Lunatic Ravings
Home Site Map Taz's Specs Exhaust System Chassis & Suspension Drivetrain Intake System Electrical/Electronics Wheels/Tires/Brakes Steering System Twin-screw Fuel System Tech Docs SVT Perks Body / Trim / Misc Days of Future Past Favorites Lunatic Ravings The Archives

Home
Site Map
Taz's Specs
Exhaust System
Chassis & Suspension
Drivetrain
Intake System
Electrical/Electronics
Wheels/Tires/Brakes
Steering System
Twin-screw
Fuel System
Tech Docs
SVT Perks
Body / Trim / Misc
Days of Future Past
Favorites
Lunatic Ravings
The Archives

 

Various Maniacal Rants

One of the advantages of funding your own non-commercial website, is that you’re able to speak candidly and publish what you really think about things. You can’t very well do that if you’re beholding to some employer or sponsor or advertiser, can you? At least not for very long. Although I do my best to ensure the veracity of my observations, or at least remain faithful to my perception of the truth, I don’t need to fret the political correctness of my statements. This pleases me enormously, because I genuinely believe that PC is one of the relatively recent societal constructs that are turning us all to mush.

I have long believed that various aspects of the automotive experience, such as our former, universally despised "double nickle" national speed limit, fly blatantly in the face of all reason. Others, while appearing on the surface to be positive or beneficial, reveal a darker side when more carefully scrutinized. This page is devoted to lengthy editorial comments on various automotive realities and developments that chap my hide because they fall into one of these two categories.

I'm confident that there are many among you harboring the same automotive misgivings and objections that I have, and I firmly believe that if we organize into a cohesive force, we can persuade government and industry to pursue more rational policies when it comes to our conveyances. Ultimately, both the automotive companies and the government work for us. We pay the salaries of everyone in the government's employ. Well, along with Big Money and the myriads of special interest lobbyists, we do. But our contribution is the only part of that equation those weasels dare to claim on their 1040 forms. And as for Big Auto, every model, option, and color out there lives or dies by our approval, as conveyed by our purchasing decisions.

Who wants to step up and take the lead getting us organized? I don't especially want the spot, but I'll take point if no one else wants it. Just send your spare change to the Taz Cobra Relief Fund. I'll dive right in as soon as I've banked enough to get started. Until then, I'll just rant. Haha!

I'm going maintain this page as a stack, which, for those of you who aren't computer geeks, means my most recent entry will always be at the top, pushing the older ones down toward the bottom. Each entry's title line will also be dated, just so there's no confusion with respect to the chronology. Ready? Alrighty, then. Here we go ...

 

New Feature: Most Ignorant Automotive-related Remark of the Month

There are some unbelievably ignorant automotive-related statements floating around out there on the Internet (what a surprise!), so I've decided to add a new feature to this website. Henceforth, I'll be sharing my pick for the winner of the most ignorant automotive remark of each month. Jump to this site's Rogues Gallery page to see my picks.

 

On this page:

bullet

31 DEC 14 - Automotive High Fidelity

bullet

03 SEP 13 - The Asian Connection

bullet

26 JUN 13 - The Blame Game

bullet

26 MAR 13 - Black Cars Never Win

bullet

22 MAY 12 - Armchair Automotive Engineering

bullet

18 JAN 12 - Defying the General Consensus

bullet

08 NOV 11 - Repent! The End Is Near!

bullet

05 JUL 11 - In Support of Escalating Fuel Prices

bullet

05 FEB 11 - Car Collecting as a Treatable Personality Disorder

bullet

05 DEC 10 - Your Car May Be a Rat!

bullet

19 SEP 10 - The Rolling Media Lounge

bullet

18 SEP 10 - The Buttered Side of the Bread

bullet

02 SEP 10 - Automotive Absurdities

bullet

29 AUG 10 - Legislative MADDness

bullet

28 AUG 10 - "I want to say one word to you, just one word. Are you listening? Plastics!"

bullet

31 JUL 10 - Where's All That Money Going?

bullet

03 JUL 10 - Unjamming Our Traffic

bullet

27 APR 10 - The Betrayal of a National Economy

bullet

08 APR 10 - Thank You, Gloria Steinem

bullet

02 APR 10 - The Ultimate Nanny Vehicle

 

