Here’s a big call from “Carsguide”: To quote Friedman; “somebody ought to call Steve Jobs, who doesn’t need to be bribed to do innovation, and ask him if he’d like to do national service and run a car company for a year. I’d bet it wouldn’t take him much longer than that to come up with the G.M. iCar.”
Interesting that what they seem to be saying is that a lack of top-level ‘visible’ leadership, rather than a lack of researched, developed, targeted, marketed and timely product, is root cause here. I’m pretty sure that a passionate, charismatic leader may well have still chosen to build too many of the wrong product, especially so if they were a long-term ‘car-guy’ (of either sex) and a bit blinded by their own wants or dreams.
In fact there are many, many successful companies in the US and elsewhere, with effective leadership at all levels, not just at the top. They may not garner much publicity and they may not be very charismatic – but they do get results. Is it important that they be charismatic like Jobs, or for that matter like Obama, or even – going to extremes – Hitler or Mussolini? There’s a danger here that a so-called ‘great leader’ will in fact take us where we shouldn’t actually want to go.
As for Jobs being the master of innovation and success, he’s been in and out of Apple, come back as the messiah and in many senses lucked into marketing a true game-changer at the right time – because Apple was almost as close to the edge as GM is now. He made sure Apple’s MP3 player was slick, and priced it correctly. He made it look and feel better than the competition, and marketed it brilliantly. What has come since is a series of slick updates and a sideways move into hyped-up cell phones. Whilst they have technically excellent product, they remain a packaging and marketing company with a deft spin on look and feel. Is that what a car company needs to survive? Maybe. Or maybe they just need to step back, look at where we are headed with global warming, peak oil and so on and just take a big, brave bet on something very different.
Rather than simply re-working what we’ve had since the turn of last century.
Personally I think speed limiters on private cars are inevitable. It won’t be as simple as a governor or throttle restrictor, it will instead be a logical device that takes note of conditions (eg road type and weather) and location (eg GPS or RFID coordinates) to reasonably balance traffic flow and safety. You don’t, after all, save any time by speeding except on a clear road. And speeding – ie exceeding the speed limit – adds risk. The risk goes up because you are generating an unpredictable range of speeds for other drivers to contend with, everyone has decreased time to react, and energy levels in an accident are raised. There’s nothing bright or clever about it. Speeding is either by choice or by neglect.
But that’s not all. Speeding and the political games played by politicians, journalists and car makers ultimately encourages civil disobedience. We are told by some that speeding is not as dangerous as lawmakers think, and that fines are “revenue raising” only. Whilst that is obvious hokum (the revenue is actually tiny, laws are costly to police and enforce so the “profit” is even smaller, and general taxation revenue in fact pays for our roads), worse is that the whole law-breaker-law-maker vortex criminalises otherwise decent people, sometimes robbing them of their livelihoods and community respect. We shouldn’t be doing this!
But wait, it gets worse. On most roads you have mixed traffic, intersections, potholes, pedestrians, accidents – you name it. So mixing into that some speeding is not a good idea. And there’s no point to speeding if all you do is catch up to the traffic ahead of you. And in so doing create a traffic jam to curse at. The irony of the speeding motorist is that in their haste to get somewhere quicker they cause the traffic jam that slows them down.
No matter how you cut it, we don’t need it – get on a racetrack if you want to speed. So it’s interesting to read this: “He said the rate of crashes per kilometre for 16-year-old drivers was almost 10 times that for drivers aged 30 to 59, while excessive speed was the biggest killer on Australian roads.” Which makes perfect sense. But less compelling to read this: “Speed-limiting is valuable but … occasionally to get out of trouble it is useful not to be limited by speed. You might need that extreme speed to avoid a collision,” he said. Occasionally? Exactly when does it happen that exceeding 130kmh (the governed speed mentioned in the article) saves lives? The contention would be when you are already doing 110kmh and someone crosses your path, or is about to – and that doing 130 will “get you out of trouble”; but dropping to 80 may equally get you out of danger. And 130 may simply get you out of one mess and into another, bigger one. Especially for an inexperienced driver.
Let’s face it – we demand absolute standards of safety of our public transport systems, including a disciplined approach to speed. For too long we have erred in the car maker’s favour, allowing “anyone” to drive by simplifying the controls and compromising safety in favour of “accessibility for all”. Whilst a case can be put to do this, to facilitate independent private travel as a “freedom”, car makers have a vested interest in making it as easy as possible to buy a car, get a licence and drive. And vested interests are prone to misjudgement of what is right and good for everyone else. Just look at the car mags and their constant bleating about speed laws. They, like the manufacturers they serve, are blighted by the corruption of self-interest. IMHO, of course
California has an enviable record with enforcing car makers to take strategic action on air quality where other US states – and other countries – have lagged. But their are problems with mandating the future. Sometimes what you want to see – like zero-emission vehicles – just aren’t do-able in the time allowed. And sometimes by mandating one approach you end up in a dead end. Take hydrogen, for example. A lot has been said that it’s the fuel of the future but it remains highly impractical. It’s so like a beautiful dream – a car that consumes water, breaks it into hydrogen, burns the hydrogen and makes water again – that it’s hard to believe. It’s even harder to make. Even when you do the water-splitting elsewhere and try to distribute hydrogen like gasoline you strike trouble. It’s more dangerous to transport and store than petrol. It needs to be massively compressed. It takes energy to actually make. It’s just not available.
Forbes reports on California’s change of heart: The California Air Resources Board voted unanimously during the last week of March to scale back the ambitious automotive clean air rules it adopted five years ago. The board ruled that the six largest automakers operating in the state will collectively need to produce 7,500 zero-emissions vehicles by 2014–a whopping 70% fewer than the 25,000 ZEVs it had mandated in 2003.
A lot is happening out there in techno-land, but it’s mostly hidden from view. We see the shiny new gadgets, we wonder what’s next. Well we can imagine what’s next by looking at what’s out there now and extrapolating. We can also factor in the alternatives plus all possible eventualities to arrive at a probability analysis of “the future”. Let’s do all that in one quick blog post, eh?
- We have ever-smaller, ever-more-powerful gadgets (think cell phone and PDA)
- We have more types of gadget than ever before (think cell phone, flash drive, digital cameras, GPS, watt meters on bicycles)
- These gadgets can connect to an ever-more-pervasive Internet
- These digital gadgets are getting cheaper.
What can we extrapolate from that? Competition will drive down price, volume drives down cost. Gadgets will get smaller, will connect seamlessly with online resources and converge. So you get cell phone with camera, then cell phone with camera and GPS, then cell phone/camera/GPS/PDA and finally cell phone/camera/GPS/PDA/watt meter, or more likely and generally cell phone/camera/GPS/PDA/accelerometer. Which is really a whole new gadget, because this new device can communicate wirelessly, store data, capture images, sense where you are and even sense what you are doing. It can tell if it’s moving, or upside down. Logically it can detect light and guess if it’s in a bag or if it’s on a table. It knows if you are walking, driving, riding a bike: and how fast. It can tell you how much energy you burned during the day. It can download or upload data, or features, as needed. With this power to download new features as needed it could morph into something entirely new just by sensing where it is, what other people or gadgets do in these situations or what you did with it last time it was in this position. It becomes one portable tool for all places, all uses.
You could think along the same lines with television and radio, or anything really. You could find yourself with small portable devices that adapt to a situation – you get in a car, it takes on the navigation, communication or entertainment chores without any instruction. It may even carry your personal preferences as to seating position or driving style, communicate this to the car, and the car adapts to you. You step out, sit in an office at a desk with a Bluetooth keyboard, it senses that object and that location and becomes a powerful business computer. It downloads your work data and applications – and away you go.
OK, so we have a way of predicting what could be, but what about probabilities? What are the possible alternatives? What are the threats? Well a quick look in the news will tell you that political instability, changes of government, increasing pollution, competition for resources, global warming and cost of oil are all things to factor in. Can this gadget survive, or even prosper, when oil runs out? Can we power it? Is it sustainable?
I’ll let you decide the probabilities on all of that.
Monash Uni weighs into the climate change debate with a rousing call to arms… dump your car, start walking and cycling, or catch public transport. I won’t say he’s wrong, ’cause he’s right: “The car is doomed,” Associate Professor Honnery says. “Ultimately, we are going to have to move to a decentralised society where most people need to travel far less. People are going to have to fundamentally change the way they think about travel and make much more use of non-motorised travel such as cycling and walking.”
