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Is open source automotive engineering a possibility?

September 21, 2011

I heard a story this morning on NPR’s Morning Edition which piqued my interest.  General Motors and SAIC (Shanghai Automotive Industry Corporation, the large state-owned Chinese auto manufacturer) have formed a joint venture for the production of electric vehicles.

I did a bit of reading on the collaboration, including a Wall Street Journal article entitled “General Motors and SAIC Set Electric-Car Joint Venture“.  In short, their  goal is to develop a chassis which can be used as the basis for a variety of different vehicles,  manufactured by both GM and SAIC.

The joint venture is  interesting in its own right as an important development for electric vehicles, but since I’ve been looking at the open source hardware prototyping platform arduino and its varieties (particularly Teagueduino) I began wondering whether the production of electric automobiles might lend itself to open source.

Admittedly producing an automobile is much more capital intensive than producing a single board microcontroller, but there has been a serious hobbyist community of people converting ICE (Internal Combustion Engine) vehicles to electric for quite a few years, so a  base of experimenters is already there  (see the DIY Electric Car Forums).

Theoretically it could work the same as most other open source projects.  An individual or a  team would develop a set of plans for the basic system (chassis and drive train).    Anyone with the motivation and resources could download the plans, modify them, and build based on the plans.  Third parties could also manufacture and market complete cars, components, or kits based on the plans, or use the plans to build a single car for their own use.

I have no background in automotive engineering,  so the whole thing is just speculation and rumination on my part, but the vision  of  a subculture of aspiring open source Henry Fords building prototype electric vehicles in small shops  is very appealing.

Tiny houses, close proximity, and simplicity

September 20, 2011

Our houses are too big, we live too far from our neighbors, and we have too much generally useless junk in our lives.

We often think of energy use as a matter of technology. If energy becomes scarce or expensive, our impulse is to either throw existing technology at the problem (explore, drill, build) or to devise some new scheme for enabling us to consume the energy (fracking, deep water drilling, various alternative energy approaches). Sometimes the solution we imagine is more personal (“If I could just get this promotion I can afford to fill the tank of my new Ford Gargantua Mach 8, and pay my electric bill this month!”). But either way, it boils down to determining how we can continue to pursue our current lifestyle.

While the development of cleaner, cheaper, more sustainable energy is a worthwhile pursuit, there’s another, often more accessible approach to solving the energy crisis: use less energy.

There are a number of ways to lower our energy footprint. Some are habitual, like turning out lights, or combining errands. But the real savings would be in really examining the way we live. In general, in the U.S., our houses are too big, we accumulate too much stuff, and we are too far away from our neighbors, our workplaces, the places we shop, and the places we go for entertainment.

This is going to be a multi-part series, since it’s really three topics: house size, density and mix of land uses, and life simplification.  I’m going to  write one post in this series per week.

My  chain of reasoning is: If your house is smaller, there’s less space to heat, cool, and light.  If you live closer to your neighbors, workplace and shopping you consume less energy traveling from point to point. Having less stuff creates an energy savings on a number of fronts, from the energy used in the manufacture, to the energy used in running certain devices. Looping back to the first statement, fewer objects means the ability to live in a smaller space.

Of course there are downsides to small houses, close proximity, and simple living, which I’ll cover in future posts in the series.

But in the meantime, as a teaser, here are a few interesting websites:

Tiny house blog at is on the extreme of the small house frontier. While many of the houses featured would not be practical for most people, the photos and articles give a good sampling of what can be done with extremely small spaces.

Small House Style at is another good source of ideas.

For houses on the less extreme end, but still smaller than the McMansions which for a time dominated the new home market in the U.S., the Not So Big House site at, which features the series of books written by Sarah Susanka, is a good starting point.

As for the issue of compact living, in close proximity to neighbors and the various activities of life, the New Urbanist movement has been the most aggressive proponent of senser, more traditionally designed neighborhoods and living arrangements over the past couple of decades. There are hundreds of websites and blogs devoted to various aspects of this movement, but a good starting point is the website of the organization that began the current wave of interest, the Congress for the New Urbanism.

The simple living movement has become very popular over the past few years, and there are a number of approaches to life simplification and decluttering.

My favorite website in this category  is Leo Babauta’s Zen Habits at It’s a rich source of wisdom and inspiration on how to make your life less complicated and less cluttered. My favorite article on the site (and probably the one most relevant to this topic) is A Guide to Creating a Minimalist Home.

One of the more extreme approaches to simplification, at least in terms of reducing the sheer number of objects we own is the 100 Thing Challenge. The point of the challenge is exactly what it sounds like: to reduce  to 100 objects. When I heard about the challenge I started listing the items I considered essential, and passed the 100 mark very quickly. Despite this, if everyone could pare down to 100 objects (or even try to reach that goal), the energy savings would be enormous.

My next post in this series is going to explore house size in more detail.

