Why don’t cars monitor 12V battery condition and suggest replacement before failure to start?

I’m not sure what caused our rented-from-Sixt Mercedes E 300de to fail and refuse to start even with a jump, but I am suspecting 12V battery health. The battery measured 12V on the tow truck guy’s multimeter, which sounds good for a 12V battery, but the chart below (source) says 12.4 is more of a practical resting minimum:

Today’s question is why cars don’t all come standard with battery health warnings, similar to the warnings regarding when it is time to change the oil.

  1. The car knows the battery voltage before start and after engine/generator shutdown.
  2. The car knows how long the last trip was (i.e., duration of most recent charge).
  3. The car knows how long it was sitting since the last trip (i.e., expected voltage drop from self-discharge).
  4. The car knows roughly how hot it has been (maybe use the temperature at startup for this and apply it to the sitting period and, if refinement is desired, tweak for the time of day).

If the car sees consistently lower-than-expected voltages, shouldn’t it flash a “replace battery ASAP” message to the owner?

Bosch seems to have a product that tries to do this, but I haven’t seen it in action:

I’m not sure why the Bosch hardware is needed when the car already has voltage and outside temperature sensors, plus a clock.

Our dead Mercedes displayed a “low battery” warning, but only after the total failure. It also said “towing not permitted” (what is the alternative if the car won’t start?) and “See Owner’s Manual” (we weren’t supplied with one):

Ford says that an owner should come to the dealership after he/she/ze/they “Constantly experience charging or electrical system problems” or “Experience trouble or difficulty getting your engine to start”. Why is this the best that modern electronics and software can do?

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Maintainability of cork seats on subway trains?

Here’s something that I wouldn’t have expected to work: cork seats on subway trains. The Lisbon Metro, June 2024:

Apparently, the seats used to be covered in cloth and they started a mass conversion about four years ago (“Lisbon Metro already running 100% coated with cork” (2022)).

By Palm Beach County standards, at least, Lisbon is plagued with graffiti. The Metro, however, seems to be an exception. I didn’t see any evidence of vandalism.

How long would cork seats last in the NYC subway system? Would every seat be defaced with carved initials within a few days of installation?

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A celebration of electrical and mechanical engineering in Lisbon

What if the electric company ran an art museum? In Lisbon, they do! The result seems to be a celebration of electrical and mechanical engineering in an old riverside powerplant. The process of charging a Tesla is explained to the lay visitor:

A detail of the boiler:

Babcock and Wilcox, an American company (apparently with some production in the UK), made these state-of-the-art products for about 150 years and their work included contributing to the Manhattan Project, thus helping to end World War II on America’s terms. The company was then sued into bankruptcy by asbestos lawyers. (“A lawyer with his briefcase can steal more than a hundred men with guns.”)

I would have liked to see more technical explanation and maybe a model steam-powered generating plant (with a mini Tesla at the end?), but this still qualifies as a great monument to the achievements of engineers over about 200 years (starting with pioneering female Jamesina Watt).

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Starship use cases?

Today was another tech triumph for Elon Musk, but I have a question: if there aren’t a lot of fat humans who want to go to the Moon or Mars, what will we be lifting into space via the (apparently almost ready for real use) Starship? Aren’t most of the things that we want to send into space getting lighter, e.g., communication satellites? “Average Commercial Communications Satellite Launch Mass Declines, Again” (2015):

The average size, or launch mass, of commercial communications satellites is declining. After the average launch mass reached a peak of 4,424 kilograms in 2012, it declined to 3,578 kilograms in 2013 and 2,755 kilograms in 2014. Even the launch mass of geosynchronous satellites, which are typically heavier than LEO spacecraft, declined in 2014. The launch mass of GEO satellites peaked in 2013, when it reached 5,288 kilograms. The average launch mass of geosynchronous satellites declined to 4,276 kilograms in 2014.

Could we get more scientific information about the other planets in the Solar System if we sent heavier robots to them? The Curiosity rover weighs 2000 lbs while Perseverance is 2,260 lbs. Sojourner was only 25 lbs.

How about space-based telescopes? Optics and mirrors are heavy. Maybe Starship will make launches so cheap that every astronomer can have as much space telescope time as he/she/ze/they wants.

