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Education

April 29th, 2011 Comments off

Earth Day recently came – and went – and, given the push for green transportation these days, a lot of the major car magazines put forth issues devoted to fuel-efficient vehicles in honor of the event.  Autoweek was one of these, with an Earth Day Special Issue, containing a bevy of articles about hybrids, plug-in hybrids, electric vehicles, and clean diesels.  But the article that caught my eye devoted a third of its page layout to a photograph of a Nissan Leaf being loaded onto a tow truck, with the title, Riding the Flatbed of Shame.

The author of this article, Mark Vaughn, describes his 45-mile (one way) journey to a track to conduct testing of the new all-electric Leaf.  Track testing – as in 0-60 mph acceleration tests, pedal-to-the-floor quarter-mile runs, and skid-pad exercises.  (In other words, activities that won’t do much to preserve the state-of-charge of his Leaf’s battery.)  He began this journey with 73 miles of range showing on the dash – which should have made it obvious that he wouldn’t be returning home on the same set of electrons with which he began.  But rather than deal with that reality, Vaughn continued to test the car, even with visual and audio “low battery” warnings of increasing ferocity.  Eventually, our fair automotive journalist set out to an auto electric shop, to cobble together an adapter to connect the Level 1 charging cord that came with the Leaf (which allows for connection into any standard household socket) to a dryer plug. Which immediately ruined the charger.  And required the tow-truck.

If you had *this*, and needed electricity at the other end, what would *you* do?

I have a few problems with this article.  Although the message is really, “If you’re an idiot, an EV won’t work for you,” the visual of the Leaf on the flatbed is simply “EVs don’t work.”  Secondly, Vaughn declares that you have to lay out every mile of your trip and compare it with every kilowatt-hour of charge in your lithium-ion battery pack.  If the numbers don’t add up, don’t go, which is sort of an alarmist view of EV usage.  Thirdly, Vaughn didn’t think, for whatever reason, to plug the charge-cord-he-already-had into a plug for which it was intended – instead taking on the challenging task of putting a square peg in a round hole.  And finally, in describing the final outcome of his mistake of plugging the 110-volt, 12-amp cord into a 220-volt, 50-amp outlet, he explains, with 38 amps more than the cable was designed for, it immediately fried.  Although non-electrical-types can’t be blamed for not realizing that the 50-amp rating of the outlet had nothing to do with the charger failure (it was the 220 volts that got him), as an automotive journalist writing in a major magazine, Vaughn should get his technical information correct.

Put simply, consumers must be educated about new technologies, such as electric-drive vehicles.  And Vaughn’s article only serves to miseducate.  (At least he correctly asserts that “it was nobody’s fault but my own.”)

Recently, I watched an episode of Speedmakers on Speed TV, dealing with Electric Vehicles.  It was an interesting piece that highlighted the Chevy Volt, Tesla Roadster and Model S, and Jaguar C-X75.  Unfortunately, the narrator consistently referred to the 16-kilowatt battery pack in the Volt, and the 52-kilowatt battery pack in the Roadster.  Which is sort of like me saying my Audi has a 50 horsepower gas tank. What the gentleman means to say is kilowatt-HOUR, which is how battery capacity is measured.  Education…

Earlier this month, there was a garage fire in a Connecticut home.  The garage was completely destroyed, as were the two cars in it.  One of these cars was a brand new Chevy Volt, plugged in and charging overnight.  The other was a Suzuki Samurai that had been converted by the owner to an electric vehicle, also plugged in (to a home-made charging system) and charging overnight.  Although the cause of the fire has not yet been determined, that didn’t stop local news outlets (such as WFSB) from declaring that the Volt may have ignited the fire.  In the headlines… As for me, I’m suspicious of the home-made conversion and its charging system.  The Volt was almost certainly the victim here.

In any case, I sure am glad that gasoline doesn’t burn.

Education…

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Roads

April 3rd, 2011 Comments off

On a recent road-trip to West Virginia, I saw a bumper-sticker that said, Sick of traffic?  Invest in Highways!

(What is it the kids say these days?  I believe the term is FACEPALM!…)

One can’t be blamed for thinking the solution for too much traffic is to provide more pavement for the cars to travel on.  I mean, if the 4-lane highway is too crowded, then wouldn’t 6 lanes, or 8 lanes – or even a shiny new freeway – fix the problem?

Then again, if there weren’t any highways, there wouldn’t be any traffic.