A decentralised society? What, like we commonly had less than 50 years ago, with corner stores, good public transport and village shops within walking distance? Who put us on this road to centralised super-shopping and adjacent multi-story car parks anyway? What were they thinking? (Oh yeah, probably car makers and petrol refiners. Maybe they had a vested interest in our society taking the wrong turn?)
It’s not like cars are sacred objects dating back thousands of years. Cars only go back to the 1890s, and we’ve only really started buying them in bulk since the 1950s. Now of course they proliferate and we have taken – as a community – too many steps to encourage their use and discourage every alternative. We have made it painful and difficult to revert to what we had just a few decades ago. It’s like we had traitors in our midst, hell-bent on making the car the centre of our lives. Suddenly we see them for what they are – marketers and sales people.
- Walking? “Too dangerous, I wouldn’t let my kids walk. I’ll pick ‘em up in a big tin can with wheels instead.”
- Public Transport? “No way, too dirty, always late, too uncomfortable and I’d have to change trains/buses several times.”
- Cycle? “You have to be joking? I’d get killed by the cars and anyway there are too many hills.”
Ah well, we live and learn. People are used to them and will cling (I know I do). They will pay more and more for the privilege until they realize that cutting back really does make sense. I’ve cut back. I still own ‘em – all small 4 cylinder machines – but I don’t drive ‘em much. And I walk, and I have a bike. What about you?
OK, this is for the technically minded, but it occurs to me that your laptop could be a lot more than just a mobile computing device. It could also be a very large bike computer, or a power and g-force measurement device for your race car. Oh, sure, you knew that already, but I don’t mean by adding extra sensors. No, I mean by using the built-in accelerometer! If you have a decent and recent laptop, one with the shock-sensing hard disk automated shutdown and lock feature (ThinkPads have this, for example), a whole new world of uses opens up. Yes, you need to write some fancy software, but hey, it’s an idea! Cool, or what? And yes, I got the idea from this ibm.com article on footstep mapping (yes, really!) using the Lenovo ThinkPad. The ThinkPad was an IBM PC until they sold off that business to Lenovo.
(Note that whilst I also work for IBM, this is my opinion only, not necessarily the corporation’s. And I’m not just trying to get more Lenovo sales… because it won’t help me one bit. Rather, it’s just a cool idea.)
You need more than just a word processor with a spell check function in this world. This tickled my fancy…from a trashy Aussie car mag on line… From the moment Subaru announced the new Impreza WRX STI last year we’ve been on the edge of our seats and waiting with baited breath.
The image of that devoted journo waiting with “baited” breath for a car to finally spring forth is a poignant one. Wonder what bait he was using? And what an ugly, pointless car it turned out to be!
OK, I love cars and bikes. I love wheels, basically. I love the ability to travel much further, far easier than on foot. (And I love walking, too.) Trouble is, cars take up too much space, spew fumes and their drivers act like it’s a personal affront to slow down and give pedestrians and cyclists a chance. The ‘modern’ world is simply unbalanced in its love of roads, parking and ever-bigger cars and has forgotten that people actually live here, too, and want to (a) breathe (b) not be intimidated by traffic to the extent where simply crossing a road or even walking alongside one is an ordeal. At this point I publish in toto and excellent riposte by Sydney’s Lord Mayor to the numbskulls at the Aussie National Roads and Motorists Association (of which I am a long-standing and increasingly disenchanted member):
Clover Moore January 11, 2008 “THE NRMA, unsurprisingly, claims that few cyclists use the Epping Road corridor each day. The NRMA, like the big oil companies, has a vested interest to protect, and it is depressing that private car use in Sydney is still rising, with vehicle kilometres travelled increasing at twice the rate of population growth. We are past the day when we have any choice but to pursue alternatives: oil is running out and global warming is increasing at an alarming rate. Our streets are becoming impossibly congested, polluted and unpleasant to use. The health costs, in respiratory disease and obesity, to name but two, are well-documented. Many people choose cars over bikes because they can get directly to any destination. Get on a bike, and you’ll be lucky to find continuous safe passage. Cyclists are expected to levitate through impassable gaps in the network and risk their lives inches from tonnes of speeding metal on car-dominated roads. Despite this, nearly 1.5 million bicycles were sold in Australia last year, 40 per cent more bikes than cars. And this is the eighth year in a row that bikes have outsold cars.
“At last year’s C40 Large Cities conference in New York, I cycled with the mayor of Copenhagen. In the Danish capital 40 per cent of people use bikes to get to work and study. International experience shows that if you provide the facilities, people will use them – but it does not happen overnight. Our top need is for a clean, efficient, sustainable and integrated transport system that includes cycleways and mass transit to move the million-plus people who use the city daily to their destinations. Recent research by the City of Sydney indicates that Sydneysiders would be more likely to cycle if there were dedicated cycle lanes and better awareness by motorists of bicycle safety. Even under the present, less-than-ideal conditions, the Roads and Traffic Authority has reported a 45 per cent increase in bicycle traffic in the CBD in the three years to 2005. The city’s own counts show that about 500 cyclists use Oxford Street each weekday between 7am and 9am – a sixfold increase over the past decade. While there are major recreational cycleways – such as the Sydney Harbour route and the planned Alexandra Canal path – the city’s cycle strategy aims to create an effective and accessible network with major routes less than five minutes’ cycle from every residence. It also includes strategies to increase community awareness about the benefits of cycling, to provide better signage and safer, separated cycle lanes. We are encouraging end-of-trip facilities including the provision of parking, storage, change and shower facilities – which progressive firms like Lend Lease are now providing in their headquarters. On the other side of the harbour, North Sydney Council has its own proposals for getting cyclists safely to the bridge, and local governments across the metropolitan area are looking at ways of creating a cycling network that can get people to work, recreation and educational destinations.
“According to the British urbanist Charles Landry, the average US male devotes more than 1600 hours a year to his car – driving it, sitting in traffic, parking it. Adding in the time spent working to pay for it, for petrol, tolls and other charges, he calculates that same person spends over 18 per cent of his life on his car. Sydney people have surely got better things to do with that 18 per cent of their lives.”
Clover Moore is Lord Mayor of Sydney and the independent state MP for Sydney.
OK, you didn’t ask, but here I go. Some thoughts and questions to consider for today.
- Why is it that the bicycle industry can make frames that are compatible with the drivetrains of at least 3 major manufacturers and the componentry of just about everyone? Doesn’t that (otherwise very sensible) component commonality impinge upon product differentiation?
- Why is it that automotive companies can barely get it together to share wheels and tyres and sundry hidden mechanicals and electricals? Sure they have tried to share platforms and engines, and there are plenty of exceptions, but generally they keep reinventing the wheel; or in this case the complete drivetrain and monocoque shell. Does this more complete individualism grant some competitive advantage or are they simply blind to the savings that they could make for themselves, their customers and the world?
- Why is it that the PC industry is split so unevenly between the bespoke “locked-up” designs like Apple’s and the open, modular and shared componentry that the “IBM-compatible” (or perhaps ‘Intel/Microsoft architecture-compatible’) makers comply with? What can we take away from the far greater market penetration of the latter approach? Or the higher prices and possibly ‘cooler’ designs from the low-volume makers?
- What is the best approach for the world (including our living environment as well as our economic one)? To evolve shared componentry in all cases and thereby reduce overlap and waste; or to instead foster maximum competitive differentiation with bespoke, individualised design? Or to balance the 2 approaches? Or to find a 3rd way?
- If there is ‘a better way’, should governments mandate it? Car safety legislation would be one example when government has enforced a common standard of safer design, however I have the sneaking suspicion that there are better, lighter, cheaper safety systems than the amazingly contrived explosive ‘airbag’ system that car companies have foist upon us. Airbags are of course less intrusive than helmets, harnesses and the like – but are they ‘better’? Is this an example where the compromise reached favours maximising car sales over implementing good sense? Or do the practical problems of getting people to wear harnesses and helmets outweigh the benefits?
These are the questions on my mind right now. More later, I’m sure…
Really, by now they should know better. They call some cars “green” or the saviours of the world because they do a little better than the others in fuel consumption, but forget that cars need infrastructure and resources other than fuel to get around. And that ‘other stuff’ stuffs the environment, too. And they call old stuff, like hybrid engines (think diesel-electric locos on our railroads) or combos of super and turbo chargers (think piston-engined airliners like the Super Connie), new. And then they write stuff like this: But what happens if one of these automotive gods descends from the stratosphere and into the reach of the only moderately well-heeled? It’s a dangerous path to tread. Mercedes and BMW have been there, trading the exclusivity of the badge for the lure of sales growth. But no one from the top shelf of supercars had tried it until Porsche released the Cayenne 4WD in 2003. This vehicle has certainly lifted Porsche sales (the company says it will make up about 45 per cent of total sales with the new model) – but how has it affected the long-standing Porsche formula? Just how fast (or slow) is the cheapest Porsche money can buy? To find out we grabbed two other popular six-cylinder cars as a benchmark.
