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Transportation Technology

The Rise and Fall of America's Jet-Powered Car 338

Pickens writes "The WSJ reports that the automobile designs of the 1950s and 1960s were inspired by the space race and the dawn of jet travel. But one car manufacturer, Chrysler, was bold enough to put a jet engine in an automobile that ran at an astounding 60,000 rpm on any flammable fluid including gasoline, diesel, kerosene, jet fuel, peanut oil, alcohol, tequila, or perfume. Visionary Chrysler designer George Huebner believed that there was plenty to recommend the turbine. People loved the car. In a publicity scheme to promote its 'jet' car, Chrysler commissioned Ghia to handcraft 50 identical car bodies and each car would be lent to a family for a few months and then passed on to another. Chrysler received more than 30,000 requests in 1962 to become test drivers and eventually 203 were chosen who logged more than one million miles (mostly trouble free) in the 50 Ghia prototypes. In the end Chrysler killed the turbine car after OPEC's 1973 oil embargo. 'How different would America be now if we all drove turbine-powered cars? It could have happened. But government interference, shortsighted regulators, and indifferent corporate leaders each played a role in the demise of a program that could have lessened US dependence on Middle East oil.'"
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The Rise and Fall of America's Jet-Powered Car

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  • by Gothmolly ( 148874 ) on Sunday October 17, 2010 @09:39AM (#33923544)

    Turbines suck at low RPM, have exotic acceleration modes and requirements and only shine at constant speed. What Detroit needed was a hybrid turbine-electric car, either in series or parallel. With today's electric technology, I'm surprised these haven't made a comeback. You'd have the best of both worlds. But with fuel at less than 3 USD per gallon, why bother?

  • by countertrolling ( 1585477 ) on Sunday October 17, 2010 @09:53AM (#33923600) Journal

    What happens to the 60,000 rpm turbine (and associated pieces) in an accident?

    I don't know... Maybe about the same as what happens to a 100,000 rpm turbocharger?

  • Reediculous idea (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Ancient_Hacker ( 751168 ) on Sunday October 17, 2010 @09:56AM (#33923606)

    Gas turbines are very poorly suited for automobile use.

    They're extremely expensive, have mediocre MPG, don't respond quickly to the gas pedal, and the gyroscopic effects are problematic.

    That's why they didn't catch on-- no need to look for conspiracies.

  • by Geoffrey.landis ( 926948 ) on Sunday October 17, 2010 @10:06AM (#33923670) Homepage

    Reading throught the comments, I see it was described as being quite quiet, so apparently noise was not the issue. 11.5 miles per gallon, though, that's not a good number, even by standards of the time. The article starts out "Turbines were the bucking broncos of the engine world: loud and hard to control, gulping vast quantities of fuel and air.". Looks like they solved the noise problem (except for that "turbine whine" described), but the "gulping vast quantities of fuel" wasn't so easily solvable.

    This is the key sentence: "The primary culprit was OPEC's 1973 oil embargo and the panicked response of federal regulators, who set unrealistic standards to limit fuel consumption and air pollution."

    Unrealistic? What exactly does that word mean? All of the car manufacturers managed to meet the fuel efficiency goals: all of them. And, it turns out, it wasn't even really very hard. The pollution goals as well. And its hardly true that "the Environmental Protection Agency required tailpipe emissions to be cleaner than the ambient air." Maybe the "ambient air" in polluted cities. I remember the air in those days-- I'm quite happy to have today's pollution standards, thank you. Twice as many cars in America as there were in 1963, but the air is much cleaner.

    In any case, though, this is just the Wall Street Journal's sliding in a political opinion in the guise of a fact. The cars were made in 1962, and the article states "Most of the cars—46 of them—were destroyed in 1967." I don't think you can blame the OPEC Oil embargo of 1973 for the failure of the design six years previously. Perhaps the WSJ should have paid attention to this sentence: "Yes, turbine engines were expensive to mass produce."

  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday October 17, 2010 @10:09AM (#33923682)

    "But government interference, shortsighted regulators, and indifferent corporate leaders..."????? How about technological issues like hot exhaust gasses coming out the tail of the engine?

    Don't you think that, if it actually were technologically feasible and Chrysler was gonna make a bundle of money, that it would happen. I just don't understand how government gets blamed for all the failures of business.

  • by somersault ( 912633 ) on Sunday October 17, 2010 @10:10AM (#33923688) Homepage Journal

    with fuel at less than 3 USD per gallon, why bother?

