Monday, December 29, 2014

Another year, another whole lot of nothing from Tesla motors.

I've spotted a trend with Elon Musk : he's the king of over-promising. If he were to be believed, the Model X is now available for all to buy, but it's not - it's been delayed now to the end of this year, after previously being delayed to the end of 2014.
He promised that supercharger stations would all be solar-powered by the end of 2014. Of the 280 installed around the world, only two are solar powered.
In 2013 he promised that battery-swap stations would be commonplace by the end of 2014. Not a single one has been built for public use (despite last week's announcement about an upcoming pilot program).
There's the much-demonstrated and over-promised autopilot system in the P85D which - despite all the cars (allegedly) having the hardware to support it - is still very much vaporware.
There's the CHAdeMO DC charging station adapter which has been "coming soon" since the Model S first appeared.
There's the empty promise of a battery upgrade for Roadster owners - something else due to happen by 5 days ago and something else we're still waiting for.
And finally the Gigafactory which - whilst grand in scale and intent - could take a decade to prove itself.
Tesla is successful, and Musk is a hyper-billionaire, but take everything he and the company say with a grain of salt because they have an established history of over-promising and under-delivering. If investors and customers weren't still blinded by the shiny bright light of the Model S, they'd have ditched the company 12 months ago with a performance record like that.

Monday, December 22, 2014

You really don't want a self-driving car for Christmas

I know I've written about this dozens of times before, but drone cars are really nowhere near ready for primetime. Again - Google's cars look impressive but realise that they're driving pre-mapped streets, mapped to the millimeter with GPS and LIDAR. Put them on the open road and you're stuck. Same with BMW and Mercedes. Same for Audi. Same for VW.
I've also written about weather before. Google, Volvo, Audi and others have all had plenty of problems with their test program in bad weather but they don't advertise it. Most manufacturers don't. Hyundai on the other hand? Well - watch these two videos. The first is their car performing in a competition on a dry day. The second is the same car, on the same course, with the same software, when it's raining. Everything goes wrong. Just stopping without warning, driving on the wrong side of the road, driving off the road, driving into ditches, up kerbs, around intersections the wrong way, nearly plowing down pedestrians and an overall hesitancy and nervousness that makes Utah drivers look talented by comparison. I've seen drunk drivers perform better than this.
Bear in mind that this is a mature test program - it's not like they started the project yesterday, and all the sensors can see everything they need to. Picture that video with leaves on one of the sensors in autumn. Or snow. For that matter, picture it on a snowy, icy course....
The videos : Dry run.     Wet run.
Merry Christmas - now stop reading this crap and go and be with your family....

Monday, December 15, 2014

Pedestrians and their idea of speed.

I have a simple rule for you when you're on foot - don't every try to pass comment on how fast you think a vehicle is travelling, because you're wrong. Trust me on this - unless you have a radar or laser speed gun, you have no idea how fast any vehicle is going. Not a car, train, bus, not even a scooter with Clarkson riding it.
This can be illustrated by what happens to most drivers from time to time. For example, I'll be minding my own business, driving through a residential neighbourhood - mostly on my way to or from my house - and someone will come running out into the road, flapping their arms and screaming about what an evil person I am for speeding in their neighbourhood. At that point, as a driver, I've pretty much already lost the argument, because no matter how slow or fast I was actually going, no matter what my speedometer said, the pedestrian who just tried to get themselves run over will be utterly convinced that I was travelling at a hundred miles per hour.
This most commonly happens in areas where the defined speed limit is ultra low, like 20 to 25mph. It doesn't matter if you are doing 15mph, as far as speed-judging pedestrians and homeowners are concerned, you're blitzing through their neighbourhood at suicidal / breakneck / irresponsible speed (take your pick).
You can try logic, math, physics, basic conversational explanation and any other technique you choose, but as I said - because you're a driver, you're in the wrong and you'll never win this particular argument.
I've found over the years that the best course of action is to not run them over when they flap into the road in front of me, keep my windows up and just drive around them at whatever speed I'm going. While I'll be the first to admit I break speed limits on the motorways, residential areas and school zones are my speeding taboo.
My advice to you if you're on foot and you think you see a car speeding is to not run into the road to try to confront the driver. To most of us that would be common sense, but it seems a lot of people still can't figure that out on their own.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Defrosting an icy windscreen.

A few years ago I joined the 20th century and stopped scraping my windscreen on frosty, icy mornings. I was one of the millions who had all manner of scratchy, scrapy and ultimately partly-broken devices to clear my windscreen and every time I had to do it I would curse.
A friend introduced me to winter washer fluid, though, and I've never looked back. The brand I use is Rain-X and their winter formulation is bright orange. I put it in my washer bottle about November and keep using the same stuff until around April. Once it's in your entire washer system - pump, bottle, nozzles and hoses - you ought to be able to spray your windshield on an icy morning and have the ice begin to break up and melt without having to go near it with a scraper.
There's a couple of caveats though - the biggest of which is this : make sure your wiper blades aren't stuck to your windscreen before you get in. Burned out wiper motors or rubber blades torn from the metal supports is not something you want to be dealing with on a cold morning.
The other caveat is that you might still need an ice scraper for the side windows if you're not patient. If you're willing to wait a few minutes for the heater to blow warm air on the side windows though.....
Of course all this advice is pointless if you have remote start where you can sit cozy inside and remote-start your vehicle while having breakfast and then get in when it's all warm and defrosted. But I'm not that advanced (or rich) so I make do with the old manual methods :)

Monday, December 1, 2014

The annual winter tyre post

If was offered one of two options for winter - all-wheel-drive with all-season tyres, or front-wheel-drive with winter tyres, I'd take the front-wheel drive/winter tyre option every time, and if you live somewhere where it gets cold and frosty in the winter, you should too.
I say this every year, and every year I get emails and pushback from people who think they're a waste of money though. The simple matter is that once the temperature of the road surface drops below 45F / 7C, your standard "all season" tyres are really not very good. Most people will think they're just fine, but trust me - once you drive on winter tyres just once in poor conditions, you'll gain an appreciation for what a compromise all-season tyres are. (Summer and performance tyres are even worse).
It's all down to the rubber compound and the tread design. In snowy weather, the sipes in the tread allow for much greater 'grip' on snow. This doesn't mean you can drive like you do in the summer - it doesn't make you invincible - but it will certainly making turning and stopping much more predictable.
For non-snowy climates, the different rubber compound is the benefit - it is much more flexible at colder temperatures meaning better ability to flex and deform to the normal road surface, offering more chance for grip.
Summer tyres are designed to work in much warmer temperatures and the rubber gets fairly inflexible and stiff once it gets cold.
All-season tyres truly are a compromise. They're not very good summer tyres and they're not very good winter tyres. They're designed to be a jack of all trades but a master of none which is why they're standard fit on most cars.
If you do decide to go for winter rubber, there's two things to watch out for. First, if you have winter tyres and the person behind you doesn't, you WILL be able to stop on snow and slick roads much more quickly than they can, so bear that in mind.
Second, there's two ways to do the summer/winter switch. Either have the tyres swapped on and off your rims twice a year, or have a winter set of wheels with the winter tyres permanently mounted. If you do that, make sure the winter wheels have the relevant TPMS pressure monitors in them or you'll spend all winter driving around with a warning light on the dash telling you there's a TPMS error.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Red indicator lights - there's no excuse.

It's 2014, right? Then there's no excuse for any manufacturer to still be using red indicator lights on the back of their vehicles. I can understand back in the 50's when it saved 38c to use the same bulb for brake, tail light and indicator, but today it's unnecessary and it's dangerous.
The problem is that, being red, it doesn't provide useful information to the driver behind. Being brought up in Europe, I've been conditioned that bright red lights on the back of the vehicle in front mean brake lights. Here in the US, they could be brake lights, but equally they could be indicators. Ok yes I understand brake lights typically both come on at once, but that moment of confusion can be costly. Is the person in front braking and has one brake light out? Are they indicating? Are they driving with the foot resting on the brake pedal?
Orange indicators are orange for a reason - they're a different colour to every other light on the car, designed to attract attention. It's why cars like Audis switch off the front DRL LEDs when the indicators come on - to draw MORE attention to the orange light. Yet American manufacturers continue to build vehicles where the brake lights and indicators use the same bulb, at the same brightness. The worst scenario is when the person in front starts to brake and THEN begins to indicate. At this point, you've really no idea if they're about to just park in the middle of the road for no reason (in Utah, this happens all the time) or if they're about to turn. And because the turn signal is the brake signal, it's extremely easy to miss if one of the brake lights starts to wink. Worse, if that happens to be the one that catches your eye first, there's a moment of confusion where you can be led to believe they've stopped braking because apparently one of the brake lights just went out.
Even though I've lived here for 14 years, red indicators still catch me out. I regularly sit behind apparently parked traffic for a good second or two before realising one of the brake lights is blinking.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Hands at 10 and 2 - still good advice?

