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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.

Warning Signs I’d Like To See On The Dashboard

Modern cars and even not-so-modern cars have warning signs on the dashboard that light up like Christmas trees at the slightest provocation.  However, unlike Christmas trees or fairy lights, the emotion experienced when one sees a dashboard warning light twinkling away isn’t one of joy but more like one of “Oh, heck!” to put it politely.

There seems to be warning signs for just about anything these days, which is why a few new cars use head-up displays for displaying the really important stuff.  Some of the warning signs monitor you, rather than the car, such as the tiredness recognition system in some new Mercedes models. These apparently look at your facial expression and behaviour and can use some fancy algorithm to figure out if you are getting sleepy.  The larrikin in me would probably want to mess with one of these systems by pulling faces at the camera, or seeing if I could fake tiredness well enough to fool the system (a challenge for any would-be actor or actress).

However, there are probably a few more warning lights or systems that could be handy to have amid the myriad of other ones. I daresay that someone somewhere has already thought of these, and has possibly created an app for them that will use your phone to talk to a car’s display system.

Seatbelt warning light 2.0. Yes, I know these already exist and have been around for a wee while.  However, most of them just say that the driver doesn’t have his/her seat belt plugged in properly. However, the EU is requiring new cars from this year forward to have warning lights and sounds for the front passenger seat and possibly for rear seats as well, although rear seats only get a beep and/or light if the buckle is undone while travelling.  I can understand the need for the “buckle undone during travel” trigger, as I’m not the only person who’s put a load on the back seat, and the big bag of dog biscuits, the hefty haul of library books and/or the groceries probably weigh as much as a small child.  What I’d like to see in these new and improved warning light systems, speaking from experience as a parent, is a system that lets the driver know WHICH seatbelt is undone, especially in an MPV, to avoid the “OK, which one of you has undone their seatbelt?” “It’s not me, Mum; it’s Jessica!” “Tis not!” arguments.

Cabin air quality sensors.  This wouldn’t be so much a warning light as a system. It’s no fun to be stuck in a car with a passenger who has had a meal of beans, onions and eggs with helping of some nice healthy brassica on the side, if you get my drift.  A flatulent dog in the luggage compartment of a station wagon or even a hatchback can be bad enough to cause a distraction when you’re driving.  In my dreams, this sensor and system would detect when the methane or sulphurous compounds in the air cabin reach a critical level, and would then open the vents a bit wider and get that smell out of there.  A warning light would probably be needed so that you don’t wonder what the heck has gone wrong with the climate control system.

Toilet reminder. Related to the previous one, I’m surely not the only person who’s been a passenger on a long car journey who’s politely and quietly asked the driver to stop at the next handy public convenience or large bush, depending on the location, only to have the driver completely forget about it and keep on driving straight past one, leaving you in desperation. You don’t want to sound like a whiny little kid going “I need to pee!” every two minutes but being forced to hang on for far too long isn’t brilliant for the plumbing.  If a system can detect that the driver is getting sleepy, it can detect that the passenger (or the driver) is fidgeting about in the seat, jiggling and all those other strategies that we use once we’ve grown out of wetting our pants – and it can take over the job of reminding the driver that somebody is in desperate need of the loo.  Or the passenger can activate the warning system so it can do the embarrassing job of reminding the driver.  Perhaps this system could work in with the GPS to give directions to the nearest convenience.

Passenger G-force calculator: Another rather irritating habit of drivers, from the passengers’ perspective, is to barrel around corners quite fast.  Yes, the car can handle it and is designed to do this.  However, as more than one passenger has grumbled, the driver has the steering wheel to hold onto and can anticipate all the upcoming G-forces involved in a corner.  A passenger often gets taken unawares and may not be ready for that fast corner, with spilled coffee being the result some of the time.  And if we had two other siblings, we probably all remember the game of Squash The Person In The Middle When Cornering on the back seat during trips along winding country roads.  If a car can detect that there’s a passenger in the front seat, then it should be able to work out whether he or she will get thrown about during fast cornering and remind the driver of this, or possibly work in with the suspension or even seat positioning to minimise the passenger getting chucked about as much.

I’m sure there could be others invented.  What are some that you’d like to have?

