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Understanding Your Air Conditioning

The weather is starting to get at least a bit warmer, and it’s about time that we started thinking about summer and about summer motoring.  For most of us, especially if we’re in the hotter parts of Australia, having air conditioning that works well is an absolute must if you want to stay sane during the daily commute during the heat of summer – or while on your holiday road trip.

Making sure that your air conditioning is in good working order becomes a bit easier if you understand how it works.  It might seem that it works by magic – you switch it on and cool, refreshing air blows out of the vents – but of course, it doesn’t.  Unless you don’t ride to work on a car but on a flying carpet or on a broomstick Harry Potter style.

Like a lot of systems in your car, air conditioning works by pumping some kind of fluid around a system, transferring heat energy as it goes.  Your radiator does much the same thing, using fluid to take the heat energy away from the engine and put it somewhere else.  This process is simpler in the radiator, as the natural way things work is for heat energy to pass from the hot object to the cold object – that’s part of the Second Law of Thermodynamics.  However, the trick with air conditioning is to cool something down, which is a bit harder.  However, it’s not rocket science and, in fact, the science of air conditioning pre-dates rocket science (almost) and cars have been sold with air-con since the 1940s at least.

Air conditioning systems have three main parts: a compressor (#4 in the image above), a condenser (#1) and an evaporator (#3 – and #2 is a one-way valve).  The compressor is the powerhouse of the system and it’s driven by your car engine.  This is why old-school penny pinchers wanting to get a few more kilometres per litre will advise you not to run the A/C unit unless you have to – the more you ask your engine to do, the more fuel it will consume.  However, on a hot day, the only other way to keep cool while driving is to open the windows, which increases drag, which also increases fuel consumption. Your choice was between saving fuel and keeping cool.  Anyway, I digress.  The compressor has the job of taking the refrigerant gas and putting it under loads of pressure.  This pressure heats the gas up (think of how hot a bicycle pump feels when you use it), which seems counterproductive although it’s necessary. It needs the pressure to get around the condenser.

From the condenser, the pressurised refrigerant gas moves into the condenser.  This is a sort of radiator that manages to steal the heat from the pressurised gas as the gas worms around the tubes in the system.  As the gas cools in the condenser, it turns to liquid.  It’s now ready for the evaporator.

Cooling by evaporation is the oldest known method of cooling down.  This is how your sweat works and why spritzing your face with water feels so refreshing.  The process of turning the liquid into vapour or gas, be it the refrigerant in your air-con system or the sweat on your forehead, uses heat energy, so the place where the liquid used to be feels cooler.  This, incidentally, is why alcohol swabs and perfume (and aftershave) feel cool on the skin: alcohol evaporates at a lower temperature than water so it evaporates quickly, using some of your skin’s heat to do so, and we perceive any rapid loss of heat as cold.  The evaporation (technically boiling) temperature of the refrigerant is even lower (and so is its freezing temperature).  In fact, when it hits the evaporator, the refrigerant should be at about 0°C.

When it gets to the evaporator, which is usually located away from the rest of the system and quite close to the car’s cabin, the refrigerant absorbs some of the heat of the cabin as it changes from liquid back to gas again.  Abracadabra – the heat energy goes from the air around you and into the refrigerant and you feel nice and cool, especially if the fans in the car take that cool air and make it move, which makes the most of the windchill factor. Ahhh – refreshing!

The gas then cycles into the compressor and the process begins again.  There are a few other bits and pieces in an A/C system, like the parts that remove actual water from the refrigerant liquid (this is why water drips out of the bottom when your A/C is running).  Removing water and other bits is vital, as water would actually freeze in the system and damage it badly.

On the whole, air conditioning systems take care of themselves unless they’ve been physically damaged.  This is why the hoses in an A/C system need to be checked, as they’re the most vulnerable parts (all that pressure!).  However, no system is absolutely perfect and bits of gas will escape so from time to time, you will need to re-gas or re-charge the refrigerant in the system.  Simply, this involves topping up the refrigerant levels.

And what about climate control?  How does this differ from ordinary air conditioning?  The big difference is that air conditioning just tries to cool things down no matter what.  Climate control, on the other hand, tries to keep things at a set temperature (which YOU select).  Climate control will turn the air conditioning system on or off, and will adjust air flow and add hot air from the radiator as needed, using input from the temperature sensors.  And that’s about it.  They say that climate control is more fuel-frugal than ordinary air conditioning because it doesn’t need to run the air conditioning system all the time nonstop – it only does it when it needs to.

Dual zone and multiple zone climate control works in the same way as ordinary climate control but it’s got a few more temperature gauges so the system can fine-tune what it’s doing in different parts of the vehicle, which avoids the “I’m too hot” – “I’m freezing” argument.

If it’s been a while since you had your air conditioning system checked out, then maybe it wouldn’t hurt to take it in for re-gassing before the summer starts.

 

How To Clean Car Seats

Hello, I’ve left tons of hair and drool over your upholstery. What you gonna do about it, boss?

In my post last week, I discussed the advantages and the disadvantages of the different seat upholstery materials.  In that post, I mentioned the ease of cleaning as a factor that might be the deciding one for you

Now, it’s super-easy to clean car seats if you have vinyl, which is about the only good thing about vinyl. Wipe it down with a damp cloth and there you go. If you have a classic that is cursed with vinyl seats and you’ve done the sensible thing and put aftermarket covers on them, it’s still simple. Take the covers off the seats, toss them into the washing machine on the gentle cycle, dry them on the old Hills Hoist and pop them back on. Simple.

It’s not so simple if you haven’t got car seat covers that come off for washing quite so easily.  You’re going to have to get in there and clean it yourself.  Tackling this job is going to be different depending on whether you chose the leather or the cloth.

