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The EV From Down Under

We were all very sad when we got the news that those iconic Australian cars – Ford and Holden – were no longer going to be manufactured here and that the factories were closing their doors. However, we can all smile again for the sake of the Australian automotive industry: a new company in Queensland is going to manufacture a car from scratch.  Great!

There’s a slight difference with this newcomer, though. Unlike the gas-guzzling Ford Falcons and Holden Commodores (OK, they were a bit better when driven on the open road but that’s another story altogether), this new company, ACE EV, is turning its eyes to the hot new sector of the automotive industry: electric cars.

Well, to be more specific, it’s going in for electric vans and commercial vehicles as well as cars.  And, to be fair, the factory is going to be using some parts that were manufactured overseas as well as a few made here.  The idea is to keep the costs down.  They’re not out to produce Tesla clones at Tesla prices.  Not that there’s anything wrong with Tesla per se and it’s neat to see electric vehicles that have bust out of the boring, crunchy-granola, wimpy image and become supercool.  However, a brand new Tesla probably costs more than what I paid for my house.  ACE EV, however, wants to make EVs more affordable for the typical tradie or suburban family.

ACE EV stands for “Australian Clean Energy Electric Vehicles”.  Proudly Australian, their logo features a kangaroo on the move.  This year (2019), they are launching three vehicles, targeting tradies as well as your typical urban motorist, although they’re only selling them to companies as fleet vehicles at this stage.  These are the ACE Cargo, the ACE Yewt and the ACE Urban.

ACE Cargo

The Cargo is designed to, um, carry cargo.  It’s a van that’s capable of carrying a payload of 500 kg and has a range of 200 kg if it’s not carrying the full load. The Cargo is designed to be suitable for couriers and anybody who has to carry gear or people from one side of town to the other: florists, caterers, cleaners, nurses and the people who carry blood samples from the medical centre to the lab for analysis. Looks-wise, it’s broken out of the square box mould of traditional vans, probably for aerodynamic reasons, and resembles a single-cab ute with a hefty canopy.

Ace Yewt

Which brings us neatly to the Yewt.  The Yewt is what it sounds like (say Yewt out loud if you haven’t got it yet). It’s a flat-deck single-cab ute and as it’s got more or less the same specs as the Cargo regarding load, charge time and acceleration. You’d be forgiven for thinking that t it’s the same thing as the Cargo but with the cover on the cargo area taken off.  It’s something of a cute ute – and the contrasting colour roof is a nice touch.

Last but not least, there’s the Urban, which is no relation to the Mitsubishi with the notoriously weird name (Active Urban Sandal).  This one’s still in the pipeline and they haven’t given us the full specs brochure yet (it’s due for release later this year), but this is a classic four-seater compact three-door hatch that looks a bit like a classic Mini but edgier.

It’s certainly nice to see some new vehicles made in Australia for Australians, especially given that in a recent poll, about half of all Australians in an official survey by the Australia Institute would support a law that all new cars sold after 2025 should be EVs.  However, let’s not rush things too much yet.  For one thing, EVs are only one of the Big Three when it comes sustainable motoring (biofuels and hydrogen are the others).  The other thing is that all energy has to come from somewhere, even electricity, as stated by the First Law of Thermodynamics.  This means that in order to charge your EV, you’re going to have to generate the electricity somehow and get it to the charging points.  Before we go over lock, stock and barrel to EVs, we will need better infrastructure, and I don’t just mean more EV charging points around town and in our homes.  We’ll need some more generators.  Otherwise, it would be like setting up a bowser but having no petrol to put in it.  If everybody were to try charging their EVs at home overnight, there would be a massive drain on the national grid and we’d be getting brownouts and blackouts all over the show –which means that watching TV, catching up on your emails, having a hot shower and cooking dinner would get rather difficult – and you wouldn’t be able to charge your EV either.  Guess where the power companies will have to get the money from in order to build new power plants – that’s right: your power bill.

May I humbly suggest that before you invest in an EV for your commute that you also consider installing a solar panel or three on your home?  Or a wind generator?  Not one of those petrol or diesel-powered generators – swapping an internal combustion engine in your car for one in the back yard isn’t better for the environment now, is it?  Unless you run it on biofuel or hydrogen.

Traffic Sign Recognition: What Is It?

What’s one of the more common scenarios for picking up a speeding ticket besides simply being leadfooted?  Apart from accidentally letting the speedo creep up because you’re looking at the road ahead rather than at the dial (avoidable with cruise control, of course), the other time speeding tickets happen to nice well-behaved drivers who weren’t meaning to go too fast and wanted to keep to the limit is when you’re driving in an unfamiliar town or (even more annoyingly) a part of town that you knew but has recently been redeveloped.

You know how this one goes.  You’re toddling along through town and then you get to a bit that looks like the houses are coming to an end and you’re getting into more rural areas so you press the accelerator down a wee bit to get up to 70 km/h.  Or you know that there’s a town coming up ahead but it still looks like you’re in market garden and lifestyle block land so you keep your pace up a bit. but next thing you know, there’s disco lights in the rear view mirror and you’re getting a ticket. Because what you thought was now a 70 km/h area actually wasn’t one at all and you should have been doing 50 km/h.  Dagnabbit!

The problem in this situation is that you either didn’t see the sign or you thought that you’d gone past the sign without seeing it, and instead, you relied on the visual landscape cues around you to decide on your speed.  Traffic psychologists say that most experienced drivers rely on these visual stimuli all the time and if the Powers That Be could afford to do it, this would be the most effective way of making sure that the typical driver stuck to the speed limit (we’re not talking about those leadfoots that scream through quiet streets at 80 km/h, making you worry about every single dog, cat, cyclist and small child in the neighbourhood).  In fact, I’m sure I’m not the only person who drives through certain small towns at 50 km/h thinking “No way should this area be a 70 km/h zone!  Too many houses and shops!  I’m going slower.”

