Campus: Northridge -- July 25, 2006

CSUN Awarded $400,000 Contract by Calif. Air Resources Board to Assess Impact of Automotive Air Conditioners on Environment

While the outside temperatures sizzle around 100 degrees, Cal State Northridge mechanical engineering professor Tim Fox and a team of graduate and undergraduate students are spending this summer huddled in his lab designing a computer and data system that will withstand the punishing heat of a car's interior.

This system will be installed later this year into four cars assigned to drivers scattered across the state of California to collect data on when, why and under what conditions people turn on their car air conditioners.

That information will help the California Air Resources Board, which is providing $400,000 for the two-year project, assess the impact mobile air conditioner operation has on greenhouse gas emissions from vehicles driven in California. The ultimate goal is to develop emissions credit incentives for automobile manufacturers so that they will develop more efficient car air conditioning systems.

"What we are doing is providing a baseline study of how car air conditioning works in the state of California," Fox said. "From this, goals and incentives can be developed for automotive manufacturers to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the air conditioning in their cars.

"To our knowledge, no one has ever done this before," he said. "What we will be doing is equipping the cars with instrumentation so that we will be able to collect data 24 hours a day, seven days a week, without our being present, and we will be able to monitor how the data collection is going from campus."

Air Resources Board Chairman Dr. Robert Sawyer said California is the first state in the nation to limit climate change emissions in motor vehicles.

"Dr. Fox's work will assist our understanding and quantification of the contribution of auto air conditioners to the production of climate change emissions," Sawyer said.

Fox said the idea for the project, which is being done in coordination with the Air Conditioning Research Center at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, grew out of Gov. Schwarzenegger's position on global warming and his pledge to reduce greenhouse gas effects in California. The Air Resources Board decided to look for ways to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. Scientists have determined that the gas plays a prominent role in global warning.

Fox pointed out that when people turn on their car air conditioners, they use more gas. By using more gas, they are increasing the amount of carbon dioxide their car emits and contributing to a higher concentration of greenhouse gases.

Fox and his team will outfit four late-model cars with data systems that will monitor the environment inside the cars--from temperature to humidity and the amount of solar radiation at and through the windows--as well as outside--from the weather to ambient conditions in such areas as the mountains and deserts.

Each car will be assigned to a driver for one month. The drivers, located throughout the state, will be told to use the car in place of their personal vehicles to commute to work, shuttle kids from school to soccer games and play dates or to go shopping on the weekends. At the end of each month, Fox and his crew will collect the car and its data, make sure the automobile is in good condition and then turn it over to the next driver.

"The computers on the cars will monitor everything that is happening. From this data we are going to try to create a model of typical Californian car air conditioning habits," Fox said. "That's going to be the tough part, creating that model. We are going to have to gather a lot of data."

Fox estimates the project will need approximately 30 volunteer drivers. He has about a third of them lined up already. He's currently looking for volunteers in the Sacramento region, Bay Area and Central Valley. The first car isn't expected to hit the road until October.

Among the cars being outfitted with a computer are a Toyota Camry and a Ford F-150 pick-up truck, two of the most popular vehicles on California's roads. Fox is talking to Chrysler and General Motors about providing the two other cars, one a minivan.

Right now, Fox said, he and his team are concentrating on designing a system that will collect all the data in the cars. It has to be tough enough to endure the extreme changes in temperature that take place when a car is parked in the hot sun during the summer or in the snow during a winter in the mountains. (A car's air conditioner is used when the defrost button is turned on.) It has to be small enough so it won't get in the way. It also has to have an energy source that will provide power when the car is not in use and can recharge itself when the car is.

Fox pointed out that there are approximately 720 hours in a month, yet the average car is only driven for about 30 of those hours. "That's a lot of idle time requiring power for the computer will still be collecting data," he said.

Contact: Carmen Ramos Chandler, (818) 677-2130, carmen.chandler@csun.edu


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