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Honda Debuts Panic-Design Hybrid

Honda Debuts Panic-Design Hybrid

The American Honda Motor Co. Inc. has introduced a Honda Civic hybrid custom-designed and autographed by the pop act Panic at the Disco. The green car will hit the road with the band during its spring and summer tour and will be given away on July 31. Fans can register for free at concert appearances or at the website: Entrants must be 18.

The band personalized the car with custom interior and exterior designs, making the hybrid the ultimate fan memorabilia. Custom choices by the band include a "time machine" interior with burgundy leather door panels and armrests, diamond-patterned leather seats and luxe buttoned headrests. The car also features a futuristic sound system tied to a satellite-linked navigation system. The hybrid gets 40 mpg in the city and 45 mpg on the highway.

Find Me on Facebook

Find Me on Facebook

For many engineers, Facebook isn't news.

After all, facebook as of this writing hosts 520 engineering organizations as diverse as the Roller Coaster Engineers to Engineers without Borders, Manitoba Chapter. And biggies like the IEEE with its 2,845 fans are there, too. By the time you read this, those numbers will almost certainly have grown.

Facebook, once the exclusive domain of teeny boppers and college students, has morphed into a life force for professionals. I started an account two months ago and it quickly reconnected me with work contacts from as far back as 25 years ago. These are people I would not otherwise communicate with again if it were not for facebook, which bills itself as a "social utility". The long-term payoff for me is still uncertain, but I have thoroughly enjoyed reconnecting with old news sources and friends (190 so far and more seem to come out of the woodwork every day). And because I covered high technology for many years, past and present colleagues seem to be drawn to it and most have made it a habit.

Facebook became a professional utility almost two years ago when it added work networks to what until then had just been schools. That watershed event exploded the numbers. Since the end of 2006, facebook has grown from 12 million members to 70 million. To be counted, each member had to visit the site once in the past 30 days. Facebook claims more than 20,000 applications with 140 new ones popping up every week. Most are applets and are fun related, but the number growing so fast speaks to the energy behind facebook. In November, it announced it would sell ads and it may have the momentum and scale to challenge Google. Someone has to, but no serious challengers have stepped forward. And I have yet to see many ads on facebook.

Comparisons are often made to LinkedIn, which in my view is no contest for facebook. The way I explain it is that LinkedIn is a contact utility or relationship manager. Facebook is more about content which is what Design News and I are all about. I also "twittered" asking my facebook friends - again 95 percent work colleagues - which one they preferred. I received four responses in two hours and facebook prevailed each time. Here are the highlights:

  • "I feel much better conversing on facebook with professionals. Plus, more venture and startup types are there."

  • "I'm told that I haven't tapped into the full resources of LinkedIn, but I can't imagine it would offer the same functionality and entertainment (as facebook)."

  • "LinkedIn is people looking for jobs."

The purpose of this column is not to criticize LinkedIn. After all, it claims 20 million professional users and is well-funded. Is there room for both? I don't think so long-term. Something new will come along and there may be room for neither. But for now, I love facebook even if my two college-age kids say my presence there is "creepy." Hey, they friended me, not the other way around (read: Dad, send money). It's a good place for me. And it's a good place for engineers. Check out our groups: Mechatronics, Gadget Freak and Design News.

In the something completely unrelated department, we are looking for great stories about sensors. We'll publish contributed content as long as our guidelines are followed. Don't hesitate to contact me at or find me on Facebook.

The Mythical Battery in the Basement

The Mythical Battery in the Basement

At a recent social gathering, a lawyer told me the "truth" about electric vehicle (EV) batteries.

"A friend of mine knows someone at Google and he said that General Motors could build great electric cars right now if it wanted to," he said. "The battery technology is ready. The problem is GM is in bed with the oil companies."

Ah, yes, the old auto-industry-in-bed-with-the-oil-companies conspiracy theory. Twenty years ago, we kept hearing about the 200-mile-per-gal carburetor. Now, it's the killer battery.

The amazing thing about this bit of technological folklore is it lives on, even among engineers. Over the past 10 years, I've received countless e-mails from readers who are convinced there's a battery in a basement (usually at GM), wrapped in oily rags, hidden on a shelf somewhere. The battery is a veritable powerhouse, capable of propelling a truck for 400 miles on a 15-min recharge. But the evil scientists at GM are rubbing their hands together and twitching with delight while they take payoffs from the oil companies for hiding it. It's reminiscent of the final scene in the movie "Raiders of the Lost Ark," in which the government hides the Ark of the Covenant in a non-descript wooden crate in an unnamed warehouse somewhere.

It is, of course, a great yarn. And it lives on because so many people at cocktail parties believe it and nod their heads knowingly. GM, after all, must be in bed with the oil companies, as well as with J. Edgar Hoover and Darth Vader.

In the stories, it's funny how the blame almost always falls at the doorstep of GM. It rarely, if ever, gets attributed to Honda, Toyota or Nissan - all of which built and abandoned electric cars in the late 1990s. It's also interesting to note Google has emerged as a savior in this area, probably because it serves as an embodiment of the future, while GM is seen as a relic of an oil-thirsty past.