First up, who cares? Well I care because the resources squandered by hulks like these mean less resources around for the future. And the basic premise is wrong. This is just a brand issue, and it has been done to death. According to the hacks at drive.com.au Porsche has never trod this path before. Yeah, right. In these lame moto-journalistic eyes Porsche never made a truck-powered 924 or – what was that earlier effort with the flat-four? Well it was firstly the 356 but that was cool, and then the subsequent 912 was bigger and not-so-cool. And then there was the 914. With the parts-bin 924 and 914 they really made affordable, economical performance cars that competed with Alfa Romeo’s GTV and its ilk. Oh for the days when sports cars – all cars – were small and fiesty, not fat and fusty.
But watered down Porsches didn’t really work and they were worked over relentlessly until Porker gave up and kept the 911 going and going instead. Which has led us to today, when the hacks are going ‘gosh, a cheap-ish Porsche’. Again. And the thrust of it all is business, not passion or sustainability. Porsche are once more broadening their range, not with sports cars but with fat but powerful iterations of the 4WD from hell. You could say it’s diversification, and it’s been a success. It’s also risky in that it is polluting and diluting the brand. It may be that in these times when everyone has an overpowered 4WD that Porker can get away with it – seemingly so. But it’s neither new nor original. And definitely not something a ‘traditional’ 911 owner would want to know about.
And let’s not beat it up into something desirable, either.
I can’t help but watch the cars go past. We live on what is almost an island, just a ridge of mountain with a swampy strip on each side connecting us to the mainland. In the old days there was no road in, all traffic was via the wharves on the southern side of the peninsula. As the settlement grew and the land cleared it became viable and desirable to connect the the old Yow Yow settlement to Kincumber parish, and the first road (Elvy’s) was driven up over the ridge. It’s still there but impassable in places, at least by cars. Bullocks would’ve been the ‘heavy’ traffic, carting timber from Kincumber down to the boat builders at Davistown. And then the road was pushed to the west along the swampy strip, connecting us to Green Point and Erina, and by punt from there to East Gosford. So as I say, there’s now just one road into the place.
So when I stand at my front door I can see all of the traffic to Saratoga and Davistown. In what passes for peak hour it’s a constant stream. Car after car, plus buses and trucks. The buses are full of schoolkids, at least by the time they roam around and collect a load, then quite empty. The cars are mostly driver-only, no passengers. By my rough count we see 50 cars a minute for 2 hours, and 40 a minute for another 3 hours, then 10 a minute for 10 hours. Much less overnight but at a constant trickle.
Now this is a small community. One set of about village shops for Saratoga, another much smaller set of shops for Davistown. One small grocery shop, a fruit shop, a butcher, a baker, a hairdresser and some estate agents at Sara and a newsagent and a take-away in each. Yet when you look at the traffic it’s at least 50*120+40*180+10*600 vehicles during the bulk of the day. That’s 19,200 vehicles passing by every working day and somewhat less at weekends. Let’s be generous and forget weekends. So that’s 96,000 vehicles per week, in and out. The speed limit is 50kmh but most do 60. All of them buzz past houses, children, pets and wildlife and either disturb their rest, their play or just their daily lives. Kids can’t play in the street, nor can they cross the road safely. Even adults have to wait for a break in the traffic before crossing and cyclists are blasted by horns for daring to venture forth.
Now we chose to live here, and it’s relatively quiet behind our screen of trees. We could live in a cul-de-sac. But not everyone can live in cul-de-sacs, or afford the premium paid for a quieter street. And whilst Davistown Road is a funnel that concentrates the traffic, plenty of other streets here and elsewhere have either more or somewhat less traffic to deal with.. and to be honest I am wondering why we allowed this to happen. Why are we encouraging these immense numbers of vehicles to terrorise communities? Is terrorise too harsh? Well imagine a world where kids could play in the street safely and where anyone could just cross the road when they wanted, without waiting for 10 minutes or more. Yes, we love the utility of jumping into our cars are going places but is the traffic, the exhaust, the noise and the fear generated really worth it? Have we blinded ourselves to what we are doing when we swap feet, boats, buses and bikes for cars?
We tend to focus on the energy we put into the car – you know, that liquid energy we currently use as fuel – rather than look at the total energy budget of the car. Which of course would be fuel over lifetime of car+car manufacture+car repairs and maintenance+fuel to move raw materials+share of cost of infrastructure and so on. That would include roads, ships that transport cars, port facilities for cars, car parks and even the family garage. It would include opportunity costs as well (you know, what you could have done with all of that land and money if it wasn’t tied up as freeways and so on). People install fluoro lightbulbs and offset their petrol expense and then declare themselves ‘carbon neutral’, when of course they are not even close. Worse still they buy a hybrid car and think ‘job done’. Baloney, it’s just job started.
Now it has been said that roughly 40% of the total energy budget of a car is expended just in its manufacture. Other people have suggested 60%, some much less. It depends of course on the size of the car, the cost of raw materials and fuel and how far that car travels in its life time. But is it true? Could so much of the energy expense actually occur just in manufacture? Now if you extend the life of the car (and continue to drive it, of course!) you increase the likely absolute cost of the fuel whilst diminishing the proportion of energy used in manufacture. But of course nothing is ever that simple, is it? You should factor in a share of the infrastructure, too. Can’t drive a car without roads after all (even off-road vehicles end up on road at times).
Unless of course we make it simple, just to prove a point. So let’s calculate how much energy is expended in making a car by setting aside the (probably!) much larger infrastructure costs for the moment. We could calculate this by breaking the car into material types by weight and looking up melting points of metals and so on and calculating back from there, but let’s just do a rough calculation simply based on retail price. We will assume that there are no energy subsidies (when of course there are) and that the price is fair, i.e. not below cost (or “dumped”). Big assumptions, yes. But we can’t be too far off, surely? (He writes, hopefully.)
Anyway if we choose 3 cars – a Hyundai Getz, a GM Commodore and an Alfa Romeo Brera and make a few more rash assumptions we may get some answers. The recommended retail of these cars in Australia is $A15,490 for the Getz 1.6l; $A39,900 for a Commodore Berlina V6 and $A87,990 for the Brera AWD v6. We will assume that the dealer makes 3% on the Getz, 8% on the Commodore and 15% on the Brera. (I’m assuming a very competitive market where more money is made on servicing and value-adds than selling the car itself – I could be way out!) There are many such layers of margin and tax to peel away, so here’s a table to show my calculations…
I have to tell you I was somewhat surprised at the estimated factory cost of the Alfa Brera. It must be wrong, surely? Somewhere my assumptions have gone awry, because seemingly the prestige European sports luxury car has a lower base cost per vehicle than the locally built sedan. But then I wondered if the still-somewhat protected nature of the small Aussie car manufacturing industry may have distorted the real cost of manufacture. So I bumped up the factory margin for the GM Commodore; but perhaps I should also knock the Alfa factory margin down somewhat? I thought a prestige car must attract a good margin, but maybe not so much when it’s an Alfa?
So let’s peg the Alfa back…
OK, these figures are still fantasy and probably out of kilter all over the place, but it’s still remarkable that the $80K+ RRP Alfa Romeo comes so close to the factory costs of the local Aussie sedan and the imported Korean small car, but there you go. You can play with the numbers yourself and get a somewhat different result – but it does illustrate how taxes alone distort pricing. And I didn’t even factor in the now-small import duties. Oooops – well you can do it yourself, and it just shows again why we probably shouldn’t be making cars in Australia. It may well say something similar if we chose to decompose US car prices, but I’m too lazy to go to further trouble.
Anyway, our aim here is to estimate energy costs, and you can see immediately that the factory’s raw material + transport + energy costs are going to be quite small individually, but proportionately larger for the ironically more economical small car. If I was to hazard a guess I’d say transport of resources currently would be 20%, energy 20% and raw materials 60% – but that is a guess.
