Total Pageviews

Thursday, May 14, 2009

The Inexpensive Electric Car

At some point one of the major car manufacturers is going to wake up to the fact that there is a huge market out there for a simple, no bells and whistles, robust, easily repaired, distinctive but not particularly stylish electric car. This will cause them great problems but will also bring them huge benefits. First the problems.

Such an electric car will cut deeply into the sales of their other models. It will greatly reduce their sales of spare parts such as filters, engine parts, brake pads (most of the braking in electric cars is regenerative) and so forth. In addition if they make this car so that parts from one model fit other models both across the models and across the years, they will eventually pretty well saturate the market. From then on they will have steady but much smaller sales volumes. So why should they bother. Here comes the good part.

They will have an enormous market and the first company that realizes this will cut deeply into the sales of all other car companies. Fortunately, unlike when America dominated the car market, we have lots of other countries making cars. One can picture Tata of India or Renault of France or BYD of China joining the dots and deciding to produce this car.

And just think what it would mean for the environment and our chance of surviving not only as a species, but in a fairly comfortable sort of life style such as we have now. Never mind the reduced use of fossil fuels as you charge this car with wind, hydro or solar power but such a car would reduce the mining of metals, garbage to land fills, degradation of our roads due to leaking fuel and oil, use of lubricants, pollution of our water ways and on and on.

So lets see what sort of car this would be.

First, like those iconic cars, the Model T Ford, Volks Wagen, Deux Cheveaux, and Mini, it would look distinctive (not attractive) and would not change over the years. But this would be more than skin deep. After the initial shake down process to get the bugs out, the inner workings of the car would not change. The same door handles and window winders, the same instruments (how many do you need in an electric car), interior lights, head light bulbs and so forth would fit the first car built and one built 10 years later. Sure there will likely be advances in, for instance, the efficiency of head light bulbs and these will be incorporated but the new bulbs will fit in the socket of any car in the series. And for that matter, if new more efficient electric motors or better batteries are developed, they will likewise fit in any car of any age.

The car will be designed to be very easily fixed by a mechanic of modest ability with a basic set of tools and the excellent manual that will be produced by Time Life books or Readers Digest. These manuals will set an industry standard for beauty and clearness. They will be tested by the tea lady, secretaries and wives of the executives of the car company and if they can't do any necessary repair on the car, back to the drawing board. Either the manual or the car or both will have to be changed. (no fair changing the tea lady)

There will be no warranty on the car. None whatsoever. At first this will be a negative selling point but as people gain confidence in the incredible reliability and robustness of the car, it will become one of the main selling points. Of course the savings from not having a warranty will be passed on in full to the customer. People will then take care of their car from the beginning and not thrash it during the warranty period. Anyone who doesn't want to get his hands dirty will easily find a garage to do any necessary work.

Just as radical, there will be no advertising. Advertising costs money and is built into the price of goods. Fortunately today there is another solution. If you have a really desired, unique product, with the internet, it goes "viral". Initially, the workers in the factory will be sold the first cars. As they drive them around, they will be noticed. People will start to enquire about them. An added benefit of a slow start up is that if there are any bugs that need sorting out, it can be done without the need for huge recalls. Initially, the car will only be sold in New Zealand but with our tourism, as the number of cars visible on our roads grows, we will start to get orders from overseas. By the time the big boys wake up to the fact that there is a new kid on the block, we will have magazines and radio hosts clamoring for interviews and the car will be well and truly launched.

The bumpers around the car will be high tech. Perhaps pneumatic with a pop out valve that absorbs energy by the squeezing of air out of the vent; sort of an all car airbag. The car would be able to take, say, a 10kph bump from any side without damage to the body of the car. Parts damaged by slightly faster collisions will be repairable by bolt on bolt off parts. Crush zones as in all modern cars would help to protect the passengers in more serious crashes.

The battery in this car will be made up of modules of a size agreed to with as many other car manufacturers as can be brought on board. Say a 20 by 30 by 50 mm unit that could be combined in series and parallel to achieve whatever voltage is required and configured to fit any available space(s). The car will be designed around this battery module just as rifles are designed around existing ammunition. And don't forget recycling. The battery must be designed so that it is very easily recycled to get back the minerals in it. An alternate solution would be to adopt the battery of Project Better Place as they have already designed the battery exchange stations.

As soon as technically feasible, solar panels will be incorporated into the body of the car. Technology is being developed so that panels which are not co-linear can all contribute whatever amount of power they are producing to the total without the lower output panels interfering with the higher output panels. Prius has come out with a panel that fits on the roof, between the front and back window which is reputed to give an extra 10 to 15km per day in the sun. A fully clad car might give 30km extra. There is also technology developing which allow windows to produce power from the sun.