OK, let’s start with the cloth seats.  If you decided against leather on the grounds that you have messy children or dogs that would wreck leather, you’re definitely going to have to get the grub out of the upholstery from time to time. Banning really messy food or sticky drinks in the back seat might help keep the muck to a minimum but accidents happen and everybody has the odd icecream in the car now and again. Plus there’s always that small child who needs the loo while you’re stuck in the middle of heavy traffic with no way to pull over… In short, mess will happen!

Here’s how to clean cloth car seats front and back.

  1. Get out the vacuum cleaner and go all over the seats, the back and the headrest, plus any armrests. You may as well give the footwell a good going-over and the cupholders too, while you’re at it. This gets off dog hair, human hair, dirt particles and other loose grit.
  2. Hire one of those carpet shampooing machines and make sure that you get the upholstery head. Follow the instructions and leave the seats to dry out before you sit on them again… which could be a problem if you need to drive back to where you hired the upholstery cleaning machine from before your time runs out.
  3. If you don’t hire one of those machines but want to give it a go yourself, you still have to allow for plenty of drying time, during which you can’t sit on the seats. It’s also a good idea to leave the windows open for better evaporation and air circulation.  Also avoid the temptation to use lots of water – use only just enough. What you’ll need plenty of is elbow grease.
  4. Sprinkle the seats all over with baking soda. Be generous. Use one of those kitchen shaker things or a reclaimed talcum powder container.  Baking soda absorbs smells, so if your car interior is particularly stinky, then leave the baking soda on overnight.  If you want to spot-treat just one stain or area, you can do this, but you might be left with a conspicuously clean patch.
  5. Get a spray bottle of the spritzer or plant mister type and spray the baking soda. Don’t overdo it – you should spray on just enough to make the baking soda pasty.
  6. Grab a toothbrush (if you’re feeling masochistic) or a larger scrubbing brush that isn’t too stiff or scratchy. Now get busy scrubbing the fabric.
  7. Once you’re done scrubbing, get an old towel and blot up as much moisture as possible.
  8. Get your spritzer bottle and fill with a 50/50 mixture of white vinegar and warm water. You can add some essential oils if you feel like it or if you want a nice smell.  Detergent like you use for handwashing dishes can go in, but no more than a couple of drops.  Now spray this all over the baking soda – again, not excessively.  The vinegar will react with the baking soda and it will fizz up.
  9. Blot again with another old towel – or possibly several. This will absorb the moisture plus the grime loosened by the baking soda, the vinegar and the elbow grease. Once you think you’ve blotted it all, do it again just to make sure.
  10. Open the doors and windows and leave the car interior to dry out. If you can leave the car in the garage with the windows open overnight, all the better.

Admittedly, this process is going to be easier if you have a small city hatch rather than a van or MPV. With larger vehicles, just spot-treat any obvious bits of awfulness (e.g. the place where the dog threw up) and keep up the regular vacuuming.  If you really want a perfect interior, then use the hire machines.

Now for leather seats.  With leather, you have to be really careful with moisture (which will leave leather tough and hard after it dries) and with scratching.  You can start with vacuuming but be very careful to use a proper head with a nice soft brush.

The trick for cleaning leather is that you will wipe rather than scrub.  The good news is that this will work.  Baby wipes and damp cloths will work but be sure to have a towel handy to dry the leather off immediately.  There are truckloads of recipes for cleaning leather, most of which use some combination of soap and water, or detergent and water plus a nice soft cloth.  The alternative is vinegar, which has the added bonus of killing mould and bacteria.  Actually, a rag moistened in water or vinegar followed by drying could be all you need. Just be careful not to let the water/vinegar soak into the leather – you need only enough moisture to loosen the dirt.

However, you might want to add a bit of sheen to the leather and something to help it stay supple – kind of like a moisturiser for the cow skin (or goat skin) covering the seats.  If you’re a horsey type, you probably already have access to saddle soap – and what works for the leather of a saddle or bridle will work for leather seats.    However, the rest of us needn’t despair.  You can buy some overpriced fancy specialist product for cleaning leather seats. Or you can look for a cheaper option in your pantry: mix up some oil and vinegar, just like you would for a salad.  A lot of recipes out there call for olive oil but the secret is that any sort of oil will do the job.  Again, essential oils can be added if you fancy but these are optional.  If you want to add them, my advice is to use lavender (for calming) or eucalyptus (for mental alertness).

Shake the mixture up in a spritzer bottle (and you’ll need to shake before every spray) then spray sparingly on the seats, treating one part at a time.  Again, don’t use too much.  Buff the leather well with a nice old towel or a nasty old T-shirt that’s seen better days – the vinegar and the oil will loosen grime, and any leftover oil will soak into the leather and give it a nice natural shine that helps keep the leather supple. If you’ve got any of the mixture left over, then you can actually use it in a salad – unless you’ve added essential oils, in which case, use it in the bath or as a body oil.

But what about Alcantara, that synthetic suede from the motor racing world?  How do you clean that?  OK, it’s a beast to clean because the suede-like finish shows marks so easily.  However, it is stain-resistant, so the dirt will at least be surface dirt.

To clean Alcantara, you will probably need a proper cleaning product. Stay away from steam cleaning machines and from products designed for leather.   If you can’t get hold of the products made by Alcantara for their product, then you can make do with a lightly moistened sponge or a soft cloth – and make sure that the cloth in question is white just in case the colour bleeds from the rag to the upholstery.  Car detailers have been known to use old-school shaving brushes.  Run the cloth over the upholstery, taking great care not to (a) crush the soft little floofy finish down or (b) use too much moisture.  You’ll need to do it several times, and it’s best to work in a circular motion to avoid leaving streaks in the suede-like finish.  Leave to dry overnight, then get a very soft brush (that old-school shaving brush) or a dry sponge or a dry terrycloth face flannel and gently fluff up the finish again.  Imagine that you’re stroking a kitten and you’ll get the action about right.

