MAX Update No. 44: Responses to Sharp Criticisms

| 4/8/2010 11:57:37 AM

Tags: Jack McCornack, MAX, 100 mpg, safety, emissions, regulations,

The crew at MOTHER EARTH NEWS received this letter about MAX, my response follows. 

As I read your article about the MAX car (Our DIY Car: The Quest for 100 MPG), I just had to laugh at the statements and outlandish assumptions that are being made. I am an automotive powertrain engineer and have worked at one of the major automotive OEMs for the last 20 years. I can tell you with some authority that this project is nothing but a high school experiment. The statement from the author “If I can build a 100-mpg car using off-the-shelf technology, the major automakers should be able to do the same, if not even better” shows the lack of understanding people have about the modern vehicle. 

My company could easily build a vehicle that could get 100 mpg and probably cost about $5,000 — no problem. But you have to ask: 

1) Does it meet all regulations from the DOT (Department of Transportation), CARB (California Air Resources Board), EPA (Environmental Protection Agency), and a myriad of other safety regulatory agencies?

2) Is it safe to drive on public roads? Would you put your family in it?

3) Is it saleable — does anyone besides a select few engineers want to buy the thing? 

10/3/2010 5:18:01 PM

"Please note that we are going to 35 MPG in 2016. (average) Something tells me the public will not stop driving in 2016. My crystal ball tells me they will drive those cars and smile while they do it." ___________________________________ What your crystal ball doesn't tell you is that CAFE numbers aren't the same as window sticker numbers, so to meet that 35 MPG CAFE the window sticker will say 27 MPG (IIRC), that's not even a challenge for cars made now, once the (big)SUVs die off they'll be making that number even if they make no other changes. "an unorthodox minority, of which I'm a member." Me too, where's the meeting this year Jack?

richard w
7/3/2010 2:35:52 PM

Speaking of 3 wheels only, ran into a 3 wheel motorcycle called the "Tango Tike" also the web site, if any one might be interested, just a throw out for MAX people. 60-90 mpg.

barbara&richard kacel
6/23/2010 6:47:47 AM

Jack, You are correct that it is a case of economics. We market to a broad range of customers – different demographics, different needs, different uses, and different lifestyles. Building a vehicle that would sell 5,000 units a year is not practical for mass production. But making high mileage vehicles is also a technical issue. If we ignore all drivability, usability and marketability issues, crash worthiness and emission standards must still be met. So it is these standards, among others, prohibit manufacturers from producing much higher mileage vehicles. For the MAX to be a viable vehicle, it must meet the CARB tailpipe emission standards (especially for diesels), and meet DOT crash requirements. If you meet these standards AND get 100 mpg, then you will really have something. I look forward to your future development of the MAX.

jack mccornack
6/22/2010 8:23:30 PM

t., "light" doesn't necessarily mean "flimsy", see MAX Update #40. Richard, MAX isn't for everybody, but it's suitable for an unorthodox minority, of which I'm a member. I think the barrier to mass produced high mileage cars is economic, not technical--I don't think car manufacturers are conspiring with fuel producers, I think the car manufacturers are making the highest profit models they can and selling them to the biggest market they can, because that's what their business is about. They don't have much incentive to make inexpensive minimalist cars for a fringe market of ecofreaks. Those of us who choose to can make our own cars. It would be easier and just as efficient to build a 40 mpg car carrying five people as a 100 mpg car carrying two, and if I had four friends that wanted to go everywhere I go, that would be a good choice, but I do most of my driving alone...same as the guys driving alone in their 5 passenger sedans. For my lifestyle, MAX is a practical car, and I know some practical motorcyclists who think MAX is just plain excessive. In terms of comfort, I'll bet I'm better off than the guys in the back seat of that previously mentioned five-seater.

barbara&richard kacel
6/22/2010 1:31:52 PM

Thanks to t brant for his comments – they were on-point and add even more to my argument. As for some of the other commenter’s let’s see: I do ride a bicycle, never owned a motorcycle, don’t think I’m arrogant, think I’m pretty green overall, don’t think I’m hiding behind my 3 degrees, 10 patents, and numerous technical awards, have not single-handedly contributed to the death of the American car industry. And remember, the same freedoms that allow some to live off the grid, drink unpasteurized milk, or even build the MAX, allows others to choose the size, shape, and features of the vehicles they drive.

