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Is Your Car Winter-Ready?

Lake Mountain Road, Vic.

It might not quite be winter yet, but we have passed the autumn Equinox, which means that the time when the sun is up is shorter than the time when it’s down. This means that it’s time to think ahead and get your car ready for winter. Because there’s no point in getting ready for something if it’s already come and too late, right?

One thing we can be thankful for is that we don’t have to go through quite so extensive preparations for winter as they do in, say, Sweden or Canada… especially if you live in the northern bits of Australia when winter comes as welcome relief from the intense summer heat. However, the southern states and territories can get problems with frost and snow from time to time, and everybody gets things wetter and rainier (except in the very far north in places like Darwin, who have their rainy monsoon period during the summer).

As things are going to get wetter, the most important thing you need to do to get your car winter-ready is to check your tyres.  First of all, they need to have plenty of tread on them, as it’s the tread that channels out the water so you still get plenty of grip.  When it comes to tyre styles, there’s a bit of a trade-off, as having lots and lots of channels means that you can pump lots of water out – and a tyre needs to shift about 6 litres per second in average rainfall at open road speeds – but the problem is that lots of little raised bits wear out more quickly when it’s dry… and nobody wants the hassle of changing tyres every time the weather goes from wet to dry and back again.  The best tyres for driving in the wet are the ones with the directional treads (lots of stacked V shapes) and asymmetrical tyres, although you can’t rotate asymmetrical tyres like you can with the directional ones.  Directional ones look nicer, too!

Tyre pressure is also important to check when the weather goes from hot to cold. This is because air temperature affects tyre pressure, so when the mercury goes down, a tyre that was just right may now be underinflated.  If you remember your high school physics, the hotter a gas gets, the more it expands and the greater the pressure. When the gas cools, then the gas contracts and the pressure decreases.  It’s important to check your tyre pressure at all times, but if the temperature’s changed (or if we’ve had a cold snap), then it pays to check.

The next thing that’s important to deal with is to check the windscreen wipers.  Winter means more rain for everybody except the far north folk, and this means that your wipers are going to see a lot of action. They won’t shift the water and keep your visibility decent if they are in bad condition.  New wiper blades don’t cost the earth and changing them is a job that you can easily do yourself, so there’s no excuses.

While you’re looking at the windscreen and the wipers, this might be a good time to ensure that your windscreen is nice and clean. The angle of the sun will be that little bit lower in the evenings and the mornings, especially the further south you go, so sunstrike and glare can be a problem, especially if your windscreen is filthy. Give it a good clean and top up the fluid for your window wiper fluid.

The next thing is your lights. It’s going to be darker, especially if your state does the Daylight Savings thing (and consider yourself lucky if it doesn’t because it’s a pain). Make sure that all of your lights are working well, including the fog lights. Check that the angles of your headlights on dip and on full beam are angled correctly.

The last thing to get the car mechanically ready for winter is to check the battery.  Your battery is going to get more of a workout, what with the extra demands of heating and lighting.  Top it up with distilled water if needed (tap water is often chlorinated or have other minerals that don’t play nicely with battery acid, so don’t use this).  Check the terminals for corrosion and clean off any greenish bits around the terminals caused by the acid. The best way to do this is with baking soda (which neutralises the acid and will fizz), an old toothbrush and rubber gloves to protect your hands, followed by a good rinse with warm water.  If your battery is getting on the ancient side, then change it. Few things are as miserable as waiting in a freezing cold car on a nasty day for the breakdown guys to come and jump-start your battery.

These steps will help keep your car winter-ready, but don’t forget you and your passengers when preparing your car for winter.  Having the right items stashed away can make a real difference, especially if you have to wait in a parked car for ages for any reason on a nasty cold day, or if some idiot who DIDN’T check their tyre condition skids into your rear end, meaning you have to wait for the breakdown team.  Most modern cars have plenty of useful storage space for all sorts of odds and ends – one particularly useful one is found on the Skoda Superb , which has a special compartment for an umbrella that allows it to drain when wet.  If you own one of these sedans, make the most of this feature!

Here’s the list of things that I’d have in my car to make sure that I can cope, even when the weather swings wildly or gets nasty and cold (on top of other staples like hand sanitiser, snacks and a first aid kit).

  • A chamois leather or microfibre cloth for wiping down the inside of the windscreen. Sometimes, the demister just doesn’t work fast enough or there’s grime on the inside of the windscreen that is causing visibility problems with the lower angle of the sun. Rather than using your sleeve and getting wet (which I have done in emergencies), use a nice soft cloth kept for the purpose.
  • Something to keep the rain off. This could be an umbrella or a raincoat – you can get some nice little compact ones that tuck away in a little bag. This stops you getting all soggy if a downpour decides to descend just as you’re pulling up at the petrol pump and there’s no shelter between your car, the pump and/or where you have to pay (been there, done that).
  • It can take the heaters a while to get going on a cold morning, as they use excess engine heat to heat the cabin. Cold fingers are stiffer and less responsive, so keep your little pinkies warm until the heater sorts its life out.  The obvious place to keep them is… the glovebox.
  • A polar fleece or jumper. It was a nice day when you started out but a southerly buster has roared in.  Or you have to turn the heaters off thanks to that flat battery (or to avoid flattening it).  Keeping half your wardrobe in your car like my husband did when I first met him probably isn’t ideal, but having something to pull on often comes in handy.
  • A blanket or throw. If you have to take kids or passengers who have to wear thinner clothes (formal gowns, dance gear) or who are a bit damp (after sports practice) and cranking up the heater would make things far too hot for you even with a dual-zone climate control, then having a blanket handy for bare knees or off-the-shoulder tops is a nice touch.  A blanket is also more easily washed than your car upholstery in the case of muddy people.  Plus you can use it for impromptu picnics.

Safe and happy driving, no matter what the weather is!

 

The Top Seven Things Autonomous Cars Can’t Handle

 

My  last post had some rather grim news to do with autonomous cars (aka driverless cars) not quite doing what they are supposed to do.  That was an example of things going badly wrong with the sensor systems that are supposed to make driverless cars so much safer and better than real live humans.  However, on a slightly lighter note, there are quite a few things that most of us drivers handle sometimes daily without much fuss that send autonomous cars into a full-on wobbly.

 

#1. Kangaroos

OK, so the design teams working with Volvo’s autonomous cars in Sweden had it all sorted for the sort of large animals that are likely to hang around on roads in Scandinavia.  The sensors can handle moose, elk and deer, detecting the beasties and stopping the car in time. However, it’s a different story down here in Australia.  The system just can’t cope with kangaroos, which are large animals that we’re likely to get on country roads – they’re certainly the large animals involved in most animal-related crashes.  You see, the system doesn’t see an animal, recognise it and estimate the distance and take appropriate action the way a human does.  The system uses the ground as a reference point to estimate the distance between the animal and the machine… and roos don’t stay on the ground when they’re on the move.  The sensors also have trouble recognizing a kangaroo as a kangaroo because from the perspective of a computer, a kangaroo in motion and a roo resting quietly beside the road are completely different shapes and look like totally different things.  Then you’ve got the problem with roos that human drivers have to cope with: the fact that they can get a top speed of 70 km/h and can seemingly explode out of nowhere right into your path.  If the roo has been behind a bush or something, then the sensors can’t see it and you can’t see it, so you’d better have roo bars fitted.

