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Is The Speed Limit Outdated?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We’ve probably all experienced the situation when road signs seem hopelessly out of date when approaching a corner that has one of those advisory speed limits.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  Are the open road speeds similarly outdated?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.


Why Driverless Technology In Cars Isn’t The Same As Autopilot Systems In Planes

One of the more interesting and exciting developments in the world of automotive technology these days is all the research into autonomous cars (aka driverless cars or self-driving cars). They’re really trying hard to develop these and get them working. In fact, one recent news report claimed that Volvo is looking for 100 volunteers from the industry’s home town of Gothenburg to commute to work for a year in prototype driverless cars – along a selected route that don’t have bikes, pedestrians or snow. That last factor might be a bit of a challenge in Sweden: Gothenburg may have a warm climate compared to the rest of Sweden but still gets an average of 10 snowy days per month during December and January, snowfalls possible from November to April, and had a record number of snowy days in 2016.

The drive (ha ha) behind driverless cars is to eliminate one of the main causes of accidents: human error. Humans make dumb decisions, forget the road code, have attention that wanders or gets distracted, get tired and get frazzled. Humans also like drinking alcohol. Computers don’t get drunk, etc. so the thinking is that if you can get a computer to take over a lot of the decision-making with a system that can calculate distances and speeds precisely, never forgets the highway code, doesn’t get tired and doesn’t start planning dinner in the middle of the commute. Therefore, a car that uses automated systems will be safer, as the human error is eliminated.

The standard comparison is to autopilot systems in planes, which have been in use for quite some time.

The Road Isn’t The Sky

OK, let’s just stop and think about that.  Although autopilot systems have been standard in most passenger aircraft since at least the 1930s (using an analogue system rather than computerised), the main idea in autopilot systems is, according to the FAA, designed to “significantly reduce workload during critical phases of flight”, not eliminate the workload of the pilot altogether. It can be turned on and off as the pilot wishes, kind of like cruise control.  The big fat FAA manual for general aviation (that’s the basic flying licence level) contains guidelines on when NOT to use autopilot.  Planes with autopilot function are not “pilotless planes”. Yes, drones exist, but they’re usually kept for missions you don’t want to send people on. If a drone crashes, that’s annoying. If a plane crashes with people on board… you get the picture.

What’s more, the air isn’t as busy a place as the road. Go to even the world’s busiest airport (Hartsfield–Jackson Atlanta International Airport in Atlanta, Georgia, USA) and you’ll see an average of about 2.4 thousand aircraft movements (takeoffs and landings) per day.  The world’s busiest road (Ontario Highway 41 in Ontario, Canada) sees 500,000 vehicles per day go through on average. Do a simple test if you’ve got a spare day (don’t we all wish!) and pick an intersection near an airport. Count the planes going in and out, and count the number of vehicles going through the intersection, and you’re guaranteed to count more cars than planes, unless you’ve selected a tiny little airstrip in the Outback.

The sky also doesn’t have the equivalent of intersections. The closest pilots get to an intersection would be an airport. During takeoffs and landings, the pilot (and probably the co-pilot) is on full alert. What’s more, the issues to do with who gives way to whom and when the pilot can enter the “intersection” is handled by the ATC (air traffic controller), who has probably been in radio contact with all pilots approaching the airport and has had received all the flight plans about what’s going to land and take off earlier in the day. This does not happen at your nearest roundabout or traffic lights.

Driving a car also requires negotiating more intersections. In a plane, the pilot sets the autopilot function to navigate and steer, and the plane can go in a straight line, more or less, to where the pilot wants to go.  This doesn’t involve turning left in 200 metres, then taking the second intersection to the right, then along the one-way system until the next set of lights and turning left, then carrying on to the roundabout and…  well, you get the picture. This means that there’s less for the autopilot to do: it will make sure the heading is right, use gyroscopes to correct for any imbalances and get the attitude and altitude right.