31 DEC 14    Automotive High Fidelity

In the sixties film The Sound of Music, Julie Andrews sang, “The hills are alive with the sound of music …” She was most assuredly not referring to the synthesized motor soundtracks resonating throughout the cabins of various offerings from Audi and BMW, among others. There was no such thing back then. People had more sense. Some of us “real” car guys still do, and many of us would like to know just exactly who’s responsible for the inception of these phony motor sounds. We’d like to beat him senseless with a bare camshaft.

Phony engine sounds? Really? Isn’t it bad enough that nowadays practically every car’s motor is concealed beneath a plastic shroud to avoid assaulting the sensibilities of unsuspecting civilians with a view of the vehicle’s naked heart? Are we now to be denied the pleasure of its bona fide aural emanations, as well? Who in hell deemed such auditory obfuscations necessary?

Automotive driveline engineers and shade tree mechanics, alike, used to expend considerable time and effort making cars sound just right. Now, you can simply buy the soundtrack. Why? It’s cheaper. Let’s face it, many modern engines sound like shit most of the time, thanks to all the EPA and fuel economy hoops through which automakers are being forced to jump. Lower cylinder counts, cylinder deactivation protocols, etc tend to make the mechanical symphonies produced by our personal conveyances somewhat less than wonderful.

Rather than addressing the reasons for harsh, bad-sounding motors, which would be expensive, car makers have begun electing to simply mask the issue with Fast-and-Furious simulations. Swell. Phony car sounds for phony drivers. The end result is one step closer to cars that are nothing but video arcades on wheels.

This might be fine in a world where, to borrow a line from the seventies film, Westworld, "nothing can go wrong, go wrong, go wrong …" This, however, is not such a world. Things have a nasty habit of going wrong, and the more complex our vehicles become; the more there is to go wrong.

Like it or not, our cars are mechanical by nature, and I submit for your consideration the notion that these synthesizers are potentially deleterious to a car's wellbeing. How so? Many of us have learned to rely on various audible cues to ascertain the health of our trusty steeds, and simulated mechanical sounds deny us that feedback mechanism. Motor simulations fed through the vehicle’s audio system preclude the possibility of listening for telltale signs of something amiss and initiating corrective action prior to catastrophic failure. And therein lies the rub.

When it comes to cars, genuine high fidelity still equates to the unadulterated soundtrack produced by the vehicle, itself, not some "24 Hours of Le Mans" simulation.

T-

 

03 SEP 13    The Asian Connection

While sitting in an airport boarding area recently, I began skimming through the most recent issue of one of the major automotive magazines. (Yes, I’m one of those people – the tree killers, who still prefer reading paper and ink publications to their e-copy counterparts.) As I sat there delighting in my now politically incorrect indulgence, reveling in the fragrance of the ink and muted rustling of the paper, I stumbled onto a brief article that explained why new cars are so much less appealing to me than they once were. It seems that Asia in general and China in particular have become a lucrative market for automakers ever since the Chi-Coms scooped up most of the money we used to have here in the Land of the Free. Consequently, manufacturers have begun to pandering to the inscrutable Oriental mind.

The insatiable Asian love of overwrought styling, techno-gadgets, winky lights, and shiny stuff has been driving much automotive design for a number of years, and the Asian design influence is expected to steadily increase in the future, as the Far East gradually assumes the mantle of the 800-lb Gorilla with respect to the consumption of goods. In other words, our automotive industry, just like every other multinational giant, has adopted a “follow the money” policy that is relentlessly minimizing any consideration of Occidental tastes. Our preferences are becoming irrelevant.

