The “HumanCar 2011″ and Why It’s NOT the Future

August 17th, 2010
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Interested in your own Humancar 2011? They’re already taking deposits, which are just fifty US Dollars, although the actual unit will set you back more than fifteen grand! Unfortunately, a closer look at the concept shows it to be about as unrealistic as most “alternative transportation” concepts out there. Not only is it hyper-expensive, but the whole concept is unnecessarily complex and of limited utility.

Browsers which do not support embedded video can view videos here and here.

The maker of this vehicle states:

Specifications HC Imagine_PSâ„
* PHEV plug-in hybrid e-vehicle
* V2G Compatible
* Full body biometric input
* BodySteerâ„ Patented Chassis
* more than 100 mpg equiv.
* SyncGuidewayâ„ compatible
* Street legal low mass vehicle
* Mobile power station 110 A/C

* Hills
* Corners
* Start-up (power-up) sequences
* Traffic

This car is beautiful and it handles like a dream. It’s fast, sexy, makes you ultra healthy and oh yeah, saves
the planet. Welcome to the future.

(apparently I’ve been using a different definition of “sexy”)

At first glance, you might assume that this vehicle is simply powered by a mechanical linkage driven by the passengers pumping levers up and down. If this were the case, it would at least be a fairly efficient, simple and inexpensive method of propelling the vehicle. However, it would not be anything new…

Yes, at one time handcars were fairly common as a means of transporting maintenance personnel and tools short distances on railroads. However because handcars are slow and can leave the crew exhausted before even arriving at a work site, they have been replaced by motor-driven vehicles and are now generally relegated to museums and Western films.

Human-powered transport, however, is still very much alive. In addition to walking, bicycles are a highly successful means of transportation that many environmentalists seem to like to ignore while pushing their own version of complex and convoluted version of transportation. Bikes are cheap, simple and small enough to bring indoors for apartment dwellers. They’re easily capable of providing transportation within a few miles or less, and in cities, bicycle transport can be faster than driving due to the ability to navigate around traffic.

The complex, convoluted, human-electric drive system:

The most obvious departure from most other human-driven vehicles is that this “car” does not use rotating peddles but rather a pumping/rowing motion with the arms to generate power. This is a curious setup as it provides more work to the upper body than to the stronger and more endurance-capable leg muscles. It also makes the system more mechanically complex and complicates steering. The pumping motion may also cause greater back strain and reduce the accessability of the vehicle to those with less than perfect physical health, such as back problems.

The website states the following reason for the unorthodox system:

The search for a useful human power interface for vehicle use began with several test devices that could measure the force available from various muscle groups. It was clear that a bicycle type mechanism, while quite successful as a thigh and calf interface, would not meet the needs of a full-body work out, so early design focused upon a rowing-like motion.

This seems to be very typical of this vehicle. The designer appears to have difficulty deciding on exactly what this thing is supposed to be. Is it meant to be a practical means of locomotion or an exercise machine? The two needs have very different demands. If it’s meant to get you where you want to go then it’s more important to have an efficient and high-endurance power system, but if its for human exercise then that’s a totally different story. As it stands, this vehicle does not appear to be especially good in either capacity.

Yet if that’s not a complex and confusing enough conundrum, the designers take it one step further by making the vehicle electric and adding rechargeable batteries. That would seem to defeat the entire purpose of exercise and turn it entirely into a hyper-expensive electric golf-cart. Actually the vehicle is some kind of “hybrid” that is supposed to also be capable of static power generation. In going with an electric-based design, things are not only made more complex and expensive, but much of the human power is lost in the conversion.

And if that’s not enough, it’s also supposed to work as a static power generator for homes or as a portable power plant by teaming numerous units together.

But it gets worse…

If that was not complex and convoluted enough, the maker of this vehicle also wants to make it the cornerstone of a new transportation system called the “SyncGuideway.“ Basically these vehicles are supposed to eventually join up and travel along a monorail-like system that provides power and guidance to them.

If the whole concept was not expensive enough, now they want a complex system of centralized infrastructure built just for this thing. It would not be compatible with existing vehicles, but is seen as addressing the issues of traffic compatibility that the HumanCar introduces.