From space.com:

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Baltimore bridge destruction reading: a biography of Rudolf Diesel

As we wait for someone to explain how the Dali lost power from its 55,000 hp (or 0!) German diesel engine, The Mysterious Case of Rudolf Diesel: Genius, Power, and Deception on the Eve of World War I (2023) may be worth a read. In addition to a biography of the man who created the efficient reliable (except sometimes) high-torque engines, the book has some interesting stuff about

  • the rapid industrialization of Russia circa 1900 (I’ve read in other places that it was the world’s fastest growing economy prior to the revolution)
  • the development of Standard Oil
  • the utopian dreams of rich industrialists, including Diesel, circa 1900 (see also Andrew Carnegie!)

Who else would like this book? Greta Thunberg! Diesel predicted that we would completely trash the earth from burning fossil fuel (not an unreasonable prediction at the time given that cities were already horribly polluted from coal smoke), that we would run out of fossil fuel, and that solar energy would ultimately be our primary source of power. Diesel also loved the U.S., predicted that it would become and remain the world’s dominant industrial power, and was very impressed by our passenger train system(!). He thought that the U.S. was guaranteed to stay ahead of the Europeans in passenger rail because we weren’t constrained by old cities (i.e., California high-speed rail should be easy, quick, and cheap to construct!).

MAN was a leader in diesel technology 100+ years ago and remains a leader today, an interesting story in corporate continuity right through to making the Dali‘s engine.

Let’s have a look at the engine family… (for scale, check the staircases and handrails; source)

Mark Zuckerberg also chose German-made (MTU) diesel engines for his climate-saving yacht:

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Book tip: The Underworld (about full ocean depth submarines for recreation)

The Underworld: Journeys to the Depths of the Ocean (Susan Casey) is an interesting book about privatized and recreationalized (is that a word? ) deep submarine excursions. The book seems to have been written before the Titan imploded near the Titanic (June 2023) and then published shortly after the tragedy.

This is more about the personalities and feelings of deep-sea exploration, but there is enough engineering background and detail to make it interesting for the quantitative reader. It is good background for understanding the psychology of the people who built and dove on the Titan.

In 2007, [Patrick] Lahey had cofounded Triton Submarines [of Sebastian, Florida] to create a new generation of eye-catching, user-friendly subs, with acrylic spheres, decent headroom, and plush leather seats. Their maximum depths didn’t extend beyond the twilight zone, but that was deep enough for a taste of the sublime. The subs were a hit with yacht owners—and with filmmakers and scientists, who reveled in the immersive visual experience.

When the hedge fund magnate Ray Dalio loaned his Triton sub to a group of marine biologists in 2012, they captured the first footage of a giant squid hunting off Japan. Previous encounters with the animal had meant ogling a dull mauve corpse: before that dive, nobody had ever witnessed a giant squid in action. The scientists were stunned, because far from being blandly colored, the massive creature looked metallic, as though it had been dipped in silver and bronze. It moved with the fluidity of water itself, its long tentacles studded with suckers, its hubcap eye gazing directly at the camera.

How many more epiphanies were down there? A good rule of thumb is the deeper you go, the stranger things get—and now Lahey had mobilized his decades of experience to build a sub that could explore the deepest reaches of the underworld. As far back as 2011, Triton’s website had included a mockup of the 36000/3, a sub that would take three people to thirty-six thousand feet, or full ocean depth. But this dream machine existed only in pixels: no vehicle was headed to Hades unless someone with a burning desire to dive below twenty thousand feet stepped up to write a series of seven-figure checks. And extremely wealthy people who want to be sealed inside a metal ball and sent plummeting for miles into the ocean’s sepulchral blackness are not found on every street corner.

Once Triton existed anyone with a some cash to spare could launch the kinds of expeditions that previously only governments could undertake.

The saddest part of the history section:

Deep-sea submersibles are an inherently risky proposition, but the field has a sterling safety record. No one has died in a manned submersible since 1974, when an electrical fire inside a Japanese craft caused the two-man crew to be overcome by toxic fumes.

