Thursday, November 26, 2015

Yamaha XT250Z Ténéré, one of the best 250cc motorcycles

With the Brazilian market as its main target, the Yamaha XT250Z Ténéré is one of those motorcycles that would also be a good choice in developed markets. Even though it's not so much of a hardcore off-roader, it's suitable to some cross-country, and the relatively large fuel tank gives more peace of mind for longer errands.
The long suspension travel makes it more comfortable and safe when dealing with unimproved or poorly-mantained pathways, and the single-cylinder 250cc engine is enought to provide agility in city traffic and road performance with a moderate fuel consumption. Current model is now flexfuel, able to operate not just with gasoline but also ethanol. Air-cooled engines have their limitations regarding cold starts with ethanol, but the electronic fuel injection makes it smoothier than in an older carburettor-fed one.
It's been successful not just among private customers but also for commercial operations. One of the biggest insurance companies of Brazil uses a fleet of Ténéré 250, as the model is also known, for its home repairs service.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

3rd-generation Ford F-Series truck with Opel Corsa B headlights

I must confess, when I saw this Brazilian Ford F-600 with Opel Corsa B headlights it was kinda shocking. It wouldn't be so hard to find rounded headlights that could fit into the original front clip without adaptations, but this one sure become eye-catching.

Tuesday, November 03, 2015

Would tricycles still make sense in a developed country?

Utility tricycles got widespread in the 3rd-world kinda recently, even though more focused in the light commercial vehicles market, surpassing the social stigma regarding them as somewhat "inferior" to a conventional 4-wheel automobile. The space they take on the streets, compared to a small car of comparable role, makes them an attractive option for door-to-door parcel delivery and other tasks requiring an enhanced maneuverability in tight corners and ease of parking. But would these vehicles still be viable in developed countries?

There are some challenges that can make a tricycle less attractive in developed markets. From a 3rd-world perspective, the lack of a good all-weather protection is often excused due to the cost it would add, while a lower running cost is the main priority over the comfort. However, it's not impossible to find some models equipped with a fully-enclosed cabin, also featuring car-like controls instead of a motorcycle-type handlebar, and seating capacity for at least one passenger. Switching the engine from a rather outdated air-cooling layout to liquid-cooling also makes it easier to provide heating. With all the improvements that can be applied to a tricycle, it turns them into an attractive option over a regular coupé-utility such as the Fiat Strada, which had been available in selected European markets in spite of catering to the 3rd-world.

Utility tricycles such as the Innocenti Lambro and the Piaggio Ape (ah-pay, "bee" in Italian) actually had their days of glory in Western Europe and, due to their suitability to many purposes from light cargo hauling to passenger transportation, their key role in the rebuilding of Italy and other countries devastated by the horrors of World War II is not to be forgotten. Agile, cheap to operate, and more affordable than a comparable 4-wheeled vehicle of the austerity days in the immediate post-war period, they were a perfect option to roam around the narrow streets and alleys of the European cities. The lower fuel consumption and fewer tyres were also very desirable due to the scarcity of resources at that time.
An Indian derivative of the Piaggio Ape, the Bajaj RE, available with 2-stroke (RE2S) and 4-stroke (RE4S) gasoline-powered engines also available in gaseous-fuel versions using either CNG or LPG, and Diesel options, became very popular for passenger transportation as an alternative to conventional taxis that are more expensive. Their enhanced maneuvering in tight spaces also helps to deal with the overcrowded urban traffic, while the low top speed is not so much of a problem in precarious Indian roads and the 3-wheel layout actually reduces the frame stress dealing with irregular pavements. Even though the aptitude to go through unimproved terrain is virtually negligible by modern European standards, and the modest performance would be deemed undesirable by potential customers looking for an all-around vehicle, the basic concept of a tricycle still provides some room for improvements.

But would a tricycle be still competitive in a market where cars as small as the Smart ForTwo and fuel-sippers like the Toyota Prius are available? Probably. The lesser amount of raw materials required in the manufacturing of a tricycle and the replacement parts needed throughout its useful life is favorable to them from a "sustainability" standpoint so much as the low fuel consumption is. And even though it's not technically impossible to apply a hybrid drivetrain into a tricycle, it's not really essential in order to achieve outstanding fuel-efficiency values and cut tailpipe emissions.
No matter if they're based around a 125cc motorcycle or specifically-developed as a tricycle like the Can-Am Spyder, these vehicles usually still hold the legal status of a motorcycle, thus retaining a more compact size and lower weight as they don't have to comply to modern crash-worthiness standards that are often blamed for the size, weight and complexity increase in newer cars. Some customers may still prefer the allegged safety advantage of a car but, as I never saw anybody buying one willing to hit it into a concrete wall, a tricycle still sounds reasonable.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Chinese-made electric bus in my hometown

