High-Tech Road Rules

Since engineer and outdoors enthusiast Steve Roberts began beta-testing "technomadness" (high-technology + nomadism) as a new "lifestyle prototype" in the mid-80s, the idea has caught on with many attracted to the idea of living on the open road while telecommuting to work. When Roberts (who coined the term technomadness) began the trend, computers and other personal tech was very cumbersome. By the time he was done with his second generation bike and cart, laden with multiple PCs, radios, GPS and solar panels, it weighed nearly 600 lbs.! Today's technomads can carry more firepower than the Winnebiko in a space the size of a modest backpack.

At the time Roberts first embarked on his mission, the most common reaction was: "Why on Earth would you want to take a computer with you?" Now that we can all see the advantages of computing from the road, the question many now ask themselves is "What the hell am I doing sitting in this office pushing pixels around inside of four ugly walls?" Although it's hard to say how many people are actually taking the big leap and hitting the open road, there are at least fifty Web sites linked from Roberts' site microship that document the travels of other technomadic converts. While those that have followed don't necessarily have Roberts' level of gadget lust, they don't have to. These days, a cell phone, a wireless laptop, a GPS unit and a portable solar power generator are all you need to create a go-anywhere office and global media center. Throw in a digital video camera, a portable short-wave radio and a few Lilliputian peripherals (e.g. a printer and scanner), and you can do just about anything you can in a brick and mortar office.

At the heart of the technomadness lifestyle, according to Roberts -- and what makes it different from corporate road warriorhood -- is the desire for an open-ended journey, for truly living on the road. While Roberts has lived this dream, travelling some 11,000 miles on his bikes, writing a book, publishing a newsletter and running his company Nomadic Research Labs from the seat of his bike, he's spent even more time in his lab, constantly dreaming up and building new technomadic gadgets and vehicles.

His latest venture, called the Microship Project, is a pair of single-occupant trimaran boats equipped with solar-powered Linux servers, streaming video webcams, multiple ways of sending and receiving email and accessing the Web through side-band short-wave radio, cell and satellite phone. The ships will even have full digital video editing facilities! The pair of boats also has the usual collection of navigation aids, GPS, power management and controls for the peddle/sail/solar/battery-powered drive, and extendable landing gears. The Microship is expected to launch for a test run in Alaska this summer, with both the boats going on an extended trip through North American waterways within the year.

For those inspired to follow the way of the technomad, Robert's home page offers great resources and links, as well as schematics of his projects and helpful advice on the technomad lifestyle. So cash in those options and say good riddance to the dreaded cube farm! All you need is a desire to be free - and a few high-tech goodies, many of which you probably already have.

-- Nate Heasley

America's First Hybrid Electric

Honda's Insight is the Year's High-Mileage Champ

On September 23, 1999 American Honda Motor Company unveiled its Insight, the first gasoline-electric hybrid vehicle available in America. The little two-seater coupe was immediately lauded for its eye-popping fuel mileage numbers - 70 miles per gallon on the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) tests. In fact, those startling fuel efficiency figures all but over-shadowed the fact that the Insight represented a breakthrough in ultra-low emissions in a car that could operate well with our current fuel delivery and highway infrastructure. Of course, the current infrastructure proved to be the bane of highly visible "pure" electric vehicles like the General Motors EV1. That vehicle's limited range and the nation's lack of recharging stations made the EV1 impractical in the real world even while it was being touted as "the answer."

The Honda Insight, in comparison, can not only deal with today's infrastructure, but it actually thrives in it. The Insight's fuel economy numbers are just one piece of the puzzle; the other key piece is the Insight's extended range. The vehicle can cover 600-700 miles on a single tank of gasoline, significantly farther than the average car, plus, because it can be re-fueled at any gasoline pump it has none of the range limitations of the battery-powered electric vehicles. Meanwhile it meets California's stringent Ultra-Low Emission Vehicle (ULEV) exhaust emissions standard. Not bad for a vehicle that lists at less than $20,000.

How does the Insight weave such magic?