I know many of our readers will be consumed by anger when they read this, but there is no such battery in a basement. Not even at GM. The truth is, a lot of very bright electrochemists have been working on the EV battery for a long time and they still haven't come close to the 400-mile, 15-min recharge battery.

Recently, we published a story on the . If you're a conspiracy theorist, you probably didn't like it. We interviewed experts in electrochemistry at Argonne National Lab., Cal-Berkeley and elsewhere. Their collective conclusion: Building a plug-in hybrid battery (not even a pure EV battery) is difficult enough.

Elton Cairns, a professor emeritus of chemical engineering at Berkeley and a former battery researcher in NASA's Gemini program, put it best. "If you ask, 'Technically, can we do it by 2010?' The answer is yes," he says. "But is the battery affordable by consumers? The answer is no."

And that's for a 40-mile plug-in hybrid battery.

Virtually everyone in our group of experts agreed that with enough hard work, an affordable 40-mile lithium-ion battery pack is within sight. None know of a 400- or 500-mile battery with a 15-min recharge time. Most said the path to such technology is long, torturous and unpredictable.

But the truth is complicated. Boring, too.

Unfortunately, it's a lot easier to cite mythical conspiracies than it is to build that magic battery.

The Case of the Reluctant Radiator

The Case of the Reluctant Radiator

In the day, a major forklift manufacturer redesigned a forklift model for a product launch. This engine-powered unit received new controls, structural and cosmetic changes and a revised engine.

The Scene of the Crime

Development went smoothly until one pre-production truck overheated during a rapid cycle, dock operation.

The Investigation

Puzzlement reigned as there were no prior overheating incidents. However, all testing was done on the outside test track, so we concluded that hard-running indoors stressed a possibly marginal cooling system. We noted a last minute change; assured by a supplier that the fin-and-tube count and heat transfer rates were unchanged, the project engineer substituted new radiators on the pre-pro trucks without additional tests. Now, designers and our lab crew met to ferret out the cause of overheating. While our meeting went on, covering such items as anemometers to measure air flow through the radiator and thermocouples to measure coolant and radiator in/out air temperatures, I sort-of mentally zoned out, going back a year or so to recall a particular experience.

On a hazy, almost windless late summer day, a thick white cloud arose in my backyard. In awe, my son and I watched the thick, dense, roiling, billowing cloud rise like the djinni in the classic movie, "The Thief of Baghdad." The cloud rose to about 40 ft and gently pushed by a soft westbound wind, started to move through our neighborhood. Holding its shape, it crossed backyards and streets, then covered a home, crossed another yard and then drifted across a four-lane thoroughfare that divided our village. On our bicycles, my son and I followed the lazily drifting cloud at about walking speed. We could hear neighborhood doors opening and slamming and shouts of, "What's going on?" as we pedaled westward. Almost with a life of its own, the dense cloud slowly drifted across the highway, bringing auto traffic to a grinding halt, while wide-eyed drivers called out in puzzlement. Finally, in the open area of the highway, with the urging of the breeze, the cloud began to break up as auto traffic resumed. Blinking through tears of laughter, we rode home. For our neighbors, this was a mystery to talk about at their next barbeque, but for us, this was another backyard experiment, ranking up there with constructing a pulse jet and running a lawn mower engine with an oxy-acetylene fuel source until the piston blew out of the exhaust port like confetti at a Columbus Day parade. So, what caused the cloud? A few days before this incident, our plant maintenance lads were cleaning up and pitching out unused materials and worn and broken parts. Among the discards were two dozen unused smoke bombs of the type used to determine obstructions in sewers, drains and vents. With the shop foreman's blessing, I took home the eventual source of our mystery cloud.

This short reverie led me to suggest that a judiciously placed smoke bomb, along with well-located view ports, would give us a real-time, dynamic view of air flow. I opined there was air recirculation around the fan blade tips reducing the net radiator air flow and a smoke test could prove it. The project engineer disagreed and ordered formal anemometer and thermocouple tests to proceed. I told the engineer that the lab had a modest discretionary budget and I would conduct the smoke test at no charge to his project budget. Glowering, he neither agreed nor disagreed and concluded the meeting.

We did conduct the air flow and temperature tests, but the smoke test beckoned. My trusty lieutenant for this test was a greybeard who was not only our union shop steward, but an excellent mechanic; a fellow who would have been a fine technician or engineer in another life.

We drilled some view ports, set up the lights, and touched off the smoke bomb and watched as the smoky air between the spinning pusher-type fan and the radiator was beaten into a hazy froth, demonstrating a lack of smooth air flow through the radiator. Test data, including the hated smoke test, led the project engineer to compare the changed radiator to the original radiator.

The Smoking Gun

He concluded the fan shroud of the new radiator was too short to cover enough of the projected length of the fan blades to permit good air circulation through the radiator. A new radiator with the correct shroud solved the problem. This experience taught us all to be open to new ways to conduct tests while not abandoning classic test procedures, and yes, make sure new parts really match the specs!

Author Information
Myron J. Boyajian, P.E., ( is president of Engineering Consultants, a consulting service for forensic and design activities. Cases presented here are from his actual files.

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