Monday, December 28, 2015

Stop me if you've heard this before...

As a new year is just around the corner, it's worth wondering if next year will be any better for motoring than 2015. Certainly for the VW group, things couldn't get much worse. But for car manufacturers in general, especially here in the US, things are looking positively rosy.
In the last quarter of 2015, US manufacturers are enjoying some of their best sales in years. It's all evidence of the economic recovery and the halcyon days of car sales. Right? I mean that's what we're told.
Sadly, not so much. The reason the sales numbers are through the roof is because the rate of subprime car loans has shot up. Remember subprime? It's what wrought economic destruction in the housing market a couple of years ago and pushed the US into a recession. Seems the banks don't learn though. Towards the end of 2015, 75% of car loans were made to people with a credit score of less than 600. And when I say 'less than 600', realise that 20% of those loans that were handed out went to buyers with credit scores between 351 and 500.
To put that into perspective, a score of 620 is generally considered to be "unlikely to repay loan". Lenders used to start lending at a score of 630.
More interestingly, 14% of loans were made to people who had no credit score at all. As Zerohedge writes: In order to keep the US car sales miracle alive and thus perpetuate the ridiculous myth of an American auto renaissance, lenders will need to continue to lower their underwriting standards. After all, the pool of creditworthy borrowers is finite and so in order to expand it, you need to make inelligible borrowers eligible and that means the proliferation of subprime lending.
If you have a car and it's paid off, good on you - you're wise and in a financial situation that allowed you to do that. If you're paying off a car loan, also good. But - if you're a deadbeat with no hope of paying off a McDonald's happy meal, please don't contribute to the subprime car loan bubble - it's going to affect everyone when it bursts and the less you contribute, the better. Trust me - you don't need a new car - a good mechanic can make sure your existing ride is safe and roadworthy for a lot less than a car loan.
Have a happy new year and be sensible with your money - please ....

Monday, December 21, 2015

Wonder how much horsepower is needed for Santa to travel at 650 miles per second?

No known species of reindeer can fly. BUT there are 300,000 species of living organisms yet to be classified, and while most of these are insects and germs, this does not COMPLETELY rule out flying reindeer which only Santa has ever seen.

There are 2 billion children (persons under 18) in the world. BUT since Santa doesn't (appear to) handle the Muslim, Hindu, Jewish and Buddhist children, that reduces the workload to 15% of the total - 378 million according to Population Reference Bureau. At an average (census)rate of 3.5 children per household, that's 91.8 million homes. One presumes there's at least one good child in each.

Santa has 31 hours of Christmas to work with, thanks to the different time zones and the rotation of the earth, assuming he travels east to west(which seems logical). This works out to 822.6 visits per second. This is to say that for each Christian household with good children, Santa has 1/1000th of a second to park, hop out of the sleigh, jump down the chimney, fill the stockings, distribute the remaining presents under the tree, eat whatever snacks have been left, get back up the chimney, get back into the sleigh and move on to the next house. Assuming that each of these 91.8 million stops are evenly distributed around the earth (which, of course, we know to be false but for the purposes of our calculations we will accept), we are now talking about .78 miles per household, a total trip of 75-1/2 million miles, not counting stops to do what most of us must do at least once every 31 hours, plus feeding etc. This means that Santa's sleigh is moving at 650 miles per second, 3,000 times the speed of sound. For purposes of comparison, the fastest man- made vehicle on earth, the Ulysses space probe, moves at a poky 27.4 miles per second - a conventional reindeer can run, tops, 15 miles per hour.

The payload on the sleigh adds another interesting element. Assuming that each child gets nothing more than a medium-sized lego set (2 pounds), the sleigh is carrying 321,300 tons, not counting Santa, who is invariably described as overweight. On land, conventional reindeer can pull no more than 300 pounds. Even granting that "flying reindeer" (see point #1) could pull TEN TIMES the normal anoint, we cannot do the job with eight, or even nine. We need 214,200 reindeer. This increases the payload - not even counting the weight of the sleigh - to 353,430 tons. Again, for comparison - this is four times the weight of the Queen Elizabeth.

353,000 tons traveling at 650 miles per second creates enormous air resistance - this will heat the reindeer up in the same fashion as spacecrafts re-entering the earth's atmosphere. The lead pair of reindeer will absorb 14.3 QUINTILLION joules of energy. Per second. Each. In short, they will burst into flame almost instantaneously, exposing the reindeer behind them, and create deafening sonic booms in their wake.The entire reindeer team will be vaporized within 4.26 thousandths of a second. Santa, meanwhile, will be subjected to centrifugal forces 17,500.06 times greater than gravity. A 250-pound Santa (which seems ludicrously slim) would be pinned to the back of his sleigh by 4,315,015 pounds of force.

Merry Christmas .... :)

Monday, December 14, 2015

Tesla Reliability Doesn’t Match Its High Performance

After my post a few weeks ago where I berated Tesla for their less-than-stellar build quality and electrical issues, I did get quite a few emails from people claiming I was an anti-Tesla luddite who was stuck burning dinosaurs in my car. (Which is weird because I own a Nissan LEAF, charged by solar panels, so I'm potentially more qualified to talk about electric vehicles than 90% of the people who claim I'm an electric vehicle hater).
But to be honest you're right about Tesla motors - I don't like them. For me, they're very over-priced, very average cars, with a litany of problems that a modern car manufacturer just shouldn't have. I can get much more car for much less money with far fewer problems from many different manufacturers. Look at the new Model X; it's not "revolutionary" - they just did what every other manufacturer has done - took a 4-door saloon and steroided it up to be a mini-SUV or crossover.
Tesla is an interesting dichotemy though. On the one side, owner satisfaction sits at an enviable 97%, suggesting that just about every one of their customers would buy another car from them. But on the other hand you have the reliability and build quality issues I spoke about. I can't reconcile why so many owners have so many complaints, yet claim they'd still buy another vehicle from Mr Musk.
Consumer reports published their annual reliability survey recently - where car owners are quizzed about what the real cars are actually like, as oppose to the primped and modified press cars that are used for the reviews. In the case of the Model S, 1400 owners responded.
Most highlighted issues with the Tesla S: problems with the drivetrain, power equipment like motorized door handles not working, the big central touchscreen (too reflective, not responsive, too distracting, buggy software), charging equipment, climate control, steering, and suspension systems and various body and sunroof squeaks, rattles, and leaks.
What I wrote on October 5th that annoyed so many people: That giant touchscreen is a huge distraction, and in any amount of sunlight it behaves like a giant mirror inside the car, blinding the front seat occupants. Whilst the exterior is well presented, the interior fit and finish in all the ones I've driven has all the finesse of a 1970's Trabant. The panels squeak (especially around the touch screen), rattle and vibrate and the A-pillar panels either side of the windshield constantly pop out of place. The pop-out door handles work about 50% of the time.
So my experience would seem to match the experience of 1400 other Model S drivers, which is good for me because it means I'm not the only one who has experienced these issues.
Elon Musk naturally jumped in immediately claiming that these faults have all been fixed in the current 2015 production run, which would be fine had a percentage of the respondents not been driving - you guessed it - current 2015 production vehicles. Anyway - you decide:
Tesla Reliability Doesn’t Match Its High Performance

Monday, December 7, 2015

Renault now embroiled in the diesel scandal.

Remember back in October when I listed the 11 other manufacturers who were about to become affected by the diesel emissions cheating scandal? In addition to the ADAC tests, further third-party testing has now shown that the Renault Espace emits 25 times the legal NOx limit for diesel engines. The study was done by the University of Applied Sciences in Bern, Switzerland, and the International Council on Clear Transportation. The latter is the same council that commissioned the investigation into VW.
Renault aren't the only manufacturers of minivans who are now involved in the growing scandal. The Opel Zafira was also tested and found to have similarly high levels of NOx emissions.
Renault responded to the Espace allegations as follows: The test procedures used by the University of Bern are not all compliant with European regulations. The report shows important variations in test findings which are not conclusive and require 'additional measurements'.
In other words, the tests weren't done to the same artificially stupid requirements that the governing bodies require. These include loopholes such as allowing the manufacturers to optimize the engines to run at artificially low temperatures, strip out standard equipment to reduce the vehicle's weight, tape up door joints, and fit bald tires with lower rolling resistance. Also, the DUH tests were done with actual people driving actual vehicles on actual roads instead of a bastardised vehicle hooked up to a computer in sanitary lab conditions.

Monday, November 30, 2015

Red Bull F1 signs with Renault for the 2016 season.

