Category Archives: Drive Me Crazy

REPRINT: Report to the Future Tech Committee, Society of Vehicle Engineers

Four years ago this month in their February 2017 issue, Car and Driver published a column by Aaron Robinson that addressed the transition from internal combustion engine vehicles to battery-electric vehicles in an extremely clever alternate-universe manner. I’ve shared this column with numerous people over the years, but for some reason C&D has never seen fit to make it available on their website, even though contemporaneous columns from the same author are there. The column is also inexplicably impervious to Google and other search engines.

So as a public service to other fans of this column, I am reprinting it here, both in its original format and as searchable text. Should C&D or Mr. Robinson ever choose to make it available online, I will cheerfully remove this copy and redirect readers to their site.

by Aaron Robinson
Car and Driver, February 2017

Report to the Future Tech Committee, Society of Vehicle Engineers: As there has been much discussion regarding a new form of propulsion being proposed for motor vehicles, we have been tasked with compiling this report on the technology and its prospects for practical and commercial applications. Here is the executive summary:

As has been widely reported, the proposed technology, combustion of hydrocarbon fuels in a closed cylinder, represents a dramatic departure from the battery-electric powertrains that currently power 99 percent of our nation’s vehicle fleet. Given the radical upheaval this would cause to both the automotive-manufacturing industry and our all-electric recharging infrastructure, a thorough examination of internal-combustion technology is in order before further investment should proceed.

Early prototypes of the new “engine” appear as a heavy and bulky metal casing called a “block,” usually made of iron or aluminum, in which one or several reciprocating pistons are connected to a common crankshaft with rods. The hydrocarbon fuel and air are introduced separately to each cylinder via manifold vacuum or directly under pressure and ignited by a sparking device, whereupon the rapid heating and expansion of the gases displace the piston(s). The process is repeated serially to create continuous crankshaft rotation.

Several technical and market challenges are apparent. The number of moving parts in the “engine” that must be manufactured and machined to fine tolerances is many times that of our current electric motors, which have a single rotating assembly. Also, the best designs are only about 40 percent efficient as waste heat is lost through friction, transfer to the cooling system, and exhaust. Additionally, unlike electric motors, which make peak torque just above zero rpm, the new engine’s torque delivery is by comparison delayed, as it must first develop significant crankshaft rotational speed.

Furthermore, unlike our common electric motors, constant lubrication of the engine’s moving parts is required by a separate supply of hydrocarbon lubricant. This lubricant has a limited life due to contamination and heat cycling and must be replaced periodically. Will today’s motorists, accustomed to nearly maintenance-free electric powertrains, even accept a vehicle that has frequent and possibly costly service intervals in which the used lubricant, a slick and staining material laced with toxic heavy metals, must be safely disposed of?

Further, hydrocarbon combustion in the presence of the two main atmospheric components of nitrogen and oxygen produces substantial noise that will have to be greatly suppressed to be acceptable to both drivers as well as communities accustomed to hearing nothing from a motor vehicle but a faint whine. Also, the chemical reaction produces compounds that some medical experts believe to be unhealthy.

There is also the combustible nature of the fuel. Unlike electricity, which does not leak or evaporate and which has a proven infrastructure for home delivery, hydrocarbon fuel, and specifically its most commercially viable form, gasoline, both leaks and evaporates and is extremely flammable as well as toxic, the odors alone inducing rapid nausea. While batteries can overheat, that is a gin fizz compared with what gasoline does when lit. And to have any meaningful range, vehicles will be required to carry up to 20 gallons of it, enough explosive power to easily destroy the vehicle, its occupants, and surrounding structures.

Thus, the issue of gasoline refueling raises many questions. Obviously, consumers cannot be allowed to refuel at home as they currently do with free electricity from their rooftop solar panels. They will have to drive to a licensed commercial operation outfitted with the requisite specialized equipment. The SVE Safety Committee is already studying the matter and, in consultation with our lawyers, has developed some initial recommendations, such as requiring the driver to leave the vehicle with a trained technician who conducts the refueling in an open-air pit of reinforced concrete wearing some form of blast-proof garment. On the positive side, vast sources of crude oil, the raw form of gasoline, are said to lie in a wide range of locations, from the Alaskan tundra to the coastal waters of California, though the most accessible pockets are beneath the sands of the Middle East. The State Department has noted that increased trade resulting from our bulk purchases of crude oil can only help further cement friendly relations with our many allies in the region.