Most people when taught to drive, are told that their hands should be at 10 and 2 on the steering wheel. For decades we've been told that's the safest position, and almost all steering wheels are designed with that theory in mind. The problem is that this theory was first proposed before power steering, when manual steering was the only option and cars were heavier to maneuver; having your hands at 10 and 2 provides good leverage to turn the wheel. The question is : is this still good advice?
I propose that it isn't, for three reasons. First, most cars nowadays have power steering. This means that it's far easier to turn the steering wheel, involving much less force. Having your hands at 10 and 2, in the old 'maximum leverage' position is at odds with power steering because you don't need that much leverage any more. In fact, I think it might be more dangerous because in the event of an emergency, people tend to do two things - step on the brake and yank the wheel one way or another. With power steering and your arms in the maximum leverage position, yanking on the steering can easily end up in far too much steering input. In the worst case - in a 4x4 or SUV - that could easily result in one front wheel tucking under and causing the car to roll. Yes there are computer aids to help prevent this now - dynamic stability control, anti roll control etc - but it's still a very real possibility.
The second reason I think it's not good advice is that the steering wheel already blocks part of your view of the instrument cluster. Having your hands at 10 and 2 blocks even more of it. Granted the manufacturers don't tend to put critical elements of the instrument cluster behind where your hands will be but you are still blocking your view of part of the display.
The final reason for not having your hands at 10 and 2 is crossed arms when steering. We're all taught not to do it, but a significant number of drivers will cross their arms when steering to turn a corner. If you do this when crossing traffic - turning into a street on the opposite side of the road for example - if you are unfortunate enough to have a collision with another vehicle, the airbag will propel your crossed arm into your face which has the potential to break your arm and your nose. EMTs and ER staff will back me up here - it's the most common injury in front three-quarter crashes. A broken nose and either a broken right or left arm depending on if you drive on the right or the left.
I would propose that 8 and 4 are better positions for modern driving. Less leverage because of power steering, not blocking the view of the instruments, and in the event of an accident, less likely to propel an arm into your face because being lower down the wheel, the temptation to cross arms when steering is reduced.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Elio Motors - another flash-in-the-pan?

If you're into cars, you might have already heard about Elio's plans to manufacture and bring to market an American-made three-wheeler. Apart from the opening comments where they imply that petrol in America is expensive (apparently they've never been anywhere else), there are some troubling facts about Elio that are glossed over in their promo video. First, that 84mpg figure. It sounds too good to be true, and it is. Want to know why? Because that's a theoretical number based on a theoretical three-cylinder engine that hasn't been built yet. In fact, the design hasn't even been finalised, so advertising 84mpg is a little rich given that the car is more likely to appear with a Suzuki G10 motor which is capable of a much less ground-breaking 34mpg.
Second, the 5-star safety rating. Or as they put it "anticipated 5 star safety rating". Again - with pre-production prototypes, there's not been any NHTSA testing done so claiming 5-star ratings is misleading. I anticipate making $10M in the next 6 months - that doesn't mean it's going to happen.
Third, no matter how many social networks they try to drum up interest on, they're currently $145M short of their funding goal. Or to put it another way, they only have 27% of the money they need to go into production. And that's even with the claimed 35,000 pre-orders.
And finally, they're extremely vague about important figures. Like performance. Saying that it'll get you on a motorway quicker than you can see "yeehaw" isn't exactly a 0-60 number. And saying that you can get many speeding tickets is pretty vague too. I could get many speeding tickets in/on just about any vehicle - it's not that difficult.
There are other issues too - they don't seem to have figured out their audience. From the design of the car, it's a divorced person with only one child and no luggage, or luggage (small) and no children.
And finally the price - $6800! But wait. If you order now, we'll send you a second one free! Ok so they don't say that but you get the impression that's the market they're aiming for here.
I respect that they want to bring manufacturing and jobs back to the US, but Elio Motors is not Tesla, and judging by what I've seen to-date, they're on target to become the Duke Nukem Forever of car manufacturers.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Audi RS7 Concept laps the Hockenheimring with no driver.

A couple of weeks ago an Audi RS7 did a "piloted" lap of the Hockenheimring with no driver. And once again the media were blinded by the shiny pretty thing and didn't bother to report the real story. I heard people talking about how "driverless cars are finally here" and other such comments. Even the commentary on the day kept making a huge point of how the car was "choosing" a great line in every corner, and how it never put a foot wrong.
Well d'uh. The car was running a software program, nothing more. A clear, dry day, on a grippy post-race track with no other vehicles on the circuit. The car had a millimeter-accurate map of the track in it's software and was using differential GPS to ensure it was at the right place at every millisecond. Braking points, acceleration points, kerbing, apexes - these were all planned in advance. Watching that RS7 lap the circuit without a driver was - in reality - no different to watching a computer animation of the same thing. The car wasn't "choosing" to do anything - it was merely running code. Millions of lines of software doing their thing, backed up by a pair of cameras to look for anything out of the ordinary.
Regular readers of this blog will know that I'm as excited to see driverless cars as I am to die a fiery death falling off a skyscraper mid root-canal. Yes I understand the day will come when all the joy is taken out of driving because of this technology. Yes I know there are people who just can't wait for this day to come, but I'm not one of them. I do however have some excellent news for everyone in the former camp though. The technology does exist right now to have you be able to get into a car and have it drive to wherever you want it to go while you relax and update your facebook status. It's called a taxi.
If you want to see the whole Hockenheim event, Audi Media TV should still have it available:

Monday, October 27, 2014

Top Gear political correctness gone mad.

The recent incident with the Top Gear crew being attacked and having to flee from Argentina highlights how stupid political correctness has become. Clarkson was in a 1991 Porsche that has had the license plate "H982FKL" since the day it was first registered. There are photos of the original car back in the 90's wearing that plate. To suggest that Top Gear, or Clarkson, somehow either made up that plate, or went out of their way to find a numberplate that was - and this is a highly tenuous suggestion - designed to irk the Argentinians, is just stupid. To say that H982FKL resembled "1982 Falklands" is a real stretch, and I think I smell the foul stench of the Daily Mail in this story.
That paper has it in for Clarkson. They're the ones who dug up the deleted clip on the edit suite and used it to claim Clarkson was a racist because he used the 'n' word. Bear in mind that was a deleted clip - it never made it into the final edit. Yet somehow that paper managed to generate outrage about something that never aired. Something that nobody would have known about had they not gone looking for dirt.
Similarly his comment in the Burma special about the bridge having a slope on it was also taken and used to cause outrage. Watch the clip - the bridge is warped, bent, tilted, sloped - call it what you will. But again - to rake up dirt and further their bizarre campaign against Clarkson, the Daily Mail suggested that "slope" was referring to a racist term used to describe one of the locals who happened to be walking across the bridge. Again - a highly tenuous link if you ask me.
And that's the problem today - too many people are too ready to be offended by everything. It used to take a few days for the outrage to appear because people would have to write letters. But in this day and age of instant-everything 24-7 with all the social networks and always-online connections, people can spread fake outrage instantly - before a show has even finished airing.
Which brings me to my final point : if you watch Top Gear in the nature in which it's intended (three dickheads arsing around with cars) then it's a great TV show and it's funny (unless it's the US version in which case it's a seriously unfunny train wreck). If you watch it wanting to be offended, then yes - you're going to be offended. I don't think there's a race, country, manufacturer, celebrity, political group or religion that Top Gear has left alone across all its series.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Has Formula 1 become complacent about safety?

After Jules Bianchi's awful crash in the Japanese Grand Prix a few weeks ago, I saw the headline I used as the title of this post - "Has Formula 1 become complacent about safety?". I found this to be a knee-jerk comment by an uninformed journalist. F1 doesn't like accidents. The governing body and the drivers association work hand in hand to ensure that F1 is as safe as possible but it is, in the final analysis, a motorsport, and motorsports are by their very nature, dangerous.
There hasn't been a death in F1 since Imola in 1994 - when Roland Ratzenberger and Ayrton Senna were both killed in separate accidents. Jules Bianchi's crash was the result of a series of unfortunate coincidences that happened to line up badly. The change in weather, the wear rate of the tyres, the locations of the cars on the track, the puddles, the prior accident, the presence of the recovery vehicle - nobody would ever predict that series of events aligning unless we'd seen it happen first-hand.
You can't make an F1 car capable of surviving the sort of crash he had because it's so rare - in fact it's the first time it's ever happened. How do you make a super lightweight F1 car capable of plowing into a 5 ton tractor without injury to the driver? You can't. You can attempt to mitigate the chances of it happening with new recovery vehicle rules, and modifications to the recovery vehicles themselves - for example adding skirts to the sides of the recovery vehicles so that the F1 cars can't submarine "under" them.
But to look at what happened to Bianchi and then come up with that headline, I thought that was irresponsible - flippant almost. That headline implied that something the driver's association, the FIA and Formula One Management did contributed to the accident and injury. Clearly it didn't - none of those three groups were involved in any decision that affected the outcome. It's not like they decided on some design decision of the vehicles that caused the accident, or contributed to it. It was a tragic accident - nothing more. Steps will be taken to try to ensure it doesn't happen again but nobody can predict every eventuality, and the simple truth of the matter is that F1, today, is as safe as it's ever been given the nature of the sport.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Oh the irony.

A couple of weeks ago, a colleague of mine was reading an article about Tesla's new gigafactory that they're going to build to manufacture batteries. It was mentioned that the entire roof of the facility would be covered in solar panels to offset the running cost. One hapless commentator then posted this :
"D'uh - solar panels only work in the day time - what's the point of that?"
To which the first, only, and best reply was: "I know. Wouldn't it be amazing if there was some way to store all that power generated in the daytime so it could be re-used at night?"
Well - I thought it was funny.
But it did raise an interesting point about internet trolls - how can you tell nowadays if the commenters are trolling, or if they really don't know the answer to the question they're posing?

Monday, October 6, 2014

What would you do with $2.5bn?

The developer of Minecraft recently sold out to Microsoft to the tune of $2.5bn (yes, with a 'b'). Naturally the topic of conversation in our office turned to 'what would you do with that sort of money?'. The obvious items came up and when we started talking about cars, I said I'd buy an Aston Martin Vanquish. We played with the calculator a bit and figured out that if you walked into a dealer at 9am and kept them talking until 1pm, you'd have made enough interest in that 4 hours to pay for the car with cash. At which point someone mentioned that I could just buy Aston Martin outright and still have a huge chunk of change left over. That's a sobering thought : if I came into $2.5bn, I could by an entire luxury car company and still have $1.9bn left over. Meaning I could pretty much just have any of their vehicles I wanted, in any colour (not monochrome) with any options I wanted, without really having to think about it. Heck - I could buy an F1 racing team and have money left over. I could buy a huge tract of land somewhere and have Hermann Tilke design me a race track that I could race all my Aston Martins on, with friends.
So what would you do with that sort of money, apart from paying off your house, and hiring a great bodyguard and a lawyer?