barbara&richard kacel
6/22/2010 1:29:45 PM

Jack, First off, I wish the magazine had printed my whole response, and had not heavily edited out some of its major points. Especially the points about usability, affordability, and driveability. The main points of my comments were to rebuke your statement of “if I can build a 100-mpg car using off-the-shelf technology, the major automakers should be able to do the same”. This is simply not a true statement! Many people think (as shown by the readers responses) that every auto manufacturer in the world is in a conspiracy with the big oil companies. They really need to do some critical thinking here. If automakers could produce a 100-mpg vehicle that would meet all government regulations and be affordable and marketable, they would do it in a heartbeat. We are working on squeezing out 10ths of a mile per gallon on ideas like returnless fuel rail systems, moveable aero shutters, and other innovations I can’t disclose. I think experimenting with new ideas is beneficial to us as a whole to advance the technology, and I applaud your efforts at trying to get 100 mpg. I do a lot of that in my own garage. But you have to claim it for what it is – an experimental vehicle that may never be useful for practical usage and not easily manufactured.

t brandt
6/15/2010 2:16:06 PM

Points to consider: KE = 1/2mv^2 + drag & mechanical, frictional heat loss. You can improve energy efficiency by reducing weight and speed (as Jack is trying to do)but it's the inherent inefficiency of the reciprocating engine that's the major drawback, and not being addressed, to producing a 100mpg vehicle that's serviceable. The 100mpg vehicle was built decades ago: the 50cc scooter. It's lite and slow, but won't carry much of a load. Is a lite, flimsy, 100mpg vehicle carrying 2 people (ie-200mile-persons/gal) more efficient than a conventional car getting 40mpg but carrying 5 people (ie-also 200mile-persons/gal)? The conventional car is safer and more versatile. Jack refutes Richard's questions about safety and govt interference by ignoring them- "the rules don't apply to me." OTOH- the safety issues would be moot if everyone were driving lite, flimsy vehicles. While the partially educated among us are wishing that everyone was driving the lite cars, why not just wish, as long as we're wishiing, that we all had wings and wouldn't need to use any fossil fuel for transportation at all?

gregg e._3
5/28/2010 8:13:06 PM

Have a look back 30+ years.

4/30/2010 10:04:57 PM

Sorry, I was mixed up:

4/30/2010 9:22:31 PM

It seems to me there was a Honda Civic in the 80s which got 65 mpg.

jack mccornack
4/27/2010 6:09:29 PM

Robert, cars keep getting better. Not long ago the manufacturers were competing over bulk and performance, and you can't have both without lots of horsepower. This latest energy crisis has manufacturers competing over fuel economy, and really, they're doing pretty well at it. But a 35 mpg fleet average just means they'll have to sell one 50 mpg car for every 20 mpg car they sell. We know the industry can make 50 mpg cars if the public want them (and have done so for a quarter century--witness the 1985 Chevy Sprint, which was later re-badged as the Geo Metro) and by 2016, well, if gas has gone to $5 a gallon by then, they'll have no trouble meeting that fleet average.

4/27/2010 4:20:01 PM

Please note that we are going to 35 MPG in 2016. (average) Something tells me the public will not stop driving in 2016. My crystal ball tells me they will drive those cars and smile while they do it.

jack mccornack
4/27/2010 2:38:37 PM

Stop the presses! Richard is right with his rhetorical question about the EPA (as was Jason, who commented in Max Update 42). I've been swapping e-mails and phone calls with an EPA engineer for close to two weeks now, and my brain is filling up fast. I'll write more when I know more.

eddie colon_1
4/22/2010 11:58:15 AM

Jack, This is not related to your last update, just a request. This blog is so interesting, I'm sure I am not the only one that would like to have a link to a photo gallery, so I can see the current MAX, and other snapshots that you have inserted in previous posts. It can be just a quicklink, in the corner of every new MAX update that says "MAX photo Gallery". Get the website guru to do it for you.

