Chris Umson is the Director of Self-Driving Cars at Google[x] and in March, he gave a talk at TED about the company's self-driving cars. The second half of the presentation is fascinating; Umson shows more than a dozen different traffic scenarios and how the car sees and reacts to each one.
It will be interesting to see how roads, cars, and our behavior will change when self-driving cars hit the streets. Right now, street markings, signage, and automobiles are designed for how human drivers see the world. Computers see the road quite differently, and if Google's take on the self-driving car becomes popular, it would be wise to adopt different standards to help them navigate more smoothly. Maintaining painted lines might be more important, along with eliminating superfluous signage close to the roadway. Maybe human-driven cars would be required to display a special marking alerting self-driving cars to potential hazards.1 Positioning of headlights and taillights might become more standard.
Human drivers, cyclists, and pedestrians will necessarily adapt to self-driving cars as well. Some will take advantage of the cars' politeness. But mostly I suspect that learning to interact with self-driving cars will require a different approach, just as people talk to computers differently than they do to other humans -- think of how you formulate a successful search query, speak to Siri, or, more to the point, manipulate a Wii remote so the sensor dingus on top of your TV can interpret what you're doing.
Although if the car is smart enough to parse the arm motions of a police officer directing traffic, it can probably pick out the relatively inconsistent movement of a human-driven car in a second or two.↩
Google cars drive like your grandma -- they're never the first off the line at a stop light, they don't accelerate quickly, they don't speed, and they never take any chances with lane changes (cut people off, etc.).
And we know how easy it is to take advantage of old people:
It's safe to cut off a Google car. I ride a motorcycle to work and in California motorcycles are allowed to split lanes (i.e., drive in the gap between lanes of cars at a stoplight, slow traffic, etc.). Obviously I do this at every opportunity because it cuts my commute time in 1/3.
Once, I got a little caught out as the traffic transitioned from slow moving back to normal speed. I was in a lane between a Google car and some random truck and, partially out of experiment and partially out of impatience, I gunned it and cut off the Google car sort of harder than maybe I needed too... The car handled it perfectly (maybe too perfectly). It slowed down and let me in. However, it left a fairly significant gap between me and it. If I had been behind it, I probably would have found this gap excessive and the lengthy slowdown annoying. Honestly, I don't think it will take long for other drivers to realize that self-driving cars are "easy targets" in traffic.
But the overall opinion is that self-driving cars are excellent at driving.
I think that, inevitably, non-self driving cars will eventually be banned from the roads to let SD cars operate at their full potential (which personally I'm not thrilled about as I'm a car-nut and I love to drive).
Driving may not have Second Amendment protection, but I predict a hell of a fight against banning non-self-driving cars from the roads, akin to how some people feel about guns. "You can pry the steering wheel from my cold dead hands", that sort of thing. As future drivers feel threatened and membership dwindles and radicalizes, perhaps AAA will become more like the present-day NRA. (via mr)
Update: Several people pointed out that those in the pro-driving camp may not have much of a choice whether to keep driving or not. As more self-driving cars are put into use, insurance rates for human drivers will rise because the pool of insured will shrink and self-driving cars will prove to be safer by an order of magnitude or more. And then driving will return to being a hobby for the wealthy, like car racing is now.
Update: Paul Barnsley is an economist specializing in risk, and he wrote in about the implications of self-driving cars on insurance rates:
I don't buy the theory that self-driving cars will do much to current insurance premiums. The pool of drivers will shrink, sure, but the average quality of its members will stay pretty constant, maybe even improve (if better-than-average drivers want to stay behind the wheel) and they'll be driving in a lower risk environment (because of all the other self-driving cars).
So less risk will be shared over a smaller, but still plenty large, group. Since you can run a viable insurance market over a much smaller group of people than "all car owners in the US" I'd expect the lowered risk effected to dominate and premiums to drop relative to their current levels, though they will be high in comparison to self-driving, which may be your correspondents' argument.
Nanny mode: vehicles that are assigned to pick up young children from school, but end up trailing them at a discreet distance because the kids prefer to walk home alone.
Car surprise: when you come across your car somewhere where you didn't expect it to be and witness your vehicle engaging in unexpected activities e.g. pickup up flowers at the mall: the equivalent of catching your parent or kid smoking or shoplifting.
And why is Google, an advertising company, interested in self-driving cars? Perhaps this:
Trailer trashing: where dodgy looking vehicles are assigned to trail an otherwise apparent owner either as a joke or to send a message e.g. a hearse sent by a debt collection agency to scare-up payment. You'll also see this happen with more aggressive companies who send a vehicle around to their competitors to send a message, recruit their staff or to gather intelligence. Task Rabbit or San Da ha + autonomous mobility + intent. The most obvious market for this will be straight-up advertising.
In 2015, you can follow brands on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. In 2023, the brands follow you! Around town!
During my association with Model T's, self-starters were not a prevalent accessory. They were expensive and under suspicion. Your car came equipped with a serviceable crank, and the first thing you learned was how to Get Results. It was a special trick, and until you learned it (usually from another Ford owner, but sometimes by a period of appalling experimentation) you might as well have been winding up an awning. The trick was to leave the ignition switch off, proceed to the animal's head, pull the choke (which was a little wire protruding through the radiator), and give the crank two or three nonchalant upward lifts. Then, whistling as though thinking about something else, you would saunter back to the driver's cabin, turn the ignition on, return to the crank, and this time, catching it on the down stroke, give it a quick spin with plenty of That. If this procedure was followed, the engine almost always responded -- first with a few scattered explosions, then with a tumultuous gunfire, which you checked by racing around to the driver's seat and retarding the throttle. Often, if the emergency brake hadn't been pulled all the way back, the car advanced on you the instant the first explosion occurred and you would hold it back by leaning your weight against it. I can still feel my old Ford nuzzling me at the curb, as though looking for an apple in my pocket.