Early this afternoon I saw this Chinese-made electric bus undergoing tests in Porto Alegre, Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil. It's made by the BYD company and, unlike most Brazilian buses that are built by specialized bodywork companies over frames supplied by truck manufacturers, this one is an unibody.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Brink's armored big-rig

Due to the high crime rates in Brazil, and cargo robbery growing at frightening rates, some measures are earning popularity in order to prevent it. Armored trucks, for example, are getting more popular. From the beginning with cash-in-transit vans, that could also haul some smaller items in a relatively safe way, bulkier items required other approach. The Brink's company, for example, already operates some Mercedes-Benz trucks with an armored cabin designed in resemblance to the bodywork of its cash-in-transit vans. The one in the picture above is fitted with a Mercedes-Benz OM447LA engine rated at 350hp.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

A personal reflection about the Volkswagen emissions scandal

Volkswagen's cheat on the EPA certification tests for the EA-189 2.0TDI Clean Diesel engine has been one of the most commented subjects of this week, not just in the United States and Canada, which follows American emission standards closely, and highlighted some skepticism about how environmentally-friendly a Diesel engine is in light-duty vehicle applications.

Being one of the strongest sales argument for models like the Volkswagen Jetta in many markets around the whole world, the 2.0TDI engine is now under scrutiny even in countries with emission regulations milder than the ones currently enforced in America. But is Volkswagen really the only one to blame, or does EPA hold some responsibility for the mediocrity of its validation test protocols which sound almost like an invitation for frauds? Isn't there any better way to overcome the environmental footprint of Diesel engines instead of pushing for all that over-complicated aftertreatment setup?

That being said, Volkswagen sold 482000 vehicles from both Volkswagen (Golf, Jetta, Beetle and Passat) and Audi (A3 and A4) brands and model-years 2009 to 2015 fitted with the 2.0TDI engine and a hidden software that could detect when the vehicle was submitted to a standardized emissions test on a roll dynamometer based on input from temperature, engine operation time, barometric pressure and even the position of the steering wheel, and then switched from a fuel savings and performance-oriented tune to a milder one more focused on low emissions, and then in normal operating conditions it went back to the de-restricted tune.

However, it is a Federal violation to override any EPA-mandated emissions-control device, so Volkswagen received a Notice of Violation last Friday (Sept. 18th). It led to Nitrogen Oxides (NOx) emissions 5 to 40 times above the enforced limits, depending on which aftertreatment system was fitted. All have EGR, which works by recirculating some amount of exhaust gases into the combustion chambers, thus displacing oxygen which by the way requires lower injection volumes in order to keep the air-to-fuel ratio, and then lower combustion temperatures were achieved, in turn generating less NOx. The Passat is also fitted with SCR in the 2014 and 2015 model years, using an urea-based Diesel Exhaust Fluid in a thermo-chemical reduction of NOx into free Nitrogen and Oxygen molecules. However, in normal operational conditions, the effectiveness of both systems was either disabled or highly restricted. Volkswagen can be fined up to US$37,500.00 for each non-compliant vehicle sold, which is already more than what the customers paid for many of them, so the expense on fines alone would be around some US$18 billion, and a recall to disable the cheater software might be already on its way...

Around the world, 11 million vehicles from Volkswagen Group brands, not just Volkswagen and Audi but also Skoda and SEAT which aren't officially available in North America, were factory-fitted with the EA-189 engine, and even though they're subjected to less stringent regulations, some distrust emerged against the effectiveness of the aftertreatment and the real-world emissions compliance, most notably in Europe. French and German authorities already called for more investigations to check if Euro-spec engines are also emitting more NOx than what was enforced for the Euro-5 standards. Volkswagen claims that its current Euro-6 range is fully-compliant not just in the NEDC standardized tests but also during normal operation, but all that scandal is still a harm to the credibility of the company not just among politicians and bureaucrats, and even some customers feel betrayed by Volkswagen. American TDI owners who feel somewhat injured due to an unexpected depreciation of their cars or a higher fuel consumption after having its emission-control updates might settle either individual or class-action lawsuits against Volkswagen of America.

Another interesting aspect to consider is that other companies, such as Chrysler and Mitsubishi, have relied on Volkswagen-supplied TDI engines fitted into Euro-spec and Australian-spec versions of models like the Jeep Compass and Mitsubishi Lancer which, in spite of being also offered in North America, didn't have the Diesel option there. It raises questions about the cheating software being used by Volkswagen as a way to keep some market reserve for its light-duty Diesels in the United States. On the other hand, it might clarify doubts and questions about the emissions-compliance of the engine anywhere else.

