A Simple Method to Increase Fuel Economy

Gasoline prices are riding a roller-coaster these days with higher and higher bumps. Because of this, many Americans are again taking a long look at fuel economy, and you can see why. Since more and more Americans have shifted from cars to sport utility vehicles, they have experienced a drop in their vehicle's fuel economy, and whenever gasoline prices rise, they feel the bump in the form of a sharp blow to the wallet. So what can you do to improve your vehicle's fuel economy?

Well, you can go out and buy a new, more fuel-efficient vehicle, but if you do the math you'll find that kind of swap will reach payback time somewhere around 2020. So there is just false economy going that route. If you really want to save money -- and why not? -- then finding ways to increase your current vehicle's fuel economy is the way to go, and one of the simplest ways to do that is to take a look at your tires. Under-inflated tires aren't just potentially unsafe (and the Department of Transportation's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration will tell you that in no uncertain terms), but they are also a serious fuel-waster.

Statistics compiled by the American Automobile Association (AAA), show that fuel economy is compromised by 10 percent when tires are under inflated by only two psi (pounds per square inch.) So if you spend $80 a month for gasoline, this can cost you almost $100 a year. Now wouldn't you rather have that hundred bucks in your wallet?

If you want to know why under-inflated tires cost you at the fuel pump, the answer is simple. Under-inflated tires work harder, increasing friction and what tire engineers call rolling resistance, which, in turn, requires your engine to work harder to maintain the same speed.

The AAA has been conducting inspections and monitoring vehicles and maintenance habits for the last 20 years, and the results consistently demonstrate that motorists neglect their tires. The organization's data reveals that 80 percent of the cars being driven today have improperly inflated tires.

"Our research shows that this improper inflation issue has been prevalent for years," said Dave Van Sickle, a former AAA automotive expert and spokesperson. "Tires are something that people continually overlook."

If you think you can check 'em and forget 'em, you'll have to think again. It is important for you to remember that tire pressure does not remain constant. As the experts at Bridgestone/Firestone point out, when outdoor temperatures fluctuate, so does the pressure in your tires. In fact, tires may lose one to two psi (pounds per square inch) each month, and even more as outdoor temperatures change. Unfortunately, it is not possible to just look at a tire to determine if the pressure is appropriate. You have to use an air pressure gauge, not a difficult task, but one that needs to be done.

How much air should your tires have? Proper tire inflation is not (repeat, not) the number printed on the tire sidewall. That number generally refers to the maximum air pressure a tire is built to withstand. Consumers should always refer to the information from the automobile manufacturer, which is commonly listed on the door jamb or in the vehicle's owner's manual.

See the logic but still think you might need a gentle reminder? Bridgestone/Firestone operates a consumer Web site, Tire Safety, that offers important information about tire maintenance plus e-mail reminders to check the air pressure in your tires and reminders for periodic rotations.

So by logging onto a free Web site and investing in a three-dollar tire gauge you can save yourself $100 bucks a year. That sounds like the kind of return on investment even Suze Orman could be proud of.

Luigi Frashchini, an auto journalist who calls Cleveland home, is always looking for good ways to save money.

Yesterday is Here Today

"They sure don't make them like they used to." How often have you heard that refrain when it comes to automobiles? But the fact is, they are starting to make them like they used to, at least in terms of styling. Every one of the Big Three American auto makers has recently reached into its historic bag of tricks to pull familiar design elements that they hope will delight today's car buyers. Ford Motor Company is enjoying success with its new-old two-seat Thunderbird; Chrysler has gone the retro route with its PT Cruiser and its concept Dodge Power Wagon; and General Motors has joined the fray with its Chevrolet BelAir show car.

GM's Buick division is also hoping its long-abandoned "signature" styling cue can help revive its fortunes. That's why its all-new 2003 Park Avenue Ultra has three "portholes" on each front fender. The portholes harken back to Buick's heyday as one of America's most popular upscale brands.

Like the first portholes, those on the 2003 Ultra are functional, providing some underhood cooling, but GM is quick to admit that also like the originals, they are primarily a styling element -- a reminder of Buick's design heritage as the brand begins its centennial year in 2003. Just so you're clear on the concept, the six portholes on the Ultra are directly related to the number of engine cylinders. The Ultra is powered by a supercharged 3.8-liter 3800 V-6.

