Car Lite


21
May 2011
by larry

I Flooded the Mississippi

Thankfully the news media is keeping quiet about this or I could be in big trouble: I flooded the Mississippi earlier this month. I’m also responsible in some small part for the Arkansas killer tornados last month. I may even be implicated in the Japanese earthquakes earlier this year, though the evidence for that is not so clear. But certainly without a doubt (as I confessed in a previous post) I share with BP responsibility for the gulf oil spill last year. How did I manage to cause such massive death and destruction? Simply by living my life as usual, getting around by car. I feel a little bit guilty about it actually. But what can I do?

Continue reading →


20
Oct 2010
by larry

The Motorist Mentality: Get Out of My Way

Last week once again a left-turning motorist almost ran me down in the crosswalk at the intersection of State and Aurora near my house. And once again rather than apologize this person yelled something inaudible but probably not nice at me, shook their fist at me, and sped off after passing inches from where I was standing. Why was this person so incredibly angry with me? What had I done? And then it hit me: motorists are not concerned with safety, they are concerned with fairness. This person was upset because I had stepped into an area he felt was his. His light was green, so from his perspective it was unfair of me to enter the crosswalk. (He neglected to account for the fact that left-turning vehicles don’t have the right-of-way.) He was willing to risk my life to show me that I was being unfair. What can we make of an otherwise rational person giving more importance to the temporary ownership of a patch of asphalt than to the safety of a fellow citizen? How did we come to this motorist mentality infecting our population, and what can we do to reverse it?

The typical motorist wants to go as fast as they can at all times and they don’t like it when someone or something prevents them from doing that. Do you have the motorist mentality? Ask yourself how many of the following statements apply to you:

  • I am usually in a hurry when I drive.
  • When I drive in the city I have a constant feeling that I’m not going fast enough.
  • I don’t like having to wait for pedestrians and bicyclists.
  • If the vehicle in front of me is going slower than I am I tailgate them, flash my lights at them, and honk my horn at them.
  • I regularly pass other cars in no-passing zones.
  • I regularly travel faster than the speed limit.
  • I often get upset by other vehicles when I drive in the city.
  • I feel safe in my car so I rarely think about safety.

Or do you have the bicyclist mentality:

  • I am not in a hurry most of the time.
  • I feel vulnerable so I think about safety a lot.
  • If a vehicle is in my way I go around them.
  • I don’t mind going slowly because other vehicles can pass me.
  • I like to say “hi” to other bicyclists.

The motorist mentality is one result of the space constraints caused by the introduction of massive numbers of wide fast vehicles onto our streets. Here’s an analogy. Picture a train station of the future with thousands of people getting their tickets and boarding their trains. Imagine now that all of those people are given rocket-powered roller skates. As a consequence, everyone must wear big hoop skirts for protection, and the hoop skirts cause each person to take up nine times as much area as before. Furthermore, suppose everyone must also wear ear protection which makes it impossible for them to hear each other. (Hollywood take note: this would make a great scene in your next science fiction movie.)

Everyone finds it difficult to get through the doors. They can no longer negotiate with each other who goes first. Lines form. Everyone must wait in line. Everyone must follow the rules. Everyone wants to go as fast as they can (“We’re wearing rocket skates for crying out loud!”). Some people get impatient and don’t follow the rules. Tempers flare. And the motorist mentality sets in. This is what happened to our streets 100 years ago when people started driving cars instead of walking. Now imagine the rocket skates becoming smaller and less powerful. The hoops skirts shrink and people slow down. The rocket skates are quieter now too, so that people can once again talk with each other. There is more room for everyone. People greet each other. Everyone is happy. No one has the motorist mentality any more.

