WorldWideFuture Weblog

the future of education, politics, science and art

Shai Agassi…meet Zenn

I read with great interest the cover article “Driven” by Daniel Roth in Wired Magazine (16.09 Sept. 08, page 118). The cover says: The Future of the Electric Car” and that seems just about right. In the worldwide future, design is more than just coming up with a product or service. Design must consider the entire scope, enterprise and life cycle of a designed solution. A designer of a product or service must consider the entire enterprise, or how it connects with the entire infrastructure of society. Consider how the world has changed since Edison invented the light bulb: even improving on the original design (for example: compact fluorescents) brings about a whole new set of problems (questions about the actual lifespan, the use of dangerous chemicals, disposal, environmental costs of manufacturing vs. incandescence, the list goes on. (My quote from teaching design: Design is what you do when you don’t know the answer…or the question).

The electric car is a case in point. Zero emissions are a noble goal, but how much will that car cost the consumer, or the environment? What chemicals will have to dealt with in manufacture; or in disposal? What do you do when your battery quits taking a charge? How much will a replacement cost? How much will it cost to build the infrastructure to support electric cars? I really would like to know the answers to these questions, especially from GM, who has been advertising its ephemeral Chevrolet Volt for some time already as if it already exists.

Shai Agassi, a young entrepreneur, has come up with an idea for building a sustainable (key word!) business (Better Place): an electric network that will support a new age of smart electric cars. Agassi’s idea is that you essentially lease the car and battery, and pay for its use through metered electricity. (Like the free cell phone paid for by usage or, going way back to that prime example of Chris Anderson’s Zero Economy, the King Gillette’s disposable shaving blade). The benefits are that you don’t have to buy an expensive car or more importantly, an expensive battery that will need replacing after so many charges. The car is provided to you, you pay for it by paying for the consumable portion: the electricity. The company develops the charging stations and the retailing infrastructure. If you need a fresh battery for a long trip, you just go to the charging station where they swap in a new battery in 10 minutes. You don’t need to worry about the cost of ownership and replacing worn out batteries. You pay for what you use, which is the way everything should be.

The idea is there, and Roth’s story outlines the process Agassi has been going through in finding a place to do trials, and a manufacturer to produce the vehicles and stations. A single car has yet to be produced. Brought to my mind our own (Canada) home grown electric car that is sold through out the world by the Toronto based Zenn Electric Company. Seems to me Agassi, you have a solution…Zenn already has the cars, and better yet the world wide license to develop electric vehicles using EEStor’s innovative high capacity battery system (three times the storage capacity of lithium ion). And, Transport Canada has finally allowed (just barely…they do need a kick in the ass) the use of these cars here in Canada.

Zero Emissions No Noise

The Zenn: Zero Emissions No Noise

Agassi…meet Zenn. Is this the solution we have been waiting for?

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September 2, 2008 Posted by | Environment, future, transportation | , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Dreaming along Michigan’s Woodward Avenue

I just returned from the 14th annual Woodward Dream Cruise 2008 in Detroit Michigan. This is the largest celebration of car culture in the world, with two weeks of events leading to the 16 mile Saturday cruise down Woodward Ave. from Detroit to Pontiac Michigan. Over 1.4 million people lined the street to watch an estimated 30,000 cars go by and to take part in a wide variety of car culture events. This year we brought our 1991 Nissan Figaro, a Japanese import, into the heart of the American Motor City. I was looking forward to doing the cruise for quite a while. While every city has its “Woodward Avenue” (for me, from Windsor Ontario, the Canadian Motor City, it was Tecumseh Road), this one is special since it occurs where American automobile history began and was made.

Car fans lining Woodward Ave. Detroit Michigan August 16 2008

Car fans lining Woodward Ave. Detroit to Pontiac Michigan August 16 2008

I guess I was taking a chance bringing a Japanese import into the heart of a struggling Mecca of American iron. Only one person called me a traitor (!), but many, so many more were genuinely interested in this highly unusual car among unusual cars (unusual at least for us here in the middle of North America). People everywhere wanted to know…what is that? It was a great pleasure answering questions and posing for pictures. The reactions from people when they suddenly noticed it was right hand drive made the trip from Ottawa worthwhile.