Admittedly, there are more things that a plane’s autopilot function has to take care of, thanks to things like stall speed (go too slow and the plane will fall out of the sky), yaw, pitch, roll and thrust. The autopilot also handles some navigation issues via GPS and checks the altitude. However, these are mostly issues that are internal to the plane. Taking care of external things, such as coping with changing winds and weather, is the job of the pilot.  In a vehicle, we’ve already got electronic stability control packages and nobody thinks of those in discussions of driverless cars. However, what a driverless car would need to handle is mostly external to the car: oncoming vehicles and the like.

Our roads contain pedestrians, bikes and animals. These are not governed by computer algorithms and will do things that autonomous technology can’t predict. Detect, yes. Slow down for, yes. Predict, no. This is also a problem for pilots and is one that autopilot can’t do much about. Not that there are bikes and people whizzing about up in the flight paths but there are birds. Bird strikes are some of the major hazards of flying – if you remember about 10 years ago with that incident of a big passenger plane having to do an emergency landing in New York’s Hudson River, it was a collision with a goose that made things go to custard.

Pilots have to stay alert when flying. No pilot relies entirely on the autopilot all the time – just some of the time.  The pilot is always responsible for what happens. In addition, on longer flights, there is a second person or even a third ready to take over responsibility if the pilot has been on alert for too long. Pilots are in radio contact with other pilots along the route, plus the control tower(s), so everybody knows where everybody else is.  It’s not the same on the road.

So what’s the moral of all this?  In my opinion, our image of sitting back playing Angry Birds and sipping a latte while the vehicle takes us from our homes to work has to go when we think of driverless cars.  Even if the car has good enough sensors and navigation to get you around that corner at the right speed, and can remember the give way rules for you and gun into a gap at the roundabout, the driver will still have to be on the alert to take over if things don’t quite go to plan or if the unexpected happens.  Autonomous systems should be there to help and back up the driver and reduce workload, not take over from the driver completely. If you want the Angry-Birds-and-latte experience, take the bus or carpool so you get your turn at being the passenger.

French Flavour

France is, perhaps, best known for the Tour de France, fine wines, cheeses, romance and nice comfortable, stylish cars.  Did you know that French cars are hugely popular in Europe and are a major player in France’s economy?  Producing around 1 million vehicles each year, France’s car manufacturing businesses employ over 75,000 people.  The French know how to make cars with a unique and distinctive style.  Many design awards have been given to both Peugeot and Citroen cars.

Citroen has a number of very classy vehicles.  Providing both passenger vehicles and vans, Citroen has a model for most market segments.  Kicking it all off is the Citroen DS3, a performance hatch with hot looks and a great engine.  Featuring direct petrol injection and a turbocharger, the e-THP 160 motor develops a maximum power of 121 kW at 6000 rpm and 240 Nm of torque between 1400-and-4000 rpm.  This is a similar size to a new Mini, providing loads of style inside and out, while being quite cheap to run and enjoyable to drive via a slick six-speed gearbox.

Citroen DS3

Citroen C4 models are elegant (although calling the C4 Cactus elegant would be doubtful) and cover the mid-size hatch, people mover and cross over vehicle segments.  These are roomy, comfortable vehicles that are extremely efficient and provide both diesel and petrol versions.  The Grand C4 Picasso is one of the best people movers in the medium people moving segment.  Very luxurious, stylish and safe, it’s a great way to travel in small groups.

Citroen C4 Picasso

Citroen C5 models are the large hatchback models that have standout exterior and interior design.  Always good to look at, comfortable to drive and very well equipped, the Citroen C5 and C5 Tourer (station wagon version) are a dream to drive – particularly over the long haul.

Citroen C5

Peugeot cars are probably the better known French car down under.  Like Citroen, Peugeot cars are highly successful with their entries in the WRC championship, and with repeated victories at Dakar, Pikes Peak and Le Mans, Peugeot cars are engineered for high performance.  Offered in the new line-up of Peugeot cars on sale in Australia are some very quick and agile cars that come in the form of the 208 GTi, and 308 GTi.   The 200 kW power output for the 308 GTi comes from a high-pressure 1.6-litre turbo engine that delivers 330 Nm of torque.  Limited slip-differential and adjustable suspension settings make for a very accurate and fast car over any road.

