Saturday, October 10, 2009

Nissan Succumbs to Logic

Making the rounds on the web is a new Nissan Land Glider concept vehicle. My opinion is that this represents the first indication of a correct step towards a sustainable near-range vehicular platform from a major automobile manufacturer. Included with all the sites discussing it are a few pictures and the following video (which has a very interesting choice of music with what I'm quite certain is the avant-ambient work of Steve Roach):

Get more after the jump!

As I have alluded to previously, perhaps the main problem with the vehicles being presented as an indication of a sustainable future is the fact that they don't represent sustainable design. In other words, the Prius is not the vehicle of the future, the Prius is the same vehicle that's been around for the past century... with the addition of a second motor. There are lots of reasons being thrown around for we need a new kind of car, but simply enough the reason is because we're using too much gas, it's a simple logical proposition:

A. Cars use a lot of gas.
B. There is only so much gas.

Therefore, if we want to keep using cars, cars need to use less gas.

The argument can go into exhausting depth, but for simplicity lets just assume the conclusion that we want to use less gas. What is the easiest way to have a car that uses less gas? Clearly we should look at where the energy from gas goes when driving a car. Modern gas powered drivetrains get about 12 to 17% of the total energy in gas to the wheels, the rest is lost in heat, noise, friction, etc. before it even gets there. This seems like the obvious place to start the improvement, but it turns out that engineers have been trying to do this for decades--MIT has an internal combustion laboratory (side note: Click and Clack graduated from MIT), and if decades of work from people like MIT engineers hasn't made loads of progress, I think it's safe to say that there's probably not going to be any breakthrough in this area in the future. So, lets say 15% of the energy in gas is actually moving the car; now, the actual amount (instead of percentage) of energy used is dependent on the weight (actually mass) being moved. The 3rd generation Prius weighs 2,900 lbs and for the sake of round numbers we'll say the driver weighs 200 lbs, which means that of a total 3,100 lbs the driver is about 6.5%. Thus a (admittedly rough) estimate of the amount of energy from gasoline a Prius uses to move the driver is, drum roll... 0.97%. Perhaps you will think that this is an unfair analysis, that my numbers are all wrong. I don't mind, in fact, I encourage you to! I would love for somebody to put in the time to do a much better analysis and let me know the results. However, whether or not my exact numbers are correct is irrelevant. The point is that the energy used by a vehicle is a simple matter of how much it weighs, and hows this for shedding light on the situation: the new 4th generation Prius is 142 lbs heavier at 3,042 lbs, and I don't think that includes the added weight of the asinine solar panel. Thus, I submit that Toyota's efforts in sustainability are in gentle terms misleading and in less forgiving terms fraudulent. I will concede that the Prius is making advancements in drivetrain efficiency, but the essence of my pointed charge is that they aren't doing as much as could be done because efficiency gains from drivetrain improvements pale in comparison to simple weight reduction and increasing aerodynamics.

I'm going to get to the new Nissan momentarily, but lets revisit the numbers for a moment. Lets suppose that we did the same rough analysis on a much lighter vehicle that weighs 1,600 lbs (like the Smart Fortwo). Now, of the total 1,800 lbs, the driver is 11%, which means that 1.6% of the energy from gasoline is moving the driver. 1.6% still feels like an astonishingly small amount, but this number represents a vast improvement over the heavier vehicle. Enter the Nissan Land Glider concept: it's small, and it's probably aerodynamic. Given the seating arrangement, one behind the other, it's very skinny--only 3.6 feet wide. Imagine for a moment dividing every lane in half... talk about traffic improvements! A road with two lanes for travel and room for parking on both sides could host 6 lanes of travel and still have room for parking. Along with the typically limited information released with the concept is mention of crash-avoidance technology, which is another reason I consider this car a correct step towards a platform for the future. Indeed I really can't condone the idea of ultralight compact cars being driven by people, particularly those skinny enough to roll easily; the Land Glider handles this possibility with weight distribution, meaning it actually leans into turns. As all car afficionados of time past, I disdain the fact that this most likely will never see production, but nonetheless I am pleased to know that at least one major manufacturer is thinking clear and rationally about the future of transportation.

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