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January 28, 2015

Teaching Your Teen to Drive a Stick

Our car has what is still called "standard" drive (because auto transmission is really a luxury item). I bought it in large part because manual-transmission cars are more fuel efficient, and have a significantly smaller price tag, than cars with automatic transmission. I confess freely: the other part is prejudice on my side. I grew up in a place where the only people driving an automatic transmission cars were either handicapped or elderly. I'm not ready to fit in those categories, even if the classification is entirely in my own head.

There has been some grumbling on the part of CelloDad about that stick shift deal, but that's mostly because he learned to drive as an adult. In fact, I was the one who taught him to drive a stick, in a VW van with a very forgiving gear box. But he never did get to the point where shifting came naturally and without thinking. When we make the switch to an electric car, it will of course have no gear box. Until then, I am the family's designated driver.

But the upshot is that our children get to learn to drive in our standard drive car. This is great because that way they will never get stuck or - embarrassed - if they are required to drive one. For instance, when they need to drive most anywhere outside the US.

January 18, 2015

The EV chicken-and-egg problem has hatched several solutions

When automobiles first started to make roads noisy and dangerous, nobody had to worry about where they were to get the gas: of course you got it from your local gas station. People had not yet been bitten by the travel bug, and weren't used to straying that far from home. Besides, before the Interstate highway station was built it was nearly impossible to traverse the country in a car, anyway.

The advent of the electric car has seen a few road blocks, so to speak. Apart from the fact that better batteries urgently need to be invented, we have been bitten by the road trip bug, we do have a network of highways on which we can travel coast to coast, and we got used to traveling a few hundred miles to see friends and relatives over a weekend. And short of going around in circles in some remote area, we can be assured that we'll be able to fill up the tank. Because there is also a dense network of gas stations. You get used to it.

So an electric vehicle, or EV, that has a range of less than 100 miles is just not an impressive thing, especially if you can't be sure that you'll find a charging station once you get more than 50 miles away from your home charger. In fact, for many it's just not a practical thing.

Here is the conundrum: “Why would anyone buy an electric vehicle if there were no place to charge them? And why would you put chargers out there if there were no electric vehicles? Somebody had to blink.”

The quote is from Kent Rathwell. You can call him The Guy Who Blinked. Rathwell started providing chargers to whoever was interested: places like restaurants, hotels, and stores, through his company, Sun Country Highway (nearly eponymous with his other company, Sun Country Farms, which produces bird seed).

January 17, 2015

Turns out Americans ARE worried about global warming consequences - they just don't realise it.

The Pew Research Center has done a survey on what policy issues Americans think deserve top priority for the federal government. Respondents were asked to select one or more of 23 issues.

It is notable that 38% view global warming as a top priority, up from 29% only a year ago. The increase is indeed good news. But these numbers may be misleading (what is is they say about "lies, damned lies, and statistics"?)

December 23, 2014

The Car of the Future Comes to Singapore

Singapore seems to be a city-state of transportation legends: its trains are state of the art and run on time. More than that: they are free for early-bird commuters - in fact, better than free: if you come in before 7.45am your zero fare comes with a breakfast voucher.

This all makes sense if you consider Singapore's equally legendary commercial spirit: because nothing wastes time and money as traffic congestion. This is why Singapore has a strict cap on the number of personal cars.

But still they have congestion. So now they are considering the idea of inviting a new kind of legend onto their streets: the driverless car.


December 13, 2014

Bicycle Lanes in Cambridge

It's been quite some time since the fare was a quarter. But wandering the old haunts in Cambridge MA over Thanksgiving, I was pleased to find that the Number 1 bus still plies its route over Massachusetts Avenue, between Dudley Station and Harvard Square. The buses have been updated, and the fare column is now equiped with an RFID reader for the CharlieCard that gets you access to Boston's public transport network.

But what is new on Mass Ave is the bike lane that goes both sides along its length.

December 7, 2014

The Diesel to Electric Transition

Diesel engines pack a roaring fuel efficiency. Modern diesel engines, with a turbocharger at the front end and scrubbers at the tail end, pack much higher efficiency than gasoline engines, and are much cleaner than diesel-powered trucks of the past. But are they clean enough?