 

Cloth Versus Leather

There are two main choices these days when it comes to what the interior designers of new cars put on the seats: cloth and leather. Leather is definitely the material of choice for luxury cars, but if you ever find yourself in a situation where one of the key differences between two variants is what’s on the seats, is it really worth it going for the leather just because it’s posher?  If you’re into keeping up with the Joneses, then this one’s a no-brainer – you go for the more expensive one with the leather – but what if you’re a bit cannier with your cash?

Thankfully, the days of vinyl have gone, so that’s not an option. Those of us who are old enough to remember vinyl seats or who have ridden in classics with this type of upholstery know perfectly well why vinyl seats aren’t found in modern vehicles.  About the only good thing you could say about vinyl was that it was easy to clean. It was slippery when cold or if you had long trousers on. In hot weather and for those wearing shorts, vinyl became sticky but not like spilt jam – more like clingfilm on steroids grabbing bare skin.  It also got really hot on a summer day – add in the hot seat belt buckle on old-style seatbelts and you got your very own personal torture chamber.  I’m shuddering with the memory.

However, back to today.  There you are evaluating two models that are more or less the same apart from the upholstery.  What do you need to say before you say “I’ll go for the one with the leather seats”?

Leather is, of course, a natural material.  It’s the skin of some animal, probably a cow, sheep or possibly a goat.  Given the popularity of beefsteaks around the world and the size of a cattlebeast, what you see on the seats of a luxury car probably came from a cow.  If you’re a vegan or a PETA supporter, then this fact might be the deciding factor for you and you’ll go for the cloth.  However, if you’re omnivorous, then you may see the use of leather as car upholstery as a wise way of using meat byproducts and a sustainable choice (yes, cloth seats are usually acrylic or nylon sourced from plastics).

Here, you might have questions about the difference between Nappa leather and ordinary leather.  Nappa leather is a natural animal skin leather that has been tanned and dyed in a particular way to make it smooth and even.  Nappa leather tends to have a more durable finish and is softer and more pliable.  It’s the softness that adds the extra level of luxury and why the really top-end models are trimmed in Nappa leather rather than common or garden leather.  It also tends to come from something more delicate than cowhide, such as goat or sheep.

Alcantara, however, is an artificial leather – OK, it’s cloth!  It’s stain-resistant and flame-retardant, and it has a scrummy finish that feels like suede.  The flame-retardant properties of Alcantara mean that it’s widely used in racing cars, and this is why it’s popular in sports and supercar models, similar to other racing-inspired accessories and styling.  Alcantara is a brand-name, unlike Nappa leather and all the other seat materials, and it’s produced by one single factory in Italy, which means that it’s a bit more exclusive and more expensive than other cloth.

There are other synthetic leathers around the place.  They’re called things like “PU leather”, “pleather”, “leatherette”, “vegan leather” and “faux leather”.  One company produces a leather substitute made from pineapple fibres but this isn’t used for car seat upholstery – or at least not yet.

The sort of cloth used for upholstering vehicle seats is usually some sort of synthetic material because this tends to be more durable than natural fibres such as wool, linen, tencel or cotton.  Car manufacturers haven’t tried upholstering seats with natural plant-sourced fibres in an attempt to be more sustainable… at least not yet.  Cloth is cheaper than leather because it doesn’t need quite as much cutting, stitching and shaping as leather.  Synthetic cloth comes out of the factory in nice regular shapes of an even and predictable width.  Cows and goats aren’t quite such a nice, regular shape, so leather seats require more work; hence the extra cost.

So what are the pros and cons of each upholstery material type?

Leather:

Pros: Natural material from a renewable source, soft (especially in the case of Nappa), durable, looks amazing, smells nice, doesn’t give off nasty chemical gases

Cons: Stains easily, gets scuffed and scratched by doggy paws and small children’s shoes, absorbs bad smells, comes from a dead animal that may have been killed for the skin, doesn’t like getting wet and especially hates salty seawater

Cloth:

Pros: Cheap, comes in a range of colours and patterns, more forgiving of children, dogs and seawater

Cons: Synthetic material from a non-renewable source, can give off weird gases when new, doesn’t look quite as upmarket as leather.

Alcantara:

Pros: Flame-resistant, stain-resistant, comes in a range of colours, racing heritage, nice suede-like feel, exclusive and upmarket

Cons: A beast to clean, synthetic material from non-renewable sources

To sum up the bottom line about what sort of fabric you want under your bottom, it really depends on your lifestyle and your values.  If you’ve got messy small children or dogs that jump on the seat, then leather isn’t for you.  If you love to spend heaps of time at the beach and you are likely to get salt water on your clothes and other bits that you are likely to chuck onto the back seat, leather probably isn’t for you either.  Cloth is also going to appeal to those who want to save a few bucks, as it’s cheaper.  Leather looks gorgeous and is a natural material from a renewable resource, but if you’re more of a vegan-and-PETA type, then you’ll steer clear of it.

And if you have a classic car with a vinyl seat, do yourself a favour and buy a set of seat covers if you haven’t already!

SUV, Hatch or Wagon?

SUVs like the Volvo XC40 look really cool!

 

The ever popular Toyota Corolla Hatchback

Station Wagons like the new Ford Focus are brilliant.

 

Why do most women like the SUV, wagon or hatchback shape?  These are the preferred vehicles that women are driving.  SUVs definitely offer that extra status not to mention size.  It seems too that Teal coloured cars are the ones that most excite the ladies.

SUVs are hitting our road on mass, thanks to the buyers, female and male, preferring their practicality, safety and room.  You can buy FWD only SUVs, which if you never go in search of the wide open spaces outside of Suburbia then these types of vehicle will do all your townie jobs nicely, and often with plenty of room to spare.  AWD equivalent SUVs are more expensive anyway!