 

Little Maintenance Jobs You Need To Do Right Now

You’re probably quite good at taking care of the big things when it comes to servicing your vehicle, such as keeping up with the regular services and the oil changes and the like. You definitely know not to run out of fuel – or battery charge, depending on whether your drive of choice is an EV or an ICE.  I hope you’re in the habit of checking the oil and the water regularly to keep an eye on things.  Back when I got my first car, my dad told me that oil and water ought to be checked once a week, which seems a bit over the top now, but I guess that my first car, like yours, was an old thing that’s probably a real collector’s item by now (wonder what happened to it once I sold it).

However, there are probably some little jobs that you don’t really think about doing quite so regularly.  There certainly aren’t little red, green or orange lights that light up your dashboard like a Christmas tree for them, with a few exceptions in some models.  But they still need to be done to make sure that you drive safely.  I know that I need to take care of some of them on my recently acquired Toyota Camry , as the previous owner had neglected to do so.  In fact, I probably ought to go and do them as soon as I’ve finished writing this.

  1. Change the wiper blades. Wipers wear out over time and when they do, they don’t do quite as good a job of removing rain, etc. from your windscreen. You do not want to find out that they aren’t removing everything when you’re driving behind a heavy truck on a rainy day and the truck spins up the contents of a muddy puddle all over your windscreen.

    If you can relate to this, you need new wiper blades.

  2. Top up the fluid in the windscreen washer reservoir. Related to the previous task, if you need to wash a splattered insect off the middle of your field of vision, then you’ll need to have something in that little tank.  You can use a proprietary product designed for washing windows, water with a splodge of dishwashing detergent in it or just plain water, depending on your fancy.  Just make sure that something is in there.
  3. Clean the inside of the windscreen. The inside of your windscreen might look clean but it can accumulate a fair amount of grime from whatever mysterious source it comes from. Unlike the outside of your windscreen, which gets regular washes and can be cleaned with the click of your wiper switch, the inside gets overlooked. However, all that mystery gunge will show up very strongly and will interfere with your ability to see the road when the sun strikes it at the right angle, which often happens in winter. The best way to remove that annoying film of whatever-it-is is with a soft cloth, either a proper chamois or a microfibre cloth or even an old cotton T-shirt. Don’t use wet wipes or anything that will leave a residue. Yes, I have made this mistake in the past.
  4. Make sure the spare tyre is in good condition. So you got a flat tyre a few weeks ago and had to change the tyre. However, what with the demands of daily life, it’s easy to make the mistake of just keeping on driving and forgetting that the tyre you put into the compartment under the boot (or on the back of your 4×4) is flat as a tortilla.  Best get it seen to ASAP so you don’t get caught out. Even if you haven’t had to change a tyre recently, then you should still keep an eye on that spare tyre to make sure that it is ready for you if you do get a puncture.
  5. Put a first aid kit in the glovebox. Even if you don’t get into a ding of some sort, you never want to be without a first aid kit, especially if you do a fair bit of driving on rural roads like I do.  If your main driving takes the form of Mum’s Taxi Service, then having a few sticking plasters, bandages, disinfectant, tweezers and paracetamol tablets handy will be useful now and again.
  6. Take the collection of second-hand clothes to the charity shop. Every kilo of extra clobber in the boot or on the back seat is an extra kilo that your engine has to work to shift. To improve your fuel economy, better actually drop that bag of old shoes and clothes into one of those bins or at the shop door itself.  The same principle applies to all the other odds and ends that accumulate inside the luggage compartments.

No procrastination now!  These might seem like small jobs but a lot of them are important to ensure that you can drive safely.

Now, where’s that jug that’s got just the right spout for the windscreen wash compartment?

Give Me A Brake

Imagine that you’re driving along a typical suburban street.  A movement to the side catches your eye and you spot somebody’s dog off the leash madly rushing full tilt down a driveway, barking madly at the cat across the road.  Next thing you know, Doggo is rushing into the road.  Without thinking, your right foot darts off the accelerator and hard onto the brake.  Your car screeches to a standstill, stopping short of that lunatic of a dog and shoving you hard against your seatbelt.  You growl something about idiotic animals and people who can’t control their dogs, then keep on going, barely thinking about the mechanical miracle that has just taken place.

Brakes. We take them for granted, especially after we’ve been driving for a few years.  However, they are super-important for safety.  Imagine what it would be like without them.  You might have had a small taste of this sort of thing as a child if you screamed downhill on a scooter or skateboard (or, in my case, a bike with worn-out brake pads) – that feeling of being out of control and knowing that gravity will accelerate you faster and that there’s no way of checking or slowing that thing down.