Which would in any case give us this result:
If that breakdown is even close it means that the fuel cost will quite quickly overtake the cost of the energy used in manufacture. Of course we aren’t dealing with a level playing field at all, in fact various governments at times make decisions to subsidise development and infrastructure for export industries, so the real numbers are probably a few – maybe many – percent higher. I’m still surprised at the moderately low manufacturing costs overall, but that’s modern manufacturing at work isn’t it? Note also that if we ramp up energy costs we’d certainly change the nature of the whole manufacturing game. Transport costs would go through the roof for starters and the percentages will go south. But so will fuel prices…
It’s not easy, is it? We want to include everyone in our society, to extend our care and concern generally across the community, so that all share equally in the greater good of our civilisation. Everyone wants that, or they say they do. They want us to have our freedom, to do as we like – as long as we don’t hurt others in the process. From that grow our laws, be they enshrined in public legislation or religious text. And as everyone also knows, the law is an ass.
I recently wrote this: And as a consequence we go lightly on both driver qualifications and reprimands for driver ‘infringements’. If we applied tougher rules, or even applied our existing rules in a diligent manner then we’d actually remove that accessibility for a large number of people and hurt them socially and economically, and as a corollary hurt the politicians who act on our behalf. And I believe it’s true. We want everyone to have access to the freedom of personal transport. However as a western society we have ploughed far more investment into car ownership than public transport, so we have ended up with a society where logistically it is difficult to get everywhere and anywhere, easily, without a car. And we have made it easy to get a drivers’ licence, and cheap and easy to buy a car. So we all go out and get cars, and our expectation is that car ownership is a right, not a privilege. However we want to make driving reasonably safe (and we have settled for a dangerous level of accident and injury in our compromise, too, may I add) and thus we impose laws to control errant behaviour. Some things are perfectly obvious, like stopping for red lights and keeping right or left. But other laws are contentious or simply difficult to enforce. People like to speed, car manufacturers like to make ever faster cars, and some people seemingly lack the skill or judgement to not monitor and control speed. We then catch them and fine them until they lose their licence, their job, and their social status. We create enemies within, with a grudge against law makers and enforcers.
It’s akin to setting people up to fail. We encourage and reinforce car ownership and freedom with easy access to licences, cars and roads on one hand, then crack down on people who lack the skill, talent, experience, maturity or judgement to obey the laws. We let them in, then punish them for coming onboard. Why not raise the licensing and ownership bar and keep them out in the first place, so that they don’t go through this agony and loss of privilege? Because we want to be seen to be inclusive? Because we are all sadists at heart? Or because we don’t want to pay for the public transport infrastructure that supports non-car-drivers?
Well it’s a thought, anyway. Another option is to make cars fail-safe, so they cannot exceed posted limits. The technology is certainly here, with GPS, RFID and car-based computer power and ‘fly-by-wire’ controls. It’s just a matter of political will. Who is prepared to take on the car makers who sell speed as well as function with their “hero” car marketing? Who will stand up and be prepared to save thousands, if not millions of lives, by simply rendering cars safe from law-abuse? Whoever takes this on will be called undemocratic for starters – the “freedom fighters” of this world will say that it’s not the car that breaks the law, it’s the driver. And haven’t we heard that line before?
Here’s a list, for starters… anyone reckon any of this represents a valid, logical and reasoned argument for speeding?
- I’m in a hurry
- I was overtaking
- I’m rich
- It’s my right
- It’s a democracy
- I’m a good driver
- I don’t want to hold up traffic
- I don’t get caught anyway, so what’s the problem?
- If I do get caught I just pay the fine, it’s like a toll not a punishment
- It’s revenue raising (see below for police conspiracies against me)
- What harm can I do by speeding?
- Everyone does it
- Fuel’s so cheap, I can do it without real cost
- Breaking the law gives me a buzz
- I like to go fast, it feels good
- My mates told me to
- Sometimes you have to speed to avoid an accident
- I wasn’t watching the speedo
- It’s dangerous to watch the speedo
- I was on the phone
- I was distracted
- I missed the sign
- There are too many signs, it’s their fault
- This car’s too quiet
- This car’s too powerful (ie blame GM, Ford, Chrysler, Toyota, Hyundai, whoever, but not me)
- The laws are too complicated
- The police were hiding, I shouldn’t have been caught (see below for police conspiracies against me)
- You should catch the bad drivers who get in my way and stop writing this trash (I just can’t stop writing this trash!)
- I’m not well, I just can’t stop doing it
- It’s my medication (hey, that’s not a bad one)
- They are out to get me and it’s all set up to trap me, so I’ll let them get me anyway (perhaps it’s the medication)
- The police are revenue raising and forced me to speed past their cunningly disguised traps (conspiracy theory 1)
- The police are revenue raising and out to get me, no matter what I do, so what the heck (2)
- The police are revenue raising and have poorly calibrated measuring instruments, so how do they know anyway? (3)
- I was only just over the limit, that’s not speeding (see also ‘everyone does it’) (4)
- The law is an ass.
It’s a side issue to my pet subject of global warming, or to society generally, but one I find curiously unexplored in the media. It’s treated as a joke, a laugh, something of little consequence rather than a clear case of inadequate lawmaking and ongoing civil disobedience. It’s the question of why we let virtually anyone drive, and then let them do practically anything once they are driving. Yes, we expect them to keep to the left or right, and to not actually hit anyone else (but they do). But generally we just let them go off and do what they like within some very broad guidelines. However the road laws are indeed law, and laws are meant to be respected. So why do we let people hit each other, to speed, to park wherever they like, fail to indicate, fail to stop at stop lights and stop signs, and often to just disregard the rules of the road? Why is that?
Do you disagree? Did you just cop a speeding ticket and are indignant about it? Well being caught may hurt for a short while but honestly you have been getting away with it for years, haven’t you? What did you expect? A public service medal? Most people simply get away with it, most of the time. More than likely you have been ‘getting away with it’ for years yourself and have habituated speeding or other sloppy habits. Just check out any public street, and watch the lawbreakers as they zoom past or park haphazardly. OK, so it’s not that I am advocating a police state, and yes, road rules like other laws are also there to be challenged, but the challenges have to be scrutinised and pass muster on a broader community level, surely. So why do we treat core safety issues like speeding, that is disobeying the posted speed limit, so lightly? Now if a transport professional breaks a reasonable and related law they are reprimanded, punished and disciplined until they conform. And the media comes down on them like a ton (or perhaps tonne) of bricks if they don’t. Whether it’s a airline pilot, a train driver or a bus driver, they can expect to be brought into line, generally, and swiftly. And certainly not let off lightly like it doesn’t really matter. Yet the unprofessional driver is let loose, largely to just get on with it. If they get caught and fined it’s often portrayed in the media as ‘revenue raising’ and written off as something that we all do and, well, ‘what the heck’. Only if they are elderly (and by definition doddery and therefore a danger to us all) or young (and surely inexperienced, menacing hoons, and thus also dangers to us all) are they castigated on a regular basis. But why is it so, and should we let it be, or should we actually do something about it?
Well the answer’s obvious, and it comes in 2 parts. Firstly we can’t afford to police the entirety of the wide open road. It’s too broad, with too many miscreants out there to catch them all, all of the time. Secondly we’ve created a (western) world where we need to travel by car. Shops are often too far away to walk, jobs are no longer confined to ‘traditional’ working hours and are scattered about, and public transport is often patchy at best. So economics alone dictates that we make cars simple, cheap, easy to use and available to all who need them. And as a consequence we go lightly on both driver qualifications and reprimands for driver ‘infringements’. If we applied tougher rules, or even applied our existing rules in a diligent manner then we’d actually remove that accessibility for a large number of people and hurt them socially and economically, and as a corollary hurt the politicians who act on our behalf. If they hurt the number of people they’d have to hurt to fix the problem they’d simply get voted out. Cars have been democratized, it’s effectively enshrined as a freedom.
We could try education. Or praise rather than punishment. And we could move the punishment closer in time and space to the actual law-breaking, but this is just the trimmings. Fact is that most people choose to break these laws, knowing the consequences, or the lack thereof. There’s a disconnect here, between what we see as unacceptable when it happens to us, and how we perceive our own actions when we ourselves are breaking the rules. I’ll prattle on some more, later.
Instead of just accepting what’s in the car company press release. Over and over again the car companies talk about clean, green hydrogen-fueled cars being “the next big thing” but never explain where all of this hydrogen comes from, or when the distribution infrastructure will arrive, and how it will be safely transported in usable (highly compressed) volumes through our communities… instead they trumpet how close it all is to being real but don’t explain how it will be made real.
