Monday, November 28, 2016

Winter is coming

If the US president-elect is to be believed, climate change is a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese. I don't know about that but where I live it's been a hell of a lot warmer this year - we're all still driving around on summer tyres here, long past the date when we'd normally have snow on the ground.
But winter is coming - eventually - and if you live in the snowy areas, that means snow and ice on the roads, which means everyone will forget how to drive in those conditions.
Be careful on the first snow of the year. Go find an empty parking lot and use it to find out how your car behaves in these conditions. Teach yourself the limits of cornering and braking grip with your current tyres and current vehicle on packed and loose snow (or ice).
Better yet, put winter tyres on. I say this every year but I can't stress it enough. If the temperature where you live regularly drops below 45°F / 7°C in the winter months, winter tyres will benefit you even if it never snows. The rubber compound in these tyres is designed to stay more flexible at much lower temperatures. More aggressive tread helps in the snow and ice, and on wet and rainy roads, they help pump more water out from the contact patch. Because you only have them on for three months of the year - maybe four - they'll last four or five winters before you need to consider renewing them. It's money well-spent.
This video from 2011 is well worth watching - it shows the difference winter tyres make on snow, ice and just plain old wet roads in cold conditions.....

Monday, November 21, 2016

A parking revolution is coming to America

A few years ago I saw a parking system in Switzerland that made me wonder why the same system hadn't been implemented everywhere. It's so simple - in a multi-storey parking structure, each parking bay has a sensor mounted above it that can tell if a vehicle is parked there or not. If there is, the sensor shows a red LED. If not, it shows green. The result is that you can tell - just from looking at the ceiling, exactly where all the open spots are in a long row of parked cars. It prevents (or should) the long, slow crawl of procrastinating drivers trying to find a space. In theory, you just look for the green lights, and head for those parking bays.
I finally saw my first one of these systems installed here in the US this weekend. The parking garage at the Mandalay Bay in Vegas has this system installed and it works beautifully. The open spots are super easy to spot and the system there also has digital counters at all the intersections that tell you exactly how many open spots there are in any given direction.
Now - this does rely on drivers having some common sense, and I you could tell those who got the system straight away, and those who thought all the red and green lights were Christmas decorations. Several times, we were stuck behind people crawling along, doing the old hunt-and-peck routine instead of looking at the lights. But other times we found ourselves in a fast-moving stream of traffic that were just heading directly for all the open spots without any fuss.
Personally I think this system is genius and should be installed by default in any parking structure. Click the image below to see a larger version where you can see the three open spots.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Speed enforcement causes accidents.

It's not the first time a study like this has been published, but this latest one (Strict speed enforcement detrimental to road safety, study finds) from the University of Western Australia has shown an interesting correlation between strict speed enforcement and road safety. Similar studies have found the same thing both in England and America - when you threaten drivers with automated cameras and roadside speed traps, they'll spend a lot more time concentrating on their speedometer, and a lot less time being aware of other hazards and situations outside the car.
By eliminating speed enforcement, or by raising the speed limit or increasing the overage tolerance, accident rates go down.
The same has been found to be true on motorways but the reasons are slightly different. The fact of life is that when speed limits are set artificially low, more drivers break those speed limits. The problem comes with the law-abiding drivers. For example when a speed limit on a motorway is set at 65mph but 95% of the drivers are doing 75-80mph, when they come across the law-abiding driver, the speed differential can be as much as 15mph. This reduces thinking time, increases closing speed and has the effect of causing either erratic braking or erratic maneuvering to get around the slower car.
When the speed limits are raised - for example to 75mph - the people who were doing 75-80 don't suddenly increase their top speed - they tend to keep driving at 75-80. But the law-abiding drivers are now doing 75mph which reduces the speed differential from 15mph to 5mph. This increases thinking time, and increases the time for slowing down and maneuvering, leading to a more calm traffic flow with less erratic behavior. The law-abiding drivers are no longer the 'rock in the river' that everyone is having to go around.
There's empirical evidence, studies and statistics to back this up too. It dates back 20 years in some cases (The Effects of Raising and Lowering the Speed Limit (US, 1996)
There are plenty of states in the US where even the police support the idea of raising speed limits (End of the Road for Speed Traps?)
For example, everywhere in the US where speed limits have been raised on the freeways, the accident rate has either remained the same or dropped. In comparison, on 'managed' motorways in England where speed-averaging cameras force drivers to drive at or below the limit, accident rates have increased in every instance.
Of course the first response many people will have is "just drive at the speed limit - you're breaking the law if you speed". Whilst that's technically true, we're not driving around in 1950's jalopies any more. Cars are perfectly safe at much higher speeds and the laws simply haven't kept up with the technology and capabilities of the vehicles.
The truth of the matter is that when you let politicians set arbitrary speed limits, they're going to be artificially low, and they're going to be out-of-date with modern motoring. It's long been proven that automated 'safety' cameras have no effect on accident rates, so with that simple fact in place, there can be only one reason for speed traps - revenue. Cities and police forces make millions in revenue from speeding motorists. But there is simply no justifiable reason ANY motorway should have a speed limit below 75mph. States in the US that still have 65mph limits - and the UK with it's 70mph limit - are just living in the past.
Telling people to drive at artificially low speed limits is outdated thinking that doesn't respect the current facts and studies. So when 95% of the traffic is going above the speed limit, and you're the law-abiding driver doing the speed limit, it might not be everyone else that is the problem .....

Monday, November 7, 2016

Halloween wasn't too scary - fine print is scary.