This is certainly a pretty picture: all we need to do to return to our blissful origins is to make our vehicles slower and smaller. And I believe it could happen if enough of us want to make it happen. However, in the meantime, we must deal with what we’ve got. What does this motorist mentality, this “get out of my way” thinking, mean to bicyclists and motorists? How does knowing about it affect our behavior? First some tips for bicyclists:

  • Don’t follow the rules (you can read more about this idea in a previous post). The motorist mentality means traffic laws were not designed with your welfare in mind. They were designed to make traffic fair for motorists. Following all of the laws is likely to get you killed. (There are certain laws you should follow in order to ensure that motorists are fair to you, as described below.) For example the typical traffic light can be considered a device mainly intended to make intersections fair for motorists. Motorists are willing to wait at traffic lights because they know that they will get their turn. But traffic lights also make intersections dangerous for bicyclists. This is because a traffic light causes a large number of cars to congregate around the bicyclist. When the light changes those cars will explode from the starting line and jockey for position as they speed to the next light, without regard for your safety. (Right-turning cars are particularly dangerous.) You as a bicyclist will be safer if you run the red light. First check for cross traffic, and then cross if it’s clear. And it’s fine for you as a bicyclist to turn right on red, in spite of what the signs may say, because your vehicle is narrow. Nearby motorists sometimes howl with rage when they see me make these “illegal” maneuvers. They think I am doing something unfair, because  they are not allowed to run the red light or turn right on red. I wish there were some way to tell them that I am merely giving my own safety a higher priority than being fair within a system meant for them.
  • Be courteous. Motorists are a generally crabby lot, and your good cheer will help them. This tip may appear to contradict the previous paragraph; the difference is that “don’t follow the rules” is about your relationship with an oblivious transportation system while “be courteous” is about your relationship with people. Since motorists can’t hear you, you must communicate with them by hand gestures. As a bicyclist there are certain hand gestures you will be tempted to use after a motorist has unthinkingly threatened your life, but you must refrain. Instead, wave hello to people. Politely signal for them to go around you if you are taking the lane. Say thank you with a smile when they give you your right of way.
  • Assert yourself. The motorist mentality makes motorists very careful to be fair to their fellow motorists. But ironically motorists think nothing of being unfair to bicyclists, so much so that many bicyclists are intimidated into riding long distances on the sidewalk and riding the wrong way down the street. Both of these behaviors are extremely dangerous. Ride in the street. It belongs to you and don’t let anyone tell you it doesn’t. Take up the full lane if necessary. Get in the left lane to turn left. These are all rules you do need to follow if you want to gain the respect of motorists and ensure that they treat you fairly.

How can you motorists overcome the motorist mentality? Here are my tips:

  • Relax. You made a transportation choice that has advantages and disadvantages. The advantage is that you have a nice big cozy box to sit in. The disadvantage is that so many other people have also chosen to ride in big cozy boxes that you all must wait in line to get across town. If someone cuts in front of you don’t blame that person, blame your collective choice of vehicle. Accept the trade-off you made. Better than that, enjoy the trade-off you made. Bring a book or some knitting to work on while you wait in line in your big cozy box.
  • Make the journey as important as the destination. Budget enough time to go slowly on purpose. Listen to the radio. Look out the window. (But put down the cell phone.) Enjoy.
  • Get your priorities straight. Your car easily weighs enough to crush a person to death. It goes fast enough to kill a person on impact. It is wide enough that it leaves little room for error on city streets. That is a big responsibility. Consider how unimportant it is to be concerned about “that person is in my way” when there is the larger concern of “am I being safe with this large machine entrusted to me?”

I hold out hope that the motorist mentality can be eradicated in my children’s lifetime. Today I read about an electric vehicle for sale in my town that has a top speed of 25mph. I think most people’s reaction will be that that speed is too big a sacrifice, that we need to make a better electric car. I think the car is fine, and that we need to change our assumptions about speed. For me driving a low-speed car would be a step up from my electric cargo bike (especially in winter!). And driving it around at a paltry 25mph would be an opportunity to cure myself of my motorist mentality.


1
Oct 2010
by larry

Sweat Is Your Friend

This summer was one of the hottest summers on record. Several people have asked me how I managed to survive. My response: I didn’t notice. I didn’t notice it was unusually hot in spite of spending much of my time outdoors training for a marathon and doing my errands by bike. I didn’t notice precisely because, counter-intuitively, these activities caused me to sweat and my sweat kept me cool. How could this be?

For some reason our culture has an aversion to sweat. Our media keeps up a constant barrage of messages about how we must avoid sweating and that if we do somehow err by sweating we must hide it at all costs. Of course there is a place for personal hygiene and we must take care not to impose our old smelly sweat on our fellow citizens. But we sweat for a reason–to keep ourselves cool–and furthermore we are very good at sweating.