SUVs are bigger than anything else on the road besides trucks and buses, so anyone will likely be attracted to the safety aspect of owning an SUV.  Many guys will like the fact that their special other half drives a big safe SUV, which often ends up carrying the kids too.  Having a higher ride height does give you a commanding view of the road ahead, and generally speaking, the extra ground clearance works wonders should you be into off-roading.

SUVs are easier to get in-and-out of, and for loading child seats, child accessories, and library book and shopping bags.  Generally speaking you step inside an SUV, rather than sink down into them- like in a hatchback.  When it comes loading cargo into the boot the space is usually large, higher and easier to access.  That said, there are some nicely designed station wagons and hatchbacks that are very practical.

Downsides to owning an SUV are that they cost more to feed; cost more to maintain, and they generally need more wizardry and expensive technology to defy the laws of physics should you want to drive them quickly around corners.  Still, manufacturers are beginning to build a wide variety of SUVs to suit your tastes.  You can even buy convertible SUVs or 2-door coupe SUVs – which pushes the contemporary envelope somewhat.

So if you are a lady on the lookout for a nice new SUV – perhaps Teal coloured or close to it, that is competitively priced then there are some models you may consider.  OK, you men could consider this as well – though you’ll probably prefer a silver, black or white colour (though flaming orange and buttercup yellow is said to get a guy’s heartrate up).  So, how about a Honda CR-V, Toyota RAV4, BMW X3, Ford Ecosport, Ford Escape, Ford Everest, Foton Sauvana, Haval H2, Hyundai Sant Fe or Kona, Jeep, Kia Sportage, Mazda CX-3 or CX-5, MG GS, Mitsubishi Eclipse Cross or Outlander, Nissan Qashqai, Peugeot 3008, Renault Koleos, Skoda Kodiaq, Subaru Forester or XV, Suzuki Vitara, VW Tiguan, or any of the Volvo XC models?  Modern, safe and great multipurpose vehicles, this list is a good mix to get you thinking.

But if you don’t go the SUV way, there’s plenty of savings to be had by sticking to a hatchback or station wagon instead.  If you spend most of your time travelling within the confines of Suburbia then the SUV size might not make so much sense if a Station wagon or Hatchback will do.  And even at their most practical, an SUV is a bit more difficult to park in the tiny city car parks – unless you have an SUV with all the self-parking aids.

If you think that a good small hatch or station wagon will suit your needs just as well, you will enjoy the benefits of this type of vehicle being cheaper to buy, cheaper to maintain, more fun to drive and, thanks to the swelling tide of SUVs on the road, you’ll be bucking the trend and looking pretty cool.

Here’s some wagons or hatchbacks you might like to consider: Volvo V60, VW Golf wagon or hatch, your good old Toyota Corolla wagon or hatch, Subaru Forester or Impreza or Liberty, Skoda Octavia Wagon, Renault Megane, Proton Preve, loads of Peugeots, Nissan LEAF (Electric Vehicle), Mitsubishi ASX, a Mini, MG3, Mercedes Benz B-Class or C-Class, a Mazda 3 or 6, Kia Cerato or Soul, Hyundai i40 or i30, Honda Civic, Holden Astra, Ford Focus or Mondeo, Citroen C4 or C5, BMW 3 or 5 Series wagon, Audi A3 or A4, and Alfa Romeo Giulietta.

Yes, Virginia (Fanpetals), There Is A New Biofuel Feedstock On The Block

Sida hermaphrodita or Virginia Fanpetals: a new player in the biofuel game.

When it comes to biofuels, especially the sort of biofuel that gets used for ethanol, there’s always a bit of an issue.  You see, it kind of defeats the purpose of having a sustainable fuel source if you have to pour on truckloads of fertiliser (a lot of which can come from petrochemicals as well) and tons of water.  It’s also rather frowned on if the crop in question takes away land from something that could be used for growing crops that people are going to eat directly (as vegetables, flour, cooking oil, sugar, etc.) or indirectly (after a fodder crop has been fed to animals that produce milk, meat or eggs).

Now, we’re not doing too badly over here in Australia on the biofuel ethanol front, as we’ve got the sugarcane industry. Using residues from other crops is a tried and true means of sourcing ethanol feedstocks, with sugarcane residues being particularly good at it.  In fact, Brazil, which has a bigger sugarcane industry than we do, is a tad further ahead when it comes to using ethanol for everyday driving.  Other sources include residues from wood processing and residues from the alcohol industry (they’re doing this in the UK).  Apparently, the trick is to find the right methods and the right bacteria, etc. that will break your feedstocks down so it can be turned into ethanol.

However, the search is on around the world for novel feedstock crops for biofuels of all types (this includes the crops that can produce oils for turning into biodiesel as well as the ones that have suitable stems or whatever for turning into ethanol).  The ideal crop is something that grows easily with minimal input needed in the form of fertiliser and pesticides, doesn’t need people poking around with tractors much except during harvest, doesn’t demand water like a camel that’s been for a week in the desert and produces the three Fs: Food (for humans), Fodder (for animals) and Fuel.

One of the new players on the biofuel crop front is a plant that looks a bit like a common weed known as Virginia fanpetals, Virginia Mallow or Sida (its Latin name is Sida hermaphrodita). This is a native of the US but for some reason, it’s getting a fair amount of interest from a team in Eastern Europe because it doesn’t demand the same amount of water as elephant grass (Miscanthus), which is another easy-growing biofuel feedstock.  What’s more, they’ve found that it’s a triple-F plant if you want to get technical.  The plant has lots of flowers that are very attractive to honeybees, so the Food part of the equation comes in the form of the honey produced that way.  The leaves, when they’re green, are pretty nutritious for animals.  And when the plant is dry, the whole lot, stems and leaves, are great for biofuel (and they also burn cleanly in incinerators, making them an alternative to coal for generating electricity).