I'm not a big fan of Renault. I posted a couple of weeks ago what I thought of them. But somehow they've conned Red Bull into using their engines again for the 2016 season. This is good news for me as a Red Bull supporter - I get to see them (and Torro Rosso) race again next year. It's good news for all the employees of the respective teams too, as well as the drivers (obviously). But as an F1 supporter, it's going to be irritating for me to see Renault still in the sport next year because it means I'm going to have to suffer through another 12 months of Red Bull not being able to compete. Renault can't solve their engine problems, but they won't admit it. They have heat and packaging problems and their EGU recovery and MGU electrical systems are like hand grenades - they pull the pin on the start line and wait for one or other of the items to explode.
So the compromise is that next year we'll see Red Bull racing with unbranded engines. This will hurt Renault (which frankly I have no problem with). If they hadn't pushed so hard for the 'green' engine movement, we wouldn't have had to witness the last two years of them airing their dirty laundry in public. And we might have seen my favourite team being competitive.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Are stop signs ruining fuel economy?

It seems like an obvious answer - yes - but have you ever thought about the math behind it? Obviously it takes less energy to accelerate a car from a rolling start to a given speed than it does to get it to the same speed from a total standstill. Bear with me through some sketchy math here. I'm going to make some pretty gross assumptions - a good median weight for a family car is 1500kg nowadays, and a good acceleration figure is 0-50km/h in 4 seconds. What follows assumes no complications from friction, wind, losses through transmission and the myriad other things that affect overall energy figures for a car, but this at least will serve to give some idea what I'm talking about.
Assume we have a stop sign and we have two options - come to a complete stop, then accelerate away at a constant rate to reach 50km/h, or cruise through at 15km/h and accelerate back up to 50km/h.
For the first scenario, the acceleration rate is 3.47m/s² (v=u+at), and assuming you reach 50km/h, you'll travel 27.7m (s=ut+½at²)
Assuming constant acceleration (which makes this much simpler), the force required in this scenario is 5205N (F=ma) which means that the energy expended is 144,178 Joules (W=Fs)
Okay yes that's a very simplified explanation, but it does give us a tangible number.
For the second scenario, assume we're going to travel the same 27.7m after the stop sign but this time we're going to coast through starting at 15km/h instead.
Now, the acceleration rate is less - 2.43m/s², meaning the constant force is also less at 3645N. With less constant force over the same distance, the energy expended also drops, in this case to 100,966 Joules, which is 30% less.
I'm not going to go into the math of fuel consumption vs. vehicle weight vs. acceleration but it's safe to say that for 30% less energy, you'll probably burn 30% less fuel.
Add up the number of red traffic lights and stop signs that you come across during your daily commute, and think how much better your overall fuel economy would be if you burned 30% less fuel at each of those stops. Over a day, a week, a month - it would add-up.
Maybe the time has come for the U.S to adopt roundabouts and get rid of stop signs completely. Roundabouts are more efficient all around - you don't often come to a complete stop and they flow the traffic much more smoothly. I'm sure someone could write a properly-worded paper and put it in front of the politicians and short of being lobbied by Big Oil, there's really no good reason to have stop signs any more.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Autopilot fails.

Ok yes I know Tesla's autopilot is only supposed to be used on open roads, but when they performed an over-the-air update to 40,000 of their Model S owners six weeks ago, what did Tesla think was going to happen?
Well - this for a start:

And this

I'm counting the days until someone autopilots themselves into a wreck and the class action suit begins. I applaud Tesla for trying this, but it's too early - the software/hardware isn't mature enough and videos like these show what happens when you put buggy software in the hands of average consumers. It's no good printing disclaimers telling the owners the system only works in certain places - people don't read instructions.
Case in point: how do you program a drone car for politeness? Everyone is hailing this video as proof of why drone cars are 'amazing':

You know what I see there? I see a line of traffic to the right that is backed up, and a polite driver has left room for the crossing driver to turn. I see a Tesla that is completely unaware of this simple act and continues at 45mph towards a line of slow-moving traffic ahead. (why isn't it slowing down already?). The result is that the Tesla nearly causes an accident, and only then recovers the situation. Sure, you can argue that the turning car should have waited (he should), but had a human been driving, they'd have seen the situation and (hopefully - if there's any politeness left in the world) slowed down to give the turning car room to pass in front. After all - the traffic ahead is backed up - the driver of this car isn't going anywhere.
Elon Musk finally admitted that his autopilot roll-out has been problematic in an earnings call last week (his understatement response to videos similar to those above was 'this is not good'). He's now suggested that Tesla will be adding some constraints to the system to try to minimise the problems.
That could be hard to do - how far do you constrain such a system? Right back down to basic adaptive cruise control similar to the systems that are factory-installed in most high-end cars now?
One thing's for sure - now Musk has admitted to the problems, something will change. Exactly what that something is, is yet to be seen.

Monday, November 9, 2015

The EPA finally owns up to it's part in the VW Diesel scandal.

When I first wrote about the VW diesel emissions problem, I pointed out that some of the blame had to be shared by the EPA. Standardised tests, free of variables and easy to engineer around, their duty cycle for testing both petrol and diesel engines is laughable. The tests are so easy to predict that basic software installed in an engine management system can guess when the car is being tested.
The New York Times ran an article today indicating that the EPA is finally going to test all new cars on actual roads instead of in lab conditions. This will have two benefits. Firstly, it will be far more random, making defeat devices much harder to engineer. But secondly, it will hopefully spell the end of the misleading EPA gas-mileage estimates that we see in the window stickers. Remember, those estimates are based on the same flawed testing mechanism that is used to determine the vehicle's emissions. The EPA have been doing these sorts of roads tests for decades on trucks - they've just never done them on cars.
The EPA aren't the only ones changing the way they do emissions testing. European bodies are looking at real-world testing too although their system isn't due to hit the roads (pun intended) until 2017.
The sting in the tail of this story is the get-out clause though. The EPA say that the lab tests will remain as the 'benchmark' and that road tests will only be carried out to try to find defeat devices.
So close and yet so far. What they need to do, of course, is get rid of the lab tests completely and road-test all the vehicles.
NYT article: Galvanized by VW Scandal, E.P.A. Expands On-Road Emissions Testing.

Monday, November 2, 2015

Renault and Formula 1.

I love F1 - I've watched it since the mid 80's and I'll defend it until the end of days. But Renault need to die in a fire for what they’ve done to my favourite motorsport; those awful wet-fart turbo engines that they forced into the sport. Renault can't even compete with the very engine they forced everyone to use. Red Bull have threatened to leave F1 because of the appalling state of Renault. If Red Bull leave, Ecclestone should be looking to sue Renault, not Red Bull.
It used to be that you couldn't get near an F1 circuit without earplugs. In Singapore this year, I could comfortably watch from 6ft behind the fence without ear protection. The Porsche Cup and Touring cars sounded better than the F1 cars. I don't care what anyone says - the sound of F1 cars absolutely IS part of the draw of watching it on TV and seeing it in the flesh.
The turbo engines were introduced in an effort to green up the F1 image. I don't get it. F1 doesn't need to be "green". The only way a motorsport is ever going to be "green" is if we shut down all the teams and stop racing completely. F1 is supposed to be the pinnacle of racing, the motoring tour-de-force. Screw being green. Bring back refueling, bring back multiple tyre manufacturers and for the love of your chosen deity, bring back some decent engines.

Monday, October 26, 2015

VW management throw engineering under the bus for the diesel scandal.

As expected, VW have closed ranks and protected their management by throwing the engineers under the bus. At this point only an insane person would believe this was the work of 'a couple of software engineers' rather than a corporate decision at the highest level. Equally, at this point it is useless to spend time trying to figure out who knew what and when. Instead, investigators should be studying the culture that lead to this crisis. They need to realise, and quickly, that it's most likely that the pressure to grow at all costs created dishonest employees. A lot of corporations have ethics committees, mission statements, LEAN initiatives and other corporate buzzwords but that's all bluster designed to mask the simple fact that the shareholders are king. To keep the shareholders happy, corners are cut, customers are ignored, engineers are sidelined and anyone who stands in the way of a profitable quarter is simply laid off.
A National Business Ethics Survey that looked at how employees viewed ethics in their organizations over a 10-year period found that the most common cause for an employee to compromise ethics did indeed come from the top. 70% of employees identified pressure to meet unrealistic business objectives as most likely to cause them to compromise their ethical standards, and 75% identified either their senior or middle management as the primary source of pressure they feel to compromise the standards of their organizations.
VW can survive this, although they might not look like the company they are today. Sure, an 11 million car recall looks pretty bad on paper but it pales in comparison to GM's problems with their faulty ignition switch, or Toyota's unintended acceleration issues. In those cases, not only were recalls required, but people actually died. GM and Toyota survived and continue to sell cars today, and VW will too.
A big question for VW is 'will they survive in the US?' to which I suspect the answer is a firm 'no'. Americans have long been wary of VW for reasons that have never been entirely clear. VW have been painted as unreliable, expensive to repair, crappy cars that cost too much. My personal experience of VW in America has been quite the opposite - in fact I found them to be pretty much the same as they were in Europe; high quality cars for a reasonable cost. The repair and maintenance costs are on par with Japanese imports. But nevertheless, the already skeptical and lawsuit-happy nature of the American public means that VW will likely pull out of the US market completely once the diesel scandal is settled.