However, they can’t afford it and they probably need the revenue from those speeding tickets (we all know this happens) so they rely on the traffic signs – the lollypop signs, as we call them in our house.  What every driver needs is a navigator in the passenger seat whose job is to keep an eye out for said lollipops and remind the driver.  This is precisely what traffic sign recognition is supposed to do for you when you’re driving alone.  It keeps a lookout for those traffic signs and displays what the current speed limit is on the dashboard display.

When I first heard of traffic sign recognition technology, which is now a safety feature or driver aid in a lot of high-end luxury cars like Mercedes and BMW, I groaned a little bit.  Not because I didn’t like the idea of having a feature that let me know what speed I’m supposed to be going but because I had this dread that the technology would pick up on every single sign on the road ahead and display that.  Information overload isn’t good for decision-making processes so this sounded like more of a distraction than a help.  The cynical part of me also wondered when they’d monetize this so that certain ads or signs would pop up, notifying you of particular businesses ahead – the dreaded golden arches, for example.

However, I needn’t have worried.  The designers are all too aware that most modern roads are awash with signage, which is why it’s so easy to miss those lollipops in the first place.  The tech uses pattern recognition technology, so that it only picks up on actual traffic signs – the ones with the white backgrounds and a red circle around them, with the number displayed in black.  The software and the front-facing camera home in on these patterns and can recognise the numbers, and it’s this that gets displayed on your dash.  The software can also pick up useful signs like Give Way, Stop and No Entry – and warn you if you go ahead anyway!

The exact tech goes through a very complicated process to extract the necessary data at the right speed – my eyes started crossing while trying to wrap my head around it, so I won’t attempt a simple explanation here. If you’re the more nerdy sort, then here’s the low-down.

Traffic sign recognition (aka traffic sign assistance or TSA) is quite a handy little feature and it’s no longer found exclusively in high-end executive saloons.  It’s found in new versions of familiar little family cars like the Ford Focus.  In fact, there’s a rumour going about that this will become mandatory on all new cars sold in the EU from 2022 (2020 is just next year, so this is no longer the Big Benchmark and planners will lose their favourite pun about 2020 vision).

At this stage, at any rate, the vehicles are sticking to the basic signs rather than adding in all the safety warning signs.  This is partly because traffic signs around the world vary somewhat.  Software that recognises a Swedish polar bear warning sign would be useless in Australia, where we have kangaroo warning signs, for example.  What’s worse is that even signs that mean the same thing vary slightly from country to country.

But what happens if the sign in question is obscured by vegetation or has been shot out of recognition or knocked down by some hoodlum?  Well, the software can’t recognise what it can’t see, so once again, you’re back to your visual cues.  At least you can try arguing that the sign was obscured to the cop.  It sometimes works, especially if you did see the edge of the sign but couldn’t read it thanks to a tree.  If you’re unlucky, they’ll spend your speeding fine on clearing that vegetation or upgrading the sign.

 

The Right Cars For Your Inner Geek

        This BMW that makes you feel like you’re driving the Batmobile is just the start…

Quite a few of us are geeks at heart, even just a tiny bit.  We might not spend our spare time putting together outfits so we can cosplay at conventions or be able to quote all of the script of Star Wars off by heart, but who among us hasn’t, at some point, said “May the Force be with you” to a friend, called somebody a muggle (hey, even my spellchecker doesn’t flag that one, which shows how engrained it is) or enjoyed a good superhero movie (let’s not get into the DC versus Marvel debate here – it’s as heated as Ford versus Holden). So there’s a little tiny bit of a geek in all of us – and a loud, proud and enthusiastic geek in some of us.

Of course, when you select your chosen set of wheels, you should consider a range of practical factors. However, if you’ve got a range of possibilities to choose from, why not please the heart of your inner geek and get something that’s appropriate for your particular fandom (fandom, for those of you who aren’t up with the lingo, is the particular branch of pop culture that you love).

Just to get you started, here’s the shortlist for vehicles that fit in nicely with some of the more popular fandoms out there. Apologies to any fandoms I’ve left off the list – for the simple reason that I’m not familiar enough with them to come up with an appropriate set of wheels to match – but if I’ve left out yours, then feel free to include it in the comments along with the car makes that work.

Game of Thrones: Well, Ssangyong translates as “double dragon”, so any from this Korean marque would be the obvious choice!

Marvel Universe: Thor was originally the Norse god of thunder and lightning, so if you can get your hands on a Saab with the Viggen badge, you’re in luck, as this is Nordic and Viggen means Lightning.  Otherwise, try out an Alfa Romeo Spider or any Jag that comes in black (a black panther being, of course, either a leopard or jaguar with black colouring).

DC Universe: the DC-verse is lucky in that one of the stars actually drives an equally iconic machine: the Batmobile, of course.  An old racing version of the BMW 3-series was known as the Batmobile when in full body kit, but anything sleek, black and powerful with lots of tech can be your very own Batmobile. The more modern BMW i8 or one of the sporty Zs would work well.  However, I have to say that the current version of Citroen’s logo is reminiscent of Wonder Woman’s logo… makes you wonder (ha!) if the designer was a fan.

                               Once you’ve seen it, you can’t unsee it.

Lord of the Rings: Either a Ford Ranger to take you on an epic journey through the wilderness, or a nature-loving Nissan Leaf if you see yourself as a Child of Leaf and Star.  However, anything that has performed well on the Nürburgring qualifies as a Lord of the Ring.  If you’re one of the diehards who know the books (like me), then you may know that the brother of the Lord of the Eagles is called Landroval, which I always misread as Landrover.