But at least one journo has put 2 and 2 together, at last, from Jerry Flint at thecarconnection.com: Here’s the point: all of these developments, except for the ethanol, involve the engines, but they don’t change the distribution system. They don’t require new fuels or new ways of getting these fuels to the corner stations or from the corner station to the car. They don’t tear up the system or require new ways of distribution. They will be costly, probably thousands of dollars a car, but it will be the same car. Now think of what this mean for hydrogen. Hydrogen has promise. It burns, you can run a car on it, it emits no pollutants nor any earth-warming gases, like CO2. The waste product is water. That’s all wonderful. No pollution, no earth-warming gas, and kiss $80 oil goodbye. The problems are many. Where does the hydrogen come from? Whether it is burned as a fuel in fuel tanks, or used to prime fuel cells (which create electric current to run the car), hydrogen is hard to get. It’s plentiful, after all, in all that H2O, but breaking it free is difficult and costly.
And don’t forget that this is just the fuel… we have to spend energy to make and distribute the cars themselves, too, no matter whether they are “clean and green” or not.
“Car! Car! Car!” He’s done it seemingly spontaneously – “car” came hot on the heels of “dad”, “mum” and “that” in his now 18 month-old vocabulary. Neither of our girls took to the car with such delight and obvious enthusiasm, so maybe (on this small sample) it’s genetic? It wouldn’t surprise me if it is, as cars are basically a male-centric invention and should appeal, I would happily assert, to boys more than girls. If you agree there’s a sex-difference in how our brains are wired, of course, then this is but one expression of that.
So please accept that to be the case, or not. In any event most of our Western world has been shaped – driven even – by men, not women, so we have an immediate imbalance in how we address the world. We have sized and shaped our manufactured world around what fits the male taste and then we males have complained bitterly when women generally fail either to appreciate or to fully comprehend the marvelousness of it all. Look at map reading for instance. Men come up with the concept and then laugh at those who don’t quite so naturally grasp the visio-spatial relationship between a 2-D map and the 3-D (plus time) real world. Of course some men also have a problem with maps, but they often hide that fact and join in the laughter when a woman gets the map reading wrong. OK, I generalize, but it’s called setting someone up for failure and “we” have done it over and over again, be it intentionally or not.
Whilst all of that is percolating through my brain I was asked by a market research firm just how excited I was about some new styles of Coca-Cola packaging. Whoopee. Actually it’s not the sort of thing I get excited about I’m afraid. Like toilet paper it has its uses but it’s not a big part of my day. Actually toilet paper has far more of a daily impact on me than Coca Cola or any other soft-drink. And I guess most people are like me – we may have our tastes and preferences but we don’t actually get too passionate about daily necessities or trivial wants. I may be wrong, I certainly prefer Coke over Pepsi, but it’s not at the forefront of my thinking, either.
But in this modern world we do get passionate about some things, and often they are not clearly so connected with our real needs but more with unreal wants. Cars again spring to mind. Why do people – mostly men – get passionate about cars? Sure they matter, but not so much that you have to polish and protect them like some prized rare religious artefact. Cars seem to tap into something that mere transport never could. Walking doesn’t rise above more than ‘useful’ and an occasional past-time for most people, yet many car-owners take every aspect of their transportation device and worship it. We even invent tribal passions about cars where none logically should exist. We become fiercely loyal to GM or Ford, or Alfa Romeo or Ferrari, or whatever brand we choose – regardless that it really doesn’t matter. The differences are so slight between the comparative utility of these same-type vehicles that it should really matter which one we buy. They all work, so why pay a premium? Oh, status you say?
OK, so cars are exciting in a way that just going for a walk isn’t. There’s no status in walking, although it looks healthy it’s usually frowned upon and made difficult by poor footpaths and inconsiderate car drivers charging around trying to hit pedestrians. But cars have style, substance and make noise in a way that attracts attention – if only so we get out of the way before we get hit. And we have managed somehow to drive the car’s market penetration on the back not just of utility but indeed of that tribalism and deep inner want to both fit in and show off. Again the automobile makers just love this, that buyers not just select their purchase on the basis of utility and value but that they “stick” to a brand and continue to feed them money. Indeed more money if they can get that “status” thing happening.
Which brings me back to this game of life and the imperfection of it all. I think I’ll go for a walk.
Cars. I like them, I really do. 200 years ago only the most intrepid or desperate of us ventured outside of our villages, and it involved great risk to do so. In some measure the automobile and its accompanying infrastructure has facilitated the breaking down of barriers between villages, towns and cities, even more so than the train or ship. It has made it far more practical to go and visit the unknown and opened the eyes of many more people to the fact that there really is nothing to fear but fear itself. It’s akin to what the aeroplane has done to help break down barriers between wider geographies, like nations themselves. Of course cars and planes are not the only factors – trade is a big one, and breaking down barriers to trade has probably had a bigger impact again. The idea that a country or region has to be self-sufficient and can’t rely to any great extent on other regions persists today but has fewer supporters. In this new global world we have more trade because we have a more fair and open approach to markets; and the gains made include a more peaceful relationship between nations as well as vastly more trade and thus economic activity. On the back of that we see more air, road and sea traffic between cities and nations.
This increased traffic and freer trade (it’s not perfect yet and imbalances abound) has allowed our economic system to drive increased specialization and a greater reliance upon more efficient producers, wherever they may be. Unfortunately part of the success of that system has relied upon subsidized oil. Because it seems so important to trade, we have fostered an imperfect market based on unreal costs. Now’s a great time to look at those costs and start balancing the equation to set things right. We need to preserve the good effects of almost-frictionless trading whilst pricing the oil, coal and gas appropriately, in a way that reflects the real costs.
Which really is my thought for the day. Perhaps the IT industry will assist us in keeping the barriers down between nations, if the Internet is kept free and open with no massive vested interests (like governments and corporates) dominating and blocking communication. Of course it’s not always free and open now, and there are always limits set, openly or by stealth. I have no easy answer, but there are some tough decisions to be made all round, aren’t there?
So you don’t think we are changing the world – and us – more quickly now than ever before?
Let me give you just one illustration of this time-line crunching; let’s look at how we get around. First up, we have moved from the fabulous foot (our first innovation, let’s say, be it by evolution or gift of god) and much, much later to my youngest daughter’s favourite, horse transport (another innovation, perhaps several thousands of years back from now). And gradually over time we have leveraged our invention of the wheel (which must surely go back a long, long way) in many different ways and with various animals helping us out. This all involved the passage of time – many thousands of years, by most accounts. We certainly had time to see the effects, adapt our ways and move on. More recently we found new ways to exploit metals and handily came up with the bicycle (by about 1817 or so). This opened a real Pandora’s box of new ideas. The bicycle freed us like never before from both our own walking pace and from reliance on other animals to shift heavy loads.
It was inevitable then that our minds kept working on how to build on the bike idea and eliminate the need for animals to haul carts and for us to push the pedals. Man the innovator – or perhaps man the lazy sod – they are 2 sides of the one coin. Thus we come to Daimler’s first motor-powered bicycle in 1885 and on to the first gasoline-powered 4-wheel automobile by 1893. And since 1893 we have gone from a handful of production motor cars in the hands of the wealthy to literally hundred of millions of cars owned by – at least in the wealthiest nations – the masses. In fact we could say that the automobile as a modern ‘necessity’ has only come about since World War 2, and is still finding new markets.
The obvious point to make from that example is that we had maybe a million years to refine our walking style and to gradually develop paths to walk on, but it’s only been in the last 30,000 years or so that we have developed shoes to protect our feet and allow us to cover greater distances. And since then whilst we’ve made more paths and better shoes we’ve clearly taken some larger technological steps (ha, ha – sorry) in a much shorter time to get now to the ever-proliferating automobile.
The less obvious point is that whilst humans were once few in number and at greater risk of predation, accident and even extinction, they are now clearly numerous and largely in control of their environment (extreme weather and earthquakes aside). So the impact of human travel is far greater now than ever before. Even less obvious is that we have ‘chosen’ or perhaps ‘de-selected’ other options along the way. It’s natural that we walk, of course, but not ‘natural’ to wear shoes or drive a fossil-fuelled car (or catch a train or a plane for that matter). We have made decisions as a broader community to encourage shoe-wearing (try going to work without them) and thus created the shoe industry itself; and even to encourage production of some styles of shoe over others. That work boots get a tax-credit, a subsidy, is just one small example. There are even health and safety laws to tell us what sort of shoe we may wear and when we must wear them. You can see how we had both the time and inclination to develop the infrastructure and some degree of control around the practice of making and wearing shoes. It seems logical enough.