Mixed messages, partisan noise, and solar energy

September 19, 2011

Since the bankruptcies of Solyndra, Evergreen Solar, and SpectraWatt, a great deal of prognostication on the future of the solar industry has broken out, in the media.  and in the halls of Congress.  In addition to legitimate technical and economic speculation on the short and long term viability of the growth of solar energy, the various American partisan noise machines have fired up.  On the downside, most of the cacophony is partisan noise, and purveyors of partisan noise don’t even particularly care whether the noise they are making is accurate, positive for the nation, or even particularly coherent.  On the positive side it’s given solar energy broader exposure and discussion than it’s received in decades.

There are legitimate questions involved in the handling of the Solyndra loan guarantees:

  1. Did Solyndra receive undue consideration because of political connections?
  2. Were there signs that Solyndra lacked viability as a business before the loan was issued?
  3. Did Solyndra present itself  in a fraudulent manner, beyond the normal wishful thinking of a startup company.

Since Solyndras guarantees only represent about 1.3% of the entire  program, it’s also worth figuring out if there are any companies remaining in the program which should not have been extended the loan guarantees.

But all that being said,  it shouldn’t be surprising that a startup solar company with unique technology failed.  Its failure isn’t even indicative of the success of the DOE’s loan guarantee program, since one of the reasons for the program was to make capital available for renewable, unconventional energy sources.  While solar energy represents a growing share of the world’s energy market, it’s still dwarfed by fossil fuels, and Solyndra’s technology was unconventional by any definition.  More to the point, new technology businesses usually fail.

So where does this leave the solar industry, both in the U.S. and worldwide?

IEEE’s publication Spectrum ran an article a few days ago expressing pessimism about the U.S. solar industry entitled “Solar Eclipse” .  Among other things it noted that the role of China in marketing cheap conventional polysilicon cells worldwide has made it difficult for more efficient competing technologies to gain market share (and advanced technologies are a strength of the U.S.),  that solar fares best in heavily subsidized environments such as New Jersey, and that First Solar, a relatively strong and stable U.S. company, is shifting some of its resources into project development and construction. It also noted that, given the infancy of solar as a large scale energy source, the industry is discovering some pretty basic facts, like the fact that the cells get dirty and have to be cleaned.

Despite all this, the solar market grew at an amazing rate of speed.

In 2010, the U.S. solar market grew 67%, making it the fastest growing component of the energy market.

Worldwide,  solar energy demand has been growing about 30% per year over the past 20 years.

Solar energy has some innate advantages which make the increased adoption of solar energy inevitable in the long run.  First of all, direct energy from the sun is ubiquitous.  It’s much more evenly distributed across the world than fossil fuels, and it doesn’t require the same sort of capital to extract as, say, oil, nor is there a lot of financially high risk exploration involved.    Solar energy does have to be harnessed and processed, but  it doesn’t require the preliminary steps of drilling or mining.  Consequently, it doesn’t involve  tearing up layers of the earth, or rearranging terrain in close proximity to water tables  and the level of risk to workers in the industry pales in comparison to coal mining, or working on an offshore oil platform.

Once in place, solar cells create no pollution, are durable and long lasting, and require relatively little maintenance.  While there is no such thing as a really “clean industry” (all manufacturing and installation industries have an environmental footprint) solar compares well against the alternatives.

So the question is not whether solar industry is going to be a major component in the future of energy.  The question is whether the U.S. is going to be a viable player in the solar economy.  If the political silliness around U.S. policy toward solar energy doesn’t subside, the answer might be a clear no.

Cheap microscope undermines Groucho Marx quip

September 18, 2011

One of my favorite Groucho Marx one-liners … well, actually it’s a two-liner … is

Outside of a dog, a book is a man’s best friend. Inside of a dog it’s too dark to read.

I’m not certain why anyone would want to read inside of a dog, but this article title from MIT’s Technology Review caught my eye: “Fingertip Microscope Can Peek Inside a Moving Animal.”

It seems that a team working on a neuroscience project at Stanford University has developed a tiny and inexpensive fluorescent microscope. The microscopes are mounted on the heads of rodents and other lab animals to examine the activities of brain cells as they go about their activities. I saw nothing in the article about reading inside of a dog, but I’m sure that feature is forthcoming.

The low price of this device was made possible by the falling price of miniature electronic components driven by the popularity of consumer electronics devices such as cell phones.

See, the millions of cell phone photos of young drunken bar and night club denizens festooning Facebook are serving a useful scientific purpose. I wonder if they’d be willing to have microscopes mounted on their heads while they party?

Thorium, Godzilla, and duck-and-cover

September 17, 2011

Even though I’ve been blogging  about energy issues I haven’t yet focused on the nuclear industry.  In fact, my typing finger memory tells me this post constitutes the first time I’ve hammered out the word “nuclear” in quite some time.