Monday, September 29, 2014

How soon is too soon?

Nobody is ever going to accuse Formula One of being a cheap spectator sport. Everything about it is expensive from the tickets to the concessions and everything in between. In 2010 my wife and I went to the Singapore Grand Prix for our 10th anniversary, and as we were flying home, we decided we needed to go back. We both love F1 and Singapore, so it seemed like a natural fit. We decided 2015 would be the year to do it again - then we stood some chance of being able to pay off the first trip before doing it all over again.
So a couple of weeks ago, the Singapore GP facebook page posted "super early bird" tickets for the 2015 race - two weeks before the 2014 race had taken place. Essentially, the day that the 2015 calendar was announced, the tickets went on sale.
Normally I don't pay much attention to these sorts of things, but knowing that 2015 is when we are planning to go again, I figured it was worth a look. The executive summary is this : I saved $640 by booking the tickets two weeks ago. If I were to buy them right now - today - they cost more. And if I wait until almost any time after January 1 2015, the cost goes up again.
So when is it "too soon" for things like this? I would argue 'never'. If you know you're going to want to do something, and an offer or opportunity comes up, take it. Like oil changes. You know you're going to be changing the oil in your car this year at some point (hopefully twice). If you see a coupon for money off, use it - get the oil now, and use it when the time comes.
Same for almost any sort of maintenance. So you're supposed to take your car in in November for it's annual checkup and lookover. If the dealer you use is having a promotion this week, then do it this week.
When you save a little bit of money here and there, it all adds up. Being smart about when and where you save the money - that's the key. And if you want to do anything to do with F1 as a spectator, snap up the bargains as soon as you see them because they don't happen often.

Monday, September 22, 2014

A short post this week.

This week's post is simple and to the point - I recently contributed a paragraph or two for a short guide on car maintenance - I encourage you to check out the article at car loan warehouse : Practical skills.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Why self-driving cars really aren't "just around the corner".

In light of the news this month that London is going to start allowing fully autonomous drone cars to be tested from 2015, I thought it was worth rehashing some of the finer points of why these cars are not "just around the corner".
We'll concentrate on one particular car here - the Google self-driving car - simply because they're further along than anyone else.
The biggest single issue facing drone cars is really simple : they don't have quantum artificial intelligence. They can't deal with unpredictable situations, so they rely on meticulously collected information from (human-driven) scanner cars that analyze the route ahead of time. Think Google Street View, but a thousand times more detailed, mapped with cameras that photograph every sign, and laser scanners (LIDAR) that maps every bump and crevasse. So every time you see a video of a self-driving google car, you need to understand that thousands of intricate preparations have been made beforehand, with the car's exact route extensively mapped. Data from multiple passes by a special sensor vehicle must later be pored over, meter by meter, by both computers and humans. And because a laughably tiny number of roads in the U.S. have been analysed at this level to allow autonomous car use, essentially if you take a google car off-campus, it's a very expensive paperweight.
Tied to the unpredictability part of that are three other factors - weather, construction, and humans. Drone cars are currently so stupid that they can't even drive in rain, let alone ice or snow. Google have so much trouble with rain in particular that they haven't even reached the testing stage yet. The reason is simple : to a human, rain makes things look wet. To a computer synthetic vision system, they might as well be driving on Mars.
Remember I said how much work goes into mapping a road for a Google car to drive on? Go and park a utility truck in the inside lane and put some cones out. Voila. One incapacitated self-driving car. Because the truck and cones weren't there when the road was mapped, the car can't handle it. The same goes for potholes and open manhole covers - the car will just drive straight over (or into) them. Some changes can be handled, obviously. Google's cars look for things like stop signs - even in unexpected places - and react accordingly. At least that's the theory. They also look for pedestrians and other traffic all the time, so missing one stop sign shouldn't be a problem right?
If we welcome pesky humans into the equation, things change radically. As Google says, "Pedestrians are detected simply as moving, column-shaped blurs of pixels, meaning that the car wouldn't be able to spot a police officer at the side of the road frantically waving for traffic to stop". Similarly it has trouble with pedestrians who don't use crosswalks (ie. all of them) and people standing in the road where they shouldn't be.
So whilst headline-grabbing mayors and confused mainstream newspaper editors may have everyone believing they'll be able to go out and buy a self-driving drone this Christmas, it simply isn't the case and won't be for probably another 10 years.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Drivers who are scared of acceleration.

I read a great article by Neil DeGrasse Tyson a few weeks ago about how you can't 'feel' speed, and that drivers who "love speed" really love acceleration - the forces they feel through accelerating and braking, lowered suspension and cornering forces. That's me - I love all those things and I understand the limits of my car and its tyres. I know where all four corners are, I know how wide it is and I know how quickly it'll stop (that last one is pretty important). Sadly, where I live (Utah) it would seem I'm one of only three people who are in this category. For as far as I can tell, everyone else is so deathly afraid of feeling any sort of g-force that they'll do anything to prevent it. Braking far too far away from traffic lights and intersections, "accelerating" by taking their foot off the brake and letting the engine idle them up to 15mph, and cornering so slowly that in some cases you would swear they'd actually parked mid-corner.
It comes down, once again, to driver education, or in this case a total lack of it. Americans, and Utahns in particular, are given such scant education when they learn to drive that it's laughable in comparison to other western countries. No night driving, no freeway driving, no explanation of how a car works - nothing. These are all things they're left to learn on their own, and for the most part you can tell. Everyday I follow people who are attempting to steer their car in a straight line, which of course means they're weaving all over the road. Just let go of the wheel if you have that much trouble. Short of a major mechanical issue, the car will steer itself in a straighter line than you're managing to. People driving along with their left foot resting on the brake, so that those of us behind have no idea when they're actually about to slow down because we're driving in a sea of permanently-illuminated brake lights. People coming to a gap big enough to get the Queen Mary through, but then parking their Corollas and Camrys because they think the gap is too small (because they have no idea of the extents of their car).
This stereotype was illustrated to me years ago when a colleague of mine invited me to drive his new car - a Mazda Speed 3. It was a fun little scoot - we took it up the nearest mountain road about 5 miles, turned around and came back down, and by the end of it he was white. I'd been driving like a European on a twisty mountain road. Like I do in my car. Or when I ride my motorbike. We'd been overtaking people on the broken yellow lines and hugging the corners because the Speed 3 was a very capable machine. Apparently though, in his 50-something years of living here, he'd never once driven these roads like that, and his parting comment was "don't ever drive my car again". I'm not sure his car ever went over 3000rpm after that.

Monday, September 1, 2014

The oddest car colour.

I know I talk about the monochrome nature of car-buyer's paint choices a lot, but I recently came across one particular manufacturer who had one paint colour that was more intriguing than the rest. Now I know a lot of the high end cars have multiple versions of black - Piano Black, Saloon Black, Midnight Starry Black, Swirling Vortex Of Evil Black, Blue So Dark It's Basically Black etc. So it was with a smile on my lips that I saw Luxury Brown listed as a paint colour. Let me say that again. Luxury. Brown. As in the colour of poo. Not only that, but you could get Metalflake Luxury Brown too, for it you want your poo-coloured car to sparkle in the sunlight. Honestly if that was the only "colour" option, I'm not surprised people end up with black, white, silver and grey.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Driverless cars will be an uphill battle in the UK

I love posting about drone cars - they're such delicious topics for debate. So this week I learned that the AA - the roadside assistance company in England - conducted a survey of 23,000 drivers in the wake of the government's announcement that they'd be starting drone car trials as early as 2015. It was a simple survey - do you want driverless cars or not? Contrary to similar surveys in the US where upwards of 80% of respondants have said they do, in the UK, the majority of drivers - 65% - don't want them. 43% of drivers don't even want road laws in place to allow them. There's going to need to be a big leap of faith to go from cars with intrusive "driver aids" to cars that are fully automated. (Many drivers, myself included, don't even like the "driver aids").

The difference - I think - is that European drivers are more well-educated on the topic of drone cars than US drivers. In America, from casual discussions I've had, most people don't understand that the only reason the Google driverless car trials (currently the most advanced) have been so successful is because they've been conducted in an area where the car has a centimetre-level GPS map of it's surroundings. You can't take any of the Google cars and put them in New York. Or London. Or anywhere outside the area where they've been, because Google doesn't have the fidelity of map needed for the car to work. It's not all sensors and realtime software functions - the cars are essentially following GPS-plotted routes and using the sensors to account for variances (traffic, pedestrians etc). We're still a very long way from fully driverless systems - and I for one am hoping it doesn't happen until long after I've left the planet.

Let me put it another way - to simplify it: you want to trust your life to an automated machine that will be built by car manufacturers that can't figure out a 37c ignition switch, airbag sensors or the position of the floor mats under the pedals? Good luck with that.

Monday, August 18, 2014

The escalating "arms war" in car "safety".

