Coincidence?

It is odd. I have been talking on this blog about software – and sometimes on automobiles. Here is a link from Nokia – and its plans to get big into automobiles. Coincidence? No.

Here is why.

Scene 1:

When I was in my teens, we used to get this pseudo-historical TV serial “The Sword of Tipu Sultan”. The story was about an Indian King hero and how he lost against British East India Company. Sugar coating aside, the director Sanjay Khan had done a decent job.

Once I was watching an episode depicting war preparations by both the sides. My father interrupted me and asked, “Can you deduce from these scenes who should win the war?”. I said “no”. My father said it is obvious that in long run, the British should win. I asked how. Then he pointed at the British general and commanders spreading a map on the table and planning the war – movement, provisions, backups etc. but Tipu was addressing his crowd as a hero. [My father taught me a lesson on how cold blood wins over hot blood. That isn’t the point of discussion here.]

Lesson: Cartography and surveying are amazing tools

Scene 2:

Science and technology didn’t progress much till Galileo noticed that a pendulum swings only at certain interval. This was the birth of modern cronometry – or clock business. Later that time measurement developed into Newton’s laws where the “rate of change” became the cornerstone of the universe – and the world exploded with technology and science.

Lesson: Cronometry is an amazing tool

Scene 3:

Albert Einstein proves that there isn’t much difference between time and space.

Lesson: Surveying and cronometry are cousins

As human beings limited to space and time, measuring both are extremely important to us. There is no wonder conquering both are goal of every major business.

If you look at last two decade’s technological advances, GPS (surveying and cronometry), GIS (cartography), mobility of computing, self-driven cars (automation of change in location) – all is promising great future for any business that combines space and time.

While business success depends on a lot of factor and I can’t say Nokia would get it 100% right, fundamental idea of Nokia is unbeatable.

Long back a rishi of upanishads could see this importance of time and distance, probably by observing how riding a horse or bullock cart helped reducing pains of humankind:

यदा चर्मवदावकाशम् वेष्टयिष्यन्ति मानवाः

तदा देवमविज्ञाय दुःखस्यान्तो भविष्यति.

When humans will wrap around the world like a hide (skin)

Then the pain associated of not knowing God will end

Moral: If you want to make money, one way is to make anything more controllable in space and time

Even after a hundred years of Invention – hanky-panky between Necessity and Frustration

I sometimes joke, “Necessity is the mother of Invention – but Frustration is the father of Invention.” Unless you are really frustrated of your necessity, an invention isn’t born.

In a sad case I am discussing here, both parents and the child are here since more than a hundred years. That is, India’s need of fast, cheap, reliable, large scale yet convenient long distance public transport.

You’d say Indian Railways is the answer. Wrong! Indian Railways has a lot of insurmountable challenges.

  • Indian Railways is unionized. Unions are about protection of jobs of employees and not advancing technology or business. Unions are so powerful that no railway station of India has working elevators – so that labor can charge ransom-like money from senior citizens, people with disabilities and/or children. Indian Railways accident reports are never published for media scrutiny. Parcels arrive broken, if at all. Platform tickets are sold in the most inconvenient way —- the list is endless
  • Indian Railways takes a pride in being the largest employer of the world rather than the best (or even the biggest) service provider of the world
  • Indian Railways belong to Government of India. Government, for political reasons, don’t want to run it efficiently – keep generating jobs, keep ticket prices artificially depressed, keep increasing capacity on economically dead but high population density areas etc. Since a few decades, no Union Railway Minister came from smaller, more industrial states – and that tells a lot
  • Land acquisition in India is becoming politically increasingly contentious – Railways need land
  • Indian Railways is one of the biggest consumer of Diesel oil. For variety of muddy reasons, it never declared an intention of complete electrification – or a complete move to methane or other cleaner, indigenous fuels
  • … Leave it. There is too much negative to talk about this relic of British Raj
  • Freight cars (called goods bogies) are always in short supply. Road transport yields 50 kmph average on National Highways and it gets exponentially worse as you travel inside
  • Above all, in this vast country of 2500*2300 kms, trains can’t travel faster than 120 kmph due to track limitations. Travel of 1800 kms takes 36 hours – that is 50 kmph!

Traditional air travel isn’t answer for population. India hardly has 3 airports per state. Road transport links to smaller towns suck. Petroleum, especially the ATF, is constantly taxed so high, air travel is limited to a blessed few millions. I can’t afford to take my family to my home town through air every year.

For a long time need for a city-to-city, faster than train, cheaper than planes for masses is going to remain.

India is growing. Indian population is growing. Indian economy is growing. Indian economy inclusion is growing. Indian purchasing power is growing. Indian aspirations are growing.

***

Government of the US is about to sell its huge collection of Helium. They had stockpiled it for H bombs, I guess.

Helium, the second most abundant element in the universe, is light and inert. That means it is very difficult to get Helium on the surface of earth.

Helium can be used for age old airships. Airships travel at 250 kmph! That is, 5 times faster than trains! Between Bangalore and Surat, two fastest growing cities of India, it takes 30 hours today through train. It may take just 6 hours!

It will be cleaner, greener, faster, more convenient, less politicized, more dignified, healthier … than to travel in a train.

At least someone should try this for transporting! A caravan of containers traveling at 250 kmph above in air is much easier than never complete Golden Quadrilateral!

Beyond Moon

Beyond Moon, I don’t think Mars is likely to be our destination.

Come on! What does one gain by going to Mars? Good dose of gravity, what else?

I have recently heard about a company trying to mine asteroids. In my opinion, that is the best exploitation of our ability to explore space, provided we find interesting minerals on asteroids.