Sherlock: This calls for an iconic British classic of some variety – your choice of either Mini or Jaguar.  Maybe the Mini for Watson and the Jag for Holmes?

Harry Potter: If you can get your mitts on a classic Ford Anglia as owned by Arthur Weasley, then you’re very lucky indeed.  If you want something more up-to-date, then your best picks would be either Peugeot (which has the Gryffindor lion as a badge) or Alfa Romeo (green + white + serpent = Slytherin).

Star Wars: Really racked my brains about this one.  Oh for a marque called Jedi or Skywalker!  The best I can come up with is a Ford Falcon, as a nod to the Millennium Falcon (piloted by Han Solo, played by Harrison Ford, so that works).

Star Trek: What else but the Chrysler Voyager , helping you to boldly go, etc.?   Well, maybe the Landrover Discovery , depending on which era is your favourite. We’ll have to wait until someone calls a make Enterprise (which would make a pretty good car name, actually).

Has Steam Gone Walkabout?

What about a steam powered car?  In recent times people’s consciences and attention has turned to more environmentally friendly ways of commuting.  So with electric, hydrogen, hybrid and bio-fuel vehicles all available on the current automotive market, why not give steam another go?

Perhaps the biggest hurdle for a steam powered comeback is the grip that the oil companies have on automotive power.  However the winds seem to be changing, with more-and-more people reflecting on how their lifestyle and decisions impact on the environment.  Internal combustion engines produce a lot of pollution and tend to be rather noisy.  Without a doubt cleaner burning engines are resonating with buyers who have cash to spend.  EVs and hybrids are expensive but there are people very happy to buy them.

Difficulties that drove steam powered cars to become museum pieces were:

  • The external combustion steam engines could not be manufactured as cheaply as Henry Ford’s internal combustion engines.
  • Steam engines were also much heavier engines.
  • It took several minutes before the boiler was hot enough for the steam motor to generate power for take-off.

These difficulties created the “Warehouse and Kmart” phenomenon of today, where people flock to where the cheap buys are regardless of the impact.  But with today’s modern materials, steam cars could be as light as their internal combustion engine alternatives.  With a new advanced condenser and a fast heating boiler, the possibility of a modern-day steam car with decent efficiency and a warm-up time that’s measured in seconds rather than minutes could provide the comeback punch that steam needs to become an attractive and viable option for new-car buyers.

Just ponder on this for a moment – a new modern motorcar running on steam that has powerful seamless acceleration instantly, is clean burning, very quiet and, unlike combustion engines, can run on almost any fuel that produces heat.

Steam engines don’t need any gears or transmissions.  They are much more in the same vein as EV cars that have all their torque available at any rpm.  Due to the fact that steam provides constant pressure, unlike the piston strokes of an internal combustion engine, steam-powered cars require no clutch and no gearbox – making them extremely easy to drive.  By virtue of their design, steam engines provide maximum torque and acceleration instantly like electric motors, and particularly for urban driving where there’s lots of stopping and starting, clean-burning steam would be great!

What developments in steam have occurred since it rudely got forgotten and laid aside?  Some good news is that in 2009, a British team set a new steam-powered land speed record of 148 mph (237 km/h), finally breaking the Stanley Rocket’s record which had stood for more than 100 years.  In the 1990s, a Volkswagen Enginion (a model for research and development) boasted a steam engine that had comparable efficiency to internal combustion engines, but with lower emissions.  And, in recent years, Cyclone Technologies claims it has developed a steam engine that’s twice as efficient.

It might have preceded the internal combustion engine by around 200 years, but as the world is finally starting to take a serious look at the future viability of personal transport, perhaps the wonder of gliding by steam power will once again be seen on our modern roads.  In an age of touchscreen infotainment systems, EV cars that can do 400 km on a charge and driverless cars, surely there is room for new, clean-and-efficient steam cars.

Currently the increased focus on environmental responsibility could be weakening the link between the oil industry and modern motorcars.  Wouldn’t you just love to be able to fill your car up with rainwater and head off on your work commute!

Thoughts?

Should You Buy Your Teen A Safe Car?

I recently came across a couple of articles that had been inspired by some research put out by the British Medical Journal’s Injury Prevention* .  This research looked at the type, size and style of cars driven by teenagers who were killed in car accidents over 2008–2012, and ended with a recommendation that “Parents should consider safety when choosing vehicles for their teenagers.”  Automotive bloggers seemed to break out with the advice that parents should buy cars for their teenagers that had absolutely every safety feature, active and passive, under the sun.

Now, I am the parent of teenagers and young adults, both of whom drive.  I know that heartwrenching feeling when you know that your beloved son or daughter is heading out solo onto the roads, where horrible things can happen.  I’ve also had two of those phone calls that begin “Hi Mum, I’m all right but the car…”  (In both these cases, the car in question was owned by the teenager in question.)  I would be the last person to be reckless and to advocate putting your teenager in a tinny little piece of aluminium. Nevertheless, I’ve got one or two issues with those articles that other automotive bloggers have put out.

First of all, let’s look at that assumption that the parents are going to buy the car for the teenager – and the best thing is that you buy them one of the latest models with all the gadgets.  My reaction to this was “What?”  I don’t know what circles you move in, but even among the more well-heeled of my friends and acquaintances, very few of them, if any, are going to go out and plonk down a sum with five digits for a brand new SUV that will have the teenager’s name on the ownership papers although Mum and Dad are the ones forking out.  Do people actually do that?