Sida is also tough as old boots, as it grows very happily on sandy soils and can handle drought and frost perfectly well.  It also has a feature that would make it a right pain if it established itself in your garden: if you cut it back to ground level, it comes back again next spring and will do so for 15–20 years.  This is what’s getting those researchers rubbing their hands with glee: no ploughing, harrowing or sowing.  Just a bit of fertiliser a couple of times a year and you get a crop year after year.  And it grows on the sort of ground and in the sort of conditions that are useless for, say, potatoes, wheat and carrots.  In other words, it looks like it could be a bit of a winner.  Can we grow it over here and make even more of our own biofuel?

However, finding out about this got me thinking.  Now, we all know that we’ve got unique plant life knocking around in the Outback that’s used to really harsh conditions.  Are they any good for biofuels?  Is there something sitting out there that could be the next big thing?  I really, really hope that there’s a nice CSIRO research team poking around to see if there are any native plants that could do the trick.

Closer to home, however, I also can’t help but notice all the weeds in the garden and the way that the lawn is starting to grow like crazy in the springtime.  And let’s take a look in our rubbish bins at all the banana skins and apple cores.  Couldn’t this be used as a bioethanol feedstock as well?  Once you start looking around and getting this sort of mindset, all sorts of possibilities open up (especially when you’re on a long drive).  Maybe we’d clear up some of the rubbish problem while we’re at it…

Bioethanol isn’t the only way forward, of course.  It’s one of three possible lanes on the sustainable motoring highway, with the other two being electricity and biodiesel.  And we shouldn’t forget the biofuels while we get all excited – rightly – about the new electric vehicles.  After all, classic car drivers, tradies, tractor drivers, truckies and the owners of hybrids all need something to put in the fuel tank!

Electric Vehicles: What Will Happen With The Fuel Taxes?

I think we all know by now that electric cars and hybrids are much more common on the roads than they used to be.  It’s 20 years since the original Toyota Prius  – the groundbreaking first hybrid vehicle – hit the roads, which means that if you’ve got your eyes open, you can score a second-hand hybrid.  They’re getting better and better with extended range and more body types coming with hybrid and even all-electric versions.

One of the reasons put forward for why you should switch to an electric or hybrid vehicle – and you hear this one more often with pure electrics – is that electricity is cheaper than petrol or diesel, so it’s cheaper to fill up.  You’re not paying all that tax.

Ah yes – the tax.  Can anyone else spot the potential problem here?  What will happen if a large proportion of us switched to purely electric vehicles?  This means that one particular source of government income is going to drop dramatically.  Can we see the government smiling happily about this and how we’re polluting so much less, etc. and just carrying on without the tax coming from fuel?  Maybe they could take a cut in their salaries or spend less on frivolous projects and fancy-pants conferences.  Ooh look – a flying pig.  Better get out your manure-proof umbrella.

OK, if we take a less cynical view and make the charitable assumption that the fuel taxes get used to keep the roads in good order.  If we don’t want our roads to deteriorate if loads of people switch to electric vehicles, that money has got to come from somewhere.  But where?  What are the options?

The first option would be to hike up the fuel tax to cover the shortfall.  There are two problems with this one.  The first is that even though there are some second-hand hybrids knocking about and even though we do our best here at Private Fleet to get you the best deals on a new car, pure electric vehicles still tend to be at the newer end of the spectrum and are beyond the budget of a low-income family (especially if said family needs a larger vehicle than the little hatchbacks that early examples of hybrids tended to be).  This leads to a vicious cycle: they can’t afford to upgrade to an electric with the higher petrol prices, which means they have to keep on using the expensive fuel, etc. or switch to using public transport if they live in towns.

The other people who will get hit hard by this hypothetical hike in fuel taxes are those in rural communities.  Although range of electrics is getting better, it’s not quite where it needs to be for those out the back of beyond: the park rangers, the tour guides in the Outback and the district nurses and midwives.  Going electric isn’t really an option for them – and the sort of vehicles needed by your park rangers and tour guides (i.e. big 4 x4s) don’t usually come in electric (although that’s starting to change).  What’s more, the big rigs and farm tractors don’t come in electric versions either (electric tractors exist but they’re puny), so they’ll keep on needing diesel.  This means that their costs will go up with a hypothetical fuel tax hike, which probably means that farmers and trucking companies will go out of business or else they’ll pass the costs along and we’ll all have higher food prices.  It’s like the old army wisdom about not pissing off the person who cooks: you don’t ever brush off the farming community as unimportant, because they are the ones who produce your food and most of us like to eat.

OK, so the knock-on consequences to rural communities and a lot of Australia’s industries would throw our economy into chaos (just think of all the diesel-powered machines involved in the mining industry, for example – although there are some rugged electric utes that have been specifically designed for the mining industry).  The Powers That Be hopefully aren’t that stupid and they are more likely to find a fairer way of getting the tax money than simply increasing the existing tax.  What’s much more likely is that they’ll create a new tax.  Any guesses as to what that new tax is likely to be?  It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that if people are using electricity instead of using petrol and diesel and thus avoiding the fuel tax, the obvious thing to slap a tax on is the electricity…

You read it here first, folks.  Although at the moment, using electric vehicles will save you at the plug (rather than the pump), it’s only going to be a matter of time until a tax appears, especially as electric vehicles become more common.  Yes, there are other advantages to using electric vehicles such as the reduced pollution and how they don’t depend on a finite resource (biofuels aside), but the advantage of not paying a fuel tax won’t last forever.

Enjoy it while you can!

How Not To Use Your Phone In Your Car

Don’t stop reading and decide that this post isn’t relevant to you because you’re not one of those social media-obsessed millennials. The fact is that it’s not just teens and twenty-year-olds that get distracted by that beeping phone when they ought to be concentrating on their driving.  The problem seems to be common to all age groups. In the US (and possibly also here in Australia), it’s busy middle-aged people who are the most likely to be busted using their phones illegally while driving.