There's an interesting (and faulty) assumption that too many drivers make today : that you need a big car to be safe. In the US especially, super-sized SUVs are regarded as being super-safe because of their size. The problem is that when manufacturer A builds a slightly bigger one, then manufacturer B has to follow suit and then the car buyers see the bigger vehicle and assume that it must be safer. Never mind gas-mileage. Never mind practicality and usability, forward or rear visibility. Never mind that an increasing number of people are so dwarfed by their vehicles that they can't safely operate them. No - size is king, and when it comes to mothers with kids on the school run, absolute size rules at the expense of actual safety, common sense and logic.
This is going to come across as sexist, but it's a simple matter of geometry. Women, generally speaking, are smaller than men. When a decent-sized man can't get in or out of their SUV without adding steps and handles, and has to push the steering wheel down and the seat forwards just to be able to operate it, explain to me how a shorter woman who can barely see over the steering wheel is going to be able to safely operate the car. They can't. But they compensate by having the mental attitude that because it's bigger, it must be safer.
I have, sadly, two direct examples where the bigger vehicle lost out in a good sized smash. The first one was a Ford F-150 that hit my wife in her Toyota Yaris. Both vehicles were written off, so right there the 'bigger is better' mantra is undone because the damage to the F-150 turned out to be much more severe than the damage to the Yaris. Both drivers were injured. My wife only mildly - airbag and seatbelt burns. The F-150 driver was hospitalised for two days and had a broken leg. Again - bigger does not equal better.
The second example was when my own car - my Evoque - was pit-manuevered by a woman in an oversized SUV who didn't see me because she couldn't see around the blind spots and/or was more concerned with her children in the back than she was with the act of driving. The end of my spinout resulted in me hitting a parked Nissan Armada. Both the woman's SUV and the parked Nissan Armada were written off - they folded up like newspaper. It was shocking to see. My Evoque needed repairs, but was not written off because structurally it survived without any faults. The most surprising aspect was exactly how badly the Armada was damaged. The front of my car had a pushed-in bumper, a bent frame-end hangar (where the bumper is mounted) and then obviously radiator and headlight damage. The Armada exploded it's front wheel and tyre, bent the frame on both sides, folded the hood into the windshield, bent the passenger side door so badly it couldn't be opened, and utterly destroyed the roof. The headlight and radiator were done for, as was the a/c compressor, the water pump and most of the other ancilliary items on the front of the engine.
But yeah - bigger is better, right?

Monday, August 11, 2014

Rearview mirrors are not for putting on make-up.

I suppose we've all seen it - the person in front has their rearview mirror skewed so they can put on make-up, adjust their hair, shave, put their contact lenses in, or any number of other actions other than using it for it's designed purpose - to see what's behind you. Invariably, if this happens in stationary traffic, they won't adjust the mirror back again when the traffic starts moving, so they're essentially driving blind. I would say that they could use the outside mirrors, but then that assumes that they know what those are for. It seems more and more people are less and less concerned with the action of actually driving, being safe on the road, and being responsible. I suppose that explains why so many people want self-driving drone cars - people are so bored with the act of driving that they'll find any excuse to not do it. Which is a real shame, not to mention a danger to everyone else on the road. Imagine if airline pilots got to 1500ft from landing and said "screw it - I'm bored with this" and started texting.
I love driving and it drives me crazy (pun intended) to see so much abhorrent behaviour on the roads now. Really, if you're that bored, and think you're so important that the safety of everyone around you is a secondary concern, you ought to be in a bus. Or a taxi. Or a train. In fact you ought to be anywhere other than driving a 2-ton weapon badly.
The lack of training, lack of enthusiasm, lack of skill, lack of ability and lack of understanding is just epidemic now. People who pull out from side roads in front of you, instead of behind you where the traffic is clear. People who don't use their indicators, who stop in the middle of the road for no reason, and yes, people who do use their mirrors but for entirely the wrong purpose. What the hell happened? When did driving become the secondary function of being in a car?

Monday, August 4, 2014

Poor lane discipline - best excuse ever

I was talking to a friend of mine recently who is one of the worst lane discipline offenders. He'll get on to a motorway and head straight for the outside lane, then just sit there, no matter what. It's not such a problem in the US because we can (thankfully) overtake on both sides. It's still terrible driving, so I asked him directly why he did it - why didn't he use correct lane discipline? His answer was priceless : 'continually changing lanes wears out the indicators and steering'.
At first I thought he was joking but as the conversation went on it became obvious that he was dead serious. So I pursued this rich vein of absurdity further by asking what he'd do if he was on the Autobahn. His answer - same thing - sit in the outside lane. I pointed out that he would likely be wrecked and/or killed by a truck if he did that but he wasn't phased at all - it seems that in his little motoring universe, imagined wear and tear on his indicators and tyres more than excuses him from irritating all the other drivers around him. And/or breaking the law, because here in Utah, it's the law to move over if someone faster comes up behind you. Doesn't matter how fast you are going - you have to get out of the way. Of course, trying to explain that to someone who's an outside-lane-hog is like starting an argument on the internet (pointless). It's a pity it's not an enforceable law either - if the police did actually ticket people for hogging the outside lane, they'd make some serious bank, and they'd be attacking a cause of frustration, accidents, anger and bad driving.
But clearly it's easier to just ticket people for doing 1mph over the speed limit, even though speeding doesn't cause accidents.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Lane departure systems

Have you driven a car with lane departure control yet? Not the warning system that flashes an alert if the car detects that you're leaving your lane. I'm talking about the full-on driver-interference system that either vibrates the wheel, or worse, nudges or steers the car back into the lane? I had the misfortune of driving a car equipped with this a couple of weeks ago. I can understand why manufacturers want to put it in their vehicles but I can't understand why there isn't an option to turn it off permanently. I don't know if the system in the car I was in was faulty or if this is just how they work, but I had to fight the car to perform an overtake on a mountain road. The setup was simple enough; following someone who had no idea we were there, who was doing a good 15 mph below the limit, I wanted to overtake. No traffic coming, solid/dashed line making it legal to overtake, I hung back a moment, indicated then hit the gas and started to pull out. At this point the lane departure warning system went into meltdown with lights on the dash and a loud audio warning. Within what I suppose was milliseconds, I felt the power steering tighten up until it took control away and forced me back into the lane I was leaving. Not only was this a surprise to me (which, by the way scared the living shit out of me), but it was a surprise to the car behind who suddenly found me back where I was as he too had begun to accelerate to follow my overtake. Could I turn this nanny system off? Nope. In the end I had to literally fight the steering to get an overtake done. Not safe, and highly undesirable, and now added to the list of stuff I don't want in my next car.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Is your steering a bit 'vague' ?

Suspension can be complicated at the best of times, and trying to diagnose 'vague' handling in a car is always a fun topic for the morning discussion around the coffee machine.
From my personal experience (in other words, doesn't really count for much), 'vague' steering or handling at the front is almost always down to worn bushes or ball joints. The suspension bushes are basically the 'hinges' that the suspension components pivot around. Most vehicles have rubber bushes and the rubber perishes and gets brittle over time, allowing a little slack into that joint. If this happens on both sides, then the suspension arms will tend to move forwards and backwards a little under braking and acceleration, and laterally under cornering. Once the 'foundation' of the suspension is moving like this, the sense of vagueness creeps into the handling. The same thing can happen with the ball joints - normally either at the track rod ends (where the steering rack joins the hubs) or on the lower side of the suspension where it joins the lower swing arm. The same 'vague' handling will happen because parts of the suspension that are supposed to be rigidly tied together begin to have movement relative to each other (same as worn suspension bushes).
Neither of these jobs is particularly hard to fix if you're a decent home mechanic with the right tools, but most people will prefer to have a mechanic do it for them. Expect to pay about two hour's labour per wheel for a job like this. And then marvel at how much better your vehicle feels again, even if you can't put your finger on exactly why it feels better.

Monday, July 14, 2014

I know why cars get such terrible gas mileage in America!

That's why American vehicles have such awful gas mileage. It's not that they're any worse than any other vehicles, it's that the cities here are laid out such that even in the suburbs you can't drive more than 200m without coming to a stop sign or a set of traffic lights. The constant stop-start driving destroys fuel economy, and could be so easily rectified with roundabouts.
Some driver training would be required though. I hate coming across roundabouts here because the average American driver has no idea what to do with them. Watching Americans trying to negotiate a roundabout is an entertaining and embarrassing representation of their ignorance about an intersection that does not require you to stop but does require you to yield, but only in certain circumstances. It seems to cause some sort of severe psychological disorder since it is neither green nor red, but requires them to steer and calculate approaching distances and speeds at the same time.
Having said that, roundabouts are, generally speaking, a great idea. Unless you do them like they do in England, where the roundabout cures the traffic problem so the local council then puts traffic lights ON the roundabout to bring the problem back. I'm looking at you Berkshire county council.

Monday, July 7, 2014

America The Monochrome.

I've always complained about the number of non-colour cars people own over here in the U.S (white, grey, black, silver, beige). There's barely any colour on the roads - it's like being stuck in a black and white movie. I've known all along that it wasn't just my perception, but this video proves it. Shot by a filmmaker in San Diego, he took a load of footage and then edited it to show all the cars that passed by, sorted by colour. This ties up with the findings of several recent studies that have shown that 72% of US cars are monochrome.
It's not until the closing seconds of the video that there's any hint of a real colour - a scattering of blue, two orange, a few red, and three yellow. Otherwise it's a see of beige, black, silver, white, and grey.
You can see this for yourself using Google Earth - go look at an airport parking lot in a major US city and it's a sea of monochrome. Now go and look at one in Europe and you'll see a considerable amount of colour by comparison.
Come on, people - black, white, silver and grey are not colour choices. Those are the colours you pick when you can't be bothered to pick an actual colour....Plus, it's worth noting that the four colours with the worst re-sale value are black, white, grey and silver, whilst those with the highest resale value are any colour other than those (Forbes article)
(Video link on Vimeo)

Midday Traffic Time Collapsed and Reorganized by Color: San Diego Study #3 from Cy Kuckenbaker on Vimeo.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Thinking ahead and being aware.