In addition to using Honda's innovative gasoline-electric hybrid system the Insight employs a rigid, lightweight body, aerodynamic design and advanced computerized engine controls. Unlike a dedicated electric vehicle, Insight does not use an outside source of electric power. It never needs to be plugged into an outside electrical source to re-charge on-board batteries. Instead, its electric motor acts as a generator during deceleration and braking to recharge the vehicle's nickel-metal hydride battery pack. In turn, when strong acceleration is needed, the batteries provide power to the electric motor, which then helps the gasoline engine provide adequate performance.

Honda calls the Insight's innovative drivetrain the Integrated Motor Assist (IMA) hybrid system. At the heart of the IMA system is the world's lightest 1.0-liter, 3-cylinder gasoline automobile engine. The engine uses advanced lean-burn technology, low-friction design and lightweight materials such as aluminum, magnesium and plastic. Because the engine runs in a relatively steady state, it can operate much more efficiently than conventional automotive gasoline engines that must meet a wide variety of demands. In the IMA system, the electric motor and stored battery power handle peak loads. The Insight engine also features a new Honda-developed NOx catalyst to help remove oxides of nitrogen.

The two-seat coupe was developed purposely to achieve world-class efficiency and is the culmination of decades of Honda research into lighter, more efficient and cleaner-burning vehicle technologies. Honda is justifiable proud of its environmental engineering efforts. This year about 85 percent of Honda vehicles sold in the U.S. are equipped with advanced low-emissions technology, technology that dates back to 1974 when the company introduced its CVCC Civic, the first vehicle to meet federal clean air standards using regular gasoline.

Having seen other environmentally leading-edge vehicles fall flat on their faces in the marketplace, Honda is making an extra effort to turn the Insight into a significant seller. To help accomplish this difficult feat, it priced Honda the Insight at less than $20,000 with a full complement of standard comfort and convenience features including anti-lock brakes, electric power steering, dual air bags, power windows and mirrors, power door locks with keyless entry, and an anti-theft system. While it may be too early to tell, consumers have reacted to the Insight largely with indifference so far. Through March Honda had sold fewer than 400 Insights nationwide.

But the Insight certainly deserves a better reception in the marketplace. Though small, it does a lot of things right, and it might be the car that convinces the clean-air lobby that clean air and low fuel consumption doesn't require us to drive limited-range, limited-utility "pure" electrics.

While the Honda Insight was the first hybrid electric car to hit the American market, arch rival Toyota isn't far behind. This summer Toyota will introduce the Prius (rhymes with "free us") a hybrid that, it claims, incorporates all the safety, comfort, drivability, and performance of a conventional compact sedan.

Like the Insight, the Prius offers extreme fuel efficiency and extremely low exhaust emissions. According to Mark Amstock, Toyota's national marketing manager for Prius, the new model will turn in EPA mileage of 44-46 mpg on the highway and perhaps as high as 50-60 mpg in the city test. Because the Prius uses its battery-powered electric motor more often in city-cycle driving, it actually gets better mileage in city driving than on the highway. Range is certainly no problem with an estimated in-city range of some 600 miles on a tankful of gasoline.

The Prius is powered by the Toyota Hybrid System (THS), which like the Honda Insight, incorporates both a gasoIine engine and an electric motor. The 1.5-liter engine is tuned for high fuel efficiency and extremely low emissions. In fact the Prius is expected to meet California's most stringent emission standard for internal combustion engines, the super ultra low emission vehicle (SULEV) regs.

Again, its steady-state operation and high-tech computerized engine controls make its level of emissions possible. In testing in Japan, Prius delivered emission reductions of 50% for carbon dioxide and 90% for carbon monoxide, hydrocarbons and nitrogen oxide.

The four cylinder gasoline engine is rated at 70 peak horsepower, anemic for a car that is about the size of a Toyota Corolla or Honda Civic, but the internal combustion engine is augmented by a 40-horsepower electric motor whose instant torque is an invaluable aid in acceleration and hill-climbing. Amstock told Driving Today that the vehicle can scoot from zero to 60 miles per hour in 12 seconds - not lightning-fast but reasonable in its segment of the marketplace.