A recent Scientific American article described how one of the most basic ways our human ancestors gained an advantage over other predators is by our ability to sweat. No other animal sweats as well as we do. This ability enabled our ancestors to track large game until it fell over from heat exhaustion, a technique known as persistence hunting. Many other animals can outrun us for short distances. But we are the masters of long distance running on this planet. A human can run a marathon faster than a horse, because the horse will keel over from heat exhaustion before it gets to the finish line. And so how do we make use of this great ability of ours in modern times? Do we augment our ability to keep cool in some way as we have done with so many of our other abilities? No, instead we vilify anyone who sweats in public. It is outrageous to me that we subvert this great advantage we have for dealing with hot weather, then complain about the weather, then build big machines to make ourselves cooler, and finally watch complacently as these machines contribute to the very climate warming we were complaining about.

I propose that instead of looking at sweat as the enemy we learn to harness it for its intended purpose: to cool us down. It is much more energy efficient to cool ourselves individually (perhaps with motion or fans) than to use big energy-intensive machines to cool down entire rooms and buildings. And it is the height of hypocrisy and inefficiency that our cars are designed to be basically greenhouses on wheels. As a result they must carry massive air conditioning equipment to keep their occupants cool. Instead, cars could make use of our natural abilities to cool ourselves by sweating and combine that with the built-in breeze of their forward motion.

Air conditioning will be one of the first superfluous accessories jettisoned by our lightweight/narrow/slow cars of the future. What will replace it? Think about the vents cars have now and how they could be improved. It seems that no one in our bone-headed auto industry has taken the time to reconsider the simple air vent. What are some ways it can better put a breeze where it’s needed? For that matter, where is the breeze needed? Sweating effectively requires having airflow over one’s back. Current cars place your back squarely in a cushy seat with no possibility of air flow. What if for starters cars had mesh seats? What if we had the vents blow directly from the seat onto our backs? Or better yet, what if we had ventilated clothing that clipped directly into the car’s cooling system? And we won’t need any kind of sophisticated automatic temperature control. Just provide a steady air flow and your body will sweat or not as necessary to keep itself comfortable.

You are probably wondering “What if I don’t have one of those lightweight/narrow/slow cars of the future? How can I keep cool by sweating while traveling?” If such is the case I propose that you make do with an electric cargo bike, which is the next best thing to a lightweight/narrow/slow car of the future. Here are my tips for sweating more effectively in hot weather:

  • Use an electric bike. Moving on an electric bike is especially nice since it can provide a breeze without so much exertion. And if you are on foot, my experience is that someone can actually stay cooler by running slowly and efficiently rather than walking. The faster airflow from running combined with sweating kept me cooler than the slower airflow (but less exertion) of walking. However, running efficiently takes practice. It probably also helps to be thin.
  • Don’t wear a backpack while biking. Backpacks block air flow. Get a cargo bike so you can carry your stuff off your body.
  • Wear sunscreen.
  • Go shirtless. Don’t be a prude dude. Let the sweat out. But carry a jacket for when you stop.
  • Carry twice as much water as you think you’ll need. You’ll need it.
  • Only stay in the sun if you are moving. The airflow will keep you from overheating.
  • Cool down in front of a fan after biking. You will notice a surge in body temperature after you stop biking, with a corresponding surge in sweat output. Don’t waste that sweat! Cool down with whatever breeze and fan and shade you can find. Only after the sweat has completely evaporated should you take a shower if circumstances require.

So this summer by following these simple tips I actually looked forward to biking and running as an opportunity to go outside and cool down. I did not let the weather reports dictate whether or not I could go outside. Don’t believe me? Try befriending your sweat!


22
Sep 2010
by larry

Biking Reconsidered

Yesterday I rode the whole day without electricity: my electric assist battery ran down and I couldn’t recharge it because I was camped out at one of the dozens of hiker/biker campsites that line the canal. And I paid for it: after biking sixty miles unplugged it was excruciating difficult to continue. So last night I swallowed my pride and instead stayed at the overtly commercial Jellystone campground, complete with life size Yogi Bear at the entrance, so that I could charge my batteries there.

This experience has lead me to wonder “How important is physical exertion to the bicycling experience?” If it were possible to bike without getting tired would more people do it? Would it still be fun? I think it would, and this trip I’m on proves it. I think it’s not the exercise aspect that most people are after, but the humaneness that only lightweight slow narrow vehicles can provide.


