No Thank You

There seems to be a consensus that if driverless cars are ever to become universal, then the controlling system will have to be one single one — you can’t have competing, perhaps even incompatible systems fighting over the traffic. In other words, we’d need something like Europe’s Eurocontrol:

Eurocontrol’s Enhanced Tactical Flow Management System compares demand for flights in a particular area with the available capacity.
The system pulls together data such as flight plans, taxiing time, and flight position from numerous sources in multiple countries and collates them.
It can then track planes in real time to manage the number of planes in the air to make sure it doesn’t get too crowded.
Precise monitoring prevents the carefully balanced system from being thrown out by planes with delayed departures or arrivals.
Planes can then be herded into departure and landing slots at airports to keep the thousands of flights in Europe flowing smoothly.
ETFMS also helps plan flight schedules up to a week in advance to help airlines and air traffic controllers plan each day down to the minute.

Uh huh. Then something like this happens:

Up to half of all flights in Europe face delays today after a Europe-wide air traffic control system failed.
Eurocontrol, which runs the system, said that a technical problem means that as many as half a million passengers could be affected, disrupting travellers who went away for the Easter weekend.
‘Today 29,500 flights were expected in the European network. Approximately half of those could have some delay as a result of the system outage,’ Eurocontrol said. The agency said the system would be back up and running tomorrow.

The cause had been identified, it said, without saying what it was. The agency said ‘contingency procedures’ were in place to stop the system becoming overloaded but that these would be lifted later this evening.
Eurocontrol added that flight plans from before 11.26am BST were ‘lost’ and asked airlines to refile them.
The agency said it was a ‘technical fault’ and that the system had not been hacked, saying they were now ‘in recovery mode’.

“Lost”, huh? That’s comforting.

Here’s my takeaway. I am never going to submit myself to a driverless car. And I am certainly never going to board a pilot-less aircraft (which, incredibly, has been suggested by various airlines and aircraft manufacturers).

Systems fail occasionally — all systems fail eventually — and I’m not going to be a prisoner of this kind of happenstance, ever, if I can possibly avoid it.

Unwanted Changes

I hate change.

This should come as no surprise to longtime Readers of my fevered rantings, most especially to Mr. Free Market who, while we were on a drive trip in Britishland, punctured one of my rants against ugly automotive modernity with the comment: “Basically, Kim, you’d be quite happy if cars looked the same as they did in the 1950s and 1960s.”

I’ve forgotten my actual response to this barb, but “Fuck, yeah!” would not be an inaccurate paraphrase.

So when I heard that Volkswagen (you know, the immoral bastards who brought you doctored emissions so as to sell more diesel-engined cars) announced that they were going to kill off the New Beetle, I didn’t care. I didn’t care because the New Beetle was, easily, one of the most revolting car designs ever inflicted on the public road. Compared to the older model, it looked like some retarded child’s experiment with Play-Doh, viz.:

Now granted, the old Bug was pig-ugly too, but at least it wasn’t pretentious — it was, as its name suggests, a People’s Car: cheap and reliable (almost unbreakable) and even a little eclectic, because while the auto industry was modernizing all around it, the old Beetle barely changed. The less said about its foul spawn, the better. (Ditto the Mini, which I’ve discussed before and of which pretty much the same can be said.)

So I don’t care about VW whacking the Beetle. I am furthermore unsurprised that they were surprised that the New Beetle never ever achieved the sales of the old girl. Because they’re marketing idiots. They thought that they could fool us Beetle lovers with some modernized monstrosity with a few cosmetic nods to the original, and we’d fall all over ourselves to buy this ugly piece of shit.

And speaking of German marketing stupidity: I see that VW’s sibling Audi has decided that it will soon stop making the excellent Audi 8 with a W12 engine option. I wonder when these fucking morons in what passes for a marketing department at Audi will realize that there will always be a customer segment of drivers who love 12-cylinder engines. The article notes that Bentley is not going to give up their W12, and car buffs will just chuckle because the W12 found in both the A8 and the Bentley is the engine designed by… VW, for their ill-fated Phaeton (a.k.a. “Piëch’s Folly”). What will happen (and you heard it here first) is that the people who love 12-cylinder engines in their luxury cars will,  rather than be content with the A8’s stepped-down V8, just buy ummmm… the Mercedes AMG S 65 (which, like the Bentley Flying Spur, costs about $100,000 more than the Audi A8 W12). Here’s the S 65:

…which quite frankly looks better than Audi’s blunt-nosed offering anyway. As nice as the AMG Mercedes looks, however, it’s still not as beautiful as one of its predecessors:

That’s a Mercedes 300 SC*, from 1954. Which takes me back to Mr. Free Market’s jibe.

Yes, you foul Brit toff: I would be perfectly happy if cars still looked like this.