Needless to say, brakes pre-date cars.  Steam trains needed them and so did stagecoaches, and the basic principle behind all brakes is the same.  The vehicle is moving because the wheels are turning, so to stop it moving or to slow that motion down, one needs to slow the wheels down. This is done by clamping something large and hard onto the wheel, which produces friction that soaks up the kinetic energy of the wheels. And this is the first and most important mechanical principle behind any brake: friction.  The bigger the surface area applied to the turning wheels and the more force it’s applied with, the more quickly the turning stops.

In your car, the friction is applied by disc brakes, which have been around since Citroën put them on mass produced cars in 1955.  Disc brakes consist of a metal disc that’s incorporated into the wheel. You can have a powerful pair of callipers that grab this disc as it spins and slow the turning that way.  You can think of it as a more sophisticated adaptation of your old bike brakes: instead of grabbing the whole rim, it grabs something near the centre. The callipers are fitted with brake pads that are usually made of tough rubber, which absorbs heaps of force and can handle heat – and you need to make sure that you replace your brake pads on a regular basis, as they do wear out over time and you’re sunk without them.  You’ve also got drum brakes (or disc and drum), where a stationary disk covered with an energy absorbing lining, known as a shoe, presses against the disc, applying the necessary friction.

A lot of kinetic energy and a lot of momentum are involved in a moving car.  However, it takes the subtlest bit of pressure to slow a vehicle from, say, 100 km/h to 85 km/h as you approach a corner.  If your average mid-sized sedan has a mass of 1600 kg and the equation for velocity is K = (m × v2)/2… you’ll have gone from 617.83 kilojoules to 445.98 kilojoules or a difference of 171 kJ.  This is equivalent to roughly the energy expended by a petite woman doing slow dancing for quarter of an hour… and you sure didn’t apply that much with that little twitch of your foot. Obviously, something’s happened to amplify what your feet and legs did or the car wouldn’t have responded one iota.

The next mechanical principle that kicks in is the one discovered by Archimedes and I don’t mean the one that saw him running through the streets in the nude shouting “Eureka!” after his bathtub overflowed.  I mean the “Give me a long enough lever and a firm place to stand, and I can move the world.” In other words, the lever principle. One tiny movement on the short end leads to a lot of movement on the long end.  This is certainly at play in your brake system but amplification comes in the form of fluid courtesy of the principles of hydraulics.  Don’t make me go into the equations for hydraulics, as that’s university-level physics and I didn’t study that.

Fluids can’t be squashed, which is how water pistols work. Actually, a water pistol is a good place to start understanding the principles of hydraulics. You couldn’t throw water with one finger very far or with much force, but by applying pressure to that water, you can get quite a bit of water going a fair distance, preferably onto your big brother’s face.  The main force goes from your brake pedal to the master cylinder, which converts the force of your foot into hydraulic pressure, like your finger on the trigger of a water pistol.  The brake fluid then exerts pressure on the slave cylinders (one for each wheel that has the brakes) and the slaves apply the brake drum or the callipers, and everything kicks in to slow the vehicle down.

There are a lot of moving parts involved and naturally, given the nature of things, the business end of the brake will wear out over time.  And they will need to be replaced, so you really don’t want to try cheating or skipping on this important part of car maintenance.

If, for whatever reason, you’re in the scary situation where any of these systems fails, here’s what you do:

Blowing Hot And Cold: The Role Of The Radiator

When you take a look under the hood of your car, an awful lot of the space in there is taken up with the cooling system – that’s if you’ve got a vehicle that gets its motive power from an internal combustion engine (ICE).  In fact, the complexity and the importance of the cooling system in an ICE vehicle – and the consequences for your car engine if something goes wrong with it – is one of the things that makes electric vehicles look very attractive.

The topic is on my mind somewhat, as last week saw me standing around at the mechanic’s garage looking at a faulty radiator and getting the bad news that my old 4×4 was terminally ill.  It was at that moment that even though I live in a rural area where the range of electric vehicles isn’t practical, I liked the idea of EVs, as they have none of the radiator-related hassles.  (The 4×4 is going to be replaced by a smaller Toyota Camry, as I never took the 4×4 off-road all that much, but that’s another story).

Anyway, enough about me and let’s get onto radiators.