In summary: The market penetration of the internal-combustion engine is handicapped by several technical hurdles. A small market is possible among machinery enthusiasts of the type who prefer complex mechanical watches to simple and reliable digital timepieces. However, estimating the size of this market would be, at this point, purely conjecture.

The 1973 Plymouth Fury III: An Unappreciation

A 1973 Plymouth Fury III was my family’s only car when I was a teenager, and consequently was the first car I drove an appreciable amount. The Glasser Family’s Fury III was a four-door sedan — brown with an off-white vinyl top — that my parents purchased new off the showroom floor. It replaced a 1965 Fury III that had served our family well, which in turn had replaced another Plymouth. The nine-year-old car nut version of me accompanied my father to the Plymouth dealer in Brooklyn to check it out in person before my parents purchased it.

Our ’73 was a lemon from the day we bought it; on the evening my father drove it home from the dealership, it stalled out in the parking lot of the Fairfield Towers apartment building that was then our home. Somehow my parents kept it running for ten years and 135,000 miles, through two oil crises, my father’s daily commutes through Brooklyn and Queens, and numerous road trips to New England. Indeed, the only bumper sticker that ever adorned this car was a green and white one reading, “I L♥VERMONT.” For a family with three growing kids, it was, if nothing else, the right size car.

When I turned seventeen and started driver’s ed, this was the car I used to practice and to take my driving tests (failed the first, passed the second). The only “fury” this car ever exercised was upon its driver: Immense and heavy, with loose steering, it was a chore to drive and even more of a chore to parallel park in New York City. Starting the car when its engine was cold required a delicate dance between the ignition key and the gas pedal. The 1970’s-era design touches that I appreciate now, such as its olive-shaped taillights and the turn signal indicators mounted outside the car atop the front fenders, held little appeal for a struggling teenage driver who sole goal was to get his license.

It was also the last American-branded car my parents ever bought. In 1983, with their kids through high school and out of the house, they replaced the Fury with a first generation Toyota Camry. My father’s battles with the ’73 were enough to overcome his World War II veteran’s resistance to buying a Japanese car, and he and my mother never looked back. The Fury was dispatched to its second owner for next to nothing.

Given their massive size and notoriously poor quality, I’m not surprised that 45 years later, few running examples of the ’73 Fury still exist. It’s not the kind of car you’ll find in a museum or selling for hundreds of thousands of dollars at a collector auction. Purchasing one like this example now for sale on eBay would make sense only if I wanted to burn thousands of dollars and get well-acquainted with my local tow truck operators. And become — and remain — single. Still, the pull of nostalgia for one’s youth is powerful, and my mind wonders what it would be like to drive one again.

Car Ads, 2016

The latest in my continuing series of posts on television commercials for cars that catch my attention (the commercials, not the cars).

Cadillac’s marketing team must continue to believe that the effectiveness of their ads for the Escalade is directly correlated to the utter selfishness portrayed by its drivers in those ads. In their latest one, The Herd, the message seems to be, “Because I drive an Escalade, it’s OK for me to drive the wrong way down the middle of a one-way street and force every other driver to swerve to avoid me.”

Or, to put more succinctly: “I’m an Escalade driver. I don’t give a crap about anybody else.” This is indeed consistent with my personal experience with Escalade drivers.

On the positive side, I’ve discovered a car ad that I enjoy watching even after numerous viewings: Nissan’s Family Visit. It’s clever, well-choreographed, and has a great backing track. And Mariette Hartley nails the punchline.

Moving America to the Right

State Law: All Vehicles Keep Right Except To Pass

While there are many issues on which Americans are divided, there is one on which we passionately agree: Drivers who clog up the left lanes of our highways are a menace to society.

