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Peace On Earth – And The Roads, Specifically

Temperatures are soaring as we prepare for the Christmas and New Year holiday season. A lot of us are looking at the cliched images of snow and holly berries, and listening to so-called Christmas music that should really be called “winter music” with a certain level of cynicism and irony. Driving home for Christmas – whether it’s interstate or across town – can be a bit stressful as we get all hot and bothered. There’s a lot to do and a heap of places to go, and we’ve got to haul the kids around with us now that the schools are out for summer.

Before we blow a gasket (metaphorically and emotionally – not inside your car engine), maybe it’s time to take a deep breath and remember the reason for the season. Time for a bit of peace on the roads and goodwill towards our fellow motorists (and our passengers and ourselves). One way that you can do this is being a little bit kinder to everybody – and your car as well.

Be kind to your car, yourself and your passengers by making sure that you’ve topped up all the fluids that you’re supposed to (water, oil, etc.). If you can, book your car in for a service if it’s time or if you’ve noticed things getting a bit wonky. There are few things worse than having the car die on you during the holiday season when you’re miles from your planned destination and the mechanic’s garage is closed (been there, done that – at least it happened in a sizeable town and we found a nice place to stay the night and discovered a neat little café). However, bear in mind that your mechanic is probably worked off his or her feet at the moment because everybody’s trying to get their vehicle ready and the mechanic wants to go on holiday too. Book early and don’t leave it until the last minute!

Be kind to your passengers, especially if they’re children. It’s not realistic to expect kids to sit for hours on end doing nothing, especially when it’s hot. Make sure that your air con is working properly so people don’t get too hot during the journey. Staying well hydrated also helps prevent headaches, and cold water goes down a treat. Freeze a drink bottle overnight before your trip and it will slowly melt as the day goes by, staying deliciously cold. Keeping hydrated has the inevitable results, so make sure that you make frequent stops for the loo.  Stick to water – it’s healthier, doesn’t make the seats sticky if they’re spilt and doesn’t leave you with sugar-amped kids getting fractious in the car seats.

If you’re going on a longer trip with children, then it can be a good idea to have a few special treats and toys that can be produced for the first time at the start of the trip. Make sure that you have a playlist (or CD or…) for everybody so the adults don’t go mad listening to twitty children’s tunes and the children don’t get bored with your Bruce Springsteen. As long periods in the car make for great bonding time, I don’t recommend kitting kids up with headphones and electronic devices; take the time to interact while you’ve got it. Don’t forget a few old-fashioned car games!

No matter what age of passenger you’ve got with you or even if you’re travelling alone, make sure you stop frequently to stretch your legs and get a bit of fresh air. This helps you stay alert, which is kinder to everybody else on the road, as you’ll be a better driver for it. It’s also kinder to your back and your overall health – go for a little walk as well as using the loo and/or filling up with fuel.  Allow time for this and take your time. Enjoy the trip rather than merely focussing on getting to your destination.

While on the topic of health, it’ a good idea to pre-plan travel snacks and food. The sort of thing you pick up in most places tends to be stuffed with all the things you’re not supposed to eat (trans fat, sugar, additives). You can generate a lot of plastic waste as well, and spend a truckload while you’re at it. The good news is that fruit is in season, so it’s healthy and cheap. Maybe make a few sandwiches or take the doings for them in the esky.

Remember to be kind to your fellow motorists. Everybody is in a hurry, everybody is hot and everybody is a bit stressed with all the things they need to do. This means that you don’t need to always rush and cut in. Let people into the stream of traffic at intersections and on the way out of the car park. If we all did this, the roads would really be a more peaceful place. I’ve written on being a polite driver elsewhere – bear these tips in mind and don’t be that rude driver everybody hates.

Last but definitely not least, although it’s the season when we all indulge a little bit more, the rules about not drinking and driving still apply. Don’t ruin someone’s holiday by causing accidents, injuries or deaths. It’s just not worth the risk and if you’ve already spent a bit on pressies and food, then you don’t want to add a fine from the cops into it as well. There are loads of nice non-alcoholic cocktails and drinks out there, and it’s a lot more socially acceptable not to drink alcohol at parties.  Given the season, a Virgin Mary (like a Bloody Mary but minus the hard stuff) is rather appropriate… Appoint a sober driver or plan to stay overnight if you want a tipple.

Whatever you’re doing over this Christmas, wherever and however you’re celebrating, we hope that you have a great one and that you stay safe on the roads. See you in 2020!

How To Be A Polite Driver

You’ll hear a lot of people complaining about the rudeness of other drivers – the hoon who cut you off, the moron who nearly opened the car door right into you as you drove past, etc. etc. I could rant for ages about examples of plain old rudeness on the roads. So could you, I dare say. However, instead of simply having a grizzle about the level of rudeness on the roads, let’s flip the script. If more and more of us concentrated on being polite drivers with good on-road manners, then the happier we’ll all be.

Yes, I’m going to sound like your mother in this post and I’m going to remind you about good manners. However, I’m allowed to, as I might be old enough to be your mother (if you’re under 25). As for the rest of us, we could all do with a reminder, couldn’t we?