Aside from the obvious advantage of price, White details three compelling factors of the Model T, all of which still move car owners to purchase today: quickness, height, and customizability. The Model T was gloriously quick off the line, reaching its top speed of 45 mph, according to White, more quickly than other cars of the age. The driver sat high up in the car, on top of the gas tank, which must have given you the same mighty feeling as driving a huge-ass SUV or pickup truck. And as delivered, the Model T was just functional, leaving ample opportunity for people to add their own touches. For instance, the car didn't come with a gas pedal (the throttle was hand-operated), speedometer, rear view mirror, or windshield wipers. (via @ftrain, who notes what a great tech blogger White was)
Yesterday, there was a wall of Tesla patents in the lobby of our Palo Alto headquarters. That is no longer the case. They have been removed, in the spirit of the open source movement, for the advancement of electric vehicle technology.
Tesla Motors was created to accelerate the advent of sustainable transport. If we clear a path to the creation of compelling electric vehicles, but then lay intellectual property landmines behind us to inhibit others, we are acting in a manner contrary to that goal. Tesla will not initiate patent lawsuits against anyone who, in good faith, wants to use our technology.
Damn good move for a damn good reason. It's impressive to watch this company in action.
Update: I read that last line quoted above again and perhaps "abandoned" is too strong a word. Glenn Fleishman notes on Twitter:
They did not abandon their patents. They aren't apparently even licensing them. They are stating they won't sue except defensively. The devil is in the details. Twitter released a complete framework of their policy when they announced the same thing.
Hopefully Musk and co. will clarify what they mean by "in good faith".
Michael Paul Smith takes photographs of classic cars that evoke feelings of nostalgia for America in the 30s, 40s, 50s, and 60s. Take a look, these are about as Pleasantville as you can get:
But as you'll discover browsing through Smith's collection, the cars he photographs are scale models. Here's the set-up for that second shot:
And here's further evidence of Smith's trickery:
No Photoshop here...all effects are done in-camera. As Smith notes, "It is the oldest trick in the special effects book: lining up a model with an appropriate background, then photographing it." (via @osteslag)
Watch Ferrari's F1 pit crew do a pit stop in a bit over two seconds:
I wish this were in slow motion because I've watched this three times now and I still cannot understand how it's done. My favorite part is how calm they all are about it. Here's a longer video that shows the process over and over from several points of view, including from a GoPro mounted on the chest of the wheelgun man:
Watch for the guy on the front jack pirouetting out of the way. I would love to read a long piece on how F1 pit crews train and practice. There are tantalizing bits in shorter articles, like this one from Autosport.com:
With three people per wheel, two jack operators, and a handful of mechanics fulfilling other functions, each pit crew comprises nearly 20 people.
Each is trained for a specific role and teams take their preparation as seriously as drivers', managing crewmen's fitness and diet.
They are drilled incessantly at both the factory and during race weekends, with hundreds of pitstop practices until the process is instinctive.
Although problems such as faulty guns are rehearsed, everyone focuses on their own job -- in a two-second pitstop, there is no time to see what everyone else is doing. By the time an error has been alerted, the car has often already pulled away, as was the case at the Nurburgring.
Teams now spend huge sums to design their own equipment and improve the fitness of their teams who also work as mechanics. McLaren is working with the English Institute of Sport to hone their 24-member team's technique while Williams has partnered with Olympic champion Michael Johnson's Performance Center to work on everything from diet to eye-hand coordination to core strength.
Training has also been ramped up. Most teams have rigs to practice on in the factory and pit stops are practiced as many as 70 times over a typical race weekend. Each stop is timed and videotaped for later review.
"When you had to go from 3.5 seconds down to a lower number, then you really need to be very specific and accurate on how you train because everything needs to be very synchronized to achieve that level of fast time and consistency," said Williams' chief race engineer Xevi Pujolar, whose team had its fastest pit stop this season in Spain after making changes to its crew but still is almost a second behind the top teams.
"There still a lot of room for improvement and we are working hard to catch up to these guys that do close to two seconds," Pujolar said. "If you look at video of pit crew and how they move during pit stop, everything is so well coordinated. To achieve this level of coordination on every pits stop requires a lot of training."
Constructing our cities around cars is one of the biggest mistakes of the 20th century and we're still paying for it. As Kaj Pindal cleverly depicted in his 1966 Oscar-nominated short film What On Earth!, it often seems like cars and not people are the Earth's dominant life form.
The Google car has now driven more than half a million miles without causing an accident-about twice as far as the average American driver goes before crashing. Of course, the computer has always had a human driver to take over in tight spots. Left to its own devices, Thrun says, it could go only about fifty thousand miles on freeways without a major mistake. Google calls this the dog-food stage: not quite fit for human consumption. "The risk is too high," Thrun says. "You would never accept it." The car has trouble in the rain, for instance, when its lasers bounce off shiny surfaces. (The first drops call forth a small icon of a cloud onscreen and a voice warning that auto-drive will soon disengage.) It can't tell wet concrete from dry or fresh asphalt from firm. It can't hear a traffic cop's whistle or follow hand signals.
