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kottke.org posts about cars

Designing a Lego Car to Cross Gaps

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 02, 2021

In the second video by Brick Experiment Channel I’ve posted here in the past week, a Lego car is repeatedly adapted to cross larger and larger gaps, until it can cross a massive gap just a little narrower than the length of the car. As I said before about their climbing car video, watching the iterative process of improving a simple car performing an increasingly difficult task using familiar design objects is such an accessible way to observe how the process of engineering works.

One of the things you get to witness is when a particular design tactic dead ends, i.e. when something that worked across a shorter gap is completely ineffective crossing a wider distance. No amount of tinkering with that same design will make it work…you have to find a whole new way to do it.

Engineering a Capable Climbing Lego Car

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 24, 2021

In this video, a simple Lego car is repeatedly modified to navigate more and more difficult obstacles until it can climb up and down almost anything. This fun exercise also doubles as a crash course in engineering and how to build a capable all-terrain vehicle as it “demonstrates what you need to consider: wheel diameter, gear ratio, 4-wheel drive, tire grip, breakover angle, weight distribution”. (via the prepared)

Historical Reconstruction of the 1915 Ford Model T Assembly Line

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 26, 2021

Using photos and films made in the 1910s and 1920s, Myles Zhang made this animated reconstruction of Ford’s Model T assembly line as it would have appeared circa 1915, from start (chassis assembly) to finish (driving it off the floor).

Ford was not the first, but his car and moving assembly line were certainly the most successful and memorable. After creating his version of the automobile in 1896, Ford moved workshops first to Mack Avenue and later to Piquette Avenue in Detroit. These first two factories were small-scale structures for limited car production. Only in 1913 at Ford’s third factory at Highland Park did mass-production begin on a truly large scale. As shown in this film, here Ford applied assembly line methods throughout the factory to all aspects of car production.

There’s also a virtual reality model of the factory you can fly around in.

Have We Reached Peak Car?

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 22, 2021

Tom Standage, whose The Victorian Internet was hugely influential to me in how to think about the history of technology, is out with a new book on transportation and cars: A Brief History of Motion: From the Wheel, to the Car, to What Comes Next (ebook). In this excerpt, he argues that the world has reached “peak car” — “the point at which car ownership and use level off and start to decline”.

Evidence for peak car in Western countries, meanwhile, has been accumulating for some time. In America, the total number of vehicle miles traveled has continued to increase. But it has been growing more slowly than both the total number of vehicles and the population. The number of miles driven per vehicle, and per person of driving age, both peaked in 2004 and have since fallen to levels last seen in the 1990s. The average distance driven per person per year peaked in the 2000s or earlier in many Western cities including London, Stockholm, Vienna, Houston, and Atlanta. In Australia, Belgium, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, New Zealand, and Spain, distance traveled per person has been flat or falling since the early 2000s (in Britain, the average motorist drove seventy-six hundred miles in 2018, down from ninety-two hundred in 2002). Miles traveled by car per annum per capita in Italy, Britain, the Netherlands, and Sweden peaked in 2000, 2002, 2004, and 2005 respectively.

See also this interview with Standage in Grist (which features the phrase “horse-drawn transport monoculture”).

The pandemic caused a drop in driving, and then an uptick as people came out of lockdowns and decided, in some cases, that they would rather drive than use public transit. But the longer-term trend seems clear: driving is becoming less popular, because it’s becoming less convenient, and the alternatives are becoming more convenient. The growing prevalence of remote working may encourage people to move to urban fringes where it’s difficult to live without a car, but overall I don’t think this will be enough to reverse the longer-term trend.

And here’s another excerpt of Standage’s book from The Guardian: The lost history of the electric car — and what it tells us about the future of transport.

In 1897, the bestselling car in the US was an electric vehicle: the Pope Manufacturing Company’s Columbia Motor Carriage. Electric models were outselling steam- and petrol-powered ones. By 1900, sales of steam vehicles had taken a narrow lead: that year, 1,681 steam vehicles, 1,575 electric vehicles and 936 petrol-powered vehicles were sold. Only with the launch of the Olds Motor Works’ Curved Dash Oldsmobile in 1903 did petrol-powered vehicles take the lead for the first time.

Perhaps the most remarkable example, to modern eyes, of how things might have worked out differently for electric vehicles is the story of the Electrobat, an electric taxicab that briefly flourished in the late 1890s. The Electrobat had been created in Philadelphia in 1894 by Pedro Salom and Henry Morris, two scientist-inventors who were enthusiastic proponents of electric vehicles. In a speech in 1895, Salom derided “the marvelously complicated driving gear of a gasoline vehicle, with its innumerable chains, belts, pulleys, pipes, valves and stopcocks … Is it not reasonable to suppose, with so many things to get out of order, that one or another of them will always be out of order?”

