MAX Update No. 77: MAX Gets Smogged

| 7/5/2011 4:52:04 PM


There have been a few questions about MAX’s legality among the Comments on these updates. Now I don’t think of myself as a scofflaw, and I sure don’t think rules are meant to be broken, but I often let the reason for the rule guide my interpretation of the rule.

The EPA (Environmental Protection Agency, if you’re new here) has some very strong words regarding tampering with vehicles and their engines, and there are plenty of good reasons to prohibit tampering, regardless of the intent of the tamperer. However, there are some inconsistencies in enforcement; some are based on getting the most bang for the enforcement buck, and some appear to be the result of just plain good sense. I have had many conversations with EPA engineers and execs over these last few decades…

Well yeah, I was one of the home brewed alcohol fuel folks back when Mother Earth News was first spreading the word about alternative fuels, back in the late ‘70s, and here’s a big surprise: the EPA did not recognize ethanol as a motor fuel back then. Everybody who was running ethanol blends back in The Day was violating the Clean Air Act; we were all a bunch of tamperers, violating the letter of a law that had gone into effect in 1963, when gasoline was 29 cents a gallon and we exported more gallons than we imported.

I expect every EPA official I talked with back then has retired, so if I may grossly paraphrase the off-the-record consensus of the era, it was: yeah, technically you’re in violation, but we have better things to do than throw the book at a handful of conservationists who are doing now what we’ll all be doing in the future, so keep up the good work and maybe we’ll all learn something.

Half a lifetime later, I’m playing canary-in-the-coal-mine again, with an unconventional car with an unconventional engine burning an unconventional fuel — straight vegetable oil. As with ethanol 30 years ago, the EPA does not recognize straight vegetable oil as a motor fuel today (And they only got around the legal problem of biodiesel fuel by redefining diesel fuel as petroleum or vegetable based. There’s not much sulfur in vegetable oil; that’s a plus.), yet people have been converting their diesel cars and trucks (and selling conversion kits, and writing books on how to do the conversion yourself) for years and I don’t think any of those people have been carted off in handcuffs.

Part of the issue is it costs several kajillion dollars to get EPA approval for an engine or a fuel…or did until recently. On April 8, 2011, CleanAlternative Fuel Vehicle and Engine Conversions; Final Rule hit the Federal Register. Make yourself a big pot of coffee before you read it, it’s 45,000 words long and there are no pictures. There’s an easy to read summary at EPA Announces Final Rulemaking for Clean Alternative Fuel Vehicleand Engine Conversions but the point is, the EPA is making an effort to make it easier to demonstrate (and market) adaptations that reduce petroleum consumption, provided they do not increase harmful emissions.

jeff dean
7/24/2011 10:14:31 PM

Jack, where is Max at as far as mpg? Did the lighter rims, mileage max tires, taller tires, have an effect? Are you considering changing the differential for a taller gear? What are you planing for the windshield and top? I've been fallowing Max from day one and have enjoyed the whole process. Thanks for sharing with us.

Jack McCornack
7/21/2011 12:37:51 AM

Abbey, Jason and Jeff, I appreciate your comments and I'm learning a lot from this discussion. I of course agree that major automotive manufacturers (e.g. VW) can do better than individual eccentric experimenters (e.g. Yours Truly), but just 'cause I'm not Dr. Martin Winterkorn (Chairman of the Board of Management of Volkswagen AG) doesn't mean I'm going to stop doing my best. MAX is what I can do on a $10,000 budget. The XL1 is what Volkswagen AG can do with a budget in the many millions. Regarding the opinion that MAX is "not likely" safer than a motorcycle because motorcycles are more agile, well, MAX is pretty dang agile and I too have had my motorcycle endorsement for 40+ years--I'd say MAX is somewhat safer than a bike but I'll not claim it's a huge margin. Y'all may be underestimating MAX's maneuverability.

jeff dean
7/20/2011 9:18:58 PM

Abbey,I agree with you on many points. The Kabota would not be my choice of engine. I think maybe the VW TDI would be a better choice. It's already set up for automotive, proven reliable, proven efficient, and much more HP. As for plywood in the interior, I was surprised to see that. Lessons from modern race cars (stock cars) would be well taken here. Aluminum and plastic would be more appropriate, stronger, lighter, and doesn't splinter on impact. Although I would make many changes to Max, it's interesting to see how someone else does it. It would be interesting if others would document their eco-builds (scratch built eco-cars, not hyper miler geo metros) and put them on the net.

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