And yet, for each of its failings, the car has a corresponding strength. It never gets drowsy or distracted, never wonders who has the right-of-way. It knows every turn, tree, and streetlight ahead in precise, three-dimensional detail. Dolgov was riding through a wooded area one night when the car suddenly slowed to a crawl. "I was thinking, What the hell? It must be a bug," he told me. "Then we noticed the deer walking along the shoulder." The car, unlike its riders, could see in the dark. Within a year, Thrun added, it should be safe for a hundred thousand miles.
America's legal system will make it difficult for self-driving cars to be accepted here...while not a legal kerfuffle yet, see Tesla's current difficulties w/r/t fire risk in electric cars for a taste of what's to come with self-driving cars. Europe is more likely...someplace like Holland or Denmark. They take their public and personal transportation seriously over there.
Tesla got the factory for a song from Toyota in 2010, spent about a year or so setting up tooling and started producing the Model S sedan in mid-2012. The automaker brings in raw materials by the truckload, including the massive rolls of aluminum that are bent, pressed, and formed to create the car. Those lightweight components are assembled by swarm of red robots in an intricate ballet that is mesmerizing to behold.
Cars were moving too fast through an intersection in the town of Poynton in England, so they took out the stoplights & walk signals and replaced the intersection with an unusual double roundel design. The result is a mixed-use space with slower moving car traffic and safer pedestrian traffic.
Alfred Anaya was really good at putting secret compartments into cars and he thought he was in the clear if he didn't know what his customers were putting in these compartments. He was wrong.
Alfred Anaya took pride in his generous service guarantee. Though his stereo installation business, Valley Custom Audio Fanatics, was just a one-man operation based out of his San Fernando, California, home, he offered all of his clients a lifetime warranty: If there was ever any problem with his handiwork, he would fix it for the cost of parts alone-no questions asked.
Anaya's customers typically took advantage of this deal when their fiendishly loud subwoofers blew out or their fiberglass speaker boxes developed hairline cracks. But in late January 2009, a man whom Anaya knew only as Esteban called for help with a more exotic product: a hidden compartment that Anaya had installed in his Ford F-150 pickup truck. Over the years, these secret stash spots-or traps, as they're known in automotive slang-have become a popular luxury item among the wealthy and shady alike. This particular compartment was located behind the truck's backseat, which Anaya had rigged with a set of hydraulic cylinders linked to the vehicle's electrical system. The only way to make the seat slide forward and reveal its secret was by pressing and holding four switches simultaneously: two for the power door locks and two for the windows.
Esteban said the seat was no longer responding to the switch combination and that no amount of jiggling could make it budge. He pleaded with Anaya to take a look.
Anaya was unsettled by this request, for he had suspicions about the nature of Esteban's work. There is nothing intrinsically illegal about building traps, which are commonly used to hide everything from pricey jewelry to legal handguns. But the activity runs afoul of California law if an installer knows for certain that his compartment will be used to transport drugs. The maximum penalty is three years in prison. Anaya thus thought it wise to deviate from his standard no-questions-asked policy before agreeing to honor his warranty. "There's nothing in there I shouldn't know about, is there?" he asked. Esteban assured him that he needn't worry.
Read all the way to the end for author Brendan Koerner's conclusions about our government's position of the moral neutrality of technology.
I really enjoyed this piece by John Siracusa about why Apple should continue to make a high-end personal computer (like the Mac Pro) even though it's not a big seller or hugely profitable. Basically, the Mac Pro is Apple's halo car:
In the automobile industry, there's what's known as a "halo car." Though you may not know the term, you surely know a few examples. The Corvette is GM's halo car. Chrysler has the Viper.
The vast, vast majority of people who buy a Chrysler car get something other than a Viper. The same goes for GM buyers and the Corvette. These cars are expensive to develop and maintain. Due to the low sales volumes, most halo cars do not make money for car makers. When Chrysler was recovering from bankruptcy in 2010, it considered selling the Viper product line.
But car companies continue to make halo cars in part because they are great cars, or at least have the potential to be great cars, and when a car company stops caring about making great cars, they lose their identity and credibility...with consumers, with employees, with investors, and with competitors. Halo cars are the difference between being a car company and being a company that sells cars.
Normally I'm not a big fan of advice like "do what big car companies do", but what Siracusa's piece demontrates is one of the things that's problematic about data: there are important things about business and success that you can't measure. And I would go so far as to say that these unmeasurables are the most important things, the stuff that makes or breaks a business or product or, hell, even a relationship, stuff that you just can't measure quantitatively, no matter how Big your Data is. (via df)
The 2013 Motor Trend Car of the Year is one of the quickest American four-doors ever built. It drives like a sports car, eager and agile and instantly responsive. But it's also as smoothly effortless as a Rolls-Royce, can carry almost as much stuff as a Chevy Equinox, and is more efficient than a Toyota Prius. Oh, and it'll sashay up to the valet at a luxury hotel like a supermodel working a Paris catwalk. By any measure, the Tesla Model S is a truly remarkable automobile, perhaps the most accomplished all-new luxury car since the original Lexus LS 400. That's why it's our 2013 Car of the Year.
The magazine went on to say that "the Tesla Model S is simply a damned good car you happen to plug in to refuel". This is how environmentally friendly products win, by being better than the less green products they replace.
