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Sun, Nov. 21st, 2010, 10:32 pm
Snow Adventure!

I'm officially awesome :)
Plan A failed - we got caught in a blizzard, in a sportscar. Adventure ensured right on cue!
With 4WD trucks sliding around (and off) the road, it wasn't safe.
After sensible backup plans were exhausted, it came down to spending the
night in the car under snow, or clear holes for the windows and trust my driving to
not only make up for not having a 4WD truck, but to succeed where the SUVs failed.

---

Vicky and I were going to a mountain / lake / hot springs resort for a getaway weekend.

Before we left, I checked the weather forecasts and the altitude of our route, and we weren't supposed to hit snow. But weather forecasting is a fuzzy thing, and as we approached Bellingham, snow had begun and was getting very thick. Then it was starting to stick. Then we were all but blind with all the snow swirling in the air. Then vehicles around us were sliding. The snow is compacting to ice as cars drive over it. Time to get off the road!
Within minutes of stopping, we were in a snow-cave - all the windows opaque with a growing layer of snow.

We had reservations at a resort, so spending the night in the car was not a very appealing alternative! (We would also be charged for the resort regardless of whether we made it)

We changed into boots, and headed off on foot, using phones and other people to find out if it was snowing for hundreds of miles, or if it was just localized, and also if we could acquire some chains... in the middle of the night... during snow... for a sportscar. By this time, there were no cars on the road, just trucks and SUVs. I located a place nearby that was open and seemed to have the odd-size chains I needed, but I checked the car manual just to be sure. The manual said "DO NOT USE TIRE CHAINS!", then went on to explain that there is insufficient clearance between tire and wheel-well on these sportscars for chains, and listed a range of catastrophic death-inducing things that happen if you use chains. So, no chains then. On the brighter side, it seemed like the snow was somewhat localized. I had planned for the possibility of getting trapped in the car, so we had all we needed, but... compared to a nice warm room in a resort? So... do I stay or do I go?

By now, the roads are deserted. That means less chance of another car sliding into mine if I drive. That's a good sign. Also, the locals clearly aren't braving the roads, that's a bad sign.

I'm going to try to make it. I get out, and shovel the snow off the windows. By the time I've cleared the last window, the first is covered in snow again. I decide to melt it off. Got back in and cranked up the heat. Eventually got the windows clear, and sliding a bit, I got back on the road.

Apparently it was only 3 inches of snow, but it seemed like more than that! But of course it was the ice under the snow that was the problem.

Working against me: Sportscar. Very low ground clearance, rear-wheel-drive (the worst for snow - you want 4WD or at least front wheel drive), wide tires (you want narrow tires that concentrate the weight and sink/cut through the snow to the ground beneath). No visibility (too much snow in the air). WAAAY too much power - in the low gears needed to go slowly, it can break traction on regular road, so on ice, even riding the clutch, it's very difficult to keep traction. The higher gears with less torque can't be used because to go fast enough to engage them would rule out stopping and turning, which you need! Our route has left the freeway for minor roads, so much more snow on them.

Working for me: Sportscar - active handling, stability control, limited-slip differential, the car is designed with the expectation of pushing traction envelopes. Nav system and HUD was fantastic for driving blind in the blizzard - on the nav map I can see the corners coming up in time to ease into them and stay on the road. (But the traction control isn't worth a damn because it's "sporty" and intentionally lets you spin a bit before kicking in. Yeah, thanks for that). Empty roads are a plus, and all-season tires.

I'm kinda awesome, but driving past trucks and SUVs crashed off the side of the road, hazard lights blinking, road flares, tow trucks, fire trucks attending, etc, I wondered if I was really up to succeeding where so many failed despite far more suitable vehicles.

We made it. And Vicky was impressed :) The car was still covered in snow when we pulled up to the resort. I had only just cleaned it the night before, it had been so pretty! Now it was a complete mess. A frozen slab of grit-laden snow and ice. :-(



Here is a pic, taken shortly before arriving. It's about fifty miles beyond the snow, but some of it is still clinging on!

Fri, Oct. 15th, 2010, 08:05 pm
Chevrolet Volt

Chevrolet just released a bunch of new info about their upcoming electric car, the Volt, because their patent applications were just awarded so they’re now free to spill the beans! It’s a very interesting design, and also has some people up in arms.