Now the horse brought similar changes along the lines of better, wider pathways and the development of an industry to support horses and their riders as they traveled. You saw investment in hostelry as well as saddlery and so on, and laws to control the ownership and use of horses, especially in towns. It was a transparent, reactive process that developed as the need arose. The bicycle leveraged much of this infrastructure and brought with it the need to adapt laws like that banning ‘furious riding’ to cover the new man-powered steed; and it took advantage of old crafts whilst layering on new needs like that for robust but comfortable tyres. Still it wasn’t a huge change, more of an evolution, and again we had the time to absorb what was happening and adapt our ways. And our environment could adapt as well.
But what of the automobile, hard on the heels of the bicycle as it were? Again we leveraged the existing paths but over time demanded bigger, smoother and more numerous paths – roads, if you like. The scale also changed from what was clearly a well-made path (perhaps the “Roman Road” is a good example of the top-of-the-range in path technology – wider, smoother and far easier to travel than a simple path worn through the bush) to a concrete and tar multi-lane motorway. The car itself went from what was effectively a simple and light motorised quad-bike to today’s much more complex and massively heavier machine. The performance went from a bicycle’s then fearsome 20-30kmh (or a little more for the fit of lung and leg) to whatever you wanted, really. You can add in all of the extras that go to support the car and the massive changes in the way we lay out our towns, how fit we are and how far we are prepared to travel to buy food, access services or commute to work. The laws were changed as we went, but the time to respond has been far less. We are still debating and reacting to the social costs whilst enjoying the luxury of comfortable, fully-enclosed (or top down, if you prefer) motoring and the wider accessibility of shopping, sporting and cultural services.
If you can see my point – that almost by stealth the car (and truck, for that matter) has arrived on the back of our previous innovations, and not just leveraged the infrastructure but ramped it up enormously whilst simultaneously eliminating much of our local community – or village – life. We have chosen and indeed subsidised this development; but then again, did we really? We may have been worried about horses or bicycles careering down our streets in the late 1800s, and enacted laws against unseemly or dangerous riding, but now we calmly allow – encourage, even – ever more massive cars to travel just inches from us at far higher speeds. Even when we impose speed limits in ‘built-up’ areas they are often at least twice the speed of a typical bike rider and at least six times that of a fast walker. And the motor vehicle will weigh a tonne or more, whilst the driver is now sealed inside and isolated from their environment rather than directly exposed to the environment like a horse or bicycle rider. And the car driver may be distracted by passengers, a sound system and probably their cell phone as well, in ways that horse and bike riders – or pedestrians – are not. Their personal contact with their surroundings and their ‘skin in the game’ is simply reduced.
We also prefer ‘villages’ over shopping malls, yet cars demand parking and scale begets greater scale. Thus we have dumped local shops and corner stores in favour of centralised shopping malls and multi-level car parks. And emptied our local streets in the process, apart from people out for a jog because they no longer get the exercise they would have got from walking to the shops.
I think you see the point I’m making – or I hope so! Things are speeding up and innovations – plus their social adaptations – are added on top of innovations. Yet heavier, smoother, quieter and faster cars scythe through our suburban streets on the back of laws which just barely dealt with bikes and horses. And as new technologies are added to cars – like sound systems and cell phones – we can only react after the event by passing laws to help drivers pay a bit more attention. But what if the problem is deeper and broader than this? What if we actually got it seriously wrong several decades and layers of amended legislation ago? And what happens next, when cars are faster still, quieter again and filled with new distractions like onboard Internet?
Now I’m not a Luddite out to destroy innovation, but I am concerned that we aren’t caring for our communities in our rush to make new “stuff”. I see a problem with not just transportation but a whole range of industries and products that have crept into our lives without a lot of fuss, usually on the back of of a bigger idea that was welcomed initially. For example I welcome cars as personal transport, but I don’t like them travelling past my house – and children – just feet, yards or metres away and at speeds out of alignment with the idea of a safe village environment for everyone. The thought that a hybrid car could come up behind my kids as they play, powered almost silently on its electric motor only, driver engaged in conversation on their cell phone, windows closed and aware only of obeying “the speed limit” is a bit chilling.
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Well I made the round trip to Sydney yesterday, isn’t that impressive? Well had I gone by bike I’d be impressed, but I went by car. What did I see? Loonies. First up, huge cars with one person in them (I was in a small 4 cylinder Hyundai Getz, btw). Like 2 tonnes of metal for just one person. Now I know it’s a free country but just what is wrong with us that we encourage this sort of behaviour? It’s not just the petrol consumed, it’s the sheer waste of all that metal and plastic, the mining, the transport, the elaborate transformation into a car.. that people choose to buy them staggers me, but the system is rigged to encourage it. Petrol is subsidised, with tax credits for research and development and for exploration, for starters. Roads are financed from general revenue, not by piddly speeding fines and registration like most people seem to believe. So everyone pays for new roads, bigger roads, smoother roads.. that then get eroded by ever larger cars. Bizarre. I do have 3 cars in my family fleet, but I hardly drive ‘em. All are 4 cylinders, all are small. Why would you want a large car? I suppose there are obvious reasons, but surely not for commuting. Yet there they are, driver-only, on the freeway, burning gas. I guess petrol’s too cheap – it’s so cheap people barely think about it, they just burn it away.
Otherwise, I noticed lots of tailgating and speeding. I kept to the “slow” lane where we did 80-100kmh most of the time and no-one seemed to get within 6-10 car lengths of me. Whereas the middle lane carried more cars and trucks, almost universally going at 110-130 (limit 110, btw) and tailgating. I saw one woman sit 1.5-2 car lengths off another car’s bumper at around 110kmh, and plenty more at 2-3 car lengths apart. What are they thinking? They clearly either don’t know that this is tailgating, or don’t understand that it’s dangerous. Alternatively it’s a way of ‘protecting’ your space on the road. If you leave a 6 second gap (which I usually do) you get other drivers swapping lanes and jumping into the gap. But if you keep the gap small it makes drivers think twice about changing lanes… although why we need to block lane changing is beyond me. At least around these parts it’s a national habit.
As for the speeding, I have no problem with it as long as it makes sense and is done safely. When the traffic is dense there’s no point – you just catch the guy in front. When enough drivers “catch the guy in front” you end up with a queue, and when you reach a bottleneck such as the end of the freeway or some roadwork it just means that the traffic compresses faster than it ought to. Which is to say that you create a traffic jam. Yes folks, speeding means catching up to that traffic jam faster, and piling more cars on top quicker so you get a faster build up of traffic and a bigger jam. If you slowed down you’d give the traffic jam a bit more time to disperse before you got there… but for some reason this doesn’t dawn on most drivers. They just carry on going fast and causing those “clumps” in the “fast” lane.
I’d better take a rest now.
First time ever, they say. Certainly I’ve never seen it happen: US car imports have nabbed almost 52% marketshare. The blame is being shifted from where it should be, ie Ford GM and Chrysler management and their collective lack of vision, to the one thing that is common all around the world: rising fuel prices. In fact US fuel prices are still low – probably too low – and can only go up. What the US car makers have done is dig themselves a deep, deep hole. By playing to what they thought were their strengths, SUVs and big, fat tanks, they narrowed their strategic focus and put too many eggs into one or 2 baskets. They can’t blame fuel prices – we, and they, always knew low fuel prices were going to end. Instead they kept on building bigger and less efficient vehicles and playing up the advantages of larger capacity motors in their “hero” cars. All the while the world was turning to smaller, more efficient vehicles. So they were diminishing their export potential and opening themselves to import competition. Well this lack of strategic vision is starting to bite, isn’t it?
There’s no doubt that we have much more scope for data logging in new cars than ever before. In fact they have to log some data just to work. Velocity, acceleration, G-forces… these are monitored for various driving aids, from anti-lock and anti-skid to air bags And engines must instantly adjust to environmental conditions as well as your driving inputs, that much is certain. And it’s well known – but probably not thought too much about – that data is logged and saved in order to provide feedback to the car service mechanics on how the car was used – so that the appropriate service intervals may be applied and mechanicals like brakes kept in shape. Drive your car hard and it’s always been apparent to the mechanic – but now they can tell you about it in a a lot more detail. So what’s the problem, if there is one?