Brad Templeton imagines how the design of cars and other transportation systems might change with widespread use of driverless cars. I especially like the robocar used as a mobile office or a place to get a good night's sleep as you travel from one place to the other.
The in-car environment will become more of a work and entertainment space than just a travel space. Passengers will expect things like a screen, a keyboard, and a desk. Passengers may wish to face one another (though not all are comfortable riding backwards.)
Quiet will be a very important consideration, though passengers will be allowed to wear headphones if desired, unlike drivers today.
The smooth ride (especially on the highway) of a robocar may generate demand for cars for night-travel, while the passengers sleep. Such vehicles might aim to make a trip last 8 hours rather than make the fastest possible trip, and as such would be much more energy efficient for such trips.
(This also requires a very low crash rate, as seat belts don't work as well on flat beds.)
My guess is that the first big market for driverless cars will not be the US but somewhere smaller, more urban, and more used to experimentation with alternate modes of transportation. (via the atlantic)
Speaking of what fast looks like, here's a pair of synced videos that show just how fast F1 cars are. On the left are drivers participating in a track day, that is, normal folks who want to drive their cars fast on a real race course. A couple of them look like actual GT cars and are moving pretty quick. On the right, you've got F1 cars on the same track. It's not even close:
Driverless cars is the type of innovation that may have unanticipated consequences. Sure, you can read Twitter while you're being spirited around by your robotic car, but driverless cars may also end private car ownership. And what will intersections look like when used exclusively by driverless cars? Perhaps a little like this:
"There would be an intersection manager," Stone says, "an autonomous agent directing traffic at a much finer-grain scale than just a red light for one direction and a green light for another direction."
Because of this, we won't need traffic lights at all (or stop signs, for that matter). Traffic will constantly flow, and at a rate that would probably unnerve the average human driver.
I wonder how people will abuse or have fun with driverless cars. Driver- and passenger-less car joyrides? Will they be hackable and if so, dangerous?
Currently, a car spends 96% of its time idle. Compare that with planes which spend almost their entire lifetime in operation/airborne. Idle planes aren't making money, and they need to recoup their hefty $120M price tag. There is an unforgiving economic incentive to make sure it is always in use.
The proliferation of driverless cars will have a similar effect. Cars will spend less time idle: why would a household buy 2 (or even 3) cars, when they only need 1? Ride to work, then send the car home to your spouse. Need to go grocery shopping, but your kid also needs a ride to a soccer game? No problem, a driverless car can handle that.
Most people don't need cars most of the time but pay for the convenience of having one nearby when they do. Schedule-able on-demand driverless cars could eliminate that need, with the added bonus of expanding effortlessly to fit current capacity (e.g. imagine a family of four needing to go in four different directions at four different times...just schedule four Hertz Driverless pickups from your phone). Of course, people said similarish things about the Segway...
For a piece called Metropolis II, artist Chris Burden is building a huge track and put 1200 Hot Wheels cars on it...the noise is deafening when they're all circulating.
It includes 1,200 custom-designed cars and 18 lanes; 13 toy trains and tracks; and, dotting the landscape, buildings made of wood block, tiles, Legos and Lincoln Logs. The crew is still at work on the installation. In "Metropolis II," by his calculation, "every hour 100,000 cars circulate through the city," Mr. Burden said. "It has an audio quality to it. When you have 1,200 cars circulating it mimics a real freeway. It's quite intense."
This is Ken Block practicing a sport called gymkhana, which is sort of the Mario Kart version of rodeo barrel racing.
The build-up is way too long...the good stuff starts at about 1:10 and the crazy-ass shit starts at 3:00. The move right at three minutes in is just absolutely fantastic as is the 360 sliding thing he does through a building. (via clusterflock)
Isn't that the cutest little thing? The City Car was a concept car with an electric engine designed by Fiat in 1972. I say build the sucker...what a beautiful machine. They could call it the Fiat Squee!!
For advocates of capitalism it is often cited as an example of the disadvantages of centralized planning as even refueling the car required lifting the hood, filling the tank with gasoline (only 24 litres), then adding two-stroke oil and shaking it back and forth to mix.
Pollution, poor construction, and lack of availability were also issues with the East German auto.
A German consortium is developing a slick, updated version of the Trabant, communist East Germany's famously unreliable mass-produced car. The new model is electric with solar panels on the roof -- in stark contrast to the fume-belching original.
The history of America is the history of the automobile industry: it starts in fields and garages and ends in boardrooms and dumps; it starts with daredevils and tinkerers and ends with bureaucrats and congressmen; it starts with a sense of here-goes-let's-hope-it-works and ends with help-help-help. We tend to think of it as an American history that opens, as if summoned by the nature of the age, early in the last century, when the big mills and factories were already spewing smoke above Flint and Detroit, but we tend to be wrong. The history of the car is far older and stranger than you might suppose. Its early life is like the knock-around life one of the stars of the '80s lived in the '70s, Stallone before Rocky, say, picking up odd jobs, working the grift, and, of course, porn. The first automobile turned up outside Paris in 1789, when Detroit was an open field. (The hot rod belonged to the Grand Armee before it belonged to Neal and Jack.) It was another of the great innovations that seemed to appear in that age of revolution.
Cohen references one of my favorite pieces from a few years ago, Confessions of a Car Salesman, in which a journalist goes undercover for three months at a pair of Southern California car dealerships. Required reading before purchasing a car.