My Nissan Figaro on Woodward

My Nissan Figaro on Woodward

My ride is a 1991 Nissan Figaro, one of only 20,000 made for the domestic Japanese market, and only made that one year. It is powered by a 75 bhp, 998cc 4 cylinder turbocharged engine, and gets about 38mpg or about 4-5L/100km. It is a one-of-a-kind design by the Pike Factory, a special design team at Nissan in the late 1980s – early 1990s. It is a retro styled car, based on 1950-1960s Italian and British sports cars. It was announced at the 1989 Tokyo Auto Show as “Back to the Future”, and you had to win a lottery to by one; 250,000 applied. To me it represents a very unique and radical exercise in small footprint automotive design, and it is a hit wherever it appears. I have taken it to many local auto shows, as well as MicroCarNorth in Orillia, Ontario; Boston for Gould’s Annual MicroCar Classic; and now the Detroit Woodward Dream Cruise.

Cruisin' the Dream Cruise 2008

Cruisin' the Dream Cruise 2008

While I was always interested in cars, I got interested in small footprint micro and mini cars after seeing some of them at our Ministry of Transportation’s fuel economy test facility in Ottawa. The facility had examples of Smart Cars (including a four seater!), various diesel and ethanol cars, and more importantly, a Honda Beat and some Japanese micro-trucks. There is so much more going on in the Orient and Europe in regards to high mileage and economic vehicles. I think that small footprint cars represent the future, and there is something to be said for doing more with less when it comes to engineering and innovation.

One of 30,000 cars along Woodward

One of 30,000 cars along Woodward

What does the Dream Cruise represent to the world wide future? In order to understand the future, we all know one must study the past, and the present. It was fascinating to see 100 years of history represented by the cars burbling along Woodward, both lovingly restored or customized. It was also fascinating to see the interest the automobile has on us here in North America, and it was most interesting to see the workmanship and pride of ownership of engineered machines represented along Woodward. It might be big business and big engineering that produce the vehicles, but the automobile truly comes alive when an individual customizes, restores or resurrects the machine. The automobile, though a mass market machine, represents the individual and individual freedom when put in the hands of the automobile enthusiast. Despite the rational arguments from mass transportation supporters, the automobile will never lose its appeal, and with some real innovation and futurethink, has an important place in the future.

SpongeBob surfin' Woodward

SpongeBob surfin' Woodward

What will become of the automobile in the future? For one thing, I don’t think the love of machines and of history will ever leave us. I don’t think that the lessons in innovation and engineering represented by the automobile will ever disappear. There is a direct link from Henry Ford’s 1908 assembly line to every device we now use, and will use in the future. Perhaps some of the future engineers who will design the 21st century were sitting there along the curb of Woodward Avenue, holding on to their Hot Wheels or dolls, waving to the men and women in their machines, dreaming of the day they too will have the opportunity to drive their passion down that long stretch of road.

More Dream Cruise Info:

Official Site for Woodward Dream Cruise

Detroit Free Press coverage

AutoBlog pictures

Keegy Canada coverage

My images at the photowagon

Fotos by Design Images of the cruise (with my Figaro in the lineup)

August 21, 2008 Posted by | education, future, transportation | , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Smaller is in!

I have just posted my images of the 2008 MicroCarNorth and Gould’s MicroCar events on my photographic website at photowagon.ca, under Automotive World. Both events are where micro and mini car enthusiasts gather to celebrate their passion for these tiny orphaned cars…MicroCarNorth is held in Coldwater, Ontario, Canada and Gould’s annual event is held in Newton, Massachusetts (outside of Boston).

The Nash Metropolitan...what is not to like?

The Nash Metropolitan...what is not to like?

I am quite enamored now by the engineering aspects of micro and mini cars, and of the people who lovingly restore and maintain these orphans of the automotive world. There is a lot to be said of the future of transportation demonstrated by these cars in the past.