#2 Car Washes

Some people get a little bit phobic about those automated car washes, although others enjoy them.  There’s always that little moment when you see the big whirling brushes descend and you hope like mad that the sensors telling them when to stop aren’t going to fail, crushing the top of your vehicle, shattering your windscreen and thrashing you with hundreds of little rubber whips.  But what happens when an automatic car wash meets an autonomous car?

Well, an autonomous car can get into the car wash without any problems.  However, the vigorous action of the washer plus all the soapy foam don’t agree well with the sensors, so getting out of the car wash and driving on may be another story.  You see, the sensors have to be clear of any grime or debris to work properly and if there’s soap left on them, they can’t see.  And there is soap left on them afterwards.  At worst, the car wash knocks the sensors off or damages them, which makes for a very, very expensive fix.

You have to take your pick: is washing your car by hand every time worth the convenience of a car that drives itself?

#3 Bad Weather

Self-driving tech works nicely in fine, sunny weather.  However, put it in heavy rain, snow or ice and it throws a very, very big wobbly.  Humans know – or ought to know – that when it’s raining, you take it nice and slow around the corners, watch out for pools of water that could get you aquaplaning and to keep the speed down.  Now, you’d think that because we have rain-sensing wipers, an autonomous car should be able to recognise that it’s raining and adjust itself accordingly.  Unfortunately, it can’t.  It probably can’t tell the difference between a light shower and a tropical monsoon.  Google hasn’t even put its self-driving cars through tests in heavy rains yet, but they already know that snow is a big problem for autonomous cars because they can’t see the road markings that help them stay in their lanes and get around corners.  As for ice, they have problems detecting this as well.  Even if humans have trouble spotting black ice and frost on the road, we know that on a nippy day when you have to put on a nice woolly jersey, there’s likely to be a bit of ice on that corner there where the trees cast a shadow on the road all day.

#4 Potholes

Apparently, the only holes in the road that a self-driving car can detect are the big ones made by your local road repair crew that have cones around them.  The little blips that are hard on your tyres and suspension aren’t picked up – they are below the surface of the road and they’re not on any of the mapping systems that these cars use.  So an autonomous car won’t dodge potholes.  Ouch.

#5 Newly Altered Road Layouts

Self-driving cars, especially the ones being worked on by Google, rely on really good maps to know (a) where in the world they are and (b) what the road is supposed to look like.  Don’t underestimate the latter bit – this is one way that driverless cars can pick obstacles: some systems scan the area around them and compare this with an image of what the road and its surroundings usually look like (letterboxes, lamp posts, etc.) and reacts accordingly.  However, if they don’t have these detailed maps, then things get a bit fun.  As happened recently in Arizona, if the local supermarket has decided to change the layout of the carpark with its entrances and exits, a driverless car might still think that the best way to get out is via what is now a new set of stairs.  Self-drive vehicles also go to pieces with new subdivisions and places where massive road works and new road layouts are going on: drivers from Christchurch, New Zealand, report that your common or garden GPS throws a wobbly about all the new roads and other bits resulting from the post-earthquake reconstruction.

#6 Shared Areas

Shared areas – places where pedestrians can go on the road at the same time as cars – are touted as being a way forward for cities of the future.  The trouble is that driverless cars are very rule-based, and when it comes to shared areas, there are no set rules.  Each interaction between driver and pedestrian, or between driver and driver, is a new situation.  Nobody’s got official right of way, so we use our social knowledge to ensure that everyone gets where they want to go without anyone getting hurt.  A human driver can see that the pair of pedestrians chatting with coffee in hand staring at each other aren’t about to try crossing the road.  A robot/computer/self-driving car just sees human shapes and can’t see what they’re doing or predict what they’re about to do.  Similarly, there are tons and tons of ways that drivers and pedestrians go through the whole “After you” “No, after you,” exchange.  How we conduct these wordless conversations can be anything from a large Italian-style gesticulation to a simple jerk of the head or a raised eyebrow.  It involves hands, arms, heads, facial expressions and mouthing words on the part of both parties – or just the driver, if he/she spots a mum struggling with a pram and a cantankerous toddler plus a bunch of shopping bags.  Our gestures and our decisions depend on how we’re feeling, our stress levels, the other party involved (the puzzled looking tourist versus the businessperson talking on the phone while striding forward in a rush versus the bunch of teenage girls fooling around).  And in some places, a human driver can recognise a familiar face, stop, wind down the window and have a wee chat.  And all these variables are simply too complex, too individual and too unpredictable to be programmed into a machine.

#7 Pesky Human Beings

As an old road safety campaign stated, humans are unpredictable (and so are some animals, like the idiot dogs who stand there all dopey in the middle of the road staring at you as you brake and yell at them).  A computer system relies on the situations and courses of appropriate action that have been programmed into it.  The trouble is that not everything that people do goes according to the rules – and don’t we just know it!

Here are a few examples of pesky human behaviours and situations – all of which a human driver can recognise and deal with – that would throw a driverless car:

  • A cop on point duty directing traffic because of an accident on the road ahead or similar – a person standing there waving arms is not something a computer system is used to
  • A ball bouncing out into the road: if a human sees this, he/she knows that some child might dash onto the road to retrieve it, but a computer sensor can’t tell a ball from a plastic bag flying loose and won’t react… it certainly won’t start keeping an extra look out for kids.
  • Kids coming out from school: they’re supposed to be sensible on the roads and not do anything silly, but there’s that occasional child who rushes across the road shouting “Mummy!” unexpectedly. Most of us should know that one should slow down and keep an extra lookout at certain times around schools.
  • Hitchhikers: We know what the backpack, the extended thumb and the cardboard sign reading “Gold Coast” means, and we can also make split-second decisions regarding how dodgy the hitchhiker looks, how much space we’ve got in the car, where we’re going and how urgent our journey is, and use all this to decide whether or not to pick up the hitchhiker.
  • Situational ethics: it doesn’t happen very often, but what about when you’ve got a choice between two evils?  This comes down to morals, ethics and the value of life.  Sometimes, for a human, the choice is comparatively easy: in a choice between hitting Granny and hitting the stray dog, most of us would swerve to take the dog out.  Similarly, if you have to negotiate a flock of sheep, the farmer and his/her sheepdog, we know that if things get really bad, you avoid the dog and the farmer at all costs but you can hit the sheep.  At the moment, sensors have trouble getting beyond “Obstacle A” versus “Obstacle B”.  Even if they can tell people from animals, can they go further?  Can they distinguish one human from another?  And if so, how do they decide who not to hit?

 

Driverless Car Causes Fatal Accident In Arizona

Photo courtesy of Reuters

On 18th March – that’s just over a week ago – driverless car technology received a major blow.  The horrible truth is that the blow struck to the technology by this particular vehicle being road-tested by the Uber taxi service wasn’t as nasty as the blow it delivered to a 49-year-old Arizona woman named Elaine Herzberg who was crossing the road one evening, like you do.  The car hit her and killed her.  Dashcam on the autonomous car captured the moment before the car ran her down.  I’ve decided not to embed it in this post in case you’ve got autoplay or something on, because it’s decidedly disturbing.  Find it online yourself if you must, but personally, I’d rather not watch the tragic and completely avoidable death of a woman about my age who probably has a partner and children and friends who thought she was great fun – someone just like me and you.

The reaction has been exactly what you would expect: Arizona has called a halt to on-road real-life testing of autonomous cars, Uber and a few other companies like Toyota have stopped all testing in North America, and shares in companies that have been investing heavily into driverless car technology such as Tesla have dropped.  In addition, Ms Herzberg’s family have been coping with the shock and loss of losing a mother, daughter, sister, wife, cousin…  There’s also one Uber driver who trusted the technology to take care of things the way they told her it would who is going to live with a lifetime of questions and guilt, and who is probably in the hands of a good therapist right now – or at least ought to be.