You’re going to have to break yourself of that habit of just taking a quick look at your phone to see what it’s notifying you about.  You know that it’s not safe and you know that the potential consequences go way beyond just getting busted and slapped with a fine.  To help you kick the habit, here’s a few things you could try to help you get out of the habit of checking texts, posts and calls while you’re driving.

(1) Analyse your excuses. Ask yourself why you feel that (a) you need to take a look at your phone right now and (b) why the law (yes, the law) about not looking at your phone when you’re driving applies to you.  Perhaps some of these sound familiar…

  • It could be important/urgent.
  • I’m a good/experienced driver and I know what I’m doing, not like those teenagers who are always on their phones.
  • The road’s not that busy right now.
  • I could miss out on bagging that new client/job/contract.
  • I’m only taking a quick look to see who it’s from.
  • I was at a red light so it’s OK.
  • I was just looking at the time.
  • I’m just looking at a photo.
  • I’m just taking a photo.
  • I’m perfectly capable of multitasking.
  • I’m trying to identify the song on the radio with the Shazam app.
  • I can text without looking at the keys/screen.

The cops have heard them all before…

Honestly, there isn’t a text, post or call that isn’t so urgent that it can’t wait 10 seconds while you find a place to pull over safely.  Yes, even that call that you need to make to secure that business deal – and if you were in the middle of a conversation that important, you shouldn’t have got behind the wheel in the first place.  The same goes for the text or call to the family or the boss to say that you’re running late – a few seconds later won’t make that much difference to them or you, but an accident while driving distracted will make a huge difference.

(2) Go cold turkey. As part of your pre-driving routine (closing the door, adjusting your seat if needed, putting on your seatbelt, starting the engine), either switch your phone off or put it in the back seat on the passenger side where you can’t reach it. Then you’ll either not know that you’re being notified or you’ll hear the beep but not be able to do anything about it until you can stop and reach the phone.  In the case of being able to hear the notification, you will probably find that the urge to respond instantly will pass after a few seconds, or at least a few minutes.

(3) Get an app. There are quite a few apps on the market that will autorespond for you if someone tries texting or calling while you’re driving. OK, you have to activate the app but this can easily become part of your pre-driving routine.  These apps might be marketed at teens and the parents of teens, but they work for everybody, just like the laws of the land and the laws of physics.

(4) Mute it. If you can’t hear the notification, you won’t be tempted to respond when you shouldn’t.  So mute your phone and don’t even have it on vibrate.

(5) Go offline. An awful lot of beeps and pings your phone makes are notifications from social media and emails.  The trouble with quite a few phones (at least it’s the case with mine) is that the notification for a text is the same as a notification for an email or an update.  Avoid quite a lot of temptations by going offline.

(6) Send a text before you drive.  Most of the texts and calls you receive are likely to be from your most important five contacts (probably family members, best friends and immediate work contacts).  Send them a group text telling them that you’re about to start driving (and maybe about how long you’ll be on the road) and they probably won’t send you anything for that period.  Again, this will dramatically cut down on the notifications tempting you.

(7) Enlist a passenger.  It’s kind of like the years B.C. (Before Cellphones) when the person in the front passenger seat had the job of reading the map for the driver. In this case, the front passenger becomes the official communications officer who will check the phone for you and tell you who it’s from, then (if necessary) opening the message and reading it out, and maybe typing out the reply you dictate.  Checking the identity of the sender before opening the message is a smart move if you and your significant other are in the habit of sending each other raunchy texts so your 10-year-old or your co-worker doesn’t suddenly end up being on the receiving end of way too much information.

Come on now – no more excuses!  Which of these steps are you going to try?

How Long Does It Take To Charge An EV?

I guess we’ve all noticed by now that EVs (either hybrids or full-time electric vehicles) are getting common on the roads.  Maybe you’re considering getting one for your next car.  Charging stations for EVs are popping up left, right and centre.  This is because the battery in an EV, just like the battery in any other device powered by electricity, needs to be recharged.  It’s kind of like charging your phone or your laptop.

Most, if not all, of us have had some experience with charging up things with batteries and know that it can take some time.  This raises a rather important question about EVs: how long does it take to charge one?  We’ve mostly become familiar with how to fuel up an internal combustion engine (ICE) car: you pull up to the bowser, you open the fuel cap, you fill up with the liquid fuel of your choice, then you nip in and pay for it, possibly picking up a packet of peanuts or a coffee while you’re at it.  It doesn’t take too long – maybe 10 mins max, depending on how long the queue at the checkout is, how big your fuel tank is and how empty it was when you started.  But what about an EV?  There’s nothing physical going into the tank and we all know that it can take a while for a battery to recharge (I usually give my rechargeable AA batteries about 4 hours, the laptop takes 2 hours and the amount of time for the phone varies depending on who else needs the charger and whether I need the phone!).

The good news is that on average, it takes 20–30 mins to get to 80% when charging an EV, especially if you’re using one of the public charge points around town.  This means that most of us might have to plan a charging session into our days – during lunchtime, maybe, or while picking up groceries.

There’s a certain strategy to ensuring that your EV has the charge it needs to keep ticking on around town.  I’m assuming here that you are based in the city and do most of your driving in the city.  If you’re in a rural area and do a lot of open road running, things will be a bit different and given the range of what’s currently on the EV market, you might either consider sticking with an ICE vehicle or at least a hybrid, or you’ll have to try another strategy.  Anyway, for the typical suburban driver, the best strategy is to use the public charging points around town for top-up charging, and you do the full charge to 100% overnight at home if possible.