Like the Insight, the Toyota hybrid system features "regenerative braking," a process that uses the car's deceleration under braking to generate electric power that is then stored in the Prius's 100-pound battery pack. The batteries are hidden under and behind the rear seats so they don't encroach on passenger or cargo area. Its electric constantly variable transmission combined with a planetary gearset allow it to use a virtually infinitely variable combination of internal combustion engine power and electric motor power.

The Prius differs markedly from the Insight in one area: size. While the Insight is a two-seat coupe, the Prius is a five-passenger sedan with more interior room than the Corolla. The spaciousness is partly owed to its high profile. The Prius is four inches taller than a Corolla. Since its introduction in December 1997, Toyota has sold more than 34,000 Priuses, far out-stripping sales of all "pure" electrics combined.

When the Toyota Prius goes on sale in July it will bear a suggested list price of less than $20,000. While that represents a premium over a conventionally powered car of similar size, Toyota considers the price premium justifiable. It will be interesting to see if its five-passenger configuration and larger size will make it more popular than the Insight among consumers.

Car Dealers Take Heart

In this point-and-click world some people suggest that the traditional auto dealership is doomed to oblivion. They argue that the wide variety of information sources on the Net have made the dealership shopping experience superfluous, and the plethora of e-commerce buying options have done the same for the dealership buying process, a process many have equated with dental surgery or sitting through an entire Adam Sandler movie. But new-car dealerships are not ready to throw in the towel yet, and they are gaining solace from an unexpected source - Internet users.

According to a new study released by The Polk Company, a renowned auto research firm, those people who shop and buy cars on the Internet these days are heavy users of information. Certainly, they surf the Web to gain as much information as they can about the vehicle models in which they're interested, but they don't forsake traditional information sources. In fact, the 1999 Model Year Polk Automotive Internet Activity Analysis reveals that Web shoppers put heavier reliance on non-Internet media than do traditional car buyers.

Dealers can take particular solace in one non-intuitive finding - the study shows Internet shoppers place more importance on the test drive than do traditional shoppers. While some might theorize that Internet-savvy customers would feel free to left-click their way into car purchases without bothering with a traditional test drive, the study suggests that is not the case at all. Information-hungry Internet shoppers report that the test drive is the most important source of information influencing their buying decision, and, of course, new-car dealerships have a virtual monopoly on offering test drives to consumers. Sure, Internet users might gather a great deal of information online, but they get a key piece of the buying puzzle from the new-car dealership, and each time one of them walks through a dealer's door there is at least a fair likelihood the dealer will sell her or him a vehicle.

In contrast to Internet shoppers, traditional car buyers who don't use the Web are driven strongly by three factors: the test drive, previous experience with the vehicle and the dealership salesperson. (Internet buyers do not give the salesperson the importance that traditional buyers do, but they, too, cite the salesperson as one of the most important factors in their buying decision.) Living in a "Glass Menagerie" world, they are relying on the kindness of strangers or, at best, acquaintances to get them through unscathed.

"Although the Internet enables consumers to make more informed decisions about their vehicle purchases, the dealership will continue to play a key role in the vehicle purchase process," Karen Piurkowski, director of loyalty at Polk said, summing up the findings. "Dealerships can provide that one key piece of information that consumers cannot access online -- the actual driving experience."

Polk actually predicts the Internet will increase the level of test driving at dealerships, creating a busier atmosphere in the showroom. What that analysis might be missing is the fact that today's Internet buyers are, generally, "early adopters" of technology and more voracious consumers of information than the general public. As the use of the Internet becomes ever-more common, it is likely the less-inquisitive buyers won't suddenly get the urge to engage in test drive after test drive just as they won't suddenly begin thumbing through the pages of Consumer Reports or Motor Trend. On the other hand, dealer test drive traffic isn't likely to lessen either.

While the trend toward info-gathering on the Net doesn't seem to threaten the dealers' test-drive bastion, it does hit them where they live in another area - price.

"By the time Internet shoppers actually visit the dealership, they're already armed with a wealth of information about the vehicles they want to buy," Piurkowski said. "So, besides the test drive, pricing is their key focus. Internet usage will have a significant impact on price competition in the near future. Information-savvy consumers will be in a much better position to comparison shop and to negotiate the price of their new vehicle."

The fact is, in terms of price negotiation, the future is already here. A recent study by J.D. Power and Associates showed that a substantial percentage of new-car buyers now glean so-called "dealer invoice pricing" before they negotiate with the dealer. Although it is probable many of those buyers don't know quite what to make of that pricing information once they have it, there seems to be little doubt this information about dealers' costs puts downward pressure on actual transaction prices, adversely affecting dealers' gross profits. More research remains to be done before this can be definitively established, but a more educated customer might not be the type of customer dealers want.

Of course, most dealers would prefer educated customers to no customers at all, and in the future, those choices might be the only two they have. According to Polk, the trend toward gathering vehicle information via the Internet will require manufacturers and dealers to provide their customers with as much vehicle information as possible. Merely providing a dealer or manufacturer Web site will not suffice. Further fluff and brochure copy don't seem to cut much ice with Web-educated buyers.

The study also shows that, as online shopping for new vehicles rises, manufacturers and dealers will have to work even harder at maintaining customer loyalty. As Polk put it, the focus of Internet shoppers on information gathering and competitive pricing could translate into less loyal customers.

The data from the study speaks loudly on this point. Internet shoppers are less likely than traditional shoppers to be loyal to a particular manufacturer, make or even vehicle segment. Barely a third of Internet shoppers bought a vehicle that was the same make as the one they replaced, compared to half of traditional shoppers. Even with the industry's recent consolidation and merger-fever, the trend was almost as telling at the manufacturer level. Just 54 percent of Internet shoppers repurchased from the same manufacturer, compared to 64 percent of traditional shoppers.

Part of this can again be explained by the "early adopter" phenomenon. It doesn't necessarily follow that as more and more Americans move onto the Net they will adopt all the characteristics of current Net shoppers. But the data also must give manufacturers pause as they continue to spend billions of marketing dollars each year on "branding" and loyalty campaigns designed, in part, to keep their current customers next time around.

An age-old marketing tool that could be brought to bear in the loyalty-building process is one Ben Franklin lauded so heavily -- honesty.

"With this increased focus on information gathering and evaluation, manufacturers and dealers must increase their efforts in building loyalty among their customers," Piurkowski said. "In order to do so, they'll have to put more effort into proving that their vehicle is the best choice for these customers, not merely saying so in their advertising."

How they provide that proof remains to be seen, but there is little doubt that independent testing and third-party endorsements in the form of credible awards programs will increase in importance. And so will the use of the Net in the car acquisition process.

Among new vehicle buyers, about 56 percent reported that they regularly use the Internet, up from just under 50 percent during the same time period in the previous year. Twenty-nine percent of new vehicle buyers said they used the Internet to gather information before selecting their new vehicle. The study also showed that nearly three percent (2.6%) of consumers actually said they purchased their new vehicles via the Internet. The Polk study was based on a mail survey of more than 13,000 new vehicle owners who acquired a vehicle between October 1, 1998 and March 30, 1999.

Among his many jobs, Nerad served as editor of the car dealer publication Automotive Age and director of publications for J.D. Power and Associates. He frequently comments on the auto industry for CNN.

The Fuel Cell

It seems like the proverbial magic bullet. Imagine if you will, an energy source that leaves no residue except some water and a bit of carbon dioxide. Nor does it produce particulates, nitrous oxides, carbon monoxide or anything else that might cause environmentalists to moan. Unlike the typical gasoline or diesel automobile engine, the fuel cell doesn't even use combustion to create power. Instead it uses a simple chemical reaction to make electricity, which can then be used to power electric motors and electronic equipment or stored in batteries for future use.