Basically, the Volt has an electric engine, a battery that will give the car a 40 mile all-electric driving range, and a 300 mile “range extender” – a diesel generator to automatically start recharging the battery if you run them flat but are still driving.
(A diesel generator powering a battery and electric motor driving the wheels can be more efficient than a diesel motor driving the wheels, because a diesel motor has to be able to cope with a far wider range of load and revs, and much more horsepower is required, so it’s bigger and runs less efficiently. In contrast, a generator can simply sit in its most efficient band, and can also be smaller and less powerful and still output the same average energy, using less fuel to do so).
But we knew all that. Here’s interesting new stuff:

The two parts of the diesel generator (the diesel engine and the electric generator) are not permanently connected, but are connect by a clutch. This means the electric generator can be disengaged from the diesel engine, and used as an extra motor. (If you turn the shaft of an electric motor, it generates power, if you put in power, it turns the shaft – this is part of why electric cars own gasoline cars on efficiency, instead of dumping your power through the brakes, an electric engine can put it back into the fuel tank instead, and re-use it later).

When the car gets above 70mph, the electric engine is operating at high RPM. The engine is more efficient at a lower RPM, so (here’s part of the patented cleverness) the volt diverts some of the power from the electric engine into the electric generator, using it as a second engine, and those two engines are geared together such that their speeds combine (instead of their torque), and the result is high RPM, but at high efficiency.

Nice.

Now the bit that has people up in arms: What happens if the diesel motor is using the generator to recharge the battery and you drive above 70mph? Isn’t the car trying to use the generator as a second motor at that speed? Yes. So what happens is that the diesel motor, which is turning the generator, continues to turn the generator when the generator gets coupled to the car’s electric engine, and then the same thing happens as when doing over 70mph on batteries – the generator’s speed gets added to the engine’s speed.
Except now, the generator’s speed is coming from a diesel motor. It’s an elegant drivetrain solution that achieves high efficiency under all modes of operation yet uses few parts to do it.
That’s the controversial bit – there is a drive mode in which the diesel motor has a mechanical connection the drivetrain. People feel that this means it is really just a hybrid when it has been billed as an electric vehicle with an onboard diesel generator for range-extension in case you want to do a road trip.
People feel that it’s not as ideologically pure any more.

I’d agree with them if the car required the diesel to go over 70mph, but it doesn’t (as far as we know). It drives at all speeds on pure electric, but if you’ve flattened your battery and the range-extender kicks in, the drivetrain is designed to use all available components in alternative configuration to give you the most bang for your buck.

If the Volt is as described, then it might not be ideologically pure, but something better - great engineering.

(I currently drive a 2007 Corvette. My plan was that the Volt would be my next car. It’s going to be HARD to drop down from a lightweight 400 horsepower car to a heavier car with 230 horsepower, you wonder how you ever drove anything else, but there is a lot about the Volt which is exciting in other ways.)

Fri, Oct. 9th, 2009, 01:53 pm
Yet another chapter of CARS, in which Justin heats his brakes, and gets a ticket.

The dealership, as a goodwill gesture, replaced the large race-brake pads on the front wheels with ceramic pads. (Race brakes tend to squeal, and they rapidly cover the rims with brake dust, but hold up under extreme heat. Ceramic pads are quieter, and not as dusty, but heat-fade quicker during motor-racing. I don't race, so the disadvantages of race pads were annoying).

So with new brakes, to get the best results there is a "bedding in" procedure to get a good surface mating between pad and disk. The process involves heating the brakes by braking from 60MPH to 10MPH a set number of times, without giving them a chance to cool.
It seemed a bit hokey, but as I was still sometimes able to get some quiet squeal from the brakes, and the overwhelming consensus of other owners with the same niggles with the same brakes was that the process helped considerably, so I decided to give it a go.

Speaking of brakes and heat, the C6 corvettes have been very successful in motorsport, winning a bunch of stuff like the 24 Hours of Le Mans endurance races, a stock corvette breaking the lap record at Nürburgring, etc, etc. What this means, among other things, is that we have photos of corvettes operating the brakes at high temperature:





Those pics are both scary and reassuring. They have also been described as "brake porn" :-)

So anyway, I had to find a road where it was legal to get up to 60MPH (100km/h), and where I could repeatedly, safely, come to sudden near-stops, without anyone around. Especially not police, who take a very dim view of anyone doing anything unusual. In an urban area of millions of people, with a huge traffic congestion problem, there is no such thing as a deserted stretch of road, and what I wanted was a deserted stretch of freeway! All to myself. Unfortunately, Seattle only has four freeways (the 420, the I-5, I-90, and the 520), and it turns out that it's using all of them :-/

But, I reasoned that Redmond is mostly suburban housing, has absolutely no night-life, and no businesses open late. That should mean that at 2-3am on a Tuesday, while there would still be residents using the 520 to return home to Redmond, the only thing coming out of Redmond would be the occasional semi truck once they had unloaded their cargo at Redmond's department stores and gas stations. This suddenly becomes significant because 520 terminates in Redmond, instead of passing through. So at a particular time, at the extreme east end of 520, in one direction (westbound), it should be empty.