The two men steadily refined their initial design, eventually producing a carriage-like vehicle that could be controlled by a driver on a high seat at the back, with a wider seat for passengers in the front. In 1897 Morris and Salom launched a taxi service in Manhattan with a dozen vehicles, serving 1,000 passengers in their first month of operation. But the cabs had limited range and their batteries took hours to recharge. So Morris and Salom merged with another firm, the Electric Battery Company. Its engineers had devised a clever battery-swapping system, based at a depot at 1684 Broadway, that could replace an empty battery with a fully charged one in seconds, allowing the Electrobats to operate all day.

Fiat’s Rooftop Racetrack

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 16, 2021

a photo of the racetrack on top of the Fiat factory in Turin, Italy

a photo of the racetrack on top of the Fiat factory in Turin, Italy

When it was built in the 1920s in Turin, Italy, the Fiat factory was designed with a racetrack on the top of the building, both for car testing purposes and for racing.

The factory’s best-known symbol is the test track, which is a superb piece of design modeling, and construction that occupies the whole roof surface of the workshops. Two 443 meters straights, joined by parabolic bends, form a continuous track for testing the cars.

Originally, as soon as the cars left the assembly lines they could flow directly upward to the test track through the snail-shaped ramps completing the whole processing cycle inside the factory. Moreover, these spiraling ramps inside the building allowed the cars to be driven back down and into showrooms.

The track was a little over 1/2 mile long. Many more views at Rare Historical Photos. (via @laxgani)

The Walking Dead: American Pedestrian Fatalities on the Rise

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 04, 2021

In the last decade, the number of pedestrians hit by cars in the United States has increased by almost 50%, even as that rate has decreased in Europe and other wealthy nations (“thanks primarily to new street and crosswalk designs, implemented in the belief that most road deaths are avoidable”). In a review of Angie Schmitt’s 2020 book Right of Way: Race, Class, and the Silent Epidemic of Pedestrian Deaths in America for the New York Review of Books, Peter Baker explores why America is increasingly hostile to pedestrians. Part of the reason is the rise of SUVs (and one would assume, trucks) in the US:

In the 1980s SUVs were a rarity. It was only in 2015 that they started outselling sedans. In 2018 they accounted for just under half of new vehicle sales, more than any other category of car. The height of American SUVs makes it harder for drivers to see pedestrians and means the hit comes higher on the body — and backed by extra mass — which makes organ damage and death two to three times more likely for adults, and four times more likely for children. More SUVs than ever are “overpowered” — that is, equipped with a high horsepower-to-weight ratio; this makes speeding more likely, which, like increased height and weight, increases the chances of pedestrians being hit and killed. More cars on the road, taller and heavier than ever before, going faster: each factor alone presents a serious problem. Together, they are a recipe for disaster.

And pedestrian deaths are also not equally distributed across population groups, both because of who owns cars but also shifts in where people are living:

Low-income pedestrians, Black and Hispanic pedestrians, elderly pedestrians, and disabled pedestrians are all disproportionately affected. Black and Hispanic men are twice as likely as white men to die while walking, and four times more likely than the average member of the population. Native American men are almost five times more likely.

The piece is interesting throughout, as is Schmitt’s book I’m sure.

Nissan Taps Video Game Company for New In-Car Warning Sounds

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 27, 2021

Car warning sounds urging drivers to buckle up or turn off the headlights can be quite unpleasant to listen to. So Nissan teamed up with sound designers at Bandai Namco, the gaming company known for Pac-Man and Tekken, to replace those warning noises with something more musical.

I had a car once that beeped really sharply and loudly whenever the temperature dropped to 37°F as a warning for potential slippery roads and it scared the shit out of me every time. As someone who is sensitive to sound, I applaud efforts like these to make non-emergency sounds less jarring. (via rob walker (again))

The History and Future of Electric Car Design

posted by Tim Carmody   Jul 09, 2021

Electric Vehicle Interior Design - Clark Mills - Car and Driver.jpg

Car and Driver has a good article that both assesses the brief history of electric car design and looks at where things might be headed going forward, as designers break free of some early conceptions about what a car (or what a specifically electric car) needed to look like. Some highlights:

Many early EV ventures used existing platforms and arranged electric powertrains to fit where gas engines and transmissions had previously resided. Even Tesla’s first attempt was a revamped Lotus Elise without its 1.8-liter inline-four. Working on a nondedicated, or “nonnative,” electric platform limited designers’ options for positioning the battery and motor. Automakers often stacked batteries under the rear seat—which is why early EVs sometimes offered less legroom or cargo space than their gas counterparts—and put the motor assemblies under the hood. Even the Nissan Leaf, which packages an underfloor battery in a dedicated EV platform, still follows the old philosophy of carrying a motor where an engine normally goes. Aesthetically, too, the early electrics couldn’t break away from distinct grille shells and large air vents…

“We have the opportunity to give the car a totally new kind of proportion,” says Steffen Köhl, Mercedes-Benz director of advanced exterior design. Köhl worked on the EQS, the first car on Mercedes’s new Electric Vehicle Architecture (EVA). The EQS is a luxury sedan with a long wheelbase, a sweeping bridge of a roofline, and a large, screen-filled cabin. Think of it as the S-class of EVs. The underpinnings of an EV allow for bigger interiors in smaller vehicles, he says. It can be “cabin-forward, with short overhangs in front and rear. Since the battery is flat ground, we can try a new kind of interior—smooth panels, the center console floating. There are no more ups and downs between the seats.”

