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Weird Stuff

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!

Thoughts?

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.

The Right Car For Your Dog Part One: The Legal Bits

Come on, fellow pet owners: admit it.  You’ve sometimes considered the needs of your furry friends (who you might refer to as your fur-kids) when purchasing a car.  I’ve done it myself.  I’ve said no to some lovely little numbers in the past simple because they weren’t compatible with our doggo.  I haven’t gone so far as to sell a vehicle I already owned because it wasn’t dog-friendly – although I did do this for my children.

OK, now we’ve got that out in the open, so let’s talk about it.  There you are: the time has come for a new set of wheels for whatever reason and you’re looking for a new car.  You want to make sure that all of the family is happy, and this includes the four-legged members of the family.  Meaning the dog, that is.  Cats don’t always take too well to riding in cars – some do and some don’t, but dogs usually enjoy riding in cars.  So what do you have to think of when choosing a car that’s compatible with your dog?

First of all, you have to keep the legal stuff in mind.  Fortunately, the laws for travelling with dogs are a lot less stringent than the laws about children in cars.  Here’s what you need to know:

  • It’s illegal to drive with a dog sitting on your lap. Obvious in the case of a St Bernard or a Newfoundland that might weigh more than you do but it also applies to Chihuahuas.
  • A dog (or any other animal!) has to be in an appropriate area of the car where your pet can’t interfere with the driver. This means that the driver’s footwell is out of the question Small dogs probably also shouldn’t sit on the bit behind the back seats in a sedan where they block the rear view mirror.  It’s best if your dog is restrained but this isn’t a legal requirement – yet!
  • Your dog probably shouldn’t be in the front passenger seat. The only possible exception would be a poodle or other teeny dog in a handbag.  Anything larger could easily become a nuisance to the driver, either by whacking you with a wagging tail or putting a nose (or paw) onto the controls.  A big dog will get in the way and a small dog would be badly hurt or even killed by an airbag going off in an emergency situation.  If you feel you absolutely have to have your dog in the front passenger seat (e.g. in a single-cab ute on a nasty cold rainy day) then use one of those doggy seatbelts or Doggo will try to get all over you.  Or at least my dog would.
  • If your dog is on the back of a ute deck without a canopy, it has to be restrained so it can’t jump or fall off (or lunge at passers-by when the ute’s parked).
  • Don’t leave your dog in the car – your dog can’t stay cool enough and can overheat very, very easily, which constitutes animal cruelty.

While we’re on the topic of dogs in cars, there are two things more that you need to know.  First, opening the window a weeny bit doesn’t do much to cool down the air temperature in the car, and it’s cool air that your dog needs to stay at the right temperature.  Leaving the A/C on or parking in the shade does something but not much.  And giving the dog water does nothing because the water heats up inside the car as well.  The only time that you’re probably OK to leave a dog in a car is if it’s a nasty cold rainy day, preferably during winter.  Second, breaking into a car to rescue a dog that you think is suffering inside a vehicle is considered vandalism, breaking and entering.  What’s more, if the dog in question isn’t suffering from heat exhaustion – for example, if it is a chilly day – the dog will see “strange person aggressively breaking into my property” and will react accordingly.  Dear well-meaning person who tried to break into my brother’s Subaru  (which was parked in the shade with the windows half open during winter) to “save” the pair of pitbulls sleeping on the back seat, you were flipping lucky that said pitbulls were a soppy pair of wimps and not at all like the stereotype pitbulls.

The answer to the question as to what to do with your dog when you’re out and about and need to nip into a shop where you can’t take the dog?  Step One is to leave the dog at home but this isn’t always feasible.  When I took my dog to the vet and I needed to pick up some bread from the supermarket practically next door, I did not drive home, drop off Doggo then go back to the supermarket!  Step Two (which is what I did) is to have the right sort of car: either a ute where you can open the back door of the canopy, which does allow enough air to circulate, or something with nice handy spokes on the alloy wheels or else a towbar so you can tie the dog up outside the car.  Step Three is to look for an alternative to tie your dog to.  If you’re lucky, your local shops have a spot where you can “park your dog” outside.  Failing that, a parking meter will do and it will keep your dog entertained with the doggy equivalent of social media at the same time.

OK, but what sort of car do you need for when you’re travelling from A to B with Doggo beside you for company?  The breed of car will depend on the breed of dog – and that deserves a post of its own, so I’ll cover it in Part 2.

Household Appliances And Cars From The Same Maker?

Don’t worry – Dyson’s proposed EV probably won’t look like this.

I heard the other day that a household appliance manufacturer is going to have a go at the electric car game.  Although my first reaction (and possibly yours) was to snigger, I then realised that it’s possibly not all that loopy after all.  For one thing, it’s not the first time that a company has had a go at making household gadgets and motor cars:  Toyota  makes sewing machines as well as their very popular cars and they’re not bad (the cars or the sewing machines – and I can vouch for the sewing machines, as I’ve got one).  Peugeot also started out making coffee grinders, umbrellas and crinolines.

