Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Car Tech and Me

In my last post I ranted, rather crazily, about technology slowly creeping into everything a car does. From cruise control, to steering, it's filtering in everywhere.

I admit, I sounded like a stark raving lunatic that wants to go back to the old days of "horseless carriages" that required hand cranking and manual spark advance.

I don't want that. I know that technology is a good thing. I just firmly believe that too much is a bad thing.

What I'll call "latent" technology (my own term) is definitely a benefit, and completely useful. These are the pieces of technology that significantly improved the car since its creation.

Things like:

The airbag.

This is a latent piece of technology. It doesn't activate itself until absolutely necessary, and it saves lives. Cars are safer because of them, especially now that manufacturers are putting them in the headliner of cars and even in the sides of the seats. I fully support this. Old cars, contrary to what everyone seems to think, aren't safe.

So the airbag's brought us a long way.

Stability Control:

The diagram above is referring to Ford's Roll Stability Control, but the image applies to every company that has a type of stability control. It's a type of program that is mostly latent. Under normal circumstances, the computer won't apply the brakes or cut fuel to the engine unless it senses that the vehicle is about to roll over or outright crash.

I support this. It makes cars safer and saves lives.

A number, if not most, of sport car manufacturers have their own versions of this program. These programs created faster cars. They also ensure that the customer can get as much enjoyment as they can out of their car, without killing themselves. Many people, myself included, simply can't handle brand new Ferarris or Lamborghinis the first time out. Traction control is a necessity.

But, ideally, they don't cut in until something is about to go wrong. They wait in the background until they are needed. That is important to me.


That picture demonstrates why ABS is a wonderful thing.

ABS stands for antilock braking system, it automatically pulses the brakes so that it slows the car without locking the brakes, which would send the car into a skid. That's what's happened to the car on the left.

With the wheel still moving, but slowing down, the driver can keep control of the car. I'm all for control. It was revolutionary when it came out, but now it's a standard feature on almost every car.

Still, I enjoy driving cars without ABS. I can feel how the car's breaking and change my driving style appropriately. I have to pay more attention when I drive; something more people should do.

So, no, I don't hate all technology. I just dislike certain applications of it, and enjoy older versions of it.

However, in a comment on my last post, a gentleman reminded me that many old technologies, or skills, have faded away because they were no longer useful. People don't need to know how to light a kerosene lamp or take care of a horse, for example.

Well, he's right.

Some skills and tech are no longer applicable, or won't be in the coming years. But, you see, I'm strange. I like old technology, the old ways of doing things. It's not because I despise new technology, or new advances. I'm not a reactionary. It's because I love history.

These skills, being able to rebuild a generator or manually adjust spark timing, are part of that history. It's where things have come from, and what has given us the ability to create variable valve timing and coil on plug ignition.

So my defense, and lamentations, of these technologies are brought about by a love of history, of preserving a few old things that no longer exist.

That being said, I don't support technology for technology's sake. To me, that is where the self steering ability from that Mercedes falls into. It's unnecessary in my opinion. (And for the record, it probably will make it to production. Mercedes-Benz has a habit of previewing tech like that in their show cars and then putting it into their products.)

However, I am in the minority on that one. People love convenience, and anything that makes a few simple chores even easier. That's why I ignored the automatic parallel parking software in my rant. It's useful, I suppose, but I'd never use it.

I'd never use the media center in a car, either. I only listen to CDs and the radio. Yes, I'd like to have satellite radio someday, but I don't need a hard drive in my dash to store my iTunes files.

I look at GPS units and shrug my shoulders. I'd love to have some of these new luxury cars, if I could afford them. But then I wonder if I could get the GPS unit deleted from it, somehow. Part of the fun in taking a long trip, for me, is using a map and enjoying the drive, not having a computer voice tell me to take a left hand turn while I'm on a bridge. Still, I definitely understand why other people would want it.

Whenever technology can improve the car, I'm all for it. Whenever it can make a car safer, I'm all for it. But I have problems accepting technology that only serves as a selling point to a customer, something that doesn't solve an existing problem.

I enjoy convenience like any other human being. I take on technologies that make my life easier.

But there are some I just cannot accept.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Mercedes-Benz's Latest Tech Grab Bag

Things in the car world have calmed a bit. Toyota's not on every headline, Hummer's death went pretty much unnoticed and quite a few companies posted better sales. Yawn.

So I'm going to bring something up from the recent Geneva Auto Show. It pretty got passed over, like the show itself, and no one paid attention to it.