Of course, eliminating all of our roads is about the worst possible solution to solving our traffic problems.  But building a lot more roads isn’t much better.  Roads create traffic. While a highway expansion may eliminate bottlenecks and traffic jams in one location, it increases the number of cars that travel to other locations – typically denser, urban centers or commercial areas into which people commute for their jobs.  Once this “easy access” to the city is built, there’s an influx of people to the suburbs, creating more traffic, requiring more roads, and the downward spiral continues.  The eventual outcome is a sprawling metropolitan area, with a massive network of roads and highways, nearly all of which are constantly clogged with traffic.  (Look at Atlanta, Los Angeles, or Washington, DC as prime examples.)

No, if you’re sick of traffic, don’t invest in highways.  Invest in public transit. High-speed rail and commuter rail make great alternatives to interstate freeways.  Light rail and buses work well in urban areas.  And in addition to the traffic congestion relief provided by transit systems, we also get the environmental and petroleum reduction benefits.  Additionally, high-speed and light rail offers economic opportunities along their routes.  (Of course, the economic impact isn’t universally agreed upon.  Those opposed argue that no transit system can succeed without massive subsidies.  Then again, what about our highways?  Until every road in the U.S. is a toll-road, that roadway upon which you’re driving is 100% subsidized!)

The Sick of Traffic? Invest in Highways! slogan comes from the American Traffic Safety Services Association, a legitimate trade group representing its members who are involved in traffic control and roadway safety.  Obviously, they’re looking out for their members’ interests, and they certainly can’t be blamed for that.  But the irony isn’t lost on me that the particular bumper sticker I saw was plastered on the back of a Hummer H2, rumbling down I-66 carrying only a single occupant.

According to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, we’ve got over four million miles of roads in the U.S.  On the other hand, we’ve got about 21,000 miles of Amtrak, 7,500 miles of commuter rail, and 1500 miles of light rail.  Right now, we don’t need any more roads.

Categories: General, Policy, Public Transit Tags:

Sexism

January 19th, 2011 Comments off

This morning, while standing at the bus-stop waiting for the public transit system to take me to work, a woman walked up to the newspaper vending machine next to me to purchase her copy of the Post.  As she turned to walk away (after retrieving her print edition of what everybody else read online yesterday), she asked me, “Sir, would you like the Sports section?”

Now, I’m sure this unexpected gesture was born out of genuine kindness, pure and simple.  But, should I have been offended? I mean, if our roles had been reversed, and had I offered her the Style & Beauty section, would she have been right to feel insulted?

Bottom-line:  there are many things in this world which are, rightly or wrongly, associated with either men or women.  This includes cars.

There are vehicles that are traditionally for guys. Four-wheel-drive trucks.  Jeeps.  Muscle cars.  Anything with a loud exhaust.  And then there are “chick cars”. The VW New Beetle.  The Mazda Miata (until guys figured out it was fun as hell to drive around a race track).  And minivans.  (OK, minivans may be more stay-at-home-mom-schlepping-the-kids-all-around-town car than chick car.  But still.)

Of course, the lines are now blurring – at least when it comes to minivans.  And auto companies (or at least their marketing firms) realize it.  Take for example the “Rock Van” ads about the latest Honda Odyssey, or the “Swagger Wagon” spots about the Toyota Sienna.  (Meanwhile, OEMs like Chevrolet – who doesn’t have a minivan offering – position vehicles like the Traverse as the less demeaning alternative to the minivan.)

I wonder which gender-bin electric-drive vehicles will fall into, now that they’re becoming more and more available. I’ve been told that the Prius is a chick car.  I suspect that the Leaf may fall into that category as well, though the Volt has a more masculine presence.

The Tesla Model S?  I’ll take mine along with the Sports section, thank you very much.

A Christmas Poem from ThatCarBlog

December 23rd, 2010 Comments off

In honor of this holiday season, please enjoy this gift from ThatCarBlog to you.

May your stockings be filled with 5w30.

May the shine on your clearcoat never get dirty.

May your turbos spool quickly, your headers flow free.

May your camber be set to the perfect degree.

May your rotors be vented, as well as cross-drilled.

May your bottom end never need a rebuild.

May your rear differential be limited slip.

May your tire tread compound give you ultimate grip.

May you rapidly shift with your dual-clutch transmission.

May your dampers and springs provide well-tuned suspension.

May your crankshaft be forged, as well as your wheels.

May you have dancing visions of automobiles.

May your overhead cams have both lift and duration.

May your roadways be clear on your Christmas vacation.

                                    ~ThatCarBlog

Categories: Administrative, General Tags:

Anniversary

June 25th, 2010 Comments off

Time flies. It was just about a year ago that ThatCarBlog kicked off with my inaugural post.  A lot has happened since then:  Cash For Clunkers came and went; the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act doled out several billion dollars to help improve the fuel efficiency of our vehicles, primarily through electrification; automobile manufacturers introduced a few new interesting vehicles; a few Toyota Priuses got Christined and took their drivers on a wild ride; oh, and BP broke something that they don’t know how to fix…

Unfortunately, I’ve been busy the past month, and haven’t had time for a single update.  To my recollection though, not much has happened during the past few weeks, automotively speaking.  We’re still waiting for the public release of the Chevy Volt and Nissan Leaf later this year – signifying the mass-market introduction of plug-in hybrid and all-electric vehicles in the U.S.  (One thing that has happened is that a few automotive journalists have had the chance to drive the Leaf, and were quite impressed!)  Mercedes did reveal the first prototype of the all-electric version of their SLS AMG, which is drop-dead gorgeous, although the color-scheme for the prototype is questionable…  Tesla Motors’ initial public offering of stock is right around the corner, with much speculation as to whether it’ll be a success or a flop.  …Oh, and BP has done basically nothing to stop the oil-geyser that they created in the Gulf of Mexico, despite spending over $2.3 billion.

…OK, so maybe a lot has been going on in the last month. The automotive world doesn’t stop just because I don’t have time to think about it.  (Or because the World Cup is happening.  …Hhhmmm, maybe that’s why I haven’t had time for ThatCarBlog in the last couple of weeks!)

Anyway, Happy Birthday to ThatCarBlog.  Thanks for reading!  Now, it’s time for Brazil v. Portugal!

Public Relations

May 11th, 2010 Comments off

Having been unsuccessful plugging the leak they caused in our planet, BP takes a different tack in its PR efforts…

Categories: General Tags:

Moore’s Law

March 26th, 2010 Comments off

In the computer industry, there’s a concept known as Moore’s Law.  It basically describes the historical trend that, every year (or two), the number of transistors that can be put onto a semiconductor device roughly doubles – which means the power and capability of our computing devices roughly double as well.  …This is the reason that your iPod can do so many more things than your Atari 2600 could 30+ years ago. (And if you already knew what Moore’s Law is, then you’re a giant nerd.  Or you work in the semiconductor industry – which is basically the same thing.)

On occasion, I’ve heard people criticize the auto industry when comparing it to the computer industry.  They say things like, “If we’d had the same amount of innovation in the auto industry as we’ve had in computers, then we’d all be driving around at 800mph in cars that cost $10 and get 200mpg.” …OK, I made up those numbers.  But you get the point – it’s complete crap.

There’s a big difference between the semiconductor industry and the auto industry.  Automobiles are used to move people – and their stuff – around. In semiconductors, the goal is to move around electrons.  Electrons are, in general, much smaller than people. We’ve been able to make semiconductors so much better because we’ve been able to improve the way we manufacture them, reducing their size to sub-micron levels – much closer to the size of those electrons than when we first started.

Cars, on the other hand, are roughly the size they need to be to move us around.  (OK, you could argue that our cars here in the U.S. are a little bloated. But, they’re not orders of magnitude larger than they need to be.)  It’s not like the first cars manufactured were about the size of a small town, and we’re only slowly shrinking them down as our manufacturing capabilities allow.  The constraint here is the size of the passengers – which probably won’t be changing anytime soon.

Ironically, some of the most exciting new “green” cars are coming from companies that were formed by folks who cut their teeth in the semiconductor industry.  They know what Moore’s Law is.  They’ve got some great ideas, but I hope they don’t expect the same year-after-year exponential improvements in their new industry as they’re accustomed to.

Categories: General Tags:

Cynicism

February 9th, 2010 Comments off

Back in December, after driving through the Mid-Atlantic Blizzard of 2009, I extolled the virtues of all-wheel-drive, in both inclement and sunny weather.

My Audi (Pre-Extraction)

And now, having made it (at least most of the way) through the Mid-Atlantic Blizzard of 2010, I am again grateful that all of the cars in my household are driven by all four wheels.

But, while digging my Audi out of its icy crypt after this past weekend’s wintry blast, I began to grow bitter as I was repeatedly compelled into service to help extract some wayward traveller’s ride from the unplowed street in front of my house.

So, to help commemorate my efforts (not to mention my sore back) in putting up with helping my fellow man during this storm, and with all due apologies, I pass on to you some of the more illuminating remarks that were shared with me as I stood outside in the snow, shovel in hand.

“I don’t understand why my traction control isn’t working!” (Exclaimed by a man who had driven his Lexus ES350 into the deep snow just a bit outside the two hard-packed tracks that designated where the road is.) Sir, it is working, but your front-wheel-drive fancy Toyota isn’t the Mach Five.  Your car can’t drive over open water, nor can it scale vertical buildings.  Similarly, it will not move once you ram it into 2 feet of snow.  And please – stop spinning the tires.  You’re slinging slush into my face while I try to dig you out.