I recently watched a woman in a giant SUV try to park in a space that was plenty big enough for the car, but she just couldn't do it. It was both hilarious and tragic to watch. Try as she might, she could never get enough lock on the steering to turn the car into the space without kerbing the passenger side wheel. Of course she only had the wheel turned about half a lock because she was doing this one-handed whilst on the phone, but even so, it illustrated a common problem today - drivers who can't think ahead and have no idea where the extents of their own vehicle are.
I see this a lot on my commute. Someone will be coming towards us on their side of the road, and the car in front will veer off towards the kerb because they think the approaching car is going to hit them. Or they'll come across a cyclist in a cycle lane, and instead of giving the cyclists the required 3ft of space (which by the way you can do without getting out of your lane), they'll sit there waiting and waiting and waiting for no approaching traffic, then drive on the wrong side of the road to get around the bike.
Kerbed wheels, dented corner panels, scrapes along the sides of the cars - these all point to people who just have no grasp of how large or small their vehicle is.
The failure to think ahead problem is worse, though. How many times have you seen a lane closed sign coming up, and the person behind you decides the traffic is moving too slow and pulls out into the lane which is about to close? Back in the UK I saw a great example of this 15 years ago on the M4. The outside lane was coned off and everyone was neatly driving in the inner two lanes. As we passed an on-ramp, I watched a guy come down the ramp and spear across two lanes of slow-moving traffic to what I assume was where he normally drives (see last week's post), only to be met by a coned-off lane and a road construction vehicle. The brake lights came on as he batted four or five of the cones out of the way, and his car came to a complete stop when he buried it windscreen-deep under the back of the dump truck in the outside lane.
More recently, the guy who was driving our lunch crowd one day was presented with a closed road and two lanes of stalled traffic. The level of indecision he displayed made me want to get out of the car and walk. Indicate left. Stop indicating. Attempt to U-turn but stop mid way then pull back into the lane. Indicate the other way. Stop. Indicate left again then try to turn right into a side was horrendous.
Look further ahead than the front of your own car and I guarantee you it will make you a safer driver. Watch the traffic, adjust your speed and lane positioning accordingly, and pick your times to maneuver carefully. Above all, use your brain.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Tailgating - you hate it, I hate it, we all hate it. But there's such an easy solution....

We all hate tailgaters - people who drive so close that you can see the sweat running down their forehead when you look in your rearview mirror. But there's such an easy solution : get out of the way.
Tailgating happens mostly on motorways, and mostly in the outside lane. Why? Because some drivers don't understand basic lane discipline, and they'll spear across the motorway from the on ramp and then sit in the outside lane just barely doing the speed limit. Result? A Tailback of people irritably trying to get past.
Many states and countries have laws in place now to try to prevent this - even if you're doing the speed limit, if you see a faster vehicle coming up behind you, it's your responsibility to get out of the way. The problem is that this is an unenforceable law, so it has very blunt teeth when it comes to attacking the problem in a real world situation.
Of course part of the problem is right there in the description - 'when you your mirror'. Between the rampant cellphone use, texting, watching videos, reading books and otherwise not concentrating on the matter at hand, it's almost unheard of to see anyone using their mirrors any more. If they're going to sit in the outside lane and block traffic, they're not going to use their mirrors.
Fun factoid : in a recent online survey, there was an unsurprisingly high correlation between the number of people who hated tailgaters and the number of people who admitted to driving in the outside lane no matter what the traffic. Cause, and effect.

Monday, June 16, 2014

I wonder if car advertising is really necessary?

The amount of money spent by car manufacturers on advertising boggles the mind. According to their 2013 annual reports, GM spent $3.1bn on advertising alone, and Ford spent $4.4bn (their annual reports can be found on their corporate websites). That's billion, with a "b". Those budgets do not include trade shows - that's just media advertising on the internet, hard copy and TV/radio.
I'm not sure they need to be spending that money. Think about it. Most people nowadays are internet-savvy. If you're looking for a new car, chances are you're going to hit up a car comparison website, or visit the corporate websites to download PDFs or play with their car configurators. You probably already have some idea of what it is you're looking to buy, either from seeing them on the street, or talking to friends. Not once in my illustrious position as a consumer have I ever been swayed by car advertising. I've never been looking at Brand A, seen an advert for Brand B and swapped paths. I don't know if that makes me odd, or if that's the norm, but speaking to friends and colleagues, anecdotal evidence would tend to suggest that's how most people are.
When shopping around for my current car, I test-drove vehicles from 5 different competing brands before settling on the final vehicle. The decision was made on how the cars felt to drive, how they looked, and hundreds of other intangible things I learned from putting my arse in the seat and driving them. Advertising contributed exactly zero percent to my decision-making process.
Take the current crop of Chevy ads, for example. The cars they're advertising are - to be honest - total shit piles. I've had most of them in rental car fleets over the last year and there's not one I'd actually buy with my own money. Yet if the advertising is to be believed, they're so popular and so amazing that I'd be lucky to own one because the supply of unicorns they're made from is drying up and there are queues 500 people deep at all the Chevy dealers in the country.
Car manufacturers need to treat their customer base as adults who are capable of making informed decisions without the torrent of effluent that pollutes every form of media. At the very least they need to have some truth in advertising. Next time you see a car ad on TV, pause it at the beginning and read the fine print. Apart from the obvious "trained driver on closed course" disclaimer, you'll see something talking about how the model shown is not one that's available for sale in your territory. (In America, it means they're showing the European version of the vehicle). These disclaimers will be along the lines of "European model shown, not for sale in the US", or "Shown with optional LX accessory pack, not available in the US". So even if you were swayed by advertising, what they're showing you isn't something you can actually buy.
At which point I ask again - why spend $4.4bn lying to the public and treating us like children?

Monday, June 9, 2014

Taking your SUV off road.

I'd wager that 95% of SUVs never see dirt. My current ride, a Range Rover Evoque, was designed with the underpinnings of a Land Rover. In theory, it ought to be perfectly capable off-road, between the clever 4WD system and the computer-controlled 'Terrain Response' system. And anyway, Top Gear thrashed one in the Nevada desert didn't they? Ok I admit that using Top Gear as your yardstick for what a car can do might be a bit of a mistake but what the heck.
So a couple of weekends ago my wife and I went on one of the Land Rover 'Adventure' trips. This one is held by our local dealership and spends three days in Moab (Utah) every year. Typically they have a spread of trails available from fire roads that you could do in a Ford Focus up to trails like Steel Bender and Hell's Revenge that need uber ground clearance and one hell of a good low-range gearbox.
We signed up for medium-difficulty trails. Craggy ravines, blind hills, steep descents, slick rock and cliffside trails. The short story is that we were able to do everything the full-size Range Rovers, Land Rover LR3's and LR4's could do, all without any issue. From this I can very positively say that the Evoque, despite how it looks, is extremely capable off-road, as long as you use your head. It's worth noting that everything we did, we did without any modification whatsoever, right down to using the stock tyres that came from the factory.
I've put a video on my dropbox for those who are interested. Two days of footage edited down into a 15 minute summary. I can't publish this on youtube or the music police will have me, but apart from that, enjoy.
And if you have an off-road capable vehicle, take it off the road once in a while and have fun....
Bone Stock Evoque in Moab.

Monday, June 2, 2014


Have you ever heard of "misfuelling"? If you live in England, chances are you have. It's the practice of putting the wrong fuel in your car - either diesel in an unleaded vehicle, or unleaded in a diesel vehicle. Last year there were over 150,000 incidents of misfuelling in the UK, and it's become so common that you can actually buy insurance against this practice. Insurance runs about £40 a year which is cheaper than the £200 or so that it will cost to get a roadside assistance service to pump the tank out. Which in turn is cheaper than the several thousand it will cost you if you start the engine and drive off.
So how does this happen? Honestly I've no idea. For a start, the nozzle and fuel filler diameter is larger for diesel pumps and diesel fuel tanks. This means that if you use the unleaded pump, the nozzle is going to be rattling around loose, without a tight fit, and won't hold itself in the filler. That ought to be a clue. The smell ought to be a clue too - diesel smells radically different to petrol. The colour of the pump and pump handle should be a key reminder - unleaded pumps use green handles, diesel use black (unless you're in America in which case it's the opposite). And the fact that you're at a completely different pump ought to be a giveaway too.
But for one person every three minutes, none of these things trigger them to realise they're about to incur a very expensive mistake. Ok realistically I can see how putting unleaded in a diesel tank can happen - the nozzle fits, so go for it. But believe it or not, this mistake does happen the other way around. Despite the diesel nozzle not fitting an unleaded filler neck (because the nozzle is too big), people actually manage to fill their unleaded vehicles with diesel by "aiming" the nozzle, or jamming it against the filler neck and trying to keep the nozzle aligned with the hole. Frankly if you're dumb enough to do this, you deserve the expensive bill.
So what happens when you "misfuel"? Loosely speaking, diesel is a lubricant with more oil content than petrol. Petrol is a solvent. So if you put petrol in a diesel engine, the solvent strips all the lubricant away from the engine and the metal parts weld together. If you put diesel in a petrol engine, you'll get a thick blanket of white smoke out of the back of the car and all the fuel lines and injectors will gum up with oil.
Whichever one happens, the minimum penalty for doing this will be a complete new fuel system - tank, lines, pumps, filters, injectors etc. Look at around £3000 as a starting price for that. The maximum penalty is a new engine, in which case you might as well junk the car.
The cheaper option of course is to pay attention when you're filling your car. Although given how few people pay attention when they're actually driving nowadays, I suppose it's only natural the the cellphone conversation or texting will take precedent over making sure you put the right fuel in your vehicle.

Monday, May 26, 2014

No money problems in London, apparently.

A couple of weeks ago I was in London for a week. The one takeaway I had from that trip, (apart from that the RMT railworkers union are a bunch of dicks) was that there aren't a lot of signs of austerity, lack of wealth or recession in London. Especially when you get to the area around Knightsbridge. In the 6 days I was there I saw more expensive, luxury, and hypercars than I've seen at some of the world's better motor shows. A Rolls Royce Wraith (not on sale yet), a McLaren P1 and a Porsche 918 Spyder. Dozens of Rolls Royces, Bentleys, Maseratis, Ferraris and Lamborghinis. One of the Ferraris was gold plated - I would say gold paint but given the excess in that area it wouldn't surprise me if it actually was gold plate. I also spotted Tamara Ecclestone's entourage (Formula 1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone's daughter) three times - a black Lambo, two blacked out Range Rover Sports and two blacked-out LWB Rolls Royce Ghosts, all with custom numberplates of course. Anyway, I put a photo set up on Flickr so you can see just how ridiculous the excess is in this area of London.
Knightsbridge Car Porn

Monday, May 19, 2014

Do your bi-annual oil change this week, if you haven't already.