The reason why it might not be best to try charging your EV to 100% charge at one of the public points is because charging an EV isn’t like filling up a petrol or diesel vehicle. With the ICE, you pump in the fuel at a steady constant rate and if you graphed it, it would make a straight line – as long as your grip on the pump is nice and steady.  However, the graph for charging time is more like one of those curved lines related to quadratic equations – you know, the ones we all struggled through at high school and couldn’t see the point of.  Charging starts with a hiss and a roar and you can get to 80% charge pretty quickly.  It’s the final 20% needed to get to full charge that seems to take forever.  It’s more like pumping iron at the gym than pumping gas – you do the first round of sets and reps quickly, but those last few when you’re getting tired tend to be a bit slower.  This is why charging to 100% is best left for overnight charging sessions at home.

The good news about overnight charging is that night rates for electricity are often lower than daytime rates.  This is because all the commercial users of electricity – factories, shops, heavy industry – don’t put as much demand on the power grid outside working hours, so there is plenty of power for everybody else.  Whether this will remain the case when EVs are adopted more widely is uncertain – let’s hope that lower overnight rates remain a thing.

Of course, the exact time of charging will depend on the individual EV and it also depends on the type of charger that you’re connecting your car up to.  Chargers come in three types: Level 1, Level 2 and Level 3.  Levels 1 and 2 use AC current but Level 3 uses DC current.  Level 3 DC chargers generally are only compatible with Tesla models, which is ironic, given that Nikola Tesla specialised in AC current.  Level 1 chargers just plug into a typical 10-V socket and are best kept for emergency top-ups, as they charge pretty slowly.  What you will generally come across both at home (if you install one) or around town are Level 2 chargers.  Level 2 chargers have a charging rate of 15–100 km/hr, meaning that in one hour they give your vehicle enough charge to take it 15–100 km.  The low-power Level 2s installed at home tend to be towards the 15 km/hr end and the public ones are at the other end.

The different levels are not the same as the plug types, which are known as (predictably) Types.  There are four types: Type 1 (J1772), Type 2 (Mennekes), Type 3 (Scame) and Type 4 (CHAdeMO).  Tesla, being a posh marque, has its very own type of charging plug, rather like Apple, although it’s based on the Type 2 Mennekes.  Type 3 is also pretty rare in Australia.  There’s also a combo plug (known as a Combined Charge System or CCS) that combines either the Type 1 or Type 2 (it varies depending on the marque) with a pair of DC connectors.  Charging stations generally have CHAdeMO and CCS to make thing simpler.  The different plug types are quite a lot to wrap your head, so I might have to explain all this in another post.

Anyway, in a nutshell, here’s the basics you need to know:

  • The average time needed to charge to 80% is half an hour although this depends on the level of charger.
  • Charge time isn’t linear – the first 80% is fairly quick but the final 20% is slower.
  • Full charging to 100% is best done at home overnight.
  • Around-town chargers are best kept for topping up to 80%
  • Slower chargers (Level 1 and Level 2) use AC current but the fast ones use DC.
  • Nikola Tesla, who was the pioneer of AC electricity, would be spitting mad that the cars with his name use DC current. Just as well he never got around to inventing that death ray…

 

 

Hypercars: Basic Fact Cheat Sheet For Sounding Like An Expert

We’ve all heard of supercars.  Now supercars can move over, as there’s a new category on the block: hypercars.  However, they won’t be on the block for long – in fact, they’ll be several blocks away almost before you can blink because these cars are seriously, seriously fast.

In a nutshell, a hypercar is defined as a road-legal production car that’s super-fast and usually super-luxurious.  They tend to be limited edition items produced by the high-end manufacturers – and are priced accordingly.  One writer has compared them to diamonds: rare, dazzling and extremely expensive.  Let’s just say that they’re probably beyond the budget of the typical Australian driver, although we can dream and drool!

Hypercars differ from Formula 1 vehicles and those things that look like rockets that scream around the salt flats of Utah trying to break the land speed record.  Firstly, all of the hypercars are actually road legal, even if it isn’t legal to drive the speeds that they’re capable of under normal driving conditions (you need to head to the track to do that).  Secondly, they tend to be a lot prettier and more comfortable than the racers and the land speed record holders.  You could easily put a hypercar on a poster – in fact, quite a lot of people do, especially teenage boys.  They’ve got the curves that are pleasing to the eye as well as reducing drag, the array of LED headlights and beautiful gleaming paint.

Hypercars tend to come in colours that have a visceral punch and tell our basic instincts that here is danger and power as well as beauty: red, yellow and black – with a combination of red and black being the most common. However, touches of dark grey and orange have crept in here, just to add a bit of variety to the calendars that feature them, I guess!

You already know the names of the classic hypercar manufacturers: Ferrari, Lamborghini, McLaren, Aston Martin and Bugatti (sorry, Rolls-Royce, your vehicles are too sedate to be considered hypercars; Porsche and Jaguar , you’re too common!).  However, there are a number of new players on the hypercar track.  We all got rather interested back at the turn of the century or thereabouts when Swedish manufacturer Koenigsegg came onto the scene and then picked up the record for the fastest production car in 2005 with the CCR – and things have just accelerated in more ways than one from there, with Bugatti and Koenigsegg battling it out for the title fastest production car, top acceleration, etc. Another name to keep an eye on is Hennessey, which put out the Venom F5.

There is also a player in the world of hypercars: Corbellati.  Corbellati hopes that its new Missile (the prototype debuted at this year’s Geneva Motor Show) will be the one to take the title of fastest production car when it actually finishes the production process some time in 2019.  It’s certainly got the specs to make it a serious contender: a 9-L V8 biturbo that has a legion of horses under the somewhat retro-styled bonnet (1800 hp) and so much torque that I looked twice and in several places to make sure that I hadn’t missed a decimal point: 2350 Nm.  Honestly, that’s more than a very good farm tractor produces, and when this is applied to something styled for low drag and has the weight reduced thanks to aluminium, carbon fibre and titanium, we’re talking about serious speed: over 500 km/h is what it’s tipped to do. Have a good drool at the official website  if you want!