I like to think of it as a harbinger of the future, unfortunately.

This is it, the Mercedes F800 Style.

It looks like a shark with a peace symbol shoved up its nose, and carefully creased sides.

The ass looks like a blend of BMW, VW and Mazda design cues. But it's pretty inoffensive.

It's also got a nice set of sliding doors in back.

I rather like those rear doors, personally. Entering and exiting would be much easier, and much more distinguished, in parking lots or the curb at the latest nightclub.

The interior's not bad either, really.

Granted, it looks like every other damn concept car from the last ten years, but whatever. It still looks nice.

So, really, it's a pretty standard concept. Mercedes is testing out new design cues and possible interior treatments. Nothing new there, boys and girls.

And those doors have a heretic's hope in hell of making it into the real world.

Oh, and it's supposedly powered by a nonexistent a fuel cell. Meh.

Why, then, did I call it the harbinger of the future you may ask.

Well, it's because of the technology this damn thing is showcasing. Just one in particular.

It's called DISTRONIC PLUS Traffic Jam Assist. I don't know what the hell "distronic plus" is referring to. It's probably something that the marketing department coughed up to make it sound cool, because all it's describing is a new type of cruise control.

But this new type of cruise control has a feature that I loathe with every fiber of my being. Using the cruise control's radar, the car can actually steer itself through a corner at speeds of up to 25mph by following the car in front of it.

According to Mercedes, the system can tell the difference between regular traffic and some idiot in front of you swerving off the road, or taking a different corner.

I don't care.

I don't care if it can tell the difference between taking a corner, making a turn or a circus trained elephant. Putting something like that in a car is, well, bloody effing stupid.

Have we gotten to the point that people can't be bothered to steer their car? Already we have cruise control systems that will automatically slow the car if traffic slows down. So now we don't have to, I don't know, drive?

It's a bunch of crap.

All of this technology bull that keeps getting shoved in cars is making drivers more stupid. I don't have to look behind me when I back up because I have a camera that does it for me. I don't have to pay attention on the highway because the car will tell me when I'm straying out of my lane. I don't have to worry about when to change my oil because the car tells me when to do it.

Tell me, automakers, how am I driving a car anymore? I'm not controlling it, the damn computer is.

When people don't have to pay attention anymore to their car, they stop caring about it and about driving. They just do stuff, and think that the computer or whatever happens to be in the car will take care of it.

Well, what happens when the computer breaks? Or what if something happens that's outside of the computer's control?

I honestly think that's what's happened with Toyota's cars, to pull that back in here. People are so damn used to the car just doing it's thing that they don't know what to do in case of an emergency. They don't know how anything works anymore, and they don't care because it doesn't need their attention, or so they think.

People, basically, don't know how to drive.

It's sickening, and the damn manufactures aren't helping.

But the genie can't go back into the lamp. Not now. Everyone's clamoring for more tech garbage, and it'll eventually lead to cars that drive themselves.

I won't have any of that. Give me a manual transmission and a set of manual door locks. At least then I'll know that I'm in control, not HAL.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

I'm Back.

It's been just over a month since I last posted, and so much has happened. This is unforgivable. But like that title says, I'm back.

There's one very large piece of business that I have to get out of the way. Everyone's been talking about it for so long, and so much, that I almost feel bad to add to the discussion. But since I hate talking around issues, I'm going to jump right in.

Toyota. What the hell?

For sake of brevity, I'm limiting my commentary to the recent recall with the sticking accelerator pedals. I mean, really, anyone who thought that floor mats were causing cars to speed up at random intervals needs to have their head examined.

However, I would like to mention that no one, so far, seems to have gotten onto Toyota for their floor mat explanation. To me, that reeks of red herring. They knew there was a problem with the accelerator pedals, they'd had recalls in Europe for heaven's sake, but they tried to foist blame onto a different cause. That is a load of shit, and it's an indication of just how much Toyota's image differs from the reality.

Toyota's image is that of the caring, loving, benevolent car manufacturer. Their sole purpose, they say, is to create cars that are gentle on the environment, provide safe transportation for families and have a reliability that is topped only by the laws of physics.

For a while, that was the real company. But, within the last ten years, they realized something. They were making tons of money all over the world. They were within striking distance of GM for the largest car company in the world. They wanted that spot, they wanted the prestige, they wanted the money.