There is plenty of risk and failure is always an option:

Of the many ways a pilot can find himself in trouble beneath the ocean’s surface, the biggest risk is entanglement: getting snagged on fishing gear, cables, debris, or even ropes. There is no plan B when you’re stuck a mile down. Somehow the sub must be freed. “I’ve been hung up twice,” Kerby said, looking sober. The first time happened early in his career. “I was a green pilot, and I got caught in the lines from a shrimp trap. And I knew that if I couldn’t get out of it, I would die.” The second entanglement was more recent: Kerby ran into a pile of cable that had been dumped by a tugboat. “The worst thing you can do is thrash around,” he said. “You have to stop and take stock of your heading, and try to project yourself outside of the sub.” Both times, he added, it took hours of dressage-style maneuvering to escape. “Self-help is the only help, that’s our motto.”

The Pisces are equipped with five days of life support, so anyone marooned underwater would have plenty of time to consider their fragile mortality. This wasn’t a theoretical situation. In 1973, another Pisces submersible, the Pisces III, suffered a hatch failure that flooded its external machinery tank, overburdening the sub and causing it to plummet to the North Atlantic seafloor with its two pilots trapped inside the pressure hull.

Thankfully, the Pisces III crashed on soft bottom mud without catastrophic damage, at a depth of 1,575 feet—shallow enough to attempt a rescue. (It narrowly avoided falling over a shelf that would’ve carried it beyond reach.) That was the good news. The bad news was that submarine rescues are logistically complicated scrambles that often fail to beat the mercilessly ticking clock.

The Pisces V—at the time owned by a Canadian company and working in British Columbia—was airlifted to the scene, along with the Pisces II, which had been laying cable in the North Sea. While the stranded pilots, Roger Chapman and Roger Mallinson, endured this long wait, they watched the Pisces III’s oxygen supply dwindling like an hourglass. Hypothermia set in, then dehydration, then delirium from breathing too much carbon dioxide. Terrible weather and plain bad luck slowed the rescue, but finally the other subs were able to attach lines to the Pisces III. By the time Chapman and Mallinson were craned to the surface, they’d been in the sphere for eighty-four hours. Only twenty minutes of oxygen had remained in their tanks.

The book also contains a story of nonprofit org fraud and startup fraud:

Since the International Seabed Authority opened its doors in 1994, its 168 members (now numbering 168 delegates from 167 nations and the European Union) have met annually at its headquarters in Jamaica to prepare for the biggest resource haul the world has ever known—or as one marine scientist put it, “the greatest assault on deep-sea ecosystems ever inflicted by humans.”

To date, the ISA has granted thirty-one mining exploration contracts covering about six hundred thousand square miles, a seabed footprint the size of Alaska. Nineteen of those contracts are for nodule mining, but with an expansiveness that would have delighted Mero, the other twelve contracts would allow miners to investigate scalping the tops off seamounts and grinding up hydrothermal vents. Apparently it’s not hard to get an exploration contract, because so far the ISA has approved every application. Any member state that pays a $500,000 fee and follows procedure can soon have exclusive rights to its own patch of seabed. There’s no stinting on size: an average CCZ contract area spans about thirty thousand square miles. Some nations already hold multiple contracts (China has five) and there’s nothing to prevent any ISA member state from obtaining more, usually by sponsoring contracts on behalf of private-sector mining companies. (In that case, the mining company puts up the capital, runs the show, and would pocket most of the profits—theoretically, billions. The sponsoring nation receives a small royalty, and could be liable for damages if anything goes wrong.) Ultimately the ISA stands to benefit from every contract it grants, with royalties rolling in from each mining operation. Some of that cash will be distributed to developing nations, but a portion flows to the ISA itself—a jarring conflict of interest for a group that also serves as the industry’s regulator. Absurdly, there are even plans for the ISA to develop its own nodule mining concession called “the Enterprise.”

Then add some credulous environmentally conscious investors…

The story got bigger: DeepGreen’s pursuit of nodules was about nothing less than saving the world. And [Gerard] Barron was everywhere, telling it at length. It was a blur of land-based mining destroying rain forests Africa child labor toxic tailings fossil fuel human rights violations versus renewable energy closed-loop recycling no-waste sustainable abundant nodules that “literally lie on the ocean floor like golf balls on a driving range.” “I’m doing this for the planet and the planet’s children,” Barron said. Also, for an 8.1 percent stake in a company that would soon be listed on the NASDAQ. In 2021, DeepGreen went public in a SPAC merger, changing its name to the Metals Company (ticker symbol: TMC). It was valued at $2.9 billion, which was impressive given that it had no revenue, and its only assets were seabed rights that supposedly belong to the rest of us.