For another thing, the makers of household appliances are already used to working with electric motors for – well, just about anything.  Household appliances just about all run on electricity and a lot of them use electrical motors – so why not scale up from teeny electric motors in electric shavers to motorcars? We’re used to other things that can run on either electricity or internal combustion engines, such as lawnmowers, so it might be just a matter of scale.

The household appliance manufacturer in question is Dyson, who also makes vacuum cleaners.  Cue jokes about “My car sucks.”  At the moment, they’ve managed to get a nice big factory space and the plan is to put a car out by 2020.  Or 2021, depending on which press release you get your hands on.  Details are still being kept secret but here’s what we know so far:

  • They’re going to convert a bunch of old World War 2 era aircraft hangars in the UK to use as factories.
  • They’re doing the research and development in Singapore, the Philippines and Malaysia as well as the UK.
  • One of the former hangars has at least 15 km of vehicle testing tracks. Presumably they don’t test the vacuum cleaners on these.

OK, the idea of producing vacuum cleaners and EVs seems ludicrous.  However, I’ve often noticed that advertising for vacuum cleaners has a lot in common with quite a few car ads, ranting and raving about the power of the motor and how many kilowatts it can do.  In fact, I think that cars (OK, boats and motorbikes as well if you’re picky) and vacuum cleaners are the only things that use engine power as a selling point.  Dyson’s experience with filters and air flow will probably also come in handy for designing a car.  Maybe we’ll also see some interesting styling, given the way that Dyson produced a completely new style of vacuum cleaner when they put out their Dual Cyclone.

However, we need to hope that the Dyson EVs have better handling ability than the typical vacuum cleaner.  I don’t know about you, but I always have much more trouble getting a vacuum cleaner to go where I want it to, and they’re probably worse than supermarket shopping trolleys for bad handling.  Work to be done here, Dyson!

We also need to hope that Dyson learns a thing or three about pricing if they want to be really competitive.  Dyson may be the luxury marque for vacuums (and hair dryers, fans and hand dryers) but is there really room in the luxury EV market for somebody other than Tesla?  Especially now that more widely known makers, especially the European ones, are turning more and more to EVs and hybrids.  Your typical Dyson vacuum costs about 10 times as much as the bog-standard vacuum, after all.

My one humble suggestion to Dyson would also be to change the name for the vehicle line.  Toyota may be able to get away with producing sewing machines but they’re better known for their cars.  Not everybody does home sewing but most people except total slobs use vacuum cleaners.  Dyson, however, is a big name in the household appliance world, so that is going to be what people think of first when somebody announces that they’ve just bought a new Dyson with a powerful motor.  It doesn’t quite have the same kudos or cachet as, say, Lexus or Mercedes.  Perhaps Cyclone, in honour of the Dual Cyclone, or JD Motors for James Dyson would do the job.

It will be interesting to see if this venture comes off.  If it does, would you drive a Dyson car?  Would you prefer them to use a different brand name?  Does the idea suck or does it clean up?  Tell us what you think!

Oh yes – if Dyson could add in an in-car vacuum cleaner so we can clean up mess straight away, that would be grand!

Robots And Skeletons From Kia And Hyundai

As often as science fiction leads to real life science fact, the reverse applies more than expected. Robotic assistance in various forms have been a part of sci-fi lore for decades and in films such as Aliens we’ve seen what are called exoskeletons. Hyundai and Kia, with the latter a major and wholly owned sub-section of Hyundai, are working together to develop the Hyundai Vest Exoskeleton (H-VEX). AI, or Artificial Intelligence, is also recognised as a major area of growth in technology, and established a specific robotics team to work on developing the technology and where applications can be utilised. Along with the Hyundai Chairless Exoskeleton or H-CEX, which adds extra support to a user’s knee joints, the units are lightweight but offer plenty of extra assistance.

The H-CEX itself weighs just 1.6 kilos yet provides up to 150 kilograms of extra lift. It’s fitted with waist, thigh, and knee belts to provide a range of adjustment for the user. The H-VEX is an upper body oriented device, and is said to be rated to an extra 60kg of mass when arms are raised above the head. the support design here focuses on the neck and upper back.
The robotics division is also investigating other forms of wearables, along with service robots and what is called micro wearability. Last years Hyundai’s robotics team showcased the Hyundai Medical exoskeleton or H-MEX. This provided a higher level of mobility for paraplegics and the infirm, with the end result being the device should be properly registered for legal use in the medical field. An extension of this is the HUMA, or Hyundai Universal Medical Assist program. This device can assist in having a human run at up to 12 km/h when needed.

AI is being developed for service and sales robots. Areas such as a natural conversation level and a natural mobility look & feel to assist in engaging with clients in environments such as car dealerships. By being able to provide specifications, price options, and more, it will help customers gain vital information before a need to have a salesperson become involved.

Hyundai exoskeleton

Dr. Youngcho Chi, Executive Vice President of Strategy & Technology Division and Chief Innovation Officer of Hyundai Motor Group said, “The field of robotics has the potential to usher in a new era in our industry. The possibilities for the technology are endless – from future mobility solutions and industrial productivity aids to vital military applications, we think the future is better with robots. The huge collective experience within the Hyundai Motor Group will facilitate rapid progress in the coming years. We are excited about current developments, and very optimistic for the use of this technology to improve lives around the globe.”