Courtesy To Other Drivers

  • Don’t be in such a rush to be first or ahead of everybody else. It’s barely going to save you a second on your commute, so why bother taking a risk as well as being annoying to others? This means that you don’t push in and cut people off.
  • Stay alert at the lights. Nobody likes being behind that person who checks their phone at a red light (which is, incidentally, illegal) who fails to see the light change to green for a couple of seconds. Stay alert, leave that phone alone and be ready to move.
  • Let people in. If the traffic’s busy and you’ve come to a standstill, and you see someone waiting at the exit from the supermarket, let them in before you take off. This is done by a simple wave of the hand and a smile. It’s also a very human thing to do, as this sort of courtesy is something that an autonomous car can’t do.
  • Wave and smile if someone does something nice like letting you in. This is how you say thank you in an urban driving setting.
  • On the open road, if you can’t go at the full road speed for some reason, pull over onto the shoulder of the road to let people go past.
  • Thank slower drivers who pull over to let you past by tooting the horn cheerfully and waving.
  • Dip your lights in plenty of time rather than playing Headlight Chicken at night. This is good for safety as well as courtesy, as having two dazzled drivers for the sake of pride is stupid and dangerous.
  • If you have been going at just below the speed limit most of the time, don’t suddenly speed up to full speed or more when you get to the parts of the road that have passing lanes provided, forcing those who want to go faster to really put their foot down to possibly a dangerous degree.
  • Stay in your lane, even when the traffic is slow, rather than hopping from one to another. If you wouldn’t do it in the supermarket or in the queue for the loo during half-time at the rugby, don’t do it on the road.
  • Even if you have a fantastic sound system, you don’t need to let the world know about it by turning it up to full blast and winding the windows down. Not everybody shares your taste in music. The only exception is if you’re a contractor and you have your vehicle parked off the road where you’re working, and you want to listen while you work.
  • On rural roads where the traffic is sparse, wave, nod or raise a finger (no, not THAT finger) to salute oncoming drivers.
  • Use your indicators. Enough said.

Courtesy To Other Road Users

  • Check for cyclists before opening your car doors.
  • Wait until pedestrians are completely off the crossing before you move off (this is the law as well as good manners).
  • Give cyclists plenty of room, especially if they’re coping with a hill or a stiff headwind or even a blisteringly hot day. Refrain from honking your horn at them if the road is narrow and they’re doing all they can – just wait until you have enough space to pass.
  • Stop for animals on the roads, from ducklings to kangaroos.
  • Be sensitive around horses, as they are wired instinctively to run away from things that make loud roaring noises at them. This means that you don’t rev your engine, honk your horn or shout at them.
  • Stay out of the bike lane. It is there to keep cyclists from holding motorized traffic up, not as an extra turning lane or passing lane.

Courtesy To Passengers

  • Open the door for whoever’s in the front passenger seat. Traditionally, the guy is the driver and the lady is the passenger, but these days, the rule should be that whoever has the keys should unlock and open for the person without, regardless of how many X chromosomes each one has.
  • Wait until everybody has made their seatbelt click before moving off.
  • Your car might be able to corner hard, but your passengers do not have the steering wheel to hold onto. Don’t throw your passengers around; save the rally driver behaviour for when you are alone or actually in a rally.
  • Ensure that the music volume and temperature are comfortable for everybody (dual zone climate control is a wonderful invention).
  • Refrain from making snarky or belittling comments about other road users. Double that if your passengers are children. This rule also applies to those other road users known as cops.

Other Situations Where Courtesy Is Important

  • If you are ticketed, accept it as a fair cop, no matter what the reason is. Don’t rage at the cop or the parking warden, who is simply doing his/her job and might hate being assigned to this duty as much as you hate being ticketed. Take it on the chin and take that ticket. Refrain from throwing an adult tantrum about it at your passengers once the uniformed figure has gone – it’s not their fault. It’s your fault, so suck it up, buttercup.
  • Revving your engine loudly so that all the world can hear it is bad manners. Small exceptions can be made if you have a beautifully tuned V8 or V12 (or any other exhaust system that’s been tweaked to produce that deep, throaty growl). This motoring music often draws a smile from fellow motoring enthusiasts. Even so, don’t overdo it, especially late at night.
  • Avoid back seat driving. You may give directions if requested to or call the driver to attention if he/she hasn’t noticed that the truck ahead has slammed on the brakes or if the light has changed. However, nobody needs a full-time driving instructor once they’re off their learner’s licence and even P-platers don’t need nonstop instructions.
  • If you’ve got a very nice sports car (or a well-kept old classic) that attracts attention, don’t get disgruntled about people taking selfies with it, snapping pictures of it or asking questions about it. Bask in the adulation – this is part of the pleasure of owning something rare and beautiful.

 

What Makes A Road Not Just Good But Great?

During a relaxed evening, I like to dig out DVDs of the old classic Top Gear show and watch an episode (bonus points if they decide to feature something I’ve written up for Private Fleet’s reviews). Now and then, the Terrible Trinity of May, Clarkson and Hammond take whatever gorgeous piece of metal and/or carbon fibre they’re talking about onto some road somewhere in the world and they start talking not just about the car but about the road and what a great road it is.

This got me thinking: what is it that makes a road not just good but great? Obviously, to be a good road, it has to be in good condition. Anything with potholes just doesn’t cut the mustard, no matter what other features it has. It has to be safe as well, which rules out the notorious Camino del Muerte in Bolivia from Yungas to La Paz (this has now ruled itself out – the government has now shut it to motor traffic and it’s a very, very popular mountain bike trail).

A bit of poking and prodding around online produced quite a few top ten and top twenty lists of what are considered by various bloggers and authorities to be the best roads in the world to drive. Rather than simply re-hashing what these others have said, I got all analytical on them to work out which characteristics made a good road into a great road. After all, few of us are able to travel the entire world to find the great roads, but maybe there’s some little hidden treasure not too far away from you that could have qualified for these lists, if only the writers (or the tourism promoters paying the writers) knew about them. Having said that, the Great Ocean Road in Victoria makes it onto a lot of these lists, so if you’re in Melbourne, you’re not that far away from an officially great road anyway.