For my part, even this broader vision is still too focused on coupes, sedans, SUVs, and other “traditional” four-to-five seat cars. There’s a brief discussion of the new F-150 electric pickup truck, but very little about buses or single-rider ATV designs. A lot of looks at the “skateboard” chassis popularized by Tesla, not enough actual skateboards. If we’re going to cast a broader view, let’s cast it as broad as we can.

EVs Won’t Save Us from Our Car Culture’s Ill Effects

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 22, 2021

From Electric Vehicles Won’t Save Us by Coby Lefkowitz:

This isn’t a story about Elon Musk, or Tesla, or a contrarian take about how “oil is good, actually.” I unconditionally support electric vehicles in their quest to take over the primacy of gasoline-powered vehicles in the market. But I don’t save that enthusiasm for their prospects on society broadly. From the perspective of the built environment, there is nothing functionally different between an electric vehicle and a gasoline propelled one. The relationship is the same, and it’s unequivocally destructive. Cars, however they’re powered, are environmentally cataclysmic, break the tethers of community, and force an infrastructure of dependency that is as financially ruinous to our country as it is dangerous to us as people. In order to build a more sustainable future and a better world for humanity, we need to address the root problems that have brought us to where we so perilously lie today.

The Tight Fit

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 28, 2021

This man’s garage is 1.55 meters wide and his car is 1.49 meters wide, leaving a clearance of just 3cm on each side. Watch him effortlessly get the car into his sponge-lined garage and then, in an exquisite geometrical dance of angles and tolerances, exit the car into his house. Someone should make this into a video game — I want to see the speedruns!

Update: Radiohead’s Everything In Its Right Place makes the perfect soundtrack to this guy parking his car.

(via @johnpavlus)

World’s Fastest Production Car Reaches a Ludicrous 331 MPH on a Public Road

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 20, 2020

The SSC Tuatara has snatched the title of the world’s fastest production car away from its rivals by an absurd margin — and it wasn’t even going as fast as it could have.

After the satellite data from the onboard GPS system had been analyzed-the devices tracked two runs in opposite directions and calculated the average-Webb’s last dash came in at a staggering 331.15 mph. The final verified average was 316.11 miles per hour, handily beating both the Koenigsegg and the Bugatti records and cracking the metric milestone of 500 kilometers per hour just for good measure. In addition, the morning’s effort garnered records for the fastest flying mile on a public road (313.12 mph) and the highest speed achieved on a public road (331.15 mph).

How fast is that? “We were covering one and a half football fields each second.” *insert eyes-bugging-out emoji here* The cockpit video above is incredible. Just watch how smoothly and effortlessly the car accelerates right up to 331.15 mph before the driver lets off the gas — there was clearly plenty left. Indeed, the driver hadn’t even shifted into the car’s final gear.

Peak Car - Scenes from an Automobile Addicted World

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 04, 2020

Peak Car

Peak Car

Overview celebrates the potential passing of “Peak Car” with a series of satellite imagery that shows just how much automobiles have altered our lives and landscapes.

Automobiles make up 70% of the emissions from all forms of transportation. There are an estimated 1 billion cars on the planet, with around 80 million new cars sold each year. Despite continually strong sales, experts suggest we have reached ‘Peak Car’ — meaning the average distance traveled per person in cars has peaked, and will continue to fall over time. There are many different factors contributing to this trend, such as a global shift towards urban living, new forms of mobility, new government policies for reducing traffic, and a slowing expansion of road networks.

Smaht Pahk

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 28, 2020

There’s nothing more entertaining than watching Boston-area natives do over-the-top Bawston accents, but it’s always a precarious undertaking. If you don’t get the accent right…yeesh. When Hyundai named their new automated parking feature “Smart Park”, those two words demanded that they give the Boston angle a shot, and the team of Chris Evans, John Krasinski, and Rachel Dratch delivered. The bit that really set the hook for me was when Krasinski called Evans “kid”.

A Self-Driving DeLorean Is Taught How to Drift

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 27, 2019

A group of Stanford engineers has built an electric self-driving DeLorean that they’ve taught how to drift through a fairly complicated kilometer-long course “with the agility and precision of a human driver”. I imagine this will be available as a free update to Telsas soon after some of this project’s team members get hired over there.

According to this article, the car completed the course on the first try, after “seeing” a GPS map of it.

MARTY is a 1981 DeLorean that Goh and his colleagues at Stanford’s Dynamic Design Lab converted into an all-electric, autonomous drift car. Four years ago, MARTY drifted — the style of driving where the car moves forward even though it’s pointed sideways — through its first doughnuts with inhuman precision. Since then, Goh and team have been busy welding and coding to prepare MARTY to apply those basic drifting skills to an intense driving course, and unbelievably everything had worked perfectly. MARTY screeched its way through turns and quick zigs and zags in just a few minutes, kicking up smoke and bits of rubber, without nicking a single cone along the course.