The TMC stock debuted at $11.05 a share, spiked to $15.39, and fell to $3.48 within a month. (It has since dropped below a dollar.) Accounting problems emerged; lawsuits followed. Shareholders joined a class-action suit, alleging the Metals Company had made “materially false and misleading statements”;

The Explorers Club in New York City is full of members not afraid to risk anything… except SARS-CoV-2 infection:

The Madagascar hissing cockroaches were roasted extra-crispy, glistening on wooden skewers. They were bigger and shinier than the Costa Rican cave cockroaches and the Argentinian wood cockroaches, with longer antennae and a formidable set of horns. If you were hoping for a black-tie occasion to sample a variety of roaches, this was the only game in town: the 118th Explorers Club Annual Dinner. Archaeologists, anthropologists, geologists, field biologists, polar explorers, marine scientists, endurance athletes, space travelers, wildlife photographers, ocean conservationists, extreme climbers, single-handed sailors, and assorted peers: this was their party, a global gathering of adventurers. For the last two years, the annual dinner had been canceled due to COVID, so the night was both a reunion and a celebration, the rooms overflowing with the club’s members and guests.

More: read The Underworld: Journeys to the Depths of the Ocean

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Why isn’t ChatGPT inside our refrigerators?

Some years ago people envisioned a refrigerator that would track contents via RFID and alert a consumer to being low on milk or whatever. Making this a reality would have required cooperation among all of the companies that make packaged food (to add the RFID tags) so of course it never happened.

A human can inventory a fridge. Anything a human can do ChatGPT can do better, or so we’re told. If a fridge costs $15,000 (see Sub-Zero refrigerator with R600a owner’s review) why can’t it use a handful of inexpensive video cameras to look at everything going in and out in detail? It can make some good guesses about quantities, e.g., every time the eggs are removed there will be three fewer eggs remaining in the carton (refine this guess after some experience in a household as to when the carton stops being returned to the fridge (assume this means the egg count is zero)). The in-the-fridge AI could email with a list of expired stuff to throw out and a list of stuff to buy. It could email at 3 pm every day with a suggestion for what to cook for dinner given the ingredients present in the fridge, adding critical items via an Instacart order if approved.

“New AI-powered fridge technology generates recipes based on diet, food on its shelves” (Deplorable Fox) describes a Samsung fridge introduced at CES 2024, but it turns out to be not that smart:

The fridge’s technology also reportedly enables users to add expiration dates for items purchased, and the refrigerator will alert them once that expiration date is near.

Why is it the human’s job to read expiration dates off the packages? Why can’t the brilliant AI do that? Let’s give some credit to Samsung, though, for including an epic 32-inch TV on the $4500 fridge:

So the Samsung fridge is missing the Instacart ordering support, I think, as well as the automation of ferreting out expired food.

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Could Elon Musk be right about reusing the truss steel that fell into Baltimore Harbor?

Elon speaks on a topic for which he has few apparent qualifications, the classic mark of a fool, April and otherwise:

An example of idiocy, as the “trust the experts” crowd says? The experts themselves disagree with Musk. A Florida-based bridge engineer:

(My comment on the above: Sell the old truss on eBay? “Dropped once. Never snapped.” (see also, re: World War II, “French Rifle for Sale: dropped once, never fired”.))

I wonder if both Elon Musk and the Florida engineer could be correct.

If you want to build something to last 50 years and have a big safety margin and you don’t care how long it takes to build, the civil engineer is right. What if it needs to last only 10 years (while an adjacent replacement is built using conventional techniques) and you’re willing to compromise on aesthetics? Maybe Elon is also right. Pick up and reuse as much of the old bridge as possible. Do a new structural analysis of the old design to see where doublers and other structural enhancements are needed given possible weakness of some of the elements. Instrument it with strain gauges everywhere. Then patch it up and let all of the self-driving truck companies pull heavy trailers onto it. Check the strain gauges. If everything is consistent with the analysis under a real-world load, open it to cars, but not heavy trucks. In the #AbundanceOfCaution department, maybe close the bridge if there are exceptional winds (1 or 2 days per year).

