Over One-Zero-Zero mph

Brandon Nozaki Miller (who goes by “Electric Cowboy”) supposedly set some record for an electric motorcycle: 101.652 mph for the one-mile record, and 102.281 mph for a kilometer at the Bonneville Salt Flats, on his Zero S (ZF6 battery pack).

The trick is that this is in the under-150-kilograms class.  We know that the MotoCzysz, Lightning, and Brammo can beat 102 on a flat course, and probably the Agility.  Not to mention all manner of electric dragbikes.  Of course, they aren’t 150 kilograms, either- a good dragbike is probably closer to 250 kilograms, while the others might not stick to 200.

Aside from being ~300 pounds, the impressive part is that the Zero was essentially stock.  Sure, there were some mods- revised gearing of course, lightening trims, and the now-standard computer reprogramming.  The motor controller had mods, not something you’d see in a gasser.  But no real aerodynamic work.  Miller set his record on a street-styled bike, not a track-tested shape.  As I’ll post later, aerodynamics is the key…

Kickstarter now actually Picking Smarter

Last week, I noted why crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter aren’t cure-alls.  Not three days later, Kickstarter announces a policy change.  Donors will be told more clearly that the projects under discussion are ideas, not actual products (yet).  There’s a very real probability of losing your money, especially in the form of delays in development and delivery (thus costing you interest, opportunity, etc.).  Since Kickstarter tends to attract some futuristic ideas, it’s foolish to think they’re risks in the same class as mutual funds or mini-malls.

Clubbed to… Life?

Wow, club soda is actually good for you.

Just by virtue of not being loaded with sweeteners, club soda works.  Add a dash of alcohol to cap off your workday, or dinner, or night out, or whatever.  (A distilled alcohol usually gets rid of the aldehydes and ketones; a really good distillery gets rid of the propanols and butanols.)

But even on top of that, most club sodas contain potassium; few I’ve seen contain sodium, and one brags about being sodium-free.  People in industrialized countries (in particular Japan and the US) get too much sodium.  Way, WAY too much salt.  Fortunately, potassium does a good sodium impression in the body; consuming potassium thus helps the body deal with its sodium.  A few research results are now suggesting that, at least to a first approximation, sodium per se is not that bad.  What’s bad might turn out to be a sodium/potassium ratio that’s completely out of whack, due to industrialized food loading up on one but not the other.  I think it’s safe to say Americans aren’t giving up snacks and processed foods any time soon.

(Note that this does not hold for seltzer, which is usually bubbles only.  And especially not for tonic water, which was good for you at one point but is now just sweeteners.)

So you might want to try a “* and soda” next time at the bar.  Especially if it’s rinsing down bar food.

Charging, Part STFU

-See also Charging, Part I, Part II, and Part III

I bumped into someone who threw out that electric vehicles ‘just mean emissions somewhere else.’  Allow me to say “YOU ******* ********.”

The lie that EVs simply shift around pollution is a bumper-sticker talking point, or “truthiness”- it’s true because it sounds true, right?  And I really want to believe it.  So it’s true.  Really.  Really!

Now, how about some evidence, in the form of engineering data, test results, and decades of industry experience, verifiable by multiple outside reviewers?  How about three?

1.  Electric drivetrains are vastly more efficient than internal combustion.  An electric vehicle will put over 70%, possibly 80% of its electricity to the wheels, to actually move forward.  Diesel-cycle engines and transmissions are around 20% or so.  Gasoline?  Ha, 17% if you’re lucky, possibly as low as 14%. Electric motors alone are over 90% efficient, and in particular, their wide powerbands mean direct drive and little to no first-order transmission losses.  By contrast, a piston engine wastes a majority of the fuel’s possible energy content as heat losses, out the tailpipe or through the engine compartment.  And no, the heater only captures a small fraction, even if that actually counted.  And no, your manual transmission is still quite lossy; being better than an automatic isn’t saying much.

This is important, because as the last link in the chain, every loss in the vehicle increases demand and loss further up the chain.  Electric transmission lines are also about 80% efficient, but motor fuels are delivered via ships, pipelines,  heavy trucks, and station pumps.  Yes, pipelines consume energy; the drag along a significant pipeline soon becomes huge.  So we’ll call this one part a wash, percentage-wise.  But, since electric drive demands less energy to begin with, the loss due to lines and transformers is overall less than the fuel losses.

Then, further up the chain, large, stationary power plants are much more efficient than small, mobile devices.  In particular, vehicle engines must meet weight, producibility, reliability/maintenance, and powerband demands that are reduced or often nonexistent in power plants.  One of the benefits of a hybrid is that the piston engine can stay in a narrower rpm range more often, like a power plant.  A coal-fired plant, by contrast, can achieve 55-75% efficiency from its fuel energy, depending on how modern it is.

