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Weird Stuff

Visit Your Overseas Car Museum From Home.

As Australia and, indeed, the globe, moves towards the sort of lifestyle once only forecast in sci-fi novels, travel restrictions make what we took for granted on a daily basis ever more harder to do. Technology, as always, provides an option or two.

Car people now have the perfect excuse to travel overseas, albeit virtually, to check out some great car museums.  Some have Virtual Reality access either from their site or a third party, others have scrollable 360 degree vision.

Germany.

Easily one of the best car museums in the world, and one on many enthusiasts’ bucket lists, the Porsche Museum in Stuttgart-Zuffenhausen, Germany, gathers the brand’s most iconic and influential sports cars, race cars, and one very important tractor in a stunningly designed building that’s an attraction in itself. The museum’s virtual tour lets you explore the masterfully displayed collection inside and take in all the architectural beauty outside.

Also located in Stuttgart is the just-as-stunning and just-as-closed Mercedes-Benz museum. Not to be outdone by Porsche, the Museum at Mercedes-Benz has its own architecturally impressive building, as well as a massive car collection that’s presented in a dynamic and engaging way. Take the museum’s virtual tour here.  If you have a VR headset, Mercedes offers a number of 360-degree videos on its YouTube channel.

Italy.

The fabled Italian car maker, Lamborghini in Sant’Agata Bolognese, Italy, offers a virtual tour via Google Street View. Virtually wandering through the halls may not cure the blues, but there will be plenty of other colours to see.

Ferrari has been celebrating its work in Italy and provides two access points, here and here.

The U.S.

Bowling Green, Kentucky, is hallowed ground for diehard Corvette fans. Not only is it home to the plant that builds the Corvette, but it’s also the site of the National Corvette Museum. Thanks to the magic of Google Street View, anyone can make a virtual pilgrimage to the museum. You can also take a 360-degree tour of the sinkhole that swallowed eight classic Corvettes in 2014.

The Petersen has always been a world-class car museum, but in 2015 it got a makeover to match the quality of the automotive artifacts housed inside. The renovations completely transformed the atmosphere of the museum. This Google Street View tour of the pre-renovation Petersen, however, is a nostalgic stroll through memory lane. The cars in the collection haven’t changed, though. Click here to see a list of what the museum has on exhibit, and if you’d like to peek inside the Petersen’s prized “vault,” which stores its rarest race cars, movie cars, and icons of car culture, you can still do that while the museum is closed. For $3, you can take a livestreamed hour-long digital vault tour led by collection manager Dana Williamson. Also, catch the Petersen’s series of educational livestreams it plans to broadcast throughout the duration of L.A. school closures.

If you love weird and quirky cars, then the Lane Motor Museum in Nashville, Tennessee, is the perfect place to virtually visit. With an eclectic collection of cars that can be found here, the Lane Motor Museum is almost guaranteed to have a car you’ve never seen or heard of before. Get ready to start scratching your head and browse the collection yourself by clicking this link.

Japan.

Toyota is one of the largest automakers in the world—it even has a city named after it. So it should come as no surprise that the Japanese brand has an impressive museum. Located in Nagakute, Japan, the Toyota Automobile Museum not only tells the story of the company founded by Kiichiro Toyoda in 1937, but of the automobile itself. As such, the museum doesn’t just showcase classic Toyotas. In fact, you’ll be treated to Bugattis, Alfa Romeos, Mercedes, Fords, and much more. If you’re hankering to see some vintage Japanese sheet metal, you’ll find plenty of that, too. Take the virtual tour here.

And here is where to go for some 360 degree views.

How To Recycle A Car

One of several elephants in the room during the debate on whether or not electric cars should be subsidized or pushed more is the issue of what happens to the old ones that used internal combustion engines (the other elephants include the ones relating to how the electricity will be generated, where the materials for the batteries are going to come from and whether the national grid can handle the extra load). After all, we’ve all seen the junk yards where sad piles of rustbuckets from the early 1980s and written cars sit around going nowhere and doing nothing.  What happens to a car once it’s got to the end of its life and can’t be restored or repaired?

Mind you, it’s amazing what can be restored if people are keen enough. At her wedding, my cousin arrived in an antique car from the 1910s that had spent a decade or so as a chicken coop before being found by an enthusiast and lovingly restored to its full beauty – and it really was lovely!

