bigger.  For both groups, service centers and refueling centers for our adaptive devices are among the commonest of all businesses.  Truly, we live in a great world for disabled people.

A truth

A disability is a limitation, and a car really does correct your limitations.  You can’t run 60 mph, and you can’t carry hundreds of pounds of stuff.  A car really is an adaptive device that lets you do those things.  Without roads, your car is useless.  You are 100% dependent on the government to provide an infrastructure that makes it possible to use your adaptive device.  I have never heard anyone complain about everyone’s taxes going to build an infrastructure for this particular disability.  If a bridge is needed to cross a tiny creek that separates two business districts, no one even ponders telling car owners to buck up, no one ponders telling the business owners to build it themselves, and no one bulks at putting the infrastructure costs of their adaptive equipment on society.

A question 

Why do people think it’s right to build a publicly supported infrastructure for their inability to be a car, but wrong to build a publicly supported infrastructure for other’s inability to walk?

Edison2 saves the day, if people in the future are more rational   Leave a comment

http://www.gizmag.com/edison2-x-prize-winner/16408/

^Follow the link and read about car called the Edison2. It’s pretty sweet.  It seats 4 people meets modern collision standards.  It tops out over a 100 mph and gets over 130 mpg highway in the internal combustion engine version, and over 350MPG equivalent in the electric version.  As the guy says on the video, you start with a design that uses 250% less power to do the same job, and then you plug in whatever form of power works best: engine, battery, or hybrid.

Two things interest me about Edison2.

First off is the Offenhauser school of design it uses.  Most advanced designs consists of squeezing out the most efficiency possible by using as many parts each doing a small and specific part of the job. Offenhauser design is the opposite: use as few parts and systems as possible each designed as well as possible. Big, dumb, Offenhauser engines were beating gorgeous, complicated engines which were better in theory for decades after theory suggested it shouldn’t have happened.  (Like the year an Offenhauser engined car beat all the gas turbines) Why? 7 major reasons:

(1.) Simple designs are easier to model, because system interaction adds layers of analytical weirdness.

(2.) The models are more like reality because the reality is simpler, so the numbers they produce are more accurate.

(3.) Simple parts are easier to design perfectly in line with the numbers

(4.) Because of 1-3,  simple designs often have higher strength to weight ratios, capabilities to complexity ratios, benefits to ease of maintenance ratios, etc.  Simple, stout designs are often better in almost every measurable way.

(5.) It can’t break if it isn’t there.  The history of motorsports is littered with designs that were “better”, but complexity made it impossible to keep them in the race.

(6.) Sum of losses. Flow through one 60% efficient part  is more efficient than total flow through 5 parts that are each 90% efficient.

(7.)  Ease of repair. It’s easier to diagnose problems in one part than it is a system, and faster to replace.

The Edison2 uses Offenhauser design principals.  Instead of trying to reinvent the car, they took very well understood motorsport design elements like steel tubing roll cage, and simple, robust, and highly stressed engine (40 hp out of a 250cc is 160 HP/liter.) working through a close ratio, many gear transmission, and a body designed to be as aerodynamic as possible while minimizing shapes that are hard to analyze properly  (so they can be as a light as posible) or manufacture cheaply.   I want to point out that it takes great skill to do this.  Any fool can “design” by addition. Design by subtraction requires a keen understanding of exactly what the problems are, so that utility is not lost along with the useless bloat.   Why isn’t such skill used more often?  Let me first say:

Second, the commenters really, really hate it.

It’s not fast enough, even though it tops out over 100 mph.

It’s not pretty enough, as if the universe owes them a aerodynamics that look like Transformer’s rejects.

The engine will break, as if singles break down because of strange magical properties inherent to them, rather than the fact that most singles are designed for low purchase price ahead of all other design factors.

It’s too expensive, as if loads of other custom made, carbon fiber bodied, 800 lb, rear wheel drive, 160HP/liter performance car were going for $20,000.

It’s not safe, (or more accurately they wouldn’t feel safe in it) even though it is.

You can’t take your family on long trips with it.

One particular comment that got me was the complaint it was too airplane like.  Not surprisingly, it is airplane like.  Physics doesn’t really allow for more than more than one general shape that four people can sit, 2+2 in and can be pushed through the air with minimal energy.  So I looked up some airplanes that have approximately the same passenger and cargo volume.  They start at around $200,000 and max out around $350,000.  What does more than a quarter of million get you, besides movement in three dimensions?  600% more power, yielding only 70% higher top speed, horrifically expensive purchase, maintenance, storage, and operational costs, and requirement to get a special license before you drive it.

What do people have to say about them? They are fast. They are beautiful. The engines are reliable. The price is reasonable for the utility. They feel safe in it.  They take their family on long trips with it.

What’s the difference?

Team Edison2 chose to design the Very Light Car (the technical name for the racer) using Offenhauser design principals, and I mentioned this took skill and also something else.  That something else is courage.  Offenhauser design always works.  Even when more complex designs overtake the first design, it only because knowledge of each individual part has advanced to the degree that Offenhauser method can be applied to a more complex design.  And yet it is rare, because Offenhauser design is a lot less sexy than magic bullets.  It takes courage and genius in equal measure design by taking away.  IE, the Offenhauser method is less prestigious.

And thats why all the negative comments about the car, and the positive comments about planes that do virtually the same thing, only badly.  Because fuel economy isn’t prestigious and owning your own plane is.   In the end, saving the environment isn’t a technological problem, it’s a social one.  We don’t win it with technology, we win it with the courage to design our desires and our society.