We can ask the same questions as that Uber driver and the Herzberg family are probably asking over and over again: why did this happen? What went wrong? Aren’t driverless cars supposed to get rid of the human error factor that is responsible for the majority of fatal accidents?

Without actually looking at the chilling dashcam footage personally and based on other people’s reports, it appears that what happened was this.  The Uber vehicle was cruising along a road on a normal spring night in Tempe, Arizona, on a Sunday night.  It was dark and the driver, who was probably on a tight schedule and having to manage half a billion things at once – like you do – looked away from the road for about five seconds.  The car was in autonomous mode and it had the full fleet of sensors that are available in even regular cars that aren’t driverless cars, such as automatic braking, pedestrian detection, cross-traffic detection and collision avoidance mode.  The driver thought that all would be well – after all, the car was supposed to take care of itself most of the time, wasn’t it?

Then along came Ms Herzberg, wheeling her bicycle.  Probably she was a bit too careless and didn’t pick a big enough gap in the traffic to cross in – but haven’t we all done that when trying to cross a busy road when there’s no pedestrian crossing or traffic lights in sight?  Most of us take it for granted that the humans behind the wheels don’t want to hit us and they’ll slow down a fraction if we’re cutting it a bit fine (this is something that I don’t assume – call me paranoid but maybe it’s an assumption we need to start questioning).  To make matters worse, Ms Herzberg was wearing black at night, which would have made her hard to see even if the driver hadn’t looked away.

The sensors and the system didn’t see or recognize Ms Herzberg, so the collision avoidance systems weren’t triggered.  The vehicle kept going straight ahead at normal road speeds.  The driver, trusting the autonomous system, didn’t see her either until the last moment when the car ploughed full-speed into her and there was no time for the human driver to do anything to stop it.  Ms Herzberg died later that night in hospital.

This is the first time that a driverless car has been involved in a fatal accident involving a pedestrian – hang on, let’s call a spade a spade.  The car wasn’t just “involved”: it knocked her down and killed her.

Naturally, all the tech companies and car manufacturers involved are properly horrified and are wondering what on earth went wrong.  The sensors were supposed to work without being “distracted” like a human driver could be.  They were supposed to be able to see in the dark, so to speak, and therefore be better than a human driver would be.  Autonomous systems are supposed to be so much safer because they don’t get drunk, tired or distracted, but stay focussed and on the job all the time. So what went wrong?  Why didn’t the car see Ms. Herzberg and brake in time?

Naturally, as the questions are still being answered and the accident only happened about a week ago, they don’t have answers yet.  A few fingers are being pointed, especially as different companies make different bits of the tech.  Did the Lidar sensor plus artificial intelligence system fail to distinguish the pedestrian with a bicycle from a power pole or a bush? (These systems do have trouble with this – in Australia, they have real trouble recognizing how close kangaroos on the road actually are, because the jumping motion of a roo fools the sensor into thinking that there’s more road between the car and the roo than there really is.)  Robotic systems and computers follow the rules and keep to the rules no matter what – and something unexpected that’s out of the box and not included in the rules really throws them.  Possibly, someone crossing the road with a bike without looking properly or allowing a big enough gap is a novel concept for them.

I guess that at this early stage, there are a few lessons that all of us can learn from this tragedy:

  • Driver assistance packages and sensors are there to help you be a better driver, not do it all for you. As a driver, you need to stay alert and do the job of driving at all times, whether you’ve got a back-to-basics trade vehicle like a Great Wall , or a luxury sedan or SUV with all the safety gadgets like a Mercedes  or Volvo .
  • A lot can happen in a few seconds, so keep your eyes on the road as much as possible. No checking texts, changing the radio station or fiddling with the air con.
  • Be careful when crossing the road. These days, you can’t assume that drivers are looking ahead of them because there are idiots who insist on checking their phones while driving, and in the future, you might not even be able to assume that there’s a human with a heart in control of the wheel.  The stop, look and listen rule still applies – so take those headphones out of your ear.
  • Wearing black at night when crossing the road always has been and still is a dumb idea.
  • People are unpredictable, so keep your eyes open for them when you’re driving.

And I hope we do learn these lessons.  After all, nobody really grieves for a car that gets written off.  However, real live humans have friends and families who will always miss them if they die – and that’s something that a computer or robot system can’t fully understand or experience.

Chrysler, BMW and Kia Join The Police Fleet

BMW 530d – confirmed as part of the Victoria Police fleet.

I don’t know if they were actually putting bets on it anywhere (although I wouldn’t be surprised) but when Holden and Ford Australia closed their factory doors, the big question for a lot of us who are interested in motoring and car news was what the cops were going to drive for their regular patrol and pursuit cars.  You see, up until the closure of Ford and Holden’s factories on these shores, the cops, being a wing of the government and hence keen on supporting local industry, drove Ford Falcons and Holden Commodores, to the point that wary drivers who like to push the limits a wee bit went on high alert at the mere sight of a white Dunny-Door (aka Commodore) in the distance.  As a matter of fact, the boys and girls in blue were required to drive locally built vehicles.

But the rule that says the cops had to drive locally built vehicles was scrapped.  Then the fun of the guessing game started.  There were all sorts of speculations going on.  Would we get the hot-looking new Kia Stinger on the roads in police livery?  The more obscure Genesis G8 from Korea?  Or something else?

The speculations have now ended, and the police departments of various states have made their choices.  Here’s the list of vehicles that will be a welcome sight if you’ve picked up the phone to report a burglary… or an unwelcome sight in the rear view mirror if it’s got the disco lights going and you know you’ve been driving naughtily.

Chrysler 300 SRT: OK, one of the reasons why they picked this one is possibly because it’s made by Fiat Chrysler Automobiles Australia, which still has a humming factory.  The other reasons are because it’s got a feisty 6.4-L naturally aspirated V8 engine (350 kW and 637 Nm) with a very snappy 0–100 sprint time (4.5 seconds).  It’s also a nice, big sedan with lots of room for all the gear that cops need (and space for arrested suspects in the rear where they can’t kick the driver through the back of the seat).  The NSW Police announced in December 2017 that they’d be kitting out a bunch of these (the exact number is unknown but it’s probably got three digits) as patrol and pursuit vehicles.  The downside is that it’s a thirsty brute.

BMW 530d: The Victorian Police confirmed that they’d be getting at least some examples of the diesel-powered German mid-sized sedans for the highway patrol fleet, with 80 confirmed for about now.  While the Beemer is a shade less powerful than the Chrysler (we need a nickname for Chrysler – any suggestions?), it’s possible to get these straight from the factory with the police pack ready installed.  Cops all through Europe drive the 5-series sedan so it’s proved its worth in fighting crime.  In fact, BMW is one of the few manufacturers that actually have vehicles rolling off the factory lines ready to go on patrol duty.  Apparently, they take out some of the luxurious bells and whistles that you get in the everyday civilian versions and replace them with the gadgets that a modern police force needs.  The BMW 530d – at least the civilian version – is powered by a 3-litre V6 turbodiesel delivering 195 kW of power and 620 Nm.