Society is seeing a few problems coming from young adults entering the workforce with the idea that they can get the latest, best and most expensive without having to work for it, also known as an entitlement mentality.  My teenagers won’t and didn’t get something expensive of their very own without having to work for it and pay for it.  This was my first issue with a lot of those other articles out there.

Buying a car for the family that’s a new one and that’s got the right safety features, that’s another story, however.  I know that in our family, we did indeed go and purchase a big 4×4 with good safety features that our teenagers could learn to drive on.  However, the purchase of this car came with a little speech that stressed the following points:

  • The car in question is ours, not the teenagers’.
  • Use of the car is a privilege, not a right.
  • With privilege comes responsibility, such as keeping to the conditions of your provisional licence and paying for your own fuel.

Other families might like to add other things to this speech if following this course of action, such as expectations regarding running errands. You don’t want your teenager to turn out a spoilt brat who expects everything to be handed to him/her on a plate, so this sort of set-up is necessary.  Even if you are paying for the car for your teenager or young adult, they should contribute in some way so that they understand the value of that vehicle and treat it with respect (especially in the matter of things like servicing, changing the oil, etc.).

There will, of course, come the time when your teenager or young adult wants a car of their very own with their names on the papers.  Exactly what happens here will depend on your individual family and your circumstances.  Some parents buy the new car for their teen or young adult outright – usually something second-hand.  Others provide the funds for said car from the First National Bank of Mum and Dad with no interest.  Others leave their teen or young adult to make his or her own way, which is what my parents did.  I used bike, foot and public transport all through my tertiary education years, then once I was out in the big wide world of work, I took care of my own transportation needs.

If your teen or young adult (there really needs to be a word for your sons and daughters when they reach this stage of life – let’s refer to them as “young drivers”) is buying his or her own vehicle, it is very likely that this will not be one of the newest vehicles on the market for the simple reason that on the salary that one gets when leaving home and entering the workforce isn’t going to be enough to handle the repayments.  This leads to my second problem with those articles that recommend that parents buy a car with all the active and passive safety gear for their teenagers.

You see, during the early years of driving, you’re developing habits that might stick with you for life or at least a very long time.  If your car has blind spot monitoring, your young driver might get a bit slack about doing a head-check to make sure nothing’s in the blind spot.  If the car has front and rear parking sensors or cameras, your young driver might rely on these completely for parallel parking and not know how to do this manoeuvre relying on just the mirrors (double this in the case of parking assistance).  If your young driver learns how to drive on a car that “does it all for you”, then what’s going to happen when he or she purchases their own vehicle that doesn’t have said features?  Your young driver won’t know how to drive without all the aids, and that really is an accident waiting for happen and, in the long run, is more of a hazard.

So what’s a concerned parent to do?  How do you help your young driver not only stay safe but also learn how to be a good and skilful driver?

Let’s take a look at the original research again.  This research found that the majority of teenagers in question who were fatally injured were driving smaller cars – little hatchbacks.  Now, let’s face some facts: firstly, younger drivers are more likely to crash than older, more experienced ones (that’s biology and psychology); second, in a collision, a smaller car is going to come off worse than a larger one (that’s physics).  Straight away, this lets you know that if you’re helping your young driver choose a car in any way, from buying it outright to merely offering advice, then steering your teenager towards a larger vehicle such as an SUV, ute or stationwagon is a safer option.  There are the issues of fuel costs to consider, but there are some frugal SUVs out there.

The other thing that the research article found was that the teenagers who were killed on the roads tended to be driving vehicles that didn’t have certain features: ESC (stability control), airbags (especially side airbags) and side impact protection.  No mention of blind spot monitoring, cameras, autonomous braking or lane keeping assistance.  Just basic safety features that you’ll find in most vehicles from before 2006.  Even marques that aim for straightforward simplicity such as Great Wall  have these.

And that’s a relief in several ways.  It’s good to know that it’s not that hard to ensure that your young driver is behind the wheel of something safe – something safe comes in the form of a vehicle that’s sizeable and has basic safety features such as ESC, side impact protection and airbags.  And it’s really not hard to find a vehicle like this.  It’s also good to know that putting your young driver into a safe vehicle doesn’t end up producing long-term problems with drivers who haven’t learned how to drive without assistance but who own cars that don’t provide that assistance.

Of course, if you are not quite in the “parents of teenagers” stage but the years of having a learner driver in the family are looming, then maybe it’s time that you looked at your family vehicle and possibly upgraded to a nice new car (that will have your name on it!) so that you’re ready for those years.

 

*McCartt AT, Teoh ER. Type, size and age of vehicles driven by teenage drivers killed in crashes during 2008–2012. Injury Prevention 2015;21:133–136.

In Praise Of Old-School Windows

I’d find myself rather pushed to find a car that’s new onto the market that doesn’t have fast glass or automatic windows or whatever else you want to call them. You know the ones: the ones that have a little button, one on each door for the appropriate window, which gets pushed one way to make the window go up and the other way to make the window go down.  There’s usually an array of similar buttons on the door of the driver’s seat, which controls all of the windows in one handy place.  And if you push the button in the right way, it whizzes all the way up or down in one go.

If you remember electric windows when they first came out, they were very, very cool.  The early types, however, had some snags, especially if you had small bored children (or slightly older bored children) in the back seat. If you weren’t careful, small children could operate the buttons and put the windows down all the way, letting freezing cold blasts of air into the cabin of the car and allowing the possibility of precious objects being dangled outside of the window and eventually dropped, requiring sudden halts and U-turns to retrieve Teddy after Teddy had had a flying lesson.  The other snag was that small fingers could get pinched very easily as the window closed.  Not so small fingers could get pinched as well.  This happened to me and gave me a very painful insight into what the Medieval torture device known as the thumbscrew felt like.  Had a black thumbnail that couldn’t be covered properly by polish for at least a week.