Hallmarks Of A Great Road

  1. Amazing Scenery. Just about all of the famous roads on the various lists seem to feature spectacular scenery of some kind, preferably the sort that can be described as “dramatic”. Mountains and cliffs seem to feature heavily in most, but not all, cases.  However, the scenery would still be just as dramatic if it was viewed from the window of a tour bus, so there must be more to what makes a great road great than just the views.  What’s more, if you are driving on a road that qualifies as having great scenery, make sure that you pull over in a sensible place for your photo opportunities rather than trying to take something while standing in the middle of the road.
  2. Non-Metropolitan. I don’t know if “non-metropolitan” is officially a dictionary word but how else do you describe routes that include small to medium towns and villages as well as plenty of rural scenery? However, this seems to be another feature of the great roads. Probably, the ability to travel at full open road speed is something to do with it, punctuated by the chance to fill up with fuel, recharge, have a coffee and go to the loo somewhere civilized.
  3. Bends. Roads that are dead straight the whole way do not qualify as great roads, although long and epic roads that have significant straight sections do make it onto these lists (Ruta 40 in Argentina and the Ocean Highway in Florida being the main examples here). However, to be a great road for a driver, a road has to have a few bends in it, preferably large, looping ones. Where else would you get to see what the handling of your vehicle can really do?  One thing to bear in mind, though, is that spectacular scenery often means big drop-offs and/or idiots taking selfies in dumb places, and being non-metropolitan means that it can take some time for the emergency services to arrive and cellphone coverage may be dodgy.  Getting the exact quality and quantity of bends in the road to make it great is a fine balancing act.  Too many and the road becomes risky and you miss out on the scenery.  Too few and it’s not enough of a challenge for a driver.  If you’re interested in taking a mathematical approach to this sort of thing, rental car company Avis has got a formula it uses for creating its list of best roads that looks at the ratio of time spent going around bends to time spent on a straight.  Exactly how many bends there are and how sharp they need to be to make a road great or perfect will vary from driver to driver. Some people like to have more hairpins than a busy hairdresser (Stelvio Pass, I’m looking at you); others prefer wide sweeps and gentle undulations.  But bends are a must.

If you are lucky enough to get the chance to travel the world and try out some of the great roads beyond what we’ve got here, then one thing to remember is that although the piccies posted by travel websites and the footage on motor shows make it look as though you will have the road to yourself, you probably won’t.  So enjoy the drive, by all means, but share the love and share the road.

If you have been lucky enough to drive a road you consider to be great, then let us know all about in the comments… unless you want to keep a delightful secret all to yourself.

Things You Need To Know About Hydrogen As A Fuel

In the quest to achieve more sustainable motoring, there are three main players: biofuels (i.e. producing petrol and diesel that will run in conventional internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles from renewable sources rather than fossil fuels), electric vehicles (we’ve heard heaps about these) and hydrogen fuel cell vehicles (HFCV).  Electrical vehicles seem to be the hottest of the hot at the moment and they grab quite a lot of the attention from the media and from the government.  To take one hot off the press example, they’ve just given the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for this year to the guys who invented the rechargeable lithium-ion battery, even though this tech has been around for a fair few years now and first got onto the market in 1991.

However, let’s not completely overlook the other two members of the sustainability team. If you asked me to take my pick of the three, I’d go for HFCVs. This is because it gives the best of both worlds: the zero-exhaust factor of EVs and the ease of refuelling of ICE vehicles.

Hydrogen is the lightest element on the periodic table and it’s one of the most common elements on earth – actually, make that THE most abundant element in the universe.   As we all learned in school, good old water is made up of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom. In fact, you could say that all energy is, technically speaking, hydrogen powered.  Our sun is one great big ball of hydrogen undergoing a massive nuclear reaction (fusion rather than fission), and it’s the energy given off by this that is ultimately the source of all energy on Earth – even the fossil fuels, which are ancient forests that once trapped sunlight through photosynthesis.

If we could somehow replicate this process on Earth at a smaller scale, most of the world’s energy problems would be solved and it would generate all the electricity to meet our needs and more. However, the problem would be to stop it getting out of hand or an H-bomb would be the result. Cold fusion is the dream of many a scientist…

The first thing you need to understand about HFCVs is that when you put hydrogen fuel into the vehicle, the fuel isn’t burned the way that the fuel in an ICE burns. NASA uses this tech in rockets but it’s far, far too explosive for more down to earth uses. Instead, the hydrogen is used to generate electricity, which is released when hydrogen combines with oxygen to produce (you guessed it) water. This takes place in fuel cells, which do the job of converting good old oxygen and hydrogen to water.

Quite a lot of vehicles around the world use hydrogen fuel cell tech already. These are mostly forklifts and buses; however, cars are coming onto the scene and they’re beginning to get a fair bit of interest.

The big question about any sustainable energy source is to ask where it comes from and how one gets it – a question that people aren’t quite asking enough in the case of EVs, if you ask me.  In the case of hydrogen, there are two main sources. One is from electrolysis of water and the other is from steam reformation of methane. Of the two methods, electrolysis of water (where the water molecule is split into H2 and O by a current of electricity) is the cleaner of the two – as long as the electricity used comes from a sustainable source, such as wind, solar or hydro (using hydro to produce hydrogen seems appropriate). The other method uses methane – thus busting up and reducing something that is both a waste product and a greenhouse gas – but it also produces a bit of carbon monoxide during the production stage.  There are quite a few other methods out there but these are the most common.

Hydrogen is produced for commercial use already on quite a large scale. It’s used quite extensively in, of all things, the petrochemical industry during the process of refining petrol. You could therefore think of a switch to hydrogen fuel cell tech as cutting out the middleman.  The other major commercial use of hydrogen gas is in electrical power stations, where it acts as a coolant.

The biggest issue with hydrogen fuel is storage and transport, as hydrogen is a slippery customer that can explode and burn with the ferocity of rocket fuel simply because it is rocket fuel. On the other hand, liquid hydrogen is super-cold (even colder than the liquid nitrogen the doctor uses to remove warts and low-grade skin cancers) and needs to be kept that way. It’s the storage and transport issue that our very own CSIRO is working on.  Nevertheless, the potential is out there and is being used in many parts of the world. In the US, for example, there are already 40 retail outlets for refuelling hydrogen cars just in a single state (California), with more in other states and more to come.