Monday, October 19, 2015

11 more manufacturers engulfed in the diesel scandal.

The diesel crisis continues to expand. Cars produced by Honda, Mazda, Mitsubishi and Mercedes-Benz have all been found to emit more NOx than was previously recorded in official testing by Emissions Analytics. They found that in real-world conditions some cars built by the four manufacturers emitted 20 times the NOx limit from their exhausts. Emissions Analytics analysed about 50 Euro-6 diesel-engined cars and 150 Euro-5 diesels on-road. 195 of the 200 cars tested had real-world NOx emissions that were significantly higher than the regulatory laboratory test. Yet all the cars tested supposedly passed EU’s official lab-based NEDC (New European Driving Cycle) test (Euro-5 and Euro-6) and at this point there is no evidence of the types of illegal activity employed by Volkswagen.
On top of the Emissions Analytics tests, Adac, the largest automobile club in Europe, has also been testing cars on-road, and it too has found that models produced by Renault, Nissan, Hyundai, Citroen, Fiat, Volvo and Jeep all emit over 10 times more NOx than the levels revealed by current EU tests.
As time goes on, more manufacturers will be shown to have fallen foul of the diesel emissions test. Toyota will be named for sure because of their D-cat system.
Had this just been one manufacturer, a recall would be realistic, but now 12 manufacturers are involved, something has to give. Will the Euro-6 and EPA tests have to be changed to be more realistic? Dumbed down so that the existing cars can pass? Or will existing diesels be granted an exclusion whilst the official testing levels remain? If the latter is the case, I suspect light-duty diesels will disappear completely because it's becoming increasingly clear that all the manufacturers are having trouble meeting the official NOx regulations.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Is it really that difficult to understand the most basic instructions?

I don't know about you, but to me, everything about where this car is parked screams 'not a parking space'.
This is one of the things that irks me about so many people today. They can't understand the most basic instructions. This obviously isn't a parking space - it's part of the through-lane in the parking lot. Yet almost every day I see someone parked there. You'll notice the perfectly usable, empty, ACTUAL parking bay right next to this one, but no - to save a second of walking, this person decided it would better to inconvenience everyone by blocking the road and making everyone go around them. Whoever they are, I can smell the entitlement from here.
I see the same with all manner of other signs - people who park in handicap spaces but aren't handicapped (we have one of those at my office). People who turn left into one-way traffic when it's obvious that all the traffic is coming towards them and all the signs indicated 'don't turn left'. You'd think the future would be bright for drone cars with this many idiots on the road - I mean the drone car won't make those mistakes, right? Probably not, but the idiot INSIDE the drone car won't be able to follow the most basic instructions on how to operate it....

Monday, October 5, 2015

So that's the Tesla Model X then.

I write this blog entry having driven a couple of Model S's in the real world (neighbours, friends etc) and having read many reviews of it, I can say in my opinion that it is absolutely not as good a car as many of the reviewers would have you believe. Yes it's fun to drive, yes it's an electric car and yes the performance is wild. But once you get over the initial fun factor of a pure electric drivetrain, there are practicalities that the reviewers all seem to miss. That giant touchscreen is a huge distraction, and in any amount of sunlight it behaves like a giant mirror inside the car, blinding the front seat occupants. Whilst the exterior is well presented, the interior fit and finish in all the ones I've driven has all the finesse of a 1970's Trabant. The panels squeak (especially around the touch screen), rattle and vibrate and the A-pillar panels either side of the windshield constantly pop out of place. The pop-out door handles work about 50% of the time, and the rear seat headroom is awesome as long as you're not over 5ft tall. In a car that costs over $100,000, I find these sorts of problems to be simply unacceptable.
But finding a mainstream review that criticises the Model S is rare. I don't know why but it seems all the journos have been - what - paid off? Have they reviewed versions of the car that the public can't buy? I just can't reconcile my experience behind the wheel with those reviews. Go ahead and call me a hater if you like, but my experience of the Model S is nothing like the amazing hypercar unicorn-that-emits-rainbows that I see reviewed everywhere.
And thus I fear the same will be true for the Model X.
By now you've no doubt seen the initial reviews and videos of the first production Model X's that appeared last week. Already the evidence of the mainstream pro-Tesla bias has become evident with headlines like "it's as awesome as we hoped".
Let's step back for a moment and play armchair-quarterback with the Model X. The most striking feature is obviously the gull-wing doors, but they're only on the back, meaning that if you drive this car as a single occupant like 90% of us would, you'll be using the front doors, not the back. Tesla make a huge song and dance about how the doors can open in super tight spaces - which is kinda cool, sure - but in the real world, if you park that close to the car next to you, (a) you're a total dick and (b) your passengers can get out but you can't because you have regular doors in the front. It's a crazy complex, over-engineered and pointless system that is almost certain to break, and I would not be surprised if they didn't make it into the second production run of the Model X. I bet that v2 will have regular doors which will knock a hundred kilos off the weight, simplify the design and give the car more range as a result. More range should beat novelty doors any day of the week, right?
The second thing that struck me was that they used air suspension. Why? Air suspension always fails. Why not use electromagnetic shocks to adjust the ride height like Audi? The Model X is the perfect car for EM suspension.
The third item is the windscreen - yes, yes it has an amazing panoramic view but that much glass means the thermal load inside the car is going to be massive. In an all-electric car, running the A/C 24/7 to deal with that is going to crucify the range. Plus - go ask Ford S-Max owners how much it costs to replace a giant panoramic windshield like that when it gets cracked. And finally the giant cartoon touch screen / solar reflector makes a reappearance. Why? Why not give us actual physical buttons that we can use without having to take our eyes off the road to read a TV screen?
I suspect all these real-world practicalities will be skipped in the mainstream reviews and you'll be treated to magazines, blogs and websites going completely gaga at the prospect of a new Tesla, because they've all bought in to the PR machine and for one reason or another can't write an objective review of Tesla's cars.

Monday, September 28, 2015

VW Diesel engine cheating - should we be looking at the EPA too?

By now you've likely read about the VW diesel engine crisis. The short version is this : the EPA emissions test in the US is so far away from actually driving a car that VW were able to write software into their ECU that could detect when a car was undergoing emissions testing and change the NOX emissions of the engine to make it pass the test. The 4 cylinder 2.0 TDI engine is the one most affected.
This is bad - really bad for VW. In the case of some of their cars, they're driving around emitting 35x the clean air act standard for NOX emissions. The best case scenario is that VW issue a software and hardware fix for the cars which could cripple their performance or economy. The worst case scenario is that this could topple VW completely and take the German economy with it.
In the US alone, the EPA could choose to levy a $37,500 fine PER VEHICLE on the VW Audi group. With 482,000 affected cars, that bill alone comes to $18,075,000,000. That's $18 Billion. With a 'b'.
Then there's the used vehicle market. VW have already pulled all new and pre-owned vehicles from sale that have the affected engines in them. Owners of vehicles with these engines could see a near-zero resale value and to pile on the pressure, VW could be forced to buy back all these vehicles at cost, which could be another $15 billion. Also with a 'b'.
That's just the US. Look at Europe and those numbers could balloon to $70 billion with levies, fines and buy-backs and we've not even looked at the almost-certain-to-happen class-action lawsuits.
Germany's economy is very heavily reliant on their car industry and if VAG collapses as a result of this scandal, what's that going to do to Germany? They're already suffering with high labour costs. Sure Germany weathered the sub-prime scandal, the collapse of the Asian stock markets and even the East Germany fiasco, but do you think they can survive the very heart of their manufacturing industry collapsing?
But let's step back for a moment and look at the root cause here: the EPA testing procedure is so laughable that it hasn't properly represented real-world driving for decades. Two wheels out of four on a rolling road, no physical throttle or steering input and the entire process being done via a hookup to the OBD2 system? It really doesn't take much code at all for a car's ECU to figure that out. It's a series of simple 'IF' statements. Which leads to the obvious question: is the EPA partially to blame for this by making their test so easy to circumvent?
The lead-on questions then would have us looking at all manufacturers. VAG isn't some tin-pot collection of amateurs - they're one of the most technologically advanced manufacturers in the world. If they couldn't get their 2.0 TDI through EPA testing without cheating, what's the bet that other less-capable manufacturers have similar 'cheat modes' in buried in their own software? For petrol-engined vehicles as well as diesel-engined vehicles?
In fact I'd be prepared to bet that we will be able to look back on this point in automotive history and see it as the tipping point for the adoption of electric cars. If this scandal kills off light-duty diesel engines (which it very well could) then the next-best option for cleaner vehicles is all-electric.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Do you use your in-car tech?

