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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.”

Cloth Versus Leather

There are two main choices these days when it comes to what the interior designers of new cars put on the seats: cloth and leather. Leather is definitely the material of choice for luxury cars, but if you ever find yourself in a situation where one of the key differences between two variants is what’s on the seats, is it really worth it going for the leather just because it’s posher?  If you’re into keeping up with the Joneses, then this one’s a no-brainer – you go for the more expensive one with the leather – but what if you’re a bit cannier with your cash?

Thankfully, the days of vinyl have gone, so that’s not an option. Those of us who are old enough to remember vinyl seats or who have ridden in classics with this type of upholstery know perfectly well why vinyl seats aren’t found in modern vehicles.  About the only good thing you could say about vinyl was that it was easy to clean. It was slippery when cold or if you had long trousers on. In hot weather and for those wearing shorts, vinyl became sticky but not like spilt jam – more like clingfilm on steroids grabbing bare skin.  It also got really hot on a summer day – add in the hot seat belt buckle on old-style seatbelts and you got your very own personal torture chamber.  I’m shuddering with the memory.

However, back to today.  There you are evaluating two models that are more or less the same apart from the upholstery.  What do you need to say before you say “I’ll go for the one with the leather seats”?

Leather is, of course, a natural material.  It’s the skin of some animal, probably a cow, sheep or possibly a goat.  Given the popularity of beefsteaks around the world and the size of a cattlebeast, what you see on the seats of a luxury car probably came from a cow.  If you’re a vegan or a PETA supporter, then this fact might be the deciding factor for you and you’ll go for the cloth.  However, if you’re omnivorous, then you may see the use of leather as car upholstery as a wise way of using meat byproducts and a sustainable choice (yes, cloth seats are usually acrylic or nylon sourced from plastics).

Here, you might have questions about the difference between Nappa leather and ordinary leather.  Nappa leather is a natural animal skin leather that has been tanned and dyed in a particular way to make it smooth and even.  Nappa leather tends to have a more durable finish and is softer and more pliable.  It’s the softness that adds the extra level of luxury and why the really top-end models are trimmed in Nappa leather rather than common or garden leather.  It also tends to come from something more delicate than cowhide, such as goat or sheep.

Alcantara, however, is an artificial leather – OK, it’s cloth!  It’s stain-resistant and flame-retardant, and it has a scrummy finish that feels like suede.  The flame-retardant properties of Alcantara mean that it’s widely used in racing cars, and this is why it’s popular in sports and supercar models, similar to other racing-inspired accessories and styling.  Alcantara is a brand-name, unlike Nappa leather and all the other seat materials, and it’s produced by one single factory in Italy, which means that it’s a bit more exclusive and more expensive than other cloth.

There are other synthetic leathers around the place.  They’re called things like “PU leather”, “pleather”, “leatherette”, “vegan leather” and “faux leather”.  One company produces a leather substitute made from pineapple fibres but this isn’t used for car seat upholstery – or at least not yet.

The sort of cloth used for upholstering vehicle seats is usually some sort of synthetic material because this tends to be more durable than natural fibres such as wool, linen, tencel or cotton.  Car manufacturers haven’t tried upholstering seats with natural plant-sourced fibres in an attempt to be more sustainable… at least not yet.  Cloth is cheaper than leather because it doesn’t need quite as much cutting, stitching and shaping as leather.  Synthetic cloth comes out of the factory in nice regular shapes of an even and predictable width.  Cows and goats aren’t quite such a nice, regular shape, so leather seats require more work; hence the extra cost.

So what are the pros and cons of each upholstery material type?