This behind-the-scenes explains how the car was built and how it navigates the course:

Even more details on project lead Jonathan Goh’s website. And of course they shot the whole thing overhead with a drone:

Self Driving Delorean

Cybertruck Circa 1966

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 13, 2019

In 1966, Ford designed a concept truck they called the Ranger II:

Ford Ranger II

Ford Ranger II

From Ford’s press release:

Ford Division’s Ranger II is an ultra-modern pickup truck with a custom designed passenger compartment. Seen as a two-seater vehicle in the above photo, the Ranger II converts into a four-passenger pickup (below) at the flick of a finger. The rear portion of the cab moves 18-inches into the bed of the truck while a roof section moves up into position and two additional bucket seats fall into place. The Ranger II’s ultra-streamlined windshield is made of specially tempered plastic-type glass. It also features high intensity headlights of rectangular design, extruded aluminum grille and walnut flooring in the cargo bed.

There is more than a passing resemblance to Tesla’s Cybertruck, down to the “specially tempered glass” and “high intensity headlights of rectangular design”:

Cybertruck

How a 30-Minute Commute Has Shaped Centuries of Cities

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 05, 2019

Twenty-five years ago, physicist Cesare Marchetti argued that people, on average, tend to keep their commutes to about an hour a day, round-trip. For Citylab, Jonathan English looks at how this inclination has interacted with advances in transportation to affect how cities grow and evolve. For instance, walking and travel by horse kept cities to an effective diameter of a few miles, allowing their density to grow over many centuries.

Sure enough, most cities from the ancients to the Industrial Revolution did not grow much bigger than a two-mile diameter. Their core areas were often even smaller, though some of the poor lived in settlements outside the city gates. Ancient Rome packed as many as a million people into an area a little more than two miles in diameter. Medieval Paris stretched about two miles from the Bastille to the Louvre, Vienna’s Innere Stadt measures only one mile in diameter, and the historic City of London is nicknamed the “Square Mile” for a reason. Beijing’s walls enclosed an inner city about three miles in diameter; into the 20th century, that still made up most of the developed area.

Rail, streetcars, bicycles, subways, and cars followed, each increasing the amount of distance from a city’s center that could be reached within Marchetti’s time limit.

The car on the expressway enabled large numbers of people to travel long distances on a day-to-day basis. Instead of small railroad suburbs, where housing was restricted to a short radius around stations, drivers spread out across suburbs could now commute 20 miles in 30 minutes. If the streetcar city covered 50 square miles, the 40-mile-diameter expressway city could cover over 1,250 square miles.*

The Symbiotic & Toxic Relationship Between Houses and Cars in America

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 29, 2019

Since reading Gregory Shill’s writing about how heavily subsidized cars are in the United States, I’ve been on the lookout for different frameworks for thinking about America’s relationship to cars. I recently ran across a pair of interesting things about cars & housing. First, a refresher on what Shill had to say about how our nation’s laws have made cars all but mandatory:

Let’s begin at the state and local level. A key player in the story of automobile supremacy is single-family-only zoning, a shadow segregation regime that is now justifiably on the defensive for outlawing duplexes and apartments in huge swaths of the country. Through these and other land-use restrictions — laws that separate residential and commercial areas or require needlessly large yards — zoning rules scatter Americans across distances and highway-like roads that are impractical or dangerous to traverse on foot. The resulting densities are also too low to sustain high-frequency public transit.

Aaron Bady shared a few meaty pages from Nathanael Lauster’s The Death and Life of the Single-Family House: Lessons from Vancouver on Building a Livable City about houses being urban parasites and their symbiotic relationship with cars. Here’s an excerpt (italics mine):

Returning to the metaphor provided by the pine beetle and blue stain fungus, one parasite often works with another. In similar form, houses cultivate cars. Integrated through planning, they displace vastly more habitat than either could manage alone. Because houses consume space and tend to surround themselves with other houses, which also consume space, people often cannot walk to where they need to go. Because all that space results in a relatively low population density, it is also not very efficient to run public transit lines to areas with many houses. Low-density areas tend to end up with very few riders for what are often very expensive systems to maintain. In short, public transit loves density. The relationship between urban density and public transit use is exceptionally strong, with some suggestion of a cutoff — perhaps around twelve persons per acre (or about three thousand per square kilometer) — below which ridership drops off and expense per user makes transit impractical. By contrast, cars love the sprawl associated with houses and houses love cars back.

Houses cultivate cars. Cars love the sprawl associated with houses and houses love cars back. Lauster continues with the nature metaphor:

Altogether, house habitat displaces alternatives. The establishment of a Great House Reserve has protected house habitat even as it continues to expand in size. Agricultural and wild lands suffer in an immediate sense, as do the more urban habitats prevented from expanding beyond a constrained Urban Core. The house allies itself with the car at the same time as both contribute to global warming, potentially risking the displacement of everyone and everything. The house habitat excludes the poor. But even for those who can afford to live there, the Great House Reserve is a troublesome place to live. By its nature it leads to disengagement, contributes to inequality, and encourages a sedentary, unhealthy lifestyle.