Jeff Upton's Messerschmitt...a post war beauty

Jeff Upton's Messerschmitt...a post war beauty

The media is filled with stories now about the rapidly diminishing business for the auto giants such as GM, Ford, Chrysler, etc. as consumers realize that oil is becoming a precious commodity in a rapidly expanding global marketplace. It is not a new story of course; witness the 1930s depression, the early postwar years in Europe and even the 1970s oil crises. What does the worldwide future hold? More people, rising global middle class, growing need for more oil can spell only one thing: the future is smaller.


The 1958 Heinkel...beautiful example of the "bubble car"

The 1958 Heinkel...beautiful example of the "bubble car"

We here in North America of course have been pretty pampered by cheap gas. Most of us here can’t imagine what it has been like to live in Europe where gas has been much more expensive than we have been griping about. Many are oblivious to the changes in lifestyle that are about to slam us here. Already we have been experiencing the closing of plants and laying off of workers in the auto industry, as consumers begin to realize they need to abandon the 2-3 ton vehicles they are using to go to the convenience store. Of course, the auto industry has always experienced boom and bust cycling. I can attest to the cyclic nature of the auto industry as a previous autoworker myself (Chrysler Engine plant in Windsor Ontario, Canada’s Motor City across from Detroit). Back in the early 1970s I remember the farmers fields around the city filling with unsold cars. I never knew what became of those cars, (I heard they were shipped offshore) but what a symbol of excess and consumerism. The changing business model is as interesting…can’t sell big cars or trucks anymore, used prices dropping, profit margins skydiving. There must be a limit to growth, and eventually western consumers will be pitted against the growing middle class in Asia for limited resources. Perhaps this is where the rubber meets the road, so to speak. With the successful introduction of the Smart Car in the US, the impending flood of Nanos in India, and finally an announcement that low speed electric vehicles will be allowed in Canada (albeit with too many restrictions), we may be seeing a resurgence of the small car. Perhaps we will also see a resurgence of interesting engineering demonstrated by yesteryear’s microcar.


The Vespa 400, an image of the future?

The Vespa 400, an image of the future?

The microcar is generally a vehicle built in the years from the 1930s to 1960s with three or four wheels, with small single to four cylinder engines (some from motorcycles), with the overriding effort being to make cheaply to allow more consumers with limited budgets to obtain basic transportation. They were made in response to the Depression or in post war Europe where resources were difficult to obtain and fuel and taxes were excessively expensive to most. Nowadays, these cars are popular with car fanatics who like the contrarian, or quirky nature of these machines. Perhaps cars like the BMW Isetta or the Messerschmitt KR200 or the Fiat 500 or Bond Bug will give us a view into the future.


My own 1991 Nissan Figaro...back to the future from Japan!

My own 1991 Nissan Figaro...back to the future from Japan!

The Bruce Weiner Museum has a great web presence listing many of these totally unique cars (the Peterson Museum in LA has a good description too). They are quite the sight on roads these days, especially now amongst the bland rolling boxes of today. It must have been quite a sight to see the streets filled with these things, as some folks have described to me. While they might not have the safety crash protection or the emissions standards we have legislated today, the lesson is that you don’t need much to get form A to B, really. Ralph Ranalli from the Boston Globe got it; he explains in his report of the Gould’s MicroCar Event in Newton Massachusetts that “mini and microcars might actually be relevant again in the once-SUV-crazed US”. He describes the Gould’s meet as “rare chance to glimpse both the past and the future in one place”.


A Fiat 500 taxi anyone?

A Fiat 500 taxi anyone?

The ingenuity shown by these vintage cars is outstanding. What do we see today but each car virtually indistinguishable from each other. We see bloated sheet metal and plastic overpowered engines. Imagine, someone thought a BMW or a Mercedes SUV was a good idea! Nothing uglier. You ride in today’s cars, not drive. I am not saying that the vintage microcars are better than today’s, but when you drive something different, everyone else is just a citizen.