In an ICE vehicle, the rotational motion needed to turn the wheels is produced by a controlled explosion pushing a piston up and down.  If you’ve ever used petrol or diesel to get a sluggish bonfire going, then you’ve probably seen just how explosive these fuels are and how much heat is released.  In fact, quite a lot of the chemical potential energy contained in these fossil fuels – or their biofuel equivalents – is converted into heat energy rather than kinetic (motion) energy.  Actually, probably most of it goes to heat energy, which is why an ICE isn’t a terribly efficient machine, as the amount of energy going in (in the form of chemical potential energy) is nowhere near the amount of kinetic energy going out – and some gets lost as sound energy as well.  For your information, the most efficient machine in terms of the ratio of energy out to energy in is a bicycle… and we don’t really mind if it burns a few more kilojoules in this case.

All that heat energy has to go somewhere or before long, it will melt the engine.  It was heat that got the metal of the engine out of the rocks it came from and into the shape that it is now, after all.  Nobody wants that, so the aim is to get the heat away from the engine and somewhere else where it won’t do any damage.  Most modern engines use a liquid cooling system rather than air cooling, as heating up water soaks up a few more joules. It takes more energy to heat water than to heat air, as we’ve all found out on sunny days in spring when the air is warm but if you try taking a dip in an outdoor swimming pool or the sea, the water still feels like ice.  The solution is to have a bunch of pipes running through and around the engine and these will take the heat away from the engine and somewhere else.  Add in coolant that has an even higher boiling point than water and you can soak up even more heat.

There’s one small problem, and that’s the fact that if water boils, it turns to steam, which, as Isaac Watt noticed with his mother’s kettle all those years ago, expands and exerts a force on what’s around it.  This is how a steam engine works (and makes you wonder if an ICE–steam hybrid is possible: something that relies on the ICE driving the pistons until it builds up a good head of steam and then uses the steam).  However, putting water under pressure increases the boiling point, which is why water boils at low temperatures at altitude.  Of course, too much pressure will blow the hoses as well, so there’s a little regulator that keeps it just right.

If the water stayed put, it would boil quickly, so an extra trick is to keep the water moving.  This is what the job of the water pump is: it moves the water through the system so the water has a chance to shed that heat energy somewhere once it’s away from the business department of the engine.

Once the water has moved away from the explosive part of the engine carrying the excess heat energy, it needs to get rid of that heat before it’s pumped around again.  This is where the radiator comes in.  The radiator has the important job of dissipating the heat energy to the atmosphere.  The core of the radiator consists of a honeycomb of little tubes, usually made of aluminium, which has good heat transfer properties.  The aim of the game is to have lots of surface area to maximise the amount of air that can be exposed to the heat and take it away into the general atmosphere.  To ensure that the air in question goes away from the engine rather than towards it, there’s a fan or two in place to whirr it in the right direction; pretty amazing when you think of the speed at which the car’s travelling.

If the weather is a bit chilly, then the people inside the cabin of the car would actually like to have a bit of that hot air, thank you very much. This is where the car’s heating system comes in.  This takes a bit of the water from the system and puts it through another core – the radiator’s mini-me – and blows it through the vents into the cabin so you can warm up your cold pinkies and toesies – and get the mist off the windscreen so you can see where you’re going.  It’s all interconnected, reminding me somewhat of how your blood circulates.  In the case of my poor old 4×4, the heater suddenly deciding not to blow hot air was the equivalent of a nasty pain in the left shoulder radiating down the arm…

Actually, using your blood circulation system isn’t a bad analogy.  In either case, if there’s a blockage or if something blows because the pressure isn’t right, you’ve got serious, serious trouble.  Blood does indeed help your human engine regulate its temperature and it does this by restricting the flow to extremities when the thermometer does down, which is why it’s your fingers and toes that get cold first.  To get rid of excess heat, the body also does the “increase the surface area” thing, which is why your face gets red when you’re toasty.

Of course, if the weather cold outside and you’re putting on the hats, thick socks and gloves to stop uncomfortable heat loss into the surrounding air, then there’s a chance that the water inside the system will freeze up inside the radiator – as the laws of thermodynamics tell us, heat goes from the hotter thing to the colder thing, even if the “hotter” thing is at 1°C and the colder thing is at –4°C.  Frozen water won’t flow, so you get a blockage in the radiator system, which you don’t want.  It gets worse, too: water expands when it freezes (the only substance to do so) and it can bust any part of the cooling system it fancies in this case.  The solution is to add antifreeze, which has a lower freezing point than water.  Amazingly, the most common antifreeze, ethylene glycol, also acts as the coolant, as it has a higher boiling point and a lower freezing point.