And so on:

Houses are not just unaffordable for most people; they’re ultimately unaffordable for cities too. The fiscal situation of cities varies from place to place, but overall, houses tend to create a drain on municipal coffers. They are often taxed at lower rates than other properties, reflecting zoning restrictions on what could be built on single-family lots and how they can be used. But houses are more expensive to service on a per-unit basis, both in terms of the basic utilities infrastructure and, as previously noted, in terms of transit and transportation infrastructure. This could mean that my modestly wealthy neighbors and I, living in low-rises and town houses, end up supporting the very wealthy house owner nearby by paying more property tax relative to the amount of urban land and services we receive. The disparity becomes more notable as one crosses municipal boundaries into nearby house-dominated suburbs, where residents frequently enjoy the services (e.g., roads, commerce, employment opportunities) provided by the city without paying into the municipal tax base at all.

Josh Vredevoogd’s No Parking Here is about the poor parking policy in LA and leads with the statement: “Let’s build houses for people, not cars.”

For commercial buildings, it’s common to see a parking space required for every 100-200 sq ft. Meaning that parking is built at an almost 2:1 ratio to actual retail space, marginalizing the place that actually creates value and prioritizing temporary car storage. This inefficiency is carried into rent, groceries, meals, and overall raises the floor for cost of living.

Per City of LA code, a set of storefronts like above are illegal to build, instead they are required to be surrounded with empty pavement at the cost of walkability and comfort.

This forces people into driving. Parking requirements increase the density of cars but reduce the density of people. It also puts pressure on businesses by taking up useful real estate and replacing it with car storage.

Certainly a lot of food for thought here. See also Cars! What’s the Matter with Cars Today? and on a lighter note, What On Earth!, Kal Pindal’s Oscar-nominated short film about Martians visiting Earth and their observations about the dominant form of life here, the automobile.

Cars! What’s the Matter with Cars Today?

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 23, 2019

I read four things recently that are all related in some way to our cities and how we get around in them.

1. Was the Automotive Era a Terrible Mistake? by Nathan Heller in the New Yorker. The subtitle is “For a century, we’ve loved our cars. They haven’t loved us back.”

For years, I counted this inability to drive as one of many personal failures. More recently, I’ve wondered whether I performed an accidental kindness for the world. I am one of those Darth Vader pedestrians who loudly tailgate couples moving slowly up the sidewalk, and I’m sure that I would be a twit behind the wheel. Perhaps I was protected from a bad move by my own incompetence-one of those mercies which the universe often bestows on the young (who rarely appreciate the gift). In America today, there are more cars than drivers. Yet our investment in these vehicles has yielded dubious returns. Since 1899, more than 3.6 million people have died in traffic accidents in the United States, and more than eighty million have been injured; pedestrian fatalities have risen in the past few years. The road has emerged as the setting for our most violent illustrations of systemic racism, combustion engines have helped create a climate crisis, and the quest for oil has led our soldiers into war.

Every technology has costs, but lately we’ve had reason to question even cars’ putative benefits. Free men and women on the open road have turned out to be such disastrous drivers that carmakers are developing computers to replace them. When the people of the future look back at our century of auto life, will they regard it as a useful stage of forward motion or as a wrong turn? Is it possible that, a hundred years from now, the age of gassing up and driving will be seen as just a cul-de-sac in transportation history, a trip we never should have taken?

2. This comment from the NY Times’ list of The Summer’s Hottest Takes on the amount of public space (and funds) that’s given to cars in our cities.

City street parking should be considered public space. The current setup is ridiculous: In front of millions of New Yorkers’ apartments, for one example, there are 9-by-18-foot plots of space, available to anyone in the city… if they have a car and want to leave it there. Less than half of the city’s residents own cars, and far fewer can lay claim to any kind of outdoor space. So from Fort Worth to Philadelphia, why not let people use these patches of cement for something they can actually enjoy? Let people set up a table with some food, a little grill, a folding table to sit at and enjoy the sun, and each other. Make space next to the sidewalk. Hatch 10,000 tiny little public spaces in cities that are starved for some life.

3. Why Am I Scared to Ride a Bike?, a comic by Vreni at The Nib.

Bike Safety

4. I Don’t Use Uber. Neither Should You. by Paris Marx, who says that “the tradeoffs are far too high for a little more convenience”.

A study of seven major U.S. metro areas from UC Davis showed that 91 percent of ride-hailing users didn’t make any changes to their car ownership status, and those that did made up for the reduced miles driven by taking more ride-hail trips. The researchers also found that 49 to 61 percent of all ride-hailing trips wouldn’t have been taken or would have used transit, cycling, or walking had ride-hailing not been an option. Another study by the Metropolitan Area Planning Council put that number at 59 percent in Boston.