While modern diesel engines, both for personal and commercial vehicles, no longer spew out a cloud of black smoke wherever they go, they are not entirely "clean". The biggest problem is the small particles in their exhaust, that cause health issues in the lungs. The small particle (or PM2.5) pollution is much reduced with the use of "clean" diesel with very low sulfur content.

But where the sulfur content is high (China, India, Brazil outside the big cities) the use of diesel can still lead to severe smog and extreme particulate pollution. And even where the diesel fuel contains ultra-low concentrations of sulfur (US, Europe), very high densities of diesel vehicles can still cause problems.

December 3, 2014

Making Carbon Dioxide Visible

"If only you could see carbon dioxide," is the sigh often heard from climate activists. If carbon dioxide were not an odourless invisible gas, we would have started to curtail its emissions long ago. It is unfortunate that something so dangerous goes undetected by our human senses.

But what if you could see carbon dioxide? What if it had a colour, say pink, and you can watch pink clouds billowing out of factory stacks, chimneys and tail pipes? Gregg Kleiner has imagined just such a world in his children's book "Please don't paint our planet pink", that visualises the problem and - pardon the pun - paints a solution. (Book review by ClimateMama here).


Laurel Thompson's illustrations for this book may seem whimsical, but they are in fact close to reality.

November 26, 2014

Turkey Dealer

I'm on the road and see a VW dealer. There's snow in the forecast. I'm feeling generous toward my conveyance, so I decide to replace a wiper that has a loose patch of blade with a genuine VW part, from the VW dealer. So I pull into the dealership.


Photo by Ilya Plekhanov

I ask the way to the parts window - this is not the dealership near by me where I usually get my dealer business done - and wait a while. They have to page the clerk twice before he appears. I apologise for cutting into his lunch (it's 1.30pm) and he's gracious about it.

"What can I do for you, ma'am?"

"I just need a replacement wiper blade for my Golf."

"OK. Can I have your name and phone number?"

I blink.

November 20, 2014

Science on a T-shirt

Twitter can be extremely useful for many reasons. It can be a waste of time. It can be a fun waste of time!

My favourite hashtag this week is #scishirt. People post selfies of their science-themed T shirts. Some have institution's logos, often re-worked to get some effect. Some are funny. Some make you think, Oh God that's way over my head. But it's great to see how scientists are into their science.

Here's one for justifying slacking in the lab:

 

November 15, 2014

Tesla Taxis

What do you think of when you hear the word "Taxi"?

The answer depends on where you live. New Yorkers think Ford Crown Victoria painted in that iconic yellow. (So iconic, no privately owned car comes in that colour. Which is a pity, because it would make for a badly needed break from the reds, black&whites and blues on American streets).


Photo by David R. Tribble

London has its own iconic taxi, the FX4 with the cavernous passenger compartment that has plenty of space for luggage, baby stroller or cello. London's hackney cabs have recently abandoned the traditional black garb, and now come arrayed in a bewildering plethora of advertising graphics.

November 9, 2014

Average Work Commute Takes Six Weeks a Year

When I was growing up, we lived on the south side of Delft, a Dutch city of 100,000; my mom went to work on the north side, a 30-minute bike ride away, or 10 minutes by car if the weather was very bad. Her friends and acquaintances were always amazed: "You work all the way on the other side of town?"

But that was back when school children and working people still came home for lunch. If you lived 30 minutes from work, it would be hard to come home, have a decent lunch, and come back in the time normally allotted for lunch, about 90 minutes.

In places where workers don't come home for lunch, it turns out about half an hour is the average commuting time. This is true across the board in developed countries (including today's Netherlands).


Average commute times by zip code

This map shows the commute time in the US by zip code (a click on the map links to the interactive version). The countrywide average commute is - drumroll - 25 minutes.

October 29, 2014

The Price of a Prius

Cars are cheap in the US. I've said this before (and I will probably say it many more times). That's because, in the US, the price of a car is just that: the price of the car. The sales tax gets added on, but that varies from 7.5% (California) to nil (Alaska, Delaware, Montana, New Hampshire, Oregon).

I've compiled the list price of a basic Toyota Prius in selected countries. I've chosen the Prius because it is sold everywhere, with the same hybrid drive and engine size, and in much the same version - although it's always amusing to see the variations in the websites. Here's a screen shot from Toyota's Chinese website:

Yeah, I know: I don't read those kanji characters either. But there is a trick that makes it possible for English speakers to navigate websites that don't even use alphabets: my tips here.