It’s easy to think that cars haven’t changed much in the last 70 years. After all, they have the same basic parts (windows, doors, seats, steering wheel, pedals) and they work in much the same way (they sit on 4 wheels and 2 or 4 of them get power from the engine through a transmission of some kind). So, in some ways, we’re just doing what we’ve always done, but with electric power instead of internal combustion, right?
Not so much. While the basics are mostly the same, small changes can add up. Just talking about engines, cars went from getting terrible efficiency, making very little power with huge engines, to modern fuel-injected variable valve timing, DOHC, turbocharged computer-controlled works of engineering art that move heavy cars dozens of miles longer for every gallon burnt. And, that’s before we consider electrification and EVs. While the basics haven’t changed, all of the little details changed a LOT.
I recently saw a video on YouTube that drives this point home in a very graphic way. It’s not a story clean technology sites would usually tell you. A skilled and dedicated man spent over $200,000 to give an old Mercury Comet new life. He not only built a 1,300 horsepower supercharged engine for the car, but even upgraded the seat belts to five-point harnesses to keep the people he cared about from dying. But, the car was too powerful…
Basically, we had a 1960s car upgraded to have Tesla plaid power levels, but with most other things on the car only restored or mildly upgraded. In the case of the brakes, they weren’t factory 1964 brakes, because that would be even worse drum brakes. They had been upgraded to disc brakes, but they were fairly small ones that hadn’t been looked at in quite a while. But, even fairly weak disc brakes should be able to stop a car, eventually.
Why The Brakes Failed
The problem they ran into was that the old brakes had to fight against the motor constantly, which isn’t normal. The accelerator was sticking, causing the engine to basically idle at 2200 RPM when you take your foot off the gas. When a 1,300 horsepower engine is idling at high RPMs, that’s enough power to push a torque converter and move the car up to 40+ miles per hour. So, on the test drive, the driver had to constantly push on the brake pedal to keep the car from speeding away on the city street where they wanted to get rolling shots.
Let’s talk a bit about how brakes work. The First Law of Thermodynamics tells us that energy can change forms, but it cannot be created or destroyed. So, when you press on a brake pedal (on a car that doesn’t have regenerative brakes), all of that energy of the moving vehicle gets converted to heat due to all of the friction. The heat eventually dissipates from the metal of the brakes into the air as long as you’re not constantly adding heat to the brake system.
Any brakes (no matter how good they are) will overheat and eventually fail when pressed on for miles and miles at a time. That’s why mountain roads have runaway truck ramps, and that’s why park rangers check your vehicle’s brakes part way down the drive back from Pike’s Peak (to catch the people who didn’t know how to downshift, and keep them from killing themselves). Even high-performance brakes will eventually fail under that kind of abuse, and that’s exactly what happened.
Before disaster struck, they did smell the brakes burning up, which means they were already getting too hot. The answer at this point would have been to shut it off and call for a tow truck, and get the throttle and brakes both worked on to prevent danger in the future. But, they figured it would be OK because they hadn’t been driving more than a couple of miles.
When they approached that last light, the brakes were worthless. They don’t tell us exactly what the failure was, but it was probably that the brake fluid had boiled and now the fluid couldn’t be used to put hydraulic pressure onto the pads. The surfaces that are normally supposed to be rough might have “glazed,” or smoothed out from getting melted (which emits the smell they detected). Between these things, the brakes could no longer stop the vehicle, no matter how hard you push the pedal.
What happened next shows us another thing that has changed drastically since 1964: crash safety. While the car had five-point harnesses, the guys chose to wear only the lap belts for what they thought would be a safe drive on a low-speed street. So, the force of their moving bodies severely injured the driver’s elbows and the passenger’s face planted HARD into the car’s metal dash, breaking several teeth and causing 30 stitches to be needed.
How A New Vehicle Would Handle This
I don’t mean to share this video to make fun of anybody or bag on anybody’s hobby. Restoring old cars is fun, and it’s not a bad hobby at all. While a 1,300 horsepower gas-powered car isn’t going to be environmentally friendly, few people do that, and the impact of enthusiasts messing around with gas cars will never be more than a rounding error in the math of climate change or pollution.
What we can learn here is to be grateful for how much cars have changed since 1964.
How would this go in something like a Tesla Model S? For one, the brakes wouldn’t overheat because the car would have regenerative braking. Nor would the car’s throttle get stuck and make the idle go too high, because the throttle is digitally controlled with redundancies in the system. There’s also an emergency brake to stop it in that scenario.
But, in the event of a collision, the technology would give you yet another layer of safety. The latest cars often come with automatic emergency braking to prevent collisions or reduce the speeds. Newer cars have crumple zones to absorb a good chunk of that energy. They have softer dashboards that wouldn’t mess up a face so much, and an airbag to keep that from happening, either. Plus, there are shoulder belts to keep you from even flopping forward like that. The car would come out of such a collision far more messed up, but the people would come out either unharmed or far less injured.
Modern EVs are generally a much safer box to load yourself and your loved ones into. We should have a great appreciation for all of the progress that has been made, even if on some days it doesn’t seem like life has changed that much.
While I know this is comparing a 1964 car to something made in 2022, the difference is still visible even from a 1998 car compared to a car from 2015. You can learn about that in this video:
Featured image by ANCAP (government agency).
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