“Hey, are you stuck?!” (Smugly asked by a couple in a Subaru Forester, driving past me and the Lexus driver.) No, ma’am.  We’re not stuck.  I frequently hang out in the middle of snow-covered intersections, with my head under a Lexus, chatting with old guys in golf pants.  Oh, and this snow shovel in my hand?  No idea how that got there.  …Oh, OK – maybe the Subie drivers weren’t quite as smug as I make them out to be.  (Though, I sure would be, if I were them!)  Truth be told, in an effort to disassociate myself from the Lexus driver and give the Forester folks a nod of vehicular approval, I immediately pointed to the Lexus and replied, “Well, HE’S stuck!”  In the end, however, the Subaru just kept on going without stopping to help…

“Wow, I’m not going ANYWHERE, am I?!” (Shouted by a Mercedes C300 driver, whose rear wheels spun hopelessly as she sawed back and forth on her steering-wheel.) No, ma’am, you’re not.  Unless I get out of my vehicle (which you’re now blocking) and push you, along with the help of several other frustrated folks who actually took the time to determine the state of the roads and the suitability of their vehicle in these conditions.  And please, once we get you going, don’t stop again.

“Which way are they facing?” (Posed by the same Merc driver that offered up the previous quip, in response to me advising her to aim her wheels forward when we started to push.) Really?  How little awareness do you have of what’s going on with your car that you don’t know which way you’ve turned your steering wheel?  Also, please hang up your cell-phone – we’re trying to help you.

“Hey, can I borrow your shovel?” (A seemingly unburdensome question asked by a taxi driver who sat in the road, a single rear wheel on his old Ford Crown Vic spinning impotently in the slush.) Oh, this shovel?  The one I’m using to unencase my own car?  Sure, go ahead.  I wasn’t really … using … it.  (OK, actually, I was getting tired, and wanted to take a break, so I offered the shovel.)  Only Mr. Cab Driver intended for me to dig him out, while he continued to rock the car back and forth.  Only there was no rocking.  The pitiful traction offered up by that rear-wheel-drive car with bald tires and no limited slip differential was almost comical.  He didn’t budge until a few passers-by joined me in shoving him down the street.  …Come on, you’re a professional driver.  You do this for a living.  You should know better!

…OK, perhaps I should have more patience with my fellow drivers.  (And honestly, I’m not really the jerk that this post may lead you to believe.)  …Maybe modern cars have become so good – so capable of isolating us from the road and everything around us – that we feel invincible when we’re behind the wheel, and we forget what the limits are.  …Or maybe we just never stop and think before hopping behind the wheel in the first place.

Tweeting Our Way Out of Oil Addiction

February 3rd, 2010 Comments off

The year was 1987. Ronald Reagan was president, The Simpsons appeared on TV for the first time, and disposable contact lenses became commercially available.  …That was also the year I became a licensed driver.

When I was a teenager, reaching the age of licensedom was the most anticipated and celebrated event in a young man’s life.  No more having your parents shuttle you to meet your friends – or your date – on a Saturday night.  With that little piece of plastic, you could go wherever you wanted, whenever you wanted … as long as it was before dark.  (You had to wait another year for completely unrestricted driving privileges.)

According to a story last week in the Washington Post, the trend of teenagers applying for a driver’s license as soon as the clock strikes “16 years” may be changing.  According to the story, in 1998 nearly 45% of 16-year-olds got their driver’s license.  In 2008, that percentage had dropped to just over 30%.

Why the apparent decline in interest among teens to jump in their car and drive?  Well, according to the Washington Post story, one contributing factor is social networking.  Back in the day, if we wanted to … social network … with our friends, we had to go see them.  In a pinch, we could talk on the phone.  (Three-way calling was cutting-edge technology!)  But then mom would have to use the phone, so we’d have to to hang up – and break the 3-way-calling-chain that had connected all of our friends.

Since then, we’ve seen cell-phones, broadband, and social networking come into existence and become mainstream.  Teens spend countless hours on Facebook, Twitter, and texting (or otherwise instant-messaging) with their friends.  And when they do this, they’re not driving.  (Well, OK, some of them do text-and-drive.  Which is dangerous. And hard.)  In fact, some teens would actually prefer to be chauffeured around by dear old mom and dad simply so they can continue to OMG and LOL with their BFF!