There's an old adage that if something seems to good to be true, it probably is. And so it is with an offer that flopped through my letterbox this week from Enterprise used car sales. In big, bold print, the postcard announced that they would pay me Kelley Blue Book value + $500 for my used car 1.
There was a bunch of other stuff about how they would be pleased to have my business, and how they had literally thousands of people lined up to buy my exact vehicle. But that little '1' after the bold print is where you need to look on offers like this, so I flipped the postcard and took a look at the fine print dissertation on the other side.
What it essentially boiled down to was this : They would pay me the KBB 'trade value' on a car assessed to be in 'fair' condition. Rather than using the KBB mileage guide, Enterprise would determine for themselves if the mileage was 'inappropriate for a vehicle of this age' and would adjust their offer downwards accordingly (no mention of raising the value for a low mileage vehicle). They would also use the zip code of the Enterprise dealership to determine the overall starting value, rather than the zip code of my address (which will always depress the price because car dealerships aren't built in nice upscale neighbourhoods). Then they would, "at their discretion", adjust the price further for the colour of the car if it was deemed to be hard to sell (ie. if it wasn't black, white, silver or grey).
The tacked-on $500 came in the form of cashback on the loan of another used car bought from the same dealership. In other words $500 on a 48 month loan with a rate of 6%.
It's scary how companies are allowed to distribute this sort of utterly misleading promotional guff through the mail. In England we have the advertising standards authority that keeps a check on things like this but in America it's a total free-for-all. You can literally print "We will give you $100,000 in FREE CASH1" on one side of a promotional flyer and on the other side put "Payout will be paid at the rate of $1 a year for 100,000 years", without fear of reprisal from any regulatory body.
Car dealerships are the ultimate bait-and-switch. They ARE the trick or treat, except there's never a treat.

Monday, October 31, 2016

FIA inconsistency and waivering race stewards are what ruined the Mexico GP this weekend.

If you watched the Mexico F1 race this weekend, you'll have seen how the FIA and the race stewards totally destroyed the race. On the opening lap, Hamilton went off-track in the first corner and gained an advantage in doing so. Rosberg did the same on the second corner. The stewards investigated Hamilton, and decided no further action was needed, and didn't even look at Rosberg.
Skip to the closing laps of the race where Verstappen was defending against an attacking Vettel, and he went wide on the same corner, performing the exact same maneuver and even driving pretty much the same line as Hamilton, and as soon as the race was over, the stewards handed him a 5 second penalty.
This dropped Verstappen from third place to fifth.
Then we come to Vettel who was so infuriated by the fact that no action was taken during the race, that he got on the pit radio, cursed out his pit crew and Ferrari management and culminated in telling Charlie Whiting (the race director) to "F*ck Off". Once again, the stewards could have put a stop to that right then and there, but instead they waited until after the podium ceremony to hand down a 10 second penalty to Vettel (actually for changing line during braking). This pushed him down to fifth and pushed Verstappen back up to fourth in the final results.
This was a total farce. The whole point of race stewards and their guest drivers at the weekends, is to make a decision there and then. By dragging it out to the end of the race, and by being inconsistent with their penalties and choices, entire races are destroyed.
Think about it - if they let Rosberg and Hamilton go and let Verstappen go, the race would have ended exactly the way it did.
But if they handed down 5 second penalties to all three, and a ten second penalty to Vettel - doing it right there during the race whilst the teams could do something about it with strategy changes - the end result would have been very different.
The FIA need to exercise some consistency in their decisions. Verstappen was robbed of a third place yesterday because of corporate idiocy and procrastinating race stewards.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Elon musk lives in a fantasy world.

On Wednesday last week, Elon musk gave a presentation in which he said "Writing an article that’s negative, you’re effectively dissuading people from using autonomous vehicles, you’re killing people".

That's rich, coming from someone who's company is building cars that are killing people. And in my case, consider me firmly on that dissuasion bandwagon, and I'm very proud of it.

He went on to compare the accident stats of self-driving cars to those of human-driven cars. The problem is, that's irrelevant.
Spouting statistics without a frame of reference means nothing. If we were all driving in straight lines, on well-painted roads, in the middle of the day, in the dry, with no road construction or intersections, the accident rate for human-driven cars would be exactly the same as it is for Tesla's cars. But in the real world we don’t have that luxury, and Musk chooses to ignore that simple (but extremely important) fact.
The other fact he chooses to ignore is that the number of self-driving cars is miniscule so choosing an accident statistic that compares deaths to population is stupid. 10 deaths per 1,000,000 population is 0.01% - sure. And one crash in 25,000 autopilot-equipped cars is 0.0025%. But those are not the metrics to use. The metrics should be deaths per passenger mile driven vs deaths per passenger miles driven in self-driving mode, and because those stats simply are not available, you simply can't make a comparison.
Self-driving cars are not ready for prime-time yet. They can’t handle rain, autumn (leaves on the sensors), snow, ice, merging on and off freeways, road construction, pedestrians, misplaced street furniture, pot-holes, trees, large trucks (apparently) and a dozen other things.
There's a reason more attention is paid to deaths in self-driving cars - because they're new, they're very high profile, and they prove that Musk's claims about accident-free driving are bullshit. In the real world we all know this, but on planet Musk, he lives in a bubble of distorted reality. Musk continues to insist that his autopilot is in beta. A car capable of killing someone is not something that should be being beta tested on the open public. It's not an iPhone. Being flippant and glib about his customer's lives is even more reason to steer clear of Musk and his products.

I imagine once he's killed a bunch of astronauts with one of his spacecraft, he'll be critical of the media for dissuading people from space tourism too.
The more Musk speaks, the more I hate him and his company.