    Just because you've harvested your crop and have a large current supply, doesn't mean you shouldn't plant seeds for next year.

    I know it's not a car analogy, but the article is already about cars, so why not a farming analogy?

  • A let-down (Score:4, Insightful)

    by ickleberry ( 864871 ) <> on Sunday October 17, 2010 @10:11AM (#33923702) Homepage
    Currently the trend seems to be towards low-speed driverless centrally controlled 'people pods' rather than anything actually exciting.

    Who would have thought we would have diverged from the path of making continually more badass cars towards trying to develop boring things such as the Google ATNMBL [].

    I suppose whats going on with cars now is a similar to the of taking control from users as in "curated computing". The Chrysler turbine car is a genuinely cool piece of machine, probably my favourite car of all time, I really wouldnt mind seeing it back in limited production despite its lack of practicality.

    Turbine technology isn't a complete waste however. A an electric car could have a removable ~30kW microturbine + fuel tank unit for long journeys and use it for storage space or extra batteries for the rest of the time.
  • by Waffle Iron ( 339739 ) on Sunday October 17, 2010 @10:35AM (#33923812)

    You don't seem to have any idea of how much total energy this nation consumes vs. how much is in the food we eat. The US uses somewhere in the neighborhood of 1e20 joules of energy each year. If the average person consumes 2500 Cal per day of food, that's about 1.1e18 J of food energy per year.

    We use almost 100 times as much total energy as the amount of energy in the food we currently grow. Even supplying the small fraction of energy that goes into automobile transportation is not going to be possible by increasing production of food crops, especially since irrigation water is already in seriously short supply in many areas.

  • by Greyfox ( 87712 ) on Sunday October 17, 2010 @10:47AM (#33923880) Homepage Journal
    Yeah, I went to Romania in the late 90s and the city I was in reminded me of Miami without emissions controls. Outside, the gas and diesel fumes were thick and inside everyone smoked. By the time my week there was up, my lungs ached for clean air. I'll be glad to take our "unrealistic air pollution standards," TYVM.
  • by cheesybagel ( 670288 ) on Sunday October 17, 2010 @10:51AM (#33923898)

    Do the math. Soybeans have a yield [] of 48 gallons/acre per year.

    The US uses 378 million gallons of gasoline [] per day.


    This means you need 2874.375 million acres if you used soybeans to grow the same amount of fuel. Which is 4.491 million square miles. Well the US has a land area of 3.794 million square miles. So even if you razed the entire US and turned it into a giant soybean field you would not be able to manufacture enough oil.

    This is just something I wrote on the back of a napkin. I did not include the higher volumetric energy density of biodiesel as a factor in the calculations. But I did not include the fertilizer manufacturing costs either. Nor did I add the other uses of petroleum to these calculations.

    You can use other things than soybean oil. Like peanuts, rapeseed, or jatropha. But you will still need to devote more land area to fuel production than the total land area used for farming in the US to produce this amount of fuel. Crop fuels can only supply a fraction of the total demand.

    If you use crop fuels you will need to reduce fuel consumption, reduce the number of cars and miles driven, or use some other measure of rationing the supply. Since we live in a market economy this simply means the price of fuel will rise a lot. The middle class would likely stop being able to own cars.

    The end result is that what you will see in the market, if we run out of conventional petroleum, will be oil made from tar sands, natural gas to liquids, coal to liquids, or some other cheap fuel. Not vegetable oil.

    Oh and ethanol is even worse.

  • Re:Turbine (Score:2, Insightful)

    by htdrifter ( 1392761 ) on Sunday October 17, 2010 @11:30AM (#33924110)

    The word, I think, is "turbine" (or even "jet turbine,")-- not "Jet powered".

    How noisy were they?

    Not noisy at all. One of my customers brought one into the shop so we could check it out. It was quieter then most cars. It just sounded different. The mileage was better then most cars of that time.

    I rode in it. It was very quiet inside and had excellent acceleration. A really nice car. It's too bad they never put them in production.

  • Re:Turbine (Score:5, Insightful)

    by mbone ( 558574 ) on Sunday October 17, 2010 @11:33AM (#33924136)

    Well, having had a muffler fall off, I can testify that piston engines are intrinsically pretty loud too.