Cohen's article also reminded me just how many of the American cars on the road today owe their names to the people who actually started these companies and built these cars back in the early days. Ransom Olds, Louis Chevrolet, Walter Chrysler, Horace and John Dodge, Henry Ford, David Buick...some of these read like a joke from The Simpsons. Here's Louis Chevrolet racing a Buick in 1910:
Looking overseas, there's Karl Benz, Michio Suzuki (who didn't actually start out building cars), Wilhelm Maybach, Ferdinand Porsche, and many others. In an interesting reversal of that trend, Daimler Motoren Gesellschaft (which eventually became part of Daimler-Benz) built a custom sports car for Emil Jellinek, who named it Mercedes after his daughter. Jellinek was so fond of the car that he legally changed his last name to Jellinek-Mercedes and thereafter went by E.J. Mercédès.
People like to go fast and film themselves doing so. Modern technology offers a variety of ways to both go faster than ever before and record that speed for posterity. But for something to look fast on video, there needs to be a frame of reference for the viewer -- something to hurtle past or whoosh by -- and maybe even a hint of danger. Here are a selection of videos of people doing just that: traveling at high speeds in cars, on train tracks, through the air, and down mountains in close proximity to traffic, large rocks, and thin atmospheres. Most of these videos are filmed from a first-person perspective so that when you watch them, you can imagine that you're the one zooming along.
In 1976, Claude Lelouch mounted a camera on the front of his Mercedes-Benz 450SEL 6.9 and drove through the streets of Paris -- running red lights, jumping curbs and possibly reaching speeds upwards of 120 mph -- before reaching his date near the Sacré Coeur. The result is the film C'était un rendez-vous, 8 uncut minutes of insane urban driving.
Base jumpers equipped with wingsuits can glide very fast very close to the ground. Perhaps the most insane videos on the page...they're not doing 1200 mph or anything, but they are awfully close to the ground with few safety options if they slip up.
The lads at Top Gear took the Bugatti Veyron to its top speed of 253 mph on a test track. The test driver seems to have had what I would term a religious experience at the top speed.
Two gents in powder-blue suits speed down a California hill on skateboards. Holy crap!
240 mph on a Suzuki Hayabusa motorcycle. Oh, and he does a wheelie from 70 to 140 mph. (Note: Wikipedia says the bike has an "electronically restricted" top speed of 188 mph. Either the owner a) removed the restriction, or b) tweaked the speedometer to display higher than normal speeds.)
In 1960, Joseph Kittinger reached a speed of 714 mph after jumping from a helium balloon at an altitude of 102,800 feet.
A French TGV train reaches a top speed of 357 mph in a 2007 test.
A camera mounted on the external tank records the launch of the Space Shuttle Atlantis in May 2009. There's not a lot to whoosh past here, but at an eventual 18,000 mph, the pace at which the Shuttle leaves the Earth behind is astounding.
While skydiving, both of Michael Holmes' chutes failed as his helmet camera recorded his crash landing into some thick bushes. (He lived.)
Footage of Alex Roy and David Maher on the road as they sped across the entire United States in just over 32 hours, an unofficial world record. There is a book and a blog of the experience.
Passenger seat and road-side views of a Lamborghini Murcielago doing 219 mph on the 202 freeway in Mesa, Arizona.
4. Failure to innovate. Since GM was focused on profiting from finance, it did not really care that much about building better vehicles. GM's management failed to adapt GM to changes in customer needs, upstart competitors, and new technologies.
When GM realized how fast 1990s buyers were switching to trucks as personal transportation, it overreacted, pouring time and money into SUVs and pickups at the expense of car development. The result: As long ago as 2000, Wall Street was warning that GM could be overcommitted to trucks and wind up out of phase if the pendulum of buyer preference swung back to cars. Once consumer tastes began changing, the market was awash in new truck models, and profits were sapped by discounts needed to keep sales boiling.
The products built in the factories of GM, Ford and Chrysler are some of the greatest weapons of mass destruction responsible for global warming and the melting of our polar icecaps. The things we call "cars" may have been fun to drive, but they are like a million daggers into the heart of Mother Nature. To continue to build them would only lead to the ruin of our species and much of the planet.
The company reached a deal with Saab to expand its European presence. Having an extensive brand lineup had been a primary strategy at G.M. since its creation in 1908. But this tactic eventually became costly, as brands overlapped and competed for business and money.
The Pontiac Aztec was one of the first major crossover vehicles brought to market in the U.S. [It was] combination of car-like handling and fuel economy with SUV-like space and aggressive appearance. The concept was a hit and now most automakers are shifting towards crossover. The Aztec was a massive failure. It was an attractive idea in an amazingly unattractive shell. It failed almost entirely based upon its appearance.
GM simply was not ready to respond to Toyota Motor and other Japanese manufacturers when they began to gain serious ground in the early 1980s. Toyota, in particular, had developed a lean manufacturing system that was completely different from the mass-assembly-line techniques GM was still using, many decades after Henry Ford perfected them. GM's fractured structure meant that each division had its own manufacturing processes, its own parts, its own engineering, and its own stamping plants.
The picture of a heedless union and a feckless management says a lot about what went wrong at GM. There were many more mistakes, of course -- look-alike cars, lapses in quality, misguided acquisitions, and betting on big SUVs just before gas prices soared. They were all born of a uniquely insular corporate culture.