Leather:

Pros: Natural material from a renewable source, soft (especially in the case of Nappa), durable, looks amazing, smells nice, doesn’t give off nasty chemical gases

Cons: Stains easily, gets scuffed and scratched by doggy paws and small children’s shoes, absorbs bad smells, comes from a dead animal that may have been killed for the skin, doesn’t like getting wet and especially hates salty seawater

Cloth:

Pros: Cheap, comes in a range of colours and patterns, more forgiving of children, dogs and seawater

Cons: Synthetic material from a non-renewable source, can give off weird gases when new, doesn’t look quite as upmarket as leather.

Alcantara:

Pros: Flame-resistant, stain-resistant, comes in a range of colours, racing heritage, nice suede-like feel, exclusive and upmarket

Cons: A beast to clean, synthetic material from non-renewable sources

To sum up the bottom line about what sort of fabric you want under your bottom, it really depends on your lifestyle and your values.  If you’ve got messy small children or dogs that jump on the seat, then leather isn’t for you.  If you love to spend heaps of time at the beach and you are likely to get salt water on your clothes and other bits that you are likely to chuck onto the back seat, leather probably isn’t for you either.  Cloth is also going to appeal to those who want to save a few bucks, as it’s cheaper.  Leather looks gorgeous and is a natural material from a renewable resource, but if you’re more of a vegan-and-PETA type, then you’ll steer clear of it.

And if you have a classic car with a vinyl seat, do yourself a favour and buy a set of seat covers if you haven’t already!

Coping With Car Clutter

You might be scrupulous about washing the outside of your car, and possibly waxing it as well, but what about the inside of the car? If you’re the typical Aussie driver, whether you’re doing the daily commute or the school run, or if you’re a tradie, consultant or sales rep who’s always on the road, it’s all too easy to let the inside of your vehicle get a bit on the cluttered side.

In-car clutter takes a range of forms, from obvious mess and rubbish that you’re going to get around to cleaning up one of these days, through to that spare jumper or raincoat you stashed in the luggage compartment of your hatchback (and another spare raincoat and a puffer jacket and…). And there’s everything else that you’ve put in the glovebox or the centre console because it might be useful at some point.

Clutter in your car is a problem for a number of reasons. Firstly, it’s visually annoying and it doesn’t make for a very pleasant journey if you have to spend a long time in a car that’s full of stuff. Secondly, having a large number of loose objects rolling around in your car can be something of a safety hazard in the situation of an emergency stop. Thirdly, you end up having trouble finding what you want in a hurry if your car is full of all sorts of odds and ends (I know I had that change for the parking meter in here somewhere…). Fourthly, all those little things add up and you could be carting about a kilo or even more of useless junk that shouldn’t be in your car, and this will decrease your fuel efficiency, even if only by a tiny bit.

So how do you go about decluttering and organising your car so that you have the useful bits you need in the car for emergencies but don’t have too much? The good news is that decluttering a car is a lot easier than decluttering your garage (we won’t go there!), as it’s not a huge space. OK, decluttering a little Mini  is going to be quicker than decluttering a Range Rover ! However, from a small city hatch through to a big bush-bashing seven-seater 4×4, the basic principles are the same. (Here, I’ve got to do a shout-out to US clutter-free guru Kathi Lipp  for the outline of the basic principles and stages of decluttering anything).