  • by Born2bwire ( 977760 ) on Sunday October 17, 2010 @11:44AM (#33924220)

    Travelling to other countries, particularly areas of China and India, can really drive home how low the pollution is in most parts of America. There are times that I can't see more than 100 yards down the street and this is due to the air pollution from the cars and factories.

  • by SomeKDEUser ( 1243392 ) on Sunday October 17, 2010 @12:36PM (#33924474)

    Remember, in a thermodynamic cycle, the maximum efficiency you can get is:

    eta = 1-Tcold/Thot (in Kelvin)

    This formula is all you need to know to debunk stupid claims of efficiency of sellers of snake oil thermal systems. In practise, getting 80% of that is really, really good.

    Big turbines are efficient because they run hot, as hot as the materials will allow, in fact [1]. The blades are designed so a cushion of air protects them from the burning gaz. You do not want a turbine running at 2000 C in you car: combusting the passengers would most likely be considered a downside.

    [1] Russians used to machine titanium alloy monocristal compressor blocks for the power plants of their Sukhoi aeroplanes. In the west, use of ceramics is favoured.

  • by the linux geek ( 799780 ) on Sunday October 17, 2010 @12:39PM (#33924490)
    Did you even bother reading the summary? This thing could run on any flammable liquid (with varying levels of efficiency.) It could have been a strong candidate for reducing oil consumption, not "burning through" it.
  • by westlake ( 615356 ) on Sunday October 17, 2010 @12:46PM (#33924530)

    Maintaining the streetcar systems instead of dismantling them and not incentivizing suburbanization would've been a better idea than some stupid jet car

    There is a lot of nonsense tossed about the decline of the streetcar.

    Suburbanization begins with the commuter ferry, the bridge, the tunnel and the railroad.

    You don't build the bridge to Brooklyn unless the traffic demands it.

    The streetcar lines and suburban electric rail - "light rail lines" - were in deep financial trouble before World War I.

    The joke at the time was that the Ford was cheaper per mile than a good pair of boots. You had portal-to-portal service. Room for four passengers, the family dog, and a week's worth of groceries from the new A&P.

    The Ford came first. The paved road outside the city limits often much, much later.

    If you want to know what drove suburbanization, don't look at GM, look at the telephone and rural electrification, Burpee Seeds, the supermarket and the Sears, Roebuck catalog.

    Sears in the late teens and twenties would sell you a kit home at 6% interest that would cost maybe a third less than conventional construction. There is a handsome surviving example not four blocks from where I live.

    It's not hard to see the appeal for any middle class family.

  • by Attila Dimedici ( 1036002 ) on Sunday October 17, 2010 @12:52PM (#33924576)

    All of the car manufacturers managed to meet the fuel efficiency goals: all of them. And, it turns out, it wasn't even really very hard.

    Do you know how they did that? They did it by not making enough of certain models to meet demands. For example,do you know why we have SUVs? Because there was a demand for a vehicle that could carry 4-6 people and some cargo. This demand had been met by station wagons, but station wagons were cars and were calculated as part of the original CAFE standards. Auto manufacturers could not meet the demand for station wagons and meet the CAFE standards. SUVs are "trucks" (at least the original ones were) and therefore were not counted as part of the fleet for purposes of CAFE. Minivans were developed for the same purpose. Both minivans and SUVs were developed to get around the CAFE standards because there was a demand for vehicles that if they were under the CAFE standards would have made it impossible for the auto manufacturers to meet those standards.

  • by NeutronCowboy ( 896098 ) on Sunday October 17, 2010 @01:32PM (#33924870)

    This isn't Twitter. Learn to communicate.

  • Re:No dependence (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Marcika ( 1003625 ) on Sunday October 17, 2010 @01:38PM (#33924932)

    Dependence on Mideast oil? That's bullshit. The majority of U.S. comes from Canada, Mexico and Nigeria. It could stop importing oil from the Mideast tomorrow if it really wanted to, but doesn't probably for political reasons. []

    The one full of ... ignorance ... is you. The market for oil is integrated worldwide. Supertanker transport is virtually free. Which means that every barrel sold anywhere affects the market on the other side of the world.

    As a thought experiment: Imagine the Arab world goes into a huff and decides to stop exporting oil. Europe and Asia therefore have to turn to the next-closest source, Nigeria/Mexico/Venezuela. Since many more people are now bidding for the Nigerian oil, they can afford to put prices up. Since the oil market is so efficient (remember, transport is cheap), prices go up massively even in Podunk, Alaska and Armpit, Texas. The American economy crashes without ever having imported a drop of oil from the Middle East. QED.