Perhaps this is fitting, considering how many American consumers have forsaken domestic automobiles in favor of Asian offerings, because they wanted “more” for their money. Turnabout is, after all, fair play. Nonetheless, I believe it will prove to be a grievous tactical blunder by Detroit. Those of us who have always bought American have done so, not only out of national pride, but also because Detroit’s offerings usually said “car” to us better than most of the imports did. American cars were designed with our sensibilities in mind. This is no longer so.

Although many of our domestic marques are still in place, their “branding” is disappearing at an alarming rate. And as our vehicles increasingly become homogenized into indistinguishable “global” transportation appliances, the passion for Detroit iron will wane accordingly. Aside from what is becoming a questionable sense of patriotism, there soon will be no rationale for buying American over the import competition.

It should be obvious to even the Detroit bean counters that domestic manufacturers cannot compete in a commodity market. Detroit needs to acknowledge this and commit more, better, smarter resources to the sort of product innovation that made our vehicles distinctly American in the first place. They need to do it now, before they are all swallowed up by the new 800-lb gorilla.

T-

 

26 JUN 13    The Blame Game

Breaking with my policy of confining my lunatic ravings to automotive-related topics and only secondarily voicing my political and philosophical beliefs as they relate to those, I am focusing this rant on our government’s “iron fist” tactics against those who feel moral obligations to reveal its misdeeds at great peril to themselves. I am speaking today specifically of the Ed Snowden & Bradley Manning stories. Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you already know that Manning made public information about terrible war crimes and crimes against humanity that were committed by our military and then covered up, while Snowden revealed the violations of basic human rights in which our government was, and still is, globally engaged in the name of “national security.” Both men felt morally compelled to make these wrongdoings public. Now, to deflect public attention away from their own misdeeds, our government and military are pursuing and prosecuting (persecuting?) these men as traitors for their civil disobedience.

In my mind, the real issue is not what these men did, but rather the misconduct they have brought to light. Yet, their whistle blowing activities have polarized our populace. Both men are either traitors or patriots, depending on whom you ask, with those who have been conditioned to blindly accept whatever the establishment chooses to disseminate expressing one opinion and those still able to critically evaluate for themselves voicing the other. Of the former I ask, is it not the duty of every responsible citizen to expose the misdeeds that he or she encounters, whether they be personal, corporate, or governmental in nature? Does not every level of our very own government encourage this sort of action through some form of “1-800-BE-A-SNITCH” program? With this in mind, how can our leaders and others who would condem these men so vehemently protest when the same principle is applied to governmental misconduct?

Personally, I wish everyone with access to privileged information believed as Manning and Snowden do. As Irish statesman Edmund Burke observed back in the 1700’s, “All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.” That observation is every bit as valid today as it was then, maybe even more so. As far as I can see, these two men have done nothing but bring wrongdoings and abuses of power into the public eye, and I applaud them for mustering the courage to do so with full knowledge of the firestorm they were inviting upon themselves.

We should all be supporting Manning and Snowden, rather than vilifying them. Men like these are the only barriers remaining between a government by the people and a totalitarian state. Before these recent revelations, how many of us were aware of the murders and other crimes in the Mideast against innocent civilians, including members of the press, by our own military? How many believe those crimes should have been hushed up and gone unpunished? How many knew that every single email we send or cell call we make is being intercepted and analyzed? How many are okay with this? How many had ever even heard of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court? I certainly hadn’t, and I was appalled to learn of its very existence, let alone its extensive powers. A secret court immune to public scrutiny and handing down decisions not subject to broad review? Really? Here in the “Land of the Free?” Are you comfortable with this?