An Isetta, Bantam and Figaro at Gould's MicroCar in Netwon Mass.

An Isetta, Bantam and Figaro at Gould's MicroCar in Newton Mass.

What are the lessons we need to teach our youth? We need to teach them about ingenuity and engineering design focused on practical application of ideas to solve problems, not cosmetic design. We need to teach them that their world will require innovative thinking and unique solutions. We need to teach them enjoyable ways to solve engineering challenges. The world wide future is smaller, in more ways than one. And that will be a good thing.

(For more info on microcars, check out the Vintage MicroCar Club, Gould’s Bubbledrome, and Ralph Hough’s MicroCarNorth.)

August 8, 2008 Posted by | education, Environment, future, transportation | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Zenn and the art of motor vehicle ownership

I just returned from the 13th annual Gould’s Micro Car Classic in Newton Mass., and it was a blast. We drove our 1991 Nissan Figaro down from Ottawa Ontario, about a 7-1/2 drive. My Figaro is not quite a microcar, but it is a minicar, powered by a one litre turbo. The Nissan Figaro was a one-off creation by the Pike Factory, a design division of Nissan, who created four different retro styled vehicles based on the dimunitive Micra platform. I always wanted something unique to drive, and this JDM (Japanese Domestic Market) car is about unique in these here parts as you can get. The looks on people are wonderful to behold, and I have met many people who just have to come by and ask “what is that?!”

My Nissan figaro

My Nissan Figaro

Now even though the Figaro is unique, the MicroCar classic is quite a collection of unique vehicles. One has to be amazed at the engineering represented by these vintage cars, typically made from the 1930s up to present day (in the form of the Smart car or Mini-Cooper, though the majority was made from 1930s to 1960s). From Messerschmitts to Bantams to Goggomobiles to Isettas, these cars represent a time where affordability and gas mileage were the critical criteria. Sounds an awful like what we need to consider today. While you can’t say that some of these machines are easy on the environment, I think they do represent the world wide future. Consider…what do we really need to move about town, two tons of steel and a massive V8 engine or a small footprint automobile that gets 50mpg (2l/100km)?

A Messerschmitt and BMW Isetta

A Messerschmitt (fr) and BMW Isetta

There are many things to consider safety wise but I have a feeling that current regulations represent a massive hurdle to fostering innovation and allow for cheaper and greener alternatives. Consider that here in Canada we have the innovative Zenn Corporation (among others), building all electric vehicles for low speed inner city transportation. However, Transport Canada regulations prevent these from being sold in Canada! They are sold all over the world except for here in our own country. It is time to change regulations and breed innovation, because these times call for new ideas and radical departures from the way things were. The amount of testing that is currently required stops all but big money from getting into the market. Importation rules like an age limit (15 years or older in Canada, 25 years or older in the US for example) needs to change to allow importation of specialty cars (read green cars) for individual use.

I think that the Brand Credo from Zenn says it all:

Since we first began to walk, we have loved the feeling of movement.
To get around and see the world.
To be free.
Cars have given us mobility.
But with the heavy costs of pollution and oil dependency.
ZENN is about returning to the purity of that original feeling.
ZENN may look like a car, but it refuses to act like one.
You’ll experience the simple joy of moving freely.
With silent, exhilarating acceleration
ZENN will quietly change the way you think about getting from A to B.
The air is clean and your conscience is clear.
ZENN is a car that, while it runs on electricity, is fueled by optimism,
The belief that individuals can make a difference,
That we can do better.
ZENN is enlightened mobility

A call to arms perhaps, time for the people to demand that innovation be rewarded, that special rules make it allowable to try greener alternatives. On the education front, it would be ideal if more corporation and government help be offered to high schools and post secondary institutions to help boost engineering projects related to futurethink transportation. There are a number of interesting projects such as solar or electric car races that will no doubt bring some answers to the question of how we will move around in the future.

I have seen the future, and it is smaller.
-M.Scott 2008

July 16, 2008 Posted by | education | , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment