With the announcement of the list price for the Chevy Volt ($41,000 before tax breaks), the time has never been better to constructively talk about the electric infrastructure that will fuel the Volt and the electric cars of the future.  The Volt joins other mass-produced electric models that are starting to hit the market, including the Nissan Leaf and the Tesla.

What makes the electric car so tantalizing is that it can run on clean energy, and be responsible for far fewer emissions than traditional gas-powered vehicles.  The electricity that we use to power electric cars could come from wind, solar, hydroelectric, or nuclear energy, and never make a substantial contribution to carbon emissions.  Even if the electricity comes from coil and gas power plants, it is still more environmentally friendly than combustion engines, because centrally-generated power is more efficient.

While the question of where we will fuel these cars is tantamount, the question all-too-often glossed over is how to best fuel these cars.  We can measure fuel efficiency for gas-powered vehicles only by miles per gallon.  However, the electric car’s efficiency can be measured not only by how many miles it travels per volt, but also how efficient it is at utilizing the electric grid from which it receives its charge.

The idea for a smart charge has been formally proposed on General Electric’s Ecomagination Challenge, which is a $200 million competition to find the best new ideas on how to create, connect, and use a better electric grid.

“Charging electric cars at night is cheaper and cleaner than during the day because energy demand is lower. But what if you drive more in a day than your battery’s range? Software anticipates when you need power based on your driving habits and manages recharging.”

I encourage all of my readers to both check out the ideas and vote for this particular one because it exemplifies the ideals of the Transit Pass (registration and voting will take approximately 1 minute total).

A number of products already allow consumers and property owners to observe their electricity and other utility usage.  However, while these products may help people and institutions lower usage, they do not help advance efficient use.  The proposed idea would allow car users to fuel their cars most efficiently.

The software would help car users to fuel their cars at times when energy demand is lowest (typically at certain times at night) as well as how to make the most of mid-day re-charges.  This would be a boon both to the consumer as well as our overall energy use and overtaxed grid.  By charging when overall electricity demand is lowest, it takes some pressure off the grid during the day and allows electric companies to generate kilowatts on a more consistent basis over time.

This is important not only to the individual electric car owner but also to institutional users such as car-sharing services like Zipcar and fleet owners who could implement electric vehicles such as the postal service and other delivery companies, police departments, taxi services, and other governmental entities.

Companies and drivers would benefit from the device as they could potentially re-charge at a a cheaper price if kilowatt usage is based on time and demand.  Likewise, utility providers benefit from insuring that their grid will not be swamped at the worst times of day.

Again, I encourage you all to vote for a great idea.  It is a small device that could have a big impact on the success of America’s utilization of electric vehicles, the diminishing demand for foreign oil, and a way of insuring that our fragile electric grid not only stays safe, but potentially improves.

velib

In Friday’s New York Times was an article about the French bicycle renting system, Velib’.  I was disappointed to learn that the system is being plagued by vandalism and theft.  According to the article, the bike-renting service provides 50,000 to 150,000 rides per day.  However, 80% of the original 20,600 bicycles have been stolen or damaged.  Much of the crime has to do with Paris’s social inequalities and perceived economic and class dynamics of the transportation mode.

The heavy, sandy-bronze Vélib’ bicycles are seen as an accoutrement of the “bobos,” or “bourgeois-bohèmes,” the trendy urban middle class, and they stir resentment and covetousness. They are often being vandalized in a socially divided Paris by resentful, angry or anarchic youth, the police and sociologists say.

Bruno Marzloff, a sociologist who specializes in transportation, said, “One must relate this to other incivilities, and especially the burning of cars,” referring to gangs of immigrant youths burning cars during riots in the suburbs in 2005.

He said he believed there was social revolt behind Vélib’ vandalism, especially for suburban residents, many of them poor immigrants who feel excluded from the glamorous side of Paris.

“It is an outcry, a form of rebellion; this violence is not gratuitous,” Mr. Marzloff said. “There is an element of negligence that means, ‘We don’t have the right to mobility like other people, to get to Paris it’s a huge pain, we don’t have cars, and when we do, it’s too expensive and too far.’ ”

The Velib’ has expanded beyond the Parisian urban core to 29 other towns and suburbs.  I hope that there are solutions to the problems the Velib’ faces in Paris, because I would love this to be a viable model for other cities and towns around the world, and especially in the US.

While Paris requires a credit card to borrow a bicycle and fines individuals for not returning bikes perhaps they should consider making users better internalize the costs true to form of most car rental systems, including Zipcar.  When you rent a car you can frequently choose to forgo paying for insurance, but most drivers purchase it in case of an accident.  Perhaps Velib’ should make riders pay more for the costs of damage and stolen bicycles and offer insurance to cover such costs.