Anyway, not all dead cars will be used for spare parts, which is the first thing that springs to mind when any car enthusiast thinks about what happens to old cars. Most of us amateur mechanics have headed down to the wrecker’s yard for a spare part or five. However, there are some bits that are no good for spare parts – quite a lot of bits in the case of something that’s been in a smash. The idea of all these car bodies sitting around and taking up space horrifies the environmentalist in me – and I’m the sort who thinks that the waste issue is a lot more serious than carbon emissions.

The good news is that despite those dreary car graveyards, there’s quite a lot on a car that can be recycled. In fact, 85% of the typical car body can be recycled.

The first thing that happens when a car is to be recycled is that the fluids will be drained, and they really do mean all fluids, not just any gas left in the tank and the oil in the engine and transmission. The coolant and what’s in the air conditioning will all be whipped out – and a lot of it can be purified and used in another vehicle. Used car engine oil can be used as fuel for shipping. The gas that activates the airbags will be carefully released – if the airbag hasn’t already gone off in the case of a crash.

Next, the vehicle is stripped of anything that’s still useful. This often includes the battery, the sound system and other electronic bits and bobs, the tyres (if they’re in good condition) and items that wreckers know to be popular and in demand. In fact, the car wreckers do a very good job of salvaging anything that can be salvaged. Even the floor mats are usually good enough to find a new home, as these hardly ever wear out.

Of course, not everything on a dead car can be salvaged and reused as is. But the job of recycling an old car doesn’t stop there. There are more materials that can be harvested from a dead car as part of the recycling process.  Most parts of a car can be recycled in some way.

The most obvious component of a dead car body is made of top quality steel. This is very straightforward to melt down and purify so it’s as good as new. Some stats claim that 30% of the steel produced around the world actually comes from recycled metal.

The real goldmine is the catalytic converter, which is almost literally a goldmine as it contains precious metals that can be salvaged from a non-working catalytic converter, and reused in other catalytic converters (obviously) and in jewellery.

What happens next to the car bodies?

The battery contains quite a lot of lead, which is why they weigh so much and why it’s no fun dropping one on your foot.  Getting the lead out is a fiddly process that should only be attempted by an expert, but it can be removed as the battery is stripped down, and the metal can then be reused, mostly in other batteries. The plastic casing, once the acid has been neutralised, is also recyclable.

Interior trim can also be salvaged. In the case of leather upholstery, this leather can be turned into fashion accessories, with handbags and belts being a common fate. In the case of fabric trim, this can be shredded and recycled into new furnishing fabrics.

Wiring is another source of metals, as wiring usually is made of copper. Wires in good condition can be used as is, or else the plastic coating is stripped off and the copper inside can be melted down and reused.

Dashboard plastics can be polymerised and turned into a new type of plastic that’s got all sorts of uses, including making outdoor furniture, like plastic picnic chairs.

Tyres used to be the big nasty when it came to recycling old car bodies because they’re so tough, but that’s no longer the case. There are all sorts of things that can be done with them. More or less intact tyres can be used by clever people to make garden furniture. Shredded tyres are used as safety cushions in children’s playgrounds for when someone falls off the swings.  In some parts of the world, the flatter bits are used as soles for footwear – they’ve got a really cool tread pattern! Grind the tyres up smaller and they can be used for the surfaces of running tracks or as roading material.

Glass is also very versatile, and can either be ground down to cullet (which is what you call ground up glass). The cullet can then be used for sandblasting ships to clean them or it can be used as road surfacing. Cullet can, of course, be melted down to produce fresh glass, including the safety glass used in vehicles. Windscreens also contain layers of plastic, and this can also be salvaged and recycled.

The big thing to remember is that one should never try to strip down a dead car for recycling unless you really know what you’re doing, as there are a lot of hazardous materials involved. Leave it to the professional wreckers for the most part. Things you can remove yourself safely enough unless you’re a complete idiot are the speaker system and any other electronic gadgets (especially if you put them in as an after-market upgrade), the fuel in the tank (siphon it out) and any of your personal belongings you left in the glovebox.

Tips For After An Accident and some Funny Insurance Claims

Most people wouldn’t expect to be involved in a car accident.  There are some driving habits which some drivers do have, illegal or otherwise, that would definitely make them more prone to having an accident.  With all the modern crash-avoidance safety equipment on-board new cars crashes still happen – whether it’s your fault or someone else’s.