In response to these revelations, German Justice Minister Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger recently wrote, “America has been a different country since the horrible terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The relationship between freedom and security has shifted, to the detriment of freedom.” She is not alone in her opinion. Her words coincide perfectly with my own observations and those of a great many others. The United States is quickly transitioning into an Orwellian society dominated by a "Big Brother" autocracy. This is contrary to the founding principles of our nation, and regardless of the motivations driving our government and our military, even assuming the most benign intentions (which I do not), their actions are incongruent with the image of this country they wish to portray to the rest of the world, as well as to their own citizenry. This further reinforces the already widely held global perception of the United States as a nation of double standards.

We portray ourselves as the world’s purveyors of truth, justice, and freedom, but are we? I think not. It appears we have become a nation of the rich and powerful, for the rich and powerful, and our actions around the globe reflect this. The admonition, “Physician, heal thyself!” comes to mind. I’d like nothing better than to offer some reasonable remedy, but I cannot. It appears to me that we have already turned the corner onto a road that ends with the decline and fall of the United States. We have become a nation of self-absorbed sybarites governed by a gang of self-serving megalomaniacs. Our demise will result not from any external menace, but from the rancid decay rampant within.

T-

 

26 MAR 13    Black Cars Never Win

Car buffs generally express the opinion that black is the perfect color for most performance cars. Black, they agree, connotes the ideal amalgamation of menace and stealth. But note the colors of the winning entries next time you attend a car show. Black cars never win. Well, nearly never.

It appears that car show judges aren’t really car buffs, since they overwhelmingly prefer just about any other color to black. Red is a perennial favorite. Yellow is also a good bet, as is blue, particularly bright blue. Green is good, too. Most metallics have a decent shot. Burnt and candy apple variations are generally well received. And of course, the really loud colors, particularly orange and lime, always stand a chance. Black, not so much.

The same goes for white cars. You’ll rarely see a white entry take Best in Class, much less Best of Show. Adding flames and other “accents” to the paint does improve a black or white car’s odds. But short of transforming the thing into an adolescent’s wet dream that you’d be embarrassed to be caught driving, it doesn’t really stand much of a chance.

This is not an indictment, merely an observation … and maybe a word of caution to those with car show trophy aspirations. If you’re serious about ever scoring a “best” at the show, pick a color other than black. Or white.

T-

 

22 MAY 12    Armchair Automotive Engineering

There’s never any shortage of armchair engineers on the automotive forums. They incessantly complain that the factory has mucked up just about every system in our cars. In fact, after reading their epithets, one cannot help being surprised that our vehicles run at all. But we’re in luck, because these automotive geniuses have conjured up fixes and workarounds – courtesy of visions experienced during various hallucinogenic episodes, no doubt – that can put things right. And they’re eager to share these revelations, which they do. Incessantly.

They show us how rid ourselves of those pesky PCV and EGR systems that are not only completely superfluous, but counterproductive from a performance standpoint. They tell us how to fix the foibles of our imperfect trailing-link rear suspensions once and for all by replacing them with stick axles. They demonstrate how to fix our defective cooling systems by re-plumbing them with all sorts of additional hoses and fittings to reroute the coolant. They detail how to fix our unresponsive returnless fuel systems by ripping them out and replacing them with return-style setups.

On and on it goes. The factory got it wrong, but these self-appointed automotive authorities will help us fix the mistakes. The arrogance of it all would be comical if it weren’t so pathetic. These Internet clowns find it all so convenient to disregard that the factory’s engineers have invested years in formal education followed by more years at vehicle proving grounds amassing the practical experience they bring to to the table. Somehow, these malcontents just “know” better, and will share with us all the “secret squirrel” voodoo tricks that the professionals at the automotive companies have missed. Right.

Is it just me, or does it strike you too as unbelievably conceited for some shade tree mechanic to declare that an auto manufacturer’s engineering was all wrong, and he was forced to put it right? To be sure, I have personally tinkered with and modified many automotive systems, but only because my preferences, priorities, and goals diverged from the manufacturer’s, and not because I fancied myself smarter or more adept at automotive engineering than the factory people. While I agree there are legitimate reasons for automotive tinkering, I do not believe that “[Insert company name here] got it wrong” is among them. What, then, might be a reasonable motivation for modifying what any manufacturer has put into production?