JD Power's latest report (here) makes for an interesting read. Seems like most new car owners aren't using most of the tech that manufacturers are trying to jam into new cars. From the pointless things like voice control (which never works) to apps (why?) to genuinely useful things like heads-up displays.
I have to say I'm firmly in that category. I love tech - I'm an early adopter for most things - but the crap 'tech' that manufacturers put in cars is showing how desperate they are to try to distinguish themselves from their competitors. Between speed cameras, gas mileage wars and emissions regulations, there's really no point in having a more powerful, faster car now - you can't use it anywhere. And from a distance, most 4-door saloons look like either a Honda Prelude or a Toyota Camry because all imagination has evaporated from the 'design' departments.
So instead, the manufacturers have turned to tech gimmicks to try to sell cars. This was definitely true last time I was looking to buy a car. I ended up with the Range Rover Evoque because it genuinely looks different and is a fun car to drive at any speed. But when I was looking at the Audi, during the test drive, the dealer really didn't know much about traction control, center of gravity, torque or anything I wanted to know about, but he was bang up to date on how I could play videos directly from my phone on to the center console while driving. Same happened at the Mercedes dealership. According to their salesman, the concierge system (the remote connectivity system that allows you to call someone to do menial tasks for you, like remotely programming your GPS) was the best thing ever in the history of the universe. Again, he knew little about fundamentals like power steering and cruise control. Same was true at every dealer except Land Rover who gave me the keys and said "bring it back when you've had enough". They were the only ones who didn't put a sales drone in the car with me to explain to me how amazing the hifi was or what an awesome feature it was that the car would read my twitter feed to me.
So yeah - do you have a 'tech'-laden car full of things you don't use? And if so, why are we paying for all this crap?

Monday, September 14, 2015

For $60, millions of dollars of self-driving-car tech can be defeated.

From the "d'uh!" newsdesk, more information this week on how drone cars are not as infallible as Google and everyone else would like you to believe.
Specific to Google, turns out their cars can be paralysed by real drivers. The problem is that Google cars drive by the book, which nobody else does. Everyone has their own little quirks, shortcuts and grey areas of the law that they interpret in their own way. For example, Google's car can have real problems at a four-way stop. By-the-book, all vehicles should come to a complete stop, then the first vehicle to arrive should proceed (or the vehicle to the right if there's only two of you arriving at the same time). But in the real world, people inch, roll, drive slowly and generally don't really come to a full 100% stop unless there's a police office watching. This is a problem for Google's cars because they will not proceed into a four-way stop unless the other three cars are 100% stationary. Google reports that one of their cars was stranded at one intersection because of this particular issue.
Similarly, Google's cars are causing accidents because they drive by the book. When they see a pedestrian waiting to cross a pedestrian crossing, they stop, like everyone is supposed to. Problem is that in America, pedestrians are second-class citizens and almost nobody stops until the pedestrian is actually in the road. Meaning that when Google's cars stop as they're supposed to, people rear-end them. Repeatedly. Google's cars are too law-abiding and are causing accidents.
The supporters of drone cars will naturally point out that this wouldn't be a problem if everyone had them, but back here in the real world, 100% coverage for drone cars is decades away, so for the time being, they will be on the road with the rest of us and the manufacturers had better figure out some fuzzy logic pretty quickly.
Not specific to google, but applicable to any drone car that uses LIDAR to see the world (read: all of them), you can now spoof LIDAR returns for the sake of a $60 Raspberry Pi kit. Jonathan Petit, Principal Scientist at Security Innovation, has been able to spoof LIDAR returns for everything from pedestrians to solid walls to other vehicles, meaning he can effectively perform a denial-of-service attack on any self-driving car and render it unable to navigate.
Researcher hacks self driving car sensors.
This is not dissimilar to the tactics used in the military to spoof radar returns on everything from aircraft to warships. Only they do it using a combination of slab-sided design and countermeasure electronics. But the principle is the same. Make the source LIDAR or RADAR system see something that isn't really there.
You might think this isn't a risk in the real world, but we live in an age where shining laser pointers at commercial airline pilots is a thing, so it seems logical to assume that $60 LIDAR spoofing kits will become a must-have in the toolbox of the same people.

Monday, September 7, 2015

Stop me if you've heard this one : safer cars make more dangerous roads.

This is like a scratched record for me, but go back through my blog and you'll see frequent mentions of how modern cars make drivers more dangerous. Study after study has proven this - isolating people more and more, and adding more and more airbags and "driver assists" is actually making the roads more dangerous. Now we have more than studies - now we have numbers to back it up. The National Safety Council has just released their latest stats for 2015 and it shows a marked and continued increase in the number of fatalities on the road. Despite there being more cars on the road this year with "driver assists" than any year to date (duh), the number of casualties per day is up to 90 now. Compare that to a few years ago when it was in the 55-60 range. There are a number of factors of course and safer cars is only one of them. More texting and more distractions in the form of in-car tech are also being blamed, as manufacturers and more and more gimmicks to distract drivers from the actual task of - you know - DRIVING.
This trend is only going to increase and adding drone cars isn't going to cure the problem. Why? Think of this - you're being driven to work by your drone car. Your busy reading texts, or Facebook, or working on a document or something else. You have no real situational awareness of what's going on outside the car. Suddenly, the car defaults to driver mode because of an error with a sensor (or any other fault) and you're now asked to take the controls. With no situational awareness, you now not only have to control a car with zero notice, you also have to take in everything around you almost instantaneously and act accordingly.
The only constant in traffic accidents is humans - tech isn't going to solve that problem. The more tech you throw at it, the worse the problem is going to become. The answer is - and always has been - simple. Driver training. But that's dull, boring, expensive and doesn't make for good headlines, so sure - drone cars for everyone.

Monday, August 31, 2015

Texting and driving

A short little promo post this week - if you think you're pretty good at texting and driving, give this little game a go : Stay alive.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Car loans are becoming dangerous to the economy

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

Monday, August 17, 2015

California Dreaming

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

Monday, August 10, 2015

Doing track days

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

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

Monday, August 3, 2015

We really don't want self-driving cars

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

Monday, July 27, 2015

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

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

Monday, July 20, 2015

Living the life electric - part 5.

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

Monday, July 13, 2015

Living the life electric - part 4.

(This post follows from last week's - best read that first if you missed it).
For our Nissan LEAF, we initially we decided the supplied 120v trickle-charger would be fine, but that meant the cable would never be in the car - problematic if we ever needed some juice whilst out somewhere. Realising that the LEAF has a standard J1772 charging port, I also realised I didn't need to pay Nissan $1500 for their charging station. Bosch do one for less than $500 which does the exact same thing.
At this point I also discovered 'electric car people' are very particular about the terminology. The thing you put on the wall in your garage is NOT a charger. It's an EVSE - electric vehicle supply equipment. It's designed to provide power at a known voltage and current to the car, and the charging functions are all built in to the car itself. This means I can plug in 120V at 1.3kW, 240V at 3.3kW or 240V at 6kW and the car will adapt accordingly.
The only difference in the charging methods is time-to-charge. The cost of power doesn't vary where we live, so there's no benefit to attempting to charge overnight.
For the LEAF, from an almost-dead battery to fully-charged takes 20 hours on the trickle-charger, about 8 hours on a 3kW supply and about 4 hours on a 6kW supply.
There are three decision to make when looking at an EVSE. The first is this: do you own a Tesla? In which case you can't buy an off-the-shelf EVSE because Tesla use a proprietary charging port connection. Assuming you don't own a Tesla, the second question is AC or DC charging? AC is the most common. DC is massively powerful and for most electric cars will give you a 40 minute charge time from dead. The disadvantage is a huge cost for the EVSE, upgraded electrical system in your house or garage, and a charging cable the size of Duane Johnson's biceps. Assuming then that you go with the far more common AC charging, the final question is 'will this burn my garage down?'.
The power rating of your electrical supply is very important. In our case we have a 50amp feeded to the garage, so adding a new 30amp EVSE to that circuit would not leave a lot of 'wiggle room' in the electrical system. For that reason I chose to put in a 16amp version. Shorter charge times than the trickle charger, longer than a 6kW supply. With the 3kW supply I used, for our daily driving, it literally takes 20 minutes in the evening to top off the charge. I did all the electrical work myself as it's pretty damn simple, and I didn't pay Nissan another $1500.

Monday, July 6, 2015

Living the life electric - part 3.