These problems were overcome by a few simple tweaks.  The problem of small children opening windows was overcome by the driver’s side override button that shut off the other buttons, meaning that Mum or Dad was the one who controlled the level of the rear windows.  The other important development was the introduction of a pinch-sensitive mechanism that detected if something was stopping the window going all the way up and wouldn’t keep trying to squeeze all the way home.  These stopped fingers getting pinched but this mechanism is no good at all for long hair that’s been blowing in the wind or for silk scarves.  Believe me, suddenly discovering that your hair is trapped in the closed window when you try turning your head is pretty painful, though not quite in the league of the old thumbscrews without pinch sensitivity.

So all’s well, right?  Modern automatic windows are safe and convenient, aren’t they?  So why am I hankering for the old-school windows that wound down with a handle?

The first thing that I miss about them is their precision.  You see, when you had to wind it up or down manually, you could stop at the precise point where you wanted.  OK, this was a pain when you wanted to go all the way from fully up to fully down – which is what fast glass is good at doing – but there are times when you just want a little bit of window open.  Getting it exactly right so that you can let a bit of ventilation into the car while you nip into the supermarket but without offering an invitation to sneak thieves was pretty easy with manual windows but it can get frustrating with fast glass.  You poke the button and it moves down to about three centimetres from where you want it, then you poke the button again and the window flies all the way down to the bottom.  Then the reverse happens when you try to ease the window up again to stop at the right place.  It probably takes a couple of goes until you get it right.  Similar things happen when you want to do things like let enough fresh air in but not so much that a gale buffets the people in the back seat or you can’t hear what the other people in the car are saying.  This really makes me wonder if it’s really worth having a mechanism that goes from top to bottom in one hit after all.

Next comes the fact that automatic windows work by electricity, not by magic. This means that in order to make the windows up or down, the key needs to be in the ignition so the car knows that it’s all systems go.  If you are in a parked car and want to put the windows down to stop them fogging up (oh, put that dirty imagination away – I’m talking about waiting in the car while your kids are at football practice on a freezing cold day) then you have to switch everything on to do this.  It gets even more annoying when you find that you’ve left the back window wide open and you’ve just locked the door. OK, even with old-school cars, you had to unlock the door (which you could do by reaching through said window if there wasn’t any central locking) and wind up the window but now you have to unlock, put the key back into the ignition and then put the windows up.  Then as soon as you’ve dealt with that and locked back up again, you realise that there’s another window open…

The driver’s window lock switch can also be a nuisance at times.  They are wonderful things when your children are small because you don’t want Teddy to have flying lessons, the interior to receive an Antarctic blast and the mechanism to be worn out as the windows go up and down and up and down during a traffic jam.  However, if your rear passengers are teens or adults, the window lock is a pain.  Uncle Alfie in the back seat has just let off after a meal of cabbage and pickled onions, and by the time Uncle has tried to surreptitiously let the fart out of the cabin, discovered that the window mechanism is locked and asked “Excuse me, can you open my window?  I just farted,” it’s too late and the car cabin will smell of Eau De Uncle Alfie’s Fart for the next hour.  It’s kind of like leaving the kiddie locks on the doors and is rather insulting to the adult passenger in question.

The other thing that really makes me hanker for old-school windows is when I drive along roads that have a sharp drop-off into water or deep water below a bridge.  You see, if your car goes into deep water, you only have a very, very small window of time to open the windows before water hits the electrics and the fast glass won’t budge.  In this case, you have to try breaking the window, which is easier said than done, as car windows are tougher than, say, your windows at home.  The windscreen is especially tough, so don’t even try this.  (They say that the edges of the window are easiest to break and that at a pinch, you can use the metal spikes of a removable headrest to do this).  Manually operated windows keep on winding in water, so breaking the glass isn’t necessary.  I’m getting the heebie-jeebies just thinking about this, as having the car going into deep water is one of my worst nightmares.  Just so you know (and to remind myself), here’s what to do if it happens to you:

Lastly, if you or someone in your family is into doing their own car repairs whenever possible, it’s a darn sight easier to repair a manual window mechanism, as this is a screwdriver-type job.  With an automatic window, you’ll need to know something about electrics and wiring things up, which most of us don’t, so it’s down to the local mechanic you go!

Besides, what on earth do younger people who have seldom seen manual windows do if they want to mime opening a car window during a game of charades or when playing theatre sports?

Safe and happy driving, especially near deep water!

It’s School Time!

By now, all the schools around the country have re-started for the year, which means that a lot of us will have gone back to Mum’s Taxi and Dad’s Taxi duties again.  For some of you, your teenager has finally got their provisional license and can drive him/herself to school.

This means that there are going to be a lot more cars buzzing around schools, especially at the start and end of the school day.  Depending on where you live and what your school does, there may be school buses and shuttles involved as well.  In short, there’s a ton of traffic in a small area, and vehicle traffic isn’t the only sort around, as there will also be kids on bikes, kids on scooters and lots of kids walking.  In some cases, especially in rural and small-town schools, you can see other forms of transport being used – farm tractors, for example.

Nobody wants to make the news by being involved in a horrible accident involving school kids, so it’s probably about time that we thought about a few things we can do to make sure that our kids are safe as they go to and from school.

As a quick aside here, this is another area where autonomous cars are a real no-go.  Autonomous cars work by predicting what ought to happen or what is likely to happen.  Unfortunately, small children can be pretty unpredictable, especially when they’re all excited as they get out of school, and their erratic behaviour hasn’t been programmed into the control centre of an autonomous car.  So I’m thankful that the typical Aussie Mum and Dad still drive cars the old-school way!

