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The Peace Wheels Project

Peter Ravenscroft | 22.06.2005 09:21 | Anti-militarism | Ecology

Ultralight ground vehicles can contribute to a more peaceful planet. So can you, if interested.

The Peace Wheels Project

If you would like to help reduce the strife and mayhem in the world just a little, this lot may be worth considering.

It has occurred to some scattered folk hereabouts (which is from around Brisbane,an overgrown Australian village you have probably never heard of, and down the coast to better known campsites such as Newcastle, Sydney and Melbourne), that we maybe could help by getting the world aimed towards using smaller vehicles. That might be useful if we want to survive as a species and also enjoy a bit more peace in the years ahead.

The background thinking is, every time you fill up your fuel tank, so many cents go to the US or Australian or whatever government, in taxes from the oil companies, and some of that goes to pay for airforce bombs and rockets to blow some Iraqi kid's arms and relatives off. From exactly the same payment, a few cents also goes to Muslim charities, via governments such as that of Saudi Arabia, and some of that in turn goes for car bombs, to blow the first kid's cousin's arms and relatives off. Buy a huge four wheel drive or suv and you are helping keep the uproar going, big time.

I must straight off confess that I have a large four wheel drive, so am as guilty as anyone. We have met the enemy and they are us, as Winnie the Pooh remarked. I always fall over myself trying to explain that mine is a farm truck, that I also use it to rescue all sorts of treasures from the local trip, I only have it because I used to prospect for gold for a living, can't afford to replace it with another vehicle or to register a second smaller one and am trying to get my electric bicycle better batteries, so it can reach the outer edge of the village. But the fact is, I am as guilty as anyone of wasting fuel and backing the oil wars. This is not a "holier than thou" excercise.

Also, if you don't care for breathing clean air, or Iraqi kids, or your own kid's future, that's fine, this will not interest you unless you are an incurable tinkerer or revhead anyway.

But that last rider identifies one of the key points in this particular field of thought. You can talk to almost anyone in the western world about cars. Almost everyone over the age of six really is is a transport expert and has very interesting insights into the problems of getting around, since we are not fitted with roots at birth but feet. So here is a field in which everyone can find common ground and to the theory of which everyone can contribute. It is economic imperatives that drive conflicts; reduce the economic pressures and you can help reduce the conflicts. From the extreme left to the extreme right, via all the different middle paths, this is something we can all talk about on a basis very close to equality. It's a real problem, it's new ground, and there are asyet few irrevocably entrenched ideological positions or paid experts.

This morning, just to digress, I watched two little electric-powered fishing dingies gliding silently to shore with a fine catch of fish, from a stocked and well-managed freshwater reservoir. No noise, no pollution, huge fish and happy fishermen. Very inspiring. It can be done. We need something like that on our roads.

The idea is to try get a huge debate going worldwide, to get ideas on how to do this, what to build, and how to do it, switching every which way for free on the Internet, and to get a whole swag of experimental vehicles a-building, in peoples' sheds, garages, spare rooms, factories, lean-tos, shacks, whatever. There is no technical reason not to build new types of cars in backyard sheds. A man in this obscure village of ours builds replica Spitfires that have beter engines and airframes than the originals. So what's the big deal about cars? It is already happening in all sorts of places and has gone on for yonks, but perhaps not in this sort of forum. Public support for such things is as important as the technical side. Among other things, we will need a lot of legislative changes, to encourage and allow more economical vehicles on the roads.

Yesterday on the radio, another sidestep this, there was a cardiologist from this village giving a heap of detail about fuel generation from algal scum ponds. He said 75,000 sq kms of such ponds, using maybe sea or brackish water, could supply the world with all its fuel needs, because algae breed fast. Here, cardiology is a diversified science, you will have notyed. Deserts are preferred, reports the Doctor, because they get more sunshine. That was very exciting news for us, because our mob is much bothered that biofuels such as ethanol will result in poor folk losing their food growing land, so that rich folks can tool around behind four-litre engines. Someone calculated that, to supply all the present fuel needs of the planet with conventional biofuels, all we will need is all the cropland on this planet. As Mars is currently a touch dry, that woiuld not leave much land for growing food. That estimate is probably a scandalous exaggeration, but it points up the general problem But, if we now have a fuel that actually prefers deserts, whoopee! The Bedouin seem not to mind the oil industry overmuch and the kangaroos and wombats of the Nullarbor Plain may agree to concede some of their counrty in the interests of world peace, if we ask nicely and offer free water troughs and chocolate bars.

Some of what has gone wrong with cars in our opinion is that, since the Japanese made them so efficient and improved them mechanically out of all recognition, the designs have got very boring. Nobody loves them anymore. Almost all of them now look like clones of the same totally uninspired thought about sandwiches. Japanese folk do not admire eccentricity or standing out from the crowd. The British were the opposite, they built cars that were often, though not always mechanically dreadful, and often looked either absolutely dreadful or absolutely superb. Time now, for some cultural fusion. So, inter alia, we are after getting some sculptors who also have a feel for sleek cars, to pitch in.