Well I don’t think it’s a big problem myself, but a privacy advocate or a conspiracy theorist may have a bone to pick. With all that data – from outside air temp to actual gas mileage and even location (via GPS or cell phone triangulation) – now available, and ‘black boxes’ available to store it, what are the abuses that can occur? Well I suppose speeding becomes easier to detect. And if the government doesn’t like certain habits or styles of driving then that could be bad, as they may charge more for that sort of behaviour… or they may follow you around and see where you are going… but realistically what does it mean? That Orwell’s big brother has arrived? That we can actually verify your speeding habits, or ascertain who’s telling the truth after a car crash? Well maybe that’s no so bad… unless the idea of hiding from the law appeals to you. In which case drive an old car.
CNet has a story on this topic here.
OK, I’m bitter and twisted but I do take umbrage at car manufacturers going “green”. Or being portrayed as “green”.
I do understand that cars have replaced bicycles and horses in our “modern” lives, let alone feet and legs, but I don’t accept that’s all good. It’s only just over 100 years since the car was invented, mostly as a powered bicycle that came to absorb and replace the carriage-building trade. It’s pretty recent. Indeed the concept of mass consumption of the automobile really only goes back to the 1920s, and mass expectations only to the post-war boom when the independence of movement was seen as a great way to shrug off wartime restrictions. At least in many countries. Some have yet to embrace all of this consumption, although they would like to.
And there’s the rub. When we all embrace personal automobile transport we will create a monumental environmental problem. Cars consume resources – power and materials – in their creation and distribution and in accompanying infrastructure. Yes, they employ people as well but let’s put that aside for a moment – lots of other industries employ people, too. The cost of the car is measured not just in fuel consumption – hideous though that may be – but in the opportunity cost of the land set aside for roads, car parks and garages. And in the human cost of road trauma and hospitalisation, and rising rates of obesity and diabetes. And in the social cost of a community split by un-crossable roads and footpaths emptied by fear. These are not small things. They are a price we pay to jump in our cars with impunity and drive a few kilometres to the shops. Along this highway to hell we have killed corner stores, ruined our health and re-jigged our lives to expect – nay, demand – easy parking, close to everything. And hang the cost. We used to walk to the shops, meet our neighbours along the way and watch kids playing in the streets. No more.
So that’s what we have “voted for” by buying cars in proliferation. Governments have subsidised roads and run down railways to pay for it, and to earn votes. Car companies have lobbied to get their way because “we” wanted it. Or so it seemed. But who actually wanted cities of concrete, paved roads, car parks and smog?
And I haven’t even mentioned global warming. If a car company pretends to “go green”, it means to fool you. It’s a smokescreen so they can get more of what they want. Electric cars still have to be built from something, they will still consume resources – even if they don’t move an inch. Don’t imagine any of this is actually green. Dig a bit deeper. Go behind the gloss and hype and you find sheer greed, laziness and a failure of intellect. We don’t need bigger, faster, heavier cars, or hydrogen cars for that matter. We need to change the size and shape of our lives to fit into a more sustainable lifestyle. If we keep pursuing this current craziness – this mass consumption ethos – we’re going to run out of enough power and materials to make it all happen. Of course that’ll drive costs up and demand down, but will it all be too late? What if we have cooked ourselves with carbon emissions in the meantime?
Anyone for a bike ride?
Forbes posted here on this topic. Essentially it’s a game of licensing old but familiar – even respected – trade names and slapping them on new, unrelated products. So we take a name like Sylvania (known for light bulbs) and license it for use on SVA’s LCD monitors. It’s not a new game, but it’s a good one. We all look for the familiar, at least to some extent, when shopping. Whether that extends to preferring the familiar over ‘brand X’ on white goods I can’t say for sure but if “branding” works at all then it should work on some people, some time. The alternatives are to build your own brand through marketing and advertising, or to take over someone else, al la Ford and Jaguar. Mind you, I think Jaguar died as a brand when it was taken over by Ford. Whereas when Alfa Romeo was taken over by FIAT I was shaken but not stirred. I guess it’s all in the head, eh?
I think not. It seems odd that CNET even tries to review cars… but they do. And they think the Lexus LS460L is one “L” of a car, apparently. Mostly because of the gadgetry, I guess. OK, I love cars, but I prefer small, fuel efficient cars that take up less space and use fewer resources… and this Lexus lump is not small. And I don’t mind parking by sight rather than sensor. I like maps on paper and don’t really see a need to have a machine read it to me. And I prefer manuals over automatics. So perfect? I think not. What about you? If it’s so perfect do you think everyone should have one, and would that improve their lives?
Pick your strategy. Leverage your core competence by diversifying into related fields, and risk straying from that core skill area, or stay strictly doing what you are best at and risk low growth? Well it depends, doesn’t it? Honda’s core competence is reputedly in engines, and whilst they have repeatedly struck out in new areas there’s always an engine attached. But isn’t that a stretch? Shouldn’t they stick with just the engines? Why bother with a complete lawnmower, or bike, or car or – more recently – executive jet? Why risk that enormous leap from building great engines to building the whole contraption? Well the finished good garners a better overall price, for starters. But it is a stretch, isn’t it? From a lawnmower engine to a jet!
Still, it seems to work. Perhaps it’s all in the execution and Honda’s core competence is actually in making complicated mechanical things work. Wharton has an interesting article on this topic, focusing on Amazon, Google and Yahoo and their varying diversification strategies. A good read.
PC World has reported on Sony’s GPS-based photo-location tagging device. Whilst no surprise, it’s interesting that it’s self-contained, rather than built into the camera (so far). Not so sure about the 10-hour battery life – seems a tad short. But yes, it’s useful, especialy for archivers. Many times I’ve wondered exactly where a photo was taken, and as long as we can shake off the “print” mentality that wastes paper – and actually use our digital images as our one true source, we’ll be OK. I’m sure GPS will be included in cameras real soon now, as well as all mobile phones, bicycles, cars… you name it. Now where did I park that car? Oh yes, simply “ping” the car’s GPS unit to bounce the location back to your cell phone and Bob’s your uncle. Same for bikes. It serves the double purpose of letting you know where you are, of course, and possibly avoiding traffic and other hazards. It’s a luxury but a nice one.
There’s money in cars, isn’t there? Carconnection.com reports:
Toyota Motor Corp. continued its unprecedented profit run by reporting a 39-percent jump in income for first quarter of its new fiscal year. Takeshi Suzuki, TMC senior managing director, said the results, which included a 13-percent increase in revenue from the same period a year ago, were the result on the plans for the growth the company had set in place. “We posted substantial increases in both revenues and profits, achieving record levels. We believe this is a result of the company-side efforts to implement the plans that we set at the beginning of the fiscal year.”
Wow. Over 11billion US dollars profit. I have some thoughts here.
One, how the mighty US car makers have crumbled. GM and Ford have been selling assets to prop up ailing businesses over the last few years. You look at their products and think: too fat, too truck-centered, too thirsty. Then you look at nimble, efficient Toyota. Able to match anyone with trucks, 4wds, big, medium or small cars…hybrids as well. They have the production processes, the speed of design and development and the low cost manufacturing needed to survive down pat. I suspect only a few car companies can compete, possibly only the Koreans, the Chinese and the Indians will have the wherewithal to survive in the global marketplace, with local markets aggregating into perhaps one or 2 European and US manufacturers, propped up with subsidies. Everyone else will go niche or go bust. There’s a lot at stake here, including national pride and loads of jobs.
Which brings me to my next thought. What if global climate change and the effects of rising water levels and fiercer weather can be proven, or at least sufficently so that a case against can be made? Will we see liability cases claiming damages against the big, profitable oil and automotive corporations for continuing to make ridiculously inappropriate products in the face of diabolical climate effects? Does this leave GM and Ford off the hook (as they are unprofitable, or look pretty shaky at best) or will such damages claims actually sink their collective ships?
Maybe Toyota will need its ‘war chest’ of cash to pay some future ‘social responsibility’ claims?
Isotopes reveal 5,000 years of global warming…but the last 50 have been the warmest ever. The report is from Space and Earth Science via PhysOrg.com. “The take-home message is that global climate can change abruptly, and with 6.5 billion people inhabiting the planet, that’s serious.” So, are you still buying big trucks to burn up fossil fuel as fast as you can?