Peugeot 308 GTi

There are some other striking new Peugeot cars on sale in Australia and these include the: other versions of the smallest new Peugeot 208 and the slightly larger Peugeot 308.  SUV options are available in the form of the Peugeot 2008 and 4008.  Big touring prowess comes from the very nice looking, roomy Peugeot 508 and Peugeot 508 Touring models.  These cars are refined at high speed and very comfortable and modern inside the cabin.

Peugeot 4008

Peugeot 508 Touring

Very close to arriving in Australia is the big SUV known as the Peugeot 5008 with a panoramic sunroof, loads of luxury and technology, and good handling.  Private Fleet love selling cars and we’ve had a long affinity with selling Peugeot cars to new car buyers.

Peugeot 5008

New Renault cars are very safe and comfortable cars to drive.  You can buy a new Megane Hatch for a competitive price and enjoy the car’s responsive and efficient engines, comfortable seats and five-star safety.

Renault Megane Hatch

Check out the new Renault Koleos design and be impressed with the upmarket design, large interior (especially in the rear seats) and strong engine and dynamics.  Both 4×2 and 4×4 versions are available for the new SUV, and it will handle Australia roads very well.

Renault Koleos

On the lookout for a nice small car to run around in, then the Renault Clio is a zippy, comfortable drive.

Renault Clio

Master, Trafic and Kangoo are names given to a fine range of Renault vans built for work.  The Renault Master is one of the best drives on the market with a huge load carrying capacity and modern array of technological features.

Renault Master

Renault Megane R.S models are the best hot hatches around.  These are very quick cars in a straight line and around corners making them hugely entertaining cars to drive.  Engine output is around 200 kW and 360 Nm of torque.

Renault Megane R.S

Keep your eyes and hears on alert for the new range Renault Z.E electric vehicles.  The small Renault Zoe is the top selling electric model, and global sales of the electric city car achieved 50,000 units in June 2016.  The Renault Fluence Z.E is a nice, sporty looking electric vehicle that might prove appealing to the driving enthusiast.

Renault Zoe Z.E

Renault Fluence ZE

Renault’s involvement with Nissan is a good thing and the combined efforts has benefited both parties very well.  Most new Renaults come with a comprehensive 5 year/unlimited km warranty on new vehicles.

The French love the better things in life, and maybe a French drive might add something more to your daily drive…


Six Myths About Electric And Hybrid Cars

#1: Electric Vehicles Put A Huge Drain On The National Grid

OK, there’s no denying that if you’re plugging in an electric car to recharge its batteries, you’re going to use electricity, which means that someone has to generate it.  It’s also true that if there’s too much demand on the national grid all at once, then there’ll be problems with “brown-outs” (signalled by lights dipping and flickering when the new load comes on the scene – those who have lived in off-the-grid houses will know all about this).  Notice those key words “all at once”?  The amount of power demanded by electric vehicles – at least at this stage – is peanuts compared to the demand of air conditioning in summer in the middle of the day, especially during a super-hot summer like the one we’ve been having.  In the USA, electric vehicles only account for 10% of the electricity demand. If everybody tried to (a) turn on their air-conditioning in the home and (b) charge their vehicles all at the same time, then yes, this would put too much of a load on the national grid.  The answer?  Charge your vehicle during off-peak times in the evenings and overnight when industry isn’t calling for as much power and air-conditioning systems aren’t working so hard.

