Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Cyclist killed by truck - no charges laid, as usual

Today cbc.ca reported that a 7-year-old girl was killed by a truck on St. Laurent near Cremazie Boulevard. She was cycling with her mother on the sidewalk, fell down and onto the street where she was run over by a truck and pronounced dead on the scene.

No charges will be laid against the truck driver because it was an accident. It is the 5th cyclist to be killed in traffic accidents in Montreal this year, among them other truck incidents.

This is a terrible thing to happen, and even more so as I feel it is preventable. Whenever I hear a truck coming behind me, I try to get out of the way as I know that those heavy vehicles can not stop fast. They pass by our apartment on Masson, which is a residential street, going 50km/h, sometimes up to 70km/h (my estimates). I have always been scared, because if something comes in their way, people, cyclists or cars, they will be crushed and have few chances of survival.

One bad experience I have is driving in a car on a countryside road, at the limit speed of 90km/h, slightly downhill. I heard a truck honking behind me and approaching at what seemed at least 30km/h faster. I had no choice than to hit the gas pedal to the bottom without considering anything else.

It seems that most drivers here do not care. Since they never had an accident, they believe that they are driving 'safely' and there is no motivation to change their habits. There is no enforcement by the police as far as I can see, or any sanctions if somebody gets killed. The driver was pronounced not guilty the same day.

When I was studying for my driving license in Austria, one very important thing I learned is that if you drive a vehicle you have always be able to stop, never to trust the other participants, especially children. I have never been scared of trucks there either. Apparently here in Montreal these rules do not apply - with deadly consequences.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

First ride in an electric car

Renault Scénic - unconverted vehicle but lookalike.

Today I enjoyed my first ride in an electric car. The word "enjoy" here is not meant as in the typical phrase, but as being intensely "enjoyable". Being in car and not hearing the usual loud noise of a gasoline engine is completely astonishing, wow! What comes in mind at once is that the engine has been killed and the vehicle is just rolling. It is a very calming experience. The sound that then becomes most apparent is the wind and the rolling of the tires but also the bumping on the road. There is also no pollution (except for tire abrasion).

A relative of mine (Francois Messier) who works for TM4 Inc. (a member of Hydro-Quebec group) as a mechanical engineer took us for a tour. The company is testing their electric motors in cars that have been converted for this purpose by SVE (a member of Groupe Dassault) - in this case a Renault Scénic, imported from France. More information about their conversion process is here.

Other than the ZENN cars that have a 50km/h maximum speed which are currently being tested as a pilot project on Quebec's roads and will be manufactured in Saint-Jerome, the car we were driving in, can go up to 130km/h and is fully authorized in Quebec and can go on the highway without problems. Actually the acceleration of an electric engine is much better than a combustion engine.

Alas, it is not possible to buy one yet in Quebec. I did not fully understand the reason behind it, but it seems that the company wants to enhance the engine/electric system and to do more testing. It can be driven for 150 kilometres before it has to be recharged at 220V for 6 hours. A full recharge costs about $1.68 (24kWh at 7 cent per kWh), costing 1c/km compared to 10c/km for gas. How long the batteries will last is not known yet.

In Europe many electric cars were produced in small series, from Peugeot, Renault, Smart, Fiat, VW and several small manufactorers, but no cars were successful in the consumer market. In Austria a car called "Hotzenblitz" (link is in german) has been developed since the nineties and is currently manufactured in its second generation, 120 cars have been produced so far. It is a small two-seater, but nevertheless fulfills the strict security requirements, can be driven between 70 and 200km before recharging 5 hours, and has 120km/h maximum speed.
It costs between $20,000 and $30,000 depending on the before-mentioned range and is currently back-ordered for 9 months.
Another car, the G-Wiz, which is made in India, is offered in London for approx. $20,000. With 80km/h and 80 kilometers range it is only suited for urban traffic. It seems to be a very attractive alternative there because Londoners don't have to pay for the congestion charge or parking with this car. It is also in the lowest insurance class and owners will receive tax benefits. With all these financial advantages the company boasts that the total cost of ownership can be recuperated after the first year(!).

I also heard from a friend that his brother-in-law converted his conventional car to run with electricity. There are also companies that offer a services for conversion to electricity.
Different kinds of custom-made electric cars can be spotted in several places, for example Zermatt is one of several villages in Switzerland, where cars with combustion engines are banned. Electricity in Switzerland is 80% hydro-generated, so it is quite a clean way of transport.

The city of Paris plans to offer a rental system for electric cars, modeled after its successful bicycle rental system Velib. It is called Autolib and will be available at the end of 2009 with 4,000 cars. Reactions to this plan are mixed however. Environmental groups and parties think that individual transport has to be reduced in favor of collective transport wherever possible, something with which I totally agree. It will not be possible to produce enough electricity to replace the energy from gas, just for use in cars, on the scale of the planet. Also I doubt that at the current state of battery technology, enough batteries can be produced for that, give supply of required metals (the batteries weigh several hundred kg).