Other major issues with the vehicle:

  • It’s expensive – really really really expensive. At $15,500, this vehicle is as expensive as a full-fledged car and yet has far less utility. Compared to bicycles, scooters, golf carts and any number of other vehicles, it’s ridiculously expensive.
  • It’s clearly a “fair weather” vehicle. It’s absolutely useless if there is precipitation and provides no protection from the cold or heat.
  • With no roof and very limited protection and no security to speak of, the vehicle can’t be stored outdoors, yet it’s far too big for bringing indoors, like a bike can be. Thus it will require its own dedicated garage space.
  • Safety is, at best, questionable. It lacks any major protection for the passengers. It’s also very low to the ground, making it difficult to see and increasing the risk of collision.
  • The claims of speeds of 60 mph are questionable. According to the page this was achieved while traveling down hill. It’s very questionable whether such speeds could be maintained for any period of time.

How much power can a human actually generate?

If this vehicle is actually going to derive a significant amount of energy from human muscle, and if it is to be used as a static power generator, it’s important to consider just how much power a human being can produce. As it turns out, it’s not all that much.

The average physically fit human can produce upwards of one kilowatt of total power while exercising rigorously, but only for a relatively short period of time, less than few minutes. Such power output is a major workout and would leave a person, at the very least, very winded an covered in sweat. This is the amount of power a healthy adult would generate if you asked them to peddle a bicycle or pump a rowing machine has quickly as they possibly could.

A more reasonable amount of power output would be something like 200-240 watts. That’s the kind of power you’d generate while taking a slow jog or while riding a bicycle at a reasonably fast pace. A person in good physical health could keep it up for a while, but it’s still a significant workout and leave most breaking a sweat after ten minutes or less, but could probably keep it up for a period of hours if absolutely necessary.

About the most power a healthy adult could be expected to produce continuously, comfortably, would be less than 150 watts . That’s the kind of power a human is generating while taking a walk at medium speed, a hike over reasonably smooth terrain or a leisurely bicycle ride.

Of course, elite athletes can generate quite a bit more. The maximum amount a human is likely to be able to generate for any significant period (more than an hour) of time is about 30o-500 watts. That’s the kind of power a cyclist is putting out during the more demanding portions of the Tour De France. Such athletes can also generate upwards of two kilowatts of power, but only for a very brief period of time.

However, it’s important to remember that this is the total power output by a human, NOT the amount of electricity generated by a human-driven generator. All electrical generators have some losses, and the small generators that would be used in a human-driven system are far less efficient than the larger utility scale generators. In addition to this, they would be driven at variable speeds, unlike utility generators that can be kept at a constant rotational speed. This further reduces efficiency by introducing the need for internal voltage regulation and the use of batteries to buffer the current. The lower voltages used by small generators also increases internal loss. Thus, while power plant generators can be upwards of 98% efficient, the small generators (alternators) used in automobiles and to power things like bicycle lamps are about 50-75% efficient.

Human Power Generation is NOT NEW AT ALL

For the reasons listed above, most human-driven electrical generators top out at an output of under 200 watts and generally are used to produce less than 50 watts. There are many such generators around and they’ve been used for many years for applications where relatively low amounts of power are needed in remote areas where fuel is not available.

The military has long employed human-driven generators to power things like field telephones and radio transmitters. Hand-cranked generators were commonly used by both sides to power man-portable radio systems during the Second World War. The military still fields hand-cranked generator units for communications systems to this day, although thanks to better batteries, they are now less common than in years past. Modern units can output up to 65 watts, when powered by a physically fit soldier rigorously cranking the unit. However, such output can only be maintained briefly, although levels of about 25 watts can be maintained for a much longer period of time. Such units are thus limited in application to relatively low-power systems.

During the Cold War, the United States built numerous Civil Defense fallout shelters, many of which were equipped with human-driven power generators. One of these was the “Fallout Shelter, Packaged Ventilation Kit.” It consisted of a tandem stationary bicycle which powered a fan that ventilated the shelter through an inflatable duct. (presumably filtration would be employed if an actual nuclear detonation occurred). Some of these units also were equipped with electrical generators to power small emergency lights and shortwave radios. These systems were envisioned for use in public shelters, such as those build in Cold War era schools and municipal buildings. Therefore, there would be a number of people who could be rotated on the machine as they tired out.

