Technosophy: The Road Not Taken

The discussion resulting from the last Technosophy item got me to thinking about a couple of things. One of them was the whole gas/electric hybrid car concept. I really do think this is a technological dead end, the kind of thing that future generations will look back on and say, “They seriously thought that was worth bothering with?” I honestly believe that, if all the money that’s been wasted developing hybrid drive systems had been spent instead on improving the efficiency of the normal ones, everyone would be getting better mileage now, not just the tiny, smug, self-important Prius minority – resulting in a much larger net gain in fuel economy worldwide with much less silly faffing around.

But let’s say, for the sake of argument, that piston engines have reached the limit of what can be wrung out of them. That what’s really needed now is a whole new concept in automotive powerplant technology, something that will make cars with piston engines seem as antiquated and quaint as fighter planes with propellers.

Well, funnily enough, I think that something already exists. In fact, I think it’s the same something that left propeller-driven fighter planes behind at the end of World War II… and it’s a something that engineers first seriously took a crack at putting in automobiles in the early 1960s.

1963 Chrysler Turbine Car

Meet the 1963 Chrysler Turbine. Styled by Ghia, the famed Italian design firm (of VW Karmann Ghia fame), it wasn’t called the Turbine just because it looked futuristic and sleek by the standards of its day. It was called that because it really was powered by a turbine. Understand, though, the Turbine was not a “jet car”. Its turbine didn’t power it by direct thrust, as in those giant dragsters with the jet fighter engines, or various Batmobiles over the years. It used a gas turbine where a conventional car has a piston engine – to drive a pair of its wheels via a mechanical gearing system. It wasn’t intended for stunts or silly afterburner showing off; it was intended to prove that a gas turbine engine was a serious candidate to replace the piston engine under the hood of the average American car.

Chrysler Corporation had been fooling around with small gas turbine engines since before the Second World War, and they’d made attempts at putting them into cars before, but their earlier attempts were, quite frankly, rubbish. The biggest problem they had was the same problem that plagued the early jet aircraft: poor throttle response. A lot of modern turbocharged cars experience a phenomenon called “turbo lag”, wherein you stamp on the throttle, but the big boost of horsepower provided by the turbo doesn’t kick in for several seconds while it sorts out what it’s doing. Chrysler’s early experimental turbine-powered cars had a very similar problem, except that in their case, the wait wasn’t just for the added horsepower provided by a turbo, it was for any power at all.

In the 1963 Turbine Car they had that issue pretty well licked, as well as the other major bugaboos of their early turbine experiments – mechanical reliability and fuel efficiency. Chrysler built 55 ’63 Turbine Cars and sent them all over the country in an ambitious test program, placing them with ordinary people in all walks of life for testing in the real world – where they promptly performed brilliantly, racking up a reliability record that would have been the envy of any normal car of their day. They ran everywhere, rain or shine, winter and summer, day and night – and, most intriguingly from our modern oh-no-is-this-peak-oil perspective, they ran on pretty much anything that was a) a liquid and b) flammable. Gasoline, diesel oil, kerosene, jet fuel, Wesson, they didn’t care. The president of Mexico, presented with one for his consideration, famously tried running it on tequila, which it happily did (though presumably it didn’t eat the worm). And all that with an emission signature that amounted to little more than some heat.

The Turbine test program ran for three years. More than 200 people spent three months each driving their Turbines in normal, everyday life, just like their next-door neighbors were using their Chevy Impalas and Ford Galaxie 500s. From Maine to California, in the hands of postmen, housewives, salesmen, engineers, doctors, ministers, the Turbines whirred steadily on. And all during that time, shopping mall displays and other marketing events announced that here, my friends, was the car of the future. Never mind the concept stuff on display at Autorama. We built these and then proved that they actually work in the real world.

And then…

… well, and then nothing, sadly. Chrysler did go on to make one further turbine-powered ground vehicle – the M1 Abrams tank, you may have heard of it – but nothing more was said, in public anyway, about a turbine-powered automobile for the general public.

Why not? Well… here it all gets a little hazy. Chrysler collected the ’63 Turbines at the end of the test and destroyed all but a handful of them, ostensibly because if they didn’t they would have to pay an import duty on the bits made in Italy, and what little the company’s management said about the turbine idea when people asked about it afterward was couched in vague terms about economic feasibility. There were mutterings about the problem of training mechanics to work on the things and were Mr. and Mrs. John Q. and Jane Public really ready for such a thing (ironic, given Chrysler had just spent three years proving that they were). Even more interestingly, when Chrysler was bailed out by the federal government during the Iacocca years, one of the provisions of that bailout was that Chrysler would scrap any and all research into turbine-powered consumer automobiles.

As you might imagine, these… intriguing… circumstances give rise to a good many conspiracy theories among those who remember the ’63 Turbine and wonder what might have been.