A Skunk works philosophy will be adapted in designing the car. The Skunk works is the aircraft design unit that brought us the U2, the Blackbird and the Stealth fighter bomber. Their philosophy is to take as much as they can off the shelf and only innovate where necessary to achieve the desired characteristics in the plane they are developing. In the case of the simple electric car the manufacturer will use the best paint package already developed for long lasting rust proofing, a tire rim size that is most common in the market, a standard socket for head lights, an existing bumper if a suitable one is available, well proven rack and pinion (not powered) steering gear and so forth. Through all the design, durability, range, cost, and ease of repair will be the major considerations. Actually it can all be boiled down to cost except here we are talking about cost in the long term; cost over the life of the car.

I wonder which car company will be the one to break ranks and give us the car we want. If it is an American company, the world is their market. If it is a Kiwi company, America and the world is our market.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Tanning leather with walnut husks

I have to say, right from the start, I know nothing about tanning hides. My boys bring skins home from time to time from rabbits, Tahr, deer and wild pigs. We have also had some skins from pigs we raise and even a few from an aborted ostrich venture. We have tried some of the methods such as baking soda and kerosine but that seems to me to be more perserving the hide rather than actually tanning it into leather. We have a Tahr skin on the floor done by the baking soda method but I suspect that if it ever got wet and the baking soda washed out of it, it would rot.

We have a large walnut tree which gives us 4 to 6 20litre buckets of walnuts each year and some 15 small trees that have been planted in various places. One year, we left a bucket of unshucked walnuts outside and it rained that night. When I poured the walnuts out on a flat surface to dry, the water was the colour of very strong tea. Tannin, I thought. Perhaps we can tan hides with that.

This year when we harvested the walnuts we kept the husks which had collected on the net and the husks which we had to peel from some of the shells. This husk is fleshy and green when the walnut is growing but by the time the walnut falls, the husk is black and papery.

At present we are in the middle of tanning a catle beast hide (cow for those of you north of the equator) and I will describe what we have done and what we do in the future as time goes on. No idea how it is going to work out so I'll add information as we go along.

We got the hide from a friend the day it was skinned from the cow. It had lots of fat and some meat on it and hair on the outside. One of my boys and I hung it over the rail of our trailer and started to flense it. I can't say we did a very good job. We got off pretty well all the meat but quite a bit of fat was left and I managed to make a couple of holes through the hide. I need much more practice.

I know Sodium Hydroxide (lye) is supposed to dissolve fat and loosen hair so we put 500g of lye into a bath tub out in a field, with enough water to cover the hide and we pushed the hide around in this solution. We left it there for 4 days, stirring it around a couple of times a day. The initially very flexible hide turned very stiff. After 4 days we turned the hide out on to a piece of ply wood, hair side up and started to scrape off the hair. We used a variety of tools, all dull, including a weeding tool that looks like an eskimo ulu on the end of a rake handle.

Once we had the hair off the hide, we put about 15kg of salt and two feed sacks of walnut husks into the bathtub with enough water to cover the hide. There were also a few handfuls of small walnuts that we hadn't bother to shuck. In went the hide and we stirred it around for a few days. My son decided that this was not a very convenient vessle for the purpose so he removed the top from an oak wine barrel and transferred the whole lot to the barrel. It was indeed much more convenient. Very easy to plunge and stir the whole lot with a stick.

After a few days, the hide started to turn brown with a lovely......well....walnut colour. Within two weeks the penetration was about a fifth of the way in (seen by cutting a sliver of hide off the edge. We decided to try something

On a fairly dry day, we pulled the hide out of the barrel and draped it over the barrel. The idea was to let it dry so that when the hide was put back, it would suck in more of the tannin. We will continue this way for a while, until the hide is brown through. It actually feels a little leather like already (wishful thinking?).

Latest development. My son made up a flensing rig. It is a 200mm diameter turned log of about 2m long with a couple of lets set into one end. The log thus sits with one end on the ground and the other end at about belly button level. He then sharpened a 40cm long mower blade along the edge. The hide is draped over the log, you lean against the upper end of the log and scrape away from yourself with the blade. Seems to work a treat. We are reflensing the cow hide and allowing it to dry somewhat as we do it. Where the leather is thin, it is dark brown all the way through. The rest is dark about a fifth of the way through. Will immerse it again in a couple of days and the dry leather should suck up more of the tanning liquor.Link