Over here, we’ve already got one public hydrogen fuel station in Canberra, with more being planned. As renewable hydrogen is a hot topic (or maybe a cool topic, given that liquid hydrogen has a temperature of about –250°C), there are a ton of hydrogen projects going on at the moment, and there are hopes that renewable hydrogen fuel will become one of Australia’s biggest exports.  Just a couple of days ago, there was news out that Siemens was launching a big plant in Western Australia to produce hydrogen fuel, and that’s just the latest one. We’re going to be producing it ourselves, so it makes sense that we should put it on our cars as well.

Will Driving Faster Really Get You There Quicker?

(Warning – contains maths!)

It seems ingrained in our human mentality.  If you go faster, you get there more quickly, right? After all, we’ve all seen this in childhood.  When you walked to school, let’s say it usually took you 15 minutes. I am possibly showing my age here with the assumption that you walked 15 minutes to school – although a 15-minute walk is pretty reasonable and there’s no reason why kids these days (that’s really showing my age) can’t do it as well.  Anyway, back to the topic.  When you were a kid walking to school, if you realized that you’d forgotten your homework and had to double back for it, you pretty soon found out that if you jogged or ran, you’d still make it to the school gate before the bell rang.

When we grew up and got cars, we applied the same logic. If we overslept the alarm or had some sort of household emergency before setting off to work, we believe that if we step on the accelerator a little bit harder, we’ll make up for lost time.  Or will we?

We’ll leave aside the issue that speeding is illegal and that you will get pinged for it if you get caught.  Yes, that means you, even if you’re going only a teeny weeny 10 km/h over the legal limit.  Let’s do the maths instead.

Let’s say your commute takes about 30 minutes and you usually drive at 50 km/h, which is the signed speed limit on the road you take.  This means that, at least on paper, you’re covering about 25 km.  The equation is Distance (in km) ÷ Your Speed (in km/h) = Travel Time (in hours).  What happens if we plug your sneaky wee attempt at speeding into this equation, with the assumption that you’re going to try driving to work at 60 km/h to make up the time spent cleaning up after the cat had vomited in the middle of the living room?  We’ve got 25 ÷ 60 = 0.416667.  To turn 0.416667 hours into the equivalent in minutes, multiply it by 60 and you get (drum roll; the smart cookies reading this will have already clicked) 25 minutes.  So what you’ve saved – in theory – by speeding 10 km/h faster is 5 minutes.  Which isn’t much.

Of course, your average travel speed probably never was your target speed, whether that was 50 km/h or 60 km/h.  We all know that in peak travel hours, you have to slow down at intersections, wait at Give Way signs, wait at pedestrian crossings for the kids who are walking to school and wait at traffic lights. This means that the amount of your journey spent actually going faster will only be a few minutes out of your commute, so you won’t actually be saving 5 minutes at all. You’ll be saving more like 1 or 2 minutes and you will end up being late for work – and you’ll probably try blaming it on the traffic rather than that cat.

However, while you’ve been pressing down the accelerator in that attempt to get to work on time, you’ve been revving your engine that little bit harder, and you’ve probably had to brake harder.  That extra bit of accelerator means more fuel consumption – or more drain on the battery, so those of you with EVs can wipe that smug smile off your faces because this applies across the board.  That extra stress on the brake also means more wear and tear, so in the long run, although you may have saved a couple of minutes on your commute, you’ll have put a bit more on your fuel bill and/or your maintenance bill.  You have to ask yourself if it’s really worth it.

So why did travelling faster work so well when you were a kid running to school instead of walking after forgetting your homework?  And is there ever a time when going faster will actually get you there quicker.

Let’s start with that first question.  When you were a kid walking to school, you probably went there more or less non-stop, with maybe the odd pause if you had to cross the road.  Walking speed varies by age and sex, but let’s say that you could walk at about 3 km/h.  A child’s maximum running speed at the age of 2 is about 9 km/h but you were older than that if you were walking to school and you probably weren’t running at your maximum, so we’ll say that your running to school speed was about 6 km/h.  This is double your walking speed (a 100% increase), whereas increasing your driving speed from 50 km/h to 60 km/h is a 20% increase.

Lastly, is there ever a time when going faster helps you make up lost time? The answer is probably yes, but only if (a) you’re covering a long distance so small changes add up and (b) your route is free-flowing without need to stop or slow down for significant portions of the time.  Think rural roads and well-designed motorways.  Even then, your gain in time won’t be all that much.  Perhaps, on a rural road, you might be able to shave 5 minutes off what would have been a 20-min trip by travelling at an average speed of 100 km/h rather than the average of 80 km/h.  Longer trips will get more savings in time but this may be off-set by increased fuel consumption – and it’s up to you if you think this is worth it!

Building Beasts Through Biomimicry

Inspired by a fish

Right from the beginning of automotive history, car makers have named their creations after animals.  The reasoning behind this is simple: by giving the vehicle the name of a creature that’s fast, powerful, graceful or dangerous, the user will, at least subconsciously, feel that the vehicle shares those attributes.  We want our cars to have the sheer speed of the peregrine falcon (top speed in a stoop = over 300 km/h, which is faster than what your common or garden Aussie Ford Falcon can do) or the aggression of a bighorn ram (Dodge) or the agility and elegance of a jaguar.

However, what if the makers could take things a little further and actually give a car some of the actual attributes of a swift, agile animal? Not things like actual predatory behaviour, of course; otherwise, we’d see Nissan Bluebirds eating Alfa Romeo Spyders, Jaguars and Porsche Caymans competing to devour Isuzu Bighorns, and Hyundai Tiburon (that’s Spanish for shark) giving Corvette Stingrays serious grief.  However, what if we could find out what it is that gives speedy creatures like the blue marlin and the peregrine falcon their seriously low drag coefficients so we can get better and more efficient speedy vehicles?

