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Utilimobile Project

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The Utilimobile Project is an example of one of the countless possible projects under the Open Source Everything Project. It concerns the development of a series of Open Source automobile designs, ideally all based on a common component set.

Post-Industrial Automobiles Edit

There have to date been two autombile designs which qualify as Post-Industrial in nature; the Africar and the Honda UniBox.

Africar Edit

The Africar[1] was the brainchild of UK photojournalist Tony Howarth who, in the course of his world travels, observed how most of the automobiles sold outside of western industrial countries were second-hand vehicles from those countries whose design was woefully ill-adapted to the conditions of the Third World. Thus in the 1980s he devised the notion of a new kind of vehicle which would be based on the economical and ubiquitous engine and drive train of the Citroen 2CV but using a tough all-terrain chassis and body made entirely from engineered lumber and fiberglass. With this design it would be possible for most of an automobile to be manufactured, repaired, and adapted in nations with little local industrial capability. Unfortunately, Howarth’s skill as a business manager was far inferior to his skills as a photojournalist and through progressive mismanagement the nascent company he founded to develop the Africar failed –rather spectacularly with he himself ultimately ending up in jail on charges of fraud. Though Howarth had a compelling vision with the Africar, he failed to develop a functional business model for its production, squandering virtually all investment on promotion and pre-production development for what was technically an extremely simple, even primitive, vehicle.

Honda UniBox Edit

The Honda UniBox was a peculiar-looking concept car that appeared on the 2000 auto show circuit, drawing attention for its very radical design and use of an almost entirely transparent body.[2][3] Though panned by western auto enthusiast media as bizarre and impractical (most reviewers not smart enough to realize that the use of a transparent body was intended simply to showcase the vehicle’s underlying structure…) the vehicle nonetheless won major awards for design because it represented what was essentially a kind of embroidery sampler of all the key concepts industrial designers had anticipated as characteristic of 21st Century design. More than any other concept car of that year –or for that matter any concept car produced since– the UniBox represented the automobile of the future. The most important aspect of its design –the thing which identifies this as a Post-Industrial design– was the notion of an automobile as a ‘platform’ in the same manner that the PC represents a platform rather than a specific product. The UniBox was assembled from a kit of modular relatively small (except for the base platform chassis) quick-connect parts which could be reconfigured on demand to completely alter the design and function of the vehicle and which would allow it to be quickly assembled on-demand and customized in an auto dealership or even a customer’s own garage in the same way generic PCs are assembled. The ramifications of this concept are astounding –and were totally lost on the auto industry audience…

Utilimobile Project Edit

The Utilimobile Project would pick-up where these two prior concepts left-off –the UniBox in particular. Starting with an exploration of modest ‘minimalist’ vehicles, the project would expand to include a more general-purpose vehicle and then diversify.

Foomobile Edit

The likely first concept pursued by the project -owing to its small size and high-tech allure- is the Foomobile, named for the two-wheeled cartoon car that appeared in old Smokey Stover comics[4]. The Foomobile would be basically like a Segway, using the same technology of active stabilization, expanded to a size where it can serve as a sit-down vehicle with a one or two seat passenger compartment set between two combination electric motor/wheels (I call them rollers) with active independent suspension and polyurethane tires. I imagine the basic profile of the chassis to be a cylindrical pie-section or ovoid with the drive wheels as outriggers with their own simple fenders, as we see in some exotic sports cars. A pair of rubber-covered skids would support the vehicle when the power is off, the suspension lowering the vehicle when active stabilization is off and lifting it up when it's on. A bar along the top-back edge of the frame would host signal lights while a similar bar lower-front would host signal lights and headlights, all LED based. Vent ports would also be mounted near front and back lights. The passenger compartment could be fully enclosed -using a slide-up shell akin to a mini-van door made mostly of transparent materials with interior padding of cloth-covered polyurethane foam panels- or could be an open space frame with an optional fabric and texlon membrane cover. Operable side windows could be possible using a rotary slide arrangement.. Instrumentation would be clustered in a central column or retrofit to the tubular space frame, perhaps using a set of LED or EL bar graphs for most functions which run up along the arched tubular frame members. HUD instrumentation is possible, but overkill considering the notion of a vehicle that can be user-built and maintained. (HUD optics are still a bit complex and custom-engineered today, rather than being an off-the-shelf retrofit technology) The rear-view mirror would be mounted high and wide, looking out over the top of the seats through the peak of the frame arch. Puck-like palm-joysticks and button arrays in the arm rests provide control while a hybrid power plant is mounted behind the passenger compartment, counter-balancing it. The power plant is in three parts which I've envisioned as three retrofit cylinders; one a supercapacitor, one a fuel storage tank, and the third a self-contained generator. Four possible types of power plant could use this same configuration; a rotary engine under 20hp using gasoline, ethenol, or compressed air, a microturbine using ethanol, propane, hydrogen, or compressed air, an infrared photovoltaic furnace running on ethenol, hydrogen, or propane, or a fuel cell stack running on ethanol, hydrogen, propane, or Vanadium redox solution. (hydrdogen would have options of using compressed gas, liquid hydrogen, block hydride, solid hydride PowerBalls, or liquid borohydride) The power plant would be air-cooled owing to the fact that such a hybrid system doesn't need more than the equivalent of a 10-15 hp engine (probably much less for this small a vehicle -Briggs & Stratton's prototype hybrid car from the late 1960s ran a 3200 pound station wagon on an 18hp two-cylinder motor) which is running at a constant speed. An optional small cargo container in the back may serve as a trunk or could be replaced with an expanded fuel tank -depending on the power plant space needs. A trailer hitch would allow for the attachment of a light two-wheel trailer with its own independent suspension. This could host a second passenger compartment with rear-facing seating or another large cargo container. It could also be used for a novel variation on the design of the 'teardrop' camping trailer.