(This post follows from last week's - best read that first if you missed it).
So what's it like living with an electric car in the family? Well - it's different.
If you've never driven an all-electric car, it's weird at first. There's no engine noise, so there isn't really an 'ignition' to speak of. You just push a button and the car 'wakes up' and is ready to drive. The electric drivetrain sound is pretty sweet. Quiet, but sounds like power. As far as performance goes, our LEAF will embarass ANY sports car off-the-line for the first 50 meters. After that, not so much (obviously).
The dash display is a bit too oriented around the range-to-dead meter - giant fins either side and a huge numerical display. No wonder people get range anxiety - the dash literally screams at you. But the LEAF has an 'eco' mode which considerably dulls the accelerator response whilst increasing the amount of resistance under regenerative braking. In city traffic, this is not a bad mode to be in apart from one thing; because the regenerative resistance is so large, the car will slow down quite nicely without ever touching the brakes, meaning the person behind you is presented with a car that is slowing down with no brake lights. You have to be aware of that, so we've taken to just lightly loading the brake pedal in these conditions to ensure there is at least a clue for the people behind us.
In the suburbs or on the motorways, eco mode is a little too dull on the accelerator - you can find yourself being an obstruction in traffic if you're not careful, and you sure as hell don't want to use eco mode to turn across oncoming traffic. The snail-like acceleration means you need a gap in oncoming traffic the size of the Queen Mary to perform a turn.
Because we got the SV version with the Premium package, it has power-everything, heated-everything, 360 degree cameras, Bose audio - the works. All of these, of course, drain the range, but there is a display on the center console that shows you how much the HVAC and extras are 'costing' you.
It does change the way you drive, for sure, but I'm not getting into hypermiling or anything stupid like that. It's a damn car - just use it as a car. My wife loves never having to go to a petrol station and I love that the solar installation on our garage roof is offsetting the cost of charging it. My daily driver is still a Range Rover, but now we have an electric car in the family, I'm watching the developments in battery technology and new electric cars far more closely. We still need a car with large range and fast refuelling (I'm not going to sit around mid-road-trip for 3 hours waiting for my car to recharge - not even 30 minutes) - so going all-electric isn't an option right now. But someday - when batteries have more capacity and charging stations are plentiful and can recharge in 2 to 3 minutes? Yep - I'm all in.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Living the life electric - part 2.

(This post follows from last week's - best read that first if you missed it).
So $9,100 for a 2013 Nissan LEAF SV with 18,000 miles on it, loaded with the premium package. Great deal, but I'm not a car dealer. That's where my friend comes in. He IS a dealer - he owns a small business selling used cars, mostly luxury marques, but it means he's connected. He was curious about LEAFs so he offered to grab the red one from the auction and give me first refusal. (As it happened he also picked up a silver one that he was going to re-sell, but has now ended up keeping as his own car.)
So we went for a test drive in it. The idea was to replace our second car - a Toyota Yaris that is lucky if it does 10 miles a day. From that point of view, a pure electric with an 85 mile range is perfect. It's never going to do a road trip but as a city car it would work perfectly. I drove it - loved it. My wife drove it - loved it. So we pulled the trigger.
The best thing about a dealer friend is that wonderful things can happen. In my case, he bought the car at auction, imported it into the state, paid the auction fees and sold it to me for cost. What does that mean? It means we paid just shy of $10,500. Go look on any of the used car price guides and you'll see the price for this car varies from $12,400 to $15,800 depending on where you buy it used. As the saying goes, it's not what you know, it's who you know.
Next week: living with it.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Living the life electric

So that just happened. I'm the poor-man's Jeremy Clarkson. I love petrol. I love the smell of it, I love the internal combustion engine, I love the power, I fix things with hammers, and I just bought an electric car.
Wait, what?
So I need to backtrack a little bit here. This spring we had a 4kW solar panel installation put on our garage. Spendy, yes, but this year, in this state, the Federal and State rebates add up to a whole lot of win, which is why we did it.
In parallel, I'd asked a car dealer friend of mine to keep an ear to the ground for an electric Ford Focus, Nissan LEAF or Fiat500e, with the thought that one day we'd buy one and use the solar electric to charge it. Last week, in one of the California car auctions, 92 Nissan LEAFs suddenly appeared. Yep - a whole crapload of electric cars, and they were going cheap. I mean really cheap. These were all lease returns, all appearing at the same time, so the sheer number of them meant they were literally a steal. Bear in mind the LEAF is $27,000 plus taxes when new. The SV version is closer to $34,000. The auction prices started at $7,000. That's not a typo.
My dealer friend had his eye on a 2013 SV model with the premium package installed, registered in May 2013, with 18,000 miles on it. It was rated 4.7 out of 5 for condition, which in auction terms basically means "new". And it was metallic red (yes! not monochrome!) Price? $9,100. The exact same vehicle, new from our local dealership is $34,520. Sure you get $5,000 back from the Fed but that's still $29,520, or to put it another way - $20,000 more than the one in the auction.
Next week : what happened next.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Grip - let your tyres do their job.

Modern tyres are marvels of chemical and physical engineering. They are more resistant to punctures, have better grip, smoother ride and stronger sidewalls than anything we could produce 20 years ago. But it is still quite possible to overwhelm them when you demand too much. Misreading the road conditions, poor judgement, inappropriate maneuvers or use of speed can all cause issues. It all boils down to one simple rule though, and if you live by this, your tyres will thank you for it. Plus, you'll have a lot more fun in corners - even turning into your street off the main road can be a fun couple of seconds. The rule is this : don't brake and corner at the same time. Get all your braking done in a straight line, then turn, and start to accelerate when about half way through the turn as you begin to straighten the wheels again.
By doing this, you afford your tyres the best chance of gripping for both situations. Braking in a straight line gives you predictable, safe behaviour. The initial half of the turn (without braking) allows your tyres a good opportunity to grip as you turn the wheel and the car begins to come around. As you begin to straighten the wheel, start accelerating again - the tyre is dealing with less cornering force and can provide more front-to-rear grip again.
The explanation for this can be complicated but I'll try to simplify it. Tyre treads and construction methods, coupled with rubber compounds, mean that modern tyres have very good grip in two axes - forwards-backwards (linear), and side-to-side (transverse). The linear grip is used for most driving - accelerating and braking. The transverse grip is used when cornering to help stop the tyre skidding sideways in the turn. If you attempt to brake and turn, or accelerate and turn at the same time, the thrust vector on the tyre's contact patch is moved into an area between the linear and transverse areas of performance, giving you diminished performance in both. This results in 'understeer' whereby your car's wheels are turned, but your car (and you) are not going in the direction you want - you're going wide in the corner.
Understeer is most often caused by two things - a slipperier than normal road surface (ice, snow, rain, oil) or a driver who goes into a corner too fast for the conditions and thus keeps trying to brake whilst cornering.

Monday, June 8, 2015

Understanding the limits of your vehicle.

Depending on where you are in the world, driving lessons and exams range from stupidly simple and easy (America) to thorough and expensive (Sweden). But driving lessons can't teach you how your specific car behaves and reacts to any given situation, and that's something most people don't seem to want to learn. It's why we have so many crashes in the winter months. Roads aren't inherently less safe when they're covered in snow and ice - it's the drivers. People won't use winter tyres and will insist on driving like they do in the middle of the summer. Drive in a manner fitting the conditions and any time of year and weather can be just as safe as any other.
But it goes further than that. I think a great many people are afraid of their cars, because they believe the movies, or the police, or their friend Ted down at the local watering hole. Contrary to many depictions in pop culture, cars don't flip over and explode when taken around a corner at anything above walking pace, and speed is not inherently dangerous (remember - hard facts show that speed is the contributing factor in less than 5% of accidents, irrespective of what the police say).
What is inherently dangerous is drivers who don't know their vehicles, and thus don't understand the performance characteristics and limits. It's dangerous for them, and it's dangerous for the rest of us. I'll give you an example.
There's a huge motorway intersection near where I live, where three lanes peel off the right side of the southbound motorway, and loop down and underneath in a huge, banked, perfectly-tuned arc to join the eastbound motorway. The road has perfect drainage, great line of sight and is regularly maintained so the surface grip is tip top. In any vehicle, this turn is achievable at 70mph in any of the lanes. In a car, or a grippy, 'sporty' SUV like a Range Rover Evoque, it's easily do-able at 80mph. In a sporty car with good tyres and suspension (or any motorbike), it's a breeze at 90mph. Yet in reality it's a swarm of brake lights and 45mph timidness. Ugh.
I've been whipping around that corner at well over 70mph for over 10 years in every vehicle I can and I've yet to explode in flames.

Monday, June 1, 2015

Steering : it's not evil.

I recently watched a friend of mine do a five-point turn in their SUV to turn it around and get it facing the other way. Total facepalm. I asked him why it took him so long and he said "oh it's the car - it has a terrible turning circle".
Hmmmm. I suspected it was the driver, not the car, so I told him as much and said "here - let me show you something". I hopped in, and spun the car kerb-to-kerb in a single turn with no reversing. Why? Because I used the steering wheel for what it was designed for - steering. When I watched him (and countless other drivers) steering, he turned the wheel about 135 degrees - about as far as your arm will go when you grasp the right side of the wheel with your right hand and try to steer to the left.
It boggles my mind how many drivers don't know what full-lock is on their steering and how, short of being in a long wheelbase monster truck, you can actually turn pretty damn tightly in most vehicles nowadays. Not London-cab-tight, but it doesn't take a five-point turn to flip around, that's for damn sure.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Mis-using (mis-buying?) your car.