Another matter of controversy is the political aftermath of this incident. EPA and CARB policies have been questioned by many American citizens who see them as anti-American. All that witch-hunting about tailpipe emissions is frequently mentioned as a pointless measure, as it leads to a low overall efficiency of American-market cars compared to their foreign counterparts. Considering all the environmental impact of oil drilling, refining and logistic processes required to ensure a steady supply to meet an increased demand for Diesel fuel, it surpasses by far the environmental threat claimed against the Volkswagen 2.0TDI by EPA and CARB. Hell, while the devout Muslim Obama bows down to the Saudi king and forces the Americans to send their hard-earned dollars to the OPEC mafia, EPA closes its eyes to biodiesel and the direct usage of vegetable oils as cleaner, economically-viable replacements to Diesel fuel.

Shipping crude oil from the Middle East, Africa or Venezuela is also a dirty process, as many tanker ships are still fueled by bulk oil with high sulphur contents among other issues, while biodiesel and vegetable oils could be locally-sourced and they do close the Nitrogen cycle. Peanuts and castorbean, for example, not only are great energy crops but also help retain Nitrogen on the soil, which is excellent for crop rotation. Also, due to the prevalence of processed meats (hamburgers, sausages, corned beef, among others) over fresh meat in the United States, sure an enormous supply of low-cost fats from slaughterhouses and meat processing industries is readily available to be turned into biodiesel. So, it's not any hard to figure out that Diesel-engined vehicles with a lower fuel consumption are highly desirable as they impose a lower pressure on both food and biofuel prices, while the NOx issue wouldn't seem so significant when we take into account not just the closed Nitrogen cycle but also the lesser waste of petroleum to provide all the power required by tanker ships, drilling rigs and refineries.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Riced Opel Corsa B

That tuning fever from the early-2000s, heavily influenced by the first movie of the Fast and Furious franchise, still has some influence nowadays. Though most of the ricer hype was much gone about 2010, walking on the streets we still see random subcompacts with fancy bodykits such as this Opel Corsa B 2-door hatchback spotted in my hometown.
Though the rear spoiler and the wing-mirrors do have some functionality and lead to some real-world aerodynamic benefit, other mods seem to actually induce some undesirable parasitic drag at higher speeds.

Friday, June 05, 2015

Tricycles and sidecars: a good alternative for fleet renewal in 3rd-world countries

Derelict old beaters are still a common sight in some 3rd-world countries, many still getting daily-driven either for professional purposes or as a private commuter, but the high average age of the fleet is often approached as a matter of concern not just due to the outdated emission regulations enforced when those vehicles were made but also due to safety issues. Apart from the absence of airbags, crumple zones, side-impact beams, anti-lock brakes, whatever became mandatory in newer vehicles, the effects of all the wear and tear and eventually some lack of preventive maintenance are anything but negligible.

However, the purchasing price of a brand-new car, even an economy-class one such as a Toyota Etios, is often too expensive for many 3rd-world customers, and the ever-growing technical complexity is also usually pointed as a downside of newer vehicles. Also, in spite of stricter emission regulations enforced nowadays, there is some questioning about the real footprint of a modern car vs. keeping an old beater on the road due to all the energy spent to manufacture a new vehicle, even if that involves recycling materials from scrapped jalopies instead of just increasing the mining for raw materials. Another aspect to consider regards to fuel-efficiency: not even the ever-growing fuel costs seem to justify the initial purchasing price of a new econobox, considering the marginal mileage improvements over an old beater such as a Ford Escort Mk.3 with the Renault-based CHT engine.

In this scenario, tricycles and motorcycles fitted with sidecars sound as a sensible alternative, due to their attractive purchasing price and some real improvement regarding fuel-efficiency. The lower safety standards compared to a modern car, although seeming like an enormous disadvantage, are less noticeable compared to the random old econobox of comparable role going to be replaced. It may even pose as an environmental advantage, since the lesser amount of safety gadgets also means that less raw materials and energy are required during the manufacturing process of the tricycles and motorcycles, and usually a lesser amount of replacement parts throughout the predictable useful operational life of the vehicle.

However, in some countries such as Brazil, passenger transport in sidecars is seen as a taboo. Motorcycles are often treated as being somehow "inferior" to a car, and the wide usage of sidecars by the Nazi troops in World War II is still a strong stereotype, even among some segments of the Brazilian youth. After showing the picture of a Honda CG 125 with a passenger sidecar to a handful of random Brazilian teenager boys, one of them quoted it as a "Nazi bike" just because he has seen motorcycles with sidecars in WWII-themed movies, while others recalled the cargo sidecars that have actually become popular among small businesses in Brazil due to the low operating cost and widely used for LPG gas and bottled water home delivery. The lack of prestige in passenger transport is a less relevant matter when it comes to cargo hauling...