Over the last five decades, this company has progressively lost touch with car buyers, especially the educated car buyers who flock to European and Japanese brands. Over five decades, this company has tolerated labor practices that seem insane to outsiders. Over these decades, it has tolerated bureaucratic structures that repel top talent. It has evaded the relentless quality focus that has helped companies like Toyota prosper.
We became sick and tired of our cars and even angry at them. Pointy-headed busybodies of the environmentalist, new urbanist, utopian communitarian ilk blamed the victim. They claimed the car had forced us to live in widely scattered settlements in the great wasteland of big-box stores and the Olive Garden. If we would all just get on our Schwinns or hop a trolley, they said, America could become an archipelago of cozy gulags on the Portland, Ore., model with everyone nestled together in the most sustainably carbon-neutral, diverse and ecologically unimpactful way.
What's wrong, in a nutshell, is that it is a narrow, insular culture. Those who make it to the top of the heap, like Rick Wagoner, tend to be white Anglo-Saxon Protestant males who have worked at the same company their entire career, and have come up with the same set of buddies. Sort of like the Delta Tau Delta fraternity Wagoner joined when he was in business school.
"I thought I was doing the right thing. I wasn't investing in stocks. GM was a solid company. ... The bonds were my entire nest egg. I'm not a whiner and I don't want special treatment. What really ticks me off is that it seems like we are getting less than everyone else and we deserve to be treated equally. I'm just trying to figure out a way to make it to 65 so I can start drawing my social security."
The company did have vast numbers of loyal buyers, but G.M. lost them through a series of strategic and cultural missteps starting in the 1960s. It bungled efforts in the 1980s to cut costs by sharing the underpinnings of its cars across different brands, blurring their distinctiveness. G.M. gave in to union demands in 1990 and created a program that paid workers even when plants were not running, forcing it to build cars and trucks it could not sell without big incentives.
The factors that had once been the company's strengths were now weaknesses. Mass production and piece-rate incentives created a workforce with little pride in the quality of the product. The cadre of professional managers became a complacent, inward-looking bureaucracy. The diversified corporation became a collection of competing baronies.
From a couple of years ago, The Risk Pool, Malcolm Gladwell, The New Yorker:
Surely, if you are losing money on every car you sell, as G.M. is, cutting car prices still further in order to boost sales doesn't make any sense. It's like the old Borsht-belt joke about the haberdasher who lost money on every hat he made but figured he'd make up the difference on volume. The economically rational thing for G.M. to do would be to restructure, and sell fewer cars at a higher profit margin -- and that's what G.M. tried to do this summer, announcing plans to shutter plants and buy out the contracts of thirty-five thousand workers. But buyouts, which turn active workers into pensioners, only worsen the company's dependency ratio. Last year, G.M. covered the costs of its four hundred and fifty-three thousand retirees and their dependents with the revenue from 4.5 million cars and trucks. How is G.M. better off covering the costs of four hundred and eighty-eighty thousand dependents with the revenue from, say, 4.2 million cars and trucks?
How ironic, given NASCAR's role in helping the auto industry race down its path of self-destruction. Major auto companies used NASCAR for years to push cars and trucks with poor fuel economy numbers. The sport, in some ways, came to symbolize America's embrace of consumption. Consider that NASCAR didn't even switch to unleaded gasoline until 2007. And even today, the racecars and trucks that auto companies are marketing through NASCAR are among the least fuel efficient, from the Dodge Charger to the Chevrolet Silverado.
A museum installation consisting of a 100-ton jack connected to a gear box and a turnstile. The 100-ton jack pushes two large timbers against the bearing walls of the museum. Each visitor to the museum must pass through the turnstile in order to see the exhibition. Each input on the turnstile ever so slightly expands the jack, and ultimately if enough people visit the exhibition, Samson could theoretically destroy the building.
The rules are simple. Clock the racer through a measured mile, turn around and do it again, then average the two speeds. Mr. Shadle said Eagle would need 11 miles for each run: a mile to warm up to 250 miles per hour; four miles to light off the afterburner and get up to record speed; a mile in the speed trap; and five miles to stop. The vehicle must have at least four wheels - two of them steerable -- and be back at the original start line within 60 minutes. And that's it.
The Nano, the new $2000 car from India's Tata Motors, goes from 0 to ~60 mph in 23 seconds (and even slower with the A/C on) and has the simplest dashboard I've seen on a car. For reference, the Honda Accord goes 0-60 in 6-9 seconds, depending on the model. (via snarkmarket)
In a car crash involving a modern vehicle, everything happens before the occupant is even aware of the collision.
1 ms - The car's door pressure sensor detects a pressure wave.
5 ms - Car's crash computer checks for insignificant crash events, such as a shopping trolley impact or incidental contact. It is still working out the severity of the crash. Door intrusion structure begins to absorb energy.
20 ms - Door and B-pillar begin to push on front seat. Airbag begins to push occupant's chest away from the impact.
70 ms - Airbag continues to deflate. Occupant moves back towards middle of car.
Have you ever noticed that the rear side window on a BMW has a small design element that hooks back toward the front of the car?
Rather than having the rear side window extend all the way down as might be expected, it angles back toward the front of the car.
