Ride to Sustain: Kindness of Strangers & Automotive Tech

We passed 3,000 miles yesterday! If we had the good sense to travel across the country in a straight line, we'd be done by now. But fortunately for us, common sense has seldom entered the equation on this trip and we have nearly 1,000 miles left to go. Also yesterday, my derailleur which was knocked off kilter during my fall near Chicago ripped off my bike last night about 20 miles from our destination. We flagged down a minivan; Mike was on his way home from work - he makes padded cells for insane asylums... sounds like a fun job. We managed to stuff everything in the van... except my broken bike.

He suggested that I just hold it out the window, which I laughed off until I realized it was the only way I was getting where I needed to go without a seven hour walk. So I got in the front seat, and lifted my bike with one hand so it rested partly on my shoulder and partly in my hand and off we went. After about two minutes it felt like my arm was going to tear off, but with lots of grunting and funny faces I managed to keep it together for the half hour ride. You would not believe the expressions on the faces of drivers we passed. I didn't think it was too funny at the time, but Jon got a good laugh while filming the process. When we got to a motel, we realized I had scratched the hell out of Mike's van. I felt terrible, but he assured me it was a rental and he had purchased insurance so there was no issue at all. He wouldn't even let us buy him dinner. The bike shop in the town we wound up in said they could do nothing to fix my bike and I was out of luck until Pittsburgh, PA where I have interviews lined up for Thursday and Friday; more than 100 miles away. So we wandered back to the highway to hitch hike the rest of the way to Pittsburgh. This time we were not so lucky. For the first three hours no one stopped except a couple nice people with small cars who weren't even heading in the right direction. Finally a state trooper arrived to inform us that hitch hiking is illegal in Ohio... crap. We explained our situation and he suggested we try AAA, and get the hell off the highway before he had to fine and/or arrest us. Not a bad idea, I have my AAA card with me, so I phoned in a report that my car had broken down... they sent a very surprised tow truck driver; Daryl, who ended up being a good sport. He hauled us and our bikes all the way to Pennsylvania. Daryl refused any cash, dinner, etc. saying a thank you was all he wanted.... There are some great people out there. Back in Detroit, I spent Friday at the Ford plant while Jon and John slept off hangovers. John Viera; director of sustainable business strategies organized quite a day for me. First we sat down to talk about Ford's sustainability initiatives and the recent federal ruling on states' ability to regulate fuel economy. John was adamant that Ford was not opposed to increased CAFE (Corporate Average Fuel Economy) standards, but that they would have to come on a federal level, so car companies weren't held to different standards in different states. The obvious question is why not just treat the most ambitious state regulations as if they were federal standards? I also got to speak with engineers about hydrogen, hybrids, hydrogen hybrids, ethanol, and more. I even got to drive a couple of hydrogen powered vehicles, one fuel cell and one internal combustion engine. While it's all fresh in my mind; lets talk automotive technology, because the automotive industry is going to be one of the hardest pressed sections of the economy to reach 80% emissions reductions in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, as is quickly becoming the universal goal of environmentally conscious industry: Gas/Electric Hybrids: These hybrids are the Toyota Priuses you see on the road today; they use a combination of a smaller traditional internal combustion gasoline engine (ICE), a large battery and electric motor to increase fuel economy. They yield the greatest advantage over traditional ICEs in stop and go city driving. This is because the electric motor; the more efficient driving force is the sole source of power only when moving under 30mph. More info here. Plug in Hybrids: The only plug in hybrids you will see on the road today are concept cars or specially converted Priuses. The concept is simple; you have a typical hybrid car as mentioned above, but you can use the electricity from the grid to charge your even larger battery. A few small firms that have converted showroom Priuses to plug-ins have done so by removing the car's nickel metal battery and replacing it with a lithium ion battery, twice as powerful as the original. But some lithium ion batteries, particularly those used in laptop computers, have overheated and caught fire. Toyota's experimental hybrids will simply add a second nickel metal battery. This battery covers the first 40-60 miles the car drives after a charge without using any liquid fuel, and considering the average person drives less than 30 miles per day this could largely eliminate the need for gasoline in daily automotive transport, while maintaining the capability to take long trips. This is only environmentally advantageous if our electricity is coming from clean sources, however even when your electricity comes from a coal fired generator, you still break even with gasoline in net emissions. These cars are a logical and simple next step in automotive evolution and hopefully we will see them rolling out in the next couple years. Many are, in addition, looking to see Plug in Hybrids used in combination with personal solar devices. Hydrogen Cars Hydrogen powered cars are currently seen as the holy grail of automotive technology. Years from commercial production, these cars can use either a fuel cell or internal combustion engine to use hydrogen gas as a fuel. The process is highly efficient and directly produces virtually no greenhouse gas emissions. However there are some huge hurdles to overcome in creating a clean hydrogen fuel economy. First off, hydrogen gas does not occur naturally like coal, gas or oil. We have to get it from somewhere. In an ideal world we would use electricity to split water into hydrogen and oxygen gas -a process called hydrolysis. This simple and commercially available technology is used to create less than 15% of hydrogen gas for commercial use. Instead we 'reform' fossil fuels. Oil and natural gas contain hydrocarbons -- molecules consisting of hydrogen and carbon. Using a device called a reformer, you can split the hydrogen off the carbon in a hydrocarbon relatively easily and then use the hydrogen. You discard the leftover carbon to the atmosphere as carbon dioxide. The obvious drawback is that this process creates a clean fuel in a dirty way, emitting large quantities of carbon dioxide. The advantage and reason it supplies the bulk of hydrogen fuel is that natural gas is still cheap. Once you have your hydrogen you face a whole different set of issues. Hydrogen is a highly diffuse gas, so it has to be compressed (200-350x atmospheric pressure) to be used as an automotive fuel or stored as a liquid. To make hydrogen a liquid you have to cool it to 20.27 K (-423.17°F/-252.87°C), a process that requires 40% of the embodied energy in the fuel. Then you have to transport the hydrogen to a place where it can be distributed, either by truck or pipeline. The gas station must have suitable facilities to store and distribute hydrogen; pressurized or cryogenic storage tanks, pumps, etc. While not impossible, we are a long way from a hydrogen economy. So for the time being here is where I propose we concentrate our efforts to reduce the ecological imprint of our daily transportation: For some people living in highly urban areas with access to good public transport, who own a car just so that they have access to one on the rare occasions they need one; there is a great potential for programs like ZipCar and other community use vehicles. You pay a monthly or per-use fee to have access to a car whenever you need one; it's a great way to knock down the number of cars we produce. For those of us who need a car more regularly, the first and most obvious step is just getting the most fuel efficient cars for our needs. This does NOT mean throw out a perfectly good vehicle to get a more fuel efficient one, the embodied energy in your three year old car is much greater than what you'll save in the next few years driving a Prius. But when you need to replace an aged vehicle, really think about what you need: if you are getting an SUV because twice a year you take your boat on vacation, smack your face against a wall until you remember a friend with a truck you can borrow for those odd occasions, there are plenty out there. Live near where you work or work near where you live; no don't pick up and move today, but make it a life strategy and a primary factor next time you move or switch jobs. It will save you so many hours of transit over the course of your life, so why not do it? Just think if you have 1 hour of driving per day, 5 days a week, 48 weeks a year, 30 years in a career; that's 7,200 hundred hours, 300 DAYS of your life you could save of needless driving. Use public transport, walk, or my personal favorite alternative - bike to work and around town. It saves you money, gets you in shape, and helps you to meet new people. Take less vacations, but make them longer... save the extra flying or driving and the subsequent ecological footprint and just make it two weeks on the beach instead of one week on two beaches. There are so many opportunities to make little changes, and added up over your life, it makes an enormous difference. Further Reading:

Note: Interview/itinerary suggestions for the trip can be emailed to me.

Ride To Sustain will pass through the following cities: San Francisco, CA – Sacramento, CA – Reno, NV – Salt Lake City, UT – Denver, CO – Omaha, NB – Des Moines, IA – Chicago, IL – Detroit, MI – Cleveland, OH – Pittsburgh, PA – Washington, DC – Philadelphia, PA – New York City, NY – Hartford, CT – Boston, MA


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  • Posted on Sept. 22, 2007. Listed in:

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