Potential as a power plant:

The developer of this vehicle also states that such devices could be teamed in order to create a human-driven power plant. This is not the first time that human-driven electrical generation has been proposed. If we apply the most optimistic case for humans generating power, assuming that the system uses extremely efficient generators powered by elite athletes at a back breaking pace, it’s possible that a total of about 250 watts per person might be achieved. A more reasonable, though still optimistic estimate would be about 100 watts per person.

If this kind of power plant were to be operated in the United States, the minimum hourly wage for the workers is $7.25, resulting in a generation cost of between $29.00 per kilowatt hour for the most optimistic scenario to $72.25 per kilowatt hour for the more realistic scenario. Of course, this does not include other costs, such as the upkeep of the equipment or the workers compensation for all the injuries at such a job. By contrast the average retail cost of electricity in the US is about 8.6 cents per kilowatt hour.

Clearly such a way of generating electricity is not going to be economically feasible with paid workers. It just might be feasible with slaves, however. Slaves would still need to be fed, but considering that they could be fed cheap animal feeds, the economics begin to look up. Slaves also can be made to generate power more rigorously than standard employees by employing whipping.

This entry was posted on Tuesday, August 17th, 2010 at 2:33 pm and is filed under Bad Science, Enviornment, Misc. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.
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57 Responses to “The “HumanCar 2011″ and Why It’s NOT the Future”

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  1. 51
    Anon Says:

            Dave H said:

    these guys have been nominated for a bunch of awards globally

    Ah yes, I think they’ll be a pretty strong contender for worst transportation idea ever (though their competitors are pretty strong too).

    Quote Comment
  2. 52
    drbuzz0 Says:

            Dave H said:

    * It’s a mobile power station

    I actually went into that in depth. Humans are not very good as static power sources or beasts of burden.

    If you use Lance Armstrong or athletes of a similar caliber, they could probably product 500+ watts for a very brief period of time or maybe 200 watts for a couple of hours. Use the average person and you’d be lucky to get a sustained 50 watts.

    I even pointed out historical examples. “Human power plants” have been used for decades to power field telephones and radios. The highest power output a human can be expected to provide for any sustained period of time is about 25 watts. (and we’re talking about 20 year old healthy soldiers). It would be a bit more if it foot peddles rather than handcranks, but it’s still low.

    That’s just not a lot of power – not much at all. It’s not even worth it to bother.

            Dave H said:

    * The design spec. for the guideway is open-source and standardized

    That really does not matter. It’s still a fully new form of infrastructure with limited utility. Vehicle guideways are nothing new. Similar ideas have been proposed for decades. You don’t see them cropping up all over the place, do you?

    It’s an interesting idea to have vehicles that are roadable and also have the ability to use some sort of monorail-like guideway, but the economics are very poor. Also, there are all kinds of practical problems with the approach. For one thing it doesn’t allow vehicles to pass each-other.

    Just consider a simple situation: You have a destination which people want to get to. There is already a paved road that goes there. The road works just fine for vehicles. You could also add a vehicle guide-way if you want, but it will cost you money to construct. Why bother? You already have a roadway. Not to mention the fact that if you have a road with two lanes of traffic in both directions you need four guideways to have the same capacity.

            Dave H said:

    * The occupant does not need to power all the time

    Well, yeah, in which case it simply becomes a hyper-expensive and low utility electric vehicle. However, since human power is the primary selling point the fact of the matter is that this is what is supposed to be revolutionary about the vehicle and set it apart from others.

    Quote Comment
  3. 53
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  4. 54

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  5. 55
    Amoeba Says:

    A far better idea is a velomobile – typically a fully or partially-faired recumbent tricycle. They are still relatively expensive, but given decent infrastructure, they offer protection from the weather and convenient fast transport, and offer virtual immunity from headwinds. They use bicycle transmissions, in many cases the transmissions are fully enclosed. Velomobiles are suitable for year-round transport, but can get hot in the Summer.

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