And I don't blame them for it. Toyota is a company. It's purpose is to make money however it can, so long as it's legal. (I'll save unsavory business practices for another day)

So they went for it. They increased production, started new sale promotions and began to bulk up their lineup with new models. New Toyotas, like the Venza and full-size Tundra pickup came out. Toyota improved the comfort of their large SUVs so they would appeal to customers that typically bought American cars. They gave Lexus new models like hybrids and sports cars. They created the Scion brand to attract a younger buyer.

But this expansion came at a price. But then again, it always does, right?

Whenever someone makes more of something, the quality is probably going to go down, at least initially. It is very hard, almost impossible, to keep quality at a high level while pumping out a car every few minutes, if not faster. Robotic technology can only do so much.

But, as the Washington Post pointed out, there was another place where quality control started slipping: engineering. Toyota's engineers gained on the job experience in a mentor set up. Over a period of years the engineers would learn their job from their immediate superior. It was the reason Toyota made such high quality cars, everyone knew their job inside and out. It was an environment that put engineering first as a matter of pride.

However, when Toyota started increasing its model lines, the engineers couldn't keep up. The mentor system was strained, the engineers themselves were stressed and overworked. New blood came in that didn't get the full mentorship experience. Inevitably, things were going to start going downhill.

In a way, it's obvious now. First, in the late 90s, early 2000s, there was the recall on Toyota and Lexus V6 engines. The oil ports were plugging up because they were too small. Toyota denied it and blamed the consumers. They quickly reversed that idea and quietly settled it.

A few years later, and Toyota quietly made headlines with their Tacoma pickup truck's rusting frame. The entire rear section could rust and the spare tire drop off the car. But there wasn't any big hubbub. After all, that won't kill anyone.

So now we're at the acceleration debacle. With this problem prevalent over so many models, and maybe even a different problem with the Prius (which I'll talk about later), it's hard to believe that this slipped through Toyota's quality control net.

But it did, and it's a perfect example of the growing pains that companies regularly go through when they expand. It's natural, it's inevitable. If Toyota had handled it a different way, it might even approach forgivable.

Yet they didn't handle it correctly. They made excuses, they pointed fingers and they were finally forced to admit that there was a problem. That was the biggest blow to Toyota. That was when they lost part of the customer friendly image, when they tried to sweep the issue under the rug.

Toyota will recover. It's too big not, too established and they will regain their image. People will keep buying their cars.

I hope, though, that, someone, somewhere will remember this. No car manufacturer is perfect. Every car manufacturer will have a major recall at some point.

The most important thing is that they live up to the mistake and take responsibility.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Small Truck Comeback?

A while back I bitched, moaned and whined about Ford not bringing the next Ranger over to America. In short, if you didn't read the entire little rant, I predicted that smaller trucks were going to become very popular because of the new downsizing trend.

I think I was right.

According to Wards Auto, which is one of the premier sites and publications about cars and trucks, Scion is thinking about a small pickup truck. With Scion being Toyota's "hip and with it" brand for younger people, they're thinking that a small, slightly peppy truck can sell now.

That's very interesting since Toyota never builds a car that it can't sell. The company thinks there's a market out there somewhere.

But one company does not prove a trend.

However, rumors have been floating around that GM might bring the Holden Ute over to America and market it as an El Camino. While this is just the latest rumor like that in the past three years (originally they thought about calling it a Pontiac, until they killed Pontiac in its sleep) they might, just might be serious this time.

Who the hell knows? All I know for sure is that I'd love to see this with a Chevy or GMC badge on it.

I'd even take the green color.

It's a Holden Commodore Ute, a car body with a pickup bed in the back.

So, note to Ford if one of your internet trawlers happen to read this: either fix the damn Ranger or bring back the Ranchero. Small trucks might be the next big seller, get in on it now.

Right now, Ford is debating about what to do with their Australia division, and this might just be the answer. The cars they build in Australia are made in Australia for Australians. That doesn't fit in with the whole idea of a "global car" that can be sold in damn near every spot on the planet. So Ford might just pull the plug on its Australian plant and just import cars there.

But Australia is the only place where Ford has a variety of rear-wheel drive cars. If, somehow, Ford could take that technology and bring it to the rest of the world, the Australian cars could be saved. General Motors pulled it off with their RWD cars and their Holden division...almost.

I want Ford to save their RWD tech and their Ute because then they could give us this:

They call it the Falcon XR8, it's the sport version of Ute. I'd like them to call it the Ranchero and bring it here.

The only problem is that if they actually do it, I'll have to start a snow shoveling business in hell.