It’s a complicated system – which is why if you haven’t checked the fluids in your engine lately or given the system a proper flush out as part of servicing, then you won’t get as much out of your ICE as you ought to.  Don’t ever neglect this part of car maintenance and don’t say I didn’t warn you!

EV Vs HV

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It’s time for the big showdown between the two rivals hoping to knock internal combustion engines off the top spot in the world of automotive power. (cue drumrolls, flashing lights blaring heavy metal music and a hyperventilating commentator).  In the green corner, we have… Electricity!  In the other green corner, we have… Hydrogen!  Which of these two mighty rivals will win the title for best engine type and come out champion and win the Green Energy title?

OK, settle down.  Deep breath and time for me to stop channelling the pro wrestling I watched the other night when I was in need of a good laugh.  Right, that’s better.  Now to continue with a discussion of whether hydrogen-powered vehicles or EVs are the best.

Of course, one has to look at all aspects of motoring to decide what’s best. What’s more, when it comes to individual decisions as to what car you want to buy and drive, your personal priorities will come into play. So, without further ado, let the contest begin…

Environmental impact and emissions: On the road from the end-user perspective, it’s a draw.  Running EVs and hydrogen doesn’t pump out pollution or greenhouse gases.  However, the way that the electricity is generated or the hydrogen gas is produced may have to be taken into account. If the widespread uptake of EVs means that power companies have to fire up otherwise disused old coal- or gas-fired generators, EVs might not be all that green.  If the power comes from hydro, wind or solar, then it’s all good.  Similarly with hydrogen: if the process of getting said hydrogen into a fuel form can be done without chewing through non-renewables or pumping out nasties, then it’s all good – and we’re working on that, as we’ve discussed in an earlier post.

Maintenance: Assuming that you can find a mechanic that can deal with EVs (there are more of these knocking around these days) and/or hydrogen vehicles (we need a nice little abbreviation for these: what about HVs?), this is another draw.  Both types of vehicle have fewer moving parts than what’s needed in an ICE (internal combustion engine) – both involve electric motors that create rotational motion directly rather than relying on a controlled explosion to push a piston that turns into rotational motion.  Fewer moving parts means less friction, which means less wear and tear.  However, to be fair, EVs and HVs haven’t been around quite as long, so we will have to wait a bit and see what happens as they get older.

Accessibility: OK, here EVs win hands down.  Charging points can be found in all sorts of places and every time I go to my favourite holiday spot, I come across a new charger where there wasn’t one before.  You can also get charging points for your home so you can charge an EV overnight.  Although our very own CSIRO are working on ways to make transportation and storage of hydrogen easier, we still don’t have very many hydrogen bowsers out there… or at least not yet.

Cost: At the moment, electricity is cheaper to get than hydrogen fuel, so this is another win for EVs.

Time: As a lot of you have already discovered, it can take quite a while to charge the battery of an EV up to full, kind of like it does with your phone or laptop. Even the very fastest superchargers take half an hour to get a battery to 100%. However, hydrogen pumps as easily as petrol or diesel, and you all know how quick that is, so HVs win here.

Range: Another very clear win for hydrogen. In 2017, the Toyota Mirai clocked up 502 km, while a test version of a Tesla picked up somewhere between 397 and 506 km.  In practice and with everyday people driving, the range of HVs tends to be a lot longer than that of EVs.

Specs:

The Telsa Roadster (due for release in 2020) boasts some specs that make all the other supercars, muscle cars and hypercars look like Granny’s little runabout: 0–62 mph (that’s about the same as 100 km/h)) in 1.9 seconds, a top speed of 250 MILES per hour and a reputed 10,000 Nm of torque according to Elon Musk.  Yes, I’m counting those zeroes as well and wondering if that’s for real.  A nice nerd has explained how this figure might be a wee bit misleading, as Tesla’s talking about wheel torque, not engine torque:

On the HV front, the Pininfarina H2 Speed racing machine claims to do the 0–62 mph sprint in 3.4 seconds and has a top speed of 300 km/h and a maximum power output (from four engines combined) of 480 kW; torque figures are hard to come by.

Actually, I would quite like to see a real head-to-head race between the Pininfarina H2 Speed and the Tesla Roadster, and not just because it would be cool to see the Tesla’s acceleration in action.  One of the things that puts me off traditional motor racing a bit is the engine noise and the smell of the fumes, but when electricity and hydrogen compete, these would be totally gone and that’s the whole point of EVs and HVs.  We can probably say now that the Tesla would win the sprint, but over a longer race, the quicker refuelling time of the H2 Speed might make up for this.

