Ramblings for May 1, 2000

May 1, 2000

Batteries charge ahead

After almost half a century auto batteries are going to undergo a big change. With the demands of new electronics and the advent of hybrid and fuel-cell power systems, tomorrow's cars will have 42-volt batteries instead of the 12-volt units we have become used to.

A hundred years ago cars didn't have batteries at all, and only when Cadillac installed electric self-starters was there a real need. Even then there was no standard battery voltage, and through the 1920s individual manufacturers chose different voltages. By the 1930s, equipment suppliers had created a six-volt standard, while in the Fifties they pushed for an upgrade to 12-volts as this worked better with the more powerful generators and many electric accessories of postwar cars.

Today automakers are approaching the limit of the 12-volt systems. Next-generation powertrains, as well as new technologies such as Internet access, cell phones and navigation equipment will require manufacturers to move up to a 42-volt system. This time there was a long engineering study and international groups agreed on the 42-volt standard. Higher voltage systems will have fuel savings benefits by enabling the electrical motors and alternators to be smaller and more efficient. These electrical systems initially will be more expensive and are likely to appear in luxury cars first. Look for 42-volt systems to begin appearing on cars as early as 2003.

Child safety gets a boost

With all of the attention being paid to child seats, thousands of American children between the ages of four and eight, who weigh between 40 and 80 lb are the forgotten kids. They have graduated from traditional child safety seats, however, safety belts may not fit these children properly.

The solution to this situation is a booster seat. Besides the safety benefit of the boosters, kids also like the elevated viewing position. And these booster seats only cost a fraction of other child seats. Each car company has child seat training and education programs and can advise owners on details of their individual cars. For its part, Ford announced recently that it would distribute one million to current owners and lower-income families.

While you’re using the booster, check the way many kids buckle up. They often pull the three-point lap belt across their body but they slide the shoulder strap behind their back. If they put the shoulder strap as it should be, it bothers their neck or even gets in their face. Booster seats usually cure this problem.

The return of F1

Come September the Formula 1 series will once again become interesting to Americans with a race at the Indianapolis Speedway, but the big changes will come next year. Honda and BMW have formally become engine suppliers and Ford, Renault and Mercedes have become full or partial team owners.

Next year Toyota plans to enter a team that has been under development for several years. Toyota's concerns are that although they can put together a decent engine, it's unlikely to be a front-runner in the first couple of years. Furthermore, they don't have enough F1 experience to build a first class chassis to the current rules, though they are confident that their first attempt will not be embarrassing.

There are several teams up for sale, and Peugeot and Audi have not been subtle in expressing their interest. Adding to the confusion, tire-maker Michelin is entering Formula 1 competition with the BMW/Williams and Toyota teams. Michelin introduced radial tires to Formula One racing in 1977, and now every F1 car is equipped with radial tires.

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