  • Re:No dependence (Score:2, Insightful)

    by qazwart ( 261667 ) on Sunday October 17, 2010 @02:01PM (#33925082) Homepage

    Yes, we do depend upon Mideast oil! Even if we don't directly buy oil from the Middle East.

    Oil is what is known as a fungible commodity, and the origin is not all that important. If the Middle Eastern producers decide to put less oil on the market, our costs still go up since there is now less oil to buy in the total market. We buy about $300 billion worth of oil from various sources and that $300 billion is part of the global market. If we increase our imports to $600 billion, the world wide price of oil would increase, and even if we don't buy a single drop from the Middle East, those producers will still reap the reward of our increased imports.

    And, if we decide to decrease our imports to just $400 billion dollars, the world wide price of oil will fall, and the producers in the Middle East will make less money too.

    Truthfully, the idea of Middle Eastern oil vs. non-Middle Eastern oil strikes me as somewhat racist. We get plenty of oil from Venezuela which has a more virulent anti-American government than Kuwait, Qatar, or Saudi Arabia. The big problem is that we're sending out a third of a trillion dollars out of our economy which hurts our trade deficit. At the same time, we make oil fairly cheap in the U.S. via all sorts of subsidies which encourages wasteful energy spending. We now have solar and wind industries that cannot compete against the subsidized oil industry and they're all asking for special incentives in order to compete.

    Even worse, we have a growing China trying to seize up energy sources for its growth. It is contesting Japan, Korea, Vietnam, and all of its neighbors in off shore islands because owning those islands will give it access to the oil around those islands. It is developing oil sources all over Africa, Asia, and South America in order to feed its energy needs. With more demand for energy, the U.S. and China may find themselves arguing and maybe even fighting over the same remaining drops of oil.

    What if (and this is a radical idea) we set energy costs to their true market value. Let's say we get rid of the special tax breaks for the oil companies, and they have to charge more money to cover their costs. Even better, we tax them for depletion of global resources and pollution caused by global oil exploration.

    Sure, the price of gasoline will rise, but by the magic of that invisible hand of market regulation, people, without the EPA having to mandate a single thing, will buy more fuel efficient cars. Maybe people will start buying the more efficient electric cars without the feds dangling a $5000+ subsidy. Maybe people will use more efficient LED lights without the federal government mandating it. Maybe solar power and wind power will be able to compete without the federal government handing out more money.

    Maybe with fewer people driving, the cost of maintaining our roads will go down, and we can start working on other infrastructure projects. Maybe the cost of energy with our more efficient workforce and our better infrastructure will cause manufacturing jobs to move back to the U.S. Maybe by spending less money on oil and other imports, we actually reverse our balance of payments deficit.

    It really doesn't matter who we buy our oil from. That $300 billion we're spending in oil imports could do some wonderful things here.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday October 17, 2010 @02:15PM (#33925154)

    A totally irrelevant point. Oil is part of a world market and is completely fungible, so the actual source of the specific molecules of oil that we use doesn't matter.

  • by dcavanaugh ( 248349 ) on Sunday October 17, 2010 @02:36PM (#33925292) Homepage

    Gearing down from 50,000 rpm to less than 100 is tricky. Helicopters do it, but the transmission is one of the most expensive, failure-prone components in the design. A car would have an even bigger problem.

  • Re:Turbine (Score:5, Insightful)

    by SerpentMage ( 13390 ) <[ ] ['' in gap]> on Sunday October 17, 2010 @02:52PM (#33925402)

    I am going to call BS... []

    This car is more fuel efficient, lower emissions, faster and more powerful than anything ever produced for the commercial road.

    The trick with jet engines is not to run it lower, but use the power to run an electrical engine that can be ramped up and down. []

    "Requiring no water-cooling system, oil or catalytic converter, it will provide vehicle weight savings of up to 15% – with a consequent reduction in fuel consumption and carbon emissions – compared to a piston engine. Further environmental benefits will be gained from its fast warm up (a few seconds, as opposed to several minutes for a conventional engine), cleaner combustion and lower manufacturing energy requirements. "

  • by IndustrialComplex ( 975015 ) on Sunday October 17, 2010 @03:53PM (#33925808)

    Don't you think that, if it actually were technologically feasible and Chrysler was gonna make a bundle of money, that it would happen. I just don't understand how government gets blamed for all the failures of business.