If all this seems too good to be true, here's a fact: fuel cells have been used in the U.S. space program since the 1960s and today they are used to provide reliable power for out-of-the-way hotels and hospitals that find it too expensive to tap into traditional electric power grids. So why hasn't the auto industry jumped on this technology long before now? Well, actually the industry has toyed with fuel cells for decades, but only in the last several years, with the bogey of having to market so-called zero-emissions vehicles mandated by law, has the industry become serious about employing fuel cell technology. Now, though, major players like General Motors, Ford Motor Company, Toyota and DaimlerChrysler are working overtime to bring fuel cell vehicles to the market.

A quick glance at the technology of the fuel cell: It's somewhat synonymous with a storage battery that doesn't require recharging. Like a battery, it consists of two electrodes around an electrolyte. Oxygen passes over one electrode and a fuel, hydrogen passes over the other, resulting in a chemical reaction that creates a flow of electrons (electricity), heat and a hydrogen-oxygen combination commonly called "water." Unlike batteries that "run down" after continuous discharge, fuel cells will continue to make electricity, heat and water as long as they are provided with oxygen and hydrogen. Unlike the typical vehicle engine, which converts energy stored in its fuel to usable power via combustion (i.e., "burning"), fuel cells chemically combine the molecules of a fuel and an oxidizer without burning, dispensing with the inefficiencies and pollution of traditional combustion.

In an era of constant tradeoffs, there seems to be nothing but an upside for fuel cell technology. But before you start whistling show tunes as you skip off merrily through a field of daisies, the technology does present challenges.

Perhaps the biggest challenge is the handling of the volatile element hydrogen. As proved in the grainy film footage of the explosion of the dirigible Hindenburg ("Oh, the humanity!"), hydrogen gas can be explosive. Given this, one trick in developing fuel cells that will work in vehicle applications is supplying and re-fueling the hydrogen. Various methods have been contemplated and tried, including cold storage of liquid hydrogen and various methods for storing hydrogen gas, but the most promising for real-world use seems to be the gasoline station on the corner. Gasoline (as well as other fuels) can be broken down to produce hydrogen, which can then be used in fuel cells.

Producing hydrogen from gasoline (or methanol or ethanol) is the job of a "reformer." The reformer is sort of an on-board "cracking plant" that separates hydrogen, which is a component of gasoline, from its other components. Of course, the use of an on-board reformer adds a great deal of complexity (and cost) to each fuel cell application. Further, building reformers that are compact enough for automotive use are problematical right now, though fuel cell advocates predict that obstacle will soon be conquered.

Even given the obstacles, reformer-fuel cell technology seems the most viable alternative for getting the technology into automobiles. Why? In the absence of reformers a whole new fuel delivery infrastructure would have to be created from scratch, and the costs of such an undertaking are staggering.

Global car manufacturers say fuel cell technology is coming. In fact, Ford Motor Company, which debuted what it called the world's first production-prototype, direct-hydrogen powered fuel cell late last year, says it is committed to offering fuel cell vehicles to customers by 2004. Other manufacturers are just as eager to be seen on this leading edge. But the internal combustion engine still has a great deal of life left in it. In fact, industry observers predict that gasoline-powered internal combustion engines will still power more than 50 percent of the world's vehicle fleet in 2050. Continue to tune in to DT to see if they are right.

--Jack Nerad

Jack R. Nerad, the co-host of the nationally syndicated radio program "America on the Road," usually runs out of energy around 10 pm.

What Will the Car of the Future Hold for You?

In the late Fifties a cover of a leading do-it-yourself magazine pictured helicopter-like flying cars and predicted we’d all be driving one by the year 2000. Ten years later a similar magazine suggested that we’d all have cars with turbine engines under the hood that could run on salad oil or kerosene as easily as on gasoline. By the Eighties those supposedly in the know predicted that technology would conquer the problems associated with the electric car. New batteries, they said, would finally take electrics out of the horse-and-buggy era and make them viable.

Now, as we are ready to collide with the 21st Century, we ask yet again, what is the future of the automobile? And, at the risk of sounding a bit dull in the face of earlier prognostications, the best guess is that the cars of the next decade or so will be much like the cars of today. The internal combustion engine, burning gasoline, will remain the powerplant of choice, and cars will continue to be constructed largely of stamped steel, aluminum alloy, glass and synthetic rubber. The major changes will come, as they have in the last 10 years, as a result of improved electronics and computer power.