#2: Electric Vehicles Haven’t Got Much Range

Some people are reluctant to purchase an electric vehicle because they have mental images of being stranded in the middle of nowhere with a dead battery and no way to recharge it.  It’s true that if you regularly drove long expanses of open road in the middle of nowhere, you could get yourself in a mess.  However, most of us aren’t driving around the Outback or around the farm on a regular daily basis: most of us are driving around the city. Most electric cars have a decent range of at least 100 km and some have a lot more.  The typical city commute tends to be shorter than this – a lot shorter.  Even if you live in a dormitory suburb.  On top of this, the 100-km range is at the lower end of battery life and ranges for electric cars these days.  The technology is improving as well, and some of the big names in electric vehicles (Tesla, Chevrolet and Nissan) are scheduled to release EVs that can get well over 300 km per charge.

#3: Electric Vehicles Are Expensive Luxury Items

This one is not quite a myth and not quite the truth.  Yes, electric vehicles have a certain cachet and the early examples had quite a large price ticket.  Some still do, especially the fully electric vehicles (as opposed to hybrids, which are on a pricewise par with their petrol and diesel fuelled equivalents).  However, there’s a pattern that economists and sustainable energy boffins have noticed that happens with every new green technology – and even some that aren’t quite so green per se.  The pattern goes like this: (a) A new technology comes on the scene.  It’s hot, it’s new and it’s sexy, and everyone is drooling and excited about it.  (b) The well-heeled jump on board and the new technology becomes a status symbol. (c) The manufacturers start introducing cheaper versions for the mass market (which, incidentally, are improvements over the older versions).  (d) Everybody’s got one and the wealthy are looking for the next hot item.  You’ve possibly already seen this happen in your lifetime with other technologies: think of cell phones.  Some readers will remember back in the 1980s and 1990s with those brick mobile phones.  They were one heck of a status symbol.  Now it seems that the majority of teenagers have a phone that makes the old status-symbol bricks of the 1990s look pathetic.   The same has happened with heaps of automotive technology, too, where what was once a luxury item is now standard: this has happened to seat belts, automatic transmissions, car stereos, cruise control, ABS brakes and airbags.  Heck, even the car itself was once a luxury toy for the wealthy.  The same is starting to happen with EVs and hybrids.  They’re beginning to head mass-market.  Given the desire for cleaner, greener technologies by many governments giving things an extra push and we’ll soon see the price tag of new EVs come down, as has already happened with hybrids.

#4: EVs and Hybrid Vehicles Are Dinky Little Hatchbacks

I wouldn’t call the Nissan Pathfinder a dinky little hatchback.  Nor the Mitsubishi Outlander .  These both come in hybrid variants.  What about electric vehicles?  Well, Audi Australia has an all-electric SUV planned for release by 2020, and that’s just one company.  Yes, you can get small electric and hybrid hatchbacks.  You can also get hybrid sedans and stationwagons.  Land Rover has even put out some hybrid 4x4s (some of which did the rather rugged Silk Road in a publicity stunt a couple of years back).  Electric 4x4s won’t be too far behind, especially as battery range improves.

#5: Hybrid and EV batteries Have Short Lives

One of the big worries about hybrids and EVs is that they would cause environmental headaches thanks to the batteries running out and needing to be disposed of – and batteries can be a disposal nightmare.  However, if you keep the battery nicely topped up and don’t drain it completely out of charge all the time, it has a nice long lifespan and won’t need to be $$$replaced$$$$.

#6: There’s A Conspiracy To Get Rid Of Electric Vehicles

No.  In spite of the documentary that came out in 2006 entitled Who Killed The Electric Car?, there isn’t some petrodollar-backed conspiracy to shut down production of electric cars.  Yes, GM recalled its EV1 back in the 1990s and ceased production.  However, you just have to look around you and look at any good car review site (ours, for example!) to see that there are plenty of hybrids and EVs out there, with more set to enter the market.

Fact Or Fiction: Headrests Were Designed To Be Detachable

A number of you may have seen that meme buzzing around Facebook and other social media platforms letting you know that headrests were deliberately designed to be detachable so that if you are trapped inside the car and need to break a window to get out, you have a useful tool for smashing the glass.  As we’re interested in quirky facts, great designs and safety features here at Private Fleet, I thought we’d check this one out.  Is it, in fact, true that this is what the designers were thinking when they designed headrests?