If you've read the engine oil bible, there's a section in there that talks about how many miles is the "best" distance between oil changes. It's not really about the miles, but more about the conditions. In general, if you live in the mid latitudes where the weather is temperate, two oil changes a year should be what you're looking for. One in the spring, and one just before winter sets in.
Why do I say this?
The life of the oil in your engine is not solely dependent on the number of miles driven. It's more complex than that and includes these factors:
Number of cold starts (more condensation in a cold engine)
Ambient temperature (how long before warm enough to stop serious condensation)
Effectiveness of crank case scavenging
State of wear of the engine (piston blow-by multiplies the problem)
Accuracy of carburation during warm-up period (extra gook produced)
Distance travelled
An average family car will do around 14,000 miles per year and about 2/3 of that will fall in the March - November period. All that distance will have been done at reasonable temperatures, including long distance runs during vacations and good weather. During the November to March period it may accumulate only 2 or 3 thousand miles, all low temperature starts and mostly short runs.
Hence why I say to do two oil changes a year - one after the winter months, and one after the summer months. I find this to be better advice than saying 'do it every x thousand miles' because if you own a car that does 5 miles a day on your commute, it could take a couple of years to get to 'x', meaning you've gone through two hot and two cold seasons without an oil change. Generally speaking, that's not the best thing for your engine.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Understanding what's important and what isn't when you're driving.

I saw an advert from Subaru recently that was promoting their idea for driver aids, arguing that a second pair of eyes is always safer. And they're right - if your passenger sees something you've missed, they can alert you to it. If that passenger happens to be a drone car, or radar, Subaru argue this is a good thing. I'm not getting into that debate again, but the point is that they advertised this using a worrying phrase. Specifically this: "what if you need to read an urgent text message?"
Well then you pull over and you read it. Because I'm not sure about you, but last time I looked, no text message was more important or urgent than the actual safe driving of the vehicle you're in. And this is a problem today - too many people treat driving as the "second" thing they do when they're in a car.
It's amazing and appalling to see how many people just don't understand that they're piloting a two-ton weapon. When you're doing that, the act of driving should be the all-encompassing primary function. There shouldn't be a distraction that prevents you from being able to hold focus and concentrate on what you're doing. Looking down at a text (or worse, replying) is the same as cleaning the trigger of a loaded gun whilst it's pointing at your best friend.
Worryingly, rather than try to educate people about this, Subaru are suggesting that they have the answer with a system that monitors the inside of the car - "EyeSight PreCollision Throttle Management". In short - if the car thinks you're distracted, it reduces throttle input. ie. to the car behind, you just slowed down with no brake lights. For you as the driver, your car just took control away from you without notice. (of course, if you're texting, you wouldn't notice anyway). This is in addition to its forward-looking radar and other tech they want to introduce. All to compensate for a population unwilling to take responsibility for their own actions.
Here's a fun thought experiment for you: 26% of all wrecks in the US are now attributable to phone use - either talking or texting. That's a considerable number of dead and injured people as a result of drivers who didn't understand that there's no such thing as an "urgent" phone call or text when you're driving.
So why is it that when 13 people died over the course of 10 years, because of a sketchy ignition switch, we force GM to have the most expensive recall in motoring history. Yet when thousands of people die every year because of distracted driving, we're wholly unwilling to address the problem?
That's messed up.
Source : 26% of wrecks involve phone use

Monday, May 5, 2014

Travelling without cars

This is a car blog, right, so why am I writing today about travelling without cars? Simple. As much as I love cars and everything to do with them, I'm not daft enough to think they're the be-all and end-all of transportation. We just returned from a vacation in Europe and for sure, there are cities and entire countries where you really don't need a car (as a visitor). That's an important distinction; there are obviously times when a car is the only option. But if you're travelling, think twice about renting a car.
For example we spent a week in London. I can tell you it's utterly pointless to rent a car there. You'd be spending stupid money in congestion charges and parking charges, and you'd spend your entire time sitting still in traffic. Instead, grab yourself an Oyster card (public transit pre-paid card) and use the buses and tube. It's so much easier. Heck - the centre of London really isn't that big - you can walk a lot of it without any issue if the weather cooperates.
We also spent time in the Netherlands - all over the country. This country invested in public transport in a big way thirty years ago and today, as a visitor at least, there's literally nowhere in the country I can't get to without public transport. They have a pre-paid public transit card too - called the OV Kaart (openbaar vervoer = public transport). We toured the entire country visiting friends and tourist attractions without once wishing we had a car. The trains are punctual, clean and efficient. The trams and buses equally so.
So consider it next time you travel - do you really need to rent a car?

Monday, April 28, 2014

Correctly using the parking brake.

The parking brake in your car is just that - a parking brake. Not a handbrake. Not an e-brake. Not an emergency brake. In fact, in the event of an emergency, the last control in the car that you want to touch is the parking brake. Locking the rear wheels at any speed will result in a spin.
When I moved to the US I was appalled at how many people (read : it seems to be everyone) don't know the most basic things about the parking brake. Like why you use it when you're stopped at an intersection.
I'll tell you why - if someone rear-ends you at an intersection, and you only have your foot on the regular brake, two things will happen. (1) you will jerk your foot off the brake because of the rear impact, which means that (2) you will either run into the car in front, or worse - roll into the intersection into oncoming or crossing traffic.
However - if you have the parking brake on, your foot coming off the brakes makes no difference, and the distance you will be pushed will be considerably reduced, and as an added bonus, you won't roll anywhere.
When I moved to the US and had to sit a driving test, the examiner thought I was bit funny in the head to use the parking brake at every intersection, until I explained the above to him, at which point he said "I'd never heard of that before." And he was not only a driving instructor - he was a tester/examiner! Explains a lot about how people drive around here.
I went on to explain to him why I always waited to turn across traffic with my wheels straight too. It's the same principal. If someone runs into you from behind, and your wheels are turned, you'll be shunted across the road into oncoming traffic. At least if the wheels are straight you'll go more or less straight ahead. Again - total confusion from the examiner.
Here's another tip for automatic gearboxes - the pawl that drops into the notch on the outside of the main clutch housing when you put the car in "Park" is not very strong. Not really strong enough to keep the car stationary on anything other than level ground. Sure - you just throw the car in "park" when on hills and everywhere, but that is slowly eating away the edge of that notch and one day, the parking pawl will slip out and your car will take off with the gear shifter firmly in "P". So here's the tip : use the parking brake every time your park - it reduces the chances of the "P" setting in the gearbox giving up on you one day.
What's worrying about all this was illustrated when we went to a 'new owners' evening at the dealership where we bought our car. It was one of those freebies to explain the nuances of that particular brand, with free drinks and snacks, in the hope that we'd buy accessories or something. Anyway, one driver asked "when should I use the emergency brake?" (aagh - it's not a fucking EMERGENCY brake!) The "expert" from the dealership said - verbatim - "Never - I don't know why they even bother putting them in cars any more."

Monday, April 21, 2014

Faster really is safer.

From Auto Express recently:
MOTORING groups have backed a Danish report which claims that increasing speed limits is safer – but there are question marks over whether it could be easily implemented in the UK.
The study, carried out over two years by the Danish Road Directorate, looked at how driver behaviour and accident rates changed when speed limits were raised on single-carriageway rural roads and motorways.
One of the key findings was that after raising limits on two-way rural roads from 50mph to 56mph, accidents fell, due to a drop in the speed differential between the fastest and the slowest drivers, resulting in less overtaking. While the slowest drivers increased speeds, the fastest 15 per cent were found to be driving 1mph slower on average.
On sections of motorways where the limit was raised from 68mph to 80mph nine years ago, fatalities also fell.
A spokesman for the Alliance of British Drivers told Auto Express: "The research would seem to suggest that we are going the wrong way in the UK. This has proven that deaths and accidents have fallen despite limits increasing."
A Transport Research Laboratory (TRL) spokesman said the research raised interesting questions. "A key element isn't just the risk of the crash that is proportional to travelling speed for a given road, but the risk of injury should a collision occur." The Association of Chief Police Officers would not comment.

This isn't the first time a study like this has been published. There have been plenty of trials of increased speed limits where accident rates have fallen. The reason is simple : people are already driving quickly. Often quicker than the current limits dictate. Occasionally they'll come across people who are doing the limit - and it's that differential that causes the problem. The quicker person wants to get past - normally meaning an overtake. The more impatient they get, the more likely they'll do something silly, and the greater the liklihood of an accident. So what happens when the speed limit is raised? Those already travelling quicker will tend to stay at the same speeds they used to, whilst those who like to travel exactly at the limit will go quicker - to the new higher limit - thus reducing the differential in speed between them and everyone else.
I'm all for higher speed limits - the trend in the UK to keep slowing people down is clearly not working (see my post a few months back about how slower limits cause more accidents). And remember - the educated motorist understands that speed doesn't kill. It's the inappropriate use of speed that can amplify the end result of an accident.