Tell me if you've seen this : people in large SUVs, pickups or 4x4s that swerve around potholes and slow to a crawl when turning corner or going up ramps into their driveways or petrol stations. Or this : a V8-badged car doing 25mph in a 40 zone.
It strikes me that a lot of people seem to buy vehicles that are either completely unsuited to them, or they don't understand what their own vehicle's capabilities are. Here in the US there's a very strong stereotype surrounding 'old' car brands and the age of the driver. If you're following a V8 Cadillac-anything, the minimum age of the driver is 70 and the maximum speed is 30mph (although this does go up to 45 when on the motorway). That vehicle could have a single-cylinder engine and it would still be overpowered for how it's used.
The same is true for many people with 4x4's or lifted trucks, pickups or any other vehicle with off-road capability. They really don't need to slow down to walking-pace for corners, or swerve for cracks in the road, or traverse ramps at glacial speeds. I've seen SUVs steer to avoid perfectly flat manhole covers....
The ultimate demonstration of idiocy in this department happened a couple of weeks ago when the truck in front of me braked and swerved into oncoming traffic to avoid a cloud of cherry blossom petals that had been dislodged from a tree in a strong gust of wind....

Monday, May 18, 2015

Yeah - about those "accident-free" drone cars.

If you're in the "too long, didn't read" generation, I'll summarise : Average number of damage-only crashes in the US is 0.3 per 100,000 miles driven. For Google's self-driving cars, it turns out that number is 3 per 140,000 - about 12 times higher than the national average.
This report in the NY Times has more detail : Self driving cars getting dinged in California.
What the NY Times article doesn't mention is that Google have only been required to report accidents (by California law) since September 2014. The program has been going for 6 years, so 5 and a half years of accidents have not been reported.
Chris Urmson, director of Google's program, has admitted to 11 damage accidents and another 15 'minor' accidents in an article he wrote for Medium (The view from the front seat of the google self driving car). So 26 fender benders in 6 months? That we know about?
Google also continue to tout the oversized mileage figures - now they're claiming 2 million miles - but again, they don't readily admit how many of those are in simulation, not on the real roads. Here's the skinny on that - Google's cars only drive on around 2,000 miles of actual real-world roads because that's the only part of the nation's road network that has been digitised in enough detail for their vehicles to work. So ask the question : 26 accidents in 6 months on roads that the cars are very familiar with. How does that scale up?
Google can mealy-mouth it however they like (someone was in control, it wasn't our fault) but that's the excuse for every car accident, isn't it? It was the other driver's fault. Google like to tell us that in all the accidents they've had, it's been the human that caused the problem, but by California law, the only drivers allowed in Google's cars right now have to be highly trained and certified. Isn't that worrying too, that the 'highly trained' drivers are the ones causing the problems? That begs the question about what happens when mere mortals are allowed to use them?
If drone cars are supposed to reduce accident rates by removing the reliance on the human factor, then the 'highly trained driver' argument, coupled the following statement, would seem to fly in the face of that idea : "For a vehicle to suddenly swerve to the right, a human would have to grab the steering wheel ... training becomes even more important" (Prof. Bryant Walker Smith, assistant professor and fellow at the Center for Automotive Research at Stanford).
Driver training is pretty pathetic in the US right now as it is - is he suggesting that drivers need to be more trained and more skilled in order to use drone cars? I can certainly see that argument - if a drone car suddenly needs human intervention, an untrained driver is the last person you want to grab the wheel.
Drone cars are an admirable project for sure, but unless we replace every car on the road with a drone car overnight, then I don't see the accident rate changing. If current indications are anything to go by, mixing drone cars and human-driven cars actually increases the accident rate.
Food for though : this is ONLY Google we're talking about here. Mercedes, BMW, Volvo and all the other manufacturers working on automation, have not reported their accident stats (nor are they currently obliged to).

Monday, May 11, 2015

Door dings and what it says about other people.

I hate door dings - we probably all do. Sure they can be fixed but it's a pain in the ass to deal with. My problem is what it says about other people. There are so many drivers who have so little regard for other's property that they don't think twice about slamming their door open into the car next to them after parking. Of course, leaving a note is so last-century, and it would imply a conscience, which would imply personal accountability - something everyone seems to be lacking these days.
On the occasion when I find a door ding and it obviously matches the car next to me (position of ding, colour of paint, my door paint obvious on their door etc), I'm left with a dilemma. Do I "do unto others" and scratch the hell out of their car, which lowers me to their level? Or do I be the bigger person and just leave? The morally correct answer is to drive away. But I'll admit on more than one occasion, I've done damage to the other vehicle purely out of revenge.
For most people, you wouldn't go up to someone in the street and punch them, or take their wallet, or break into their house. So why is damaging their vehicle not in the same category? And why, on the occasion when people are caught doing it, do they lash out so violently when challenged? As if somehow it's their right to damage your property, and you're somehow in the wrong for catching them doing it?

Monday, May 4, 2015

That time I nearly died three times whilst driving a Peugeot 3008

I was reading a post on Jalopnik recently where one of the regulars was bemoaning the transmission in the Fiat 500L (incidentally, a spiteful car that took the beautiful Fiat 500 and threw it out of the ugly tree making sure it hit every branch on the way down). It reminded me of the three times I nearly died in an hour of trying to drive a Peugeot 3008.
Let's be clear - this was a rental car. I would not have voluntarily been in that crime against car design. Apart from the design, there were a couple of fundamental engineering flaws with the car that made it so bad to drive that I'm not sure how it ever got past any safety testing.
First, the pedals. In an automatic, just a brake and accelerator. Seems simple enough - we've been building cars like this for decades. How then, was it possible, for Peugeot to put the pedals so close together, that with a size 9 shoe it was possible to hit both with one foot? Every time I used the accelerator, I caught the brake and vice versa. In slow-moving traffic, having a pedal arrangement that took my inputs and turned them into a random cacophony of sudden, jerking stops and randomly harsh acceleration was not ideal. The pedals alone accounted for the first two near misses.
The third near miss was attributable to the windows and headrests. The designers of the 3008 managed to design-in blind spots that surrounded the normal blind spots in every other car. Looking over my shoulder on the driver's side, there was a huge B-pillar that blocked the view of everything on that side. Looking over my shoulder the other way and the C-pillar covered a good 45 degrees of the field of view to the rear. The bits that weren't obscured by the C-pillar were covered by immovable headrests. The side mirrors were useless little bits of plastic that vibrated whenever the engine was one and had no convex blind spot on the passenger side. The inner rear view mirror couldn't be adjusted to look at anything other than the roof of the car, and the rear window design was so tiny it makes the current Range Rover Evoque look like it has a panoramic view out the back.
So how did this all contribute to the near-third accident? Simple - the mirrors didn't show the truck - because they were useless. A shoulder check meant I couldn't see the truck because of the immense blind spots around the C-pillar. And the inch-high rear window meant I couldn't see the truck because - you know - tiny window that behaved better as a wall than a window.
These were just the engineering flaws. The design flaws included power steering that was so light I had to concentrate to steer the car in a straight line (it followed every tiny deviation in the road, otherwise). Acres of chrome inside the cab so no matter where the sun was, I was always getting a reflection off something. Indicator and light stalks that were badly positioned behind the wheel. Cruise and windscreen stalks that got in the way of my knees. This list just goes on and on. The 3008 was a spiteful, hateful car designed by people who hated driving and hated everything a car ought to represent.
I took the car back to the rental counter and told them to give me something - anything else. I described the problems and the guy said "Peugeot 3008 then. Yeah - we can't give those away." The replacement car was a Citroen DS3 which was far, far, FAR better. Attractive, full of performance, and all the controls, mirrors and windows worked properly.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Designing cars to be more servicable.