This is where the concept of biomimicry comes in.  Biomimicry is the design concept that looks to the natural world to get ideas and inspiration for more than just names and colours.

The classic example of biomimicry in the automotive world comes from McLaren supercars and involves one of the designers being inspired by a stuffed fish.  This stuffed fish wasn’t your ordinary trout trophy but a sailfish, which is one of the fastest fish in the sea.  The designer was so struck with this sailfish that he studied it to find out some of the features that made it so fast and if it would be possible to apply these to the supercar.

Two features from the sailfish made it into the design of the McLaren P1.  The first was the scales.  On the fish, the scales create vortices that push a bubble of air around the fish, meaning that it’s slipping through less dense air rather than water so it can go faster.  In the car –which is already going through air – the features of the scales that generate these little vortices were applied to the engine to increase the flow of air for keeping things cool and for adding extra oomph. And it worked: the sailfish scale inspired design increased airflow by 17%.  The other design was the curve of the fish’s body just before the tail fin, which straightens out air and water pockets to improve aerodynamics; it works just as well on the hypercar, minus the water, of course.

Nissan has also got a bit fishy, although they were considering safety features instead.  The designers were looking at how schools of fish act.  If you, like me, have watched one of those nature documentaries on marine life, you’ve probably seen footage of those huge schools of fish that seem to have the synchronized swimming thing down to perfection.  They stop, start, swirl and turn almost simultaneously – and they never seem to collide with each other.  The team at Nissan asked how this was possible.  It turned out that each fish monitors its position relative to the fish in front of it, and makes adjustments so it can keep the right following distance.  This idea was what led to the development of forward collision detection and autonomous braking systems, which is now a very common active safety feature on a lot of new cars and not just Nissans, either.

However, care is always needed when attempting to mimic the natural world, as it can be very easy to overlook the big picture.  Mercedes Benz famously attempted to look to nature for inspiration when developing a very stable car – the Bionic concept car.  The idea seemed fantastic: the boxfish may look weird but it’s extremely stable and can’t tip over, no matter how turbulent the water is, but it’s still got low drag.  Mercedes thought this was great and set about putting together a concept car based on the shape of the fish.

However, one thing the Mercedes design team forgot to think about was the fact that although the boxfish was stable but was still able to turn around easily, it wasn’t quite as slick and fast as most other tropical fish.  The aerodynamics (or, more accurately, hydrodynamics) that stop it from going belly-up in the roughest of seas also make turning very hard.  Boxfish have two other design features in place to help them survive the jungle of the coral reef that the Mercedes Benz doesn’t have.  The first makes up for the lack of manoeuvrability by having one heck of a defence system: it puts off minute amounts of poison into the water around it to deter predators – which is why it’s bright yellow to send the message Toxic: Do Not Eat.  The second feature is the way it moves its fins, which is what gives it the turning ability as well as adding to the stability.  Just in case you haven’t noticed, cars don’t have fins and definitely don’t use them for turning.  This explains why the much-hyped Mercedes boxfish car didn’t get beyond concept stage.

Nevertheless, biomimicry is still a very hot topic in the world of design in general, as we look for ways to make cars safer and more efficient.  Maybe it’s time to insist that all automotive designers need to have tropical fish tanks in their offices.

The Perfect Form of Transport???

Here at Private Fleet, we keep an eye on trends in car design and the way things are shaping up.  At the moment, I reckon there are three biggies: fuelling systems, autonomous vehicles and sensors.

Let’s start with fuel.  We all know that the supplies of crude oil aren’t as big as they used to be and the ones that are left are frequently in places that are very hard to get at or are located in politically volatile countries.  This means that if we can cut down our dependence on non-renewable fuels, we’ll be able to keep on trucking the way we’re accustomed to.  We’ll also help cut down on greenhouse gases, which is supposed to stop global warming or climate change.

In our quest to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, we’re trying a bunch of different things, all of which are getting a lot of attention in the automotive world.  Electricity is the hottest one at the moment, with a major push towards EVs and hybrids that use both electricity and petrol.  However, that’s only one of the three.  Just as well, as one has to ask where the electricity is coming from and how it’s being generated.  If it’s being pumped out by coal- or gas-fuelled power stations, then EVs aren’t the perfect green solution.  The other hot topic in fuel is to look for other things that can be used to make diesel and petrol that are renewable – biofuels.  The trick here is to find something that can be grown without taking land and water resources away from what we need to feed a hungry world.  Lastly, there’s the hydrogen fuel cell option, which doesn’t produce much in the way of waste but is a little on the fiddly side to produce and transport, although they’re working on that.

All in all, this suggests that the perfect transport of the future should be able to run on something sustainable that’s easy to get hold of, and that it should produce minimal waste, or at least waste that can be useful for another purpose.

The second hot topic is the all the innovations being added as active safety features and driver aids.  There seems to be a new one out every time I turn around.  Temperature sensors for automatic climate control, 360° vision and reverse parking sensors are old hat. Now we’ve got side impact detection and avoidance, lane change assistance, autonomous braking, even systems that detect when the driver is getting tired or annoyed.  They’re working on getting the car to listen to you, with voice activated commands for all sorts of things.

This suggests that the perfect transport of the future should have a ton of sensors for all sorts of things, should be able to react according to the input of those sensors without the driver having to do anything, and should be able to interface with the moods of the driver.

Lastly, we’ve got the topic of autonomous cars: ones that will steer themselves, pick the right speed, pick the right part of the road and all the rest of it all by themselves.  This is closely related to the improvements in sensors and driver aids.  If autonomous cars reached their full perfection, you’d be able to hop in when well and truly under the influence, tell it to go home and then nod off until you find yourself parked outside the front door.

