Innovators press to perfect alternative fuel sources - Your West Valley News: Columns

Innovators press to perfect alternative fuel sources

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David Fidelman

Posted: Tuesday, November 13, 2012 11:19 am

One of the big issues in the recent election was independence from foreign sources of oil.

Forty percent of our oil is used by passenger cars, which are so vital to our society. In view of the fact that, no matter how many new oil fields we discover, the total amount of oil on earth is limited and will eventually run out, we should consider what will fuel the car of the future, and  what the car of the future will be like.

Every year the automobile manufacturers come out with innovations that boggle the mind, and make you want to immediately trade in your last year’s model for a new one. Automobiles now have rear-view TV cameras to help you back up safely, warnings when a car is in your blind spot, built-in GPS satellite tracking systems that will even unlock the doors if you locked your keys inside and summon help for you if you need it.

They can parallel park themselves, and Google has already demonstrated a car that drives itself. And, of course, the manufacturers claim vastly improved performance, mileage and reliability.

A factor to consider in the improvement of the automobile is that that there were some great ideas in the past that were impractical at the time, but which are feasible today because of new technology.

Leonardo da Vinci invented an airplane, but certainly couldn’t build one in his day.

In the early 20th century the largest carmaker in the United States manufactured an electric car. It went out of business for financial reasons, and the idea of the electric car was dormant until relatively recently.

Even today, the electric car won’t really take off until there are improvements in battery technology to enable them to hold enough energy to match the long trips that can be attained by gasoline-driven vehicles.

Hybrids seem to be the best compromise right now, combining the advantages of the electric vehicle with the driving range of the gasoline engine, but there may be several alternatives in the future.

Natural gas and hydrogen are two possible fuels for automobiles in the future. Natural gas is plentiful, cheap and less polluting than gasoline, and is replacing coal in electric power generating stations, but neither of them approaches the energy content of gasoline.

There’s also a tongue-in-cheek suggestion about the use of nuclear energy for automobiles — when the car rusts out, bury the fuel canister in the back yard, to provide 50 years of heat and hot water, or under the driveway to melt snow.

Another automotive concept from the past that may come back some day is in the field of all-terrain vehicles. We think of them as driving in the desert or on rough terrain in the backwoods, but how about in the water?

In the 1960s a German company made a splash with the Amphicar, a vehicle which could navigate on the road and in the water.

Altogether the company made about 4,000 of them, and they’re prized and preserved by collectors.

In 1965 two Amphicars successfully navigated the Yukon River in Alaska, in 1968 two crossed the English Channel enduring 20-foot waves and gale-force winds, in the late 1970s an Amphicar made the crossing from the mainland to Catalina Island.

President Lyndon Johnson owned an Amphicar, and liked to scare new visitors to his ranch by driving them downhill in it and into his property’s lake. It wouldn’t be too outlandish to see its revival sometime in the future.

A couple of years ago Google demonstrated a computer-operated automobile that drove itself in traffic. Seven test cars were driven more than 1,000 miles without human intervention, and over 140,000 miles with only occasional human control.

The automobiles were equipped with a variety of sensors, the routes were programmed into a GPS navigation system, and built-in artificial intelligence software imitated the decisions that would be made by a human driver.

According to Google engineers, the automobiles react faster than humans, do not get distracted, sleepy or intoxicated, and do not text or talk on cell phones.

With a self-driving car, you’ll be able to read the newspaper, watch the morning news, or set up your day’s appointments during your daily commute to work, and relax with a glass of wine on the way home.

Parents won’t be needed to take children to violin lessons or soccer practice on weekends.

Cars that drive themselves will be especially useful in senior communities, where so many older drivers have given up their licenses because they can no longer drive safely, and many who should have given up their licenses still drive. A self-driving car would make these people mobile again without the need for taxis or carpools.

There are a couple of problems associated with self-drive cars. There should be a capable driver at the controls, in the rare possibility that anything should go wrong. Also, suppose that, due to some minor malfunction of the computer, the vehicle breaks the law in some way — by going through a stop sign or red light, exceeding the speed limit, or some other infraction.

Who gets the ticket. The occupant, the manufacturer, or perhaps the computer itself?

David Fidelman is a retired physicist living in Sun City West.

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