OK, in a nutshell, here’s the results after a quick bit of research:

  • Yes, head rests tend to be detachable.
  • Yes, head rests are a safety feature.
  • Yes, you can use a detached head rest to break glass if you need to exit via a window.
  • No, this was not a deliberate part of the design.

(Thanks to  and Truth Or Fiction  for doing some of the hard yards of research here).

The primary purpose of a head rest is to protect the occupant of the seat in question from whiplash injuries, as they prevent the head from lashing back suddenly during a collision or if the car is rear-ended. Your head is quite heavy, after all, and the momentum and G-forces involved in a whiplash inducing collision puts one heck of a strain on your neck vertebrae and muscles.  It’s the weight of the head and the strain on neck muscles that has been the primary concern of designers right from the beginning.  The first US patent for head rests in vehicles was issued in 1921, although the designer’s main concern was driver fatigue.  It wasn’t until 1969 that they became mandatory in the US.

If we have a quick look at the original patent issued to Benjamin Katz of Oakland, California (another inventor a lot of people ought to be grateful to), there’s no mention anywhere of the importance of being detachable so that occupants are able to use the headrest supports as a tool for breaking glass.  The patent is more concerned with reducing driver fatigue and hopes to provide something that allows the driver to “rest his head, relax the tired neck muscles, and still maintain his alert vigil.” Of breaking glass and even of whiplash, there is no mention.

The new, improved patent from 1930, issued to Sverre Quisling of Wisconsin, mentions the ability to use a head rest as a hanger for jackets and the like.  The 1950 patent granted to Lawrence Schott of Detroit certainly mentions detachability but has no mention of using the headrest to break glass.  The designer had folding seats in mind, as removing the headrest made it easier to fold the seat.  Various other designs were developed and put forward over the years between 1950 and 1969, all aiming to either prevent whiplash or to reduce driver fatigue. The patent that I can find that resembles the modern head rest design most closely was issued to Rachel L Rising in 1958.  One could spend quite a while trawling through all the different designs and all the different patents (somebody’s written a whole book on the topic – fact!), but you’re not going to find a mention anywhere of using the supports of the headrest to smash glass for an emergency exit.

Fast forward to today and car designers are still working on head rest design. They’re height and tilt adjustable, they’re provided in rear seats as well as front seats and they come in special active whiplash-preventing designs.  Saab was the first to come out with an active whiplash protecting headrest, with marques from the upper and lower end of the prestige spectrum following suit, from Toyota and Subaru through to Mercedes-Benz and Jaguar.  It’s passive safety and protection of the occupants that are the key concerns of the designers.

So why are head rests removable?  In the case of rear seat headrests, they’re removable for better visibility – if the driver wants to and there’s nobody in the back, the head rests can come out to allow the driver a clearer view of what’s behind.  In the case of front seats, they’re detachable so you can fold the seats flat should you want to sleep in it, or so you can put a car seat cover on easily.  Removability also had the possibility of making sure that all seats were compatible with child safety seats. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration standards on the topic  make it clear that if head rests are removable, you can only remove them deliberately with two hands to prevent idiots monkeying about and whipping the head rest out if they don’t like them.  Not a word about using them as a tool for breaking glass.

So where did the idea of using a head rest to break the glass if you get your car into deep water come from?  According to, it goes back to a Japanese TV show that demonstrated this survival tip:

Using a head rest to break a window is a fine example of human ingenuity and quick thinking in an emergency.  Certainly the person who first thought of doing this is something of a genius. If you are unlucky enough to drive your car into deep water and the car is sinking, you are going to have to exit via the window, and modern fast-glass cars with electric windows make this a problem, as the water shorts out the system if the car goes underwater – but it won’t do so straight away, so this should always be your first move, along with taking off your seat belt.  Car glass is also very tough, especially on the windscreen (don’t; bother smashing this – go for the door windows).  Other tools can be used if you can’t get the window open in time: special tools bought for the purpose, stiletto heels, spark plugs, hammers, etc.  Certainly, the detachable headrests are handy but this is an added and unintended bonus rather than an integral part of the design.