  1. Get it all out. Pull everything out of your car. Everything. Including the mats, as there could be something underneath them that needs to go.
  2. Sort it. Here, the most efficient system seems to be the “Three Boxes, Two Bags” method (thank you, Ms Lipp!). The three boxes take items that are fall into the categories “Put It Back”, “Give It Away” and “Put It Away Somewhere Else”; the two bags are for rubbish and recycling. Of course, you don’t need to get too hung up on whether you’re using a bag or a box! Put some music on while you sort and don’t stop to read anything or put anything away just yet. Stick to the job and concentrate on what you’re doing. It’s best if you don’t enlist help from your nearest and dearest at this stage, as this could lead to arguments about how many CDs or aux cords need to live in the car. Call them in at later stages.
  3. Clean it. Now that you’ve got everything out of your car, this is a good moment to grab the vacuum cleaner and maybe a rag and some cleaning spray of your choice, and give the interior of your vehicle a good going-over. You probably don’t need to polish the leather seats or shine up the chrome – unless you’ve got lots of time set aside for this job.
  4. Put it back. The first set of stuff that you’ve taken out of your car that you will deal with will be the “Put It Back” items. Exactly what you will put back in your car will vary from person to person, but for me, the items to be put back would always include the manual, a first aid kit, a phone charger, hand sanitiser, some tissues (which can be used to clean the inside of the windscreen as well as to blow your nose), an old-school paper map for when you’re out of reception or when Google Maps has decided to send you round the long way, the logbook (I use my vehicle for business purposes and have to track this) and a pen. Spare change for parking meters also doesn’t go amiss, and nor does a packet of nibbles such as rice crackers or almonds for those moments when you’re stuck in traffic and getting hangry. These days, it can be wise to keep your reusable shopping bags in the car as well so you don’t forget them. Other things that may be best kept in your car include jumper leads, ropes suitable for towing, fuses, and a blankets for chilly mornings when the heater is sulking and/or impromptu picnics (and for first aid).
  5. Put it away. All those jerseys, toys, coffee mugs, etc. that really belong in the house go into the house right now. You probably want to drop them off in the dishwasher or kitchen sink, or the laundry as appropriate, as they’ll probably be grubby after a stint in the car.
  6. Throw it away. The recycling and the rubbish – you know what to do with it.
  7. Give it away. These are the items that you don’t use or need any more, such as the charger or aux cable for a phone or MP3 player that you no longer own, the cardie that’s been sitting in the back for so long that the child it belongs to has outgrown it and… oh yes. The bags of stuff that you were going to take down to the nearest charity shop next time you were out. No more procrastinating! As soon as you’ve finished all the other steps, get in the car, start your engine and off you go to get rid of them RIGHT NOW. If this really isn’t practical (you live in the country and the nearest charity store or bin is half an hour’s drive away, for example) then make a reminder for yourself so that you don’t forget those bags of old clothes sitting in the boot yet again!

Now enjoy having a nice clean car and make a commitment to yourself to keep it that way – or at least try to!

The Most Frustrating Driving Habits

It would be so much easier if we all drove perfectly all the time, but not even a robot (aka an autonomous car) can do that.  The best that most of us can do is to try to avoid mistakes and try to be considerate of other people.  However, there are some people out there on our roads who have the most tooth-grindingly annoying bad habits behind the wheel, and I don’t mean that they pick their noses at red lights.  Not only are these habits annoying to other drivers (and pedestrians and cyclists and motorcyclists and…), they’re also a bit dangerous.

Here’s a list of some of the habits that really get up people’s noses.  Which of these get your blood boiling – and which ones are you guilty of and need to stop?