Kia Sorento: South Australia Police confirmed in January that they’d be getting some of these popular Korean SUVs and giving them a try-out.  Apparently, the safety record of the Sorento was one of the more appealing features motivating this choice, as the Sorento came through crash testing with very high marks.  The seven-seater’s got lots of room (great for K-9 teams) although it’s not as peppy as the Chrysler and the Beemer, with the 2.2-litre 4 cylinder turbodiesel delivering 147 kW and 441 Nm.  They say that the brakes are going to get an upgrade for patrol purposes because the cops are pretty hard on the old braking systems.

Kia Stinger: The very hot-looking new sedan has been spotted in the livery of the Queensland Police force.  Apparently, it wasn’t just the nippy 2-litre 4-cylinder turbocharged engine (182 kW and 353 Nm) that made it attractive: it’s also great braking and cooling systems that passed the rather punishing tests that the Powers That Be put them through (a Ford Mustang from overseas failed these tests and was bumped off the shortlist).  The fact that the Stinger looks great and is a newly unveiled model is also likely to help with police liaison activities with schools and the like.

It’s still early days and some of the vehicles are just being trialled for active duty in various states, and there are a few others that might be used, such as overseas-built Commodores.  However, out of the list of what’s been confirmed, which of these vehicles would be the one that gets your heart racing the most, whether it’s the vehicle that appeals most to your inner small kid who hero-worships the cops, or the one you’d least like to see bearing down on you with the disco lights going?

The Pros and Cons of Driverless Cars

In any discussion of road safety and keeping crash-related deaths down, you’re always going to come back to the human factor. Most times, people doing silly things are what cause crashes, whether the silly thing is misjudging the speed to take a corner at in the wet, reading a text message while driving and not noticing that the car is drifting, or getting behind the wheel when a bit tiddly. Is the answer then to eliminate the human factor altogether and adopt driverless cars, much in the same way that aircraft have adopted autopilot systems?

What Google’s driverless car looks like.

There are tons of reasons why driverless cars (aka autonomous cars, self-driving cars and autonomous cars) could be a good idea, and just as many reasons why they’re not.

Arguments in favour of driverless cars include the following:

  • Robots and computer systems don’t get tired, drunk or distracted.
  • Computer systems can calculate the perfect speed to negotiate corners.
  • Autonomous cars automatically detect if they’re drifting out of a lane and correct it instantly (some cars do this already even if they’re driven by a real live human being).
  • In theory, computer systems don’t make mistakes, slip or get careless.

What we hoped driverless cars would look like.

In short, a driverless car eliminates the human factor.  After all, the proverb “to err is human” has been around since before cars were invented.  Computerised systems aren’t subject to the limitations of being human and fallible.

However, a modern twist on the old proverb says that although to err may be human, to really mess things up, use a computer. This brings us neatly to the arguments against driverless cars:

  • All new software systems are prone to teething troubles, glitches and bugs when first released. This is mildly annoying on your office computer but could be fatal at worst and expensive at best in a car.
  • We all know that electronics seem to develop a mind of their own and do weird things that we don’t expect them to unless we’re super-geeks.
  • Artificial intelligence can’t cope with really busy situations. Busy car parks and places where pedestrians and cars share the road are particularly confusing for autonomous car systems. Just think of all the ways that people indicate “After you,” in these situations – a wave of the hand(s) that can be big or small or just about any direction, a quick jerk of the head, a smile, mouthing the words… Then you’ve got all those “You idiot!” gestures. A human recognises these instantly; computers often struggle.
  • Weather can affect the sensors, especially extreme weather such as snow or heavy rain where you really need to take care.
  • Autonomous systems need very detailed up-to-date maps so they “know” the right speed for corners and the best routes. This means continual updates are needed – hello, big data bills! And what happens when something’s changed unexpectedly on the road surface, such as oil spills, debris from a crash or gravel?
  • Computers can be hacked and jammed, sometimes remotely. Anybody seen Fast and Furious 8 where this happens? (Yes, I know it’s fiction but who hasn’t had problems with viruses or experienced remote access in a desktop.  It’s plausible!)

  • People may come to rely on automatic systems so much that they might not know how to react properly if the computer systems fail (and we all know that computers crash now and again).
  • Avoiding collisions with large animals on rural roads is harder than you think. Take the example of Volvo : their system worked fine on Swedish wildlife like caribou and elk, but when they tried it out Down Under, the system didn’t recognise kangaroos as large animals to be avoided.
  • Autonomous systems probably can’t tell the difference between a dead hedgehog in the middle of the road (which you don’t mind hitting) and Mother Duck waiting for ducklings (which you want to stop for).
  • Taxi drivers and chauffeurs would be out of a job.

There are also a ton of ethical and moral issues involved with driverless cars.  If a driverless car does crash and kill someone, who’s responsible? The “driver” or the manufacturer of the computer systems and software?  How will a computer make decisions in the case of an unavoidable crash.  For example, if the algorithm is set to minimise the amount of harm or damage caused and kill the fewest people, and it detects that it’s going to hit a bus on a bridge, will it decide that the “best” option is to go off the bridge, because that will only kill the occupants of the driverless car rather than possibly all the occupants of the bus (just stop and imagine what that would be like for the driver for a moment… and what if that bus is actually empty?).

What’s more, we all know that horrible things like car bombings and jerks ramming crowds on purpose are bad enough, but at least the driver puts him/herself at some risk.  What’s to stop a terrorist loading up a driverless car up with explosives and setting the vehicle to go all by itself?

On a lighter note, a lot of people simply enjoy driving. If we want a system that allows us to sit back and relax while we get to work that also cuts down on the need for parking spaces and reduces congestion, this already exists and it’s called “public transport” or at least “car pooling”. But that still includes the human factor…

At the moment, fully driverless cars where the person in the front seat can more or less go to sleep or bury his/her head in the daily news aren’t allowed on our roads.  At the moment, even the most automated systems still require a driver who’s alert and ready to take over if things get hairy, much like what happens in aircraft.  But who knows which way things will go in the future?

Driven To Distraction

OK, so they’re cracking down on people using cellphones in cars as well as cracking down on high speeds and breaking the speed limit.  Here, you’ve got to admit that there’s some justification for doing this.  After all, if someone’s got their eyes and fingers all over the phone, he or she is paying less attention to the road ahead and what their vehicle’s doing.

On the surface, it seems so simple.  The thinking works something like this: although vehicles and roads are being designed to be safer, crash rates aren’t improving and we’re still seeing heaps of fatal and serious accidents on our roads.  At the same time, mobile phones – to say nothing of smartphones – have stopped being the plaything of rich businesspeople and are now essentials for everybody over the age of 13 or so.  People can’t seem to leave their phones alone and we’ve all seen people driving badly while talking on the phone. (Mr Grey Toyota  who didn’t give way to me while coming out of the supermarket carpark, forcing me to jam on the brakes to avoid hitting you when I had the right of way, I’m thinking about you!  I saw you with your phone on your ear the whole time.)

However, maybe it’s not quite so simple as merely having people trying to do two things at once and pay attention to a conversation while driving.  After all, people have talked to other people while driving without having accidents for ages.  Receiving messages from the dispatchers and other patrol cars via radio has never made the police bad drivers – just think of all the telecommunication gadgetry they’ve had in their vehicles for decades.  Truckies and bus drivers have also had a long history of using CB radios to chat while driving – I’m sure we’ve all got memories of riding in a bus where the driver spent most of the time talking into a handset and somehow making sense of what sounded like “worple smooshle burble wop ha ha ha” from the passenger seats.  When you stop to think about it, there isn’t really any difference between someone talking on a mobile phone and someone talking on a CB radio handset.  So why weren’t/aren’t they considered to be safety hazards?