4/20/2010 8:58:21 PM

I had a friend in college, about 15 years ago, that liked to tinker around inventing and building things. He came up with a new shape for an engine piston that was much more fuel efficient. He tried shopping his idea around and at first the big 3 weren't interested, but eventually one did buy the rights, and then never used it. Interesting that they ended up only buying the design so that no one could use it. After that I have a hard time believing "If automakers could produce a 100-mpg vehicle that would meet all government regulations and be affordable and marketable, they would do it in a heartbeat."

jack mccornack
4/18/2010 10:41:35 PM

MAX would be a tough car to mass produce profitably, because it is so labor intensive it would be expensive to build in bulk, and it's so frills free that it would be tough to sell in quantity. MAX will never be a mass market product, and big manufacturers need big markets. I think that's why major manufacturers think "thousands" means "nobody." There are a few quirky souls who think MAX-like cars are worth building, but most folks will settle for what they can buy. That doesn't make MAX a P of S, it's just not the car for everybody. I would hope the MEN readers who don't like MAX will turn the page and read about something that suits them better.

4/18/2010 12:19:45 AM

Richard asked,"How easily does MAX rollover in an emergency situation?" My high school physics tells me not very easily. MAX would have a low center of gravity making it much harder to rollover than any SUV made by the big three with stability control, traction control, and anti-lock brakes. One of the basic problems of the major manufacturers is their refusal to think outside the box and develop a vehicle that doesn't fit into one of their predifined catagories. The most recent new catagory is crossover, the visual appeal of their SUV, downsized to get better mileage. The truth is, everyone makes sacrifices when they purchase one of their vehicles because of the options we are given. Try walking into any dealership and finding a mid size sedan with a standard transmission, they will look at you like you have two heads, because they want the bigger mark-up for the automatic. I've asked when they could get one in and they told me I didn't want one with a standard. Anything that looks sporty, like the Mazda Miata, is stuck with lower gas mileage than would be possible, because they won't put a smaller, more efficient engine that would be sufficient power for such a small car. They want to blame government regulation, but won't think about ways around it. Design a three wheeled closed cabin vehicle that is sporty and safe and efficient. It would be classified as a motorcycle and wouldn't require the same list of gadgets Richard complained about and could seat 2.

4/17/2010 12:24:06 PM

enjoyed the comments. waterboy might want to recheck on that idea of "inexpensive carbon fiber". I had hoped max would be a 21st century version of the hastily cancelled shuttle bug of the eary 1980s.

4/16/2010 11:41:00 AM

Jack, as a fellow Oregonian, I sincerely appreciate your "live and let live" attitude, and your "get out there and make something happen" approach. I nominate you for our States ambassador to the rest of the world ;-) Now, I'm not really praising you, I'm just pointing out a good example for those who have the ears to hear. Life can be so much happier if we take your example and focus on how we can GROW from criticism. There really is NO reason (other than pride) to take criticism personally. As for the big three .. it's their company, let them run it how they want. If they believe that they can come up with the best ideas internally, let them try ... and possibly fail. The bailouts not their fault either. We the people didn't speak loud enough against it, therefor, WE let it happen. It is a companies RESPONSIBILITY to generate revenue, and if someone is willing to give them a cheat sheet, they have the right to take it. Just as we have the right to not "vote" for a company like that. If we start thinking of money as little-green-ballots instead of dollars and cents, then we might start placing our "votes" more conscientiously. (Sorry for the long-windedness :)

dawn pfahl
4/16/2010 11:37:20 AM

I think honestly that the fact that Richard has to use "the consumer wouldn't buy it" as an argument is pathetic. The consumer buys what the consumer can get. If tomorrow, every factory in the world stopped making cars, consumers would have no choice but to buy used. If tomorrow, every factory in the world started putting out cars like MAX, consumers would have no choice but to buy used OR buy cars like MAX. And eventually, used cars break down. I understand that car companies have to make a profit and that the easiest and most effective way to do this is to continue marketing "upgraded" models of the vehicles that we as consumers are already familiar with... and yes, they'd have to design something a little more heavy and less-efficient than MAX to start with, because of all of the regulations that are applied to production vehicles (as absurd as they may be) which do not apply or are treated in a creative way in the design of MAX. Still, it'd be nice to see even one company with the guts to make a serious design change and straight-sell it as a more efficient, better vehicle instead of tweaking the headlight shape and trying to sell it with allusions to sex and money.