  1. Not indicating. This one’s my pet hate.  Quite frankly, I’d prefer to be behind a driver who indicates when going around a sharp bend than anywhere near one who doesn’t indicate.  Not indicating is particularly annoying and dangerous at intersections, especially roundabouts.  There’s always that one person who comes up to the roundabout where you have to give way, doesn’t indicate but turns left.  By the time they’ve made their move, you’ve stopped to give way and lost your chance to enter the intersection.  Even worse is the person who comes up to the roundabout, indicates left and then goes straight ahead – now, that’s an accident waiting to happen.
  2. Schizophrenic speed. This one gets my husband’s blood boiling every time. Schizophrenic speed happens when a driver goes very slowly around bends and the like.  Nothing wrong with that and it’s probably a safe thing to do.  However, these people let a long line of cars build up behind them and never pull over when they have a chance. In fact, when they get to a straight bit or even a bit of road with a passing lane, they speed up full bore and even pass the speed limit, meaning that you’re going to have to take all kinds of risks to overtake them… and they don’t want to be overtaken.  If you’re a slow and steady type who doesn’t like to corner fast, fine, but stay comparatively slow when the straights come so others can overtake you safely.
  3. Phone addicts. Come on, we all know that it’s illegal to use a handheld phone when you’re driving, but how many people do you see driving around with a phone clamped to their ear with one hand.  Get a handsfree kit, for goodness’ sake!  Even worse are the ones who have just a little look at that wee text that just came in because it might be important.  We’ve all had those close calls with phone addict drivers.  JUST LEAVE THE PHONE ALONE!
  4. Tailgating. Emergency stops happen. You never know when a cat or a kid will run out on the road ahead.  Driving too close to the car ahead is crazy, as you might miss their brake lights going on and not jam your own brakes on in time.  Even worse, if it’s rainy or if the road is slippery, then even if you hit the brakes in time, you’ll still ding the person ahead.  Honestly, dropping back to a decent following distance won’t make you late for work!
  5. Red light running and failing to give way. There are no excuses for running a red light or ploughing through a Stop sign unless you’ve got flashing lights and a siren on your vehicle – and even then you have to be careful at intersections just in case.
  6. Parking where you shouldn’t. We’ve all seen perfectly healthy people walking out of cars parked in the disabled parks, and we’ve probably also all seen cars parked over driveways, on yellow lines, in bus stops… If this is you, what makes you think that the rules can be bent for you?  It’s illegal, folks, even if you’re just nipping in for a loaf of bread or to post a few letters.
  7. Look at my lights! This one mostly gets seen on rural roads at night, but can also be found around town at times.  This sort of driver wants to see the road ahead when its dark and only dips the lights at the last moment… by which time, the oncoming drivers are blinking and blinded.  The other variations on this theme are the driver who takes the headlights off dip a fraction of a second too soon, and the driver who doesn’t dip the lights for pedestrians and cyclists… who still get dazzled like other people.
  8. Ignoring things with fewer wheels. Motorbikes, bikes and horses are all legitimate and legal road users, and have as much right to be on the road as you do, even if they are smaller, have fewer wheels and a smaller engine.  This means that you have to give them the same courtesy and consideration that you’d give another car.  This means not cutting them off, not opening doors suddenly and not getting mad when they have to get in front of you because they want to turn right at the next intersection.  Pedestrians also have the right to cross the road, although they do have to give way to you… except at a pedestrian crossing, where you have to give way.  You have to give way to them for the whole time that they’re crossing the road, with no waiting until they’ve got to nearly halfway, then going.  Wait until the pedestrian has got to the other side or to a traffic island before you go on.  And you did check that pedestrian crossing ahead to see that nobody was waiting, didn’t you?
  9. Open top trailers. I don’t know how many chips in the windscreen we’ve picked up thanks to things flying off the trailer ahead of us and whacking the windscreen.  The trailer in question may be hooked to a truck or to a smaller vehicle, but the end result is still annoying. Even if it’s not a stone flying off and chipping windscreens, other debris getting off a trailer is hazardous and annoying (lawn clippings, leaves, dust…).  If you’re a gardening contractor or if you’re taking a load of garden rubbish to the tip, then cover that load or at least put it in a bag so it doesn’t blow everywhere.
  10. Merging morons.  When two lanes merge into one, the idea is that Car A, which is in the right-hand lane and is slightly ahead goes into the merged lane first, then Car B, which is in the left-hand lane.  Then Car C, which was immediately behind Car A in the right-hand lane gets to go in.  If Car C is a merging moron, then he/she will push ahead and force Car B over to one side out of the stream of traffic until someone sensible(Car D in the right lane) comes along.  Car B can also sometimes be a moron, racing ahead to try to get to the merged lane ahead of Car A.  In all these scenarios, be Car D – the one that’s courteous and keeps an eye out for other drivers rather than having a Me First attitude.
  11. Litterbugs.  Technically, you shouldn’t dispose of any rubbish out of the window of a car.  However, I’m willing to wink at organic rubbish that will feed wildlife and break down naturally or grow a new tree, such as apple cores, banana peels and apricot stones.  Hey, in 10 years’ time, a forager for wild fruit might thank you!  However, there’s an art to chucking biodegradable fruit bits out of the window, the most important part of which is to wait until (a) there’s nobody behind you and (b) your apple core will land in long grass.  There is no excuse for throwing out drink cans, papers, plastic bits, or fast food packaging.  Cigarette stubs – which are less common these days, thank goodness – are even worse, as they can set fire to dry grass in summer or burn that cyclist you didn’t see (I’ve been the cyclist in this situation).