“Oh, it’s younger drivers and those young people on their phones.” Not necessarily.  If you look around you, you can see as many older folk chatting on the phone while driving, so it’s not just a case of Kids These Days.  (Mr Grey Toyota, I’m still thinking about you.)

“But modern smartphones make you take your eyes off the road.” This is certainly true.  Anything that gets your eyes off the road is going to make you less aware of what’s going on around you.  However, even this isn’t anything new.  Before we all had navigation systems built into our cars or Google Maps on our phones, we had paper-based maps.  In fact, I’ve still got them, and it can be fun to see who gets there first: the navigator with the paper map or the other navigator in the back seat with the phone.  Paper maps, whether they came in the form of specially printed books or a scribble on the back of an envelope with a few landmarks and road names noted, were often read or glanced at by drivers while in transit.  This usually involved spreading said map out on the steering wheel, glancing down, looking up again and so on.  Nobody really blamed them for crashes the way they blame cellphones.

Even real live people called passengers having a conversation can be distracting.  One of the things that most of us parents have had to teach our kids is that Mummy/Daddy can’t look at the picture you did at school right now because he/she is driving.  It can be a hard concept for a kid to grasp but they do get it – eventually.

If you listen hard enough to the safety gurus, if you do anything other than keep your mind on your driving, keep both hands on the wheel and keep your eyes on the road ahead, you’re guaranteed to crash.  Now, they do have a point.  We do need to focus on what we’re doing and concentrate on driving.  However, we all know that continually concentrating on one thing and one thing only for long periods is extremely draining and increases fatigue.  And we’re all human and notice things in and outside the car.  This, dear friends, is why advertising companies spend heaps on roadside billboards.  They know that you’ll read them while driving.

On the topic of losing concentration and advertising billboards, there have been a few studies into the effect of billboards on road safety.  It seems that yes, those advertising hoardings are distracting drivers and contributing to advertisements.  The worst offenders, it seems, are big billboards, digital billboards that display different messages every few seconds, and billboards featuring sexy models.  There have been a number of cases from around the world, mostly to do with lingerie ads, where big billboards featuring airbrushed models in lacy knickers and bras have had to be taken down because of a noticeable increase in traffic accidents happening after the billboard goes up.  This is another argument, alongside public decency, sexualisation and objectification of women, for not having sexy billboards all over the show.  But we don’t seem to have people complaining about that as much as they do about cellphones in cars.

Now that you’ve all pulled your minds out of the gutter and stopped feeling disappointed that I didn’t provide an example (I actually want you to read this article and I’m against sexploitation)… back to the debate over whether cellphones contribute to accidents.

There is a side to cellphones, smartphones, mobile phones – whatever you want to call them – that you didn’t get with other forms of distraction, which is an argument in favour of switching them off when you’re driving and being tough on them.  This is the effect of conditioning.  Like Pavlov’s dog, we’re trained to respond instantly, almost without thinking, when we hear our ringtones or alerts or notifications going off.  It rings – we reach for it.  Trying to ignore it sometimes makes us feel anxious – it could be important!  It could be a message from my son/daughter/mum/dad/wife/husband etc. saying they’re in trouble and need help now.  Nine times out of ten, it isn’t urgent, but we still react instantly just in case.  And it’s a hard habit to break.  We just HAVE to see who’s calling or texting.  And that’s where the problem for road safety kicks in.  We reach for the phone (distraction #1) and see who it is (distraction #2) then read the text (distraction #3).  By the time we’ve done all that, anything could have happened on the road.  It’s this sort of distraction that seems to be the only explanation behind a nasty accident I witnessed recently, when a Mini crossed the centre line on a perfectly straight open road and went into a campervan.

It’s this last factor that makes the difference, in my opinion.  You can ignore the paper map (or pull over to memorize it, then focus on the road), you can use the CB radio with one hand while keeping eyes fully on the road and you can tell insensitively talkative passengers to shut up.  But because we’ve become conditioned to respond instantly to ringing phones, they’re harder to ignore.  Responding has become something of an instinct.

But you can break that habit.  It is possible.  You can even train yourself when you’re not driving.  Try counting to ten or twenty before picking up if you hear a notification go off.  Nobody’s going to die if you want a few seconds.  You won’t get fired and you won’t miss out.  In fact, if we refuse to do things Right Now Instantly, we’d probably make steps towards reducing stress levels as well as helping make the roads a safer place.

Come on – do your bit and put the phone down when you’re driving – including you, Mr Grey Toyota!

Is The Speed Limit Outdated?

It’s been argued that because today’s cars and today’s roads are better and safer than they used to be, the old speed limits ought to be raised to reflect this.  After all, they’ve got a limit of 130 km/h in some bits of Northern Territory (which, incidentally, came in about 10 years ago after having no speed restriction at all – road safety was cited as the reason for introducing limits).  Why shouldn’t the rest of the country get a higher speed limit?

We’ve probably all experienced the situation when road signs seem hopelessly out of date when approaching a corner that has one of those advisory speed limits.  You know the ones – those yellow signs with a number that usually accompany a curvy arrow indicating a bend in the road ahead.  The number is supposed to be the speed at which you can safely go around the corner.  However, in practice, we know that you don’t really actually HAVE to go at 55 km/h around a corner that’s marked 55.  If your tires are in good nick and if there isn’t anything nasty on the roads (oil, water, gravel, ice, etc.) and if your car has reasonably good handling, then you can go around the corner at a somewhat higher speed.  Not the full open road limit, of course – if you kept sailing around the corner at 100 km/h, you probably would come to grief and end up in the ditch.  But you don’t need to slow down to 55 km/h.

A lot of us treat those advisory speed signs as a sort of index giving an idea of how tight the corner coming up, kind of like a stationary rally navigator. A recommendation of 65 or 55 (on the open road where the speed limit’s 100 km/h) means that it’s a reasonably gentle bend, 45 means it’s a bit sharper, and so on all the way down to advisory signs reading 25 or even 15, which means you need to get ready for a hairpin turn and certainly need to slow down to negotiate it (but probably not all the way to 15 km/h).  After all, the camber of the road and the car features like stability control, traction control and the like all help to keep the car on the road.  Cars and roads are designed better these days.

We all know the recommended speeds for corners with advisory signs (known as “design speeds”) are well below the actual speed you can get around said corners comfortably and safely.  Are the open road speeds similarly outdated?

We’ve come a long way since these days – but do we need to go further?

The only trouble with the proposal to increase the open road speed limit to reflect the capabilities of new cars is that not every car on the road is a nice shiny new Mercedes  or Volvo  with all the latest safety features.  There are plenty of people driving beloved old classics, people driving ancient old bangers for budget reasons and those driving cars that aren’t in the category of old bangers but are still over 10 years old and don’t have all the latest whizz-but-not-bang active safety features.  The open road speed limit still applies to these drivers as well as to those with new cars.  And these older cars may not be able to handle the corners the way that newer ones can.

What’s more, some road users aren’t cars.  Trucks, bikes, motorbikes, farm tractors and horses are legitimate road users that one encounters out in the countryside.  You’re not going to find a pushbike, a horse or a farm tractor going anywhere near even the existing road speed limit, and the greater the mismatch between the speed of your car and the (lack of) speed of what’s in front of you leads to greater frustration, increased impatience and an increased likelihood of taking stupid risks.  And we know that although higher speeds are fine when everybody does what they’re supposed to, if things go wrong, they make the consequences worse.