Yeah, me either, but apparently all BMWs have it. It's called the Hofmeister Kink, so named for the Director of Design at BMW who oversaw the style tweak, Wilhelm Hofmeister. Other carmakers have copied the Kink to make certain models appear luxury. (via spronblog)
Unless we exercise foresight and devise growth-limits policies for the auto industry, events will thrust us into a crisis that will lead to a substantial erosion of our domestic oil supply as well as the independence it provides us with, and a level of petroleum imports that could cost as much as $20 to $30 billion per year. (This in turn would produce a staggering balance-of-payments problem for the United States, and give the Middle Eastern suppliers a dangerous leverage over our transportation system as well.) Moreover, we would still be depleting our remaining oil reserves at an unacceptable rate, and scrambling for petroleum substitutes, with enormous potential damage to the environment.
In short, common sense dictates that we begin a transition to policies designed to avoid an energy impasse that could cripple out transportation system and imperil our economy. We must set growth limits that will allow the automobile and oil industries to maintain economic stability while conserving our resources and preserving our environment. Of course, such a reorientation will require statesmanship as well as public pressure. It will not happen unless corporate self-interest yields to a responsible outlook that serves the broader interests of the nation as a whole. Above all, this shift requires a thorough redirection of the aims of these two industries.
Believe it or not, those words appeared in the magazine in 1972. These views would have seemed out-of-date and old fashioned just a year or two ago but now all those chickens are coming home to roost.
"When these cars were new," I said. "They weremuch faster than '57 Corvettes or T-Birds. The salesmen would put a client on the back seat, put a $100 bill on the front seat, and tell the client he could keep the money if he could overcome the force of the acceleration, and lean forward and pick it up while the Hawk was doing zero-to-60."
Ebert owned a Golden Hawk for several years before he had to sell it because he couldn't maintain it properly.
Among the 800 vintage automobiles brought by collectors were ones that had been converted to snowmobiles, racing coups and tow trucks. That was only a glimmer of the many innovative changes made by Model T owners, for uses Henry Ford never had in mind. They transformed the cars into tractors, pickup trucks, paddy wagons, mobile lumber mills and power plants for milling grain. An itinerant preacher converted his into a four-wheeled chapel.
Replacing a car that gets horrible gas mileage with one that gets good gas mileage is preferable to replacing a car that gets good gas mileage with one that gets excellent gas mileage. To that end, kottke.org contributor Cliff Kuang says to the car companies: forget about 100-mpg cars and focus on small, achievable increases in MPG ratings.
My concern is a rhetorical one: What happens when advancements in cars are eternally linked -- through marketing and special prizes -- with big innovations, rather than tangible results right now? Fuel efficiency gets its urgency sapped: Someone's working on it, with results TBD. Wait and see.
The average U.S. citizen completely ignores the regularity with which the automobile kills him, maims him, embroils him with the law and provides mobile shelter for rakes intent on seducing his daughters. He takes it into his garage as fondly as an Arab leading a prize mare into his tent. He woos it with Simoniz, Prestone, Ethyl and rich lubricants -- and goes broke trading it in on something flashier an hour after he has made the last payment on the old one.
By last week, this peculiar state of mind had not only sucked thousands of American oil wells dry, stripped the rubber groves of Malaya, produced the world's most inhuman industry and its most recalcitrant labor union, but had filled U.S. streets with so many automobiles that it was almost impossible to drive one. In some big cities, vast traffic jams never really got untangled from dawn to midnight; the bray of horns, the stink of exhaust fumes, and the crunch of crumpling metal eddied up from them as insistently as the vaporous roar of Niagara.
As a student and trainee journalist, I managed to drive my bright red one thousands of miles around the continent and once even to Morocco without a breakdown. The main drawback was sunburn from motoring with the cloth roof rolled back. There was so much wind you didn't feel the rays.
Sen. Jim King, R-Jacksonville, said he had a set [of Truck Nutz] on one of his vehicles, which he described as "all pimped out." They are no more than "an expression of truckliness," he said, although he'd acceded to his wife's request to take them off.
"I find it shocking we'd tell people with metallic testicles on their bumpers that this is a violation," said Sen. Steve Geller, D-Hallandale. "There's got to be better things for us to spend time debating."
The official typeface for our license plates is now called FE-Mittelschrift, with FE meaning it is Fälschungs-Erschwert, i.e. difficult to forge. Apparently car thieves, terrorists and notorious law-breakers had been exploiting DIN's geometric construction principle and turning E into F or 3 into 8 etc by simply using a bit of black tape or white paint.
Here are all the alphanumeric characters:
Note the tamper-resistant differences between the 6 (no notch) and 9 (notched), the E & F, the I & 1, the O & zero, the P & R, and so on.
According to Yates and his fellow Cannonballers, trying to beat that record today is pointless. Their argument goes something like this: Cannonball records were set back when the free-wheelin' '70s hooked up with the greed-is-good '80s for fat lines of cocaine and unprotected sex. But these, brother, are Patriot Act days - executive-privilege end times in which no rogue deed goes untracked, no E-ZPass unlogged, no roaming cell phone unmonitored by perihelion satellite. Big Brother is definitely watching. Big Speed, the old Cannonballers say, is a quaint, 20th-century idea, like pay phones or print magazines.
Roy was inspired to take up fast driving by the short film C'était un Rendez-vous, where Claude Lelouch races through Paris at breakneck speeds to meet his sweetheart in Montmartre. Here's the route they took, another piece on the record in the NY Times, and a book by Roy on his exploits. This is the sort of thing that is really, really cool up until the moment Roy's tricked out BMW makes contact with a family minivan at 120mph...and then, not so much.