Any terrible driving habits that enrage you that I’ve missed?  And which ones are your pet peeves?  Have a good rant in the comments about them!

Flying At Ground Level.

A certain British car show once had a story about a car powered by an engine sourced from a WW2 fighter plane. It was a spectacle to behold with flames, sparks, and smoke being emitted as it was piloted around the show’s test track.

British based John Crowhurst is one member of a very select group that has similar thoughts to the builder of that car. John, formerly based in South Africa, has found an engine that comes from the same basic aeronautic background, however it’s a British engine, not German.

During WW2 the Merlin engine powered planes such as the iconic Spitfire. Rolls-Royce sourced parts from engines that had been in crashed aircraft with the hope of being able to use them for something else during the war. A home was found for the project by using these parts as the basis for an engine that was called Meteor.
The Meteor engine was built for and used in tanks and was used until 1964. One of these has been repurposed to be the powerplant for a handbuilt car that John, sadly, can’t legally drive on UK roads.

It’s a V12 configuration, something that fans of Jaguar or Aston Martin can appreciate. But it’s the capacity that gives pause for thoughts. Consider for a moment that a Holden 5.0L engine was 308 cubic inches. John’s beast is 27.022 litres or a whopping 1648ci!
Naturally something this big needs a good (great?) cooling system and John has fitted a set of tanks that have a total of 70 litres worth of fluid capacity. This is where the Australian based Davies, Craig have joined the party. Two of the biggest electronic water pumps that Davies, Craig have, the EWP150, were sent to John and have been fitted, one at the rear and one at the front end for the radiator.

The car itself is built on a ladder chassis with tubular components forming the upper body structure. It’s strong but flexible enough to deal with the 631 horsepower and 1449 lb-ft (470 kW and 1964 Nm).

John’s naturally quite happy with this laments that, in his extensive sponsor list, he doesn’t have a fuel supplier. Why? At around 100 km/h or 60 mph it uses a litre of fuel every mile.
At least it won’t overheat thanks to the two Davies, Craig EWP150s!

The Top Seven Things Autonomous Cars Can’t Handle

 

My  last post had some rather grim news to do with autonomous cars (aka driverless cars) not quite doing what they are supposed to do.  That was an example of things going badly wrong with the sensor systems that are supposed to make driverless cars so much safer and better than real live humans.  However, on a slightly lighter note, there are quite a few things that most of us drivers handle sometimes daily without much fuss that send autonomous cars into a full-on wobbly.

 

#1. Kangaroos

OK, so the design teams working with Volvo’s autonomous cars in Sweden had it all sorted for the sort of large animals that are likely to hang around on roads in Scandinavia.  The sensors can handle moose, elk and deer, detecting the beasties and stopping the car in time. However, it’s a different story down here in Australia.  The system just can’t cope with kangaroos, which are large animals that we’re likely to get on country roads – they’re certainly the large animals involved in most animal-related crashes.  You see, the system doesn’t see an animal, recognise it and estimate the distance and take appropriate action the way a human does.  The system uses the ground as a reference point to estimate the distance between the animal and the machine… and roos don’t stay on the ground when they’re on the move.  The sensors also have trouble recognizing a kangaroo as a kangaroo because from the perspective of a computer, a kangaroo in motion and a roo resting quietly beside the road are completely different shapes and look like totally different things.  Then you’ve got the problem with roos that human drivers have to cope with: the fact that they can get a top speed of 70 km/h and can seemingly explode out of nowhere right into your path.  If the roo has been behind a bush or something, then the sensors can’t see it and you can’t see it, so you’d better have roo bars fitted.