In the beginning, there was light. Weight, that is. In the 1890's and in the first years of the twentieth century, cars were built light, partly because the motors were not very efficient and fuel was dear. Then they got heavier and heavier, as people wanted to move more folk per car and more luggage and they wanted to move it all quicker. Then we lost the plot and people just wanted bigger cars because that proves you are rich and stupoid, and stupoid is trendy. Some of the armour plate that is carried around on cars now is admittedly only there because government safety standards demand it, and the problem is, once one significant market wants so much extra strength in the door sills, everyone has to have it. It's a do-loop.

But curiously, bicycles are still bicycles, they are lighter and more efficient than ever, they go on the roads still and some of their riders survive for weeks at a time. Ultralight aircraft cannot concede much to fashions for obesity, but they fly well, mostly safely, and they are often structurally better stressed than Boeings. We need a fusion of the three technologies. The Wright brothers built bicycles, they understood light. Where are they, now that every gridlocked city needs them? The problem with bicycles is that hills hamper them and you need to be pretty fit. They are not good for elderly folk, or for folk who are not well, unless you live in Holland or on some other river flat or retired seafloor. We also, of course, need more bike tracks to make cycling safer - duelling with semi-trailers is not a fair contest, even if you do have almost as many gears as he has. We maybe need an intermediate third road system, set between the proper road and the bike track, on which very light powered vehicles can move, say at under 25 kph. In many cities, such a track might be the fastest way to get to work, unless you are a very fit cyclist.

The Rocky Mountain Institute's conceptual Hypercar, see Google, is a fine idea, though apparently not yet built, but it has, to our way of thinking, one serious flaw. It tries to be light and light on fuel but to make no compromises in performance. It is trying to be a solar-assisted transcontinental racing machine, that is, an ordinary western-world car with the fuel consumption of a small motorbike. There is no doubt we need that vehicle, but it will be difficult to build and so is not the main event, we think.

Our group has been playing conceptually with a slightly different approach. We think that with ultralight ground vehicles, you need to concede some performance. The idea is to build a basic chassis that takes a very classy-looking set of two-seater bodies, ones that look like everyone's favorite long-bonnet sports car, but are in fact not capable of illegal speeds. Just of decent, old-fashioned motoring in style. Not driving, motoring. Most of the time you see a really classy high-performance sports car it is ambling along at 50 kph or less in traffic. So, we plan capitalize on that astounding discovery, and build it to do just that. To survive on the freeways without jamming them, it should probably be need to be able to cruise at 80 kph, and reach 100 k's when pushed hard. Then there is a minor trick. The engine will be in the rear and under that long phallic bonnet will be covered storage space - the thing is an elegant, camouflaged, light delivery vehicle. If you like, the all-time perfect pizza boy'sdream - a very, very, classy but practical work vehicle, that the new driver cannot roar about in when tipsy and kill himself with, unless he really tries.

Classy in cars is just art - it no longer costs money - in fact it never had to. The early Jaguars, by the agreement of many, some of the most beautiful vehicles ever built, were way cheaper than the competition. They simply took an Austin Seven and stretched the bonnet, for no real reason, except looks. But another foot of body steel did not really cost much. And now, if we put the engine in the rear, the extra length actually becomes valuable.

We intend to build this vehicle. We are planning to use the sort of space-frame chassis they've used on the Arial Atom, which is a racing car that goes way to fast for our purposes. It has been described as a four-wheeled motorbike with a steering wheel. The Atom's chassis has a sort of cross-braced roof truss that curves in two directions on each side (see Google), that runs the length of the car, is made out of large diameter but thin tubular steel, and is very strong. So we can make ours lighter yet, as we are not plotting to exceed 100kph. It has no doors, you just step over the upper rail to get in. So the strength of the frame is not compromised.

The idea for this particular one was first to use a motorbike engine, but one of the crew pointed out that they are not very fuel-efficient at low speeds, as they run at very high revs. He suggested starting by looking at small marine diesels, just as a kick-off point, and that led to someone else suggesting using the three cylinder diesel motor of a mini-tractor, maybe something like that of the 18 or 22 HP Kubota. We have not yet found out what is wrong with that notion, but maybe we will shortly. All opinions welcome.

Nobody really expects to get paid in the Peace Wheels Project, but it is owned in by all the folks who participate. The system is, if you put in an hour or twenty bucks, you issue yourself a share. So the number of issued shares gets larger. Someone is nominated to keep a tally, more or less. But, everyone only gets one vote for the first share, s per share to a maximum of ten, so it will not be easy to capture and satrip this one. Seems to work, no-one fusses, we have had one such running for yewars. it owns a small stand of rainforest and fruit trees. Everyone is a director, but someone gets nominated to have the final say in deadlocks. We are agreed on this car project that everything, designs, the lot, should go on the Internet for anyone to use, free and any which way. We will be mildly grumpy however, if either suicide bombers heading downtown for work or airforce pilots shuttling to their murder vehicles, start to use them.

