Dropping Plans for the "Mileage Maximizer"

I think I started thinking of a way to improve gas mileage about 5 years ago.  I have been tinkering with it on-and-off since then. One of the features of the Buick RoadMaster that Ali and I bought was the throttle-body fuel injection because I thought it would be easier to modify than the direct injection of newer engines. Despite learning lots about how I would tackle the problem, I don't think I'm going to worry about ever actually implementing it; instead, I'll focus more of my energy on human-powered vehicles like custom bicycles and such.

I read an article that included a graph of engine efficiency for a Volkswagen (I think) that plotted efficiency (horsepower per gallon of fuel) as a color against throttle position and engine RPM. In this particular engine, efficiency varied between about 5% and about 30%. One way to think of it is that for any given engine speed (i.e. 2500 RPM), the efficiency the engine converts fuel to mechanical power varies with throttle position. A rudimentary observation is that the engine is more efficient at 50% throttle than at either 5% or 95%. Also, there is a "sweet spot" — a throttle position that is the most efficient (or a range that's pretty close) — for any given engine speed.

Automotive designers have not done much with this information as far as I can tell. They try to make the "sweet spot" bigger for efficient cars, they try to set the top gear in the transmission so average highway speeds are in the sweet spot, and in a few cars, they switch off half the cylinders sometimes to try and change the sweet spot.

My idea is to change the fuel system more radically. First, switch to "throttle by wire" — make the accelerator pedal more akin to a "torque selector" than a "gas pedal". The actual engine throttle would be computer-controlled to try and maintain the most efficient engine output for its current output RPM. To control the amount of power the engine actually produces, the computer would disable fuel to suppress firing of certain cylinders at a ratio that approximates the desired power output requested at the accelerator pedal.

For example, if you're driving up a grade on the highway and need the engine to deliver 40 horsepower, the car might be running at 1800 RPM and you'd have the throttle at 40%. Let's say this gets you an engine efficiency of 12%, but at 1800 RPM, the "sweet spot" 60% throttle you can get 20% efficiency. At 60% throttle, though, the engine delivers 80 horsepower and you'd be accelerating. So the computer would turn off the cylinders half the time so the effective engine output would be 40 horsepower, but the engine efficiency would nearly double — and so would your gas mileage.

The trouble is, it's quite a time-consuming, complicated project. The first step is to measure the engine data — and that starts with building sensors and recording equipment to get a good set of efficiency and power output data for a spectrum of both throttle positions and RPM. Then it's a matter of analyzing that data to get the target throttle positions and ratio calculations to match the existing performance of the accelerator pedal. But then it gets complicated: you need a throttle actuator, an electronic accelerator pedal, and a way to send the engine computer corrected data from the exhaust oxygen sensor (i.e. turning off half the cylinders increases exhaust oxygen a lot) — probably more sensors too, and a computer to process all that information real-time. Of course you need to make it safe, and be able to record data so you can present it truthfully.

And if everything goes perfectly, it's a gamble as to how much improvement you'd actually get. The thing that kept me interested in the project was the prospect of doubling the mileage — going from 20 MPG to 40MPG. I think it's more realistic to consider a 10%-20% improvement. But without the big step of collecting data, I don't even know at all.

I promised myself this year that I'd put forth extra effort and really try to make it work. I made this promise for 3 years now, and I still have no system. So I'm relieving myself of pretending to get it done. At the end of March, I was supposed to have a working Controller Area Network (CAN) to reliably communicate data between the various microcontrollers in my system. It's now the middle of May and I have no such system. So it's time to zip up the body bag and pack this one away. I learned a lot in doing research, and I'm glad I did, but I just don't think I'm going to bother finishing it.

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Taking the Bus

I've been working on migrating my travels to alternatives to the car — as you'll recall, I took my Civic off the road (so now I've got our Buick Roadmaster Estate Wagon and Ali's Saturn, neither of which I want to rely on for day-to-day tasks). Tonight was The Rochester Speculative Literature Association (R-SPEC) meeting at Barnes & Noble (3349 Monroe Ave.) so I thought I'd try taking the bus. I've used the buses on rare occasions in the past, but this was the first trip that required a transfer and that I didn't really have a backup plan (aside from calling Ali, even though she loaned her car out to our friend Christina for the day).