#2 Car Washes

Some people get a little bit phobic about those automated car washes, although others enjoy them.  There’s always that little moment when you see the big whirling brushes descend and you hope like mad that the sensors telling them when to stop aren’t going to fail, crushing the top of your vehicle, shattering your windscreen and thrashing you with hundreds of little rubber whips.  But what happens when an automatic car wash meets an autonomous car?

Well, an autonomous car can get into the car wash without any problems.  However, the vigorous action of the washer plus all the soapy foam don’t agree well with the sensors, so getting out of the car wash and driving on may be another story.  You see, the sensors have to be clear of any grime or debris to work properly and if there’s soap left on them, they can’t see.  And there is soap left on them afterwards.  At worst, the car wash knocks the sensors off or damages them, which makes for a very, very expensive fix.

You have to take your pick: is washing your car by hand every time worth the convenience of a car that drives itself?

#3 Bad Weather

Self-driving tech works nicely in fine, sunny weather.  However, put it in heavy rain, snow or ice and it throws a very, very big wobbly.  Humans know – or ought to know – that when it’s raining, you take it nice and slow around the corners, watch out for pools of water that could get you aquaplaning and to keep the speed down.  Now, you’d think that because we have rain-sensing wipers, an autonomous car should be able to recognise that it’s raining and adjust itself accordingly.  Unfortunately, it can’t.  It probably can’t tell the difference between a light shower and a tropical monsoon.  Google hasn’t even put its self-driving cars through tests in heavy rains yet, but they already know that snow is a big problem for autonomous cars because they can’t see the road markings that help them stay in their lanes and get around corners.  As for ice, they have problems detecting this as well.  Even if humans have trouble spotting black ice and frost on the road, we know that on a nippy day when you have to put on a nice woolly jersey, there’s likely to be a bit of ice on that corner there where the trees cast a shadow on the road all day.

#4 Potholes

Apparently, the only holes in the road that a self-driving car can detect are the big ones made by your local road repair crew that have cones around them.  The little blips that are hard on your tyres and suspension aren’t picked up – they are below the surface of the road and they’re not on any of the mapping systems that these cars use.  So an autonomous car won’t dodge potholes.  Ouch.

#5 Newly Altered Road Layouts

Self-driving cars, especially the ones being worked on by Google, rely on really good maps to know (a) where in the world they are and (b) what the road is supposed to look like.  Don’t underestimate the latter bit – this is one way that driverless cars can pick obstacles: some systems scan the area around them and compare this with an image of what the road and its surroundings usually look like (letterboxes, lamp posts, etc.) and reacts accordingly.  However, if they don’t have these detailed maps, then things get a bit fun.  As happened recently in Arizona, if the local supermarket has decided to change the layout of the carpark with its entrances and exits, a driverless car might still think that the best way to get out is via what is now a new set of stairs.  Self-drive vehicles also go to pieces with new subdivisions and places where massive road works and new road layouts are going on: drivers from Christchurch, New Zealand, report that your common or garden GPS throws a wobbly about all the new roads and other bits resulting from the post-earthquake reconstruction.