So driving on 520 towards Redmond, 2am Wednesday morning, and despite the traffic around me, as I crested the hill I could see down into the valley and over the barrier to the other half of 520; and saw miles of empty freeway. Unbelievable.

I drove to the end of the line, turned around, and had a freeway all to myself.
So I bedded the brakes. On the third or fourth deceleration, you could really smell it, despite the windows being closed. Soon after, I learned first-hand about what brake-fade feels like (although the smaller rear disks still have race pads, so those were preventing it being as bad as it would be with ceramics on all pads, but the difference was still pronounced), all the while while keeping an eye in the rear-view mirror, because it would be obvious from my lights to a (police) car entering the freeway even miles behind me that something was "wrong", and on top of that, it's a quiet car when driving placidly, but when bringing it rapidly from a near-stop to 60MPH, it's LOUD.

Improvement (after the brakes had cooled down) was instant, but I only care if the improvement endures.

The next day, I parked in a space among a bunch of other cars. And unbeknownst to me, the pile of rubbish on the curb contained a fire hydrant. You can't park next to those. The meter maid called a tow to impound my car.

One of the perks of having a silly car is that people know it's yours, so someone driving by noticed what was going on and tipped me off. Thanks to that tip, I was able to return to the car before the tow truck got there, and so having narrowly dodged all the impound and towing fees, the actual parking ticket fee is pretty reasonable.

The thing is, I've never seen a meter maid working at midnight before. Word on the grapevine has been that states with large budget shortfalls (such as ours - which relies on sales tax, which has been badly hit by the recession), have starting ramping up revenue collection from traffic infractions, issuing more speeding tickets for smaller violations, and so on. I wasn't sure how much stock to put in that, but as I said... I've never seen meter maids working at midnight before!

I actually got off lightly. She didn't notice that I haven't installed my front license plate. Meter maids are supposed to write you a ticket for that, and that ticket would have cost over four times as much as the parking ticket I was given for blocking firetruck access to a trashpile.

We'll see how long it takes for me to get fined for the front plate. Most people report never having a problem, but in these days of budget shortfall, and so many cars flouting the plate requirements, there is a lot of very easy money to be collected there. A crackdown wouldn't surprise me.

Mon, Aug. 10th, 2009, 02:51 pm
Onstar @ Seattle Star Ball. And hacking the car.

Just finished competing at Seattle Star Ball. It was my first competition with Karin, and I think we did pretty well. Our events spanned Saturday and Sunday, and on Sunday morning I got a txt from her that morning pointing out "If we make finals in all our events, we'll be doing 22 dances. Eat your Wheaties!" :-)
We did make the finals in every event, and while we bombed out in a few dances, we got some placings I'm pleased with - 3rd in Pre-Novice Standard, and 3rd in Gold Latin.
I should write more about the dancing - it was a good weekend - but maybe some other time.

After those 22 dances, I was all set to head off, and threw my gear in the car, then discovered in horror I was locked out. I was still wearing my latin attire, so I had no pockets, which meant my phone, money, keys - everything I had was in the bag I'd just put in the car, which meant I was locked out with nothing but the shirt on my back. Furthermore, (other than a large rock) the usual car break-in tricks don't work on this kind of car. I was stuck, 40 minutes drive from the nearest spare key, and it was midnight on Sunday so everything was closed, so even the best case scenario was looking rather grim. Then I remembered the Onstar system. I found Karin, we used her cellphone to call Onstar, and had them remotely unlock the car. Saved!
I was so relieved. I think this means I'll have to pony up for an Onstar subscription - my free trial period runs out this month.