A couple of weeks ago I decided to change the cabin air filter in my Evoque. I was getting an odd smell and with the fan on full, the HVAC system whistled so I figured a new air filter was the first place to start.
To do this job, on my car at least, you need to take out some plastic covers under the passenger side dash, and unbolt part of a metal frame in the fuse panel. So far so good. The problem is that the filter is 12 inches long and there's only 3 inches of clearance to the side of the HVAC unit to get it out, meaning it has to be twisted and bent considerably to remove the old filter. Putting the new one in was even more problematic because the twisting and folding had to be done at the same time as trying to feed the new filter round a 90 degree corner into the unit. Imagine trying to thread a needle with a sausage, whilst blind, around a 90 degree bend.
My car's not the only offender in this area either. I know on many Honda vehicles, to do the same cabin air filter change, you actually need to hacksaw a piece of plastic off the HVAC unit before you can even get to the filter cover.
This leads to the obvious question : why are these items not more servicable? Air filters need to be changed - that's a given. The engine air filter is normally easy to do (unless you're talking about the 80's-era Audi Quattro where you had to disassemble the fuel injection system just to access it). The cabin air filter ought to be just as easy to get to.
It's not just the air filter, obviously. The oil filter on my Honda Element was in such a place that when you took it off, the oil that drained out of the engine went all over the driveshaft and lower suspension arm. It was so bad that the "official" Honda kit to change the filter came with a drip ramp that you had to clip on to the suspension arm to redirect the flow.
There are cars where even something as simple as changing a headlight bulb can involve removing considerable amounts of bodywork, and others where something as basic as removing the sump requires the suspension to be dismantled and/or the engine to be dropped out of the car. It's not just cars either. The LT series of BMW touring motorbikes have so much bodywork and such a tightly packaged engine that the labour cost for changing spark plugs is something like 4 hours. Fifteen minutes to change the plugs and three and a half hours to disassemble and reassemble the bike.
In this day and age, shouldn't these parts be more accessible? The cynic will say that they're designed like this to encourage drivers to take their cars to dealers for service. Maybe so, but at the dealer, there's still a human being who's going to have to do the work, meaning that there's still someone who's going to curse and swear because of the inaccessibility of one or other component.
I'm not naive - I know how cars are built - I understand that the cabin air filter was put into the unit at the company who manufactured it while it was out in the open on a production line. The unit was then sent to Land Rover who simply bolted it into their car then built the dash around it. But come on - a little more forethought would make for a lot less frustration.

Monday, April 20, 2015

4 seats or 5?

I had an interesting conversation a couple of weeks ago about the number of seats in cars. It was the oddest thing but they said they decided not to buy a Chevy Volt because it only had 4 seats. It became a point of contention because realistically, every car only has 4 seats. The hump in the middle of the rear bench isn't really a seat. It's uncomfortable and ergonomically questionable and if you're an adult, it's essentially unusable.
What made the conversation weird was that the guy I was talking to had no children, so it's not like he needed a bench seat to get three kids on.
Rear seats have been a point of debate for me for years. Hands down the best vehicle I ever owned for rear seats was the Honda Element. It unashamedly had four seats. The two rear seats were physically separate from each other, meaning great shoulder room for passengers, and they had plenty of space to the seats in front, meaning great leg room for taller people. (I often have 4 people in my car.) They were comfortable and uncompromised by the desire to have a fifth seat in the middle.
The same is true for two-door sports cars. Ford Mustangs, Subaru BRZ and such - why the manufacturers put anything in the back is beyond me. For any reasonable driver, the front seats have to be in such a position that the rear seats have literally 10cm of space between the front of the seat base and the back of the front seats. No average human could ever sit in them.
I feel the same way about "third row" seating - sure you get two extra ones in the back for dwarfs or people with no legs below their knees, but you lose all cargo capacity so there's literally nowhere left to put even the smallest bag.
I guess because I have no kids, I don't see the need to jam that many humans into a metal container in close proximity to one another. If I wanted that sort of misery I'd buy an airline ticket and fly somewhere.

Monday, April 13, 2015

The moral dilemma facing the makers of drone cars.

Self-driving cars, drone cars, call them what you will. Long-time readers will know I view this as a bleak, joyless future. However there's a serious question to be asked, and that is the moral dilemma facing the people programming the software. At some point, your self-driving car is going to be faced with a simple decision : does it kill you, or does it kill the pedestrian at the side of the road?
Think about it - someone jumps a red light at an intersection as you're approaching. It's obvious to the onboard systems that even with full braking, you're going to hit the vehicle that sits in the intersection, and hit it hard enough that the airbags and restraints might not save you. The alternative is to steer and brake at the same time, but the sidewalks are full of pedestrians waiting for the next green light. The crosswalks on the side streets are full of already-crossing pedestrians so at this point, what's the right decision? To kill you and save 3 or 4 pedestrians? To kill the pedestrians and save you? Or to brake as hard as possible and hit the vehicle square in the middle in the hope that you and the occupants of the other vehicle will survive the impact?
Would you want the job of programming that logic? More to the point, would you accept that in a very particular set of circumstances, the car that you're sitting in could be programmed to sacrifice your life to save others?

Monday, April 6, 2015

How NOT to mount your phone when driving

I was recently browsing sites that offer car-mounts for my phone and I came across one from a company called 'Studio Proper'. The mount looks awesome but their promo video advertises the absolute worst location for a phone mount that you could imagine. In the video, they have it at eye-level, just a little off-centre from the steering wheel. Seriously - check it out for yourself here :
I know in places like California it's against the law to have anything mounted to your windscreen, but what they show in that video is just irresponsible. From the driver's point of view, yeah - great access to the phone. But it comes at the expense of being able to see anything out the right side of the windscreen. At one point in the video you even see a pedestrian disappear behind the phone because of it's location in the car.
The sad thing is I see people mount their phones and GPS's like this all the time, and it amazes me how they haven't the common sense to realise how dangerous they're being when doing this. But to see a company selling a phone mount and doing this bad a job with their PR video was a real facepalm moment for me.

Monday, March 30, 2015

RIP Top Gear - we knew you well

So the BBC did what we expected the old dinosaur to do - they cancelled Top Gear. Well technically, they haven't yet - all they've done is sack Clarkson. But given that James May and Richard Hammond won't do the show without him, effectively Top Gear is dead. If Chris Evans - the rumoured frontrunner replacement - becomes the main presenter, then the BBC will have pulled off the impossible by making a show that is actually worse than the US Top Gear. And believe me - that would be hard to do.
The BBC mishandled this in the style only they could. They should have kept this quiet and done the investigation whilst continuing to finish (and air) the three remaining episodes. The presenter's contracts were all up for renewal at the end of this season anyway. The BBC could simply have not renewed Clarkson's contract, and then stated the reason for it. But to blow this up out of all proportion and turn it into the public airing of their dirty laundry has cost them a lot. It's cost them credibility, to start with. We know it's also lost them about 4M viewers in the UK. Worldwide, the financial cost is pretty steep. They're in the hole for at least £250,000 for cancelling the Norway Top Gear Live - and that's just in ticket sales alone. Lost revenue from the 180 countries that air the show could come to anything up to another £200M per year. Factor in the magazine, live events, books, DVDs and all the other tie-ins and merchandising and that could creep up to £250M per year. Then there's the lawsuits that they will have to settle with all the TV stations with whom they're now in breach of contract to supply the show - that'll be a one-time cost but it will be expensive.
And why? Because the hyppocritical leeches at the BBC continued to make money hand-over-fist whilst publicly complaining about Clarkson at every opportunity. They're archaic dinosaurs who have no idea how to handle their own talent and deal with their own problems without them becoming public. Interviews with other former BBC alumni like Noel Edmonds have revealed just how terrible the Beeb are to work for.
So what now? My money is on Sky or Netflix - my hope is Netflix because they have no advertisers, which means Ambitious But Rubbish could shine there. The BBC will continue to attempt to make Top Gear, I suspect, but it will slowly die a long, agonising death. My suspicion is that it'll take a couple of years for them to realise they have nothing, and they'll swap presenters three or four times trying to come up with the magic combination before the inevitable happens.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Be wary when filling a rental car near an airport.

It almost goes without saying but I'll say it anyway: if you're returning a rental car to an airport and you need to fill up, use your brain. A couple of weeks ago I was returning a car at Orlando airport and needed to fill it. On the road out of the north side of the airport I came across two filling stations opposite each other. One was over $6 a gallon and the other was $5.95 a gallon. My initial reaction was a very loud WTF. Why? Because literally 15 seconds further north, on the next block, petrol was under $2 a gallon. Think about that for a moment. For the sake of driving an extra 15 seconds I spent 66% less for the petrol. You see this everywhere of course - the petrol stations near Heathrow Terminal 4 and 3 ask silly money for petrol. The big Shell station just south of Amsterdam airport is 25% more than anywhere else in the country.  But triple the price? This was the most blatant price gouging I've seen in a long long LONG time. I'm calling these guys out: Suncoast Energys and Sun Gas on South Semoran Blvd: you guys are criminals of the lowest order. 
For everyone returning a car at Orlando, drive one block further to the Wawa and save yourself a crapload of money. 

