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Weird Stuff

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…

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 Right Cars For Your Inner Geek

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Has Steam Gone Walkabout?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


In Praise Of Old-School Windows

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Safe and happy driving, especially near deep water!

The Fine Art of Waving

Well, I hope that 2019 has started well for you.  If you are reading this while still out on a road trip, good for you!

I also covered a few miles over the holiday season, driving to visit relatives as well as to get a bit of R & R.  While toddling around the place and occasionally zooming around the place, it came to my attention that when you’re driving in rural areas, it seems to be the done thing to wave to other drivers… but not if the traffic’s heavy.  There seems to be some sort of unwritten code about waving at other drivers.  Well, it’s about time that this code got written down!

The first rule seems to be that like waves to like.  You don’t see car drivers waving to truckers, truckers waving to motorcyclists or motorcyclists waving to car drivers.  However, truckers wave to truckers, car drivers to car drivers, and motorcyclists to other motorcyclists.  There are a few exceptions to this rule.  Small children riding as passengers are allowed to wave at anybody and should be waved back to because it’s a nice thing to do and provides a bit of a human connection during a long boring trip in the back of the car while visiting Grandma.  Truckers and motorcyclists are also allowed to wave back to children on the side of the road who wave to them.  The other exceptions to the “like waves to like” rule are (a) if someone has pulled over to let you pass or done something else nice and (b) if you recognize the other driver.  Actually, these last two exceptions always apply: one always acknowledges friends and extra courteous behaviour.

Waving is also only done to oncoming vehicles. You do not wave to vehicles that you’re overtaking or who are overtaking you.  You also do not wave to stationary vehicles or to vehicles in the lane beside you.  Only oncoming drivers count.

The next rule for waving as a car driver is that it only really takes place in rural areas and in places where the traffic isn’t heavy.  We don’t wave to each oncoming vehicle in the city – in the city, we tend to see other cars as impersonal things coming towards us as we travel along in our little metal bubbles.  In the country, however, another driver is another human in a large and mostly empty landscape.  If rural traffic is heavy for whatever reason – congested interstate highways and the roads leading to music festivals, for example – then waving is optional.

Thinking about this, it would be kind of fun to extend the “like waves to like” rule to city driving as well, just to add a bit more of a personal side to things. After all, driving is becoming more and more automated these days, and we spend so much time connecting with others via screens, so a bit more contact with real humans is always welcome.  However, you don’t want to spend half your driving time waving.  I therefore propose the following: in the city, you can wave to other cars with the same make, model and colour as yours.  Like calling “Snap!”  This kind of happens already in the case of classic cars and in the case of somewhat less common vehicles.  But let’s all give it a go!

In fact, Nissan had a campaign a few years back (in 2011, in fact) trying to come up with an official wave for drivers of the LEAF  hybrid to give other LEAF drivers.  A hunt through the Nissan Electric Facebook page  suggests that the results were inconclusive but at least they tried…  Maybe they tried too hard.

Let us now turn back to the typical wave from driver to driver on a rural road.  How does one do it?  Fully taking one hand off the wheel and sticking it out the window while waving frantically is only saved for when you see a friend driving the other way.  If you do it at a stranger, you’re a bit of a weirdo and you’ve transgressed the code of behaviour.

There seem to be different types of wave.  All of them are considered polite acknowledgements of fellow drivers and you are free to choose any style that suits you.  If you are particularly bored and want to keep the passengers amused, get them to keep a score and see which one is the most popular.

  • The nod: This is the most basic acknowledgement of the humanity of another driver. This is done by quickly bowing one’s head forward or in the direction of the other driver (i.e. on a slight diagonal).  Used by more introverted people, staunch silent types and those who like to have both hands on the wheel at all times.
  • The single finger: No, not THAT single finger salute! This is the polite version and is a bit more visible than the nod.  This involves straightening the index finger (pointer) of one hand or the other (usually the right hand – but I’m right-handed.  Do lefties raise the pointer of their left hands?).  All other fingers stay curled around the steering wheel.
  • The flap: This is an extension of the single finger wave. Instead of just one finger uncurling and leaving the wheel, all fingers plus the thumb open up while the heel of the hand rests on the steering wheel, giving the oncoming driver a brief flash of palm.
  • The full hand: The whole hand leaves the steering wheel and is raised no further than head height. The palm faces the oncoming driver.
  • The karate chop: Here, the hand leaves the wheel can be lifted as high as high as the head or even slightly above it, but only the side of the hand is presented to the oncoming driver rather than the palm.  It’s kind of like a sloppy military salute.

What about not waving?  Is this acceptable?  The code here states that if the other person doesn’t wave to you, you don’t have to wave back.  However, if someone waves to you, it’s polite to wave back.  If you fail to wave back, you will be judged, often according to what you drive.  If you are driving a new(ish) luxury model, you will be perceived as a stuck-up snob who sees themselves as better than anybody else on the road.  If you are in a muscle car, you’re considered a power-obsessed jerk who thinks they own the road.  If you’re in a battered old vehicle, you’re considered to be a bum and a lout with no manners.  If you own a small hatchback, you’re considered to be a selfish millennial/old fogy.  If you drive none of the above, you’re just considered to be rude.  Children (or possibly other passengers if you’re bored enough) are then permitted to poke out tongues or do other rude hand signs at the non-wavers, preferably once they’ve passed out of sight or just as you’re passing each other.