Speaking of the car, I h4X0R3d it. The car has a system called CAGS (Computer-Assisted Gear Selection). Now, a lot of people will tell you that the reason they buy a manual transmission is precisely so that the computer does not get to "assist" in their gear selection. But a little bit of computer assistance (when you're not driving hard) raises the mileage high enough to bypass some EPA tax/fee/emissions thing, thus lowering the sale price of the car. So the engineers that implemented CAGS - deliberately I'm certain - gave the CAGS system it's own separate fuse, so the car gets the good gas mileage, but if drivers want the computer to butt out of their gearbox, it's a trivial job to disable the system.
Except the EPA requires that car computers monitor all emissions-related systems for malfunction, so it has to check CAGS. So if you just pull the fuse, you disable CAGS but the computer notes a malfunction. So you have to make a special fuse with a resistance high enough to disable the system, but low enough that when the computer looks at the system, a connection is made and it sees that it is present.
So that's wot I did.
I actually like CAGS. what it does is this: when you are driving like the proverbial grandmother on the way to church on Sunday (which for me, is frequently) and you shift from first to second, it bumps you into fourth instead. Since you're just tootling around, the V8 can be at a near-idle and still generate enough power to accelerate you, so 2nd and 3rd are wasteful if you're not driving for performance. CAGS teaches you to let the motor run at lower RPM than you would at that speed in a regular car if you're just driving normally. It's kind of fun to change gears and have the car bump you into a higher gear as you do it.
But I've had the car a few months now, and CAGS has me pretty well trained, so there is no further need for it and it was time to get rid of it. (for example, it sometimes tries to bump when I don't want it to, because it doesn't know that I already know that fourth is appropriate but I choose something else due to something about to happen)
The instrumentation still notes when to skip gears though, which is a fair compromise :-)

---

I'm drawn to "hyper-miling" (driving so as to raise your gas mileage as high a possible), and my car displays the gas mileage in realtime, and I think you could get some pretty good results from this car, but the most effective hyper-miling techniques are just stupid dangerous, and I don't plan to die or be horribly mutilated just to save a few cents on gas. So I just do a few things that aren't anywhere near as effective, eg, I'll just pick the right gear to best coast down hills, instead of being a hyper-miler and shutting off the engine entirely, saving a lot more gas but also driving without lights, indicators, airbags, power-steering, ABS braking, power-braking, stability control, and all those good things that KEEP YOU ALIVE. Most of the other gas-saving techniques are similar.

An interesting thing about this car though is that its the opposite of many cars; usually, the the biggest drag is pushing air, and the faster you go the faster you have to run the engine, so optimal cruise speed usually under 50Mph. With this car, the drag is low, and the engine is big, and the high gears are tall, so you get the best mileage at a much higher speed - the engine takes a fair amount of gas just to be running, so the car would need to be moving quickly to counterbalance that loss enough to get the MPG into the mid-30's, but it does exactly that because of the low drag and tall gears.
Unfortunately, I'm not sure what the optimal speed is yet, because I suspect it might be faster than what is allowed by law, and the only flat bit of freeway around here is the Evergreen floating bridge, which has a limit of 50MPH :-/

Mon, May. 18th, 2009, 10:25 am
Good weekend

I had to work this weekend, but aside from that:

There is another guy in Kirkland with an almost identical (to the layman) car in the same colour as mine.
As I merged onto the freeway yesterday, I found myself driving right beside him. We exchanged The Wave, he pulled over into my lane, and we drove convoy until his exit, wherein we waved again and parted ways.
I kind of would like to have seen it from outside the car :)

In other car news, it finally dawned on me (while toying with the idea of installing a camera system) that I hadn't bought a car, I'd bought a new hobby. Which is the LAST thing I have the time for. (Un?)fortunately, the modifications I can make are very limited (or need to be very clever) as I need to keep the car entirely stock for export.

---

In a clothes store, some interesting nike sportswear (stretchy undershirt sort of thing) caught my attention. I briefly pondered its potential to be abused into use as clubwear, but was put off by the nike logos.
But by the next day, I knew there was something to the idea, and I had to try it. Went back, bought it, blacked out the logos, put it with a few other things that changed its look, then wore it out that night. A surprising number of people liked it enough to comment :-)

Being able to pull a semblance of style out of the weirdest things is something I like being able to do, because when I was a kid, I always thought it was an ability I would never have. Now, I'm of the view that design is design is design, and if I'm a designer, then it doesn't matter if I'm a designer of X, by God I should also be able to do a fair job of designing Y, or Z, or whichever other alphanumeric substitution I feel like dabbling in :-)

Sun, May. 10th, 2009, 07:14 pm
Pics of my car

This is a "semi" truck. Semi is short for "semi-articulated tractor-trailer".
This machine can be loaded up with 50 tonnes of, well... anything, and then haul that load to the top of a mountain.



It can do this because it has an engine that can generate 400 horsepower!

But... what would happen if you took all that horsepower, and built an engine and transmission designed to use that power for speed instead of for hauling? And then you crammed all that into a little two-seater car?

What you would get is this:

The Corvette C6.
And I just bought one.

Pics, details, and first impressions - good and bad - insideCollapse )