Buick's "portholes" were created by legendary Buick designer Ned Nickles, who also created the Buick "hardtop convertible," which wasn't a convertible at all but a hardtop without a pillar between the door windows and the rear side windows. Another of his contributions was the "sweepspear," a bright metal sculpture that swooped down the side of the car and kicked up over the rear wheel opening.

According to Buick lore, the portholes happened almost by accident. In the late Forties Nickles cut holes in the sides of the hood of his own 1948 Roadmaster convertible and behind them he installed amber lights attached to the distributor. The lights, flashing on and off in time with the cylinder-firings, suggested an unusually powerful engine with flaming exhaust. A subtle guy, this Nickles.

Where did he get the idea? While some car buffs think the idea for portholes came from the 1910 Buick Bug racer with its large and dramatic engine exhausts in the hood, Nickles said he actually was inspired by World War II fighter planes, which also gave us Cadillac's tailfins.

When Buick Manufacturing Manager Ed Ragsdale saw Nickles' custom work, he told General Manager Harlow Curtice that Nickles had "ruined" his convertible. Curtice, however, was intrigued. He liked the portholes so much that even though the 1949 Buicks were only seven months from production, he ordered them on the new cars, but without the flashing lights. Originally named VentiPorts, portholes made their debut and brought instant recognition to Buick.

Children soon learned they could identify a model by the number of portholes. For the next decade a variety of models sported three or four portholes, but, bucking the trend, a few Buicks didn't have any. After a nine-year run with portholes, the '58 Buicks left them behind. The following year the porthole-free '59 Buicks had the benefit of all-new styling, big fins and a new model lineup: LeSabre, Invicta, and Electra.

But it appeared Buick buyers wanted portholes, so GM brought them back. In 1960, the formula was four portholes for Electra and three for LeSabre and Invicta. They were not much like the big, bold round portholes of 1949, however. They were merely small, elongated chrome decorations.

For 1963, when Buick introduced the Riviera, which is considered one of the most attractive cars of the era, it was without portholes. But the all-new Buick Wildcat, also introduced as a '63 model, was festooned with three portholes. The following year, the Wildcat offered an unusual variation: three vertically stacked portholes on the fender behind the front wheels.

Small decorative portholes appeared on at least some Buick models into the early 1980s, ending with the Electra in '83. The limited-edition Regal GNX of 1987 had fender vents that some people called portholes, but Buick doesn't take a strong position on that either way.

Buick then went more that 10 years without even considering portholes, until they showed up on the concept 1999 Buick Cielo. Cielo was a hit with auto show audiences and the press, so portholes appeared on the concept 2000 LaCrosse, which was also an auto show hit. But just to make sure, Buick designers tested portholes again on the 2001 Bengal show car, honored as "best of the best" of all concept cars unveiled at international auto shows that year.

So portholes are back on a production Buick, and if they can help division avoid the said fate of its sister, Oldsmobile, which preceded it to a centennial year, then we can all be happy about the return of a styling legend.

A fan of the old school, Villeperce, France-based writer Tom Ripley revels in the return of the styling cues of the Fifties.

Little Robots Make Big Gains

Who was that little, short guy who clanged the opening bell at the New York Stock exchange the other day? You know, the four-foot-tall dude who climbed the stairs to the podium, shook hands with stock exchange Chairman and CEO Richard Grasso and waved to the gathered throng. The only thing the little guy didn't do was blush with all the attention. So who was it? Not Billy Barty. Not Herve Villechaise. No, the four-foot gent was ASIMO, Honda Motor Corporation's idea of "the world's most advanced humanoid robot."

Though some might have reserved that honor for Keanu Reeves, ASIMO's appearance honoring the 25th anniversary of Honda's stock listing on the New York Stock Exchange was the culmination of more than 20 years of development by Honda. While some might wonder what robots have to do with building better cars, Honda Motor President and CEO Hiroyuki Yoshino described Honda's humanoid robotics program as consistent with its direction to enhance human mobility.

"Increasing mobility for our customers -- improving their quality of life -- remains the focus of Honda," said Yoshino. "With ASIMO, our dream for the future was to create something that did not exist -- an advanced humanoid robot capable of walking like humans and operating as a helper for people in areas where they live and work."