If we all of these factors together, we can get an idea of what the designers are trying to come up with.  Let’s imagine what it would look like: something that runs on plant-sourced fuels and produces biodegradable waste that can be converted to fertilizer; has ultra-sensitive sensors for temperature, mood and upcoming hazards in practically a full circle; is voice activated and even does voice-activated acceleration and parking; and can think for itself even when the driver is exhausted or drunk.  Natural materials for the upholstery and a cheap production method would be an advantage as well.  It already exists: when I was a child in a rural town, we called this a HORSE.

A Few Snags With Voice Control Systems

Michael, I don’t think these modern cars are quite up to my standard yet.

Ever since at least the 1960s or possibly earlier, technologically minded geeky sorts have dreamed of having machines that will hear your voice and carry out your commands and popped this sort of tech into sci-fi stories. Kind of like having a very obedient slave who will do whatever is asked but without any of the nasty ethical implications.  Possibly the dream of voice-activated machines is even older – if you look hard enough in old books, robot-type things have been turning up since the 1600s.  Certainly, in the 1970s and early 80s when the way you got a computer to do something was by feeding in a punch card, the idea of just being able to tell it what to do would have seemed like the ultimate.  The people with these fantasies were probably the ones who dreamed up Knight Rider and the intelligent car named KITT… and the ones who are designing cars and in-car tech grew up watching this show.

Fast forward to today and we’ve got quite a few computerized systems inside our vehicles, It’s likely that if you pick up, say, a brand new Mercedes-Benz, it will have far more electronics and computer bits and pieces than the Apollo that reached the moon.  Even better: a lot of bits and pieces inside a new car are voice activated. We’ve got to the point that if you watch a rerun of Knight Rider with a teenager, their response to KITT’s cool functions is likely to be “So what?”

These bits and pieces tend to be related to things like navigation, music and the phone; in other words, the sorts of things that you do on your phone anyway.  The idea behind it is a compromise between safety and connectedness. Instead of having to take your eyes off the road and your hands off the wheel to poke around with your playlists or to call the boss and say you’ll be late because you’re stuck in traffic when you actually are stuck in traffic, you can do this just with your voice.  Both Apple and Android allow you to do this, and a few marques have their own systems – Ford, BMW and Fiat, to name a few.  In some vehicles, you can also control the temperature settings via voice control, though those who have used them report that you have to be specific and keep it simple. I guess the people developing the tech didn’t really want the climate control system to suddenly add a bit of chill when the sound system is playing “Feeling Hot, Hot, Hot”.

There are more ideas in the pipeline and have just been introduced.  If you’ve got the right apps and the right devices (hello, Alexa!), you can check if the boot and the sunroof are closed properly and what the battery status in an EV is (BMW); lock and unlock the doors remotely (Ford Chrysler) and more.  There’s talk that BMW is thinking of introducing a feature that will allow you to dictate and send an email entirely by voice.  I mean, what could possibly go wrong with that? I keep getting mental pictures of someone trying to write something really important having a near miss on the road (caused by somebody or something else) so that in the middle of the formal apology or job application, the reader encounters the words “Stupid mutt – get out of the way!” (That’s the polite version – insert unprintable adjectives if desired.)

Which leads me nicely to the couple of existing snags with voice recognition software in vehicles – and outside of the vehicle that a number of people have picked up on.

The first relates to getting the voice recognition system to actually pick up on what you’re saying. The interior of your vehicle tends to be noisier than, say, your living room.  Even if you’re in a nice quiet EV or hybrid running on the electric motor, there is noise from the ambient traffic around you, bumps in the road and fans.  The noise increases if you’re in an ICE (internal combustion engine) vehicle or if your hybrid is running on the non-electric motor. This makes it hard for those voice recognition systems to make out what you’re saying. Heck, it can sometimes be hard for another human to make out what you’re saying in these conditions, as quite a few married couples probably already know.

The system also has trouble distinguishing the voice of the driver from the voices of the passengers, so if there are kids in the back trying to chatter away while you try to tell the navigation system to find you the nearest petrol station (or EV charging station) or call your mother, it won’t understand you.

Then there’s the problem with different voices.  I remember the first time I came across some voice recognition telephone system and trying a number of times to get the stupid machine to recognize me, only succeeding when I faked a really, really cheesy American accent.  Voice recognition systems are a whole lot better than they used to be but they still have problems.  They like what they consider to be a “normal” voice.  The trouble is that what a lot of these systems consider to be a “normal” voice is one with a standard accent.  Introduce a very broad regional accent (Scottish and Irish drivers, for example, have real problems) or a non-native speaker accent and voice recognition systems throw a wobbly.  A few researchers have also discovered that in-car voice recognitions systems have more problems with female voices than male voices.  Which explains why my Brazilian sister-in-law doesn’t use these features.

Navigation systems are the main place that people notice these glitches.  If you’ve programmed your system to go somewhere and it’s reading the directions out to you, it has to “guess” how to read the street names out, sometimes with hilarious results.  Or you try saying the name of some restaurant you want to find the way to but it fails to pick it up; these systems are fine with mainstream outlets like Starbucks but they go to pieces on niche and boutique places – think English pub names like The Goat and Compasses or French restaurants like Mon Petit Escargot (I made that one up).

These problems often mean that the users get frustrated and end up picking up the phone to do the dialling or the searching manually, which defeats the purpose of having the hands-free voice activated in-car tech in the first place.  Add in the fact that the users are probably getting frustrated by this stage and you’ll probably find that they’re driving less safely than they would if they just pressed a touchscreen in the first place.