mark milotay_2
4/16/2010 11:36:55 AM

Great response Jack! It is car designers like Richard who have contributed to the death of the American car industry. Why are we still turning out cars with massive engines, that weigh 6 times what they need to? We're locked in this cycle of needing powerful heavy cars to fend off the other powerful heavy cars, which is just silly. I have been watching the small garages in China who are producing electric cars with specs better than the the Chevy Volt for a few thousand dollars. The sooner our governments let the auto industry die, so that something better can grow out of it, the better.

4/16/2010 11:32:54 AM

I found his letter for the most part to be civil with good points brought up, despite his rather arrogantly dismissive language about MAX. Except for the point about a vehicle needing to accelerate quickly or else its 'a safety concern'. For delivery trucks, semis, and trailers loaded with animals, accelerating quickly is something that you DO NOT DO, or you compromise the safety of the vehicle, its occupants, and everything else on the road, particularly in the cases of trailers of animals that need to remain standing for the entire trip. I read in a book once that a sure way to cure someone of accelerating and cornering too fast with a loaded horse trailer is to make them stand in the trailer while someone else drives the way they do...maybe this guy should try that. :D

4/16/2010 11:32:39 AM

"There’s a notion that the automakers are in a conspiracy with the big oil companies. Are you kidding? If automakers could produce a 100-mpg vehicle that would meet all government regulations and be affordable and marketable, they would do it in a heartbeat." I just wanted to comment here as this was just too much for me to let slide. I'm willing to give you the benefit of the doubt since you are only an "automotive powertrain engineer" and assume you are just uninformed on the proven methods of inexpensive carbon fiber heat/pressure molding. These systems have been introduced to the entire industry years ago, would solve All your problems/objections and would achieve 100 to 150 mpg. Since the industry has not jumped on this "in a heartbeat" perhaps there is a conspiracy?

4/16/2010 11:32:35 AM

"There’s a notion that the automakers are in a conspiracy with the big oil companies. Are you kidding? If automakers could produce a 100-mpg vehicle that would meet all government regulations and be affordable and marketable, they would do it in a heartbeat." I just wanted to comment here as this was just too much for me to let slide. I'm willing to give you the benefit of the doubt since you are only an "automotive powertrain engineer" and assume you are just uninformed on the proven methods of inexpensive carbon fiber heat/pressure molding. These systems have been introduced to the entire industry years ago, would solve All your problems/objections and would achieve 100 to 150 mpg. Since the industry has not jumped on this "in a heartbeat" perhaps there is a conspiracy?

roger dobronyi_4
4/16/2010 11:09:15 AM

I commend Jack for working towards a more efficient vehicle. I also commend Richard for bringing up a lot of real life points that must be considered for a real world manufactured vehicle. There are two points I would like to address. If we required our speed limits to be lowered (as I have read in other articles( to as low as 35 mph in one article), our safety contrivances that cost so much in weight, hence fuel economy and cost could be saved! If we did put a 35mph limit on cars and had 100 mph trains, maybe more folks would ride trains. The cost in oil to build the average new automobile is 90 barrels of oil. That's 4,950 gallons or equivalent to driving a 20mpg vehicle for 10 years or a 40mpg vehicle for 20 years. One electric vehicle plant said it would roll a new vehicle out every 27 seconds. That's 90 barrels every 27 seconds even though it is an electric vehicle. That's only one manufacturer with one product in one plant. Consider the oil expended in all plants in all countries. Let's start remanufacturing! We can do that LOCALLY too! Limit the number of brand new vehicles. Let's not base our economy on a product that uses a resource in decline. I'll close with a comment to Richard that shows Honda's new 1 person diesel vehicle that isn't even painted because that would add more weight! Would that be similar to a high school project by a major manufacturer? I wouldn't want it, but maybe someone would!

4/16/2010 10:18:45 AM

Unbelieveable! I don't think Jack reasonably addressed any of the points Richard has brought up. I have to commute 126 miles every day to and from work. A POS like the MAX on the freeway or any public road is a hazard and a public nuisance. I need a bag of what you guys are smoking. Another reason I'm going to let my subscription expire.