Monday, April 14, 2014

FIA and this year's F1 races

I'm a big Formula 1 fan but what I'm not a fan of is the constant meddling by the FIA. The most obvious evidence of this is the engine change this year - Renault lobbied the FIA for 'greener' engines this year which is how we ended up with the V6 turbo monstrosity they're racing with now. In a quirk of karma, Renault are the engine suppliers having the most difficulty with this regulation change. Frankly this is total nonsense. Since when was the cutting edge of motorsport supposed to be 'green' or 'fuel efficient'? That's a pointless exercise. The only way for F1 to be green is to disband the organisation and not race at all.
But there are dozens of other changes - slight aero tweaks here and there, the new penalty points system, the inability of the stewards to ever make the right decision. These are all things we could do without in F1 but I suspect they're here to stay.
One thing I think should have been done better is the 'safety' regulation surrounding the new lower noses. It seems the FIA didn't give any consideration to 'submarining' - where in the event of a crash, the lower nose now acts like a giant scoop, forcing its way under the other car. We've already seen two good crashes caused by this new design (most notably in Bahrain where Esteban Gutierrez was flipped over like a pancake). I don't see how this design is making anything any safer.
One thing you can be sure of though - teams on the losing end of new regulations are always the first to complain. Right now, McLaren, Renault, Red Bull and Ferrari are all very vocal about regulation changes, whilst the head of Mercedes (Toto Wolff) is quite happy with everything as it stands, and can't figure out what all the fuss is about. After all, Mercedes are getting awesome race results right now. Contrast this to a couple of years ago when Mercedes were complaining about Red Bull's blown rear diffuser, and they couldn't get the speed to compete, and you realise that it's always one big merry-go-round.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Arguing with your car

My previous car - a VW Tiguan - had a certain amount of "voice recognition" that could be used to attempt to control certain functions hands-free. Mostly it was for the phone interface. It was mildly successful, by which I mean it caught about 30% of what I was attempting to tell it. Didn't seem to matter if I was driving or not - ambient noise could be high or low - I always ended up arguing with my car. Invariably it would call the wrong person, or when I accepted the option it chose, it would cancel the call (because in VW-speak, apparently "yes" sounds just like "cancel" despite sharing no similar sounds or even having the same number of syllables). So when I bought my latest vehicle and they asked if I wanted "voice recognition" turned on or not (it's a dealer-activated option via the OBD-II port rather than a driver-activated option), I told them "no". The guy was really confused by this, and went on to explain to me how awesome it was that I could control everything from the radio and phone to the heating controls. For shits and giggles, I had him turn it on and after ten minutes of not getting the car to understand a single command, I had him turn it off again.
Here's the problem : nothing I own that has "voice recognition" can understand me with any level of reliability. Not my car, not Siri on my phone - or Google for that matter. Not my Xbox One, not Dragon Dictate (or Naturally Speaking). Hell - even the phone systems where you have to speak to them can't understand me (Delta flight tracking 1-800 number, I'm looking at you). Like my VW, they all get about 30% of what I'm saying, and the success rate goes up a little if I switch the language to Australian instead of English, or if I fake an awfully stereotyped American accent. But other than that it's way quicker for me to just use the normal buttons, knobs, switches and other methods of input. As in I can tap "send" to send a message or email instead of arguing with my device over whether it heard "sand" or "bend" or "vend".
Because I have so many of these technologies that can't understand me, I have to conclude that voice recognition is either just crap in general (and everyone is so blinded by a 30% success rate that they think it's marvellous), or nobody has managed to build one that can understand an unaccented English voice. It's not just me, either. My wife and all but two of my friends have the exact same problems. We spend ages arguing with "voice recognition" systems when it's quicker and more accurate to just press the damn button yourself.
The problem with all of this, when it comes to cars, is that you can't rely on it. Why have "voice recognition" if the driver has to double-check every action? It's quicker and safer to just do it yourself once, than it is to argue with the car for a minute, check what it's done, then hand-correct it. Same for phones or dictation systems. If it doesn't work 100% of the time, you can't rely on it, and once you get into the mode of having to double-check everything, you realise it really IS quicker to circumvent voice recognition altogether and just do it manually. This is a problem when it comes to texting and driving. I would love to be able to get my phone to read texts to me and take replies while I'm driving. But it can't. "I'm leaving work and I'll be home in about 20 minutes" comes out as something like "I'm breathing burp and won't be on around plenty bins". Thus the temptation is to text while driving, which is a distraction, which can lead to accidents. So I don't bother.

Oddly enough, the only phrase that Siri ever gets 100% of the time is this: "Why don't you understand English". To which the response is a predicable "I don't understand why don't you understand English". Try it.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Do you leave your keys in your car?

I watched a feverish discussion on an internet site recently where someone had left their keys in the car, it had been stolen (d'uh!) and then they wondered why their insurance didn't cover it.
Most motor insurance policies contain an exclusion clause (or a condition) that effectively removes cover for theft, attempted theft and malicious damage if the ignition keys or key fob were left in or on the car. The wording is almost verbatim if you look in an English insurance policy. In the US it's normally a little more obscured, via phrases such as "ordinarily vigilent" or "at fault".
Whilst many insurance companies will hide these exclusions in the fine print, some are a lot more open about it, going so far as to give you extremely un-subtle hints right up front. For example, here's what Geico has to say:
When you contact GEICO, have the following information available: Location of all keys to the vehicle before and after the theft. (source)
That's a pretty big hint. It's posted on their website, in all their documentation and on the insurance card you carry, right under the 1-800 number.
AllState are similarly obsessed:
It helps if you can give a good description of your vehicle, the location of all your keys ...(source)
Every insurance company has these words prominently in their documents and websites: Always lock your car and take your keys with you.

I'm sure if you took your insurance company to court, they might eventually pay out, but the general rule of thumb here is this : if you're a dumbass and your car gets stolen as a result, don't expect to be covered.

Monday, March 24, 2014

And another thing about brakes....

Following on from last week's post : there is no excuse, ever, for using your brakes in a line of steady-flowing traffic. Being a nervous Nellie and tapping your brakes, even for a moment, causes your brake lights to come on, causing the person behind you to think you're slowing down, meaning they're likely to apply their brakes too. And so on back down the line until, on a motorway, about a mile behind you the traffic will come to a complete stop and your nervous driving has caused a phantom traffic jam for no reason.
The answer to this is simple : take your foot off the accelerator. The car will slow down - trust me. It doesn't matter if you're driving a manual or an automatic - once you take your foot off that pedal, the car will slow down. Not as much as it does with the brakes, but enough, in normal traffic, to accommodate the slight variations in speed and following distances that you get on motorways and main roads.
Of course the reason this happens, for the most part, is because (a)people are just not taught to drive properly any more and (b)people spend so much time texting, using their phone or otherwise being distracted whilst in their mobile entertainment complexes that when they finally do look out the window, they realise they're a bit too close to the person in front.
So I'm with Jeremy Clarkson on this one - people who brake in steady flowing traffic need to be taken outside and shot.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Driving with your foot on the brake does not make you safer.

I don't know if it's because people learn from their parents, and their parents do it all the time, but drivers around here have this annoying habit of driving with their left foot resting on the brake pedal. I once asked someone I know who drove like this and they said it was because it was safer - having their foot there meant they could brake more quickly.
Wrong. It is not safer. In fact you're more likely to cause an accident by doing this, in one of three ways. First, when your foot is resting on the brake pedal, there's enough pressure that the brake light switch is engaged. Everyone behind you sees you driving along, but not slowing down, with your brake lights on. When you do finally slow down, there's no indication of that and you'll get hit from behind. It's called "cry wolf" - your brakes lights have been on for so long that the driver behind you no longer believes them.
The second method by which you're going to cause an accident is because of the lack of calibration in your left leg. Muscle memory in your right leg knows, from driving experience, how much pressure to apply to the throttle and the brake. Your left leg, by comparison, is normally either used for the clutch (which is much heavier than the brake in almost every car), or your foot would normally be sitting on the foot rest if you drive an automatic. Either way, this means if you do use your left foot to brake, you'll step on the pedal too hard and either lock the brakes, or cause the ABS to come on. This will take you by surprise and you'll do something silly resulting in a crash.
The third method by which you're going to cause an accident is because your brakes are getting hot. The weight of your foot on the brake not only turns on the brake light switch but it will also be lightly applying the brakes all the time you're driving. Not enough to slow you down, but enough that the pads are touching the rotors. This makes the pads and rotors get hot, which makes them expand. In severe cases, this can (and does) cause the brakes to lock unexpectedly. This particular condition is easy to overcome by taking your foot off the brake pedal when it happens, but typically if you're minding your own business and your car suddenly brakes hard and you lose control - it will take you by surprise and the last thing you'll do is take your foot off the pedal.
So take that left foot off the brake and put it where it's supposed to be.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Getting better battery range in your EV

Right now, range anxiety and price are still the main barriers to entry for most people looking at electric cars. The batteries don't charge fast enough and there's no battery-swap capability which leads many - myself included - to still shy away from a fully electric car because there's the nagging "what if" problem. Sure my EV has a range of 80 miles - plenty for a day's driving or more, usually. But "what if" I need to go a couple of extra errands? Blam. Dead, with no way to get home and no way to recharge. In a petrol car, that's not a problem - fill up and keep going.
Battery capacity has been slow to catch up with the needs of electric vehicles but there's a possibility that could change. A couple of weeks ago, researchers at UNC Chapel Hill stumbled on a discovery whilst trying to design a material to keep sea life from sticking to boat hulls. Lithium-Ion batteries - the most common type used today - are great but do rather have a habit of going up in flames. The discovery made in Chapel Hill would replace the unstable, fire-prone chemicals in the electrolyte with a very stable polymer instead. It's called perfluoropolyether (PFPE) and it dissolves lithium salt - something required to produce conductivity in batteries. Most polymers don't mix with salt, but this one does and as a bonus, it's nonflammable.
So why is this important? Well the entire way a battery works is by moving ions around between the electrode and cathode, the direction being dependent on whether the battery is being charged or discharged. The rate of movement of the ions is called "transference rate" and typically it's around 0.2 for the average Li-Ion battery. The PFPE electrolyte, however, has a transference rate closer to 0.9. Not only that but it has an operating temperature range of -90°C to +200°C - far lower and higher than you'd ever find in a passenger car in daily use.
So what does this mean? Simple - higher transference means better capacity, meaning a Volt or a Tesla could instantaneously get over a 4x increase in range by using batteries with a PFPE electrolyte.
Range anxiety will still be there, but quadrupling the mileage means that odd unexpected errands and diversion will no longer be cause for concern.
Now if we could get swappable PFPE Li-Ion battery packs for cars - 600 mile range and instant swapover? THEN we'll see mass market adoption because at that point, road trips and long-distance journeys become possible without having to stop every 150 miles or so to hang around a charging station for an hour or more.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Rotating your tyres - things to be aware of.