The most glaring examples of this are drivers who hang out  in the left lane without any vehicles in front of them. I have heard more than one person explain this behavior thusly: “My taxes pay for these roads, so I’ll drive wherever the hell I please.” As the people who use this justification typically have a chronological age that is followed by the phrase “years young,” they should be reminded that their taxes also pay for Medicare and that their fellow drivers are wishing upon them an occasion to use that too.

The bigger and more insidious problem, however, is drivers who drive in the left lane at speeds just barely faster than the vehicles in the lane next to them. They can claim that they are passing, but their behavior creates a line of cars stuck behind them. Each of those left-lane-clogging drivers can claim that they are going as fast as the car(s) in front of them and that they would speed up if only those drivers would just get out of their damn way. Guess what, folks? You’re all part of the problem.

I witnessed this behavior last week when I traveled round-trip from Seattle to Eugene, Oregon, which consisted mostly of driving on I-5. Despite the repeated presence of signs reading “Keep Right Except to Pass” (Washington) and “Slower Traffic Keep Right” (Oregon), there were frequently long lines of cars moseying along in the left lane, at or just above the speed of the adjacent lane. In areas where the highway was three lanes wide, it was at times possible to drive faster in the right lane than in either the left or middle lanes. (Not that I would ever suggest doing something as reckless and illegal as passing on the right.)

This problem seems more pronounced here in the Pacific Northwest. In less passive-aggressive parts of the country, drivers will flash their high-beams or honk to get the other driver’s attention, but the typical PNW driver will just quietly tailgate the car in front of them, hoping that they’ll notice and move out of the way. A tip to those people: If the driver of the car in front of you is too clueless to realize that they’re needlessly hogging the passing lane, they’re probably not checking their rear-view mirror either.

I tried to model good Autobahn-style behavior – staying to the right, except when actively overtaking another vehicle – but due to the left-lane clogging, this frequently caused me to fall behind the flow of traffic. And it definitely involved a lot more lane changing that just hanging out in the left lane with the other cars and very gradually overtaking the semis that populated the right lane.

Mind you, it is already against the law in Washington State to “to drive continuously in the left lane of a multilane roadway when it impedes the flow of other traffic.” While there are occasionally efforts to enforce this, it is quite understandably not a priority for law enforcement. An attempt this year to enact more stringent penalties failed; I’m not the only one who noted the irony that the bill’s co-sponsors are small-government conservatives who would normally be opposed to this sort of superfluous regulation if their jobs didn’t involve a long commute to Olympia.

As I drove, I thought to myself, “What would Daniel Pink do?” For those of you who haven’t read his books or articles or watched the show Crowd Control, Pink studies human behavior and in particular how to motivate people. He has creatively addressed a number of situations where people behave selfishly or illegally and where relying on official law enforcement is not a scalable way to deter the offending behavior. For example, this Lawbreakers video addresses people who illegally park in disabled parking spaces.

Inspired by Pink’s work, I offer this proposal: Treat the passing lane as the limited-supply resource that it is. Install toll pass readers at regular, short intervals (say, once every half-mile) and charge people a small toll for driving in this lane. Not enough to be expensive, but enough to make people think twice about remaining in the left lane longer than necessary. We can experiment with various rates to see what is the lowest amount you can charge and keep the left lane clear; perhaps it would take five cents a mile, or perhaps it can be accomplished for as little as one or two cents a mile. We’d want to ensure that the generated revenue covers the capital and operational costs of the tolling system, but what we don’t already know from the numerous existing systems in place can be determined via experimentation. This proposal won’t eliminate people cruising along in the left lane, but it will make people think more carefully about doing it. If some of them still consciously choose to camp out in the left lane, they’re literally paying for the privilege, and we’re no worse off than we are today.