Mind you, as cars they did have shortcomings. Their exhaust temperature at the pipe, for instance, was a rather brisk 500° F, and they made an uninspiring vacuum-cleaner whine in an era when people expected a car that size to make a meaty V-8 rumble. They didn’t have inspiring power by the standards of the day – around 130 horsepower, at a time when a standard family car with a V-8 engine developing less than 300 HP was considered a bit poky. While they didn’t produce carbon monoxide or unburned hydrocarbons in their exhaust, they did produce oxides of nitrogen – though the engineers had fixed that by 1966. And yes, they required a bit of special handling – if you didn’t follow the startup procedure correctly, for instance, you’d destroy the engine.

Still, that was nothing normal, workaday people couldn’t handle. Nowadays you expend more brainpower working out how the radio in your new car is operated vs. the one in your old car. Everything else could’ve been cracked with further engineering (and, as I’ve already mentioned, the emissions issue already had been). The trickiest shortcoming of the bunch would’ve been making it make a better noise, and conventional car companies nowadays have entire teams of engineers working on that kind of thing.

What the 1963 Chrysler Turbine represents, then, is a car built with technology that arguably wasn’t quite there… but the mass of evidence from the three-year test program shows that at worst, it was within one generation of commercial readiness. Had research continued, had the program been given anything like the attention it deserved, all the ’63 Turbine’s remaining problems could have been addressed. Look at how much conventional cars have advanced since 1963. Consider a modern turbine car as far ahead of the ’63 Turbine, engineering-wise, as a modern Chrysler 300C is ahead of a ’63 300J.

Consider it, versus the alternatives we have today instead – versus pointless publicity stunts like the Prius and naff plastic boxes like the Smart Fortwo – and weep.

About Gryphon

In his career - well, not so much a career as a series of interesting but usually ill-advised vocational choices, if we're being honest - Benjamin D. Hutchins has been a tech support grunt, an Internet operations tech, a small-town print reporter, a public relations writer, and a semiprofessional muser upon the random. Now he's working on several books (none of which, just to buck tradition, is the Great American Novel), eyeing the relentless march of personal gadget technology with bemusement and often suspicion, and wondering what's with these kids today, with their clothes and their hair and that stuff they think is music.His first book, Off the Top of My Head: Personal Reflections of a Small-Town Newsman, can be had here or here.
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  • Ben Drawbaugh

    Don’t kid yourself, the auto industry is just like any other, the name of the game is profits and considering the automotive industry and the gasoline industry have been hand in hand for 100 years, what’s good for one is good for the other and a car that gets better MPG isn’t good for either.

    If you want a glimpse of the industry check out the movie “Who Killed the Electric Car” and then tell me why we don’t have electric cars (or turbine for that matter) — and no it’s not the batteries.

    My favorite quote from the movie was, They say that since current batteries can only power cars 150 miles they aren’t ready for all americans, they are right, they would only work for 90% of Americans.

  • Gryphon

    Given that I’m in that remaining 10 percent, I’m still not inclined to be very impressed by electric cars.

  • hemo_jr

    Maybe the auto makers in India or China can take this on. The original turbine patents have to be expired, those auto companies don’t have the links to big oil that Detroit does, and any success can make them very rich. There are some very bright people in those countries and they will be making big waves for a very long time.

  • MegaZone

    I disagree on hybrids, I think they’re generally a good idea. And they can provide performance *better* than any car that runs on combustion alone. And I mean performance in both mileage and acceleration. Electric motors produce boat loads of torque right from 0, which is why cars like the Tesla can whip supercars in a drag race. The problem with pure electrics is range, and the gas motor solves that. And since it can run right in its most efficient RPM sweet spot to turn the generator, it is far more efficient than the engine in a standard car which needs to throttle all over the curve.

    I think the best hybrid would be a pure electric drive, probably wheel motors, with a small internal combustion motor for recharging. And it could give truly high end driving performance. There is no reason hybrids need to be wheezers like the Prius.

    But even better would be turbo-electric propulsion. As you say, the turbine is more fuel efficient and less polluting, and it runs on just about anything flammable and liquid. The Army has tested the M1 with things including coal slurry. And with modern computer controls a car turbine would have a FADEC (Full Authority Digital Engine Control) just like modern jets. No more monitoring all the temps and RPMs and flipping the right switches. You press ‘Start’ and the computer starts the turbine. And modern turbines are far more efficient than the models from the 60s. They’d also come a long way in difusing the hot exhausts – you see IR diffusers on many helicopters. They mix cool air with the exhaust to lower the IR signature to protect from missile attack – but the same concept would work in cooling the exhaust so it wouldn’t melt the tarmac.

    A gas turbine running at its optimal speed would be extremely efficient, and it could turn a generator to charge batteries for energy storage. The turbine would only need to fire up when power demands required it, making it even more efficient. And removing the gearing necessary to step down a turbine for wheel speeds, and the clutches needed, etc, would reduce mechanical complexity and increase reliability.