To create ASIMO, Honda engineers were challenged to apply the company's traditional focus on the customer to create something that could function in an actual human living environment. It was determined a robot should be easy to operate and small in size, enabling it to help people -- for instance, to look eye-to-eye with someone sitting in a chair.

Introduced to the world in November 2000, ASIMO's height of four feet is said to be ideal because its eyes are located at the same level as the eyes of a seated adult. The size also allows ASIMO to operate light switches, door knobs, work at tables and perform other useful activities. ASIMO's weight of 115 pounds might seem a bit hefty for a four-footer, but it's actually a 20 percent lower volume-to-weight ratio than its predecessor P3. Wish we could make that claim.

ASIMO's unique attributes include Honda's intelligent, real-time, flexible walking "i-WALK" technology which enables the robot to walk and turn smoothly and continuously. Earlier robots had to stop in order to make sharp turns. The new system also gives ASIMO greater stability in response to sudden movements.

Through "predicted movement control" ASIMO can predict its next movement in real time and shift its center of gravity in anticipation of a turn. Further, ASIMO's stride can be adjusted real time, allowing it to walk faster or slower without requiring stored walking patterns as with previous robots. And, unlike humans, ASIMO can be controlled by a portable controller -- resembling a typical video game controller -- whereas P3 was controlled only from a workstation. This permits more direct and flexible operation of ASIMO.

Considering that Honda's work in humanoid robotics is a major reason many young engineers join Honda, Yoshino said, "In my view, the challenge itself is enough reason to pursue this dream."

A Cleveland-based auto journalist, Luigi Fraschini has always wanted a robot that will work for him while he goes out driving.

Telematics: Boon or Bust?

You've heard the old saying that men will always refuse to ask for directions, no matter how lost they are. Now, there's a new take on it. According to a recent study conducted by eBrain Market Research, men are the prime targets for the new in-car navigation and information systems. You can draw your own conclusions from that, but apparently, while many men seem reluctant to go into a gas station to ask for directions, they are willing to get directions from an in-car device that uses a combination of Global Positioning Satellites and computerized mapping. But what does this mean to the mobile information industry?

If we are to take the word of the recent eBrain study, mobile navigation and information systems (also known as "telematics devices") are poised to enter the mainstream as consumers increasingly come into contact with this burgeoning technology. Helping to drive the predicted surge in telematics are potentially lower prices and higher consumer exposure to the products. Perhaps like other recently unveiled consumer electronic products, like high-definition television, for example, relatively few people own them, but a lot of people have heard about them.

In spite of very low ownership rates, nearly nine out of 10 automobile owners are aware of telematics devices, largely due to word of mouth and exposure through rental car agencies and third parties. Exposure to computer navigation systems in rental cars has been extremely important in getting the word out, since a very small percentage of the driving public has opted to pay the $1,500 to $2,000 additional price to have a factory navigational system installed in their vehicles. One has to believe that $2,000 will buy an awful lot of paper maps, which offer the additional convenience of being easily portable. (Imagine pulling your sedan into the living room so you can plan the route of your next trip.) Further, while the utility value of navigational systems varies widely from brand to brand and even model to model, some still cause significant amounts of user frustration.

A case in point is our recent exposure to the nav system in a new Infiniti I35. The system had what IT folks would call a confusing interface. It was slow to respond, and its joystick controller seemed almost disconnected from the unit at times, while at other times it seemed much too sensitive. Perhaps worst of all, this Infiniti's system was configured to prevent destination data input (picking the place you want to go) while driving. At first, this might seem like a reasonable safety feature, but consider this: in our test, it didn't just prevent the driver from using the device, it also prevented the front-seat passenger from using it. We don't know how you feel, but we don't think there is much advantage to a system that requires the car to be in "Park" before some of its functions can be brought into play. On the other hand, telematics in rental cars, which seemed to designed with a weather eye on easy familiarization, are exposing more and more people to the technology.

"Such high awareness, along with increased interest in mobile navigation systems bodes well for manufacturers," said eBrain's director of research, Tim Herbert.

While only three percent of U.S. households actually own a vehicle equipped with a telematics device, 14 percent of car owners familiar with the product have used one. Nearly 75 percent of those who have tried telematics did so on a car other than their own, including rental vehicles. Among those who have used telematics devices, the reaction is overwhelmingly positive. Some 83 percent found the product to be "very or somewhat useful."