First, I think we’ll all agree that few, if any, automobiles are “cost-no-object” products. Each company must confine every model to a price range that matches its target market’s purchasing power, and a fair amount of cost-cutting usually accompanies the process of achieving this goal, regardless of where in the socio-economic spectrum said target consumer may lie. Every automotive manufacturer has done this with practically every model ever built. Consequently, many upgrades are legitimately motivated by a desire to replace certain “cost-effective” factory parts with stouter, more capable, and/or more reliable substitutes. In other words, a desire to improve the overall content quality of the car. Fair enough, and fairly common.

Second, every auto manufacturer is obviously in business to sell the cars it produces, and the marketing boys at each company are paid to see as many of each model are delivered to as many new owners as possible. Consequently, they aim for the broadest possible market appeal. Obviously, for most buyers, quieter and smoother are vastly preferable to noisier and rougher. This has led to a lot of NVH tuning designed to insulate the cars’ occupants from a hostile environment that becomes harsher by the day as our infrastructure continues to crumble. However, in order to make the cars quiet and smooth, manufacturers are forced to dull their reflexes and stifle their feedback. If one’s personal preferences lie more toward the performance end of the spectrum, he is inclined to install various upgrades intended to enhance the car’s reflexes, dynamic stability, and communication at the expense of some ride quality. This is not to say the manufacturer got the equation wrong, or that our hypothetical driving enthusiast had to “fix” the car; only that the owner's preferences lie one or more standard deviations away from where the manufacturer has pegged the “average” buyer’s.

Third, practically every auto company has intentionally “dumbed down” its offerings in an effort to make them less dangerous for the people who buy and drive them. Because most of those people are such atrocious drivers, each auto manufacturer generally endows its cars with a healthy dose of “safety-oriented” attributes, such as locomotive understeer, to protect itself against potential litigation by those who refuse to accept personal responsibility or to even acknowledge their own ineptitude. While these “safety” attributes generally make vehicles more forgiving in the hands of the Great Unwashed, they hobble performance. Preferring to trade away some docility for higher ultimate limits, some buyers make changes intended to mitigate the vehicle’s liability concessions, because … well, because they fancy themselves more capable drivers than the average doof. Sometimes this is true, sometimes not. Regardless, these individuals prefer their cars weren’t configured to accommodate the masses. Again, a perfectly reasonable motivation for altering the product from its original configuration.

Finally, self-expression is a perfectly legitimate reason for modifying a vehicle. Despite the insidious homogenization of most of us into amorphous lumps of protoplasm, courtesy of our insatiable social networking addiction, a few still visualize their trusty steeds as extensions of their own distinct personalities. These few are driven to make their conveyances portray their individualistic essences as faithfully as possible. While the result may often be a bit too outrageous for most, and may be considered tacky, absurd, or ill-considered by others, the validity of the motivation behind it to express one’s inner self is indisputable.

I, for one, would never argue the legitimacy of any of these reasons for modifying a vehicle from its stock form. In fact, I have been motivated by all of them myself at one time or another. But never offer up “the factory got it wrong” as your reason for tinkering, because that dog just won’t hunt. Why would anyone buy a vehicle in the first place if he sincerely believed the factory got it wrong?

T-

 

18 JAN 12    Defying the General Consensus

The form and function of an automobile attain their sharpest clarities only when they reflect the vision and inspiration of a single individual. Few, if any, “committee cars” have ever risen above mediocrity. This is primarily due to too many fingers in the pie. Everyone on the design committee tosses in a wish list at odds with everyone else’s, and the car ends up a hodgepodge of conflicting design cues and compromised abilities. Although the goal may be broader market appeal, the end result is a vehicle less satisfying to all.