Those are key figures because they show that Uber, Lyft, and their competitors not only add car trips in urban centers, they also make existing trips less efficient by shifting them from transit or cycling into a car. This process makes traffic congestion worse because it places more vehicles on the road.

See also this recent post, America’s Cars Are Heavily Subsidized, Dangerous, and Mandatory.

America’s Cars Are Heavily Subsidized, Dangerous, and Mandatory

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 09, 2019

This is a fascinating & provocative article from law professor Gregory Shill: Americans Shouldn’t Have to Drive, but the Law Insists on It. The first line of the piece sets the stage: “In a country where the laws compel the use of cars, Americans are condemned to lose friends and relatives to traffic violence.”

Let’s begin at the state and local level. A key player in the story of automobile supremacy is single-family-only zoning, a shadow segregation regime that is now justifiably on the defensive for outlawing duplexes and apartments in huge swaths of the country. Through these and other land-use restrictions-laws that separate residential and commercial areas or require needlessly large yards-zoning rules scatter Americans across distances and highway-like roads that are impractical or dangerous to traverse on foot. The resulting densities are also too low to sustain high-frequency public transit.

Further entrenching automobile supremacy are laws that require landowners who build housing and office space to build housing for cars as well. In large part because of parking quotas, parking lots now cover more than a third of the land area of some U.S. cities; Houston is estimated to have 30 parking spaces for every resident. As UCLA urban planning professor Donald Shoup has written, this mismatch flows from legal mandates rather than market demand. Every employee who brings a car to the office essentially doubles the amount of space he takes up at work, and in urban areas his employer may be required by law to build him a $50,000 garage parking space.

Cars and car ownership are massively subsidized on a state, local, and federal level and our laws and regulations have built a nation where cars are mandatory and “driving is the price of first-class citizenship”.

Why are we taxing bus riders to pay rich people to buy McMansions and luxury electric SUVs?

And this speed limit thing is just eye-poppingly fucked up:

The National Transportation Safety Board has determined that speed is a top risk factor in motor vehicle crashes. Yet the most prominent way of setting and adjusting speed limits, known as the operating speed method, actually incentivizes faster driving. It calls for setting speed limits that 85 percent of drivers will obey. This method makes little provision for whether there’s a park or senior center on a street, or for people walking or biking.

As a matter of law, the operating speed method is exceptional. It enables those who violate the law-speeding motorists-to rewrite it: speed limits ratchet higher until no more than 15 percent of motorists violate them. The perverse incentives are obvious. Imagine a rule saying that, once 15 percent of Americans acquired an illegal type of machine gun, that weapon would automatically become legal.

Ok, this is one of those articles where I want to excerpt every paragraph…just go read the whole thing. (via @olgakhazan)

Update: Eric Jaffe shared some interesting bits from Shill’s recent paper, Should Law Subsidize Driving?, in a Twitter thread.

Until the 1910s, “street parking was broadly outlawed: if you owned a car in a city, you were responsible for storing it, just as you would be any other piece of movable property.”

“Tax subsidies for commuting prioritize driving. Those who walk, bike, or carpool to work, and in some cases those who take transit, pay other people to drive to work.”

Never realized (or forgot) that CAFE fuel economy rules — generally a good thing — have a loophole that “light trucks” don’t need to be as fuel efficient as cars. “Light trucks” have come to mean SUVs, which means SUVs are easier to produce. No coincidence that the share of “light trucks” has soared from 20% in 1976 to 69% of market today. The upshot, of course, is that SUVs are much worse for pedestrian safety: you’re 3.4x more likely to be killed if hit by an SUV vs. a car.

Volkswagen’s Turning Lemons into Lemonade

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 11, 2019

This is an ad for Volkswagen’s I.D. Buzz, a concept car that is slated to enter production in 2022 as the long-awaited new version of the VW Microbus:

VW I.D. Buzz

This ad references a couple of different things. First, VW is being very aggressive in pushing their electric vehicles in the wake of their 2015 emissions scandal, in which the company intentionally programmed their diesel cars to run clean in test mode in order to meet US emissions standards. The second reference is to their iconic ad from the 60s:

VW Lemon

Whether or not the company will be successful in rehabilitating their reputation is one thing, but that ad is super clever.

VW has a history of referencing bad news about their brand in their advertising: How VW Turned Beastie Boys-Inspired Theft of Car Parts into a Clever 80s Ad.

The Dirty Car Artist

posted by Jason Kottke   May 29, 2019

Dirty Car Art

Dirty Car Art

Dirty Car Art

Scott Wade turns the dirty windows of cars into mobile art. Here’s a look at Wade in action:

Hollywood Dream Machines: an Exhibition of Vehicles from Sci-Fi Movies

posted by Jason Kottke   May 17, 2019

Hollywood Dream Machines

Hollywood Dream Machines

Hollywood Dream Machines

Hollywood Dream Machines

An exhibition called Hollywood Dream Machines: Vehicles of Science Fiction and Fantasy just opened at the Petersen Automotive Museum in LA. It features more than 50 vehicles from sci-fi and fantasy films like Blade Runner, Iron Man, Mad Max: Fury Road, Black Panther, Minority Report, Star Wars, Speed Racer, Back to the Future, and Tron: Legacy. The exhibition runs through March 2020.

