Software In My Car

A few weeks ago I picked up a brand new Toyata Prius. The nerd in me loves this thing and I have been very pleased about my visits to the gas station. Nine gallons is getting me around 385 miles and then I go and spend a whopping $17 at the gas station compared to my $45+ vists with the SUV. But rants about gas don't belong on my blog.

More appropriate, however, are musings on innovation, software and such. And this car has that in spades. For those of you who don't know, the way the Prius works is that it converts the kinetic energy of the car back into stored electricity when the car is either coasting or braking. I am assuming this has to happen because the alternator could never put out enough juice to match what the car needs to battery-assist during acceleration. This is a very cool thing in my book.

When you are driving, you get hooked on this great little display that shows the flow of electricity either from the battery to the wheels, or from the wheels and engine back into the battery. Talk about watching software work! If you dink around with the cruise control you can find the right speeds (based on grade of road) where the battery gets optimal use.

As I have been thinking about this, I started looking back at my presentation on the long tail theory at the last OSBC in Boston. It occurs to me that the software development that is represented in my car is all short-end-of-the-tail stuff. But they have done nothing to enable the long-end of the tail. I would guess that letting random hackers modify the code of their car would be disasterous, never mind dangerous to others on the roads. But why not build in an interface that lets the user have some long-tail fun? If it is all software to begin with, then why not let me modify a bunch of factors that would give me more long-tail fun? How about tweaking the threashold of acceleration where the internal combustion engine kicks in? Or enabling pulse/glide on the cruise control for more optimal fuel consumption? Or a USB port on the dash where I can get a comma- or tab-delimited text export of fuel consumption data so I could analyze my routes to work in Excel? Or...holy crap, I think I'm a nerd. (Not a shock to my wife.)

I've had numerous conversations with folks in the OSS community about the nature of innovation. Big leap stuff vs. incremental. I'm really looking forward to the incremental changes that will be coming from hybrid technologies. Why not put generators on the back tires, maybe only when the car is in cruise control (not sure if the drag of the generators would be worth the consumption they would cause)? How about cool little wind intakes all over the car that could use the kinetic energy of the car to run 20 or 30 small wind generators that are always pumping electricy back into the system? Or hook up pedals for my kids in the back - I can think of worse things then getting them to burn some energy on a long ride. You want to watch a video? Well, start pedaling, kiddo.


Comments (2)
  1. Blair says:

    I just got a Prius a couple of weeks ago also and I have to agree it is the funnest car I have ever owned. The consumption window is also very interesting to look at every so often during a drive; it tells you how much electricty has been sent back to the batteries. Also go check out some of the forumns about the prius some of the stuff people have done to them is very wild.

  2. Jason Coyne says:

    While the "optimization" tweaks you are talking about in software would be able to change the efficiency of the car somewhat, the physical changes you are talking about would likely reduce the efficiency of the car.

    The prius gets energy when you are coasting, not from the wheels, but from the idle of the engine. That energy that is normally wasted goes to the battery.

    Only during braking do the wheel generators provide any input. Therefore putting generators on the rear wheels would decrease efficiency during accelration and coasting, for some gains during braking. Prius has optimized their braking system so that the primary slowdown comes from the front brakes, so adding to the rear wouldn’t really get you anything.

    The windmills would be a loss all together, While there is currently quite a bit of energy being lost to wind resistance, thats just a fact of life in a non-vacumn. The prius was designed to be as aerodynamic as possible (while still looking something like a car). Adding intakes would increase the wind resistance of the car. Adding windmills would also increase the resistance. (That energy come s from somewhere – in this case it would be the engine!)

    If you could somehow only open the intakes when you were going downhill, that might get you something, but we are quite a ways from that.

    The planes and cars (even sports cars) that currently have air intakes use them for cooling, or fuel (sc/ram-jets), or for better handling due to the controlled wind resistance.

    I would love the excel download thing, and I want to run a tablet PC instead of the normal prius software.

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