Recently I was watching the animated movie Cars with my automobile-obsessed four-year-old son, when an interesting and unexpected physics item made an appearance in one of the scenes.
Lightning McQueen, the arrogant young protagonist race car, is astonished when he can't make a left turn on a dirt track. When "Doc" explains that McQueen must turn right to go left, Lightning is annoyed and dumbfounded by the seemingly ridiculous logic of Doc's proposition. But Doc is right (no pun intended). What he is describing is the phenomenon known as "drifting."
If you were wondering, Timbuktu isn't some mythical city with a skyline of emerald buildings housing a race of unicorn-men. It's a real place, situated in the west African country of Mali, a city historians cite as an intellectual and spiritual center of the 15th and 16th centuries. It's also some 3,700 miles from London. Keep that in mind when you consider a scheme to cover those miles in a car that looks like an Everglades airboat designed by Luigi Colani.
Dear EarthTalk: I understand that Toyota is planning to sell a plug-in Prius that will greatly improve the car's already impressive fuel efficiency. Will I be able to convert my older (2006) Prius to make it a plug-in hybrid vehicle? -- Albert D. Rich, Kamuela, Hawaii
Toyota is readying a limited run of a plug-in Prius, which can average 100 miles per gallon, for use in government and commercial fleets starting in 2009. Toyota will monitor how these cars, which will have high-efficiency lithium-ion batteries that haven't been fully tested yet, will hold up under everyday use.
When the Apollo astronauts drove around on the moon, they had to settle for a little buggy. But if you want to tour the Sea of Tranquility in the family SUV or a Ferrari, well, you're looking at more than a few weekends under the hood.
The first commercial flying-saucer line, the M200 series from Moller International, could go on sale next year.
John B. Carnett
It's designed to seat two, take off and land vertically, fly 10 feet above the ground, and reach 75 miles an hour. It's about the size of a car, but it's round instead of boxy. Yup, it's a flying saucer. Next year, California-based Moller International hopes to introduce the M200G personal recreation craft, the first of what the company expects to be a full line of "volanters"—vertical-takeoff-and-landing aircraft. The design is 300 years in the making.
The idea of using compressed air to propel a passenger car has been kicking around tech circles for years. Now, Luxembourg's Motor Development International SA (MDI) may have the first viable angle to launching a first wave of air cars: airport transportation. Behold the AirPod, a four-wheel, multipassenger minicar set to be built in Nice, France. It's one of the brainchildren of Guy Nègre, a former aeronautics and Formula One engineer who's been messing around with compressed-air technology in passenger cars for nearly two decades.
E. coli has earned a nasty reputation for upsetting stomachs and killing people. But now scientists at LS9, a start-up in South San Francisco, are putting the bad bug to good use, genetically engineering it to excrete biodiesel. The fuel "burns just like diesel," says Greg Pal, the senior director at LS9 [see Breeding the Oil Bug, about the rise of microbial biofuels].
Thanks in part to the inherent awesomeness of the word itself, it seems everyone is talking about ultracapacitors. Ultracapacitors store energy in an electrical field between two plates. They can charge faster than batteries, emit powerful pulses of electricity, and last almost indefinitely. Several companies make them, but the most hyped by far is EEStor. EEStor's ultracapacitors are set to power the ZENN City Car, an electric car with a 250-mile range that's supposed to arrive next year.
Since early last year, two companies -- the Watertown, Massachusetts startup A123 Systems and Compact Power, Inc., a division of LG Chem -- have been battling for the contract to build lithium-ion batteries for General Motors's Hail Mary, the Chevy Volt, an electric car with a small gas engine on board for backup.
GM has yet to officially announce the winner, but Reuters reports that Compact Power is the victor. From our current issue, here's a look inside the fight to power the Volt.