Tactical Driving Looks Fun (But Don’t Try This at Home)

posted by Jason Kottke   May 02, 2019

Wyatt Knox is a former rally car driver and driving instructor at Team O’Neil Rally School and in this video, he shows us some of the tactical driving techniques that would be in the repetoire of law enforcement or special operations personnel, including running cars off the road, backing up at high speed, and doing a j-turn. (What’s a j-turn? It’s that cool thing they do in the movies where a car in reverse does a 180 and continues driving forwards in the same direction. It was a signature move of Jim Rockford on The Rockford Files.)

All that driving looked fun and this rally school happens to be only 80 miles away from where I live, so I went to their site to look at some classes. Their rally and drift schools are $1400/day (which seems totally fair because it includes car rental, tires, safety equipment, and insurance) but sadly that is not in my price range.

Our World Is Built for Men

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 27, 2019

In her new book, Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men, Caroline Criado Perez argues that the data that scientists, economists, public policy makers, and healthcare providers rely on is skewed, unfairly and dangerously, towards men.

…because so much data fails to take into account gender, because it treats men as the default and women as atypical, bias and discrimination are baked into our systems. And women pay tremendous costs for this bias, in time, money, and often with their lives.

The Guardian has a lengthy excerpt of the book, including a discussion of crash test dummies:

Crash-test dummies were first introduced in the 1950s, and for decades they were based around the 50th-percentile male. The most commonly used dummy is 1.77m tall and weighs 76kg (significantly taller and heavier than an average woman); the dummy also has male muscle-mass proportions and a male spinal column. In the early 1980s, researchers based at Michigan University argued for the inclusion of a 50th-percentile female in regulatory tests, but this advice was ignored by manufacturers and regulators. It wasn’t until 2011 that the US started using a female crash-test dummy — although, as we’ll see, just how “female” these dummies are is questionable.

Designing cars around the typical male body type means women are more likely to be injured or killed:

Men are more likely than women to be involved in a car crash, which means they dominate the numbers of those seriously injured in them. But when a woman is involved in a car crash, she is 47% more likely to be seriously injured, and 71% more likely to be moderately injured, even when researchers control for factors such as height, weight, seatbelt usage, and crash intensity. She is also 17% more likely to die. And it’s all to do with how the car is designed — and for whom.

Another example Criado Perez cites involves women’s healthcare:

When Viagra — sildenafil citrate — was tested initially as heart medication, its well-known properties for men were discovered. “Hallelujah,” said Big Pharma, and research ceased. However, in subsequent tests the same drug was found to offer total relief for serious period pain over four hours. This didn’t impress the male review panel, who refused further funding, remarking that cramps were not a public health priority.

A Full-Scale Lego Supercar that Actually Drives

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 30, 2018

Over the past few months, a team at Lego has been building a full-scale model of a Bugatti Chiron supercar using only Lego Technics pieces — aside from the wheels, tires, and a few other key components. They got the look of the car down, but the truly impressive thing is that the car actually drives, powered by an electric engine made up of over 2300 Power Function motors. The Lego press release has the details.

Bugatti Lego

The model is the first large scale movable construction developed using over 1,000,000 LEGO Technic elements and powered exclusively using motors from the LEGO Power Function platform. Packed with 2,304 motors and 4,032 LEGO Technic gear wheels, the engine of this 1.5 tonnes car is generating 5.3 horse power and an estimated torque of 92 Nm.

The doors open and close, the spoiler moves up and down, the headlights work, and the all-Lego speedometer works — what a goofy and amazing accomplishment. cc: my Lego- and supercar-loving son

We should be building cities for people, not cars

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 19, 2018

Devon Zuegel says that our cities and the people who live in them would be much better off if we designed them around people and not cars.

Unfortunately, America’s inherited infrastructure is more like the old Embarcadero Highway than the boulevard that replaced it. Urban planners spent the 20th century building cities for cars, not people, and alternatives to driving have been systemically undervalued. This legacy has resulted in substandard health outcomes, missed economic opportunities, and a shortage of affordable housing.

We can’t wait around for another earthquake to reverse generations of bad policy. Luckily, it doesn’t require a natural disaster to begin reshaping our infrastructure. Small changes can have an outsized impact in expanding alternatives for how people move around. Rebuilding our infrastructure to enable walking, cycling, and mass transit would bring health and economic benefits that far outweigh its price tag.

People who live in rural areas more or less need their own cars in order to do anything, but private cars in cities are much less necessary. Cities should optimize for buses, subways, cyclists, and pedestrians — they get people to where they’re going without all the outsized infrastructure, waste, and pollution. *repeatedly sticks pin into voodoo doll of Robert Moses*

Update: Alissa Walker writing for Curbed: Don’t ban scooters. Redesign streets. (because there’s still too much space allocated to cars).

