Conservation of Energy
As in Naval Aviation, there is great pleasure in being paid to drive the best toys. Toyota (a company that knows a good thing) was kind enough to give me a state-of-the-art Prius to test-drive. The car is being introduced along with other "green" technologies. To promote the car, Toyota will even plant a tree in your name. Physicists should naturally be involved with conservation of energy.
This car is like a peek into the future. There is no key, just a little fob with buttons to lock/unlock the doors. Upon pressing the POWER button, the car starts instantly with no noise at all. The petrol engine is contolled by computer and only cuts in when extra power is needed. The car actually gets better mileage in the city than on the highway because regenerative braking recharges the batteries. It is full of gadgets like a multifunction display and a colour rearview camera. Toyota has a huge waiting list for hybrid cars like this one.
Any day now Toyota will pass General Motors as the world's biggest automaker. One reason is fuel-saving technology like this. America's scientists and engineers are not stupid. In 1987, GM's Solar Raycer won the first World Solar Challenge in Australia. With prodding from California's Republican government, GM created the EV1, whose sleek design was inspired by the Solar Raycer. The EV1 could easily travel at 85 mph and could go twice as fast if not for speed governers on the engine. EV1 had a range in the hundreds of miles, and looked cute.
EV1 was so popular that there was a long waiting list to get one. In an incredibly stupid business decision, GM stopped production and ordered all existing EV1's confiscated from their drivers. This was documented in the film Who Killed the Electric Car? American automakers preferred the high profits of building SUV's. With the price of petrol rising, all 3 big US automakers are in deep financial trouble. Sometimes you earn what you get.
A little government intervention has been useful. In the 1970's high oil prices were a threat and the Japanese were building smaller, more efficient cars. The Republican administration instituted the strict CAFE standards for mileage. In response, American automakers downsized their car lines to make them more efficient. (The word "downsizing" was invented for cars before it was applied to people.)
It is a great disappointment that during 8 years of Clinton-Gore the CAFE standards were not improved. This was due to political pressure from entrenched auto interests. As a result US carmakers focused on building SUV's, which are classified as "trucks" and not subject to the same CAFE standards. In this way, the government made it more profitable to build fuel-guzzling SUV's. Only in the present administration have CAFE standards been adjusted.
Being "green" can be very good for business. America's Boeing had the option of building a super-size plane like the Airbus A-380. For a time Boeing considered building a faster airliner, the Sonic Cruiser. Finally they focused their limited R&D funds on the 787, an advanced plane which uses less fuel. They have sold over FOUR HUNDRED 787's for a price of 250 million US per copy. Airlines want 787's so badly that Boeing can't keep up with the orders.
With all the troubles and delays of the A-380, Airbus will not have a competitor to the 787 until at least 2014 or sometime after the ORION spacecraft is in orbit. The 787 technology has already been applied to the new fuel-saving 747-8. Next Boeing will introduce a thrifty replacement for the 737, and make Google-sized money replacing a thousand 737's as they wear out. (That is a secret, and you read it here first.)
For those who live on the Big Island and need 4-wheel drive, Toyota also let me test a hybrid version of the Highlander. More advanced projects include a hybrid sports car that goes from 0-60 MPH in 4 seconds! There will also be plug-in cars that can be recharged from a wall outlet. The car chassis of the future will resemble a skateboard, a flat slab with wheels sticking out. Each wheel will contain its own motor and steer independently. By attaching different bodies, the same chassis will be convertible into a variety of vehicles. Someday you may be able to build a car for your own personality, like Batman.
The next World Solar Challenge is October 21-28 in the Northern Territories. This will be the 20th Anniversary of the original event. As was briefly done with the EV1, the focus will be on building next generation cars that you can drive home. The goal of science should be to improve life on Earth.