#6 Shared Areas

Shared areas – places where pedestrians can go on the road at the same time as cars – are touted as being a way forward for cities of the future.  The trouble is that driverless cars are very rule-based, and when it comes to shared areas, there are no set rules.  Each interaction between driver and pedestrian, or between driver and driver, is a new situation.  Nobody’s got official right of way, so we use our social knowledge to ensure that everyone gets where they want to go without anyone getting hurt.  A human driver can see that the pair of pedestrians chatting with coffee in hand staring at each other aren’t about to try crossing the road.  A robot/computer/self-driving car just sees human shapes and can’t see what they’re doing or predict what they’re about to do.  Similarly, there are tons and tons of ways that drivers and pedestrians go through the whole “After you” “No, after you,” exchange.  How we conduct these wordless conversations can be anything from a large Italian-style gesticulation to a simple jerk of the head or a raised eyebrow.  It involves hands, arms, heads, facial expressions and mouthing words on the part of both parties – or just the driver, if he/she spots a mum struggling with a pram and a cantankerous toddler plus a bunch of shopping bags.  Our gestures and our decisions depend on how we’re feeling, our stress levels, the other party involved (the puzzled looking tourist versus the businessperson talking on the phone while striding forward in a rush versus the bunch of teenage girls fooling around).  And in some places, a human driver can recognise a familiar face, stop, wind down the window and have a wee chat.  And all these variables are simply too complex, too individual and too unpredictable to be programmed into a machine.

#7 Pesky Human Beings

As an old road safety campaign stated, humans are unpredictable (and so are some animals, like the idiot dogs who stand there all dopey in the middle of the road staring at you as you brake and yell at them).  A computer system relies on the situations and courses of appropriate action that have been programmed into it.  The trouble is that not everything that people do goes according to the rules – and don’t we just know it!

Here are a few examples of pesky human behaviours and situations – all of which a human driver can recognise and deal with – that would throw a driverless car:

  • A cop on point duty directing traffic because of an accident on the road ahead or similar – a person standing there waving arms is not something a computer system is used to
  • A ball bouncing out into the road: if a human sees this, he/she knows that some child might dash onto the road to retrieve it, but a computer sensor can’t tell a ball from a plastic bag flying loose and won’t react… it certainly won’t start keeping an extra look out for kids.
  • Kids coming out from school: they’re supposed to be sensible on the roads and not do anything silly, but there’s that occasional child who rushes across the road shouting “Mummy!” unexpectedly. Most of us should know that one should slow down and keep an extra lookout at certain times around schools.
  • Hitchhikers: We know what the backpack, the extended thumb and the cardboard sign reading “Gold Coast” means, and we can also make split-second decisions regarding how dodgy the hitchhiker looks, how much space we’ve got in the car, where we’re going and how urgent our journey is, and use all this to decide whether or not to pick up the hitchhiker.
  • Situational ethics: it doesn’t happen very often, but what about when you’ve got a choice between two evils?  This comes down to morals, ethics and the value of life.  Sometimes, for a human, the choice is comparatively easy: in a choice between hitting Granny and hitting the stray dog, most of us would swerve to take the dog out.  Similarly, if you have to negotiate a flock of sheep, the farmer and his/her sheepdog, we know that if things get really bad, you avoid the dog and the farmer at all costs but you can hit the sheep.  At the moment, sensors have trouble getting beyond “Obstacle A” versus “Obstacle B”.  Even if they can tell people from animals, can they go further?  Can they distinguish one human from another?  And if so, how do they decide who not to hit?

 

The Pros and Cons of Driverless Cars

In any discussion of road safety and keeping crash-related deaths down, you’re always going to come back to the human factor. Most times, people doing silly things are what cause crashes, whether the silly thing is misjudging the speed to take a corner at in the wet, reading a text message while driving and not noticing that the car is drifting, or getting behind the wheel when a bit tiddly. Is the answer then to eliminate the human factor altogether and adopt driverless cars, much in the same way that aircraft have adopted autopilot systems?

What Google’s driverless car looks like.

There are tons of reasons why driverless cars (aka autonomous cars, self-driving cars and autonomous cars) could be a good idea, and just as many reasons why they’re not.

