Monday, August 24, 2015

Car loans are becoming dangerous to the economy

Remember the mini recession brought on by the subprime mortgage lending collapse? According to financial blog Zero Hedge, we might be doomed to repeat the same mistakes only this time with car loans. (Zero Hedge is a pretty good, anonymously written financial blog).
All the signs are there - from record-high loans to dealers taking shotguns as down payments (seriously). For example, when I say 'record high loans', the average loan term for a new vehicle is now 67 months, and for used vehicles it's 62 months. More frightening still is the number of loans that are 84 months - up to 30% now.
Other indicators are way up too - the average monthly payment is $488 and the average new vehicle price is $28,711. Sure - car prices never go down so you'd expect those numbers to rise - it would be odd if they didn't. But it's the length and size of the loans that is the real issue here - and Zero Hedge points out that many of these loans are going to - guess where? Yes - subprime borrowers. ie. people at greater risk of defaulting on the loans.
It's exactly what happened in the housing market, and greedy banks and financial institutions are about to make it happen all over again but this time in the vehicle market.
If you're looking to finance a vehicle - don't lie to yourself. Figure out how much you can afford and don't, under any circumstances, let the dealer talk you up to a more expensive vehicle or more expensive loan.
The Zero Hedge article can be found here: Don't look now, but the subprime auto bubble may be bursting.

Monday, August 17, 2015

California Dreaming

Last week I spent the week in and around Los Angeles, on a business trip. It was driving heaven, compared to here in Utah. For a start, LA pedestrians are blessed with a sense of self-preservation we can only ever dream of here in Utah. They don't wander out in traffic, they don't idly amble through parking lots. This wasn't just downtown LA either - it was Van Nuys, Griffith Park, Inglewood, Venice Beach, Long Beach - everywhere I visited it was the same. (actually that's not quite true - in Malibu the tourists kept wandering into traffic with cameras). The same goes for the drivers. They go when the lights go green, they don't brake and stop in the middle of the road for no good reason, they use their blinkers (for the most part), they cross dashed lines and don't cross solid lines. The commuter lane had actual commuters in it. Even the 405 at rush hour - 6 clogged lanes going north to Van Nuys - was better than the random crapshoot we have on I-15 around Salt Lake City at any time of day or night. What was odd was that the rampant lack of lane discipline I saw south of Las Vegas this spring was all but gone, around LA. People used the left lane, then pulled in. Traffic flowed. Nobody sat there doing 50mph with their brake lights permanently on.
Then of course I came home and on the 8 minute drive from the airport to my house - people crossing the white / yellow lines on on-ramps. 50mph in the outside lane. Stopping in the middle lane. Not going when the lights go green, not stopping when the lights go red, pedestrians wandering around the roads like they were sidewalks and everyone and their dog changing lanes in intersections (because apparently corners don't count, and neither do the painted lines on the road).
I've come to the conclusion it's because in Utah, God is their co-pilot (or at least Joseph is - look it up). I properly believe they drive and behave like they do when it comes to roads because they live in some bizarro-world where they think that if they get killed because they did something stupid, it was "meant to be".
TL/DR: California - at least around LA - much MUCH better drivers and pedestrians and just about anywhere in Utah.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Doing track days

If you're even slightly into cars, doing a track day is a great way to get your fix. The type of track day I'm talking about here is the less serious version - ie. I'm not talking about race-prepping your own Mazda Miata, taping the lights and blowing $1000 on tyres, but rather the days where you pay for a fixed number of laps in a car you'd never normally be able to afford.
In that category, there's two different types of experience you can normally get. The first is on a race track, in a race car, on your own, playing follow-the-leader behind an instructor car. These are by far and away the best 'value for money', although any track day like this is going to be expensive. Our local track - Miller Motorsports Park - used to do 'Mustang Experience' days where you could take a race-prepped Ford Mustang on to the track for 10 laps. (They've stopped doing it now - not sure why). The way these days normally work is that you get an hour of classroom session, followed by an introduction to the car. If you've never been in a race-prepped car before, get all your fidgeting done before you strap in, because once you're in a 4-point racing harness, your shoulders are pinned against the seat and you won't be able to reach much of anything beyond the top of the steering wheel.
Once you're in, the general rule of thumb is that you get two 'hot laps' where you're the car immediately behind the instructor. Drive as fast as you can behind him, then peel off and go to the back of the line - normally 4 other cars. Often you'll get the chance to do this twice. The instructor will drive slightly faster than he thinks you're capable of so you do have something to chase. On some days, once you're done, the instructor will take you out in his car and show you that you really weren't going as fast as you thought. For the average driver who's not used to g-forces and outright speed, this single lap can be quite nauseating. For people like me, it's a joy to behold.
These events are a huge amount of fun, but make sure you know how to drive a manual gearbox - there's nothing more embarrassing than turning up to one of these events and only knowing how to drive an automatic. I've seen it happen time and time again (more likely to happen in the US than Europe)
The second type of 'paid' track day are the 'luxury' events where you get to drive Porsches, Aston Martins, Ferraris and other exotica, under guidance from an instructor who's in the car with you all the time. These can either be on race tracks, or in the paddock area where they arrange autocross type events (tight circuits made of cones, designed to be more technical than outright racing). There are some permanent locations where you can roll up and do this any day of the week too - Mercedes Benz World in the UK is one example - they have their own permanent autocross circuit and skid pan and you can choose from a brace of AMG-tuned exotica to play with. Whilst these are not as much fun as outright track racing, they do provide their own level of entertainment and challenge, not least of which you're driving cars that are not entirely out of your reach, cars you can associate with. For most people, a race car is stupid money they can only dream of, and certainly not something you come across every day other than seeing them on TV or from a grandstand.