Those guys look like they're doing about 90-95... BFD. You see that all the time going up and down I-5 and I-95.. I once was doing about 90 down I-95 and got passed by a HOUSE on a flatbed truck. (yawn)
It works only if you truly are willing to walk away...and then refuse to bend when they try to put you off or change the terms. Stay civil, do not let any emotion in. You are on a mission, Marine!
Fantastic advice. My dad is a skilled car buyer and on one particular occasion, spend two grueling hours dinkering with a used car saleman over a junky but good-running truck. He walked out at least twice and kept escalating up to the manager before getting the price down from $2300 to around $400.
A 1993 New Yorker story by John Seabook called The Flash of Genius is being made into a movie starring Greg Kinnear. The story revolves around Bob Kearns, the inventor of the intermittent windshield wiper and his struggle to get the US auto industry to pay him for infringing on his patent. "There's no question that Dr. Kearns' wiper circuit was interesting. He had a three-brush motor, with dynamic brake and intermittent on one speed only -- his system was a concatenation of a lot of different ideas. But we figured there was just no way in the world it was patentable. An electronic timing device was an obvious thing to try next. How can you patent something that is in the natural evolution of technology?"
BTW, the phrase "flash of genius" refers to a test of patentability enacted in 1941 saying that the act of invention had to be a "flash of creative genius" on the part of the inventor and not the result of tinkering. That standard was replaced in 1952 by the non-obviousness test.
Cartype: "A comprehensive collection of reviews and study of typographical applications of emblems, car company logos and car logos with images, comments, links, car company information and general interest."
Predictions for the year 2000 made in The Ladies Home Journal in 1900. Two of the really interesting predicitons: "Cities, therefore, will be free from all noises." and "Automobiles will be cheaper than horses are today. Farmers will own automobile hay-wagons, automobile truck-wagons, plows, harrows and hay-rakes. A one-pound motor in one of these vehicles will do the work of a pair of horses or more. Children will ride in automobile sleighs in winter. Automobiles will have been substituted for every horse vehicle now known. There will be, as already exist today, automobile hearses, automobile police patrols, automobile ambulances, automobile street sweepers. The horse in harness will be as scarce, if, indeed, not even scarcer, then as the yoked ox is today." (via long now blog)
The most enjoyable and interesting thing I've read in a week has to be this article about Wayne Gerdes (via bb). Gerdes is a hypermiler -- a person who drives in an obsessive fashion in order to increase his vehicle's fuel efficiency -- and strikes me as someone that Errol Morris would be quite interested in doing a short documentary about. He's refined his driving technique over the years to wring 59 MPG out of a plain Honda Accord and clocked over 180 MPG with a hybrid Honda Insight. Here's a taste of how he drives:
"Buckle up tight, because this is the death turn," says Wayne. Death turn? We're moving at 50 mph. Wayne turns off the engine. He's bearing down on the exit, and as he turns the wheel sharply to the right, the tires squeal-which is what happens when you take a 25 mph turn going 50. Cathy, Terry's wife, who is sitting next to me in the backseat, grabs my leg. I grab the door handle. As we come out of the 270-degree turn, Cathy says, "I hope you have upholstery cleaner."
We glide for over a mile with the engine off, past a gas station, right at a green light, through another green light -- Wayne is always timing his speed to land green lights -- and around a mall, using momentum in a way that would have made Isaac Newton proud. "Are we going to attempt that at home?" Cathy asks Terry, a talkative man who has been stone silent since Wayne executed the death turn in his car. "Not in this lifetime," he shoots back.
But it was driving his wife's Acura MDX that moved Wayne up to the next rung of hypermiler driving. That's because the SUV came with a fuel consumption display (FCD), which shows mpg in real time. As he drove, he began to see how little things -- slight movements of his foot, accelerations up hills, even a cold day -- influenced his fuel efficiency. He learned to wring as many as 638 miles from a single 19-gallon tank in the MDX; he rarely gets less than 30 mpg when he drives it. "Most people get 18 in them," he says. The FCD changed the driving game for Wayne. "It's a running joke," he says, "but instead of a fuel consumption display, a lot of us call them 'game gauges'" -- a reference to the running score posted on video games -- "because we're trying to beat our last score -- our miles per gallon."
If people could see how much fuel they guzzled while driving, Wayne believes they'd quickly learn to drive more efficiently. "If the EPA would mandate FCDs in every car, this country would save 20 percent on fuel overnight," he says. "They're not expensive for the manufacturers to put in -- 10 to 20 bucks -- and it would save more fuel than all the laws passed in the last 25 years. All from a simple display."
Competition, even with yourself, can be a powerful motivator. I'm not convinced, however, that FCDs would improve gas mileage across the board. There are other games you can play with the display -- the how-much-gas-can-I-waste game or the how-close-can-I-get-to-18-MPG game -- that don't have much to do with conserving fuel consumption. Still, next time I'm in a car with a mileage display, I'll be trying out some of Gerdes less intensive driving techniques, including the ones he shares on this Sierra Club podcast (Gerdes' interview is about 2/3 of the way through).
Thanks to the glories of YouTube, you can now watch Kaj Pindal's Oscar-nominated short film, What On Earth!:
Made in 1966 under the auspices of the National Film Board of Canada, the animated film records a visit by Martians to Earth and their observations about the planet's dominant life form, the automobile.