The meeting was at 7 p.m. so I wanted to get there a bit early. According to The Rochester-Genesee Regional Transportation Authority (RGRTA)'s trip planner on the website, I should take the #24 bus at 5:56 p.m. downtown to Court and Clinton, then take the #7 bus to Pittsford Plaza at 6:40 p.m. — total trip time: 43 minutes. I did my own analysis of the schedules and decided instead to take the #19 bus at 5:38 p.m. to 12 Corners then take the #7 bus to Pittsford Plaza at 6:09 p.m. — total trip time: 31 minutes. I arrived early enough to get some dinner at Benucci's (3349 Monroe Ave., in the Pittsford Plaza) … nothing particularly exceptional, but still perfectly fine.

So after the meeting, the RGRTA trip planner suggested I leave on the #7 bus at 8:54 p.m. (or a similar trip starting at 9:38 p.m.) and take it to — get this — Irondequoit Plaza (2133 Hudson Ave.) to get the #5 bus back to my house at 11:51 p.m. — total trip time: 2 hours, 57 minutes. I analyzed it myself and determined I could take the #7 bus at 8:54 p.m. (or an identical trip starting at 10:02 p.m.) to Clinton and Main then hurry to meet the #5 bus going south at St. Paul and Main and get home by 9:37 p.m. — total trip time: 43 minutes.

As it turned out, the meeting ran a bit long and I stayed to try and find that book Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us) by Tom Vanderbuilt which they did not have. I took the 10:02 bus which arrived pretty much on time. I made it to the #5 which didn't leave for a few minutes anyway and made it home fine.

All told, it worked out okay. I bought a "Freedom Pass" which gets you rides for a day for $3 (as far as I could tell, I would have had to pay $4 for the 4 bus trips … there's probably a secret to transfers or something, though). The bus stop nomenclature is confusing — for instance, the stop nearest my house for the #19 bus is "Crittenden and East" which identifies an intersection. There are 2 stops within 20 yards of that intersection and I wasn't sure which one was right. The trick is that the first street is the main street and the second is the cross street, so it would be much clearer to say "Crittenden at East" but once you get used to it, it makes sense. You also have to know which direction your bus is going — for instance, there are 4 stops at the Elmwood and Mt. Hope corner.

It's also annoying that the stops have advertising on them rather than information: the bus stop signs only specify how much the trip will cost. If only one route uses a particular stop, the sign will identify the route number, but if the stop serves multiple routes, it will just say that it serves multiple routes and not specify which ones. There are no maps or clues as to where to go or when.

But it's that routing system that is the worst. What good is it if you can do it yourself and get better results — and with relative ease at that? The biggest obstacle is to get the bus route information from the site as it is no longer available as tidy PDF's of the route tables, but as dynamically generated pages where you can specify your stops. It would make much more sense to, say, get all the bus route tables for stops within a few blocks of your starting and ending points and figure it out from there.

It's too bad that RGRTA has a government sponsored monopoly because with a little competition, it wouldn't be hard to come up with a better system. One thing that I've been toying with is the idea of a "superway" — a system that's like a subway, but instead puts buses on the network of highways to cover the large distances quickly. So, for instance, there would be stops along each exit on 490, 590, and 390 with buses running frequently along those routes. I could walk 15 minutes to 390 and East Henrietta Rd. then take a bus to the Monroe Avenue exit off 590 in 3 minutes (maybe more like 6 minutes counting a stop at Winton), finishing up by walking the remaining 19 minutes to Pittsford Plaza. All told, it would take about about 40 minutes but I could do it pretty much any time I wanted to; the walking time on my trip out there added 10 minutes for a total of 41 minutes on the way out and 53 minutes on the way back and also limited to the whims of the bus schedule. Throw in a few extra routes to cover the parts of the city farther than a mile from a highway exit, and you're in business.

Anyway, the bus is now an alternative for me to use. But once I get a bike ready, I can cover the 5 miles to Pittsford Plaza via the canal path in about 20 minutes or so. And do it any time.

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Trying Out Zipcar

I borrowed a Zipcar with Ali and Christina today.