I have recently been struck by the epiphany that this same dilution of concept through committee is precisely the dynamic behind the dissatisfaction that many automotive enthusiasts feel about their “project” cars as time progresses, and why many continually move through an endless succession of such vehicles. For whatever reason, these enthusiasts often defer to complete strangers with varying preferences and priorities for their project decisions, large and small, and they subsequently end up with vehicles unrepresentative of their original vision.

Some of this subversion of intent is invited by a combination of inadequate technical expertise and laziness, and some by the currently fashionable and vastly overrated social networking paradigm. For example, very few grasp the physics of suspension tuning to any meaningful extent. However, rather than applying themselves toward better understanding the basic concepts and fundamental relationships in order to proceed with changes that will best suit their personal objectives, many simply buy whatever parts happen to be the current hot ticket, trusting that they will produce beneficial results without ever critically evaluating the worth or suitability of those parts for their own goals. Subsequently, they end up all too often with a collection of parts that do not support those goals well at all.

As time goes by, other systems fall victim to the same dynamic. Brakes, steering, driveline, etc, all diverge farther and farther from the enthusiast’s original vision, representing, instead, the collective notions of numerous others who share neither the same preferences nor similar goals. Eventually, the enthusiast becomes so disenchanted with his Frankenstein creation that he unloads it on some other unsuspecting rube, and begins anew with a fresh project car. Having failed to learn from his previous mistakes, he usually continues to demonstrate the same poor judgment by relying on the same incongruous advice until he has tied his next car in knots, as well. And on and on it goes.

This sort of behavior is appropriate for only those with distinctly masochistic tendencies and others so desperate for group acceptance that they are willing to subjugate their own automotive predilections and sacrifice their own project goals to obtain it. The approach is far too expensive and/or repugnant for the rest of us. A saner alternative is to remain resolutely focused on one’s goals, invest suitable effort in self-edification, and follow the paths that best lead to those goals. Unfortunately, this is rarely the chosen course of action.

Each distinct goal - better handling, shorter stopping distances, quicker acceleration, more robust entertainment system, etc - should generate a unique overall project plan, which can be visualized as a journey, beginning with where the vehicle is currently and ending with where one envisions it. No one should blindly accept any solution simply because popular opinion declares it to be a preferred upgrade path, as it may well produce results contrary to his own goals. A fundamental rule for each step should be to never make any change without first thoroughly weighing its prospective impacts – both positive and negative – and determining if this really moves the project in the desired direction. Again, this lamentably is almost never the approach.

Critically evaluating every single bit of subjective information obtained is of paramount importance in remaining faithful to one’s personal goals. There is nothing inherently wrong with seeking opinions or advice as long as one never loses sight of the fact that everybody has different priorities and expectations. On a related but somewhat darker note, one must also be constantly vigilant against being intentionally led astray. It has been my experience that no truer words have ever been uttered than the old cliché, “Misery loves company.” Over the years, I have seen many steer others into the same mistakes they’ve made, just to avoid being alone in having made those mistakes. Yet, all too often enthusiasts rely almost entirely on popular opinion polls for critical decisions. Is there any wonder why these individuals become disenchanted with their vehicles in short order?

A continually recurring justification offered for divesting oneself of a project car and moving on to the next is boredom. Here in the land of the nanosecond attention span, this is certainly not beyond the realm of possibility. However, I believe it much more likely that the current vehicle has reached the point at which it has undergone one too many ill-considered and inappropriate modifications, rendering the poor thing an untenable assemblage of bad-tempered, schizophrenic junk. In truth, its owner detests so strongly the rolling disaster he has created that he can no longer tolerate even the mere thought of driving it. This is when he decides to ditch the poor thing for the next vehicle he’ll defile.

For many years, I have counseled that every ratchet head must look far enough down the road (excuse the pun) to see what he ultimately wants his vehicle to be, and stick with modifications that will move the car closer to that goal. If each would just adhere to this principle, he wouldn't be so eager to discard one project car after another. How could he be, when every upgrade would then be moving the car incrementally closer to its owner's personal vision of the ideal vehicle? But alas, no one ever listens. Everyone seeks, instead, the blessing of the hive mind, so everyone ends up with one steaming heap of sheet metal dung after another.