Why aren’t the predictions more reach-out, more titillating? The major reason is that consumers seem to like today’s vehicles pretty much as they are. Sure, they are looking for advanced features in their next car purchase, but the features they want are more in the nature of refinements than breakthroughs.

One company that makes a living studying and predicting consumer behavior is J.D. Power and Associates, the Agoura Hills, California-based market research firm. And according to the company’s most recent study, the 1999 Automotive Performance, Execution and Layout (APEAL) Feature Contenting Report, eight of the top 10 new technology automotive features demanded by consumers are safety-related.

Some of these features, like side-impact airbags, run-flat tires and electronic traction control, are already fitted on many of today’s cars. Anti-lock braking systems (ABS), which first began to appear on American market vehicles little more than a decade ago, have become the most desired safety feature among consumers surveyed, with 93% reporting they want this feature on their next new vehicle. The consumer demand for ABS has quickly moved it from a system offered only on top-of-the-line luxury cars to a popular staple.

"Consistent consumer demand for ABS has resulted in this feature becoming standard on the majority of new vehicles sold today," said Jacques daCosta, senior manager of product research at J.D. Power and Associates. "It is important that automotive manufacturers and suppliers address consumer demand for new features as they have with ABS, in order to achieve high levels of customer satisfaction and optimize vehicle content where the demand is the greatest."

The fact is that auto manufacturers track consumer desires very closely, and therefore future cars will incorporate those features that most buyers want most while eschewing those that seem to fall flat with potential buyers. In this age of cocooning, safety is a particularly hot issue and the adage that "safety doesn’t sell" has been proven wrong.

One safety technology that J.D. Power and Associates predicts will be a winner with the public is the "smart" airbag that can sense whether a passenger seat is occupied and how heavy the person who occupies it is. In a collision, "smart" airbags don’t fire at all if the seat they’re protecting is unoccupied, and they fire with a graduated amount of force depending upon the weight of the occupant if someone is in the seat. (Heavier passengers require more force to be restrained properly.) Some 63% of those surveyed said they’d like to have "smart" airbags in their next vehicle, ahead of such currently available safety features as daytime running lights (61%), run-flat tires (59%) and electronic traction control systems (55%).

Other safety equipment that also registered reasonably high on consumers’ lists included rear-passenger airbags, adaptive cruise control (which helps allow for traffic conditions) and automatic 911 cellular telephone dialing in case of an emergency.

When it comes to non-safety systems, the demand for new technology lessens significantly. In fact, the top non-safety items peak in demand where the safety items leave off. Number one in this area is the proximity sensor, a device that aids in parking maneuvers by sounding an alarm when the vehicle gets close to objects. Some 38% of consumers would like to see this technology on their next car.

Navigation systems, which typically use a combination of Global Positioning Systems and computer mapping, are desired by 34% of consumers. And hybrid transmissions that can be shifted manually or left in automatic mode are on the shopping lists of 31%. A feature that was shown on a famous show car of the Fifties — rain-sensing windshield wipers — is desired by 28% of consumers surveyed.

More advanced, Buck-Rogers-like tech features are somewhat down the list. Just one quarter of consumers would like their next car to have a built-in personal computer. And slightly fewer than that (23%) would like to have voice activation for the control of heating, air conditioning and stereo equipment within the vehicle.

Perhaps the most advanced feature that registered on the study was the gas/electric hybrid powerplant. With a couple of Japanese manufacturers, one of them Honda, about to introduce hybrid-powered vehicles in the next year or so, it must be heartening to note that 20% of consumers said they wanted this technology in their next vehicle. Less heartening, however, is the price consumers said they would pay for a hybrid powerplant — an average premium of just $1,000. While the hybrids that are set for introduction are not nearly as costly as the pure electrics that preceded them, they will still be considerably more expensive than comparable gasoline-only cars.

So, as the year 2000 moves inexorably toward us, two dueling factors seem as true today as they did a century ago: nothing is as inevitable as change and the more things change, the more they stay the same.

-- Jack R. Nerad