Suck, squeeze, bang, blow…

Crankshaft (red), pistons (gray) in their cyli...

Crankshaft (red), pistons (gray) in their cylinders (blue), and flywheel (black) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If an alien landed on planet Earth today, I imagine that there are a number of things that we think of as being completely normal which would absolutely bamboozle them.

This was a concept that Cadbury’s used to sell their instant smash where they pictured a group of martians laughing at the ridiculous process of cooking mashed potato. Somehow, I think their laughing would have ground to a halt if they tried a taste test between traditional and instant.

One of the fields I think the aliens would struggle to get their heads around is that of the vehicles on our roads. They would obviously seize onto the importance that we place on the mobility that they give us and would want to know more. They would want to know exactly how they work.

We think nothing of filling our cars with petrol or diesel, jumping in, turning the key and speeding off. But petrol is one of the world’s most flammable substances. It has an extremely low flashpoint which means that it will spontaneously burst into flames if it gets a little bit warm.

It is also highly explosive when mixed with air which is a very scary thought because air is all around us. If your fuel tank is half full of petrol, it is also half full of air which means you are driving round with an awful lot of potential energy sat behind your rear seats. Those no-smoking signs in your local petrol station are there for a reason.

Our visiting aliens would probably have already raised their eyebrows (assuming their physiology actually has eyebrows). They would probably then ask how this flammable explosive fuel turns into motive power.

We would then explain that we pump it to the front of the car where we mix it with air, compress it so that the pressure and temperature rises and then ignite the mixture with a spark. They would probably ask where the spark comes from so we would have a little detour for an hour where we explain all about batteries.

So we have now explained that we get power from the petrol by exploding it in a confined space which pushes a piston up and down. How does that get changed into circular motion at the wheels? So we would then need to explain the how the funnily shaped crankshaft coupled with driveshafts do that. We would also need to explain about gearboxes, because the engine’s oomph all happens in a limited power band.

When we demonstrate the car’s controls, that will probably be the moment the aliens descend into cadbury’s smash style hysterics. The complex ballet of hand and foot movements required to operate the machine which we find so difficult when we are learning to drive, but are second nature to us now, would be the final straw.

The design of the automobile, although somewhat refined over the years, remains fundamentally unchanged after almost a hundred years. Morgans and Reliants aside, cars are predominately four wheeled. Apart from the odd deviation (like square steering wheels in Allegros and digital instruments in Lagondas) the controls and instrumentation have remained broadly the same.

Up until very recently, almost all cars have been powered by internal combustion engines. More recently, car manufacturers have been experimenting with powertrains of differing natures.

Firstly, we have seen hybrids, where we get batteries and an electric motor in addition to an engine. The idea being that at low speeds, you can rely on the supposedly green electric power. Only at speed, do the nasty polluting petrol engines take over. To me, the hybrid is a compromise of the worst sort. They are heavier, more expensive, harder to recycle and arguably have a higher carbon footprint than a normal car.

We have also seen cars powered solely by electric batteries. These ask too much of the driver. I don’t know about you, but I hate filling my car with fuel and I just know that I would also hate having to plug my car in to feed it with electricity. I want my automobile to offer me freedom and I don’t really want a constant reminder that if I will be stranded if i don’t give in to my attention seeking steed.

There is research going on into hydrogen powered cars, but these will require regular feeding too and you will still be driving round in a man made explosive device. There needs to be a fundamental paradigm shift in automobile design. Manufacturers, let me give you my requirements for a perfect car;

Firstly – I don’t want to hear any nonsense about ranges in the hundreds of miles. I want to hear that I don’t need to refuel – or if I do, I would like the refuelling to be done during the annual service by someone in a boiler suit. Secondly, I want the controls to be dodgem simple. There should be virtually no learning curve. Lastly – it must have bulbs that last forever or that repair themselves – I hate changing bulbs on cars.

We have to get this right – aliens are laughing at us.

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4 comments on “Suck, squeeze, bang, blow…

  1. Hi Martin,
    since I’ve found this blog – I read every fantastic post you have left (I registered it on RSS).
    I just love to read a little your posts. They are mix of technical with some history point of view (like Should have seen comming – which is similar to my IT history), or funny this Suck, squeeze …
    Anyway, I’m your’s blog big fan. Keep writing.
    Good luck
    Henryk

  2. Hi Martin,

    Firstly thanks for reading my post and recommending it here. Its always an encouragment to see someone liked your work.

    Neat blog you’ve got here (though at first the name shouts like spam :P). Keep up the good work.

    Cheers

    Alekh

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