19
Sep 2010
by larry

How to Bike Long Distances on Your Electric Cargo Bike

I am on a bike trip to Washington DC.–I am hoping to do more and more of my long-distance travel by electric cargo bike. I’m getting pretty good at it. Many of you are probably wondering “How can I too make such journeys?”

The hardest part is justifying taking the time. Expect a bike trip to take four times as long as driving. Use whatever rationale works for you: you’re saving the environment, you like to experience nature firsthand, you want to get in shape, whatever. I’m driven to bike out of a sense that it’s the way things should be, a way to make our transportation system humane (see a previous post about my vision).

The next hardest part is responding to the objections and warnings of your family and friends. They will say things like “Why don’t you just drive like a normal person?” They will imagine that biking on a lonely bike trail at 15 mph is somehow more dangerous than driving in dense traffic at highway speeds. Furthermore, there is an insidious bias in our culture that bikes are for recreation and cars are for utilitarian purposes. Therefore, the thinking goes, if you are on a long bike trip you must be on vacation. And you shouldn’t be on vacation if you have to do the serious business of getting to somewhere. This thinking makes it impossible to consider the bike as a valid long-distance transportation tool.

I went on several long bike tours in my college days. Those trips were basically fun ordeals. Long-distance bike trips don’t have to be ordeals any more. What has changed? The two big innovations are smart phones and electric assist for bikes.

When I bike I have my smart phone in one hand to tell me where I am and a printout from Google maps in my other hand to tell me where to go. I would be lost (literally) without them. Here’s how it works. Before I go on my trip I visit Google Maps and enter my starting and ending points. I then click Google Maps’ “bike button” to choose a bike-friendly route. I then print out selected portions of the route. The print outs are good insurance that I can find my way even if I can’t get a mobile phone signal. When I’m actually on my trip I stop periodically and use my phone to make sure that my current location corresponds to a spot on my printout. The phone has another use: finding hotels and campgrounds. I don’t reserve hotels in advance since it’s hard to know where I’ll end up. So when I get near my destination I simply search on hotels or campgrounds within a five mile radius, pick one, and dial. I wish I had had that feature in 1988!

The last step to going on a bike trip is the easiest: physically moving the pedals around. Plan on going 80 to 100 miles a day. I know that sounds like a lot to those of you who are experienced bike tourists. But electric assist changes the bike touring game: you can go a little bit faster and farther, carry a bit more, and work less hard. I remember that when I went bike touring 20 years ago I could expect to go 50 miles a day at 10 miles an hour. I carried about 50 pounds of stuff. Hills just about killed me. Now I plan to go 80 to 100 miles a day at 15 miles an hour. I can carry 100 pounds. And with electric assist, hills don’t require much more effort than flats.

The main drawback to traveling on an electric cargo bike is that you have to find an outlet to plug into at the end of every day. For that reason I mostly stay in motels. Motels are cheaper than hotels with the added advantage that since the rooms are at ground level you can wheel your bike into your room. I also carry camping equipment so I can camp out if necessary.

I am hoping that by next year I will be able to recharge my batteries completely with solar power on long trips. On a previous trip I was able to gather about one eighth to one fourth of my power from the sun using bike-mounted solar panels.

What does the future hold? More bike paths? Better batteries and motors? Really smart smart phones? And a kinder gentler transportation system? Let’s not just wait and see, let’s make it happen.


18
Sep 2010
by larry

The Way Highways Should Be

I found paradise. I am on my way to Washington DC by bike, and I chose a route that passes through the Pine Creek Rail Trail in Pennsylvania. This trail is awesome. Sure the scenery is nice and the weather is nice, but what really struck me is that this trail is The Way Highways Should Be. My fellow travelers were pedestrians, bicyclists, and horseback riders. We greeted each other as we passed. The pace was slow. The mood was happy. Old folks tottered along on their bikes and and in their electric wheel chairs. Lycra-clad young guys zipped by on their road bikes. Little kids played in the dirt in the middle of the path. Residents waved from their porches. It was humanity at its finest. It was idyllic. And it was my highway.