I heard about the program a couple years ago and was quite excited about it. In 2006, they introduced some cars at The University of Rochester (Elmwood Ave. at Intercampus Dr.) and I jumped at the opportunity. Unfortunately, it was only for people affiliated with the university. The other week I was listening to Car Talk and they mentioned Zipcar again so, on a whim, I checked out the site.

The cars were indeed still at the UofR and I clicked to join. This time, I got as far as the page where they asked for my credit card information and noted that I had not been asked about working for the UofR. I called and they confirmed that the program is now open to anyone so I finished signing up.

Zipcar is a car sharing program. It costs about $50/year to be part of the program. In Rochester, there are 5 cars (4 parked at the UofR river campus and the other parked at The Eastman School of Music (26 Gibbs St.)) Each one costs $7 per hour or $60 per day to use — insurance, gas, and 180 miles for each calendar date the car is reserved are included.

I decided to crunch some numbers to see if that's reasonable. I've owned my now-dying Civic for 15 years now. Figuring everything I spent on it, it's cost $0.26/mile for its 170,434 miles or about $3,000 per year. On average each year, it's been about $500 for gas, $500 for insurance, and $650 for repairs and service. However, I've changed my driving habits and last year I only drove about 4,000 miles, so that works out to an ongoing cost of about $0.41/mile. If I estimate an average of 40 miles/hour overall, I only drove the Civic for about 100 hours last year.

Taking the $1,650 annual cost against the $7/hour cost of Zipcar, that's about 235 hours; the daily rate works out to 27 days. In other words, if I get rid of the Civic altogether, I can break-even with Zipcar as long as I stay under 235 hours in a year. As I said, I changed my driving habits and try to do as much as I can by bike — or avoid trips altogether — so it doesn't seem particularly difficult.

The idea behind car sharing is that you don't need a car per se. Almost all the time it's just moving people from one place to another — you only really need a car if you're hauling things. Of course, if you have small children, it's much more convenient to have a car, but you might be able to get away with one car instead of two in a household.

So anyway, I tried it out. I reserved the Honda Element named "Eastman" for a couple hours. Since it's generally used by college students, it was … well … a lot like a college student's car: kind of a disgusting mess inside, what with a McDonald's bag, garbage, and food all over the place. I suspect it was as bad as it gets because nobody wanted to clean it all winter.

But overall it was a pretty easy process. In the future, I'll bike to the pick-up location rather than take the 20-minute walk and just lock my bike nearby for retrieval when I return the car. (That's another thing: you can't do one-way trips — you have to return the car from the place you found it when you're done.) For now I'll hold onto the Civic (and don't forget we also have the wagon) until it fails to pass inspection later this year.

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The Wagon's Grinding Gradual-Slowing

Ali and I were out running around in our Buick Roadmaster Estate Wagon to every furniture store in town looking for her perfect couch. Thus far, we had found one that was nice but very expensive, and several others that were cheaper but not quite what she was looking for. We went to Charlotte Furniture and Appliance (3200 Lake Ave.) and the salesperson asked what we were looking for. They had exactly one couch with furniture buttons on the back. When we went to see it, Ali saw the love-seat and thought, "that's perfect if only there were a sofa" just as she saw the sofa. It was perfect. And as cheap as the couches we didn't like. It was great. She ordered it on the spot, picking out the fabric and getting set up with financing.

So we headed out toward 390 via Stone Rd. From Ridge Road we went to get on 390 but as soon as we hit 45 miles per hour or so, we suddenly heard a sound like we were dragging a plastic barrel under the car so we pulled over. We looked under the car but saw nothing — not even from the driver-side rear wheel area. We tried driving again but it made the terrible noise again when we got to 25 MPH or so.

We called the service I signed up for: Better World Club — sort of like AAA, but without all the lobbying for bigger cars and more roads [heck, they even offer roadside bike assistance.] They contacted Towbuster Towing (510 Hudson Ave.) for us and said it would be about 45 minutes. We decided to limp the car to Ridgeway. We checked under again, hoping that we might be able to get it home on our own. Alas, it kept making the noise and I found a chunk of metal all ground down that was warmer than the cold ambient temperature — evidence enough for me that it came out of the car.

