It’s been 50 years since Apollo 11 launched, and its impact on my life has been profound. The Apollo mission was the most audacious engineering project since the Tower of Babel, and it inspired me in many ways.
The Apollo program is a powerful lesson about bringing together political will, the corresponding budget, and a lot of math and engineering. While the engineering was state-of-the-art for 1969 it is still so amazing that I meet people who think the challenge was so formidable that it was impossible, and was actually just a film set directed by Stanley Kubrick.
The history of designing the Apollo spacecraft is amazing in itself, and there is a beauty in the flow of necessity. The key decision was made to send 3 astronauts, to have 1 in orbit around the moon while the other two descended in the Lunar Module to land on the moon, then to launch and rejoin the orbiting command module. Once you know the mass of the astronauts, their living supplies, the weight of the spacecraft and fuel, the size of the Saturn V was “just math,” calculations that lead to the required velocity and power needed, creating the largest machine every built.
As a software engineer I have a great appreciation for the complexity of building a real-time computer in the 1960s when computers were the size of rooms, and the invention of the transistor was less then twenty years old.
Margaret Hamilton is one of my new-found computer engineering idols, who not only coined the phrase “software engineering” but also showed us by example the difference between computing science and software engineering. Science uses hypothesis and experiment and failure teaches as much or more than success. Engineering is about building things that don’t kill people even when something goes wrong.
Even though the Apollo Guidance Computer was state-of-the-art at the time, it had quite limited capability, something more like a scientific calculator that took input from sensors and a crude user interface called the DSKY. Margaret realized that it was possible for the computer to become overloaded if the sensors send data more often than they should have (an event that actually happened by mistake) and that by creating a computer task whose job it was to self-monitor, could decide to drop low-priority tasks in favour of the critical ones, which included monitoring the landing radar and calculating distance and velocities.
I may have only been 11 years old when the Eagle landed and became Tranquility base, but seeing that people could use science and technology to make a dream come true has been an inspiration for me ever since.
We might feel the same when people set foot on Mars.
For those who know me, none will be surprised that we are the owners of a shiny new Tesla Model 3. We like being the early adopters of new tech, especially around sustainability. Tilly bought one of Vancouver’s first Prius’ in 2001, when you could buy “any colour you want, as long as it was sea-foam green”
When we got a phone call in June that our car would be ready for delivery in two weeks, we had kinda forgotten about it. After all, it was April when we put our deposit down on it, April 2016! We had agreed that we would give up our two cars, Tilly’s 2001 Prius and my 1996 Volvo station wagon and consolidate around one car. With so many transportation options around, from SkyTrain to Evo, Modo, Car2Go, and Mobi bikes, it seems a safe bet.
There are many blogs and youtube videos about driving the Model 3, so I’ll stick to the things that are part of our own story.
Driving an electric car
Driving an electric car is a liberating experience. It has high acceleration, it’s very quiet, and there’s never that telltale smell of exhaust that always made me feel guilty.
When you think about a gas-powered car it’s incredibly complicated, and over the 110 years since the Model T, cars have become amazingly fuel-efficient. But they still run by exploding gasoline hundreds of times a second inside metal cylinders, then have chemistry to try to take all the noxious gases out of the exhaust. The engine is really only efficient in a narrow band of rpm, so there’s a transmission to link the wheel speed to the engine, and the engine burns gas even when you’re slowing down or stopped.
Electric cars have a speed control you dial with your foot, and when you want to slow the car down, it turns the car engine into a generator that pumps that energy back into the battery. Brakes last a long time because you hardly use them except to hold the car at a stop light.
Test Flight #1 – Rossland, BC
One thing we were warned about is charging and range anxiety – the worry that you may run out of electrons before the next charge stop. To test this out, we have taken two trips, one to Rossland BC and the other to Los Angeles. Our trip to Rossland took us though the BC interior where there are no Tesla Superchargers, but it turns out to have many smaller chargers, most every town has at least one. Because we wanted our car sooner than 2019 we opted for the larger battery, which holds up to about 500km of range when fully charged. This is about 50 km more than my Volvo would take us on the highway with its 80-litre tank, so charging stations didn’t have to be any more plentiful than gas stations.
One of the benefits of being early in this wave of electric cars is that it’s still a novelty, people are curious, and there’s still innovation in charging approaches. We found this EV charger at the Kettle River Museum in Midway, BC.
While battery capacity is a key consideration in an EV, it turns out that charging is the bigger factor. Gasoline is 10x more efficient in terms of energy per litre than the fastest chargers we could find. You can fill an 80l gas tank in 5 minutes, but it takes far longer to charge a battery. Here are some speeds;
Here’s where you start to see the vision of a person like Elon Musk, despite his foibles, he understood that for EVs to really be touring cars over long distances, a charging infrastructure was key.
Since we planned a pleasant drive to Rossland, we used the Tesla Supercharger in Hope to top the battery up to 100% (you don’t do that often as it reduces the battery life) then planned on an overnight stop in Osoyoos. Being newbie EV drivers we stopped at many of the places that ChargeHub said had Level 2 chargers just for curiosity, and found a number of delightful restaurants and stops along the way that took us to more out-of-the-way places than we would have if we had just stopped for gas. Like the Copper Pit in Princeton, BC, and the Borscht Bowl and the fantastic Tastie Treat in Grand Forks.
When we finally did get to Rossland, they had a single working Level 2 charger and left the car there overnight for it to get back to our standard 80% charge. (430km / 30 km/hr = 14 hours)
Travelling 2,000 km really starts to show the difference between Level 2 chargers and Level 3. If your car can only charge at Level 2 chargers you basically have to find hotels and charge your car for 7-10 hours every 300km, but there are growing networks of private Level 3 charging hubs will make that more viable. Tesla installed their own network to ensure their cars were on highways and not relegated to being (expensive) commuter cars, to differentiate them from several other ev models.
The Tesla Superchargers are located in smaller towns, typically where there is a shopping centre or outlet mall. With the growing number of Tesla Model 3s being sold, we expected more congestion but travelling at the end of October mainly on weekdays seems to have reduced that worry.
The Tesla Route Planning App (beta) in the car is very good – it considers the current battery level, the historic consumption rate of your driving, and upcoming distance and traffic as provided by Google, and calculates where your next Supercharger stop needs to be. We grew more comfortable as we drove that we could take the battery down below 10% and still be confident we’d make it to that charge point. When it once started to warn me we may no longer have enough power to make to it the next supercharger (maybe my fault – I was accelerating past folks on hills – so tempting!), the ChargeHub and PlugShare apps helped us out by showing us a Level 2 charger enroute where we could top up.
While the ratio of public charging stations to gas stations is about 1:3 today, evadoption.com points out that when you include the fact that pretty well every EV owner has a charging station at home, and there are about 0.29% of cars are EVs (of 270 millions cars!) there are already far more EV charging stations than gas stations.
It seems in the foreseeable future that we will see a few things happening around electric cars. Most of them will have self-driving options, and owning a car will start to be less attractive then just calling one when you need it and having it take you where you want to go, and booking another for the return trip, auto-dispatched to your door. Freeways will have express lanes for self-driving cars that will whisk past the human driven ones, reducing the traffic jams that paralyze thousands of cars from one person’s poor judgement. Many of these are well-articulated by Terry O’Riley.
We’re very glad to have waited for the Model 3, enjoying the nice sound system and warmed seats. Next project is to put solar panels on the roof, and charge it from the sun!