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Archive for December, 2012

Driving Dogs

I don’t know if you’ve seen that clip on You Tube yet about the driving dogs. If you haven’t, you can watch it here.


Now, by the looks of that video (which, as far as I can make out, is genuine and isn’t a clever bit of film editing), someone has indeed managed to train that dog Porter pretty well so he responds to commands to turn the car left and right and so forth.  But when you stop to think about it, and if you’ve had anything to do with dogs that are amenable to learning tricks (our Staffy isn’t in that category – he won’t do tricks unless there’s an immediate payoff for him), you might realise that what the dog is doing isn’t all that hard. It’s moving paws here and there so that it steers the car and keeps its foot on the accelerator. Really, apart from the awkward pose – which doesn’t come naturally to dogs – the trick isn’t that much harder to do than teaching a dog to fetch the paper or to shake hands. The dog isn’t changing gear or anything like that – you really do need hands to do that, as well as a foot that’s capable of applying the clutch pedal at the right moment. OK, the car in question could be an automatic.


nd there you have the thing that really is amazing in that video clip: the car in question. It appears to be a good old Mini Cooper. Granted, to perform this stunt, you need a small car and a large dog so the dog can see out the window(which is more for looks than to actually let the dog drive – it’s the trainer who’s actually doing the steering and telling the dog when to turn left and right). But this isn’t the first time that the Mini has appeared in a similar wacky driving stunt.


The similar stunt I’m thinking of here is the scene in Mr Bean where he’s running late for his dentist’s appointment and has to get dressed, wash his face and brush his teeth while driving there in his beloved Mini. In that sketch, Mr Bean puts a brick on the accelerator and drives hands-free while doing his morning ablutions. It could be clever film editing again, but again, it might not be – certainly the similar episode where Mr Bean pulls his swimming cossie on over his trousers and then removes his trousers doesn’t seem to have been edited. Is it possible?


To pull this sort of stunt off, whether it’s getting a dog to drive or whether it’s trying to change your clothes and brush your teeth while driving, you need to be able to ensure several things:


  • 1 The car has to be in the right gear so it doesn’t stall while going around the track but not in so low a gear that the car goes slow and film footage from outside looks boring. An automatic would help here.
  • 2 The accelerator needs to be depressed enough to keep the car going at a constant speed but not so heavily that it accelerates and goes out of control.
  • 3 You need to be able to operate the steering wheel somehow. With anything with power steering, this is an easy enough task. For things without power steering, it’s a bit harder unless you do the “round and round the roundabout” thing that Mr Bean did, where you just keep the wheels at the right angle. Humans have excellent hands but can steer with other bits of their anatomy – my dad used to steer with his knees.

One point that is rather intriguing here is whether only Minis are capable of performing this sort of stunt. Does it have to only be a Mini Cooper or could you get a dog to drive another old classic small car such as a VW Beetle or a Fiat 500? And what about more modern little compact hatchbacks? Would it work with them?


You can try it if you like, but for goodness sake, do it on a controlled track rather than on the public roads…

Ten Common Reasons For Breakdowns

It’s Murphy’s Law, isn’t it? You’re ready to head off and you need to get somewhere quickly (in fact, you’re late already) and… the car won’t start. It seems as if the more things that cars have and the more things they are able to do, the more things there are to go wrong on them. OK, you can still get to where you want to go on time if the air-con (or the dual-zone climate control system) isn’t working, although you will arrived hot and even more bothered. And you can still park a car without parking assist, as long as the mirrors are visible and don’t have bird poop all over them. But if something goes wrong with the mechanics or the more vital bits of the electronics (which is happening with more and more cars these days), you’re stuck.