Anyone who is willing to give up a vehicle that is wide, fast, and heavy can have this too. What does a vehicle’s width have to do with it? There are many hidden consequences when a cultures embraces wide vehicles. Traffic jams, parking structures, massive concrete structures dotting the landscape. Heavy vehicles also lead to an imposing and expensive infrastructure that could easily be replaced by lighter vehicles on crushed gravel paths. Fast vehicles make it necessary to have a bewildering amount of traffic control–stoplights and signage. And high speeds make it difficult to greet the people you pass.

The Pine Creek Trail epitomizes the humanity in transportation that we as a culture have given up. Can we get it back again? I am hopeful. Over half of my 470-mile route to Washington D.C. will be on bike trails: 65 miles on the Pine Creek Trail, 16 miles on Pennsylvania’s Lower Trail, 180 miles on the C&O Canal Towpath, and lastly a few miles on the Crescent Trail that circumnavigates Washington DC. That’s 265 miles of trail! I look forward to the day I can do the entire trip on humane highways of crushed gravel.


3
Jun 2010
by larry

Tension, Integrity, and the Design of Lightweight Vehicles

The ElectraFlyer ultralight. Note the guy wires. Its electric motor weighs twice as much as my Stokemonkey motor (26 vs. 13 pounds) but it has 18 times the horsepower. The battery weighs 6.5 times my 36v 10ah Prismatic LiFePo4 (78 pounds vs. 12 pounds) but produces about 10 times the power. An Xtracycle with this monster motor and battery would add 104 pounds to the bike but would increase the range to 250 miles. Add that wing, throw in a propeller and my Xtracycle could fly!

Thomas Morse Scout showing guy wires. Incidentally this plane was manufactured in Ithaca the small town where I live.

I’ve been trying to wrap my head around guy wires. No that doesn’t mean wires made by guys. It means a tensioned cable used to brace parts of a structure or vehicle. For example have you ever noticed the cables forming Xs between an old biplanes’ wings? Those cables prevented the two wings from moving relative to each other. They also made it possible for a biplane to be lightweight. As biplanes’ motors became more powerful weight has not been so much of  a factor and you don’t see as many or any cables on a modern biplane. However you do see cables on ultralight aircraft as shown. More and more you see cables used in architecture. I argue that we need to use more cables—and parts under tension in general—in the design of our cars.

Guy wires to stabilize my solar canopy.

I recently needed to add guy wires to my Bike Wagon canopy design because when I put my solar panels on top of the canopy, the added weight made the canopy wobbly. A few cable Xs solved the problem. It got me thinking about how the design of ultralight airplanes and bicycles and lightweight vehicles in general requires using tensegrity. Say what? “Tensegrity” is a word that American architect and inventor Buckminster Fuller made up by combining the word “tension” with the word “integrity” to describe a new building technique. The basic idea is that you can make way cool lightweight structures by combining something with structural integrity (such as a hunting bow) with something that is under tension (such as the bow string).Tensegrity structures can have the unnerving property that the beams of the structure don’t actually touch each other (see the Tensegritoy below). Our bodies themselves use tensegrity: our bones provide the structural integrity and our ligaments and muscles provide the tension.

A wonderful way to get hands-on experience with tensegrity is to order a Tensegritoy kit.

The bicycle wheel is another good example of tensegrity. Back in the day wheels were constructed using wooden spokes. The spokes needed to be thick and heavy. The bicycle wheel, in contrast, uses tensegrity. The rim provides the structural integrity and the spokes provide the tension. This design creates a very strong lightweight wheel. A car wheel (excepting the occasional MG) does not use tensegrity; it is solid metal. A car’s large powerful internal combustion engine overwhelms any need for weight savings. Incidentally there are commercially successful bike frames that use tensegrity.

The Millenium Dome in London is constructed out of steel towers and tensioned fabric.

Tensegrity is a revelation in architecture. The first large buildings relied on gravity and the compression strength of stone to hold themselves up. Then with the invention of the steel I-beam, buildings could use the structural integrity of the I-beams to hold themselves up. More and more architects are experimenting with tension components such as steel cables and fabric. Some of these structures are what the layman would call a tent. However, we’re talking tents that are very large permanent structures such as the 1,200 ft. wide (365 m) Millennium Dome. Two related ideas are tensile structures (elements carrying only tension and no compression or bending) and tensairity structures (pneumatic structures that use inflated airbeams and attached stiffeners or cables).