Given the fact that it is possible to drive around this bridge and the American hunger for perfect safety and security and the construction industry’s reluctance to do anything unconventional, my suspicion is that the Florida engineer is correct and Musk’s idea could never work in practice. But Musk’s idea might be a good one if there were more urgency regarding the rebuild, for example.

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Key Bridge collapse and electric aircraft

Dali, the Singapore-flagged container ship that brought down Key Bridge in Baltimore, presumably had multiple redundant power systems, yet apparently suffered a total loss of power that may have contributed to the bridge strike:

Obviously this is a sad day for the families of those who perished in the collapse, but the accident raises a question regarding electric aircraft. Many of them can’t glide. Absent a Cirrus-style ballistic parachute, total loss of power means that everyone on board will die. The typical design has three independent electrical systems and the calculated chance of a total failure is 1 in 1 billion or less. Yet the same calculation was likely done for the Dali, a much more expensive machine, and total failure appears to have happened nonetheless.

I wonder if this worse-than-calculated performance favors winged designs such as Beta’s.

The “super drone”-style designs can’t autorotate as a helicopter can/must and they can’t glide on wings like an airplane because they don’t have wings.

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History of failed attempts to build houses cheaper

Loyal readers may recall that one of my pet obsessions is why the manufacturing techniques that have made cars and widgets cheaper can’t be applied to housing. Why can’t, at least, the house have plug-in bathrooms, kitchens, and utility rooms so that all of these items can be refreshed cheaply with factory-built rooms after 20 years?

A side effect of our failure to come up with a way to build houses at a lower cost is the “affordable housing crisis” that advocates for population growth via low-skill immigration like to decry (see Immigration and rent are both at all-time highs).

“Why Do We Build Houses in the Same Way That We Did 125 Years Ago?” (New York Times; non-paywalled version) digs into this question:

In 1969, the federal government announced that it would hand out millions of dollars in subsidies to companies willing to try something new: build houses in factories.

It didn’t work. Big companies, including Alcoa and General Electric, designed new kinds of houses, and roughly 25,000 rolled out of factories over the following decade. But none of the new home builders long survived the end of federal subsidies in the mid-1970s.

Last year, only 2 percent of new single-family homes in the United States were built in factories. Two decades into the 21st century, nearly all U.S. homes are still built the old-fashioned way: one at a time, by hand. Completing a house took an average of 8.3 months in 2022, a month longer than it took to build a house of the same size back in 1971.

As with most innovations, the central planners believe that central planning (“government help”) is necessary:

The tantalizing potential of factory-built housing, also known as modular housing, continues to attract investors and entrepreneurs, including a start-up called Fading West that opened a factory in 2021 in the Colorado mountain town of Buena Vista. But Fading West, and similar start-ups in other parts of the country, need government help to drive a significant shift from handmade housing to factories. This time, there is reason to think it could work.

How much can be saved?

Fading West says houses from its factory can be completed in as little as half the time and at as little as 80 percent of the cost of equivalent handmade homes, in part because the site can be prepared while the structure is built in the factory. A 2017 analysis by the Terner Center for Housing Innovation at the University of California, Berkeley, found similar savings for the construction of three- to five-story apartment buildings using modular components.

If we adjust for the inevitable startup hype factor… the 80 percent is probably 115 percent of what a tract house developer spends when building 25-100 houses at a time and 95 percent of what it would cost to build one house via the traditional method.

What do people who don’t get government money for their factory-built house startup say?

Factory home builders have struggled to streamline construction. [Brian Potter, a senior infrastructure fellow at the Institute for Progress, a nonpartisan think tank focused on technological innovation] spent several years looking for ways to make housing construction more efficient, an effort he narrated on a fascinating blog, before concluding that significant progress wasn’t likely. “Almost any idea that you can think of for a way to build a single-family home cheaper has basically been tried, and there was probably a company that went bankrupt trying to do it,” Mr. Potter told me.

The depressing conclusion: If you believe in fairy tales, single-family houses could potentially come down in price by 15 percent (the land underneath won’t be reduced in cost by 20%!) as an absolute outer limit. If the American population is to grow, therefore, people are going to live in smaller and crummier houses unless they develop valuable work skills.

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