So, what should you do after an accident has happened?  Here are some safe procedures you can make a note of:

  • Stop the car.
  • Turn off the engine.
  • Switch the hazard lights on.
  • Check for any injuries to yourself or your passengers.
  • Call the police and an ambulance immediately if anyone is hurt or if the road is blocked.
  • Share your name and address with everyone involved if the accident caused damage or injury.
  • Swap insurance information and details with the other driver(s).
  • Take down details of any other passengers and witnesses to the accident.
  • Try to find out if the other driver is the registered owner of the vehicle, and if they are not find out who the owner of the car is and get that information too.
  • Record the make, model, colour, and number plate of the vehicles involved in the accident or take pictures of them.
  • Record the time and date of the crash.
  • Record the driving conditions, including the weather, lighting, and road quality (such as road markings, whether it’s wet or muddy, repair of the road surface).
  • Record what sort of damage was caused to the vehicles and where. Use your phone to take pictures of the scene and the damage to the cars.
  • Record any injuries to drivers, passengers, or pedestrians.
  • Record the names and contact details of any witnesses.
  • Phone your insurance company as soon as possible – ideally at the time of the accident.

After the accident, submitting a claim for car insurance can be a bit of a stressful business, and it certainly pays to double check what you have said over the phone or have written on your claim form.  Here are some genuinely funny car insurance claim statements below:

  • A pedestrian hit me and went under my car
  • As I approached an intersection a sign suddenly appeared in a place where no stop sign had ever appeared before.
  • Going to work at 7am this morning I drove out of my drive straight into a bus. The bus was 5 minutes early.
  • I collided with a stationary truck coming the other way
  • I had been driving for forty years when I fell asleep at the wheel.
  • In an attempt to kill a fly, I drove into a telephone pole.
  • I had been learning to drive with power steering. I turned the wheel to what I thought was enough and found myself in a different direction going the opposite way.
  • I had been shopping for plants all day and was on my way home. As I reached an intersection a hedge sprang up obscuring my vision and I did not see the other car.
  • I pulled away from the side of the road, glanced at my mother-in-law and headed over the embankment.
  • I saw her look at me twice. She appeared to be making slow progress when we met on impact.
  • I started to slow down but the traffic was more stationary than I thought.
  • I was on my way to the doctor with rear end trouble when my universal joint gave way causing me to have an accident.
  • I was sure the old fellow would never make it to the other side of the road when I struck him.
  • My car was legally parked as it backed into another vehicle.
  • No one was to blame for the accident but it would never have happened if the other driver had been alert.
  • The claimant had collided with a cow. The questions and answers on the claim form were – Q: What warning was given by you? A: Horn. Q: What warning was given by the other party? A: Moo.
  • The accident happened because I had one eye on the lorry in front, one eye on the pedestrian and the other on the car behind.
  • The accident occurred when I was attempting to bring my car out of a skid by steering it into the other vehicle.
  • The guy was all over the road. I had to swerve a number of times before I hit him.
  • The pedestrian had no idea which way to run as I ran over him.
  • The pedestrian ran for the pavement, but I got him.

Best And Worst Exterior Paint Colours For Resale

We’ve all heard those jokes about people who seem to be more concerned about what colour a car is rather than its practical performance (fuel economy, towing ability, safety specs, luggage space, etc.).  We’ve also probably tossed out a flip comment about go-faster red and go-faster stripes over the years.  Paint colour seems like just a matter of personal choice and preference.  However, if you’re buying a brand new car and you know that you are going to sell it off some years down the track, then you may need to bear colour in mind, as some car paint colours are better for resale than others.

Good paint colours are popular ones that don’t go out of style quickly. This means that it’s going to be quicker and easier to sell them in five or ten years’ time because they’ll still be in style. With a bad colour – which might be a fashionable colour – it could be a bit harder to sell the car later on because potential buyers may look at it and go “eww – that’s so 2020”, which may mean that you will have to let the car go for a lower price than you may have got otherwise.

The leading authority on car paint colour is the paint manufacturer Axalta. This company has complied stats on car colours for over 60 years and has tons of resources available (the most recent free annual car stats are from 2016) and there is plenty to keep any motoring trivia enthusiast happy for hours at their website.

By a quick look at some of the material available from Axalta without wasting time down too many rabbit trails, it seems as if good car colours, in terms of resale, are like good suit colours for guys or the little black cocktail dress for gals: simple, basic classics that don’t shock or startle. Honestly, when it comes to car paint colour that hold its value, conservative is the key.