When a friend of mine recently told me he offered his teenage daughter a choice – a new car, or an iphone … and she chose the iphone, I began thinking, “I wonder what the impact that this phenomenon might have on the amount of fuel we use in our cars is, compared to the impact of, say, hybrid vehicles.”  Let’s assume there are about 10-million teenage drivers in the U.S. – a reasonable guess.  Assuming about 2.5-million of these are 16 years old, then the Washington Post article suggests that about 375,000 of these kids who would’ve gotten their licenses 20 years ago now choose not to.  If each of these kids would have otherwise driven 10,000 miles a year at an average of 25 mpg, that’s about 150-million gallons of gasoline per year that we’ve avoided burning.  Conversely, if Facebook didn’t exist and these kids still got their license and all drove 45 mpg Prius’s (without the faulty accelerator), then we’d only save about 67-million gallons of gasoline each year (compared to the 25 mpg baseline).  Wow.

OK, so my assumptions are arguably faulty.  But, they’re based in reality. And the conclusion? Twitter is more than twice as effective as hybrid technology at reducing fuel use in vehicles.

You heard it here first, folks.  But please – don’t retweet it.

Religion

January 22nd, 2010 Comments off

To some, cars are a religion.  And to many of them, the Barrett-Jackson Collector Car Auction is the sacred center of their automotive universe.  It’s like Mecca is to Islam.  Or like Roswell is to UFO believers. …Or like Disney World to masochists…

I recently had the opportunity to attend the Barrett-Jackson car show and auction in Scottsdale, Arizona.  And I have to admit – it was a little like attending someone else’s church.  You know the feeling:  things are done a little differently than they are in your own denomination, and you’re not sure what to expect next.  See, I’m more a practitioner of European Sports cars, while Barrett-Jackson is geared more towards the followers of classic American muscle.  And while I tend to develop more of a functional relationship with the object of my praise, interpreting the peppering of rock-chips and sand-blasting on the front fascia of a race car as evidence of one’s degree of faith, the Barrett-Jackson crowd depends on the gleam of light reflecting off perfectly polished paint and buffed chrome as an outward symbol of their devotion.

1941 Ford Pickup

1941 Ford Pickup

Still, as in religion, that which we have in common unites us more than any differences that may divide us.  The passion and zeal displayed by the owners in the preparation of these cars is every bit as real as the dedication and commitment demonstrated by track junkies and weekend warriors in pursuit of the perfect lap.  Barrett-Jackson is a pageant for those who subscribe to the collector car creed, putting on display the finest examples of meticulously restored – and often uniquely customized – American iron from the 1930s through present day.  Staring in awe at the beautifully built oak wood bed in a 1941 Ford pickup, the massive chrome bumper and grill on a 1949 Buick station wagon, and the LS6 crate engine implanted in the clean-enough-for-surgical-use engine bay of a 1956 Corvette, I began to feel the call to explore the doctrines of this other faith.

1949 Buick Woody Wagon

1949 Buick Woody Wagon

Sure, Barrett-Jackson isn’t exclusive to American classics.  There were a smattering of well-prepared VW Buses and Beetles, a few examples of Porsches from various decades, and several interesting Jaguars, Aston Martins, Austin Healeys, and BMWs.  (Given the sheer number of vehicles on display, it would be hard not to have some variety!)  But it was clear what the focus of this revival was – especially given the amount of money that was changing hands!

And you know what?  I didn’t mind at all.  I’ve been around/in/under enough cars of my own automotive creed that it was refreshing to see things from another point of view.  So whether you tend to annoint your hands in Mobil 1, or tithe with Polishing Compound Number 4, remember:  we’re all motoring towards the same big garage in the sky.

To some, cars are a religiAnd to many of them, the Barrett-Jackson Collector Car Auction is the sacred center of their automotive universe.  It’s like Mecca is to Islam.  Or like Roswell is to UFO believers. …Or like Disney World to masochists…
I recently had the opportunity to attend the Barrett-Jackson car show and auction in Scottsdale, Arizona.  And I have to admit – it was a bit like attending someone else’s church.  You know the feeling:  things are done a little differently than they are in your own denomination, and you’re not sure what to expect next.  See, I’m more a practitioner of European Sports cars, while Barrett-Jackson is geared more towards the followers of classic American muscle.  And while I tend to develop more of a functional relationship with the object of my praise, interpreting the peppering of rock-chips and sand-blasting on the front fascia of a Porsche as evidence of one’s degree of faith, the Barrett-Jackson crowd depends on the gleam of light reflecting off perfectly polished paint and buffed chrome as an outward symbol of their commitment.
Still, as in religion, that which we have in common unites us more than any differences that may divide us.\
Categories: General Tags: