Crank of the Week – January 24, 2011 - Sergio Marchionne & Lisa Jackson

This week we have a crank duet, provided by Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne and US EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson. The shakiest of America's three domestic car companies, Chrysler, and the US Government are teaming up to bring the world something nobody asked for—a non-electric hybrid mini-van. The company announced that it would partner with the US Environmental Protection Agency to build and test prototypes of a hybrid vehicle that accumulates energy not in a battery pack but by compressing a gas hydraulically. This could be final proof that both Chrysler and the EPA should be disbanded.

Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne joined US EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson for the announcement, made at EPA laboratories in Ann Arbor, Michigan. They spoke in front of a silver 2011 Chrysler Town & Country minivan, representing one vehicle that would be tested with the new technology. I said “representing” because no running prototype yet exists outside of lab mockups at the EPA. What is the EPA doing messing around with hydraulically augmented vehicles anyway?

While Chrysler restructured after its bankruptcy, merging its product development with new partner Fiat, it discovered that it had a paucity of “green” vehicles in the design pipeline. Showing that strong mendicant tendency so prevalent among American car makers (with the exception of Ford), Chrysler-Fiat turned to the US Government to bail them out—this time with engineering help instead of money.

Originally developed at the EPA labs, the hydraulic hybrid uses engine overrun torque to capture otherwise wasted energy, as do conventional hybrid-electric vehicles. The difference is that, rather than turning a generator, “overrun torque” powers a pump that uses hydraulic fluid to increase the pressure inside a 14.4-gallon tank of nitrogen gas. Compressed gas is stored in the tank, known as a high-pressure accumulator, at pressure as high as 5,000 pounds per square inch.

When sufficiently charged, pressure in the tank is released to power a hydraulic axle motor that turns the wheels. Instead of all that expensive and hard to engineer electric stuff, this beast makes do with lightweight, inexpensive hydraulics. Imagine how proud you'll be when you tell your neighbors that you brand new mini-van was built by Chrysler and engineered by the EPA!

Your new mini-van could look like this (sans UPS logos).

Unfortunately, there is a downside: hydraulic hybrids are not well suited to smaller vehicles because the hydraulic equipment and storage tanks occupy too much space. A few hydraulic hybrids are already on the road—large, heavy commercial vehicles like garbage trucks, delivery vans, and transit buses. For such large vehicles the cost of a suitable battery pack makes an electric hybrid system too expensive. The EPA holds more than 60 patents on hydraulic hybrid systems, and currently is testing the concept in large commercial vehicles. Chrysler says their system is intended for “large passenger cars and light-duty vehicles.”

UPS has been testing hydraulic hybrid systems on some of its delivery trucks since 2005, with good results. But delivery trucks are large heavy vehicles that are constantly starting and stopping—a perfect match for this technology. Until battery and/or supercapacitor technology advances enough to handle larger vehicles, and prices come down because of mass production, hydraulics make more sense for trucks. For passenger vehicles, however, hydraulics are a dead-end.

A dead end because you cannot plug a hydraulic hybrid into the electric grid. They can only draw power from the vehicle's internal combustion engine. One of the best things about plugin electric hybrids is that they can be operated as zero emission electric vehicles for limited distances, allowing a commute to work or a trip to the local store without burning any hydrocarbon fuel (at least not locally, it depends on how the electricity was generated).

While the hydraulic system is expected to improve overall gas mileage by 30-35% it is clear that Chrysler and the boffins at the EPA don't see the bigger picture. Plugin hybrids are a way to break the strangle hold that fossil fuels have on providing automotive energy. A plugin can be powered by wind, solar, geothermal, nuclear or any other form of power—not so with a hydraulic hybrid.

Lisa Jackson and Sergio Marchionne, the love birds of inappropriate design.

Of course, with a high-pressure hydraulic system installed you could add some powered accessories to your new vehicle: perhaps a snowblower up front, or a backhoe in the rear. Building electric hybrids is an intermediate step to full electrics or even hydrogen power. The hydraulic hybrid is an intermediate step to a forklift.

If there was ever a sign that the US Government has grown too large it is the EPA—the Environmental Protection Agency—developing and patenting transportation technology. At a time of high unemployment why are government employees designing automotive hydraulic systems, work that clearly belongs in the private sector? Not only that, they are building a system with limited application that perpetuates the use of fossil fuels: an inappropriate design if there ever was one. So, for showing how a business/government partnership can act as a stupidity amplifier, this Crank of the Week is for you: Sergio Marchionne & Lisa Jackson.

If the liquid under pressure

If the liquid under pressure works the drive, how fast does the liquid flow out - or how much is there - and would not the pressure drop off quite rapidly? I really cannot see that even a 14 gallon tank can store all that much power except for a few blocks.

Replace the EPA

During Tuesday's State of the Union address, President Obama poked fun at the federal government's incompetence in regulating salmon and promised reform. This prompted Newt Gingrich to suggest replacing the EPA altogether:

    Since its founding 40 years ago, the EPA has transformed from an agency with the original noble mission of protecting the environment into a job-killing, centralizing engine of ideological litigation and regulation that blocks economic progress.

    The EPA should therefore be replaced with a new and improved agency dedicated to bringing together science, technology, entrepreneurs, incentives, and local creativity to create a cleaner environment with a stronger economy that generates more American jobs and more American energy.

Amen to that!