4/16/2010 10:01:25 AM

It is odd to me that Richard did not defend the Big 3 from the perspective of being a large corporation. A very large portion of the cost of every vehicle the Big 3 make can be attributed to labor and benefits expenses. . . specifically the cost of supporting the defined benefit plans of all all the employees and the retired folk and their families. Also from a logistical perspective, power plant design is not revolutionary buy evolutionary. The engineers are most efficient when they design a power plant and then run with it for 20, 30, 40 years with minor evolutionary changes. New, revolutionary power plant design is expensive and it doesn't make the share-holders the best return on their investment. So, regardless of the engineering requirements that are mandated by law ( yep, made the gov't the bad guy ), the biggest impediment to the Big 3 making something efficient are the employees and the share-holders. But, those are very real expenses. Fortunately the MAX project doesn't have all the corporate over-head and financial performance requirements.

4/16/2010 10:00:32 AM

Jack, I agree with your take on Richard and his comments for the most part. What concerns me about Richard's response (pay no attention to the man hiding behind the engineering degree) is his dismissive attitude and obvious disdain for for the "nothing" that a high school experiment might produce. Geniuses of all kinds (many without any special letters after their names) continue to make important contributions -- even in the automotive industry.

jim garvey_1
4/10/2010 11:13:22 PM

One method of reducing drag that I've read of and havent seen applied to cars is a faceted "skin" like used on submarine surfaces. It is supposed to resemble shark skin that is rough and "pebbly" each scale acting as a turbulator (or baffle if you prefer) that lets the shark slide through the water with a great decrease in friction and drag. This sounds to the bean counters as a marketing minus as painting it would truly be work and we all know how adult children like their cars all shiny. (luckily I cant afford that option -shiny- on my cars) A molded plastic surface on a football should reveal an inexpensive way to try this theory.

jack mccornack
4/10/2010 2:33:37 AM

Hey now, let's not be too hard on Richard, he's offering some good stuff here. He sent this in as a letter to the editor (there's not enough room in the letters section for the full letter and my full response, but you'll probably see them in edited form in the magazine this summer) and I give him high marks for presenting his observations and opinions to us, and he probably knew we would be a tough crowd. Also, Richard is an automotive powertrain engineer for one of the major automotive manufacturers, and lately at least, anybody with that job title is working to improve mileage. If Richard's work has improved his company's fuel economy by 1%, then his positive impact on fuel conservation is thousands of times greater than mine. He's approaching the fuel economy problem from the large scale manufacturing perspective, I'm approaching it from the think-globally-act-locally perspective, and both approaches are worth attention. As far as what people really think about the MAX project, I've got a home court advantage when I write for Mother Earth News. We MEN readers) tend to take matters into our own hands, and that's pretty unusual in modern America. In a conventional automobile mag, I think more readers would agree with Richard than with me. I'll bet most drivers on the road today have never driven anything that didn't originally come out of an auto showroom, and would think MAX is a waste of time.

eddie colon_1
4/9/2010 10:55:27 AM

Jack, This letter was exactly what you needed to win over more readers. I thought it was great that he listed a lot of points he thought were all valid, and you countered with excellent answers, detailing what people REALLY think about the MAX project. I think this MAX blog is the most interesting thing at Mother Earth right now, with all due respect to the other writers and articles. Hurry up and do the new design so we can all enjoy it.

4/8/2010 6:58:09 PM

Something tells me that guy has never riden a bicycle or an 80 cc motorcycle and never would. That is a major problem with our society.

4/8/2010 12:46:28 PM

Letters like the one above show why the auto industry ins't making cars like MAX. The writer wants to blame the government and consumers for the way Detroit builds cars today, rather than admitting that there is much much more than the auto industry could do if they wanted. The fact the he would rather dismiss MAX as a one-off, rather than consider its merits mimics the attitude from Detroit that has the Big 3 playing catch up with alternative fuel technology. Personally, I'd much rather drive a car like MAX than most of the cars hitting the showroom floor today. Maybe Detroit will eventually catch up. Or maybe they'll keep doing things the same old way and wait for the government to bail them out again.

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