IndyCar Goes Green

Sort of…the foundation behind car racing today is petroleum — burning tires, brakes, oil, gasoline, just to name the obvious stuff.

Before I get to the story, however, I first want to mention that racing cars is big among Silicon Valley success stories. Many high-tech firms where I have worked have brought their wasteful and inefficient “race” vehicles on-site for display.

It has always been endless supply of petroleum this, yada yada endless supply of petroleum that (to be fair, with the exception of one prototype Tesla). Engineers also who were race fanatics ran only gasoline in their personal vehicles. One co-worker literally drove his Ferrari to work on a daily basis (when he wasn’t driving his Maybach). He had to arrive early in order to avoid speed bumps in the parking lot — driving through empty spaces. Another guy commuted in a heavily-modified classic Porsche that smelled like a refinery as it defied the very concept of winning a race — efficiency.

I thought it unusual to find such a motivated, intelligent and innovative group of people who did not factor into success the opportunity of less waste. The whole history of racing is about reduction of waste (from aerodynamics to rear-view mirrors). It felt like they were still banking on the politics and economics from the early 1970s (pre fuel crisis) where US/UK race culture worried little about fuel supplies. Why don’t we measure a car’s efficiency full stop? Why does fuel, let alone petroleum as a whole, get an exception?

I never will forget the day a race vehicle was on display to promote the 2005 San Jose Grand Prix. I asked the man in the Grand Prix shirt how quickly tires and brake pads are consumed in a race and what the impact was to the course.

It seemed like a sensible thing for me to ask at the time, since I was studying energy efficiency as it relates to security (e.g. winning). I was not trying to be unusual or overly curious in my question. After days and days of meetings related to energy consumption (some datacenters use more energy than small cities) and the risks to IT, similar issues in vehicle engineering just came into focus easily.

This was compounded (pun not intended) by the fact that the Grand Prix cars ran on a temporary street circuit and I wondered about the amounts of brake dust and tire rubber, not to mention exhaust and oil, left in heavily used pedestrian areas. Was it more or less than a regular day of traffic? I didn’t know and I was curious if anyone had ever measured or studied impact. That is why I asked.

Around the same time I had just managed to convince Yahoo! to convert its employee transportation fleet to a BioDiesel blend. I also convinced them to let me convert their cafeteria waste oil into BioDiesel to run my own vehicle (I went a year without paying for fuel). Conversion of the employee transportation fleet at Yahoo! to BioDiesel was a success…although for the record it was *not* my idea to call buses the Green Machine. Perhaps you can see where I was going with this…

The reply: “No one has ever asked that. I’ll get back to you.”

I never heard back, naturally (pun not intended), and I have yet to see any reference to green engineering for the Grand Prix.

Now, back to the real story, I read that the IndyCar announces new engine strategy for 2012

The engines will also be more efficient, with the series looking at new technologies for energy recovery, hybrids, fuel conservation and other developing green initiatives.

That is fantastic news. Nothing drives innovation like competition. The shift to a box rule means even diesel could soon be accepted on the Indy circuit. This means NASCAR or even F1 will follow suit eventually, probably three to five years after.

The new platform calls for the ethanol-fueled engines to be up to six cylinders, allow turbocharging and produce between 550 and 700 horsepower, depending on the type of course the series is racing.

Current engines are eight cylinders, produce about 650 horsepower and are made by Honda exclusively.

IndyCar ran on CH3OH or Methanol until 2007. NASCAR as usual follows the IndyCar example and is announcing a switch to Ethanol.

However, I have to say meh (pun not intended) since ethanol is hardly ever a great choice even when you already have what seems to be a surplus of source. It has half the efficiency of gasoline and in reality comes from very limited sources. That means if you get a new Tahoe that runs 12 mpg (I’m being generous here) on gasoline and you switch to Ethanol you will get 6 mpg. In other words it’s only real benefit over unleaded petroleum in America is that it benefits the corn industry. Next fuel please NASCAR.

I also hate to mention this but I wonder if Honda was pairing two of their four cylinder engines to meet the eight cylinder spec…wouldn’t that give them the most benefit in terms of commercial applicability? I guess I never thought of Honda as a V-8 leader but here we are.

Out with the old engines and tired corn-fuel marketing campaign and in with the new stuff like Audi’s amazing Le Mans diesel race car that dominated the series for five straight years or VW’s Paris-Dakar champion Toureg TDI diesel 4×4.

Coolest looking 4×4 ever? I’ll take two.

Peugeot finally wrestled the Le Mans title away from Audi this year by running their own diesel, the sleek new 908 HDI racer.

Yes, that’s a diesel…and you thought Speed Racer was just a cartoon. The only thing that could be better than the proven Audi/VW/Peugeot success with diesel would be an electric-diesel hybrid.

Imagine an IndyCar screaming out of the pits at full-throttle with zero rev/engine noise and then switching to a 700 horsepower diesel that just purrrs at top speed. Major game change. Etha-what?

Everyone knows consumption is a major factor in racing. It makes perfect sense. Less means more. We’re talking about a better average speed from less stops, for example. An electric-diesel hybrid needs so many fewer pit stops than a V-8 guzzling ethanol it would change automobile racing completely. Toyota had it half right with their Le Mans hybrid-electric Supra.

Hybrid-electric? Perhaps we should call it an electric-gasoline hybrid to leave open the option of other fuels.

In conclusion, racing impacts our lives. The technology trickles down to our every day challenges. We all would like to spend less time stopped at the pump and more actually doing fun and productive things. If only more consumers recognized the benefits of better mpg as it relates to their quality of life. Has this caught on from Le Mans? Paris-Dakar? Maybe IndyCar can popularize it — imagine how much time you gain when you stop for gas half-as-often. How much of your life is stuck at the pump?

While we are celebrating the shift in IndyCar rules, perhaps they also could begin to factor in the complete data picture of waste.

How fast should brake pads and tires wear and what should they leave behind? How much particulate matter should be allowed? I know a slower burn is better for competition, but how about things that translate directly to better health — less waste on the streets and in the air. That is really what it means when we start to talk about going green. The new IndyCar box rule for engines is a huge step in the right direction. Let’s hope we see some diesel-hybrids with biodegradable non-toxic rubber tires and pads out there.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.