First of all, although the designated school zones – the ones marked with flashy lights, road markings and signs – are the real hot spots, the activity around schools during the pick-up and drop-off times spreads further afield, so don’t just keep alert for kids in the actual areas. The precautions apply for at least a block further than that during busy times.

There are three general guiding principles that will help you negotiate this part of the school run safely:

  1. Slow down.
  2. Expect the unexpected.
  3. Don’t get in other people’s way.

Slowing Down

Slowing down to 40 km/h is the law in designated school zones, and failing to do so will (at least in New South Wales) get you double demerit points if the cops catch you at it.  The reason for this is simple: if you’re going slowly, you have more time to react and more time to stop when little Bella decides to rush across the road yelling “Mummy!  Mummy!  Guess what happened at school today!” or when the family dog who came along for the ride whizzes out of the car when little Charlie is putting his schoolbag in the boot.  What’s more, if the worst comes to the worst and an accident happens, lower speeds mean less damage.

I know we’ve discussed speed limits and whether or not speed is what kills in other posts, but nobody in their right mind should want to go at screaming high speeds around a school, even if their car is capable of it.  This is one place where the speed limits really do apply.  In fact, around the busy schools in my area, I’d actually prefer to go even slower than the 40 km/h limit during the active hours.  (The open road is another story.)

Expecting The Unexpected

Kids aren’t adults.  They are immature.  They are impulsive.  They are still learning that the world does not revolve around them (and some people seem to never learn this lesson!).  Some of them have been sitting down in school for the whole day and have serious ants in their pants.  This means that they can do some weird things and they can move quite fast.  We can drum the road safety message into them as much as possible, but there will be those moments when they forget it all and rush out into the road, or they’ll be so busy talking to friends that they don’t stop, look and listen.  This means that you, as the adult who’s got a driver’s license to prove that you’re responsible, have to be the one on high alert, ready for anything.  This means no phones, not even hands-free ones.  It probably means switch the radio off and get rid of anything else that could distract you.

You may need to be extra careful if your car is an electric vehicle or a hybrid (which will be using the electric motor at school zone speeds).  This is because a lot of EVs and hybrids are quieter than petrol and diesel engines, even if they have that little noise (which some older hybrids don’t have).  This means that the Listen part of the old Stop, Look and Listen is a bit harder.  Even adults can have near misses (that’s me with my hand up here) if they’ve looked one way, looked the other, thought it was clear and didn’t hear the oncoming hybrid/EV and started stepping out.

The flip side of this is that if you’re a parent, you should take a few steps to minimise the risk of your child running across the road.  This usually means parking on the same side of the road as the school, which is what the official advice says.  However, if everybody parks on the same side of the road as the school, the trail of parked cars will stretch well beyond the designated zone.  This might mean that your child will have to cross a road to get to where you’re parked.  It’s best if you get out of the car and walk to the school gate to collect Bella and Charlie (and the rest of the kids if you’re part of a carpool scheme).

You also need to make sure that you’re not the person doing unexpected things.  This means no U-turns, no sudden manoeuvres, no three-point turns, etc.  Plan your route so these aren’t necessary – and go around the block instead of doing U-turns, etc.  The only sudden manoeuvre you’re allowed to make is hitting the brakes if you see a child about to go where they shouldn’t.

Staying Out Of The Way

You can see some people doing silly things around schools, and I’m not talking about the children this time.  Yes, I know that you’re in a hurry.  I know that you think your child is amazing and you love him/her to bits.  I know that you’ve got to scream across town for soccer practice.  However, there is no excuse for parking in the school bus zone, double-parking or parking really, really close to the school crossing point.  It’s absolute chaos when every single Parent’s Taxi tries to park as close to the school gate as legally possible.

Congestion near schools during the busy times is a bit of a problem that councils and schools are trying hard to address because it can be chaos and an accident waiting to happen.  My preference (at least when my kids were still at school and didn’t drive themselves) was to park a bit further away, then walk that extra block or so.  After all, it won’t hurt you or your kids to walk a little!

In the case of picking up kids from secondary schools, you may have to park even further away, as a lot of the close parking spots are taken by the P-platers who drive themselves to school.  High school kids, however, are usually a bit more streetwise and are less likely to suddenly rush into the road without looking, although there are times when they’ve got their earbuds in or when they’re madly catching up on social media…

I’d also strongly argue for other initiatives as well as a way of reducing congestion around schools.  Setting up a carpool scheme with other parents who live near you is a popular option and it means that instead of four cars arriving with one child each, you get one car with four kids.  Walking school buses and “Kiss and Ride” drop-off spots are other options.  Of course, if you live within 2 km of the school, then walking to and from the school is an option (and it’s free!).  You’ll need to walk with your child until he/she is old enough to have the street smarts to do it solo – and this is usually the age when they are embarrassed to be seen with parents, so that works out well.

If you haven’t got school aged children and you’re not doing the Parent’s Taxi run, then it’s best to plan your journey so that you don’t have to drive near a school during the busy hours.  Go another way if you have to or make that trip at another time.

If we all do our bit, then our kids will stay safe as they go to and from school.

Wheels Car Of The Year Winner Is…..

2019 Volvo XC40 R-Design Launch Edition.

The Least Useful Bells And Whistles On Modern Cars

You really have to hand it to the car designers and developers.  They really do a great job of putting out new models all the time and coming up with all sorts of new things.  Some of these innovations are fantastic and useful – improved battery range in EVs, increased torque alongside better fuel economy in a diesel engine, and finding more places to stash airbag. Inside the car, you have delights like chilled storage compartments where you can put your secret stash of chocolate where it won’t melt on a hot day, and comforts like heated seats.  Some of the innovations and nifty luxury features you find on cars today aren’t quite as useful.