The most recent (freely available!) stats from Axalta show that the most popular car exterior paint colours worldwide (and therefore the ones that are likely to have the best resale value) are as follows:

  1. White: 37% of new cars sold in 2016 were some shade of white; white has been #1 for quite some time now
  2. Black: 18%
  3. Grey: 11%
  4. Silver: 11%
  5. Red: 6%
  6. Navy blue: 6%
  7. Beige and brown: 6% (apparently, Russian sales made up most of these)
  8. Yellow and gold: 3%
  9. Green: 1% (again, mostly Russian sales)

The most popular colour for vehicles in the Asia-Pacific region (which includes us here in Australia) has been either white, silver or grey since 1973 – and it looks like this trend isn’t going to change soon!

(If you want the latest stats, broken down by region and by body style – yes, it makes a difference –then you have to pay to get the download. I’m tempted…)

To find the least popular colours, all that some bloggers and researchers do is to flip this popularity list upside down. However, you, like me, have probably noticed that some colours don’t even feature on this list.  Because cars with unpopular colours don’t sell as well, it’s hard to compile meaningful stats on them, as it’s hard to track what isn’t selling because there’s nothing to see or record.  Nevertheless, the following have been proposed as the worst car exterior paint colours for resale.  They’re not in any particular order, but you may notice that all of them are very distinctive and associated with particular decades!

  • orange: any shade of orange; this colour is only popular with die-hard Dukes of Hazzard fans
  • turquoise: metallic turquoise in particular is soooo 1990s
  • maroon: very 1990s and dated, which is weird for a shade of red
  • green (unless you’re Russian): olive or pea green from the 1970s is especially bad, followed by the vivid treefrog greens of the early 2000s
  • brown (again, unless you’re Russian): British Leyland. Enough said
  • pink: in fact, Ferrari has banned pink from its list of possible car colours coming out of the factory door, even for superstars paying megadollars for a custom paint job (if P!nk wants a pink supercar, she has to get a Lambo, which doesn’t mind what colour you pick if you’re willing to pay).
  • purple: I don’t think I’ve ever seen a purple vehicle that wasn’t a commercial tradie vehicle in company colours that had been custom-painted

The only exception I’d make to this list is the case of British Racing Green for Jaguar.  This is a tradition and it’s such an iconic colour for Jaguar that it holds its value better than other off-the-wall unique colours.  Can you imagine a Burberry in any colour other than beige?

However, if you are in the market for a second-hand car, you can make the car colour thing work in your favour. If you believe that a good horse is never a bad colour and that the same applies to cars, then you may be able to pick up a good reliable set of wheels that’s in an unfashionable colour so is going for a fraction cheaper than something mechanically identical in a “good” colour. I’ll never forget my tradie friend who picked up a metallic rose-pink trade van at a bargain price because of its colour – he downright owned that pink van and it certainly made him stand out from his competitors with ordinary white vans. OK, you need some serious cojones to pull off a pink tradie van, but it certainly worked for my friend!

Designers, Please Explain This Feature

Over the Christmas and New Year holiday season, we went on a good old-fashioned road trip – well away from where all those horrible fires have been happening.  In keeping with old-fashioned road trips, we decided that this was a good time to give our 2000 Ford Falcon  AU a chance to show its paces. It’s been my husband’s doer-upper and mancave tinkering project for a while now, so why not? It certainly behaved itself nicely on the road and was comfy for long journeys.  However, it had one little design feature that puzzled me and certainly gave us something to talk about during the more tedious stretches of the road once we’d exhausted the topic of how appalling the fires are, what caused them, the smoke haze, etc. etc.

The feature in question in the boot.  The boot doesn’t have one of those old-school buttons that unlatches the boot on the boot door itself. Instead, you have to unlock the body of the car and put the key in the ignition and turn it on one click then press a button on the dashboard – which is rather faded on this 20-year-old vehicle.  Slightly fiddly, yes, but no worse than what you have to do with my mother-in-law’s Suzuki Kizashi  that uses an auto-unlock key fob.  The automatic key fob might seem like a brilliant idea when you’re approaching the back of the Kizashi with your hands full – and my mother-in-law loves this feature – but it’s a bit of a nuisance when you want to send one of the kids to go and get Gran her cardy out of the boot please, dear.  This means that the keys have to come out of wherever Gran’s put them and it takes a less experienced person to hold the fob in exactly the right way before the boot’s opened and Gran has to go and show the kiddies how to do it properly.