Buckminster Fuller's Dymaxion Car. It was about 6 feet tall, seated the driver and 10 passengers, weighed less than 1000 lbs., went 120 miles/hr on a 90 horsepower engine, and got between 30-50 miles to the gallon of gas!

I believe road vehicles need to undergo a similar transition—from compression to tension components in their construction—so that they can become light enough to be powered by humans and by sunlight. Contemporary cars have structural integrity mainly by virtue of the strength of steel. I envision lightweight slow small vehicles that use aluminum poles, cables, and fabric to give them shape. Is this possible? It can’t hurt to dream big. In 1930 Buckminster Fuller’s own car invention, the Dymaxion Car, weighed less than 1000 pounds and could carry 10 passengers.


27
May 2010
by larry

The Once and Future Microcar

The 1965 Peel P50 microcar.

I’ve been sharing with people my ambition to turn my Xtracycle “cargo bike” into a microcar. This has led me to ask what exactly is a microcar? And what would it take to give an Xtracycle the functionality of a microcar?

Microcar 101

It turns out microcars are not a new idea—they’ve been around since the dawn of the twentieth century. They are basically very small cars, usually between 150 and 1,000 pounds, powered by a 49cc to 500cc motorcycle-like engine or an electric motor, and often they are three-wheeled. They tend to be very cute and have become the objects of desire for many collectors and clubs. Various forces have caused microcars to wax and wane in popularity. For example they flourished after both World War I and World War II, perhaps as a way for people to economize. They also tend to flourish in places where their small size gives them tax, insurance, or drivers’ licensing advantages. Because of these economic forces, microcars are more popular in Europe and Japan than the U.S. For example in Austria and France they have a reputation for being the vehicle of last resort for people who lost their driver’s license for drunk driving. In some European countries, they became popular because taxes and insurance used to depend on engine displacement or  power. Modern Japanese microcars, called Kei cars, are designed to exploit local tax and insurance regulations, and in more rural areas are exempted from the requirement to certify that adequate parking is available for the vehicle.

I believe (and others believe) the time is right for the microcar to rise again, and I believe the bicycling community will have a hand in that transformation. There is a vacuum forming in our transportation system for a slow narrow vehicle that weighs between 100 and 1000 pounds. The car manufacturers don’t seem interested in coming down from their planet-wrenching upper end of the weight scale. It’s left up to the bike manufacturers to come up from the low end, to produce an intermediate-sized vehicle. My electric-assist “stoked” Xtracycle already has some of the specs of the smallest microcar, the Peel P50. The P50 weighed 130 pounds; my stoked Xtracycle with a canopy enclosure and other amenities will weigh about the same. The P50 has a 4.2 horsepower (3,131 watts) motor; my electric motor can put out 750 watts, which, along with some human power thrown in, might sometimes reach half that power on a good day. We’ve got the beginnings of a microcar here.

Furthermore, bicyclists can give birth to a new kind of vehicle because we are  unhindered by the constraints that the auto industry has. For example the side impact laws—necessary for vehicles that go highway speeds—make it technically impossible for the auto manufacturers to make a car that weighs less than 1000 pounds. Also the car industry is constrained by the limitations of mass production. Before the car industry can roll a microcar through it massive factories it must first ensure that there is a very large market for it. Bike shops, in contrast, only have to convince a few hundred people to buy one of their hand-crafted microcars which they can build from off-the-shelf parts. This situation is similar to the pre-mass production era when many small shops produced only a few hundred of their often eccentric cyclecars, the original microcars. Cyclecars were small inexpensive cars manufactured mainly between 1910 and the late 1920s. They were called cyclecars because they often incorporated motorcycle parts. They were very inexpensive for cars; the Buckboard cyclecar cost as low as $200 ($2,800 in 2010 dollars).

The auto industry must also overcome peoples’ expectations that all cars must be able to drive at highway speeds and highway distances. There is a movement among environmentally-minded manufacturers to create a new class of cars called Neighborhood Electric Vehicles, which weigh less than 3,000 pounds, typically have a range of 30 miles and have a top speed of 25 mph. But given what I know about American culture I don’t think this movement will succeed. People balk at the idea of a car that only goes 25mph, but a bike that goes that speed is cool.

