Friday, October 28, 2005

The World Car

I’ve been following the personal computer industry for more than 25 years and have seen more than 15 generational improvements in design. The original IBM PC ran at 4.7 Megahertz and had an 8-bit data stream to do simple arithmetic calculations. It was sophisticated compared to my 4-bit Commodore VIC-20 with 4 MB of memory and cassette tape drive. By comparison, today’s PC’s are fire-breathing uber-monsters able to process massive streams of high definition digital video and audio through specialized buses at over 800 MHz to processors capable of doing billions of instructions per second. That’s progress.

The automobile has been around over 100 years but where’s the progress over the past two decades? OK, they say you can go 10,000 miles between oil changes instead of 3,000 and you don’t need a $40 ignition tune up every year. My 1983 2.0 Liter Nissan Stanza got 43 MPG at 75 mph with the A/C on. I put over 160,000 miles on that mid-sized 5-door wagon and it saved me a fortune on gas. The trick was having 8 spark plugs in 4 cylinders and a cut-off float in the carburetor. The dual spark plugs ran off a standard V8 distributor with special dual contact rotor. Better burn…more clean power. The float cut fuel flow whenever the car slowed or was in a turn. It averaged 37 MPG around town.

Even compact sedans today have fuel injected 16-valve overhead camshaft engines like Indy racers of two decades ago. Do these cars have 1,000 HP, get 200 MPG, or cost $2,000? Today’s complexity of design fails to produce real improvements in performance, cost or reliability. In fact, today’s cars are easier to damage, more difficult to repair and far more expensive than they need to be.

Recently, on “Cops”, I saw a fellow head butt the hood of his car in frustration. He left a dent. Lean against any new car and your leg will bend the paper-thin fenders. Someone bumped my mother’s Buick Park Avenue in a parking lot and the entire plastic rear end of the car was pushed forward a fraction of an inch causing the trunk to leak. Any 5 mph impact typically does about $800 damage. Every Nissan and other cars & trucks with an overhead cam engine will self-destruct if the timing belt should ever fail. Valve rods could fly right though the hood. My LHS’s timing belt broke with the car at idle when the water pump seized. It caused over $1,000 in engine damage. To minimize risk, you must change the belt and pump every 60,000 miles for about $400. It takes 2 ½ hours of ($70) labor to change spark plugs on many new cars. There’s a computer control circuit board in modern cars (2 in the hot engine compartment of Chrysler cars) that controls engine timing and ignition. It costs about $3 to produce but you can’t buy one for less than $350. That’s truly highway robbery.

What the world needs is a radically new and practical automobile design. Of course, it will be small, tough and lack frills, like a Jeep. But, with over 3 Billion potential customers for a simple, efficient, long-lasting vehicle under $2,000, the market is wide open. China is in a perfect position to be the first to produce such a car. With state-of-the-art design and production facilities and a booming economy, China could design and mass-produce a revolutionary new car that would be a 21st Century Model T. A standard, widely produced engine control circuit board could be produced and sold at a profit for $5, the exhaust oxygen sensor, by which engine timing is optimized, for $10. This 1970’s BMW pioneered technology makes any car reliable and economical to repair.

Common sense design would make these vehicles far more simple, sturdy, and useful. For example, extending the camshaft forward out of the engine with a lug nut shaped end would allow owners to turn over the engine manually with the same tool used to change a tire. It could also drive attachments from a winch to farm implements. This could be a life-saving feature or the only power source in remote areas. A five or six speed manual transmission with a very low 1st gear and overdrive top gear would enable power distribution from stump pulling to long-distance cruising on a 1.2 Liter, 83 HP 3-cylinder engine.

