Saturday, August 11, 2012

Sunday Drives

Most of my early childhood memories are shadowy, but Sunday drives through the countryside are some of the clearest.  Mixed with the sights outside the window were the sounds of my parents' voices raised in song.  I still know the lyrics to many songs of the forties, learned on Sunday road trips. That was certainly a different era.  In 1940, when gas prices were 18 cents per gallon, an afternoon drive was cheap entertainment.  Contrast that with current gas prices, which are now over $3.70 per gallon at our local pumps, and you won’t have any trouble understanding the demise of this pastime.

President Obama’s announcement of the new 54.5 MPG standard promises some light at the end of the tunnel.   Although that standard will not be reached until 2025, it will be phased in, beginning with a 35.5 MPG standard in 2016 and it is estimated that consumers will realize a $1.7 trillion savings in fuel costs by the time the standard is fully implemented.   Increased sales of higher mileage vehicles and the development of energy efficient technologies are credited with winning auto manufacturers’ buy-in.   Even so, automakers will need to go beyond current hybrid and diesel solutions to meet the final standard and provide a product that is affordable for the average consumer.

A recent Forbes article, The Fantastic Plastic Car, features one automotive designer’s answer to the need for mileage efficiency.  Gordon Murray cites the heavy weight of steel as a major factor in low gas mileage. Murray’s T.25 won the RAC’s Future Car Challenge and boasts an incredible 80 miles per gallon.  Made of carbon fiber reinforced plastic, a composite known for its high strength-to-weight ratio, it provides a safe alternative to heavier, lower mileage vehicles.  Lower manufacturing costs promise lower sticker prices and quicker adaptation by car buyers.   

While plastic cars may sound innovative, Henry Ford built the first plastic car in 1941.  Known as the Soybean Car, it had fourteen plastic panels, which were made from a combination of soybeans, wheat and hemp,  attached to a steel frame.  Weighing half as much as its all-steel counterparts, the Soybean Car could have solved gas mileage concerns before they became an issue.  Sadly, the outbreak of World War II halted auto production and the Soybean Car was not pursed after the war ended.

In the sixties, advances in plastic welding supported the creation of another plastic car.  An ultrasonic welding machine, which fused materials with high frequency acoustic vibrations, was produced.  Subsequently, Marbon Chemical, maker of a thermoplastic resin called Cycolac, hired a designer to produce a car from the material.    In 1964, he created the first prototype, the CRV (Cycolac Research Vehicle), which used ultrasonic welding for fusing the Cycolac components.  Although he created several additional prototypes, they had a weak reception and development was discontinued.

Welding techniques, however, continued to support the use of plastic in car design.  In the mid seventies, for example, General Motors utilized a type of friction welding known as spin welding to fuse parts of their air conditioning systems.  In 1979, an engine made of  graphite reinforced plastic was built by Polymer Research.    Until recently, however, additional plastic car prototypes have been scarce.  Hopefully, the new mileage standards will spur the development of many more innovative vehicles like Gordon Murray’s.  We might even see a resurgence of the Sunday afternoon drive.  I’d better start practicing my forties repertoire.

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