We got it to a parking lot on Lee Road and waited. Towbuster called us and said they were 20 minutes away and they had no room in the cab of the truck so we'd have to get our own ride. We wrangled a friend of ours to pick us up — the tow truck even arrived at the same time. Well, despite telling them what kind of car it was, they brought a truck that was too small. The distance from the rear axle of the wagon to its bumper was too long for the truck to accommodate. Well, it was just big enough, but they couldn't do anything more than a really gradual turn. The flatbed truck was another hour away so we decided to just leave the car and go home.

Actually we went out to dinner: Paola's Burrito Place (1921 South Ave., formerly Big Dog's Hots). We received the worst news in the world: Arturo is moving back to Austin in 6 months or so to be with his family, closing Paola's. So, if you like the place, go get your fill because it'll be gone soon. The Upper Mount Hope Neighborhood Association sent out a note that he was leaving in two months, but we're hoping he was correct. Naturally dinner was great.

Anyway, we had our poor wagon towed to Integrity Auto Repair, Inc. (241 E. Henrietta Rd.) As it turned out, the flatbed would have had the room for the both of us to ride along so had Towbuster sent it first, we would have had an easy way home.

As it turned out, it was probably good that we had the wagon towed. The brake drum had been machined beyond specification and the liner finally disintegrated. Had we driven home, we probably would have totally ruined all the brake parts inside. Integrity did a nice job with it and it's fine now. My wallet … well, not so much.

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FrostBurn Day 4

So I got up around 10 a.m. on Monday — the last day of FrostBurn.  I got ready to go and discovered that my car keys were missing.  It was oddly just my car keys too: I still had my house keys, but I had somehow unclipped the car keys the night before.  Since John and I were the last ones up, and we got no snow the night before, they must have been sitting right on top of the snow.  I searched along the paths between the car, my winter shelter, and the bathrooms to no avail.  I took down the winter shelter and packed everything up, checking every pocket and nook.

Still nothing.

I gave Ali a call on a borrowed phone and let her know what was up.  Although she's so awesome that she would have traveled the 5 hours out to get me, she's smart enough to get me to try other options first.

I had signed up for Better World Club last year and finally got a chance to use it. They tried contacting some locksmiths, and decided that the best bet would be to get the Buick Roadmaster towed to the nearest dealership. Lizzy called her friend and we thought a better option would be to bring the VIN to the dealership and have them make a new key. We got hold of Better World Club and called off the wrecker. They called contacted the nearest dealership and found it would cost all of $4.

As I walked around the car to fetch my hand-held GPS to give directions for people, I couldn't believe my eyes.  The keys were sitting right out in the open, just a few feet in front of the car.

It might have been there all along, or it might have been kicked free by someone during the four hours of searching.

So I called Ali and got packed up and headed home.  Once again, the snow sucked on the roads: all the way from Erie, PA to just east of Buffalo.  I did make it home safely, though, and — overall — had a great time.  I also got to be remembered as "Jason Who Lost His Keys" rather than (or "in addition to", perhaps) "Jason Who Passed Out in the Snow".

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FrostBurn Day 1

Today I headed out from Rochester and drove to Cooper's Lake Campground (205 Currie Rd., Slippery Rock, PA) to attend FrostBurn.  Last year it was during President's Weekend in February but they mentioned that they planned to change it to Martin Luther King weekend this year.  Ali and I realized we'd have to rearrange her mom's annual visit to accommodate the trip — but we forgot and, although I remembered again in November, it was too late.  So, it was just me this year.

The trip out was not bad, except for lake-effect snow around the lake near Buffalo.  I slowed down to 45 MPH or so and was getting frequently passed, but after 80 miles or so I did successfully drive out of it.  I arrived around 4 p.m. or so and got settled in.  The commercial campground where the event is presently held is located on a hill, and the organizers decided to split it up so there were people camped on top and at the bottom. Initially I was placed at the bottom of the hill.  Since I had the rear-wheel-drive Buick Roadmaster, I figured it would be impossible to drive down.  And since I also had a 180-pound base to the winter shelter I made, I really had no desire to try and make that happen either.  Thankfully there were some spaces available at the top so I camped there.  Also, I had access to electrical power: even though my winter shelter was pretty good, the predicted sub-zero temperatures would have been overwhelming without use of the electric heater I had at-the-ready.  As it turned out, I never even got to try it out that night.