Arguments in favour of driverless cars include the following:

  • Robots and computer systems don’t get tired, drunk or distracted.
  • Computer systems can calculate the perfect speed to negotiate corners.
  • Autonomous cars automatically detect if they’re drifting out of a lane and correct it instantly (some cars do this already even if they’re driven by a real live human being).
  • In theory, computer systems don’t make mistakes, slip or get careless.

What we hoped driverless cars would look like.

In short, a driverless car eliminates the human factor.  After all, the proverb “to err is human” has been around since before cars were invented.  Computerised systems aren’t subject to the limitations of being human and fallible.

However, a modern twist on the old proverb says that although to err may be human, to really mess things up, use a computer. This brings us neatly to the arguments against driverless cars:

  • All new software systems are prone to teething troubles, glitches and bugs when first released. This is mildly annoying on your office computer but could be fatal at worst and expensive at best in a car.
  • We all know that electronics seem to develop a mind of their own and do weird things that we don’t expect them to unless we’re super-geeks.
  • Artificial intelligence can’t cope with really busy situations. Busy car parks and places where pedestrians and cars share the road are particularly confusing for autonomous car systems. Just think of all the ways that people indicate “After you,” in these situations – a wave of the hand(s) that can be big or small or just about any direction, a quick jerk of the head, a smile, mouthing the words… Then you’ve got all those “You idiot!” gestures. A human recognises these instantly; computers often struggle.
  • Weather can affect the sensors, especially extreme weather such as snow or heavy rain where you really need to take care.
  • Autonomous systems need very detailed up-to-date maps so they “know” the right speed for corners and the best routes. This means continual updates are needed – hello, big data bills! And what happens when something’s changed unexpectedly on the road surface, such as oil spills, debris from a crash or gravel?
  • Computers can be hacked and jammed, sometimes remotely. Anybody seen Fast and Furious 8 where this happens? (Yes, I know it’s fiction but who hasn’t had problems with viruses or experienced remote access in a desktop.  It’s plausible!)

  • People may come to rely on automatic systems so much that they might not know how to react properly if the computer systems fail (and we all know that computers crash now and again).
  • Avoiding collisions with large animals on rural roads is harder than you think. Take the example of Volvo : their system worked fine on Swedish wildlife like caribou and elk, but when they tried it out Down Under, the system didn’t recognise kangaroos as large animals to be avoided.
  • Autonomous systems probably can’t tell the difference between a dead hedgehog in the middle of the road (which you don’t mind hitting) and Mother Duck waiting for ducklings (which you want to stop for).
  • Taxi drivers and chauffeurs would be out of a job.

There are also a ton of ethical and moral issues involved with driverless cars.  If a driverless car does crash and kill someone, who’s responsible? The “driver” or the manufacturer of the computer systems and software?  How will a computer make decisions in the case of an unavoidable crash.  For example, if the algorithm is set to minimise the amount of harm or damage caused and kill the fewest people, and it detects that it’s going to hit a bus on a bridge, will it decide that the “best” option is to go off the bridge, because that will only kill the occupants of the driverless car rather than possibly all the occupants of the bus (just stop and imagine what that would be like for the driver for a moment… and what if that bus is actually empty?).

What’s more, we all know that horrible things like car bombings and jerks ramming crowds on purpose are bad enough, but at least the driver puts him/herself at some risk.  What’s to stop a terrorist loading up a driverless car up with explosives and setting the vehicle to go all by itself?

On a lighter note, a lot of people simply enjoy driving. If we want a system that allows us to sit back and relax while we get to work that also cuts down on the need for parking spaces and reduces congestion, this already exists and it’s called “public transport” or at least “car pooling”. But that still includes the human factor…

At the moment, fully driverless cars where the person in the front seat can more or less go to sleep or bury his/her head in the daily news aren’t allowed on our roads.  At the moment, even the most automated systems still require a driver who’s alert and ready to take over if things get hairy, much like what happens in aircraft.  But who knows which way things will go in the future?