Now, don’t get me wrong.  I’m not knocking any of these things.  In fact, I quite like a few of them, especially as I’m a major sucker for anything that involves sparkly lights and LED technology. It’s just that they’re kind of pointless and not really necessary.  They definitely fall into the category of “nice to have” but if an otherwise decent new model didn’t have these features, it wouldn’t be a deal-breaker.  Kind of like having a cool print on a ski jacket – it won’t keep you any warmer than a plain jacket but it looks nice.

So what are some features that you can find on modern vehicles that could be classified as “useless”?  Here’s a selection…

  1. Colour Changeable Interior Lighting. This is one of the ones I actually quite like while admitting that it’s not really necessary to good or safe driving.  LED technology can do all sorts of pretty things, and this is one of them.  At the touch of a button, you can select a different shade for the lighting inside the cabin of the vehicle, either from a pre-set selection or a customisable shade.  It’s quite fun but it’s not going to make you a safer or better driver unless you let fractious children play with it so they don’t bug you and whinge, causing a distraction.
  2. Illuminated Door Sills. Another example of LED technology being put to use, this involves a wee light, possibly showing a brand logo or badge, on the doorsill.  Right where you put your grubby shoes.
  3. Lane Departure Warnings. Look, if you can’t tell you’re drifting to one side by, you know, looking out of the windscreen, you shouldn’t be behind the wheel.  These sensors and warnings also have no way of telling if you’re carefully easing around the council mowing machine that’s bumbling along the grass verge, overtaking someone in the bicycle lane, avoiding a trail of debris or edging into a median strip – or if you’re really drifting out of your lane.  Active lane departure correction is even worse…
  4. Integration with Social Media. You should not be checking Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat or any other form of social media while behind the wheel.  If merely texting is distracting and the cause of more than their fair share of accidents, then seeing someone’s loopy video share is worse.  Checking your social media on a display screen at eye height is just as distracting and takes your eyes off the road just as much as a phone does.  Are you really that hooked on your online presence and that full of FOMO that you can’t even stop while you’re driving?  If it’s that bad, then just take the bus and use your phone or tablet.  (I don’t count the ability to access your Spotify playlists while driving to be useless, by the way, which is probably the only thing that justifies this feature.)
  5. Paddle Shifters on Anything with CVT. The whole point of a CVT system is that it doesn’t have regular gears and doesn’t change from one to the other like your standard manual or auto transmission.  What, then, do paddle shifters on a CVT actually do apart from looking cool and making you feel like a racing driver?
  6. Gesture Control for Audio. It’s very cool and sci-fi: you wave your hand or make a similar gesture and your audio system turns up the volume or turns it down.  OK, it might be fractionally safer than reaching down to fiddle with a knob while driving. However, it will also respond to any hand motion in the sensor’s vicinity.
  7. Dinky Roof Rails. Roof rails are very useful if they are large enough to actually strap something like a kayak, skis or a ladder.  If they’re teeny-weeny things, however, they’re just there to look sporty but don’t really do anything much.
  8. “Door Open” Alarms. I’ve got this on one of my Nissans and it’s a feature that’s been around for a while. The idea is that if you have the door open and the key in the ignition, the car beeps at you so you don’t lock your keys in by mistake.  The trouble is that it keeps beeping if you leave the door ajar while refuelling or if you have to hop out to open a gate, driving passengers nuts.  I don’t know how many times I’ve wanted to find that beeper and smash it!
  9. Images in Puddle Lamps. Puddle lamps in themselves are not useless, especially not in a Landrover or other 4×4 driven how they were originally intended to be driven (i.e. off road), as they help you see if you’re about to step out of the car into a pile of horse or cow crap.  Even around town, it’s nice to see if you’re about to step out into a puddle while wearing your nice shoes.  But is it really necessary to cast a shadow of the image of the car into the middle of the light?  Cool, yes.  Useful, no.
  10. Automatically Switching Off The Cabin Lights When The Door Opens. Now try and retrieve your cabin baggage by feel in the dark with the lights off, and hope you don’t miss your wallet.  Honestly, the old-school system where the lights came on when the door opened was better, although it could lead to drained batteries if you left the door open too long… but a manual switch usually took care of that.

There are some honourable mentions that could go on this list but they might possibly be useful.  One is the ECO light, which comes on when you’re driving fuel-efficiently.  As I could give the stereotypical Scotsman serious competition in the stinginess stakes, this one might help me save a few dollars here and there… not that I’d pay extra to have this feature!  Night vision is the other one I’m unsure about.  Yes, knowing that there’s a warm body somewhere on or near the road might be useful and help safety (as well as looking really cool) but in most cases, headlights will let you know about any obstacles – and night vision requires you to look at the dash display rather than the road.

I’m sure that there are other features found on modern cars that are cool and fun but not really useful – give us your top picks in the comments!

Hydrogen Fuel Cells – The Basic Facts

One of the more exciting vehicles that’s scheduled to come to Australia at some unspecified date in 2019 is the Hyundai Nexo – one of the vehicles recently awarded the Best in Class for all-round safety by Euro NCAP.  This vehicle combines regular batteries with hydrogen fuel cell technology. Three vehicles made by major marques have been designed to run on HFCs: the aforementioned Hyundai Nexo, the Toyota  Mirai and the Honda  Clarity.

Toyota Mirai concept car

Hydrogen fuel cell technology is another option for overcoming our addiction to fossil fuels (the other two are biofuels and electricity).  But what is hydrogen fuel cell technology and how does it work?  Is it really that sustainable and/or environmentally friendly?  Isn’t hydrogen explosive, so will a car running on hydrogen fuel cell technology really be safe?