2.  And that’s even assuming your electricity comes 100% from coal– not a good bet.  Nationwide, only half of our electricity starts from coal; a quarter is nuclear, and has no smokestack.  After that comes either natural gas or hydroelectric dams, both much cleaner than small, cheap, seldom-serviced piston engines.

Regionally, it gets even better.  The Pacific Northwest into California has much hydropower, plus nuclear and wind.  They, along with New England, New York, and some of the Great Lakes states will also draw Canadian hydropower when needed.  (Quebec/Ontario and British Columbia are absolutely lousy with dams.)  Southern California to Texas has, as you’d expect, the most solar installations; Texas is a leading state for wind power.  Of course, Tennessee is the namesake of the TVA, a major hydro producer.

Even in the worst, high-coal areas, a grid-charged vehicle is still better than the average car.  You’d have to drive a gasoline car with better than 33 miles per gallon overall efficiency to beat an all-electric- do you?  The average consumer vehicle in 2011-2012 actually gets about 25 mpg overall.

State of Charge: EV Emissions and Savings

3.  And this is all assuming today’s power plants, not tomorrow’s energy sources.  Grid emissions are actually improving overall, even while nuclear is pretty much holding steady.

The largest increase in electrical generation is new wind turbines; wind is easily growing faster than any other source.  Both natural gas and solar have had major price breakthroughs in recent years, and are expanding; solar is expected to continue falling in price for years.  (In particular, solar panels operate close to the end users and reduce transmission losses.)  Large dams have not gained recently in the U.S., but are still being developed in Canada, to send us even more surplus.  Meanwhile, developers are seeking small-hydropower installations, including adding turbines to the thousands of inconspicuous dams that aren’t generating right now.  Coal is then shrinking as a percentage of the overall portfolio.

And before you say ‘the Sun doesn’t shine at night’ or ‘the wind doesn’t blow all the time,’ you’ve just pointed out that the Sun often shines when the wind isn’t blowing, and vice versa.  Meanwhile, hydropower, geothermal, and tidal help cover both.  Then add regionwide grid interconnections (with the regions being larger than storm fronts and weather systems), and highly-flexible natural-gas peakers.

Even old-fashioned coal ain’t so old fashioned.  As I mentioned above, a new coal plant is cleaner and more efficient than one from just a human generation ago.  Coal ain’t free, and plant operators want to wring out more watts per lump.  Mainly by tall, high-efficiency plumbing, but also by finding a few percent here, a percent there via computer analysis and optimization.  It’s also easier to add modern, efficient scrubbers to one plant, than to a million tailpipes, particularly when the plant is already being watched round-the-clock by on-site professionals.  A significant drive in the industry is simply closing those old power plants, and letting new ones fill in.

But hey, why not add 4.  Solar charging sites?  Like Kentucky, or Texas, Atlanta, or San Diego?  Or even cloudier places like New York or Maine?  Because it sounds fake, right?  I really don’t want to believe it.  So it’s fake.  Really.  Really!

Phone-ys, Part 1

It’s phone time here on the blog.  T-Mobile has shifted their ad strategy lately, to… motorcycles.  It all comes around, around here.

The T-Mobile brunette (now Carly Foulkes) started riding.  First, a Kawasaki literbike in print campaigns, then a Ducati in TV spots, both redone with T-Mobile magenta.  Fair enough.


Note, however, that the latest ad touts “35,000 towers.”  Impressive, right?  Not that much, actually.  First, note that there’s a lawyers’ loophole- it’s unclear from the ads that those 35,000 are all 4G technology.  Remember, there were “2.5G” and “3.5G” cellular protocols.  (This is all aside from the United States being on TDMA/CDMA/whatever, instead of GSM like pretty much the rest of the planet.)  T-Mobile had to drop earlier claims that they had “America’s Largest 4G Network.”  They probably had the title legitimately, for a little while.  But AT&T and especially Verizon continued their rollouts, and made a lie out of that tagline in due time- a real big lie.  (More lawyer-ese: Carly Foulkes is actually Canadian.  Technically, that’s still North America.)

Second, there are a lot of ways to make a network- which is the whole point of a network.  So, how did T-Mobile make their network?  If you want to maximize short-term profit, you would build the fewest towers in the biggest downtown business districts, and ring up the Don Drapers of the world.  The losers (including Betty Draper) can then dial their rotary landlines for all you care.  Notice that every carrier has a huge West Virginia hole in their coverage maps, along with entire swaths of the Rockies and Great Plains.  Only after you hit the movers and shakers would you then expand.  But then you’d expand along highways, where those same movers and shakers might drive home, or to some mover/shaker event.

And yet, T-Mobile is supposedly in the worst shape of the US carriers.  Short-term profits are overrated in general, and especially when network effects are involved.  We are not talking widgets here, we’re talking, period, and that requires an infrastructure buildout.