Part of the idea is to get the basic vehicle right first, then have variants that will use electric hub motors with solar panels all over the body, or whatever. Once the chassis is built, the power plants can be changed, and the bodies also. Clip off the XK 140 body and clip on the reversed Landcruiser. Or whatever. The chassis will be strong enough up hte sides that not a huge amount of strength or weight wiil be required in the body, which will aim to be an aerodynamic faring and a raincoat, rather than the cladding of a Tiger tank. The market envisaged is the people of Asia, Africa and South America. They have not yet become addicted to steel elephants, and reality may dictate that that cannot happen, anyway. China already has a milion electric bikes. People in the big cities there like to breathe air, for some curious reason.

A very large part of the Peace Wheels Project's objective is to stimulate discussion on all this. That may be in the long run rather more important than how good the vehicles we knock up turn out to be. Others will surely do better, if the idea catches on. Apart from the sciulptors mentioned, we are in search of like-minded ultralight aircraft folk, cyclists, and boat folk, and motorbike folk, and all sorts of petrolheads. And we would also like everyone else who has ever moved down a road to consider putting in their thinking.
This could just become one of the bigger and broader transport research groups of the world. There is nothing to formally join unless you want to, and there are no fees and no forms. But If you are fired up along such lines, email, be delighted to hear from you.

Another fuel-reduction project well under way among our lot is the backyard building of electric bikes, using hub motors from China and any bike at all. Ebikes are not disguised motorbikes, you are meant to pedal and stay fit. If you want to look like the average Hell's Angel, go for it, we deeply admire the daft class of those things, get or keep your two-wheeled semi-trailer. They are a wonderful sight on the road and some of their riders have exquisite road and other manners. But we are set on riding Mongol ponies, not Clydesdales.

Last look, on typing in "hub motors" on Google, Brett White's site was jumping between sixth and third in the listing. "Solarbbq" is the secret code word, if that first phrase does not find him. Brett moves single Chinese hub motors on to anywhere, for love not money, almost at cost. He is a very fine man, once a science teacher, who flew up here from Newcastle at his own expense, fitted my old mountain bike to its new motor gratis, then went home again. I was very priviledged, and don't think he can do that for everyone, unless you send the tickets, but email advice is free to one and all, which is a damn fine effort.

The thinking here is that most folk who like bikes have their own and their own preferences and don't want a strange, second vehicle. Most bought ebikes have only a few pedalling gears, which is a serious drwaback. So we are fiddling with making kits that will fit any proper bike, but where the electric components be easily removable. So in a minute or two, when it is all sorted out, you will quick-release the front wheel, clip the battery pack off, the instrument and controller box off, put your old front wheel back, and have your pedal bike back, ready to roll as before and no heavier than by the weight of a few wires that run inside the frame and a few electric plugs. We have put the battery pack on a rear carrier rack, which can stay or not. That is because ladies and several designs of other bikes do not have space for batteries below the cross bar and because battery needs vary depending on routes to be travelled. The one here is part way there and is running very well, but sorely needs bigger batteries, which is simply a function of a temporary shortage of cash. Range is ever the problem with ebikes. Brett is working on a trike hybrid, that has an old lawnmower petrol motor driving an old mainframe computer tape-drive magnetic motor, now a genny, charging the batterries while on the road - the same concept as the Honda hybrid cars. It is counter-intuitive, as one would think a direct drive from the petrol motor to the wheel would be more efficient, but the engineers seem to say different. The prototype, Brett's long-running short-wheelbase etrike, is being tested now. It is running well in shed tests, but being an odd sort of beast, Brett is currently busy silencing the motor and disguising it as a box of groceries or something, so it will still look like an all-electric vehicle, till local transport thinking, ethics and legislation catches up with him. Wish him luck, the man is a daring pioneer.

As said, ultralight ground vehicles are not new, so you may well be miles ahead of us on this sort of stuff, technically or philosophically. If so, we would love to hear from you. Also, if you are just interested and thinking of starting, ditto. The more independence of ownership and decision making the better, but sharing thimnking is usually worthwhile. The motto is, if you think it might work, do it. Don't bother about the rules, unless they are those of physics or sensible. Except for those, there is always a different set somewhere over the horizon, and we need a whole new world of light vehicles.

Contacts are P.O. Box 108, Samford, 4520, Queensland, Australia
Phone 617 3289 4470 (self) or (Brett White) or 617 3857 1148 (John Diecke, for good long philosophical and technical yarns on all this) In Oz, dial 07 not 617 for those numbers, of course.

Regards anyhow, all.

Peter Ravenscroft, for the Peace Wheels Project. Reprint or modify freely, for any purpose.

Peter Ravenscroft
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