Monday, March 16, 2015

The BBC don't understand Top Gear

So we were all robbed of Top Gear this weekend because that dinosaur of broadcasting - the BBC - doesn't understand the very show it produces. Yes, Jeremy Clarkson shouted and swore at a producer. Maybe he hit him - that bit is still unclear. If I'd worked all day in the cold and rain, with the expectation of a hot meal at the end of it, I think I would have had the same reaction if the person who's job it was to arrange that meal had (for whatever reason) not done so. But for the BBC to react the way it has is symptomatic of a larger problem - they've had it in for Clarkson for a year or so now and they're looking at this as the golden opportunity to get rid of him.
The BBC demonstrably don't understand Top Gear. They said this weekend that it would survive without Clarkson. They indicated that Dancing With The Stars survived a change of host, and that was proof enough. The difference is - people don't watch a dancing show for the presenters - they watch it for the dancing. Top Gear's success hinges on the presenters as well as the cars. Proof of that can be seen in the failed Japanese, American and Australian versions of the show. Despite the same format and the same filming and editing quality, the 'talent' was just not there.
So what to do? The obvious choice would be for Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond and James May to abandon The Olde Worlde and offer their services to Sky or Netflix. The show wouldn't be called Top Gear but those of us who understand the show would follow them to wherever they end up. For sure, both of those companies would give an arm and a leg to have the hosts come to their networks, to the point where they stated this weekend that they would pay Hammond and May out of their contracts with the Beeb. The BBC claim that the three of them wouldn't have the freedom to do what they do now if they were beholden to a commercial TV station with advertisers to satisfy. Again - the BBC don't understand the power of Top Gear. Despite the idiocy of the show, manufacturers are clamouring to get their products on there. They know that any publicity is good publicity, even if three middle-aged farts hate the car.
The worst outcome could be that Top Gear is cancelled, and Clarkson, Hammond and May go their own ways never to do another motoring show. If that happens, we can all look back on this week as the week that the BBC demonstrated that they had no idea how to handle their single biggest intellectual propery. 350M viewers, 170 countres, magazines, DVDs, specials and all the other ancilliaries. Financially speaking, if Top Gear goes away, the BBC will have to shut down at least one of its other TV stations (likely BBC4) and at least one of its radio stations as it simply doesn't have the cashflow with TG out of the picture.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Top Gear made a valid point.

Everyone loves to hate Jeremy Clarkson, especially the Daily Mail with their not-so-secret hate campaign against him. But every once in a while a jewel of information pops out that is both funny and actually true.
A couple of weeks ago, Top Gear asked why the speed limit on motorways in England is still 70mph. The answer it seems is because of the decades-old advice that states that it takes 315ft to come to a complete stop at 70mph. Maybe in the 60's that was true, when cars had drum brakes, cross-ply tyres and flimsy frames. But as Clarkson pointed out, in modern ABS-equipped vehicles with independent suspension and radial tyres, the stopping distance from 70mph is nothing like 315ft - even in the wet. Less still if you have any of the current crop of brake assist technologies.
The point was well made when they indicated that to actually take 315ft to stop, you could be cruising at over 120mph nowadays. The point was made in typical Top Gear fashion but it was an important topic nevertheless. The highway code has not updated it's guidance on stopping distances for decades, and the speed limits on modern roads are not commensurate with modern driving practices or vehicle design. Maybe it's time we all revisited that particular topic.....

Monday, March 2, 2015

Once again, higher speed limits = lower accident rates

A couple of months ago, our local roads authority (UDOT, in Utah) decided that the speed limit on the motorways should be raised from 65mph to 70mph. At least up in the north of the state. The press and media were full of hysterical women screaming "won't somebody think of the children" and dire warnings from random people interviewed on the street about how it was going to be a bloodbath, a massacre, a dark day for road safety etc etc blah blah blah. The highway patrol were remarkably quiet about it - the one spokesman who did get interviewed said they would reserve judgement.
Well - as has happened pretty much everywhere this has been tried - guess what? Accident rates have fallen. The same happened in southern Utah when the limit was raised to 80mph. The same happened in Switzerland, the Netherlands, Spain, Greece, Sweden, Norway and all the other locations where enlightened authorities have realised that it's not the speed that is the problem, it is the DIFFERENCE in speed that is the problem, especially on motorways.
Now I know this isn't a popular view - the truth often isn't. But the facts speak for themselves and the theory behind it is simple and sound. It is this: A huge percentage of drivers are already breaking the speed limit and driving at 75. The law-abiding drivers are doing the posted limit - 65. This means the largest speed differential between the average driver and the law-abiding driver is 10mph. Raise the limit to 70 and the faster drivers don't suddenly all do 80 - they keep going at the speeds they're used to - 75. The difference is that the law-abiding drivers are now doing 70 and the differential has been cut in half to 5mph. That gives you a lot more time to react when everyone is travelling at speeds that are more closely matched. In areas where the limit was raised to 80, the speed differential has effectively become zero. In those areas, people were already doing 80, now the law-abiding drivers are doing the same speed.
Meanwhile back in England, they're crusading to lower the limit from 70mph to 50mph on the motorways. Although that's nothing to do with safety and everything to do with making money through automated speed cameras.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Californians and lane discipline.

Lane discipline on motorways is something that seems to confuse a tremendous number of people. The rule is pretty simple: use the inner-most lane(s) and only use the outer lane(s) when passing. Not sure that's so hard to remember. I think part of the problem is that people think the outside lane is called the 'fast' lane, and it's not. You can drive plenty fast in the inside lanes.
What was enlightening to me recently though was just how regional this is. We were driving from Salt Lake City to Palm Springs and once we got south of Vegas, there was a noticable change in driving style. The motorway is two lanes either direction, and without fail, the Nevada vehicles would pull out, pass and pull back in, whilst the California vehicles would be sitting in the outside lane even on totally empty sections. (Utah vehicles would be stuck on the hard shoulder, crashing into other vehicles, driving backwards etc - the usual Utah crapshoot)
Fortunately in the US, you can overtake on both sides, so passing on the right was quick and simple. (Ok technically that's illegal in many states but the chances of being pulled over for doing it are absolute zero.)
I have trouble understanding the mindset of the drivers who just sit hogging the outside lane. It's the same everywhere - worse in Europe because not only is it illegal to overtake on the wrong side, but the police take such a dim view of it that you can lose your license in some countries if you're caught. But to see such a stark example of it made me wonder if there's some peculiarity about California drivers or the way they're taught. We passed hundreds of CA plates on open sections, on the right, as they were dawdling in the outside lane going 5 under the limit.

Monday, February 16, 2015

The history of the car battery

I came across an interesting infographic a couple of weeks ago that I thought was worth sharing - the history of the car battery. Although it's more of a 'history of car electrical systems' too. Worth reading because it has some useful information in it but it might also jog a few people's memories about the age of their current battery. They don't last forever and if you live somewhere with extremes of temperature, you'll be lucky if a modern car battery lasts 5 years. It's not that they're badly manufactured, more that modern cars put such a tremendous strain on the electrical system with all the entertainment systems, heated seats, power-this and power-that, and car battery design hasn't changed much in the last few decades. Anyway - the infographic : The history of the car battery.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Captain Risky

A short post this week - in fact no post at all. Just enjoy this Australian ad spot for an insurance company...

Monday, February 2, 2015

Check your lights

As usual at this time of year, the number of 'one eyed monsters' is clear for all to see : people who have one headlight out and thus try driving with the remaining headlight on full beam to try to compensate. It's irresponsible, it's not very courteous to other drivers, and it costs about $10 and 10 minutes of your time to fix. So go and get a replacement bulb - in fact get two and replace both at the same time - and swap out your headlight bulbs. Just make sure not to touch the glass part of the bulb or you'll very quickly have it blow again.
Caveat: if you have HID lights and one of those suckers is out, make sure to remortgage the house before visiting your dealership to get it replaced.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Racing game camera views

I've recently been putting a lot of time into Forza Horizon 2 on my Xbox One. And by a "lot" of time I mean it's quite likely I've spent more time driving cars in the game in the last couple of weeks than I have spent time driving my real car in the real world.
The game itself is great - like the original Forza Horizon but with most of the annoyances taken out. But it reminded me of something that I've never quite understood : the above-and-behind camera view. I'm not sure why the game designers continue to put this view into the games. It's pointless, it's not realistic, and it makes the game much, much harder to play. The in-car or on-hood views are by far the easiest camera views to use, and both are a huge improvement on the helicopter-chasing-my-car idea.
It comes down to how you experience the world. In your own life, you don't see yourself in the 3rd-person - you see out of your eyes - 1st-person point of view. This means that when a game presents you with a 3rd-person point of view, it's unnatural and awkward. I said above I don't understand why the game designers do this - I suppose I do really - it's to let you see the car you're driving in all it's detail. Looks nice, but it's counterintuitive.

There's another videogame series that suffers the same problem - Metal Gear Solid. It's a shooting game (like) but the camera is above and behind the player (not like) which makes aiming the gun and hitting anything with any accuracy completely impossible.
If you enjoy driving/racing games, surely the point is to have fun and try to hone your skills? If you have a camera that presents an unrealistic fish-eye view of the world from behind you, you can't place the car properly on the road and you spend most of the time fighting the awkward camera view.
Apparently though I know nothing about this because it seems the best competition and career racing gamers all use the above-and-behind camera views, which makes me wonder how much faster they'd be if they used the 1st-person view instead? Personally, on a circuit race somewhere like Catalunya, my lap times are a good 1.5 to 2 seconds quicker when using the correct camera view.