However, the problems with voice recognition systems, in cars and out of them, have their funny side, so on that note I’ll leave you with this little clip…

It’s A Man’s World In The Crash Test Facility

Notice the design of the chest, biceps, neck and jaw…

Take a look at your typical crash dummy – the sort they use in the ANCAP and similar tests (see the photo, sourced from ANCAP).  Notice anything about them and what they’ve got in common?  Ten points (or should that be five stars?) for you if you noticed that a crash test dummy tends to look like a guy.  I don’t know if you can really refer to a crash test dummy as a male but it (he?) is definitely masculine.

Yes, indeed.  Skipping the whole thing about gender identity and all that, there are only two basic human skeleton and tissue types: the male sort and the female sort.  And, in case you haven’t been paying attention, they aren’t the same. Women (in general) have wider pelvises, narrower chins, a higher proportion of body fat, smaller hands and feet and thinner necks than men.  They’ve also got their centre of gravity in a different place.  When guys get a bit chubbier, they put it on their tummies; when women do the same, it goes on the butt and thighs.  Men have flat chests and even my A-cup sisters have boobs.  Women are, on average, shorter (yes, we’re talking typical and average here and I know perfectly well that there are tall women and short men).  Male bones are denser and have a higher proportion of muscle mass.  Women have a larger lumbar lordosis (the curve in the lower spine that lumbar support in the driver’s seat is supposed to fit snugly into), which means that their pelvis tilts at a slightly different angle, which affects the walk. In fact, high heels are designed to increase that lumbar lordosis, the tilt and the swaying walk. And the list goes on.

Unfortunately, in spite of the key role of my heroine Bertha Benz in getting the whole horseless carriage thing started, car designers have used “standard” or “typical” human figures when designing cars.  Unfortunately, as most car designers up until now have been guys, guess what they see as being “standard” or “typical”: the others sitting with them around the drawing board, who are all guys.

Surely, I’m not the only woman driver who has sat there fiddling with the lumbar support control and wondered why the heck it doesn’t come out any further because it’s not quite getting into the right place, and why the seat angle is never exactly right.  We tend to start playing around with cushions at this point.  As for the problems that crop up when you’re a female driver in the second and third trimesters of pregnancy, trying to negotiate a seat belt around the baby bump and the set of Pamela Andersons you’ve picked up… don’t even get me started!  Apparently, women sit in the “wrong” driving position when they’re behind the wheel.

However, the safety systems that have been put in place by car designers have been developed and tested with the standard crash test dummy. Which is based on the average male.  The smaller size, the different shape, the different centre of gravity, the different tissue density and all the rest of it means that a female body does not behave like a male body during a collision.  OK, they did try during the 1980s to introduce a feminine crash test dummy, but this (1) had the same proportions as the male ones but just scaled down rather than having curves and (2) is usually put in the passenger seat during crash tests.

Can we just pause and think about that for a second? When they do crash tests, they mostly put the female dummy in the passenger seat.  This was pointed out just last year by a pair of (female) Swedish road safety researchers*.  Crash tests, in general, assume that women don’t drive.  These tests weren’t being carried out in Saudi Arabia, for goodness sake!  What were they thinking?

A truth that’s even more inconvenient than Al Gore’s is that women have a much higher rate of being injured in a car crash than men.  Given the same speed and impact type, women get hurt worse.  The simple reason for this is because the cars’ safety features have been engineered and tested with the average male body in mind.

To take just one example, think of whiplash.  A lot of new cars have active head restraints that are designed to cradle the head and neck to prevent whiplash.  However, you can guess what these have been tested on most of the time.  In fact, when the NHTSA started using “female” crash dummies (which they started doing in 2003), they used them for the side impact tests… which aren’t quite such a problem for whiplash, given the vectors of the forces involved.  Now, no woman is Barbie but we do have thinner necks than guys.  In fact, if you’re an artist or cartoonist, one of the quickest ways to make a head and shoulders to look masculine or feminine is to adjust the proportions of the neck.

Women’s necks don’t have the muscle and sinew there that guys do, so our heads and necks don’t behave the same way during the sort of crash that is most likely to lead to whiplash.  Add in the fact that women aren’t “sitting right” in the driver’s seat because we’ve got different pelvises, plus the fact that seatbelts are hard to get right if you’ve got anything on your chest bigger than a B cup, which is the case for most women.  Heck, we all know that fitted T-shirts and jeans for men and women are cut differently, for goodness sake!  Given all these differences, and it’s no wonder that women’s rate of getting whiplash is much, much higher than that of guys.

I’m going to be charitable here and put forward the notion that the guys designing cars and doing the crash tests are nice guys at heart rather than a bunch of sexist pigs.  Perhaps the idea of using a crash test dummy that looks more like a real woman jars with their inner knights in shining armour and a plan to put even a replica of a damsel fitted with lots of sensors so you can see just how much distress she gets into is upsetting.  If this is the case, well, that’s sweet of you guys, but you’re actually not doing us any favours.

However, change is afoot and more and more women are getting into car design and the safety side of things, although anything like a 50–50 proportion in the workplace is a long way off.   Yet another (female) vehicle safety researcher from Sweden has looked at the stats and is developing a proper female crash test dummy with female proportions.  Known as EvaRID, this dummy is designed with the whiplash issue in mind.  You can hear Dr. Astrid Linder introduce this dummy in her TEDx talk (in English, don’t panic!):

As you can expect with those safety-minded Swedes, Volvo is getting on board with the E.V.A. initiative (which stands for Equal Vehicles for All as well as cleverly echoing the name of the dummy, which is the Swedish for Eve, the first woman).  The senior technical specialist at Volvo Cars Safety Centre, Dr. Lotta Jakobsson (yes, another Swedish woman), is doing her bit by collecting real world crash data and heading a design team to make cars just as safe for women as they are for men. In fact, Volvo’s existing WHIPS design was tested on the EvaRID dummy as well as on the male one (the name of the most recent one is Thor, continuing the Nordic theme), and Volvo’s getting right behind the initiative.  This makes me want to run out an buy a new Volvo right away.  However, as we saw many years ago with the invention of seatbelts, where Volvo goes, others are soon to follow.