Perhaps two models could be offered, a basic $2,000 car weighing 1,500 lb. (682 kilos) and a larger, more complex 1-ton (909 kilos) version for $5,000 with a standard 1.8 L 4-cyl. This larger model would be like a stripped down Corolla with 25% fewer parts and more sturdy materials. No CD players, electric rear view mirrors nor power windows are needed. More like a Hummer H3, real bumpers and brackets would replace fancy molding and shiny trim. Open or canvas covered trunk space could be a mini-truck bed onto which users would fasten their own extensions as needed. Folding, hard-back rear seats would extend cargo space into the interior without compromising the main structural box of the unit-body. A removable windowed roof hatch with canvas sunroof replacement might be included. The rear edge of the hatch could open slightly with a fold-over dual hinge like the back windows of an older BMW coupe. Like the VW, it should have a water-tight undercarriage. Six inches of ground clearance is suggested. Include the best design features of a Jeep, CV2, VW, small BMW and Hummer.

MIT has designed a $100 portable computer for widespread distribution in Third World countries. I think we need a World Car as well. Modern electronics and technology have made many key components simple and inexpensive. I know there are smart people out there who can design and mass-produce a good, practical $2,000 vehicle that is more satisfying than anything we have now.

Friday, October 07, 2005

Truly Personal PC's

After 25 years, it is time the personal computer evolved into something much more personal. Sure, it has gotten faster, smaller and smarter. OK, it has evolved into a communication device from a basic number cruncher, the only real advance in the PC concept, but that required the creation of the entire Internet.

I’ve lived through countless generational evolutions of CPUs, memory, bus and peripherals. There’s not a single major component of the original PC that hasn’t evolved or been replaced. But the basic concept hasn’t changed at all. It is a box, however portable, that includes all the hardware, OS, and personal data created by its user. Network Computers, NC’s (the evolution of dumb terminals) don’t store the data or software locally but rather at a central location. Wide area wireless broadband promises to breathe new life into NC’s once again but they have never been very personal and never will be.

Combination devices that compromise on features in favor of portability still struggle for acceptance and standardization but continue to grow in number and complexity. Eventually, cellular phones will combine all the features of PDAs, portable music and game machines, plus the connectivity and major computing features of a PC. Still, they are shadows of the original PC concept that hasn’t grown or evolved since the addition of the role of communications terminal.

Fortunately, advances in technology plus a few truly creative minds are poised to make the first true advances in the PC. Flash memory is now cheap enough to replace hard drives with tiny, solid-state storage that can include the entire OS, software and personal data on a handy, inexpensive, removable component. USB and other self-configuring and detecting standards make it possible to totally separate the general hardware from the OS and data component. The hardware and comm. link can belong to the host location while the OS, software, and data remain truly personalized, private, and controlled by the end user.

Like other PC’s, the hardware can vary significantly but maintain basic compatibility with standards such as the Intel instruction set, USB connection, basic chipsets and firmware to mount and boot from a removable flash drive. Knoppix, a brand of Linux, has been mounted on CD’s for years enabling it to self-configure and run on many different PC’s capable of booting from CD. An updated version could run from a flash memory device as well.

Imagine, schools, coffee shops, libraries, offices and phone booths equipped with inexpensive drive-less PC’s missing only your personal thumb drive. For a small fee where appropriate, you could have your familiar home PC experience anywhere. You could interface with local computer networks wherever you are for work or play while maintaining your very personalized software and key records with you. You would control whether everything remained on your personal data device.

Hardware enabled encryption would insure that all traffic between your drive and the PC hardware or internet was encrypted so that only your flash drive with it’s unique encryption chip could decrypt it. We setup similar (software only) encryption every time we do ecommerce over the Internet now and trust it for $1 Trillion in transactions daily and next generation CPUs from Intel and AMD are already being designed to include a unique hardware encryption chip.

The one hundred dollar PC is not far off. See this link to see what is being planned for 2007 by the MIT Media lab.
Others are setting industry standards (U3), developing and marketing software (Migo), or deploying early versions of truly personal virtual PC experiences. Flash Drives Make Any Computer Personal Ubuntu H2