This is the moment where you phone up the AAA and then phone in to work or the doctor to say that the car’s broken down before you get comfy and make yourself a cup of coffee and check your emails while you wait for the AAA to turn up.
It’s often the little things that leave you stranded. According to the British Automobile Association, the most common things they get called out for are horribly minor. Massive great big engine blow-ups are rare (but do happen – it happened to me).
According to the British AA, the top ten reasons they get called out are as follows (remembering that if the car is stopped and the driver can’t get it going, the team can get called out):
1. Flat batteries. If this has happened to you, you can try your luck with jump-starters or by giving the car one heck of a good push downhill to get the engine turning over. Longer journeys help keep batteries well charged, and don’t forget to close the door and/or turn the stereo and park lights off when you leave the car.
2. Lost keys. If you’ve got one of those modern numbers that have an electronic chip to prevent theft in the transponder key, you’re in trouble and it’s back to the authorised dealer you go – not to buy a whole new Mercedes or whatever (thank goodness for that!) but a new key.
3. Flat tyres or badly worn tyres. You did remember to replace or repair the bad one after you changed the tyres last time so you actually have something in good nick on hand if you get a flattie? You did, didn’t you??? You didn’t? Ooops.
4. Alternator faults. Yes, this one’s a more serious mechanical death.
5. Failed starter motor. Ditto.
6. Cracked distributor cap: cracked or damaged distributor caps have been bugging motorists since at least the 1930s if not before. And they’re still a problem, as they cause the high voltage you need to get started to leak away. Maintenance here is the key – you might not see the crack but it could still be there.
7. Fuel problems. This could either be caused by not having enough gas in the tank (grab the jerry can and get on your bike, mate!) or by putting the wrong fuel in your car. I’m not sure whether putting diesel into a petrol engine happens more often than putting petrol into a diesel engine, but they’re both Not Recommended.
8. Clutch cables: They’re made of wire. They break.
9. Spark plugs: replace them regularly like you ought to.
10. HT leads: WD-40 is a short term solution to when the insulation on the leads gets a bit worn, but this should just be enough to get you limping into the nearest garage.
The moral? Maintenance, maintenance, maintenance. And keep a spare key somewhere handy.

Learner Driver Know-How

This article isn’t so much about things you need to know if you still have the L plates on your car. This is more about what to do and what not to do if you spot a learner driver on the road near you.

You might wonder why this sort of post is necessary. Shouldn’t we be concentrating on what the learners need to be doing? Well, sort of. The learners out there on the road are doing all that they can to clock up skills and experience, and that sort of thing can only be gained by actually getting out there on the road. And this means that when they’re out there, they’re going to make mistakes. Drivers on P-plates are also going to make mistakes as they still lack experience.
A lot of drivers do get annoyed about L-plate and P-plate drivers. Now, I have to admit that a stroppy teenager on a P-plate who thinks that they are entitled to do as they please and is pushing the limits now that Mum or Dad aren’t in the front passenger seat is a right pain in the butt. But sometimes, P-platers and L-platers earn the ire of experienced drivers by being over-cautious and simply making mistakes. A story from across the Tasman tells the tale of a younger driver being hassled by older drivers because he slowed down and took it slowly and easily in difficult weather conditions. (Note: In New Zealand, they don’t have the P-plate but drivers on their “restricted” licence don’t have to use an L-plate like a learner driver.)


I’m sure of us who have reasonably good memories of their own P-plate days can remember similar things happening. I remember getting the horn from a number of people behind me because I didn’t take small gaps at intersections or roundabouts – I was utterly paranoid about not being able to make it through the gap quick enough (and what if I stalled because I didn’t give it enough accelerator or hadn’t got the right gear?) so I waited for a nice big one to come along rather than taking what I thought was a big risk. It took years for this over-cautious and irritating habit of mine to die and it was finally cured, more or less, by (a) a Saab 9000 with very responsive acceleration that could get into those little gaps and (b) a diesel-powered Isuzu Bighorn that was next to impossible to stall.
So what should you do if you spot a P-plater or an L-plater on the road near you? Here’s a few hints.

• Remember that they’re still learning and will make mistakes. It’s part of learning. Give them a bit of space.
• Don’t harass them by doing the sort of thing described in the story at the link above – overtaking then jamming on the brakes etc.
• Give them time as well as space. If you’re used to tackling intersections at biking or walking speed, you aren’t used to taking smaller gaps. A nervous and timid P-plater who takes their time at an intersection and doesn’t try to take silly risks does not really deserve to have the horn blaring, let alone the one-finger salute or a barrage of abuse out the window. The more aggressive P-plater who charges into an intersection expecting to get into a ridiculously small gap and who makes you hit the brakes hard does deserve a good honking, though. But just keep it to the honk.
• If you’re the parent of a P-plater, you still need to be there and provide some instructions now and again if your teen is going to be tackling something they haven’t done before (e.g. off-roading, driving in extreme weather conditions, going on an interstate road trip). Ride with them now and again to make sure they haven’t picked up any bad habits. On this topic, have a chuckle at this road safety video from the other side of the Tasman. Sound familiar?