I’m a former T-Mobile customer, and I had signed up with the understanding that I’d lose coverage outside of metro areas.  And inside of Sprint’s areas, let alone AT&T and Verizon’s.  T-Mobile also had merely average handsets, though being GSM you might find something niche and exotic if you really tried.  T-Mobile’s customer service was also weak.  Of course, in a quasi-competitive market (four competitors if you’re lucky?  Three good competitors?  Ha.) everyone’s customer service is bad, in a race to the bottom.  Customer service aside, I’m happy to be an ex-T-Mobile customer.  No motorcycle yet will change that.

Kickstarter = Slick Starter? Pick Smarter

Two things just happened: the XOXO Festival (celebrating new creative ventures, particularly ones crowdfunded like Kickstarter’s) and the one-year anniversary of Occupy Wall Street.

The two are definitely connected if you’re familiar.  Kickstarter and other crowdfunding mechanisms (IndieGoGo, RocketHub, Bandcamp/ArtistShare, etc.) serve as ways for people with ideas to meet people with money.  In the biggest one, Kickstarter, people with creative ventures raise money in small to large amounts from contributors via Kickstarter’s site.  In exchange for contributing seed money, the startup promises anything from an honorable mention, to keychains/T-shirts, to a finished electronic device, depending on contribution size.  Basically, it’s a way to appeal to people directly and bypass traditional banks, fund managers, and venture-capital groups- the very people Occupy Wall Street seeks to take down a notch for leading the financial crash.

I’m here to state that crowdfunding works in some cases, and might possibly take banks down a notch- but no more.  While I welcome new ideas, and new entrants into consolidated fields, there are significant limitations to the Kickstarter model.  It’s a start, but Wall Street ain’t kicked out yet, nor any time soon.

Kickstarter and similar groups only work with capital-seeking ventures that have mass appeal- consumer products, art pieces and performances, gadgets, public web sites, and similar.  Crowdfunding does not work with obscure subjects, like deep tech or ideas far-flung in schedule or geography.  Public appeals should stick to public subjects, and the number of people who “get” (or “grok”) extreme ultraviolet lithography or mining of undersea vents is not large.  The number who would, then, donate significantly is not that much larger than the investor community that already exists.  Venture capital works because the venture backers have the day job of getting into XUV or geothermal leaching or whatever- they are not dabblers.  There is future potential in crowdfunding, of course.  If the brand of “Kickstarter” or other, similar group got big enough, they could start sub-sites, each for a more involved topic like chip fabs, or deep-sea resources.  If you happen to be a geek for that discipline, you could then go one step deeper than the main Kickstarter field.  This necessarily means fewer donors than the main Kickstarter field, of course.

Kickstarter and similar groups almost always work with low- to moderate-sized investments.  Lots of people will trust ten to a hundred bucks to Kickstarter and its entrants.  How about four thousand, the size of a moderate stock trade?  How about twenty thousand, a good fraction of your entire portfolio?  How about millions, a starting point for a venture-capital firm or bank?  Yes, there are Kickstarter projects that broke a million, but these are the exception, not the rule.  You’re kidding yourself if you think you can build yourself a major factory (and fill it) via petty cash.  Supposedly, crowdfunding makes up for it with quantity- lots of average consumers compensate for each one donating a smaller sum.  But, as stated above, this then requires that the project have mass appeal… a lot of mass appeal, and publicity, and good will among that mass.  Good luck.

Again, there’s future potential.  Kickstarter can do deeper vouching of its member ventures.  It can stand by the credibility of experienced or well-thought-out projects, and actively weed out the riskier ones.  After all, a majority of Kickstarter projects run into speed bumps.  The crowd of donors would then feel better and donate higher antes.  But to do this, Kickstarter would need more expert staff (not cheap), a higher overhead cost and cut of the donations, and a narrower, less-risky and thus, less-exciting spread of projects.  A Kickstarter that looked too much like Fannie Mae would no longer be Kickstarter.

Kickstarter and many similar groups, then, exploit excitement- “sizzle” in marketing-speak.  Lots of perfectly worthwhile ventures lack sizzle- home construction, water and sewer infrastructure, agriculture and other commodities, to name just a few.  These fields will continue to be served by traditional finance- the big, old, boring banks and firms that have been present since forever, it seems.  Sometimes a day job, dull as it may be, has to get done, so you can play with your gadgets and art on the weekend.

Which is not to say weekends are worthless.  As I’ve mentioned, I have an MP3 player, and yet I still rack up CDs- CDs of music, CD-ROMs of computer backups, and software distributions from boring companies in boring offices.  Doesn’t mean MP3 players aren’t valid and valuable.  Similarly, I appreciate that Kickstarter exists, even if I haven’t donated, let alone made any profit.