You’re probably thinking of various cases in which this toll would be unfair, but I’m confident that they could be addressed. What happens if there’s a traffic jam and people are forced into the left lane just to get around it? Charge the toll only if the vehicle is driving above a certain minimum speed; let’s say 45 MPH, though again, we can refine this through experimentation. What about left lane exits, or areas where the left lane is the only through lane? Those areas would clearly be excluded from the collection zones. In fact, I would make the stronger statement that this system would be impractical in urban areas, and if you exclude those, you probably eliminate virtually all places where there are left lane exits. What about construction zones where the left lane is temporarily the only lane available? Disable the toll readers in the construction zone while the construction is in progress. Won’t this encourage people to make unsafe lane changes out of the left lane to avoid triggering an upcoming toll reader? Theoretically it could, but if someone is willing to put their own life at risk to save one or two pennies, we probably don’t want them driving on our highways. (And before you ask your next question, the answer is, “Yes, I have driven in New York City and Boston.”)

There is also the broader issue of driver privacy. Do we really want the government tracking our location and speed as we cruise along our network of interstates? What’s to prevent the government from infringing on our privacy and freedom of movement? I agree that the government should not be in the business of collecting this information; we should leave it where it is today, in the trustworthy and capable hands of Google, State Farm, and your wireless carrier. But seriously, this issue exists today with automated toll collection systems, so whatever safeguards we develop for those can be applied here.

By encouraging our fellow drivers to be more intentional about their use of the left lane, we can keep it more freely available for its intended purpose: As an active passing lane.

Car Ads, 2015, Part II: Your Grandparents French Kissing

General Motors is at it again. Last night I saw Chevrolet’s First Impressions ad:

The second half of the ad features “real people” — thirty-somethings and older, by my estimation — using the phrases “I could totally rock this”, “this thing feels pretty boss”, “it looks kinda dope”, and “this is the jam” to describe the vehicles. I don’t know what effect GM’s marketing team is going for, but the result is like seeing your grandparents French kissing in public: They think it makes them look young and vibrant, but their intended audience thinks it’s pathetic and kind of nauseating.

Car Ads, 2015

When you watch a lot of football on TV, you see a lot of car advertisements. Most are instantly forgettable but a few stand out.

General Motors seems to think that we’re still living in the 1960’s. Perhaps it’s a temporary contact high from cheap gasoline. Exhibit One: In Theme Song, Chevrolet tells us that it’s cool to replace your small, fuel-efficient car with a midsize pickup, even if you’re a young, single guy.

In Evolution of Luxury, Cadillac reinforces the stereotype that the Escalade is for the aspiring Marie Antoinette (a.k.a. major d-bag) crowd. This is totally unsurprising to anyone who has driven or especially parked near one of these behemoths.

At least the Escalade makes a plausible claim to being a car for the privileged few. I take pity on the poor junior associates who drew the short straw to create Nissan’s ironically-named Feel Like Royalty ad, which attempts to convince us that one of the blandest-looking family sedans out there is literally turning heads. Or maybe we’re supposed to imagine that the Nissan is the photo chase car for a new Lamborghini.

[Updated 25-Jun-2015: Replaced broken YouTube link.]

My first new car

It was twenty years ago today:  When I bought my first new car, that is.  At the time I was driving a beat-up Datsun B210 that I’d purchased 2 1/2 years earlier for $650, so with some savings in the bank I was able to afford something new.

I looked at a bunch of compact four-door sedans in the $15,000 range, like the VW Jetta and the Mazda 626, before settling on the Acura Integra.  I opted for the "high-end" GS model to get anti-lock brakes.  Acuras didn’t have a lot of factory options at the time (nor do they now) and the main dealer-installed option I added was air conditioning.  I also got my first real taste of the new car purchasing experience, which predictably wasn’t fun.

One of the creature comforts that this car lacked was map lights, which were introduced in the following year’s model (along with the Acura logo).  A friend who test drove my car and ended up buying a 1991 Integra reminded me about the lack of map lights for years.  I had another friend who bought nearly the identical car a few months after I did, down to the color — the only differences were that she opted for a sunroof instead of AC and had a different color dealer-added body stripe — and was afraid I’d be upset with her for copying me.

I drove the car for seven years before replacing it, at which point I shipped it to my sister, who used it for the rest of its natural life.  (The above pictures were taken from the shipping company’s lot in 1997.) The car I replaced it with and the car I replaced that one with both arrived in March, so there must be something about me and buying new cars at the onset of spring.