If you can’t get the technique right for busting the window, the recommendation is to wait until there’s enough water in the car to equalise the pressure inside and out (try not to panic), take a deep breath and open the door as soon as you can.

Of course, if you have an older car with older windows that wind down manually, you are probably feeling smug at this point, as the issue of window mechanisms shorting out isn’t a problem.

How Not To Use A Phone While Driving

They say that driving distracted is as bad as driving drunk when it comes to reducing your reaction times and making smart driving decisions.  Some distractions are beyond our control, such as half a swarm of bees flying through the open window (not making that one up – this happened to someone I know), a screaming child or a busting bladder.  However, using the phone is something that you can control.

We all know the rules.  Handsfree is the only way that you can do this legally and safely.  Putting the phone on your lap and glancing down so nobody knows that you’re using the phone is not an option. In fact, this is probably worse than having the thing openly visible up by the steering wheel in your hand – at least that way, you have half an eye on the road even if you do risk being spotted by the cops.  When the phone is on your lap, you have to take your eyes right off the road to look at it. Bad idea.

You’ve got to think beyond the stereotype of teenagers compulsively stuck on smartphones madly using social media, too.  Often, it’s adults who are at fault and who cause the accidents: “I can do it because that text, tweet or email might be really, really important for my work/family, and I’m a good experienced driver and I know the road and it’s not really busy and I’m used to multitasking and…”

Why do people compulsively check their phones while driving?  A lot of it probably comes down to standard cellphone etiquette: it’s considered bad form to not respond to someone who’s texted you, preferably as promptly as possible.  There’s always the thought at the back of our minds that the text that’s just come through might be something urgent – your significant other saying that he/she has locked the keys in the car and needs your help urgently, the school saying your child is sick, or a client from work trying to rearrange a meeting.

On the one side, you’ve got the fear of missing something urgent plus the desire to be polite.  On the other side, you’ve got the law and the desire to drive safely.  How are you going to resolve this one?

Go cold turkey

Even if the call is an emergency, you can wait a few minutes until you find a suitable place to pull over.  It is possible to leave the phone alone and not respond instantly.  Nobody is going to die.  If the situation is that urgent, the person in question should have dialled 000 rather than you.  Anyway, emergencies are few and far between, and there’s a chance that the text in question is going to be something along the lines of “3oclock Monday fine for meeting”.  Put the phone on silent and put it in the glovebox or somewhere you can’t reach it or see it, then ignore it.  It won’t kill you. However, texting while driving can kill you or someone else.  This is also one of the only two options for L-plate and P-plate drivers.

Hand it to the passenger

If you’ve often got people in the car with you, the person in the front seat can be your hands while you get on with the driving.  Your passenger can read out texts, send texts for you, look things up and give you information such as “Shirley’s sent you a hilarious picture on Instagram that you’ll have to look at later.” A strong-minded front seat passenger can also growl at you if you make a grab for the phone, or even physically stop you grabbing the phone, as suggested by this road safety ad from New Zealand:

Driving apps

Some apps solve the etiquette problem, meaning that the person on the other end of the text doesn’t think you’re rudely ignoring them.  These apps are similar to the automatic reply emails that you can set up when you’re on holiday but are more short-term.  Just before you start the engine, you turn the app on.  If someone texts you while you’re driving, the app will auto-reply saying that you are driving and will reply as soon as possible.  You can get them for iPhone and Android and several are free. Even the ones that aren’t free are a hang of a lot cheaper than a fine.  This is the other solution for L-platers and P-platers.

Other apps go a bit further than merely auto-responding.  Some block cellphone use while driving, are linked in with another device belonging to someone else for accountability purposes (e.g. a parent, significant other or boss, who get a notification if you do text and drive) and dish out rewards for appropriate behaviour (i.e. not using the phone while driving).