*Before I get razzed: I know that the old Merc 300 used a 3-liter inline six-cylinder engine and not a V12. Didn’t need anything bigger, and anyway, the V12 engines of the time weren’t much good compared to today’s. But with the size of the 300’s engine compartment… is anyone at AMG listening? Nah, it’ll never happen. If Mercedes ever re-released the 300 SC it would probably look like today’s Maybach — i.e. even uglier than the new Beetle, and it would make women and small children scream as it passed by them in the street.

I don’t know why I bother.

Dream Car

I don’t think I’m the only petrolhead who has a constant feeling of cognitive dissonance when it comes to the combination of looks and performance. Some beautiful cars disappoint (relatively speaking) when it comes time to hit the road, whereas others perform like a dream while looking like a dog’s breakfast.

Let me tackle the first scenario. As Longtime Readers know only too well, I think the 1970s-era Ferrari Dino 246GT is one of the most beautiful cars ever made. Whenever car aficionados are asked to name their “10 Most Beautiful Cars”, almost without fail, the DIno is somewhere in everyone’s top five. It is and always will be my #1. Here are a few examples (because any discussion of this nature is yoosliss wifout pitchurs):

…and topless:

The only problem with the Dino was that it, well, wasn’t really a Ferrari. (I’m not going to go into too much detail because it isn’t relevant to this post: Wikipedia has a decent summary if you’re interested.) The Old Man (Enzo himself) was initially reluctant (until 1976) to allow it to be called a Ferrari, because it was Marinello’s attempt to make an “entry-level” Ferrari, and quite frankly, it shows. The interior is hideous (no pics because they make me ill; just take my word for it), but even worse is that the car is an absolute pig to drive (I’ve driven one): the gearbox almost requires two hands to work the lever, and my left calf ached for days afterwards because of the stiff clutch. Never mind that it’s crap compared to modern cars (which it is); it was crap for its time as well.

But… there was that mid-mounted 2.4-liter six-cylinder engine (which was a Ferrari) howling about four inches away from the driver’s ears, and despite all its technical flaws, it handled superbly — better even than its rival from Alfa Romeo, the Montreal (which I’ve also driven). That, added to its beauty, created a fanatical following for the DIno. But it was, and is, a pig to drive. And it, like the Montreal, would fall apart if you so much as looked at it — one of my friends had his Dino’s gear knob come off in his hands as he was downshifting to take a sharp corner, and how he avoided a wreck is one of the mysteries of the ages.

On the other side of that coin is Porsche, most especially the 911 model. Jeremy Clarkson is always having a go at Porsche’s “design” team, calling them the laziest people on the planet, and he has reason: while the 911 has always had tremendous performance and outstanding reliability, it looks like a pig, with that humped rear and and strange, minimalist front:

…and the Targa:

However, in the early 2000s someone at Porsche seems to have had this brilliant but revolutionary idea: “What if we make a nice-looking Porsche?” He was probably fired but his heresy remained, with the result that the mid-engined Porsche Cayman is not only better-looking compared to the 911 (a low bar, to be sure), it’s as good-looking as any other sports car, and better even than many of its competitors:

Even its rear end isn’t quite the truncated monstrosity of old, and it now looks quite shapely:

So why am I telling you all this? Because the Dino and the Cayman are almost identical in terms of chassis dimensions — the wheelbases are within a half-inch or so of each other, and of course they’re both mid-engined.

Here’s my thought. I bet that some enterprising coachbuilder could whip off the Cayman’s shell and replace it with a carbon-fiber near-copy of the Dino’s (with a little bit of nipping-and-tucking to accommodate, for example, the Porsche’s single exhaust pipe and longer suspension posts, and so on). And just for kicks, I’d use the Cayman’s smallest engine which is… ta-da! a 2.5-liter six-cylinder (flat, not a V, but hey, consistency is the hobgoblin etc.).

What you’d have with this marriage is a modern car’s performance, with a pre-wind-tunnel body that would make even the dourest car freak wipe a tear from his eye and drool from his chin.

If I ever win a large lottery, I’d present a custom coachbuilder with this challenge. I’d call it the Pino, and I’d be the envy of… well, of everybody.

Your thoughts in Comments.

Otherwise Engaged

Found this interesting pic somewhere on Teh Intarwebz:

What made it interesting to me (I don’t care about the Dakar Rally) is that Graham Duxbury and I are old friends from back in our schooldays at St. John’s College.

One day in (I think) “Potty” Chamberlain’s Maths class, he went round the classroom and asked each of us what we wanted to be when we left school. (We were, if memory serves correctly, aged about 14 or 15.) Most of the boys said the usual middle-class crap: engineers, doctors, lawyers, whatever*… except me (professional singer) and Dux (racing car driver).

Well, I sort of followed through (not as a classical singer, but rock musician — it was the Seventies, shuddup), but Graham did indeed become a racing car driver, mostly in sports cars (in what’s now the Word Endurance Championship — WEC —  but was called something else back then). In fact, unlike me, he was actually very successful in his chosen career; he won the Daytona 24 Hour Race, amongst others. Here’s his car at Le Mans, and here he is (left) during his brief stint in Formula 2:

He was also a celebrity spokesman for Brut, and there’s a great story to be told about that, but it can wait for another time.