Mining on Earth has numerous environmental problems. There is also a problem of displacing human beings.

Mining asteroids is better in this sense. Also, it will be very energy efficient mining too because very less gravity needs to be handled.

As we discussed earlier in this,  “Absent Labor” category, human beings sitting on Earth, can guide robots far away.

Once Platinum or better, Titanium, starts showering from sky, more wealth will be generated that can be exploited to conquer Mars.

Directions miss this one

I am sitting at Yahoo!’s hack day. The speaker is talking about mapping and direction API’s. He is talking about the culture sensitivity about “landmark” obsession of Indian drivers also :-).

I have used maps on internet ever since they became available – and as such, I worked with GPS/GIS in 1995, even before Internet spread so deep.

All directions tell you where you want to go. I raised a point just now.

A key point is missing in “good direction” is, “If you have reached point X on this road, you have gone too far. Just take a U turn and come back.”

Why don’t they think of this?

User interface of a car reverse gear

As per driving lessons, the driver driving reverse has to put his/her hand behind the head of non-driving seat and look back BEFORE changing to the reverse gear.

I wonder why don’t they keep the reverse gear right there at the head of non-driving seat? Or, if it is too inconvenient from transmission point of view, why don’t they keep an “enable-the-reverse-transmission” switch there?

The idea is, unless you move your hand to appropriate position, THE CAR WON’T GO INTO THE REVERSE GEAR. PERIOD.

Turbines!

My friend in energy industry reacted to my idea about Moore’s law for Cars in a bit surprising way. I am not a mechanical engineer so it was difficult for me to have imagined what he was talking.

He told me: “Bhushit, you don’t need all that improvement in piston based engines. We have already done a lot more in turbine based engines. All you need is change the piston based engines to decent turbine based engines!”

Well, I searched on Wikipedia and what do I see? It is a solved problem! However, government killed turbine based car project of Chrysler in 1970’s! And mind you, it was not environment, it was economics! The thing worked on edible oils, kerosene, diesel, gas and gasoline – with NO2 emissions under control. Mind you, the page doesn’t quantify improvement in the fuel economy.

This article of 1972 discusses it in more balanced fashion. It still doesn’t discuss possibility of gas-steam combination and whatever improvement happened after 1972.

Can someone educate me more?

 

Moore’s law for car?

It is not that improvement to existing car engines is entirely impossible.

Recently I was reading about such improvements.

Many such ideas have been patented – and even patents have expired!  I wonder why these ideas are not already marketed.

I list down a few of these ideas.

  1. There is well-known success of gas-electric hybrid engines. This step alone has increased the efficiency dramatically
  2. There is a series of minor improvements in engine and transmission that claim 2%-4% improvement each
  3. There is a concept of five stroke engine. Here, as I have understood, exhaust itself is burned again in a cylinder, cleaning up all Carbon Monoxide and hydrocarbon residue. The efficiency is claimed to raise by 20%. It is probably the cleanest thing a car can do
  4. There is a concept of six stroke engine. Essentially, after the normal exhaust stroke of a four stroke engine, water is injected in the cylinder. Because the cylinder is still hot, it turns into vapor and gives a second power stroke in the cycle. This is then cleaned up in a vapor exhaust stroke. The efficiency is claimed to raise by 30%. The only negative side of #2 could be salts deposition in cylinders and shortened engine life.
    This could be solved easily. Here is how:

In my home, like most homes in India, we have water filter installed. This filter takes 150 W and cleans Coke into near distilled quality water. This assembly costs (hold your breath) mere Rupees 10,000/- (USD 250/-) *in retail*. For 2.5 liter of water input, it generates 1-1.5 liter of good water and the rest is waste. Just install one such box in each car and turn it into a hybrid gas-steam engine!

It is interesting to note that changes like #2, #3 and #4 also claim that existing plant processes don’t need to change at all or much.

Further, these inventions claim smaller engines. This can result directly in higher efficiency itself!

Apart from that, lighter engines result in less mining, less transportation cost and higher pickup.

Some of them also claim less wear and tear and noise. Some may cause a bit more – essentially balancing it out.

Also, changes like #2, #3 and #4 can be implemented *independently* from each other. That means, at every step, the efficiency of a car engine can get up by 20%-30%.

Stating parallel to Moore’s law, it is possible to introduce car engine and transmission improvements for five years in a way that car efficiency keeps improving by 20% year over year.

Then why is it not happening already?

I think

  • One element is the sheer lack of will to take risk. It is natural if you are sitting on a 100 years old industry.
  • The other element is amount of investment versus the scale of sale. A car factory may be cheaper than a fab but number of cars sell much less than number of chips.
  • Yet another possibility could be rate of penetration of the technology. People are happy changing their laptops every second year (or cell phones every six months) but not cars. Thus, Moore’s law of car could not penetrate fast.
  • Yet another possibility is the way support is organized. For computers, there is hardly anything on the name of hardware support. However, a car goes to a garage every three months for oil change at least. This labor is sometimes skilled, sometimes semi-skilled. Training them every now and then may not be cost effective.
  • Yet another possibility is perception. Since last 15 years or so, computer industry has a strong a global focus. Cars, alas, are still a rich man’s toy in a rich country. If Americans can afford burning gas, why bother about Thais?
  • Yet another possibility might be conflict of interest. This is serious. I am not sure how many car companies are genuinely interested in bringing down petroleum consumption. I dream of a day when financial interests between oil industry and auto industry are examined in public eye.

Then the wonder is, why don’t third world car makers take this up? Why doesn’t Tata take such risk? Why doesn’t Bajaj take the risk? Why don’t Chinese car makers take this risk?

I leave it here for your comments.