Because of the cold — it was, after all, no warmer than 5°F outside — I decided to consume and share the two bottles of homemade wine I brought rather than let them freeze.  I got to meet lots of nice people and check out the whole event. Along the way, I met another Jason who ended up … umm … overdoing it, and ended up in bed early.

By the time all the drinking and debauchery was done, I was leaving the lower section and really don't remember much of what happened.  Based on legend, I became "the guy who passed out in the snow," "almost died," or "got frostbite."  As it turned out, this guy Tony helped me up the hill and let me stay in his heated RV overnight.

So now as you all cluck your tongues and "tsk-tsk", let me add two things.  First of all, I didn't go out with any plan whatsoever to end up passing out.  And second, this event isn't like day-to-day life: it's more like a village or an extended family.  Rather than stepping over somebody passed out, anyone there would have stopped to help.

That said, it got down to -11°F in nearby Slippery Rock, PA and, depending on who you asked, it got as cold as -14°F or -18°F — so there was some real danger of getting injured out there.  Thankfully I had on a full 4 layers on my legs and 6 on my torso along with chemical warmers on my hands and feet that were still working by morning.  For the most part it was pretty comfortable.

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No Satisfaction Guarantee When You Do It Yourself

Last weekend I had taken out our 1992 Buick Roadmaster Estate Wagon to run some errands and to shake it down in preparation for driving to Pennsylvania in the coming weekend. I had noticed a problem with the oil pressure gauge: it would read normal pressure (20 psi at idle up to 45 psi or so when revved) but then would flutter occasionally, reading a much higher pressure (30 psi to maximum at over 60 psi). I was worried it was the oil pump but ruled it out for two reasons: if it were the pump, it would likely show low pressure and never high pressure, and the gauge was changing faster than it would be possible to do so (10 psi changes in a fraction of a second whereas a 10 psi change would ordinarily take a half-second or more).

I finally got out and checked under the hood. I figured the wire on the oil pressure sending unit was loose or broken — and when the engine vibrated, it would get loose and give those erroneous readings. Well I found the unit and went to wiggle the wire when it popped off in my hand. I figured it was some other sensor (like a block-temperature sensor perhaps) that just press-fit on. But when I cranked over the car, oil spurted out and the gauge read maximum. Indeed it was the oil pressure sensor, and it had been hanging on by a thread of rust.

I was very fortunate that it didn't break on the road because it would have dumped all the oil in a matter of minutes and I'd have to have it towed.

Unfortunately, that's not what happened.

Since it was back in the driveway I decided to just buy the replacement part and install it myself. Perusing the Internet offered little help, other than that the sending unit for this particular model required a gigantic deep-well 1-3/16" socket. I didn't have a socket big enough so I decided to go ahead and buy a new sending unit. I went to an auto parts store and they had a replacement unit on hand, but it took a 1-1/16" socket instead, and they didn't have one deep enough in-stock. They did have a 1-3/16" socket but I thought that maybe the replacement was the same size as the existing one even though they looked a little different in construction.

I hunted all around, stopping at 3 other auto parts stores. I finally found a socket that was deep enough at Sears so I bought that and headed back home. Naturally the original sending unit was 1-3/16" so I ran back out to the first store and bought their socket. Now I'm $50 into this project.

I got back home and tried to get to the sending unit from the hood-side, but there was just no way. I resigned myself to getting the jacks out and going in from the bottom. This was comparatively easy and I was done in 15 minutes. The car fired up with no oil leak and the pressure gauge read something close to normal.  It did spook me on the trip, though, because it didn't seem to change — I was worried the replacement unit didn't have the right wiring and was falsely reading 40 psi. It started to work better as we continued so I think it's working okay.

So I think I would have been better off having it dump its oil in the middle of the road. I'd have had it towed, sat in some shop for an hour, and they would have replaced the sending unit — probably all at a cost of $200. The advantage would have been that I would have not had to fight last-minute holiday shoppers plugging up the roads and not spent 6 hours and not had my fingers freeze off in the cold.

I guess you win some and you lose some.

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