We also need to remember that the cornering design speeds and the like are often designed with heavy trucks (including road trains) in mind.  These need more space and a lower speed to negotiate corners for obvious reasons.  Because these vehicles are very important for trade and the economy, all the government-funded researchers into road design, etc. spend quite a lot of time considering the needs of trucks.

The other thing is that even with a higher speed limit, you still need to slow down to go around a corner.  If they do decide to put up the speed limit, I doubt they’ll go and fix all the advisory signs to reflect the new speed limits for cost reasons.  They probably won’t add new ones either.  (Possibly it’s this cost factor (plus the fact that they could lose out on some speeding fines) that stops The Powers That Be from raising the speed limit.)  This means that if you’re cruising along at 130 km/h and spot a sign telling you that there’s a bend with a rating of 55 (OK, a design speed of 55 km/h), you’ve got less time to slow down to the right speed, which means that you have to brake harder… and that’s probably going to be tougher on your car and/or create a few extra risks.  You do know that you’re supposed to brake on the straight approaching the corner, don’t you?

The other issue is that the speed limit (and the speed at which we all go around corners) is safe when conditions are good, i.e. when the light, road surface, traffic conditions, vehicle conditions and road surface.  If it’s rainy, if it’s dark, if the sun’s at a horrible angle shining right in your eyes, if there’s gravel on the road, if bitumen has bled onto the road surface thanks to a bout of extra hot weather, if there’s ice on the road… it’s not safe to go full speed.  To paraphrase The Stig, if the road surface is shiny for any reason, slow down.

There’s one other argument against raising the speed limit: what I’ll have to call the larrikin factor.  No matter what the speed limit is, having any limit whatsoever will irritate a certain type of driver who doesn’t want to be told what to do.  She/he (I’m going to stick my neck out here and make the generalization that it’s more likely to be “he”) doesn’t want their freedom curtailed at all, and any speed limit – even if it was 150 km/h – feels like an imposition.  There will always be those who push the limits, no matter what those limits are.  It’s a bit like the drinking age or age limits at night clubs: no matter what the age barrier is, we all know that there will be people sneaking in underage… and nobody really wants 13-year-olds in the nightclub, so it’s best to keep the age limit at 18 so the underage sneakers-in are going to be 16 or 17.  The same goes for the speed limit.  Some speeds really are stupid on public roads and places where the unexpected can happen, and if you raise the speed limit, there will still be idiots who go at these ludicrous speeds.  And if you raised the limit to 120 km/h, there would be people who whinged about this being too slow and how it ought to be 140…  Where are you going to stop?

So what’s the answer?  Should we raise the speed limit?  Here’s my personal take on the topic:

  • Definitely raise the speed limit on long straight stretches of open road. I’ve driven along these being good and going at the legal limit, and it felt like crawling.
  • Keep the limit on the rest of the open roads where it is. However, there should be tolerance so the cops don’t jump all over you if you stray 5–10 km/h over the limit.  After all, we don’t all have cruise control, and we are supposed to keep our eyes on the road rather than glued to the speedo.
  • Remember that the speed limit is a limit, not a target. If the conditions don’t permit it, don’t try to go at the full limit.

As for roads around town – well, that’s another story!

Speed Doesn’t Kill People; People Kill People (aka There Are No Bad Speeds, Just Bad Driving)

In the past fortnight, I’ve seen the results of two smashes on the open road, one at least of which left a driver with serious injuries.  In one, a late-model SUV had been driving in a downpour and had rolled completely onto its side, collecting another vehicle in the process.  In another – the more serious of the two, where I and my family were some of the first people on the scene and hung around with a bunch of others to help before the emergency services arrived – a fairly new Mini (probably a JCW Clubman ) had drifted across the centre line on the open road and gone straight into an older Mitsubishi campervan.  Both cars were a real mess, although the driver of the campervan was in better shape and was able to walk away from the accident, albeit with a nasty bruise on the leg that made her limp and a few cuts from broken glass (I know this because I was the one who did the first aid check on her).  The driver of the Mini was trapped under a caved-in windscreen and was screaming her head off (we found out later she had a badly broken arm and possibly some internal injuries).  The campervan was in pieces and there was diesel (thank heavens it wasn’t the more inflammable petrol!) all over the road.  It was traumatic enough for me and my family, who had been setting off for a quiet weekend away.  It was worse for the two drivers concerned and their passengers.

How do we get the road toll down?  Is the answer to reduce the speed limit?

It’s a tough and controversial question.  On the one hand, we’ve got all the cops and the safety experts telling us to keep our speed down, and spending tons of taxpayer money to get the message out there (as if we haven’t heard it since goodness knows when). On the other hand, we have better roads and cars with better safely systems, so is it really realistic to insist on a speed limit that was set back when you were lucky if a car had seatbelts in the rear seat?

Of course, the more cynical type of driver is going to note that the speed of a vehicle is something that is very easily detected by speed cameras and radar traps, and fining drivers in the name of safety is an easy way for the government to pick up a bit of extra money… which they will spend on marketing campaigns to tell us to slow down, etc. Of course they’re not going to change the speed limit when keeping us to it is such a good cash cow.

However, let’s leave the issue of fines and money aside and look at the actual issue.

The main reason why the powers that be focus on speed is not just because it’s something that’s easy to measure. It’s because of the physics.  Anything travelling at a high speed will have a lot of kinetic energy that requires a lot of force to maintain in the face of friction, and when that object travelling at high speed stops, that energy has to go somewhere. In the case of a deliberate slow-down, friction will take up a lot of the energy (and, in the case of regenerative braking, turn it into electrical potential energy). In the case of a fast and unintended stop (i.e. a crash), all that energy is transferred all at once into not just the vehicle itself, what it’s hit and the road, but also what’s inside that vehicle.

If all is going well, the raw speed of a car is not a problem.  If it were speed per se that killed, you’d expect that the German authorities would have noticed this by now and changed the rules about the limitless autobahns.  According to a news report from last year, fatal accidents on German roads had reached an all-time low since it kicked itself back into gear after the war in the late 1950s.  The number of accidents, however, has increased.  The rate of fatal accidents has dropped dramatically since the 1970s in Germany, and they say that it’s thanks to better car safety design (the rivalry between German makers like Mercedes and Swedish companies like Volvo as to who’s got the best safety systems seems pretty intense), as well as things like insisting on seatbelts and motorbike helmets.  A lower legal limit for blood alcohol also helped curb road deaths.  The fact that cars have got faster and more powerful over this time and roared along the autobahns at 250 km/h as often as possible doesn’t seem to have played a role.

If things do go wrong, however, then the speed of a vehicle makes the consequences a lot worse.  It’s a situation like you get with guns and pitbulls.  A gun used responsibly in the right way by the right people is fun and is a useful device for removing pests or putting meat on the table.  However, if someone loses their temper and goes on the rampage, a gun will do worse damage in the hands of a maniac than, say, a knife, chainsaw or wooden club.  Pitbulls, Staffordshire Bull Terriers and Rottweilers can be soppy, affectionate and obedient animals when well trained, but if you mistrain or mistreat one (or make the mistake of attacking its owner), then they’ll do a lot more damage than a Chihuahua or a Labrador (which, in fact, are a lot more likely to bite people – they just don’t make headlines when they do, as they don’t cause much carnage).  The same goes for speed.  Staying in your lane and going along a deserted bit of open road at 120 km/hr or even higher is not going to be a problem.  However, if you go around the corner way too fast for the conditions, try to do this sort of speed in heavy traffic, drift out of your lane into an oncoming vehicle, go over a patch of gravel or ice, or hit a roo (or any combination of the above), then the results are going to be a lot worse than if you had been going at, say, 50 km/h.