Anyway, back to the boot of the Falcon.  Despite the need to have the keys in the ignition to open the boot from the outside, the boot itself has a mechanical boot hatch release lever.  On the inside of the boot.  In a sedan.  A sedan where you can’t open the boot mechanically from the outside and where the body of the car has to be unlocked before you can open the boot. When on earth will you use this lever?

The lever is no good in the all too common scenario of accidentally shutting your keys in the boot. In fact, if you unlocked the Falcon’s boot, took the keys out of the ignition, locked the doors and then accidentally dropped the keys in the boot before slamming it shut, you would be in the poop, as you would have access to neither boot nor cabin.  So the mechanical lever was no good for that situation.

If you couldn’t get out of the car doors for some reason but you were inside the cabin of the sedan, you could possibly exit via the boot.  In the unlikely scenario that you opened the boot, took the keys out of the ignition again, then shut them in the boot, you could do the same. This would require you do fold the rear seats of the sedan flat and move the luggage out of the way first. Fortunately, the seats do fold flat, allowing access into the boot, although I haven’t tried this myself. The load-through slot that appears when you fold down the arm rest and the cupholders is far too small for anybody over the age of three to squeeze through. You could, in theory, reach the mechanical lever by reaching through the load-through slot but only if (a) you had arms like an orangutan and (b) the suitcases and the picnic basket aren’t in the way, as the boot release lever is nearer the front of the boot.

The only time that you would be able to use that release lever is if you were riding inside the boot of this sedan and the hatch door was closed.  Again, when would this happen?  In the rather dangerous and illegal case where you’ve got a sixth person needing to ride in the car and you’re out of seatbelts, you could smuggle that person in the boot.  This is NOT RECOMMENDED (although I’ll admit to having taken a passenger this way once over 20 years ago – and it wasn’t in Australia, either).  However, even then, the passenger riding in the boot wouldn’t want to open the hatch and get out while the car is moving.  He or she would have to push open the load-through slot and ask the driver to stop. Then the driver could also push the button to open the boot as well, so the lever wouldn’t be used anyway.  However, if everybody else had left the car and someone was still inside the boot, they could let themselves out – and the only times we could see this happening was if someone was trying to stow away on a ferry or sneak into, say, a music festival or military base without the gatekeepers noticing.

After much discussion, we figured that the only time you’d really want to use the inside boot release lever is if you had been kidnapped and shoved in the boot, and you wanted to alert other road users to the fact so that you can be rescued – or so you can jump out of the boot.

I am somewhat aghast that the designers built in a feature that is only useful in the case of being abducted or when doing something illegal.  Did they really think that cases of kidnapping are that common? Did they design a car that’s useful for sneaking in unofficially or for people smuggling? WHAT WERE THEY THINKING????

If anyone can throw any light on this feature, I would love to know. Please give us your best speculations in the comments!

 

Hiccups And Glory: Tesla Cybertruck Revealed.

Mid afternoon Friday 22nd November (Sydney time) and Tesla has unveiled a surprise.

Called the Cybertruck it’s fair to say it’s unlike anything seen from any manufacturer, both in looks, and in specification.Tesla says: it will have a range of 500+ miles, and will see a zero to 96kph (60mph) time of around 2.9 seconds. The body is made from a sledgehammer resistant “Ultra-Hard 30x Cold-Rolled Steel”. The window glass is also intended to be shatter and impact resistant as evidenced by a few ball-drop demonstrations. Somewhat embarrassingly, a short range throw of a small steel ball like that used in the drop test broke the supposedly shatterproof glass in the vehicle shown.The cargo section is big enough to house an electric ATV, also shown during the launch, and has a payload capacity of up to 3,500 pounds or 1,587 kilos. There is 6.5 feet of length in the bay and there are extendable ramps and a charging point built in. An estimated 100 cubic feet of storage space is available inside the sci-fi looking wedge shape. There is also room for six adults and a 17 inch touchscreen to access the vehicle’s main controls.The ramp that allows cargo access showed the flexibility of the suspension with up to four inches of travel. The drivetrain will be a rear mounted engine, front and rear, and a triple motor configuration. The exterior is striking, to say the least, with a distinctive wedge shape and eye-catching LED strips front and rear. And in an alloy sheen reminiscent of a De Lorean, it should be an all-weather capable vehicle.
Pricing is slated to start at around $40,000USD.

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…