 

* Credit where credit is due.  Some of these stats and comparisons have been taken from a 2017 issue of How It Works magazine (issue 105); there have been some developments in both corners since then!

Wacky Concepts From The 2019 Geneva Motor Show

Motor shows have a number of attractions.  The most important part of them is the introduction and the unveiling of new models by all the big manufacturers.  This is where we get to see what’s going to be hitting the roads at some point in the near future.  It’s where we see where the future of motoring is going.

However, as well as all the sensible new suggestions, there are always the offbeat contributions.  And you’ve got to admit that having a look at the weird stuff that designers have proposed is part of the fun of any good motor show worth its salt.  One needs a bit of comic relief, after all!

Geneva 2019 didn’t disappoint in either regard, even though some of the big names like Ford, Jaguar and Volvo didn’t put in an appearance.  There were plenty of good practical offerings up for the viewers, most of which fell into the EV category, as this is the way that Europe is going (here’s hoping that they have the capacity to generate electricity to match).  The ones that are slated for release in Australia will eventually make it onto our reviews page for those who want to know more and would like to own them – and I hope that the Audi Q4 e-tron makes it down here, for one.

There were also hot sports cars galore from all the big names.  Ferrari and Bugatti did not disappoint, showcasing a couple of hot hypercars that looked every bit as cool as they ought to be.

Naturally, there were the more entertaining elements and concepts as well.  Here’s some of the beauties that raised eyebrows for their quirkiness.

GFG Kangaroo

This is an SUV. No, honestly; that’s what the designers say that it is, which shows you just how flexible the term “SUV” is these days.  The GFG Kangaroo concept SUV might look like a sports car but it’s got flexible suspension to give it extra ground clearance whenever you want it, and those cool front splitters that look like a boy racer’s favourite dream are retractable, which improves the approach angle so you can drive this up a slope.  This isn’t just some mock-up idea – the manufacturers actually made a driveable prototype and got it to do what it’s supposed to do. Well, bonus points to them for actually giving it a go and who knows?

Citroen Ami One

Designed with the legendary 2CV in mind as well as hip young Parisians who don’t want to ride the local equivalent of a Lime scooter on a cold rainy day, the Citroen Ami One might look like a car but is technically classified as a quadricycle. This means that one doesn’t need a proper driver’s license to drive it – though you’d think that the ability to parallel park, obey the give way rules and indicate properly would still be needed.  It’s got two seats, the display panel and sound system require you to drop your smartphone into the special slot, and its top speed is 28 mph (that’s about 45 km/h).

Fiat Centoventi

Named after the Italian word for 120 (the number of years that Fiat has been in business), the Centroventi is a vehicle that aims to be as customisable and modular as a computer if not more so.  The best idea with the modular concept would have to be the extra battery slots so you can extend the range by dropping in another battery if you want to (apparently, the idea was inspired by the way that you can add extra memory cards or drives to your computer for more data if you want to).  The general idea is that you start with the basic all-white idea, then order the customizable accessories you want to personalise it… and you fit the accessories yourself.  It also has a big display on the rear so you can send messages to those behind you.

Nissan IMQ

I wasn’t sure whether to leave this one off the list of weird offerings or whether to wait and see if it made it into production for the Aussie market, but came down on the side of weirdness. The word the designers had in mind in this potential replacement for the Qashqai was “kabuku”,which, so I am told, means “to embrace the unusual”.  Looks-wise, it is weird, especially in the interior.  The outside is something that looks vaguely familiar in outline but with lots of angular features but inside?  What’s with those seats?  They don’t look like the usual armchair styles but have gone in for minimalist things that look like they’re floating.  They look like something from a classic sci-fi movie.  One would definitely want to give it the bum-on-seat test to see if they’re comfy or not, because they don’t look all that inviting even if they have been properly ergonomically designed.  The interior also features textures galore.  Most bizarre is the steering wheel, if you can call something that’s shaped like the side view of a wonky loaf of bread a wheel.  I’m sure it all works but… it’s a lot to wrap the mind around.

SEAT Minimo

Continuing the theme of little dinky-wees, the Minimo also can’t make up its mind whether it’s a car or a glorified bicycle. It seats two but the passenger goes behind rather than beside the driver.  The idea is to reduce congestion by having a vehicle that takes up less space.  But where do you put your groceries?

 

 

The EV From Down Under

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

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

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

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

ACE Cargo

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

Ace Yewt

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

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

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

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