Those protesting gun control will argue that it’s not guns that kill people; it’s people who kill people.  Similarly, owners of Rotties, Pibbles and Staffies will protest breed-related legislation by arguing that there are no bad dogs; there are only bad owners.  It’s just the same with speed limits.  It’s not speed that kills; it’s bad driving that kills. Bad driving, notice, not bad drivers.  Even The Stig, Mario Andretti, Peter Brock and Mark Skaife have off moments, as they’re only human.

So what’s the answer to the problem of getting the road toll down?  How are we going to prevent people getting injured the way that Mini driver was injured?  There are no easy answers – it’s definitely not as simple as just saying that we need to keep the speed down.  In fact, I’m going to have to devote more than one post to this topic and analysing all the factors.  With the help of your comments, perhaps we’ll find the answers.

Reinventing The Wheel – Several Times

They say that you shouldn’t try reinventing the wheel.  But why shouldn’t you try to reinvent the wheel?   After all, wheels have been reinvented several times over the course of history, and they’ve got better and better every time – something that most motorists of today should appreciate.  Let’s face it: there are more wheels in your car than the ones that actually touch the tarmac.

Let’s go back to when the wheel was first invented, which, according to archaeologists, was about 3800–3500 BC.  Before they had the wheel, the way that they hauled large loads about the place was to put it on a sled sort of thing.  You can try this for yourself some time: compare pulling a large rock across grass straight and then put it on a plank or a piece of tin or something and see how much easier it is.  They think that this is how they managed to build the Pyramids and Stonehenge, by the way.

During the sled years, they worked out that if you put rollers under a sled, it gets even easier to pull a load along.  The only trouble with rollers is that someone has to take the ones that have just popped out the back of the load to the front of the load, and if you’re not quick enough, then everything comes to a standstill.  Then some absolute genius had an idea: what if you could fix rollers permanently under a sled?  That gave us the axle.  Then another genius realised that if you have a larger round thing on the end of the roller, then the sled is off the ground completely and the load can be pulled much faster.  Hey presto: wheels.

Solid wheels on an ox cart from China.

The wheels on early carts and vehicles weren’t made out of stone, which you might be picturing if you’ve seen the Flintstones.  Stone wheels did exist, but these tended to be used for grinding grain rather than for transport.  The early wheels were wooden, and tended to be made of several pieces of wood carefully shaped (tree trunks aren’t always perfectly round) and clamped around the axle in the middle.  However, these wheels were really, really heavy.  With a pair of oxen hitched to the front, a cart could go at about 3 km per hour, which is fine if what you need to do is to carry a large load, but for getting yourself from A to B, it was quicker to walk.

Enter the first reinvention of the wheel.  Another unknown genius looked at the wheel and wondered how to reduce the weight to get better speed and greater efficiency (much like car designers do today).  This genius realised that what you need is the roundness of the outside of the wheel, the bit in the middle that hold the axle and something in between to hold the outer circle to the inner circle.  In other words, you need the rim, the hub and the spokes.  This reduced the weight of the wheel dramatically, meaning that vehicles could go faster.  The combination of hub, spoke and rim was also a lot more aesthetically pleasing, as anyone who has looked at the designs of alloy wheels knows.   This may be why it just feels right to have alloy wheels on a sports car: somewhere deep down in the human psyche, we know that spoked wheels go faster.

And they certainly did go faster.  After the spoked wheel was invented, it became more feasible to use horses to power the vehicle.  Horses were to oxen what turbocharged petrol is to diesel.  Diesel’s great at low speeds and for serious towing but for fast sporty stuff, you go for petrol.  Where you’ve got speed, you’ve got to consider handling as well, especially if you want to corner tightly.  This led to the development of the two-wheeled chariot – possibly the earliest example of a rear wheel drive?  Most recorded uses and images of chariots were used in a battle context and no, they weren’t usually used in head-on charges, despite what you might see in the movies.  That sort of manoeuvre would just lead to pile-ups.  If you’ve got something that fast and easy to turn, it’s better strategy to use the chariot to come in from the side and either drop off infantry or else shoot from the chariot itself before pelting away like mad.

This model comes fitted with classy six-spoke wheels for improved speed and better handling…

It probably didn’t take too long after the invention of chariots for people to try racing them.  It’s human nature when presented with something that moves fast to try to see who’s got the fastest.  Chariot racing was as popular back then as motorsport is today.  In Babylon, they enjoyed racing about on the asphalt – on the streets and on the top of the massive city walls (and yes, they did use actual real asphalt for road surfacing in Ancient Babylon).

There were two real problems with these lightweight chariot wheels.  Firstly, the chariot sat right on top of the axle and there was no suspension system to even out the bumps, which must have made a fast dash extremely uncomfortable for the charioteer and the archer riding up with him (or her, in the case of the Celts).  Leaf suspension is said to based on the technology of the bow and the Egyptians are said to have used it. The second problem was that round bits of wood chipped and broke really easily.  This led to reinvention number two: tyres (or “tires”, which is believed to be a shortened form of “attire”, suggesting that a wheel needed to be properly dressed).

Early tyres weren’t the rubber air-filled things we know today.  Instead, they were made of metal bands that contracted onto the rims as they cooled.  This protected the rim but increased road noise like mad.  It also made the jarring and jolting worse.  They made attempts to soften the steel with leather, but this only went so far and leather wore out pretty quickly with heavy use.

Metal tyres were the norm for millennia. Solid rubber tyres were tried once rubber had been made more widespread.  However, rubber was really, really bouncy, making the ride even worse (we don’t know how lucky we are with modern suspension and shock absorbers).  It wasn’t until the mid- to late 1800s that first a Scotsman called Robert Thompson and then another Scotsman called Charles Dunlop independently had the idea of making a hollow tube of rubber and fitting that around the rim of a tyre, which softened the ride without too much bounce.  Yes, that is Dunlop as in Dunlop tyres.  This was reinvention of the wheel Number Three.  Vulcanizing the rubber around the pneumatic tyre to make it tougher and more resistant to punctures was again invented independently by inventors on both sides of the Atlantic with more familiar names: Charles Goodyear and Thomas Hancock.  One hundred years after the invention of the pneumatic tyre, Michelin developed radial tyres and put these straight away onto the cars made by the company they had just bought out, Citroën.

The Virtruvian mill, one of the earliest gearing systems.

In the meantime across the ages, wheels weren’t just being used for transport.  Once the principle of the wheel and axle had been invented, it was used elsewhere.  One of the key ways that wheels were used in the hot conditions of the Near East and the Mediterranean was to lift water out of rivers up and into the irrigation channels of gardens and fields; the other was to grind grain into flour for daily bread.  The early versions, which needed something to turn the wheel vertically were a chore to turn – think treadmills.  Somebody realised that if you fit teeth near the rim of the solid wheel that’s turning in the vertical plane, you can make a second wheel being turned in the horizontal plane with similar teeth move the first wheel around.  In other words, they invented gears for irrigation systems and for grain mills, making this another reinvention of the wheel.  Before long, they were playing around with gearing ratios – this was one of the things that Archimedes (yes, the one who ran through the streets naked shouting “Eureka!”) tinkered around with and refined.

Gears got really sophisticated over the centuries, especially for things like clockwork, but it wasn’t until the development of the internal combustion engine that these toothed wheels could be used for transport.  You can’t have the wheels turning at a speed that would make the cart or coach run faster than the horses pulling it.  It was Bertha Benz after her historic drive in the first motor car who had the idea of adding gears to the mechanism so a car could go uphill better.  At long last, the two branches of wheel development had come together, giving us the vehicles we know today, more or less.

Shock Absorbers And the Boing-Oing-Oing-Oing Factor

We kind of take our suspension systems and our shock absorbers for granted.  We don’t tend to think about them too much until that time that the mechanic sucks in his cheeks, shakes his head and says “Your shocks are just about gone, mate and you’re going to replace them at a cost of $oodles a pop.” (Apologies for inadvertent sexism but where are all the female grease monkeys?)

However, if you remember back to the days of riding home-made go-karts, a basic skateboard or (I won’t tell on you) the trailer, you probably know why cars and vehicles in general are fitted with suspension systems. Without suspension, you feel all the bumps in the road. Every. Single. One. While this is great fun when you’re a kid riding in the trailer and getting bumped up and down, it’s not so much fun for longer trips and certainly doesn’t do your spine any good at all. It doesn’t do any good to anything delicate you’re transporting, such as eggs, or if you’re trying to take a blancmange or sloppy chili con carne to a potluck dinner.

The full suspension system involves the wheels (pneumatic tyres), the springs, the shock absorbers and the links. Describing all of this and all of its variations would take ages and could take up several posts, so we’re going to talk about the part that does a lot of work that you might not realise: the shock absorbers.

Contrary to what you might think from the name, a shock absorber doesn’t have the job of soaking up the jolting, bouncing and jouncing that comes from hitting a bump. That’s the job of the springs. What the shock absorbers do is control the harmonic oscillation. That’s a long and rather technical term for what we’re going to call the boing-oing-oing-oing factor.

Although some of the springs in your vehicle’s suspension don’t look like Slinky Springs, mattress springs or trampoline springs, they are still springs and behave like any other spring. (For those interested, the weird ones we see in vehicles are usually leaf springs.)  Now, when you stretch a spring then let it recoil, which is what happens when your car goes over a bump, what happens? If you can find a handy trampoline or Slinky, you can try this out for yourself. (Don’t try this on the hair of a curly-haired person unless you want to absorb the shock of a slap in the face. What’s more, hair tends to be self-damping unless its gelled like crazy.).  Subject the spring to a sudden extension then let it compress by tying something to the end of the Slinky then letting it bounce out, or by letting yourself bounce down onto your bottom on the trampoline. What happens?

What happens is that unless you act to stop it (technically known as damping), you get the boing-oing-oing-oing factor. After you’ve bounced down on that trampoline, you’ll get bounced back up again, or the weight on the end of the Slinky will bob up and down. The initial boing will result in lots of oing-oing-oings, with each oing getting smaller.

Now, in a car, you want the initial boing as you go over a bump. What you don’t want is the oing-oing-oing, as this is downright uncomfortable as well as terrible for the handling.  Vibrations aren’t good for the human body if they go on for some time (stop sniggering!). To stop the oing-oing-oing as the spring continues to vibrate after the initial shock, the vibration needs to be damped. This is the job of the shock absorbers. They’re actually dampers, which is nothing to do with that bush barbecue favourite consisting of flour and water wrapped around a stick and baked over hot coal.

Shock absorbers take the kinetic energy of the oing-oing-oing and turn it into some other form, usually heat energy, via friction. This is usually done by using the force of the oing-oing-oing to shove oil from one compartment to another through tiny holes either between an inner tube and an outer tube (the twin-tube system) or from one end of a tube to another (the monotube system).  This sounds weird but it works.  Think of a syringe or a cake icing gizmo.

Of course, there’s a price to be paid for anything and I don’t just mean what you fork over to the mechanic every once in a while. With any system of shock absorbers and suspension, you have to trade off comfort versus handling. On the one hand, a super soft and completely damped suspension irons out all the bumps beautifully but handling is compromised – too soft and the wheels start dancing all over the place and lose grip.  On the other hand, if you want the handling to be crisp and a bit of extra grip and road feel during cornering, you pay for this with extra bouncing. The stickier the liquid inside the shocks and the smaller the hole it has to go through, the stiffer it is. To use the cake icing analogy again, think of the effort it takes to push really sticky icing through a narrow nozzle for a very fine line.  This takes a lot of force on your part, and if this was your damper (shock absorber), you would have super stiff, sporty suspension.  Use a wider nozzle (for fancy star shapes) or make the icing runnier, and it splurts out really quickly.  That’s comfort suspension.

The designers of modern cars are smart enough to know that you can’t please all the people all the time, and that people are not likely to buy one car for when they want to have a smooth ride and another for when they want performance. This is why they’ve now come up with adjustable suspension systems that allow you, the driver, to pick what you want when you want it.

The older systems of adjustable suspension did this by allowing you to make the holes (which are called apertures or orifices to make them sound fancy) in the damper tube big or small.  Not a bad system as far as it went. These got fancier as time went by with sensors that adjusted the hole size depending on how bumpy the road was and how stiff you needed the handling.

The one drawback of the hole-size-based systems is that they were comparatively slow to react to the situation. After all, the signal had to get from the road to the sensor to the apertures, which then had to move from A to B. The designers decided it would be much quicker and better for handling and comfort combined if you could somehow make the liquid inside the shocks thinner or thicker depending on what you want.  Although heating would make the liquid thinner (it does this anyway), this would be even slower and cooling for a stiffer suspension would take longer still.

Enter magnetorheological fluid (called MRF by designers). This combines oil with easily magnetised particles. OK, it’s oil chock full of iron filings because iron, as we all know, is attracted by magnets.  This is fun stuff – even iron filings by themselves are a lot of fun to play with if you have a magnet, and the more powerful the magnet, the thicker and stickier the clump of iron filings gets.  This video explains how it works:

 

And that’s exactly what happens in a magnetic shock absorber. If you remember your high school physics, which is probably where you got to play with magnets and iron filings, you may recall that any suitable iron rod wrapped with enough twists of copper wire becomes a magnet when current goes through the wires. The more current, the stronger the magnetic field.

Now, how quickly does it take electrical impulses to go from A to B? Hardly any time at all. This means that an active magnetic suspension system will detect what’s going on with the road surface, the speed, how fast and hard you’re cornering and all those other factors that contribute to handling, and will increase or reduce the current going through the coils in a magnetic shock system almost instantaneously. This means that the fluid in the shocks becomes hard or soft as needed.

Designs for magnetic dampers are being worked on all over the globe and should be able to move from more luxury vehicles (such as the Cadillacs and Ferraris that had it early on in the picture) to common everyday vehicles.  The boffins will have to work out how the increased energy needs will work in electrical vehicles, but regenerative braking and harvesting the energy absorbed by the shocks themselves will go some way towards this.

The response speed isn’t the only advantage that the new magnetic systems have over the hole-based ones. Wires don’t wear out as quickly, whereas moving parts do, as we all know.

Speaking of moving parts wearing out, you can use the boing-oing-oing-oing factor as a test when you are checking out a second-hand car.  Shove down as hard as you can on the back end without denting the boot. If you get an oing-oing-oing after your initial boing, the shocks are shot. Walk away and look at another vehicle – or start having a chat to the team here at Private Fleet – if you want to avoid the mechanic with the sucked in cheeks and the shaking head.