What Are Those Things Sticking Out of My Car’s Front Doors?

It’s not clear to me that most drivers use their car’s side mirrors.  What is clear is that those who do often don’t have their mirrors adjusted properly.  The notion seems to be that you need to be able to see the sides of your car in your side mirrors to ensure that you can see what’s alongside it.

The point was well made last year in the New York Times in Are Blind Spots a Myth?  People are now spending over $1000 to purchase an option to accomplish something that can be just as easily achieved but adjusting their damn mirrors properly.

More recently Car and Driver covered the subject, complete with helpful illustrations (left).  Like last year’s New York Times piece, it refers to a paper published by the Society of Automotive Engineers back in 1995.  The technique is to adjust “the mirrors so far outward that the viewing angle of the side mirrors just overlaps that of the cabin’s rearview mirror.”  In other words, you get a lot more benefit from your side mirrors when they don’t show you the same thing that your rearview mirror shows.

I don’t know what they teach in driver’s ed these days but when I took it, this was not something that was taught.  We were taught that large blind spots are inevitable and the only way to avoid them is to turn your head at least 90 degrees before changing lanes.  Admittedly, this lesson may have been a throwback to the days when many cars did not come with right-side mirrors.  Oh, yes, and I did take driver’s ed in Manhattan.

Years later I learned about proper mirror adjustment on my own, though when I took advanced driver training through BMW CCA PSR, I observed it taught in practice for the first time.  As the instructor put it, “You know what the side of your car looks like, so why do you need to see it in your mirrors?”

Two Recent Examples of Why Ezra Dyer is the best young automotive writer today

From the New York Times review of the Nissan Cube, May 31, 2009:

The Cube is cheerfully bizarre, and I appreciate that. It’s not a riot to drive, but in this case, the driving experience is really beside the point. The kids don’t care about that noise, pops. They want connectivity. They want a car that’s a rolling Tweet about a new iPhone app from the Jonas Brothers.

I, however, want a car that doesn’t look like a myopic washing machine, but I’m a lame old guy of 31 who remembers listening to CDs and saying things like, “My modem is taking forever to load this order.”

From Automobile Magazine’s Dyer Consequences column “The Kings of One-Upmanship: All-Stars of A Different Breed”, July 2009:

There are actually a lot of cars on the market whose sole reason for existence is to one-up some lesser model.  Porsche is the undisputed master of the craft, offering no fewer than fourteen variations on the 911.  Basically, 911 owners can never be satisfied until they have a GT2, at which point they will finally experience a feeling of fulfillment that lasts for the few minutes before they crash backward into a tree at 204 MPH.

Crossing the 5/50,000 Threshold

As of yesterday, my family’s cars all are at least five years old and have at least 50,000 miles on them.  I’ve been paying close attention to this because until a couple of months ago, I had two cars that were in a race to hit this first:  One was approaching five years of age and had well over 50,000 miles, and the other was well over five years of age but approaching 50,000 miles.  As it turns out, time won out over distance; the younger, higher mileage car hit five years at the end of November but the older, lower mileage (and not snow-worthy) car didn’t cross 50,000 miles until last night.

This is mostly an opportunity to express self-satisfied virtue, as I feel better about having a garage of well-used cars.  I grew up in a family where we never had more than one car at a time and it was expected that you’d keep each car for at least 100,000 miles, a threshold I have yet to achieve as an adult.  I went through a period a number of years ago where we bought multiple vehicles over a relatively short span of time to address family “needs” and it’s nice to know that’s well in the past.  As much as I like car shopping and new-car smell, I’ve never enjoyed the process of stepping into a dealership and contemplating or executing an actual purchase.

At least for now I’m hopeful that this situation continues, as all of our vehicles are in relatively good condition and there are no cars on the market that I consider significantly better suited to our needs.  That said, I feel slightly unpatriotic for not going out and buying a new car just to help get the economy moving again.  If only the Escalade Hybrid had tail fins…