Going handsfree isn’t as hard as you think, especially if you have one of the newer Apple devices (which I don’t – I’ve got an older Android machine, so this isn’t an endorsement; however, I’ve seen my 19-year-old son’s Siri in action, especially after I started growling at him for texting while driving, which prompted the demo).  Siri and the Android equivalent (e.g. Robin) can read out your texts and you can dictate texts to them, all while your hands stay on the wheel and your eyes on the road.  This can lead to some interesting typos, or whatever you call the equivalent of speech recognition glitches, especially if you use that very common shorthand for seconds, “secs”.  Pop your phone in a suitable cradle and turn on the loudspeaker, then you’re good to go.

Full integration

In a heap of recent vehicles, the makers have realised that people want to stay connected and get those important calls and the like while on the road, especially in the case of contractors and people who travel for business.  Most vehicles come with full Bluetooth preparation and/or smartphone integration, basically turning your car into an extension of your device, so you can make those handsfree calls, send private messages on Facebook and get your texts read out by Siri or Robin.  Some of them also work in tandem with the driver aids and will shut down (so you’re less distracted) if it senses from your driving and all the other sensors that the traffic is getting heavy and things are getting a bit hairy.  These fully integrated “smartcars”, to coin a term, are also smart enough to refuse to let you go online and watch YouTube videos while the car is moving.

Jamming devices

Mobile phone jamming devices are illegal in Australia, so don’t even think about them.  Yes, you can block your own phone use while driving but you can also block everybody else’s phone use, including all the people who are using handsfree and Bluetooth integrated calling, and all passengers in your vicinity. You could also block someone’s emergency call to 000.


The Guy We All Need To Thank: Nils Bohlin

What would you call a guy who has saved approximately 11,000 lives every year in the US alone and way more than that around the world?  You’d probably think that you were reading a cracker of a superhero comic but this guy is for real.  Was he a war hero?  An emergency response guy like a medic, firefighter or cop?

Nope – he was an inventor.  What he invented was the three-point seatbelt.  His name was Nils Bohlin. In later life, he looked a bit like Father Christmas. Which is kind of appropriate, considering the gift he’s given to the world.

Bohlin was born in 1920 in Sweden, the country where he worked after graduating with an engineering diploma.  His first significant employer was SAAB , but he wasn’t working on their cars; his area was on the planes.  Specifically, he got to work on ejector seats, which were in hot demand at the time, the time in question being World War 2 when pilots were getting shot down and needing to bail out ASAP.  At the time, there was a bit of competition going on, and the German aircraft manufacturer Heinkel got the idea at the same time as SAAB and managed to get an operational ejector seat first.  (Did they really independently get the same idea simultaneously?  Or was there some skulduggery going on?  Plot for a WWII spy thriller here.)

After the war was over (and SAAB had got a good working ejector seat), a new problem was cropping up.  The demand for masses of fighter and bomber planes had died down but in the post-war period of prosperity, the demand for and use of the car had soared.  It wasn’t just a toy for the rich any more.  With a lot more cars on the roads going faster thanks to all the technology developed during wartime, there were a lot more accidents.  A sort of seat belt had been invented: a two-point lap belt with a buckle that did up in the middle over your stomach.  If you’ve been in some classic cars, you may have seen them (I have some very dim memories of using one of these, possibly in the ancient Mini  owned by my grandparents when I was little… I think).  While these two-point jobs were a heck of a lot better than nothing, they were not ideal.  For a start off, they didn’t stop your head pitching forwards during a crash thanks to all that momentum with the end result that the driver whacked his/her head on the steering wheel.  You also had the problem of sliding up and out of the seat belt.  Then there was the belt itself.  At high speeds, that meant all the momentum and force was caught and stopped by a band across your tummy.  With a heavy metal buckle right in the middle where the force would be greatest. At best, this would make you puke.  At worst, it would cause nasty internal injuries.  Don’t even think about what would happen if the person wearing the lap belt was a pregnant woman.  Something had to be done.