OK, let’s start with the basics: how does it work?

Diagram of a hydrogen fuel cell

A hydrogen fuel cell (let’s call it an HFC for short) is designed to generate electricity, so a vehicle that’s powered by HFC technology is technically an EV.  A chemical reaction takes place in the cell and this gets a current going, thanks to the delicate balance between positive and negative ions (all chemistry is, ultimately, to do with electricity). How is this different from a battery?  Well, a battery uses what’s stored inside it but an HFC needs a continual supply of fuel.  Think of a battery as being like a lake, whereas the HFC is a stream or a river.  The other thing that an HFC needs is something for the hydrogen fuel to react with as it passes through the cell itself, which consists of an anode, cathode and an electrolyte solution – and I don’t mean a fancy sports drink.  One of the things that hydrogen reacts best with and is readily found in the atmosphere is good old oxygen.

Naturally, there’s always a waste product produced from the reaction that generates the charge. This waste product is dihydrogen monoxide.  For those of you who haven’t heard of this, dihydrogen monoxide is a colourless, odourless compound that’s liquid at room temperature.  In gas form, dihydrogen monoxide is a well-known and very common greenhouse gas, and it’s quite corrosive to a number of metals (it’s a major component of acid rain).  It’s vital to the operation of nuclear-powered submarines and is widely used in industry as a solvent and coolant.  Although it has been used as a form of torture, it’s highly addictive to humans and is responsible for hundreds of human deaths globally every year.  Prolonged contact with dihydrogen monoxide in solid form causes severe tissue damage.  You can find more information about this potentially dangerous substance here*: http://www.dhmo.org/facts.html

For the less alarmist of us, dihydrogen monoxide is, of course, H2O or good old water, like the stuff I’m sipping on right now on a hot summer day.  Yes – that’s the main waste product produced by HFCs, which is why these are a bit of a hot topic in the world of environmental motoring.

OK, so air goes in one bit of the HFC, hydrogen gas goes in the other, and water and electrical power come out of it.  The next question that one has to ask is where the hydrogen fuel comes from (this question always needs to be asked: what’s the source of the fossil fuel substitute?).  The cheapest source of hydrogen gas as used on HFCs is natural gas, which is, unfortunately, a fossil fuel.  So are some of the other sources of hydrogen gas.  However, you can get it out of methane, which is the simplest type of hydrocarbon.  Methane can be produced naturally by bacteria that live in the guts of certain animals, especially cows.  Not sure how you can catch the methane from burping and farting cows for use in making hydrogen gas for HFCs.  And, just in case you’re wondering, some humans (not all!) do produce methane when they fart.  It’s down to the particular breed of bacteria in the gut (archaea if you want to be picky – they’re known as methanogens).  They’re as common as muck – literally.  So yes, there’s potential for hydrogen gas to be produced from natural sources – including from sewage.  The other thing is that producing hydrogen gas from methane leaves carbon dioxide behind.  But this has way less effect as a greenhouse gas than methane, so that’s a plus.

If you’re currently feeling that HFCs might not be quite as environmentally friendly after all and we all ought to drive straight EVs, then I encourage you to do a thorough investigation of how the electricity used to charge EVs comes from. It’s not always that carbon-neutral either.  Heck, even a bicycle isn’t carbon-neutral because when you puff and pant more to push those pedals, you are breathing out more carbon dioxide than normal.  All in all, HFCs are pretty darn good.  The worst thing they chuck out as exhaust is water, and the hydrogen gas needed to power them can come from sustainable sources – very sustainable if you get it from animal manure and/or sewage, which also means that poop becomes a resource instead of a problem to get rid of.  They’re doing this in Japan – and they’ve also managed to get the carbon bits of the methane to become calcium carbonate, which sequesters carbon and has all sorts of fun uses from a dietary supplement through to agricultural lime.

Another plus about HFCs is that they are a lot more efficient than combustion engines.  A large chunk of the potential energy going in turns into the electrical energy that you want, which is then turned into kinetic (motion) energy by the motor so your car gets moving (or it turns into some other form, such as light energy for the headlights or sound energy for the stereo system).  Some comes out in the form of heat.  Combustion engines waste a lot of the potential energy in the form of heat (lots of it!) and noise (ditto).

The amount of electrical energy produced by a single HFC isn’t going to be very large, so inside any vehicle powered by hydrogen technology, there will be a stack of HFCs, which work together to produce the full amount of oomph you need. The fun part in designing a vehicle that runs on HFC technology involves ensuring that the stack has the oomph needed without being too heavy and working out where to put the tanks of hydrogen gas.  However, this isn’t too hard.

The other problem with manufacturing HFC vehicles is that the catalyst inside the cells is expensive – platinum is common.  This is probably one of the biggest barriers to the spread of the technology, along with the usual issue of nobody buying HFC vehicles because nobody’s got an easy place to get the gas from and nobody’s selling the gas because nobody’s buying HFC cars.  They had the same issue with plug-in EVs too, remember, and we all know how that’s changed.  However, last year, our very own CSIRO came up with some technology to get hydrogen fuel for HFC vehicles out of ammonia and they want to go crazy with this and use it all over the show.  This is exciting stuff and probably deserves a post of its very own, so I’ll tell you more about that another day.

I feel in the need for some 1,3,7-trimethylxanthine theine combined with dihydrogen monoxide in solution with β-D-galactopyranosyl-(1→4)-D-glucose and calcium phosphate, also known as a cup of coffee, so it’s time for me to stop and to wish you safe and happy driving – hopefully without too much methane inside the cabin of your car on long journeys!

*Some people in the world have far, far too much time on their hands.