A while back, I invited Graham to join me at the U.S. Grand Prix in Austin but he couldn’t make it because of some nonsense about getting involved in rallying. Because he’s always been into stuff that involved driving fast, I didn’t ask for details.

Well, now we know.

And Dux, if you ever read this: the offer’s still open. Always will be.


*One guy said he was going to be a test pilot, but he ended up becoming a priest. I know, I know…

Unnecessary

Following a link from Insty, I was reading Car & Driver‘s review of the Audi A7 (not that I’ll ever own one, but reading about any car beats reading about Nancy Pelosi’s bullshit by about a dozen country miles). All went well: car drives well, is comfortable blah blah blah, looks good etc.

Then came the speed bump.

For us, the chief benefit of the 48-volt system is that it allows the auto stop/start feature to operate more smoothly and more often. Cleverly, that system can trigger a restart when the forward-facing radar sees that the vehicle ahead begins moving, rather than waiting for the driver to lift off the brake.

Of all the bullshit inflicted on us by the Glueball Wormening cult, this “auto stop/start” thing is one of the worst. I remember driving a rental car in Britishland not long ago, and while waiting at a red light, the engine died — this, in a car which had only about 1,200 miles on the odometer. Panicked, I punched the ignition button, the car restarted (phew) and as luck would have it, the light changed and off I went. All was well until the next light, when the engine died again. This time, however, I didn’t panic, realizing that the 1100cc engine was being governed by “auto stop/start” on the basis that a tiny engine idling for two minutes at about 200 rpm is going to cause polar bears to die of heatstroke or something.

Here’s my problem with all of this. A starter motor is an electro-mechanical device, and as such has a defined lifespan before it stops working. It doesn’t matter how well it’s made — the higher quality simply means the mean time between failures (MTBF) is longer than for a cheaper economy starter motor. It is going to stop working, at some point: and as with all motors, the more it is used, the sooner that point will arrive.

So let’s do the mathematics on this one. Let’s assume that a particular starter motor has a lifetime of 20,000 operations. Let’s assume also, for the sake of argument, that a typical week sees you operate the starter about five times per day, while going to work, stopping at a couple of stores, running errands and doing chores, then going home. That’s 365 x 5 = 1,825 operations per annum, which means that your starter motor is going to last 20,000/1,825 = 10.985, in other words, about eleven years. Now with “auto stop/start”, instead of five operations per day, you’ll be hitting nearly twice that number, assuming that each day you have to stop at a couple of red lights or wait for traffic before you can make a turn, and so on. All of a sudden, that 11 years turns into 5 years — or much less, if you live in an area with more than a few traffic lights or which has heavy rush-hour traffic.

The actual numbers aren’t important, of course; what’s important is that at some point, your engine is going to stop, and then not restart. This would be bad enough at a traffic light; it would be much worse on a congested freeway like L.A.’s I-405 or the Long Island Expressway (which, as any fule kno, is an egregious misnomer).

I know, I know: the stupid engine-killing device can be overridden, which begs the question as to why it should be there in the first place.

And don’t even get me started about the wisdom of having a device which “can trigger a restart when the forward-facing radar sees that the vehicle ahead begins moving“. Quite apart from the issue of involuntary forward motion (a topic all by itself), it means that in stop-start traffic you’ll go from 5 operations per day to 20 or 30. Do the math yourselves.

It’s a stupid, pointless device and we should do away with it. Other than for “saving the environment” (i.e. specious and untrue) reasons, it has no place in a car. And if one day we reach the point where it can’t be turned off, it would be a reason not to buy that particular car, wouldn’t it?

Sensible Precautions

It’s one of those things that few people think about carrying in their car; but like a gun, you’ll never need it until you do need it, and then you’ll need it really badly.

I speak here of the car fire extinguisher — which admittedly is hardly ever necessary when you’re driving your minivan to the supermarket — but which, if you’re pushing your car a bit, may be essential. Here’s one example, from a recent BBC-TV episode of Top Gear:

The car in question is the newly-relaunched version of Renault’s Alpina A110 which, fiery end apart, is a lovely car. Here it is, next to its predecessor from the late 1960s:

Yes, it’s a little bloated compared to its sleek and sexy ancestor (see here for my opinion on that phenomenon), but it’s svelte enough, Renault have kept several of the design motifs more or less intact, and I love them for that.

Anyway: if you’re going to buy one of these beauties, and if you’re going to enter the Monte Carlo Rally with it, you may just want to add a fire extinguisher to the options you choose in the showroom.

Of course, this piece of advice is aimed at my Brit- and Euro Readers because needless to say, we Murkins will never get a sniff of the pretty A110 Over Here. [1,000-word rant deleted]