Utilimobile Edit

The Utilimobile proper would make the most of the key virtues of a space frame chassis in a Post-Industrial context; small scale/small tool production and assembly and perpetual repairability by retrofit modular components. With both ‘street’ and ‘off-road’ versions, it would use a simple symmetrical ovoid shaped frame with flat sides and rounded edges -very much like some wooden toy depictions of cars. For the off-road version front and back wheels would be outriggers with their own fenders, increasing the wheel-base and road clearance of the vehicle and allowing for heavier suspension. Bolt-on tubular alloy bumpers covered in polypropylene would mount to the front and back. The vehicle would be 5 door with forward and backward sliding side van doors and a flip-up rear hatch back door. These side doors would be quite large, their width spanning most of the leg room for typical seat positions, and would alternately open in a hinged as well as sliding mode. With all doors open, the entire interior would be open for access without mid-chassis obstructions. And, because they are symmetrical, front and rear door panels and hardware would be interchangeable. Because of its use of outrigger wheels, the off-road version would be limited to hinged doors, though it might forego the use of doors altogether in favor of simple fabric coverings. Being a hybrid vehicle, the Utilimobile would feature roller motor/wheel units with polyurethane tires on independent suspension with an option for two or four wheel drive. A hybrid power plant similar to that of the Foomobile would be employed but within a front firewall compartment and with sub-floor space used for an optional battery array for 'plug-in' hybrid or all-electric use or for larger fuel cells. The front 'engine' compartment would feature a simple vented front access panel and a slide-out rack for systems access, since the hybrid power plant needs no mechanical linkage.

Body panels would be composed of thick recycled foam-core polyethylene milled with interlocking dove-tail edges to provide a water-resistant fit and which bolt-attach to surface-mount attachment points on the chassis. Similar transparent lexan panels would provide windows. Users would likely experiment with different panel materials for a different look or because of different local materials supplies -wood, fiberglass, light steel, closed-cell foamed aluminum, paper core honeycomb panel, etc. Since the panels have no function in structural performance, most anything could be used. Most would be flat save for curved pieces which wrap the edges of the frame and the basic profile curves. Rooftop panels may include an opaque or translucent photovoltaic arrays for use with battery hybrid systems. Unlike most automobiles, the entire space frame would be paneled top to bottom, leaving no part of the chassis exposed to the elements -much as was done with the Dymaxion Car. However, the off-road version may have only a small cab partition enclosed. Similar to the Foomobile, transparent strips at the front and back nose would house LED signals and headlights.

Interior finishing would be minimal for the off-road version and would be based on a simple floor pan for a forward cab and weather-resistant retrofit seating and instrumentation. The street version would be more elaborate, attaching a T-slot channel aluminum floor deck akin to that of the Honda Unibox composed of a set of planks to the base of the frame with a space below it reserved for battery arrays or fuel cells attaching upside-down to the deck's underside. A variety of modular seating, tables, couches, or tie-down points would fit into the channels, allowing the interior to be freely reconfigured. Similar single-slot rails may be added to the ceiling, sides, and the vertical side members of the space frame to provide more attachment points. Interior wall and ceiling panels would be made of cloth-covered foam that attaches to the space frame and the inside of the exterior panels with industrial velcro. Much design would focus on the use of cloth and foam based elements as alternatives to metal and plastic interior fixtures, making for a cheaper, smaller scale production, more environmentally friendly, more tactilely comfortable, and physically safer interior. A conventional steering wheel and a digital integrated instrument console would mount to the floor channels which would also extend up along the firewall enclosure. Composed of a roughly cylindrical panel of aluminum foam finished in wood veneer, the firewall enclosure would tuck under the front windows and offer a modular rack for computers, power plant controller, stereo, communications, and other systems as well as a conventional glove box. Though using conventional controls, they would all be digital components of a networked drive-by-wire control system and would be freely adjustable in many ways to suit different drivers, including disabled drivers.

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