Have a great summer of driving and always be courteous. Including waving.

The Right Car For Your Dog Part 2

OK, in my previous post on this topic, I covered the legal stuff to do with taking dogs in cars.  Now we get to the fun bit: what sort of vehicle suits your furry friend.  Or friends, as the case may be.

When I first started thinking about matching dogs to cars, I just about wrote sedans (saloons) off from the start.  After all, you don’t really want a dog on the back seat standing up where it can snuffle down the back of your neck while you’re driving.  Nor do you want to have scratchy doggy paws on lovely Nappa leather seats, because that would wreck them (the seat upholstery, I mean, not the paws!).  However, I remember taking the Staffordshire Bull Terrier we used to have (RIP, old fellow!) in a sedan without any trouble.  He was quite happy curling up in the footwell for most trips and didn’t try to sit on people’s laps (unlike the current bitzer).  During longer trips, we also put him in one of those doggy carrying crates that sat nicely between my two children in the back seat of the sedan we had back then (probably a Ford Fairmont), which had the added advantage of stopping them hitting each other during long trips.  What’s more, if you do have a sedan with leather seats in your possession already when you acquire a new puppy, there’s no need to sell the car – you can put down a nice blanket or doggy bed for Fido to occupy during the trip.

If you do decide that a sedan is the best for you, then I really do recommend one of those doggy carrying crates.  They do stop your dog deciding to stretch his or her legs by bouncing all around the place inside the cabin on a long journey, and you can fit a snack for your dog in there.  They’re also easier to clean in the case of little accidents – meaning accidents of the canine kind, not car accidents.

It’s obvious where the dog will ride if you have a hatchback, station wagon, 4×4 or ute. But it’s not quite as simple as that.  There is a certain style that one has to consider and it’s nice if you can find a harmonious match between the dog(s) and the vehicle.  You don’t see poodles or Chihuahuas standing on the deck of a ute (safely leashed, of course), bouncing up and down and yapping squeaky yaps at everybody going past.  Jack Russell terriers and fox terriers maybe.  But not poodles or Chihuahuas – or anything else small and fluffy (e.g. Bichons) or super-glamorous (Afghan hounds). The sort of dog that looks right on the back of a Toyota Hilux  or a Nissan Navara  is something rugged and tough and suggestive of the great outdoors – a farm dog (which aren’t an official Kennel Club breed but we all know what they look like) or a Dobermann or even a Labrador.  Conversely, although a Great Dane might fit in the back of a little hatchback – if the back seats are folded flat – this is going to be just too much dog in one car.  Besides, where are you going to put any passengers or your shopping where they won’t get slobbered on?

To give you an idea of how this works, here’s a list of the 10 most popular breeds in Australia (2017 statistics – the figures aren’t out for 2018 yet) matched the most appropriate general vehicle type:

Labrador Retriever:  Your Labs are medium-large dogs and although they can fit in the back of a hatchback or across the back seat, they look best in something larger.  It’s a cliché, but the suburban family SUV or MPV is a good match for the suburban family pooch.

Staffordshire Bull Terrier: A smaller dog that fits cosily into the back of even a 3-door hatch but doesn’t look weird tied on the deck of a ute, so a Staffie suits all vehicle types. However, as a short-coated dog that’s a big softy in spite of the tough looks, a Staffie would prefer to be inside the vehicle on a rainy day.  A hatchback suits a Staffie just fine.

French Bulldog:  Compact, French and a little bit quirky.  I have just described one of the smaller Peugeots but it applies to the dog as well.  A match made in… France.

German Shepherd: A big tough dog that is probably just about smart enough to drive the car.  Something with lots of space would do the job – maybe a nice long station wagon or a 4×4.  Put a German Shepherd in the back of a white Commodore or Falcon and you might get mistaken for a K-9 cop.

Border Collie:  Working collies go on the back of grubby farm utes.  Show-type border collies are better suited to something classy with a hint of the outdoors – say, a Range Rover.

Golden Retriever: See Labrador.  However, as this has longer hair, best to keep it out of the back seat of the MPV or any humans who later ride in these seats will be forever trying to get the dog hairs out of their clothes.

Cavalier King Charles Spaniel: Another breed that looks loopy on the back of a ute and is so small that it will get lost in the interior of a big 4×4.  They love to snuggle up, so if the little hatchback is too small for you, the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel (big name for little dog) will be happy in a basket in a sedan.

American Staffordshire Bull Terrier (Amstaff): Like the regular Staffie but bigger, like all things American.  A muscle dog like the Amstaff looks best in a muscle car like your HSV or FPV.

Miniature Schnauzer:  A toy dog with a bit more fizz to it than a Cavalier etc., so not the sedan this time.  Go for the hatchback of any type or the station wagon.

Rottweiler: Go big.  This breed can cause serious damage to a little hatchback if it decides to jump onto the bonnet.  A station wagon at the very least; a 4×4 is even better but your Rotty will settle for an SUV.  Rotties were originally bred for pulling carts as well as herding cattle, so make sure your SUV has enough towing power that it can pull more than the dog.