Market Street offers a glimpse of how contemporary U.S. cities might be edging towards that shared-street mentality (a proposal to completely ban private cars from the street was ahead of its time). But it also illustrates something else — if you give people ample space to move at a safe speed using the mode of their choice, anyone can use the street.

All over the country, city leaders are spending their summers devoting careful thought to the number of rentable e-bikes that can be deployed on streets at once, where electric scooters might be parked, and how dockless companies should be punished for violating these terms. Just this week, the National Association of City Transportation Officials, which collates best practices from its 62 member cities, released draft guidelines around the regulation of “small vehicles.”

Yet largely absent from these decisions — at least the public-facing ones — are how cities plan to quickly and dramatically reconfigure their streets to allow people to actually use anything but a car.

Charging speed is no longer an obstacle for electric cars

posted by Patrick Tanguay   May 02, 2018

Porsche's Mission E

There’s a lot to learn about and ponder in this thread by Bloomberg Senior Reporter Tom Randall. He talks about how fast upcoming chargers will top up a battery, how larger capacity means quicker initial charges, extended ranges and more. (I only include a few tweets here, check out the whole thread.)

Obviously, electric cars aren’t perfect, you have to consider where the electricity is coming from, the production of batteries is polluting itself, and we should prioritize public transport and walkable / bikeable cities. Still, the speed at which renewables are being installed and the evolution of electric cars are a fascinating to watch.

Why speeding is so dangerous

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 13, 2018

Let’s say you’re doing 100 mph in a car and suddenly a downed tree, stopped car, or person appears in the road up ahead and you need to slam on the brakes. How much more dangerous is that situation than when you’re doing 70 mph? Your intuition might tell you that 70 mph is only 30% less than 100 mph. But as this video shows, the important factor in stopping a car (or what happens to the car when it collides with something else) is not speed but energy, which increases at the square of speed. In other words, going from 70 mph to 100 mph more than doubles your energy…and going from 55 to 100 more than triples it. (thx, david)

The Falcon Heavy launch, space advertising for billionaires, and the beauty of science

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 07, 2018

I’ve slept on it and my mind & soul are still reeling from the SpaceX launch of Falcon Heavy yesterday. I can’t tell you why exactly, but when the two side boosters landed safely back on Earth at nearly the same instant, as in a beautifully choreographed ballet, I nearly burst into tears. Just watching the replay gets me all verklempt:

Of course, the boosters were supposed to land at the same time. They broke away from the main stage at the same time and were controlled by identical computer systems in their descent; it’s a simple matter of high school physics to solve for the time it takes two uniform objects to travel from point A to point B. But as Richard Feynman said about the beauty of a flower, knowing the science makes moments like this more wondrous.

And then right after that, the video showed what appears to be a human driving a car in Earth orbit to the strains of David Bowie’s Life on Mars. What an incredible, ridiculous, ludicrous thing:

SpaceX Carman

There is ample prior art, but I suspect Elon Musk launching a Tesla Roadster into orbit will go down in history as the first notable advertisement in space, a marketing stunt for the ages. However, it seems problematic that billionaires can place billboards in orbit and then shoot them willy nilly into the asteroid belt without much in the way of oversight. As the Roadster recedes from Earth and our memory, will it become just another piece of trash carelessly tossed by humanity into a pristine wilderness, the first of many to come? Or as it ages, will it become an historic artifact, a orbiting testament to the achievement and naivety of early 21st century science, technology, and culture? It’s not difficult to imagine, 40 or 50 years from now, space tourists visiting the Roadster on its occasional flybys of Mars and Earth. I wonder what they’ll think of all this?

Update: The Roadster has been assigned an interplanetary ID by NASA: Tesla Roadster (AKA: Starman, 2018-017A). Using data from a Chilean telescope, astronomers have been able to figure out how fast the car is tumbling in space from the changes in brightness: 1 rotation every ~4.8 minutes (although there’s some disagreement in the comments that it might be twice that). At any rate (har har), here’s a time lapse video of the car taken with the 4.1-m SOAR telescope in Chile:

Astrophotographer Rogelio Bernal Andreo also captured the Roadster moving across the sky in this video:

The neon glow of Tokyo modified car culture

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 08, 2017

New Zealand drift racer Mike Whiddett recently travelled to Japan to explore Tokyo’s “extraordinary after-dark modified auto scene”. He found people making California-style lowriders, Dekotora (my favorite, if only for the sheer spectacle), illegally modified cars, and a man who says with a straight face that “driving an unmodified Lamborghini is boring”.

What’s interesting is that more than one of these guys in the video repeated some variation of “I don’t care what anyone thinks about me”. I….don’t believe you? If there’s one thing most humans care deeply about, it’s what other people think about them, particularly when you’re driving million-dollar, pulsing-neon supercars around the world’s most populous city.