"This is very encouraging news and points to the need to get more individuals to try these devices," said Herbert. "The key to increasing sales may be to get consumers to try one at various public events, especially those where the target market may be concentrated."

According to the survey, telematics users are more likely to be male, aged 18-34, highly educated, have household incomes above $75,000 and have access to the Internet. Among the many features offered by the technology, consumer interest is largely driven by increased safety features such as the ability to send distress signals, monitor car maintenance, traffic information and the ability to obtain maps. The "Mobile Telematics Interest and Awareness" survey was fielded via telephone to a random national sample of 1,000 online adults during September 2001.

Call him old-school, but auto journalist Luigi Fraschini would rather make do with a compass and a paper map than a GPS navigation system.

Hydrogen Power: Live

What is the future of the hydrogen-powered car? If you ask BMW, the future is now. As we told you in the previous installment of our two-part feature, there are good reasons for the vaunted German technology company to feel that way. After all, hydrogen is abundant, and pound for pound, it packs more energy punch than most other fuels. Further, when used as a fuel, it produces only clean water vapor and no "greenhouse gases." What's not to like?

Unlike many car manufacturers, though, BMW doesn't think that hydrogen power should be viewed as an exotic technology for the far-distant future. In fact, the company has built a string of hydrogen-powered 750hL luxury sedans to prove that premise, and those sedans are in the midst of what it calls the CleanEnergy WorldTour that will eventually conclude in Berlin after visiting four continents.

Lest you think that the world tour is just a quickly planned publicity stunt, the BMW Group has worked very hard for more than 20 years to obtain what many believe is its international lead in hydrogen technology. Over the course of those 20 years, BMW engineers not only gained expertise in hydrogen-powered engine technology, but also in the extraction, fuelling and storing of hydrogen. Actually, those final three issues are harder to perfect than using hydrogen as a fuel for the internal combustion engine.

Interestingly, while others are looking at hydrogen fuel cells to power future vehicles, BMW seems ready to stick with a more conventional engine technology.

"We place our bets on the internal combustion engine, because we are convinced that our customers will attach great importance to range, dynamic performance and comfort in the future too," said Dr. Burkhard Göschel. "However, we want to cooperate with the other automobile manufacturers on the topic of alternative drive. We have a common aim, which is the Zero Emission Vehicle. And both thinkable solutions, the electric car powered by electricity from a fuel cell as well as our vehicle with spark ignition engine, have the main thing in common: hydrogen as the source of energy."

While others just talk about hydrogen, BMW has built a small fleet of hydrogen-powered cars, and they are about as far from Buck Rogers as you can get. The truth is they seem so much like current BMW 7-Series luxury sedans that it is hard to tell them apart. Running on hydrogen, the 12-cylinder engine delivers 204 horsepower, and the biggest difference between the hydrogen engine and a conventional BMW 12-cylinder is the intake system that features additional injection valves for the hydrogen. (The 750hL's are configured to run on gasoline as well, since hydrogen is not readily available yet.)

The hydrogen-powered car accelerates from standstill to 62 mph (100 km/h) in 9.6 seconds and achieves a top speed of 140 mph (226 km/h). It has a range of more than 200 miles on a hydrogen fill-up.

The most exotic aspect of the 750hL may well be the 140-liter "Cryo" fuel tank. The hydrogen is stored cryogenically (in super-chilled and liquid form) at minus 250 degrees Celsius in a double-walled steel tank behind the rear seatbacks. Two safety valves ensure controlled ventilation in case of excess pressure.

Because hydrogen can be extremely volatile, the BMW engineers have worked long hours on ensuring the storage system is safe. Numerous crash tests have shown that even in the case of a massive rear-end collision, the tank's steel cylinder with its double walls will not leak. Not leaving anything to chance, the BMW engineers say the tank cannot explode even in very severe crashes "that would leave very little chance for occupant survival." For an explosion to occur, they assure us, hydrogen and air would have to mix but due to the higher inner pressure of the hydrogen, air cannot enter the tank. The 750hL's also feature hydrogen fuel cells in place of typical lead-acid batteries to power accessory items.

These demonstration vehicles are all part of BMW's design, said Goschel, "that BMW will be the first automobile manufacturer in the world to offer series production hydrogen cars." It could happen as soon as 2005.

A native of Boston, Tom Ripley reports on automotive and technology issues from his home in Villeperce, France.