So what is stopping a bike shop from making a microcar? Two things: the legal definition of a bicycle, and technical constraints. For an electric-assist bicycle to be legally considered a bicycle (rather than a motorcycle or car) it’s motor must be less than 750 watts, it must have functional pedals, it’s maximum speed must be less than 20mph, and it must have two or three wheels. This last constraint is important: if you give a vehicle four wheels it seems the full weight of automotive regulations falls upon it. There is some hope that these legal constraints will rise. For example I read recently that the motor limit in New York has been raised to 1,000 watts.

So is it technically possible to build a vehicle within those legal constraints that achieves the same functionality as a microcar? I believe it is. My Xtracycle cargo bike is almost there. Why hasn’t anyone done it before? Maybe because electric motor and battery technology wasn’t so well developed until now. Maybe the consumer base wasn’t there. Maybe the gas price, tax, insurance, and licensing forces weren’t in alignment. I sense that they are coming into alignment now.

What would it take to turn a cargo bike into a microcar?

What can a microcar do that a cargo bike can’t do? One big difference is speed. We can make a cargo bike faster by adding an electric motor, but we still have the 20mph legal limit. For me this is not a problem. Carrying capacity is more important than speed for me, and electric motors have an advantage over internal-combustion engines in this regard. For a given horsepower, electric vehicles such as my bike tend to be slow but with great carrying capacity, whereas internal-combustion-powered vehicles tend to be faster but unable to carry as great a load. For example my bike has a 400-pound carrying capacity and a maximum speed of 20mph, whereas the P50 described above probably can’t carry much more than one 200-pound person but it can carry them at 38mph. I would much prefer a microcar that can carry a lot rather than a microcar that is fast.

The next biggest functionality a microcar has that a cargo bike doesn’t have is a canopy. I’ve outlined my design criteria for an Xtracycle canopy in a previous post. Bicycles have a long history of incorporating canopies; bikes with a canopy are called velomobiles. However, again, velomobiles seem to be built for speed rather than cargo capacity. Another design direction that incorporates a canopy with a bike is the bicycle car, which typically means a pedal-powered vehicle with four wheels. A pedicab is a similar idea.

Other advantages of a microcar have to do with comfort and ease of use. Bicycling manufacturers are used to asking the bicyclist to conform to the bike.  Our microcar must instead incorporate some of the same human-centered design that makes Apple products such big hits. Bicycle manufacturers haven’t yet begun to explore the design opportunities that come from having an electric motor and a big honking battery on a bike. An obvious opportunity is to power the bike lights from the central battery rather than have separate batteries and switches for each light. Now that we have a canopy we can begin to think about how to keep passengers warm. Another  set of design opportunities comes from the cyclist no longer having to be thrifty with power. For example I took the toe clips off of my Xtracycle since any minor advantage they offer is overwhelmed by what the motor can do. And it now becomes possible to consider a shaft drive instead of a chain drive, since its minor inefficiency pales in comparison with the advantage of not having a greasy chain.

Here are some general microcar design criteria with some ideas about how they might be satisfied. Got ideas of your own? Please comment and I’ll add them to this post.

My microcar can carry the driver and one passenger comfortably. The biggest design choice here seems to be having people sit side-by-side or front-back. I like front-back so that the vehicle is narrow. This is important so that the vehicle can ride on the shoulder since it is slow. But a side-to-side design, particularly a recumbent trike, could be explored.

My microcar protects the occupants from rain, wind and cold. The traditional microcar uses sheet metal or plastic. I think cloth is the best material since it is lightweight. A cloth cover can be changed to fit the season. The winter cover could be insulated. And it may be possible to integrate electronics into the cloth, such as tail lights and headlights.

My microcar is easy to maintain.

My microcar weighs between 100 and 1000 pounds.

My microcar is powered by a 500 to 1,000 watt motor. Now that New York will have a 1,000-watt maximum motor size, I am imagining an Xtra-cycle microcar that has a tricycle attachment replacing its rear wheels. And each wheel of this trike attachment has a 500-watt electric motor hub. Now we’re talking.

My microcar has a top speed of 20mph.

My microcar costs less than $5000.

My microcar has a 400 pound total cargo and occupant capacity.



25
May 2010
by larry

Don’t Blame BP. Blame me.