When I was child growing up in the 1950s and early 1960s the word “nuclear”  evoked mixed images, with Godzilla and “duck and cover” nuclear attack drills  on the one hand, and the shiny prospect of boundless energy for a Jetsons future on the other.  The succession of events over subsequent decades eroded the Jetsons visions pretty thoroughly.  Those events (and their attending cultural symbols) have included the Cuban missile crisis, Dr. Strangelove, Three Mile Island, Chernobylconcerns over the disposal of nuclear waste, Homer Simpson,  and more recently, the nuclear leak after the tsunami in Japan,  and the explosion in the French nuclear plant  [CORRECTION:  A reader pointed out to me that the explosion was not in a nuclear plant, but was in a waste storage facility — the explosion was an industrial accident, not a nuclear one]    So the popular image of nuclear power has become far removed from the optimistic visions of flying automobiles and boundless cheap energy of the 1950s.

Nevertheless, as I was browsing for technology and energy articles this morning, I ran across a blog entry on Forbes entitled “Is Thorium the Biggest Energy Breakthrough Since Fire?  Possibly“, written by William Pentland.

Thorium is an abundant radioactive material, which is being increasingly used as a nuclear fuel because of its abundance and relative safety (I say relative safety because, in powdered form, it can ignite spontaneously, and ingesting it can cause liver failure).  I can’t remember having heard of thorium before I read Mr. Pentland’s blog entry, but it evidently has boosters and enthusiasts worldwide.  Last week a thorium advocacy organization called the Weinberg Foundation was launched to promote the building of nuclear reactors based on thorium.

To be honest, I’ve always harbored a sort of vaguely hostile agnosticism toward the nuclear industry.  On the one hand the frequent disaster and mishaps,  and near disasters and near mishaps, combined with the difficulties of disposing of the waste,  have led me to the conclusion that there are much better prospects out there for our energy future.  On the other hand I’ve been repelled by the alarmist Luddism of many anti-nuclear activists, who not only want to halt the current generation of nuclear plants, but who often seem to want to block all research and consideration of uses of nuclear energy.

So what do I think about thorium?  I don’t know yet.  Skeptical alarm bells go off in my head whenever I hear or read enthusiastic advocacy for any solution to any problem (even when I’m generally attracted to that solution, as I am to solar power).  Every solution has its downsides, and the lack of a track record for thorium-based nuclear facilities  leads me to believe that the cheer-leading may be premature.  But given thorium’s evident advantage in safety over uranium it might be worth considering.

On the strong  plus side I haven’t seen any indication that thorium results in infestations of gigantic,  lumbering, bipedal, radiation-spewing lizards, so I guess we can all breathe easy in that respect.

Open source hardware and Teagueduino’s Kickstarter fundraiser

September 16, 2011

In the past I’ve contributed money to various projects hosted by Kickstarter, the site which raises seed money for projects via online contributions.  Consequently I get periodic emails from them outlining various fundraising efforts.

Today I received a Kickstarter appeal on behalf of  Teagueduino.  Teagueduino is an open source hardware project which provides a more beginner-friendly configuration and interface for the popular open source Arduino system.  Free and open source hardware is the lesser known cousin of the free software/open source  movement pioneered by the GNU project.  Open source hardware projects make the specifications, schematics, and controlling software freely available, giving developers and users the choice of purchasing the hardware from the original development team, purchasing it from a third party vendor, or just building it themselves from the schematics.

The Arduino system is a single board microcontroller, with a simple design, and a sizable development community.  Using Arduino does require, however, some experience with building electronic projects, or the willingness to put some time and effort into learning those building techniques.  Teagueduino describes their approach on their website:

Teagueduino is about making Arduino a whole lot easier:

1. There’s no soldering required. Inputs and outputs simply snap into place.
2. Realtime programming and feedback shows the effects of changes as they are made.
3. Simple, always-valid code creation means programs always runs.
At the point of this writing Teagueduino has exceeded the $22,000 target they hoped to achieve by October 6th, and already raised $44,013 in pledges.  I’m going to send them 20 bucks this evening, because it seems like a useful and interesting project.  If you have some spare cash, and want to support free and open source hardware, you may want to do the same.

The EIA — bottomless pit of fun facts and stats for the energy geek

September 15, 2011


The Energy Information Administration is a great source for U.S.  energy statistics and projections (and some international stats and projections).  One of the most useful resources they offer  for getting a rapid overview of facts and figures is a series called Energy in Brief, which is a collection of  short articles with charts and tables, each article  covering some aspect of energy usage.

The chart on the left was from a 2010 article in the series entitled What are the major sources and users of energy in the United States?.

The Energy Information Administration was established in 1977.  It’s part of the Department of Energy, but was set up to provide independent statistics, projections, and analysis,  free of political interference.

One thing I’ve discovered about their web site is that it’s a bottomless of fascinating information and tools for an energy geek.

Here are some of the articles in the Energy in Brief series:

How much of the world’s energy supply is generated from wind and who are the leading generators?

How old are US power plants?

What is shale gas and why is it important?

How dependent are we on foreign oil?

What is the role of coal in the United States?

Of course the Energy in Brief series isn’t  the only useful resource on the site.  There are data sets, full length reports, and tutorial articles.  All in all it’s a good first stop if you’re trying to get your head wrapped around an energy issue.