It's common wisdom that rotating your tyres is A Good Thing. It helps even out wear especially on front-wheel-drive or rear-wheel-drive where one pair of tyres will typically wear quicker. There's a couple of things you need to be aware of when having a tyre rotation done though. Unidirectional tyres must be kept on the same side of the car - typically the front and rear lefts will be swapped, and the front and rear rights will be swapped.
If you don't have unidirectional tyres, then front-left to back-right and vice versa is just fine.
But there's a slight wrinkle in the scheme with a lot of modern cars : TPMS. For the average family car, the TPMS system (the tyre pressure monitors built into each wheel) is a single-point-of-failure system, meaning that if any one sensor registers low pressure, the car will present a single warning light on the dash and it's up to you to find the tyre in question. For higher end vehicles though - Range Rovers, BMWs, Mercedes and the like - they sometimes have TPMS that will tell you which tyre needs attention. This makes tyre rotation more complicated because you either have to take the tyres of the rims to ensure each rim and sensor stays on the correct corner of the car. Or you need to have the car re-learn the location of each sensor afterwards. Generally speaking this isn't easy to do - it normally requires access to the computer via the OBD-II port and access to someone who knows that they're doing.
There is one manufacturer - and I can't remember who it is - who made this easy though. They have a mode where you, as the owner, can put the TPMS into 'learn' mode and then it shows you on the dash which sensor it wants to learn, in order. To 'teach' it which sensor is where, you bleed a little air out of the tyre. So when the car indicates "left front", you go and blip a little air out of the left front tyre, and it then associates that sensor (the one that changed) with the front left corner.
Anyway - the point is this - by all means rotate your tyres, but be aware of the little pitfalls when it comes to tread directionality and TPMS.

Monday, February 24, 2014

"Cheap" petrol or gas is a false economy

Time for a re-post on an often-discussed topic - "cheap" gas, or as it used to be known in England - supermarket petrol. I don't use it, and neither should you. Yes, it's cheaper up-front, but there's a reason for that. It's also the reason that supermarket petrol in the UK is now not much different in price to regular petrol stations; they had to change their ways.
So why is the petrol or gas at places like Costco so much cheaper per gallon than everywhere else? It's not a simple answer - the base petrol stock is identical for every vendor, but it can be broken down into three basic parts, as follows:
1. Filtering. Tanker drivers can fill their tanks for petrol station deliveries at two different filling locations in most refineries. The difference between the regular and the premium fuel dumps is the filtering process. The premium fuel goes through additional filtering and purifying before being distributed. This may not sound like much, but the regular stuff puts the responsibility on the individual petrol stations to regularly clean out their underground tanks and change their pump filters. I think we all know how often that is likely to happen. That means there's a greater chance of sand, grid, rust and other crud getting into your tank from a cheap petrol station, meaning a greater likelihood of blocked fuel filters and/or fuel system damage.
2. Additive packs. Once the tanker is loaded with the regular petrol, the driver goes off on the delivery rounds. For premium loads, they make a second stop at the additive dump. This is where the extra detergents, fuel additives, stabilisers and other products are added. (Things like the Texaco / Chevron Techron). They're dumped into the tanker in liquid form and get mixed in to the fuel load simply by being in a moving tanker truck. Cheaper petrol stations don't have these additive packs and it's open to debate whether that's a good or a bad thing, but generally speaking, a decent detergent additive in your petrol is not a bad thing.
3. The biggie: separate trucks. The cheap brands use the same tankers for everything. One day it might have industrial diesel in it. The next day, commercial petrol, and the day after that, farm-grade diesel or worse - raw crude. Theoretically, the tanks ought to be cleaned out between each load, but in reality, the deadlines and costs are so tight that this just doesn't happen. So it's not only possible, but entirely normal that when you fill up with petrol from a cheap filling station, you're getting an impure blend of petrol, diesel, and in some cases, raw crude. The bigger name-brand filling stations and companies always use dedicated tankers for each product. Once a tank is allocated for petrol, that's all it carries. Same for diesel, same for crude.

In the UK, supermarket petrol exploded (pun intended) in the 90's and people flocked to it because it was so much cheaper. All of the above reasons were why, and after a particularly bad spate of problems of sludge in people's engines (caused by an impure mix of petrol and raw crude), they had to 'clean up' their act, so-to-speak. Now that most supermarkets in the UK have dedicated trucks and additive packs, their cost to the public is not that much different to mainstream stations. But this hasn't happened in the US yet, and supermarket petrol is only just starting to boom over here. The only question is for vendors like Costco - they sell petrol as a loss-leader to get people to their facilities, and it's unclear if they are using the cheap, unfiltered, 'dirty' truck petrol, or the mainstream products. I think it's different in different areas of the country / world, but in my local area, Sam's Club and Costco are both stocked from Shell-branded tankers, meaning it's the "good stuff" but sold at a loss (well not really as you have to pay a membership fee to fill up there).

Monday, February 17, 2014

Why can dealers still get away with such terrible advertising practices?

Our local VW dealer had an incredible promotion a couple of months ago - at least it was incredible on the face of it. They had a media blitz advertising $8000 below MSRP on all new cars. Remember the old adage about 'if it seems to good to be true' ? Well naturally they weren't selling new cars that cheaply - no dealer could - they'd lose their shirt if they did. What was curious in this case was that there wasn't any fine print either. It was only if you went to the dealer and talked to them that you found out what the scam was, and it was this: the cars were all used or pre-owned cars, and yes they were all $8000 below the MSRP of a new car. But how could they advertise this discount on "all new cars"? Simple. The used cars were new to their stock list at that dealer.
The other huge scam is when you see TV commercials showing a really good deal. Buy a Camry today for $uper Cheap! Those ones all do have fine print but it goes by so quickly that you never really see it. In fact they are actually selling a Camry (singular) at that price. It's one particular model, with a very specific stock number in their inventory. Or it was. Of course by the time you go down to try to buy any Camry at that price, the one specific one used in the TV commercial is long gone and you're saddled with the regular price on all the others.
How about the "cash back" deals. Or the ones where they offer to pay you $1000 more than the car is worth? More scams, obviously. Yes they'll give you cash in your pocket, and/or $1000 above average for your trade-in, and they do it by simply adding that on to the loan for the new car. So instead of loaning (for example) $15,000, you're actually loaning $20,000 - $15k for the car, $1k "extra" for your trade-in, and a $4k cash loan. The dealer makes more money, the dealer's finance company makes more in interest and payments off you, and you end up with the same car but more debt than you'd intended.
The crazy thing is that all these practices are completely legal. They simply rely on people's fear of car dealers and unwillingness to challenge the status quo. It's a terrible state of affairs that needs some serious attention.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Question of the day : do you use the auto-anything in your car?

My current ride has all the conveniences you'd expect nowadays - auto lights, auto wipers, climate control etc. But the longer I own the car, the less I find I'm using all these things. I turned off the auto lights on day-1 and fortunately, the "off" position in my car is truly "off" - not like most of the Ford and GM products where "off" means "auto" (ie. the light switch is utterly pointless). The auto wipers took a lot of getting used to. I find that most of the time though, I have them turned off too now. I can see if it's raining - I'm well capable of turning my own wipers on, just like I can tell when it's getting dark outside and turn my own lights on.
The one bit of auto-tech that I do use now is climate control. It is useful to be able to set one temperature and have the a/c controls determine the blend of hot and cold air to keep the interior at a nice temperature. Yes I'm capable of doing that myself too, but it's more aligned with something we're all used to at home - the central heating thermostat. (My house doesn't clean it's windows when it rains, or turn on the lights when it's dark).
Another bit of auto-tech that I experienced recently is something that'll never be in any car I own. I rented a car in the UK over Christmas that had active cruise control (a Volvo XC60). It scared the shit out of me because it's idea of "safe following distance" is way shorter than I'd like, and when I drive, I'm not exactly known for leaving a large gap from me to the car in front. Lets put it this way - I've never had a full on panic attack in a car, ever, until getting into that rental car. I decided to try the adaptive cruise function to see what it was all about. Deeply untrusting of this type of tech, I hovered my foot over the brake pedal the whole time. About an hour into the journey, we came across the usual traffic blockage. Traffic slowed, the Volvo began to slow accordingly. Clever. Cars started to shift lanes and the guy in front of me changed lanes too but I stayed where I was (getting into a queue it makes no difference which lane you're in). But then came the "oh shit" moment. The Volvo beeped at me and a little orange car symbol appeared on the dash. I later found out that this meant the adaptive system had "lost" the car in front - the guy who changed lanes. But what it did next defies belief. Despite three lanes of stopped traffic ahead, the Volvo actually began to accelerate back to the preset cruise speed. Suddenly the red 'following distance' warning came on and the Volvo then swapped from accelerating to braking - harder and harder until I eventually just stomped on the brake myself because I was utterly convinced at that point that we were having a guaranteed crash. The ABS came on as we pitched forwards pretty violently, and all manner of anti-collision lights came on on the dash coupled with warning beeps and alarms. Eventually came to a stop mercifully without hitting the truck in front. The whole thing must have happened in 3 to 4 seconds but once we'd stopped, I was sweating and having adrenaline-induced shakes. Now given that I ride a motorbike, it's not easy to cause that reaction in me. I'm used to being nearly killed all the time when I ride my bike - car drivers simply don't see motorcyclists. I know what that sudden shot of adrenaline feels like. But to have a car nearly kill me when I'm in it? That's a whole new level of scary that I don't ever want to experience again. Needless to say we took the car back and replaced it with something that had a little less of the 'Christine' streak in it.
It goes without saying that this experience has strengthened my attitude towards self-driving cars. Never again.