Two tips if you decide to do a track event:
(1) BUY THE COLLISION DAMAGE INSURANCE. I can't put that in CAPS loud enough. You do NOT want to stuff a race car into the armco and end up paying for it out of your own pocket. That'll make dealer service on your daily driver seem like an amazing deal in comparison.
(2) Don't be a dick - listen to the instructor - he absolutely DOES know more about this than you do. In the case of the 'luxury' car type track days, this can reap huge rewards, like extra laps for free.

Monday, August 3, 2015

We really don't want self-driving cars

Last year, one of the motoring organisations in Europe conducted several studies, asking drivers of all ages and backgrounds what their feelings were on self-driving cars. The general consensus was that nobody really wanted them, and at the time it was considered that it might be more appealing to the American market.
Skip forwards 8 months and now we have some inkling that US drivers might also not be that hot about the idea of self-driving cars. Michigan's Transportation Research Institute just published the results of a recent study in the US, and it turns out 70% of drivers pretty much don't want self-driving cars, and over 95% of them said that if self-driving cars are forced upon us, they wanted gas and brake pedals and steering wheels.
More to the point, in the light of recently published hacks against Chrysler vehicles - now ask yourself the question - do you want to be in a completely automated car? By necessity they'll be net-connected, meaning they'll be even larger hacking targets than existing vehicles.
If you've read this blog for any amount of time, you know my feelings on drone cars already.
Anyway - the Fortune article that talks about the TRI study can be found here : Most Americans want to put the brakes on self-driving cars

Monday, July 27, 2015

OnStar, UConnect or any other remote assistance capability leaves your car open to hacking.

In other news, d'uh!   Given that GM have been able to remotely start and stop cars via OnStar for years, it should come as no surprise to anyone that Jeep's UConnect is the latest remote assistance system to fall prey to hacking. Following successful demonstrations of how Ford and Toyota's systems can be remotely accessed, now we know it's more than just honking horns and flashing headlights. Now we know that brakes can be disabled, steering inputs can be changed, and transmissions can be killed.
How? Simple - all new cars use a centralised data communication system called CANBus. Everything is on there from the engine management system to the radio. Naturally this means the cell network connection for remote assistance can access the same onboard network, which ipso facto means that's the way into your whole car's brain for anyone with enough skill.
And these two guys gleefully demonstrate how easy these sort of hacks are: Hackers Remotely Kill a Jeep on the Highway This naturally isn't limited to GM, Chrysler, Ford and Toyota. It's just that those are the only ones that have been publicly demonstrated up to this point. Mercedes, Land Rover, GMC, Dodge, VW, Audi, Volvo - you name it - they all have remote assistance functions to call the emergency services, or that let you remote start your car, or set the climate control before getting in.
And the mere fact that this outside connection exists means that it should come as no surprise to anyone as each and every one of these systems falls to hacker demonstrations.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Living the life electric - part 5.

(This post follows from last week's - best read that first if you missed it).
Utah has a program for vehicles with lower than average emissions. Their 'clean fuel decal' program means you either get a custom number plate, or a number plate decal to indicate that your vehicle is in this program. There are a couple of perks - free use of the HOV lane even with a single occupant, and free parking downtown. The weird thing is that electric cars don't automatically qualify for this program where some hybrids do. For example if you buy a Prius, you automatically get the clean fuel decal. But if you buy a LEAF or a Ford Focus Electric, you don't. Because according to the Utah State Legislature, electric engines are somehow not quite as clean as petrol-electric hybrids.
Instead, owners of electric cars have to enter into a lottery for - wait for it - an annual allocation of 48 clean fuel decals.
So yeah - this state is really getting behind their air quality programs.
Interesting point to note : we have some of the worst air pollution in the country now because we have a closed valley that causes inversions, and two oil refineries in said valley. Of course, in the name of clean air, the legislature just approved a huge refinery expansion whilst at the same time attempting to encourage people to drive less. Second interesting point to note : most modern cars emit less crap from their exhaust than they suck in to the airbox. But don't let facts and logic stand in the way of local government....