In addition, social ownership of public transit is a problem throughout the world.  In order to keep public transportation clean and well respected the riders must feel a sense of ownership for the system and a sense of responsibility toward keeping it safe and productive.  I know very little about French socioeconomics, but perhaps more bicycles need to be placed in urban neighborhoods.  Perhaps there need to be discount rates for the underprivileged.  Whatever solutions are available, I hope they can be implemented so more cities look to Paris as a model rather than a warning.

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In unrelated news, the New York Times also had a quirky and enjoyable vacation feature on the Station Inn in Cresson, PA.  It sort of looks like the nightmare train scene from My Cousin Vinny, but it also looks like a really fun vacation.  The Station Inn provides railside views of dozens of freight trains passing through every day and people come from all over the world to watch the trains and discuss rail trivia.  I mostly would want to go to sit on the porch and hear all the rail enthusiasts chat it up.  However, something tells me my partner would not be interested in such a trip.

MIT City Car

I stumbled upon images of MIT’s City Car while reading up on various transportation issues today.  Unfortunately, I cannot find anything more on the project more recent than 2007, which is a shame because the idea is so cool.  The City Car is a stackable car, sort of where ZipCar, Smart Cars, folding chairs and bicycle racks all intersect.

The CityCar is a stackable electric two-passenger city vehicle. The one-way sharable user model is designed to be used in dense urban areas. Vehicle Stacks will be placed throughout the city to create an urban transportation network that takes advantage of existing infrastructure such as subway and bus lines. By placing stacks in urban spaces and key points of convergence, the vehicle allows the citizens the flexibility to combine mass transit effectively with individualized mobility. The stack receives incoming vehicles and electrically charges them. Similar to luggage carts at the airport, users simply take the first fully charged vehicle at the front of the stack. The City car is NOT a replacement for personal vehicles, taxis, buses, or trucks; it is a NEW vehicle type that promotes a socially responsible and more effective means of urban mobility.

The CityCar utilizes fully integrated in-wheel electric motors and suspension systems called, “Wheel Robots.” The wheel robots eliminate the need traditional drive train configurations like engine blocks, gear boxes, and differentials because they are self-contained, digitally controlled, and reconfigurable. Additionally, the wheel robot provides all wheel power and steering capable of 360 degrees of movement, thus allowing for Omni-directional movement. The vehicle can maneuver in tight urban spaces and park by sideways translation.

General Motors was collaborating on the project, but perhaps the project has not gone any further.  I think it’s a really cool idea, the whole notion of a stackable car.  The notion of a two-passenger car taking up the room of a motorcycle is just fun to think about.  It would be the kind of thing that would be great for a company like ZipCar or Philly Car Share to invest in, since it would cut down on the space necessary to house the cars, as long as those cars were for intra-city driving only.  Either way, I hope this project is still alive just because I want to see one in person.

Stackable Cars

Electric car fueling

GreenTech Media has reported that the federal government, via the Department of Energy, has granted $300 million for cities to work with industrial partners to buy alternative-fuel vehicles and set up refueling stations.  The list of city winners, under the Clean Cities Program, includes New Haven, San Bernandino and Chicago.  Some of the highlighted projects include natural gas garbage trucks in New Jersey, using landfill natural gas in Atlanta and Texas incorporating propane-fueled buses.  The DOE estimates that these 25 projects will offset the usage of 39 million gallons of petroleum annually.  That is nothing to laugh at for both environmental and foreign policy concerns.

In an unrelated story, Government Technology reported that city government in Washington, D.C. has adopted ZipCar technology to manage its communal fleet of vehicles.  In the process, the city has been able to better organize its fleet and reduce its size.  Here are some of the notes on the FastFleet program.

The city ultimately eliminated 360 vehicles from its fleet, bringing the total to approximately 1,200 (not including law enforcement vehicles, which aren’t eligible for the program).

At press time, DC Fleet Share used 58 passenger sedans — 56 of which are hybrids and two of which are powered by alternative fuel. Burns said the district’s vehicles are parked at several large office complexes that are home to city government. Between 10 and 25 Fleet Share cars are parked at each site.

Both of these programs are great news.  Think about how many vehicles every city owns, from cars used for everyday puposes to police cars, firetrucks, ambulances, street cleaners, garbage trucks, school buses, delivery vans, postal service vehicles, maintenance vehicles and much more.  Many towns and cities furthermore have their own refueling station for this vehicles.  Transferring a percentage of these cars and trucks to alternative fuels and beginning the process of building the infrastructure to refuel them has enormous benefits to both the environment and the communities.

One of the greatest challenge of alternative fuel vehicles is there are few places to get the right fuel and frequently there is no standardized fueling method.  When government begins the process in tandem with industry standards are easier to set and the foundation is laid for private car-owners to follow.  Such progress is even more reassuring when fewer vehicles need to be owned, as in DC.  Clearly this is a savings for the taxpayer, but is also a savings for congestion and fuel usage as well.  Lower congestion and better fuel usage are two pillars of cleaner, more efficient transportation.  Public transportation represents a large part of the solution, but certain vehicles will never be eliminated.  Making those vehicles better is a step forward.

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