I haven’t yet heard anyone say what needs to be said about the gulf oil spill: I drive a petroleum-powered vehicle  so I am to blame. There I said it. Let me say it again: I drive a petroleum-powered vehicle so I am to blame for the gulf oil spill. You must spank me.

I cannot blame BP. BP is just one more corporate scape goat diverting my attention from my own failings. There will be many more BPs attracted to environmental risk-taking as the price of oil raises the stakes, like a rising jackpot attracts gamblers.

I am addicted to oil. How then can I blame BP? Can the drug addict blame the pusher for the social woes of illicit drug use? BP is simply a tool that society has manifested in order to fulfill my desires. I shouldn’t question BP, I should question my desires.

I ask myself if I really need to run my errands at speeds above 20mph. I ask myself if I really need to live farther than ten miles from my workplace or school. I ask myself if I really need to drive thousands of miles a year. My answers to these questions lead me to conclude, sadly, that I must take the green bumper stickers off my car.

This may seem like a harsh analysis. I hope you can understand the epic denial I have about the true source of blame for the gulf oil spill. And yet there is an even more epic denial I admit to: the spill has only damaged one ocean; global climate change, caused by me personally, is damaging the entire planet. It’s hard for me to face guilt that large. I try not to despair. I look into my heart and imagine a better place. And I try to make it happen.


28
Mar 2010
by larry

Does Driving Cause Cancer?

Internationally acclaimed environmental activist Sandra Steingraber spoke with my First Day School class this morning. (“First Day School” is Quakerese for Sunday School; I teach the 6th to 8th graders.) Sandra’s specialty is researching and writing about the links between the environment and cancer. It’s truly sobering stuff, which you can read about in her books or see about in the movie Living Downstream to be released next month. I invited Sandra to speak with us because I admire her as an activist, and I hope to emulate her approach in my work as a bicycling activist. She describes herself as a “shy activist” who would rather do the science side of things and support brasher activists rather than be a brash activist herself. And maybe people would rather listen to the science than the rhetoric any maybe people would rather hear it from a shy person than a brash person.

Because of my quest to Blame the Cars for All Badness I was pleased to find the following paragraphs in Sandra’s book Living Downstream:

The even better news [better because environmental causes of cancer are fixable whereas genetic causes are not] is that the synthetic chemicals linked to cancer largely derive from the same two sources as those responsible for climate change: petroleum and coal. Finding substitutes for these two substances is already on the collective to-do list. The U.S. petroleum industry alone accounts for one-quarter of toxic pollutants released each year in North America. This does not include the air pollutants generated from cars and trucks burning the products that the petroleum industry makes…vehicle emissions are linked to lung, breast, and bladder cancers…Investments in green energy are therefore also investments in cancer prevention. In this, it feels to me that we are standing at a historic confluence, a place where two rivers meet: a stream of emerging knowledge about what the combustion of fossil fuels is doing to our planet is joining a stream of emerging knowledge about what synthetic chemicals derived from fossil fuels are doing to our bodies.

…By-products from the burning of fossil fuels are under particular suspicion. Breast cancer, as we have seen, was first linked to potential sources of air pollution in Long Island. Subsequently, associations have been found between exposure to traffic exhaust during puberty and risk of early-onset breast cancer. Perhaps not coincidentally, a growing body of evidence suggests that tailpipe emissions have estrogenic activity. Air pollutants may alter breast density in ways that raise the risk for breast cancer. A 2007 review of the literature concluded that the risk of breast cancer associated with exposure to engine exhaust and other aromatic hydrocarbons is roughly equivalent in magnitude to some of the well-established risks for breast cancer, such as late age at first childbirth and sedentary lifestyle. Corroborating evidence comes from the laboratory: members of a family of combustion by-products called aromatic hydrocarbons—of which benzo[a]pyrene is one—cause breast cancer in animals. According to researchers at Albert Einstein College in New York, aromatic hydrocarbons inhaled by the lungs can become stored, concentrated, and metabolized in the breast, where the ductal cells become targets for carcinogens.

Bladder cancer, too, has been linked in several studies to air pollution. The strongest evidence comes from Taiwan, where researchers found positive associations between air pollution, especially from petrochemical plants, and the risk of dying from bladder cancer. An investigation of bladder cancer deaths among children and adolescents in Taiwan found that almost all those afflicted lived within a few miles of three large petroleum and petrochemical plants.

That caught my attention.