Despite all the practical advantages of a tricycle or a motorcycle with sidecar over a car in an identical operational scenario such as a Fiat Uno, the outdated emission regulations enforced for motorcycles were constantly held against them to discredit any of their environmental advantage regarding other aspects. However, the availability of electronic fuel injection and catalytic converters has reached even low-displacement motorcycles, which turned them as strictly-regulated concerning to emissions as a car. Even alternative fuel capability became a reality, and while some countries in Asia approached to Compressed Natural Gas (CNG) there are some gasoline-ethanol flexfuel motorcycles available in Brazil, such as the Honda CG 150 Mix, rebadged as FlexOne after a recent restyling.

Now, a matter of controversy: can a cheap motorcycle-based utility tricycle be deemed more eco-friendly than a much more hyped hybrid car? Performance-wise, a tricycle powered by an air-cooled 150cc carburettor-fed engine is clearly disadvantaged, with a top speed usually around 60 to 80km/h which sounds enough for inner-city traffic but does compromise the safety on road, although some beefier engine up to 250cc or 300cc would provide some higher power reserve for occasional highway rides and the fuel-efficiency wouldn't be so disadvantaged due to the higher weight compared to a motorcycle. Aerodynamics also harm both fuel-efficiency and road performance, but there is a lot of room for improvements in this field. Anyway, an air-cooled 150cc carburettor-fed engine still leads to Prius-like 25km/l (4L/100km) average fuel consumption figures in a poorly-aerodynamic tricycle, so a bigger liquid-cooled engine combined to a wider gear spread and some aerodynamic enhancements turn the overall performance more suitable to occasional road stretches.

Despite all the skepticism and criticism they may still face both by people from developed countries who see it with some disdain as a makeshift or even in 3rd-world countries where private car ownership is still regarded as a status symbol, tricycles and sidecars are an economically-attractive and technically-viable option to meet the requirements of budget-constrained customers seeking for a good alternative to get rid of an old jalopy, considering not just their low cost of ownership but also the overall environmental footprint which might also cater to some segments of 1st-world markets willing to pose somewhat "environmentally-correct".

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Sidevalve engine: is it really obsolete at all?

Sidevalve engines, also known affectionally as "flathead" engines due to their head formats, once had their days of glory, having in the earliest Ford small-block V8 one of their most iconic examples. Introduced in 1932 and available into Ford cars and trucks until 1954, it's still cult-followed at some extent.

In spite of having some limitations, mostly concerning the internal flow restrictions, lower engine speeds, lower compression ratio and eventually an insuficient cooling of the head, the sidevalve layout has noticeable advantages regarding its overall physical volume much reduced due to the lower head, even though the block has to be slightly wider to accommodate the valves, reduced weight and a lesser likelihood of failures resulting from oil starvation, since the moving parts are kept further low so there is a smaller path the oil has to flow into.
Another notable example is the Ford Model T, made from 1908 to 1927, always with a 4-cylinder sidevalve engine. This valvetrain layout does make sense for a no-frills vehicle such as the Model T, due to the lower manufacturing cost resulting from a simpler design, which also led to an easier maintenance. The inherently low compression ratio, often pointed as a disadvantage of sidevalve engines, actually worked out perfectly for the Model T, due to the lower grade of the regular gasoline available back then.

Sidevalve engines had also been highly popular in European compact cars, such as the British Ford E494A-series Anglia and the French Renault Juvaquatre, until late '50s. After that, the introduction of tetraethyl lead into the gasoline as an anti-knocking additive and valve seat hardening agent was kinda inviting for the extra expense on overhead-valve layouts which allowed a higher compression ratio, often pointed to increase the overall efficiency of the engine.

Another point favorable to the sidevalve engines is their suitability to special applications such as off-road vehicles and light piston-powered aircrafts. The low-end torque is actually favored by the inherently lower speed ratings, and the fact that engine moving parts are concentrated downwards also keep the lubrication more precise even under severe inclination variance. A good example is the early Jeep Willys, fitted with the Continental Go-Devil inline-4 engine. In spite of the absence of developments targetted to automotive applications, another promising market is light aircraft, plagued by the push for a ban of aviation gasoline (AvGas) due to environmental concerns about the tetraethyl lead content still present on it. Besides the suitability to lower-grade fuels, the lower speed in a sidevalve eliminates the need for a reduction gearing between the engine and the propeller.

Despite all the incredulity towards sidevalve engines, they still have some advantages which are worth considering...