The fact that the designers, modellers, engineers, researchers and analysts focusing on the gender differences happen to be mostly women is also noticeable, which is also an argument for encouraging just as many girls as guys to get into the field of engineering.  We don’t need to go to the extremes of having a vehicle that is designed solely to fit a woman’s body – although it sure would be a best-seller – but making sure that we don’t forget 50% of the population (and let’s not even get started on ethnic differences in body size and type) by ensuring that some of said 50% knows their stuff with engineering will make better cars for all humans.

And, gals, you’ve still got no excuse for not wearing a seatbelt even if sits badly on your chest, so buckle up!

* Linder, A., & Svedberg, W. (2018). Occupant safety assessment in European regulatory tests : review of occupant models, gaps and suggestion for bridging any gaps. Presented at the 18th International Conference Road Safety on Five Continents (RS5C 2018), Jeju Island, South Korea, May 16-18, 2018, Linköping. Retrieved from http://urn.kb.se/resolve?urn=urn:nbn:se:vti:diva-12886

Why Do They Bash British Leyland?

Come on, it’s not that ugly really.

 

 

If you, like me, enjoy picking up the odd coffee-table type of book from the motoring section in your local library (it’s in the low 600s in the Dewey system if you can’t find it), you’ve probably come across books that list bad, ugly and weird cars.  I love them.  However, I have noticed one wee tendency, both in these books and in series such as Top Gear (which my library also helpfully makes available in the motoring section of the library): the tendency to bash British Leyland vehicles.

What have they done to deserve this?  I mean, it’s not like other major marques haven’t had their share of absolute dogs. Dishonourable mention is usually made, in this motoring subgenre, of the abysmally ugly Ford Edsel, the notoriously flammable Ford Pinto, and all those Japanese cars with singularly bizarre names like Nissan Cedric, Mazda Bongo Brawny, Mazda Marvie Proceed, Subaru Touring Bruce and Mitsubishi Mini Urban Active Sandal.  In fact, nearly every big name turns up somewhere in this book I got from the library.  There’s usually a Lada or two in there somewhere as well.  But to hear the likes of Clarkson et al. talk, you’d think that British Leyland was an unmitigated disaster that never did anything right.

I mean, if a car company is really, really bad, it won’t last very long.  This was the fate of some other motoring horrors, such as Australia’s very own Lightburn Zeta (made by a washing machine company) that had no rear entry but did have an engine that, if you stopped it and restarted it, would work the engine in reverse, allowing you to go through the gears while travelling backwards.  That one didn’t last for very long.  Nor did Delorean, which is best known for its appearance in Back to the Future, Peel or Messerschmitt (who didn’t quite have the same aeroplane to car success as Saab and BMW).

However, British Leyland was BIG, and not just because it was a government-owned enterprise.  You’d think it was a sure-fire recipe for success: take wildly successful brands like Mini, Jaguar and Rover (which are still going strong) and some others that were equally popular like Austin, Triumph and Morris and you’re bound to have a winner, right?

Well, it worked on paper.  However, industrial relations in the UK in the 1970s and early 1980s weren’t exactly stellar, though I guess they were a hang of a lot better than what went on at Ford in the 1930s.  Throw in a bright spark up the top who decided that it was time to move on from the old classics and along came the vehicles that everybody loves to bash.

The vehicles that are notorious for ruining the reputation of British Leyland are the Austin Allegro and the Morris Marina.  So what was so bad about them?

The Austin Allegro made a couple of styling mistakes.  In the mid-1970s, vehicle styling was turning to the edgy and linear but the Allegro kept things curvy, earning it the nickname of a “poached egg on wheels”.  The steering wheel, however, was what we’d now call a squoval or a square with rounded off corners.  Apart from that… well, it’s hard to say exactly why the Allegro has such a bad reputation really.  It didn’t come in a hatchback version and the hydroelastic suspension was a bit on the wobbly side.  It picked up a reputation for picking up rust easily but it actually wasn’t too bad compared with others of its time.  Mechanically, it was adequate enough and that suspension did make it corner pretty well.

As a former owner of an Allegro, I’d have to say that it suffered from the reverse of Kardashian syndrome – instead of being famous for being famous, it was notorious for being notorious.  It was, however, one of the top selling cars in the UK all through the 1970s.  It was more a case of being the wrong car at the wrong time.  These days, that curvy styling and the slightly square wheel would be right on trend.

Then there was the Morris Marina.  I’ve owned one of these as well, for all of two weeks until it died.  This one did deserve its poor reputation and in many ways, its quality tarnished Leyland as a whole and it took the otherwise reasonable Allegro down with it.  The Marina really understeered and it really did have the bad rust problems.  It handled atrociously.  This is what happens if you try to rush something into the market when you’ve got a bunch of disgruntled employees.

These days, especially for those of us who entered the world at about the same time as the Allegro, the Marina and all the others of that era, they do have a certain charm, in spite of the vinyl seats and lack of safety features.  This could be a case of nostalgia, or it could be a case of perspective: after all, is there anything really wrong with unfashionable styling?  Or maybe not.  Sometimes, ugly is just plain ugly.

But I really don’t think that British Leyland deserves its poor reputation and the Allegro certainly doesn’t.  As for the Marina, well, that’s another story!

The book in question, in case you want to get hold of a copy for yourself, is “Total Lemons. One Hundred and Eleven Heroic Failures of Motoring” by Tony Davis, published by ABC Books, ISBN 978-0-7333-3086-5 (paperback) 978-0-7304-9983-1 (ebook).  Enjoy.