    Not necessarily. It is quite possible to make a bundle of money, but government interference causes the 'bundle of money' to be of a similar or smaller size than the 'bundle of money' a company could make on another venture.

    Consider the Corn industry in the US. Farmers DON'T plant other crops not because they wouldn't make money selling them, but because they can make more money by planting corn. It doesn't mean that corn is the better product, it's simply a factor that $x in yields $y out for corn, and $x in yields $y-b in terms of other products.

    Consider cash for clunkers, in that program the government made it cost effective to DESTROY a usable working product.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday October 17, 2010 @04:21PM (#33925980)

    As I remember it, the 80s station wagon got phased out in favor of the 90s minivan, which, loaded down with all the options, could get very expensive. But a sensible minivan wasn't terribly more expensive than a sensible 4-5 seat hatchback or sedan, and it was almost always cheaper than an SUV (and generally got better mileage too).

    The large family thing, at least in the numbers of comments we hear about it, is generally a myth, by the way. I sanity checked my gut reaction by checking the census figures... the median household in 2000 was only 2.59 people. So as I thought, it's a relatively small number of households that actually need something bigger than a normal car. People who have three children all in child seat age at the same time won't fit in a sedan, true. But we're already getting into outlier territory there.

    It's certainly not enough to justify what I actually see in real life, which seems to be 30% SUVs - and usually with zero or one passenger. I used to see station wagons and minivans full of people and cargo in the 90s and still do occasionally, but it's very very rarely that I see an SUV with people or cargo in the back.

  • by amorsen ( 7485 ) <> on Sunday October 17, 2010 @04:28PM (#33926036)

    Niche markets like "Europe". It's only now with semi-automatic gearboxes that non-manuals are becoming slightly more common.

  • by dcavanaugh ( 248349 ) on Sunday October 17, 2010 @05:17PM (#33926342) Homepage

    That goes a long way towards solving the transmission problem. But a small diesel engine can charge the batteries with better fuel economy and still run on fuels like vegetable oil.

    I'm also not so sure how the turbine would handle short duty cycles. Some turbine parts have published lifetimes rated in hours, but some are rated in cycles. You can't just spin it up every few minutes. Actually you can, but guess what happens?

    On an aircraft, you spin up the turbine and fly. It won't be shut down until you land. In a car, even if the turbine ran 100% of the time every little trip would be another on/off cycle.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday October 17, 2010 @07:07PM (#33926968)

    Im also not so sure how the turbine would handle short duty cycles

    This is basically the issue that has dogged turbine engines for over fifty years. They suck at low power outputs and they suck at short duty cycles.

  • by Idarubicin ( 579475 ) on Sunday October 17, 2010 @08:04PM (#33927454) Journal

    A family with three or more children will need to take two vehicles to go on a family vacation if they cannot afford a station wagon/SUV/minivan. That is in no way more efficient than them using a station wagon/SUV/minivan. It is probably significantly less efficient.

    What fraction of families in the United States have three or more children? The census data [] (see Table HH-4) say that in 2009 the average number of people per household was just 2.56. A shade under 10 percent of households contain five or more people (and not all of those will be two parents and their three kids), only about 3.5 percent clock in with six or more people.

    Even then -- how often does the two- and three-child family need a large vehicle to move their cargo for a vacation? The family can use a smaller, less-expensive, more-efficient vehicle for their day-to-day lives, and rent a minivan or trailer for a week or two when they need the extra capacity.

    This is actually something more of us should be doing right now. Forget saving the planet, for a moment -- we'd all save hundreds or thousands of real dollars buying and operating smaller vehicles and renting the extra capacity on an as-needed basis.

  • by Geoffrey.landis ( 926948 ) on Monday October 18, 2010 @09:20AM (#33931566) Homepage

    But they managed to meet those [pollution] goals by using gasoline. Diesel makers had a much harder time satisfying pollution regulations.

    Yeah, 1960s-era diesel engines really were dirty. You didn't ever want to stand downwind of one, unless you didn't mind being covered in soot.

    These turbine-engine cars would have been great for rural people capable of making their own fuel.

    No, as it turns out, in the real world, people who make their own fuel really really want a vehicle with high mileage, not low.

    Counting for time, effort, equipment, and such, fuel you make yourself in small batches is actually vastly more expensive than fuel that gets made in industrial quantities in refineries.

Have you ever noticed that the people who are always trying to tell you `there's a time for work and a time for play' never find the time for play?