The trouble with opinions is that they get around. People talk. Some listen, digest, analyse and move on. Others take it in and put it on like a new coat, proudly showing off the fake fur. (Some people think, many prefer take-away.) Before you know it an opinion – be it crass, vulgar or otherwise – has been taken on by a large number of people and becomes ingrained. Like “drinking and driving is OK, only wowsers don’t do it”; “cigarettes can’t harm you, my dad lived to 80 and he smoked”; “why should the descendents of colonists apologise for land stolen 200 years ago?” and “of course there’s no greenhouse gas problem, global warming is rubbish.” One of my favourites is “the government only fines drivers to raise revenue, there’s no harm in speeding”. All of this untested junkthink gets sniffed out by shock jocks and print columnists and amplified across the community. Many of these ratbag not-quite-journalists don’t actually believe it, but who can really tell? They tap into what’s wrong and negative in our society and use it as their brand. They then hide behind the limp defence of ‘political correctness is bollocks‘ when someone argues the case against. So why does right-wing sell? Because it’s conservative. It’s safe. It protects the current owner and rejects those upon whom injustice has fallen.
Which brings me to Miranda Devine in the Sydney Morning Herald. I know she couldn’t possibly believe some of the illogical nonsense she writes. But doesn’t she care that her falsely-held opinions may inspire others of meaner disposition to act out her ratbag fantasies? No, because it pays her living. And the publisher gets more readers – and reinforcement to hire the looney right to write. Can you see a problem here?
The Bulletin has an interesting article on Miranda here. Crikey says this. The ABC says this. Tim Lambert’s blog says this.
And why am I writing this? I do read what Miranda has to say – it’s mostly very funny stuff. But it smells very bad when I see opinion pieces entitled “Traffic hazard ahead: vegan cyclists”. Now it could be a bad joke. In which case she should get some training in effective writing. However if it indeed reads as it was intended then we should as a community be alarmed.
Whilst I can accept that Miranda has her opinion and that many other people have theirs – and that they are both anti cyclist and pro-car, hers is not my opinion and I object to her irrationalisms being spread, encouraged and popularised. Having been hit by a car, pushed off the road by a bus and had a speargun aimed at me from a car at 6:00AM on a deserted road in Sydney – all whilst behaving legally, carefully and safely on my pushbike – I really don’t think that these crazed and hateful opinions of hers will win me – or any other bike rider – any new friends out on the road. Hey, I ride my bike and drive my cars, too. I don’t see a problem with the two forms of transport co-existing. Why stir up trouble when we should – if anything – be encouraging healthy, green and clean bike use by making it a little safer?
Well they aren’t hotcakes, for starters!
In short, hybrids make sense in many ways but their ROI is weak. It takes around 3-4 years to recover the higher cost via the small ongoing fuel saving, depending upon how much driving you do. They are also a ‘safe’ buy in that they still use the fuel you buy at gas stations (as against some alternative home brew, cold fusion or risky hydrogen). They aren’t such a leap of faith for consumers. They are also ‘feel-good’ purchases, which is great. On the other hand car makers are at a loss to know how to market ‘em because they are premium products offering savings at the low-end. This is an inversion of the case for most cars. Usually good fuel economy is aligned with the ‘cheap’ end of the market. Premium cars are at the high end of fuel economy – in the ‘who cares about the petrol’ category. The result? All up, sales are growing but from a very low base.
My take? They offer little advantage at the low end. I’d take a smaller car with the same or even better fuel economy anytime. Why would I want a Prius when I can have a Getz? I guess if I thought I needed something exactly that size maybe I’d consider it, but it’s a market segment that’s price driven, so you have to really want a car that size and really believe you are making a difference on climate change. Which of course is a delusion.
I’ve said it before, but here goes. You buy a car and it’s already consumed somewhere between 40 and 60% of it’s ‘carbon quota’. The numbers vary with size and complexity, number of miles driven, total life-span of the car but the point is that fuel use is only one factor. Unless your new car’s steel and aluminium was smelted with hydro or nuclear power it’s likely as not come out of a coal-fired oven. Then there’s all the petro-chemical plastics that go into a car…plus the shipping of parts and the finished good to you by ship and truck. The math is not as simple as ‘oh, hybrids are better because they save fuel relative to a petrol car the same size’.
Anyway, read the Forbes article here.
I have to respond to this Sydney Morning Herald editorial titled “Something in the air”, Friday March 17 2006. It begins with the sub-heading “Cars are demonised as the primary cause of pollution but are such claims true? JOHN CADOGAN dispels some myths”. It’s a good article in that it brings many interesting and useful pieces of information together, but it’s thrust is biased – possibly by ignorance or simple laziness rather than intent – and consequently weak in its analysis. It’s to be expected that journalists with an interest of any sort will find it easy to succumb to subjectivity but sad nonetheless that the “Drive” section of a popular Australian newspaper can only reinforce the current state of mind and cannot think beyond the short term.
OK, I like (and drive) cars. But we should also consider the crisis in species extinctions (including our own if we don’t do something!), much but not all of it due to global warming; and the enormous damage that cars do to our local environment and our social structures (as in no-one walks any more, making our streets ‘unsafe’ and so on). To just blankly write off criticism is silly and impedes reasoned thought and action. To rebut the claim (whether it be true or not) that “Cars are demonised as the primary cause of pollution” with shallow analysis of just one aspect of a car’s environmental footprint is overwhelmingly weak.
OK, I’ll get to my point. This editorial makes a case for comparing the gross output volume of pollutants by cars with such things as energy generation and distribution. It (rightly) paints a bleak picture of Australia’s greenhouse-unfriendly coal-fired power stations and draws the conclusion that the blame lies more fairly there, rather than with cars. Well, yes, we must do something about reducing all forms of greenhouse gas emission, but to compare power station gross output with the gases pumped out of cars is misleading. Cars do not just appear as if by magic. They are elaborately transformed by the application of energy to raw materials. They are shipped around as material, as parts and as final product. They are serviced and repaired, recycled and discarded. They also demand roads (with signage and policing), parking lots, fuel distribution and garaging. These are not inconsequential matters, in fact the fuel burn is likely to be just (grant me some license here) 30-60% of the total energy budget for each car (dependent on size and use). So the greenhouse emissions are likely be be up to 70% higher than what is quoted in the Herald editorial. It may be less, but not by much.
You could argue that we don’t need to garage cars, but we do. When we had no cars we had stables and we had trams and trains – houses did not need 1, 2 or 3 car garages and we didn’t build them. We also built narrower streets. Houses could be closer together, footpaths wider. Shops were closer to us and obesity rates were lower. We exercised more and shared more community resources, like transport. It’s true that we’d still need roads for buses and trucks, and bike paths for cycles, but higher-standard roads and freeways would be much reduced in number and ‘urban sprawl’ much reduced. Don’t think it’d work? How does New York City work? I’m not saying NYC is an ideal of any sort but they do manage quite nicely with low rates of car ownership.
Bottom line? You must factor in the whole footprint. We haven’t even looked at death and injury and the resources needed to address these car-related ‘aftershocks’. Cars “own” that footprint – something not reflected in this Herald editorial or in new car prices for that matter. Don’t look at just one statistic and tell me that it proves anything. Proper analysis means doing some hard work. Do that analysis and write that article, it’d be very interesting to read.
What lies between Good and Evil?
The question is rhetorical. There is no empirical truth, bar arcane mathematical proofs. With no truth there can be no empirical judgement on what is Good or Evil – or what may lie between. We can arbitrarily nominate some of our favourite Good or Evil things but they remain both subjective (which is fine) and a product of our minds (which opens up a can of metaphysical worms). We can even agree amongst ourselves that some of these subjective good or evil things really are God or Evil. But they remain untestable.
I’m thinking along these lines because I’m an opinionated bastard. I’m judgemental. I like to think that I know best and that you lot are way off track. You need help. I’m especially thinking about Global Warming (and I’ve written lots here ) and the way we’ve let laziness anbd self-indulgence masquerade as ‘democratic freedom’. Somehow we decided that easy, accessible personal transportation was both desirable and a right. And taken it to excess, such that we are poised to wreck the environment beyond our wildest dreams. Maybe we can blame capitalism for driving down the cost of cars, or maybe we just tricked ourselves into subsidising roads and highways and thereby under valued the true impact of the personal motor vehicle.
Whatever. End result is Evil. Species dying like never before. Weather changing – for the worse. Storms bigger. Rains less here (so drought) but more there (so flood). Society turned inside out so cars can park close to shops. Obesity running rampant. People scared to let kids walk to school because right-thinking people drive everywhere. It feeds upon itself. The more we go down this personal car ownership path the less likely we are to talk to neighbours. We may talk at the mall instead but we’d be unlikely to walk down the street and bump into someone. We may get run over, for starters.
Yet we think it’s good. Cars get cheaper, faster, better. So we buy more of them. We think it’s Evil when the petrol price goes up. We are hooked.
Please explain why we are on this road to oblivion!