In the world of hypercars, speed limiters do not exist.  Top speeds over 400 km/h are common.  And forget about 0–100 sprint times: some of these hypercars brag about their 0–300 km/h times: the Hennessey Venom F5 can do it in under 10 seconds.

At the time of writing, the hypercars have a tendency to make you think that concepts like “peak oil” and “carbon footprint” and “fuel economy” don’t exist or at least aren’t a problem.  However, if the trend on the racetrack is anything to do by – and if Tesla decides to go upmarket rather than downmarket from its supercars – then this will change.  Koenigsegg have a hybrid hypercar in production in the form of the Regera, and some of their models (e.g. the Trevita) have biofuel variants.

Every car enthusiast has his or her favourite hypercar, even if we will never get the chance to drive them in real life and will have to make do with computer games.  Being a sucker for Swedish cars as well as admiring their token gesture towards sustainability, I’m a fan of Koenigsegg.  However, some of those Bugatti models look pretty hot…

If you have been lucky enough to ride or even drive in a hypercar, please share your experience in the comments – we’d love to hear all about it!

Coping With Car Clutter

You might be scrupulous about washing the outside of your car, and possibly waxing it as well, but what about the inside of the car? If you’re the typical Aussie driver, whether you’re doing the daily commute or the school run, or if you’re a tradie, consultant or sales rep who’s always on the road, it’s all too easy to let the inside of your vehicle get a bit on the cluttered side.

In-car clutter takes a range of forms, from obvious mess and rubbish that you’re going to get around to cleaning up one of these days, through to that spare jumper or raincoat you stashed in the luggage compartment of your hatchback (and another spare raincoat and a puffer jacket and…). And there’s everything else that you’ve put in the glovebox or the centre console because it might be useful at some point.

Clutter in your car is a problem for a number of reasons. Firstly, it’s visually annoying and it doesn’t make for a very pleasant journey if you have to spend a long time in a car that’s full of stuff. Secondly, having a large number of loose objects rolling around in your car can be something of a safety hazard in the situation of an emergency stop. Thirdly, you end up having trouble finding what you want in a hurry if your car is full of all sorts of odds and ends (I know I had that change for the parking meter in here somewhere…). Fourthly, all those little things add up and you could be carting about a kilo or even more of useless junk that shouldn’t be in your car, and this will decrease your fuel efficiency, even if only by a tiny bit.

So how do you go about decluttering and organising your car so that you have the useful bits you need in the car for emergencies but don’t have too much? The good news is that decluttering a car is a lot easier than decluttering your garage (we won’t go there!), as it’s not a huge space. OK, decluttering a little Mini  is going to be quicker than decluttering a Range Rover ! However, from a small city hatch through to a big bush-bashing seven-seater 4×4, the basic principles are the same. (Here, I’ve got to do a shout-out to US clutter-free guru Kathi Lipp  for the outline of the basic principles and stages of decluttering anything).

  1. Get it all out. Pull everything out of your car. Everything. Including the mats, as there could be something underneath them that needs to go.
  2. Sort it. Here, the most efficient system seems to be the “Three Boxes, Two Bags” method (thank you, Ms Lipp!). The three boxes take items that are fall into the categories “Put It Back”, “Give It Away” and “Put It Away Somewhere Else”; the two bags are for rubbish and recycling. Of course, you don’t need to get too hung up on whether you’re using a bag or a box! Put some music on while you sort and don’t stop to read anything or put anything away just yet. Stick to the job and concentrate on what you’re doing. It’s best if you don’t enlist help from your nearest and dearest at this stage, as this could lead to arguments about how many CDs or aux cords need to live in the car. Call them in at later stages.
  3. Clean it. Now that you’ve got everything out of your car, this is a good moment to grab the vacuum cleaner and maybe a rag and some cleaning spray of your choice, and give the interior of your vehicle a good going-over. You probably don’t need to polish the leather seats or shine up the chrome – unless you’ve got lots of time set aside for this job.
  4. Put it back. The first set of stuff that you’ve taken out of your car that you will deal with will be the “Put It Back” items. Exactly what you will put back in your car will vary from person to person, but for me, the items to be put back would always include the manual, a first aid kit, a phone charger, hand sanitiser, some tissues (which can be used to clean the inside of the windscreen as well as to blow your nose), an old-school paper map for when you’re out of reception or when Google Maps has decided to send you round the long way, the logbook (I use my vehicle for business purposes and have to track this) and a pen. Spare change for parking meters also doesn’t go amiss, and nor does a packet of nibbles such as rice crackers or almonds for those moments when you’re stuck in traffic and getting hangry. These days, it can be wise to keep your reusable shopping bags in the car as well so you don’t forget them. Other things that may be best kept in your car include jumper leads, ropes suitable for towing, fuses, and a blankets for chilly mornings when the heater is sulking and/or impromptu picnics (and for first aid).
  5. Put it away. All those jerseys, toys, coffee mugs, etc. that really belong in the house go into the house right now. You probably want to drop them off in the dishwasher or kitchen sink, or the laundry as appropriate, as they’ll probably be grubby after a stint in the car.
  6. Throw it away. The recycling and the rubbish – you know what to do with it.
  7. Give it away. These are the items that you don’t use or need any more, such as the charger or aux cable for a phone or MP3 player that you no longer own, the cardie that’s been sitting in the back for so long that the child it belongs to has outgrown it and… oh yes. The bags of stuff that you were going to take down to the nearest charity shop next time you were out. No more procrastinating! As soon as you’ve finished all the other steps, get in the car, start your engine and off you go to get rid of them RIGHT NOW. If this really isn’t practical (you live in the country and the nearest charity store or bin is half an hour’s drive away, for example) then make a reminder for yourself so that you don’t forget those bags of old clothes sitting in the boot yet again!

Now enjoy having a nice clean car and make a commitment to yourself to keep it that way – or at least try to!