The something was done by Volvo, who hired Nils Bohlin to try to improve the design.  This was 1958 and Volvo had decided that one of their key design principles was going to be safety, safety, safety, rather than merely concentrating on power and speed (one of the CEO’s relatives had been killed in a car crash).  Bohlin was the perfect choice.  After all, he’d had to think about stresses on the human body at speed, restraints and sort of thing when developing ejector seats.  Ejector seats had four-pointer restraints but Bohlin knew that this wasn’t going to work in a family car.  He wanted a design that could be put on with one hand.  As he had four stepchildren and one child, he probably knew all too well that getting multiple straps onto a wriggly child was pretty tricky!  On top of that, he had consumer attitudes to contend with.  As he said, “The pilots I worked with in the aerospace industry were willing to put on almost anything to keep them safe in case of a crash, but regular people in cars don’t want to be uncomfortable even for a minute.” The restraints had to be comfortable.

It took him a year of testing, going back to the drawing board, retesting, tinkering and general improving until he came up with the three-point system we are all familiar with today: a belt running from shoulder to hip that attaches to a fixed point at hip level on the opposite side from the shoulder-height anchor points.  It was simple.  It could be done up with one hand.  It was comfortable for men and women (this was the 1950s when the ideal female figure was very, very curvy…).  This spread the force of impact across the ribcage and abdomen, which reduced the risk of internal injury dramatically and made slipping out over the top less likely.

His new design was patented in the US in 1959 and you can see it here.  However, even though Bohlin and Volvo held the patent, Volvo was public-spirited enough to allow other manufacturers to use this life-saving design for free, putting people ahead of profits (and giving their company image and reputation one heck of a boost).

Nils Bohlin demonstrates his invention to the public.

It took a while for the new invention to catch on.  After all, people just weren’t used to wearing seat belts on buses or the like.  They weren’t planning on crashing (who does?) so why on earth did they need to wear a seat belt.  Seat belt use wasn’t mandatory (and belts were only installed in the driver and front passenger seats at first), so a fair bit of PR work was needed to educate the public.  At first, seat belts were just nice accessories in a car.  However, a demo using eggs in rolling cart, one with a seatbelt and one without, got the message across, along with a bunch of other stunts presented in a world tour.  In 1969 in the US, seatbelts (in the front seats at least) became compulsory.  Today, in all developed economies, seat belt use is mandatory front and back.  On top of that, even the centre rear seat lap belt that most of us grew up with is being phased out, with more and more cars offering three-point seat belts for all five (or seven) seats.

The design has been tweaked a fair bit over the years, with pretensioners being added by Mercedes Benz in the 1980s, Audi adding height adjustments and those bra-strap style length adjusters being replaced by retracting inertia reels.  However, the basic design is still the same as Nils Bohlin’s original design.  Since its invention, it has saved over a million lives, and the US safety stats figure that seat belt use saves over 11,000 million lives every year.

Bohlin also invented the buckle design that is used on his seat belt, and he also worked on the Side Impact Protection System that has been another Volvo special that has since spread to other marques.

Bohlin became head of Volvo’s safety design team, and received numerous awards throughout his lifetime, including being inducted into the Health and Safety Hall of Fame and the Automotive Hall of Fame. He was also inducted into the Inventors’ Hall of Fame in 2002 upon his death.

Despite his invention, seat belt laws and more, some people still don’t seem to get the point and insist on not wearing their seat belts.  Come on, folks!  To quote Winnie-the-Pooh’s Eeyore, “the funny thing about accidents is that you never have them until you’re having them.” Buckle up!

“My greatest pleasure comes when I meet people who tell me that a seat belt saved their life or the life of a loved one.  Many inventions make life better for people. I have been fortunate to work in the area of safety engineering, where innovation doesn’t just improve our lives; it actually can save lives.”—Nils Bohlin