    Turbo-electric propulsion could provide high performance and better economy than piston-based hybrids, or piston or turbine engines providing purely mechanical propulsion.

  • Tom

    Ben has hit the nail on the head in the first comment. One just has to look at avergae MPG over the years to see this: peaking during the post embargo days and decreasing ever since.

    While most of the world’s automakers are approaching 40 MPG for non-hybrid engines in the next few years (even China), the US automakers have to be dragged kicking and screaming to that goal. They had been mostly able to get legistation defeated until very recently. But even that was compromised: They aren’t mandated to reach 35 MPG until 2025. By then I’m sure the foreign automakers will be doing much better than 35.

    I have to wonder if these gov’t mandates had been imposed years ago whether the US carmakers would have been more able to compete against. The US industry seems so dead set against innovation, to spite its best interests. They’re business models seem stuck in 1960s.

  • MegaZone

    Tom – There are a couple of things to keep in mind. First is that the way fuel economy is determined recently changed, and the change *lowers* the ratings. So the very same car, burning the very same fuel, would have a lower MPG today than in the past. So it isn’t apples to apples when comparing today’s CAFE to the CAFE from past years. I know there is a conversion formula out there.

    Another issue is weight. Today’s cars are heavier, across the board. And I don’t just mean the SUVs and such, even today’s compact cars are far heavier than compacts in the 70s. Today’s Beetle is a lot heavier than the 60s Beetle, etc. And a lot of that has to do with safety. The light, efficient cars of the past would never pass certification today. Requirements for bumpers, impact absorbing crumple zones, side impact protection, air bags, etc, have all added weight, which reduces economy. Many of the hyper efficient cars in Europe and Asia are not street legal in the US be cause they cannot meet US crash requirements.

    And I don’t think you can blame the automakers either – and definitely not just the US automakers. Look at a recent Honda Civic compared to the early Civics – it is a lot bigger. The new VW Beetle is larger than the old Beetle. Cars have trended larger across the board – because consumers demand it. There are still small cars available – but people tend not to buy them. Maybe now that fuel costs are going up it will make people think more about small cars again, and the trend will reverse itself. But it isn’t the car makers in some vast conspiracy to make people buy bigger cars – consumers have preferred larger models when given the choice. So naturally car makers made bigger models – supply meeting demand.

    For the record I drive a large car, I think it is official ‘mid-size’, a 2006 Dodge Charger RT Daytona. It has a 350HP 5.7L Hemi V8, and I don’t really track my mileage – I have a lead foot and I’m lucky to see 20MPG, though the car can do better than that if you drive it less aggressively – but where’s the fun in that? It does have variably displacement, where it cuts out 4 cylinders on the highway, and on long trips cruising at a steady speed mileage does go up. I just filled up last night – it takes 89 octane or better, and it was $4.099 a gallon at my local station. I put $66 in the tank. And I’d still buy the same car again today (I’ve had it since 9/2005) since I love it. And I’m 6’6″ and big (read: fat), so most small cars are profoundly uncomfortable for me to drive. This car is comfortable, with enough head and leg room for me. And it has the power to get out of its own way.

    My last car was a PT Cruiser, which I got back in 2000 (I ordered one the week they hit showrooms, but it took while to come in), which was a decent car, but not the quickest on the road. Sometimes it had trouble getting out of its own way when trying to merge onto the highway, etc. Fortunately I had a stick, so I could wring more acceleration out of the 2.4L engine. The automatic was much worse.

  • Ben Drawbaugh

    I don’t think there is a conspiracy, auto makers want to make money and if more MPG sold more cars than they’d do it, but the fact is people are more interested in cup holders and HP.

    Hybrids are a joke, Honda made a civic in 1992 that got 56MPG (model VX), and guess what no one bought it. The sporty SI model was much more popular at 35MPG.

    Electric cars on the other hand, even in 1991 could go 150 miles on a charge. How many people commute more than 50 miles a day? Almost no one, my commute is really short at 2.5, so it would be perfect for me, because like many americans, I have in a 2 car household (one electric and one gas maybe) and love to drive fast cars. I’d buy a 35k sportscar that was electric in a heart beat, but I can’ afford a Tesla. Who knows maybe I’ll actually stop talking and convert my S2k to electric. Don’t laugh, there are plenty of people who do it.

  • Tom

    It’s not lost on me that cars are heavier today and have more strigent safety regulations. But MPG standards are gov’t mandates, not just measurements placed on a dealer sticker with the price.

    My point is that those mandates have been relaxed and weakened for the last few decades and attempts to increase fuel efficiency across the board have been thwarted by the oil and auto industries. To show the extent of this the federal gov’t is threatening to overturn any new CAFE standards proposed by the California legislature (so much for states rights).

  • Ben Drawbaugh

    I agree. Part of the governments job in a capitalistic economy is to force the companies to do what is right for the country since all we expect the company to do is what is right for their bottom line.