T-

 

08 NOV 11    Repent! The End Is Near!

At the risk of sounding very much like Chicken Little, I consider it my duty to inform you all that the sky is falling. At least, for those who fancy themselves aficionados of cars and driving, it is. The inexorable process of automating our beloved personal conveyances has been ongoing for some time and will continue unabated until the dastardly deed is finally done. It is now clear that all those seemingly innocent, if misguided, “driver assistance” contraptions with which recent automotive offerings have been endowed were merely exploratory pokes to test our collective inclination toward relinquishing control of our vehicles.

More than just little prods, really. Beyond merely testing the waters, all the self-park and lane departure wizardry, all those little adaptive cruise control genies, the armada of backup assist servants, etc, etc have been relentlessly foisted upon us to gradually break down our resistance to what has been the ultimate goal all along: the fully automated pod, or FAP for short. Psychologists might refer to the process as “stimulus desensitization,” physicists and mathematicians might call it “successive approximation,” and software engineers may think of it as “stepwise refinement.” For automotive enthusiasts, the appropriate term is "Armageddon."

Rather than addressing the root causes behind over-congestion and gridlock, rather than embarking on a program to demand and create better drivers, and rather than prohibiting the driving distractions responsible for many collisions, the powers that be have decided it is in our best interests to reduce each of us to the least common denominator and relegate us all to passenger status. In truth, it is more likely that they have accurately predicted automation to be the path of least resistance. We all want to get where we are going, but most these days fear and loathe the “chore” of operating the carriage. Consequently, only misguided souls and retrograde relics of a bygone era, who relish the catharsis of driving, are likely to object to this diabolical plan, and we are an ever-diminishing minority.

Before you dismiss my words as nothing but the delusions of a hopelessly paranoid fear monger, consider that Google has been conducting pilot tests of automated vehicles in California for years, Nevada has already enacted legislation granting automated cars unrestricted access to public roads in that state, and R&D teams at companies around the globe are feverishly working on the “final solution.” If you are one of the few who actually enjoys driving - and you probably wouldn’t be reading this if you weren’t - be afraid. Be very, very afraid, because the day when the steering wheel in your trusty steed goes the way of the dodo and the vent wing is not far off. The best we'll be able to hope for is that Big Brother will find it in his steely heart to set aside reservations for us, where we’ll be allowed to pursue our driving passions with our quaint, manually controlled cars on closed road courses.

If you're not okay with this, then tell someone. Your friends, your family, your congressman. Anybody, everybody. I am especially disappointed in the various automotive publications for their failure to mount a coordinated call to arms. Aside from the occasional editorial smacking more than anything else of grudging acceptance, the automotive press has been eerily silent regarding this impending doom. If these folks truly enjoy writing about cars and wish to continue earning a living doing so, they’d better get off their collective asses and start making some serious noise, because nobody is going to pay good money for a rag called FAP Weekly or Pod & Rider. Other interested parties who would be well-advised to become motivated about marshalling some resistance include various racing organizations. Nobody will be particularly interested in watching a sport to which he cannot relate. As for the world's auto manufacturers, they will be shooting themselves in their own feet, because one pod will be pretty much like every other, leaving very little incentive to trade in or trade up. I doubt many people are going to develop a great deal of fervent enthusiasm for next year's FAP, even one from a company brandishing the slogan "The Ultimate Riding Machine."

T-

 

05 JUL 11    In Support of Escalating Fuel Prices

I am very likely the only individual in America, and possibly the entire industrialized world, who applauds each rise in petroleum prices as if his favorite sports team had just scored big. That’s right. While most folks are bemoaning every little bump in the cost of feeding their internal combustion behemoths, I’m cheering on the greedy bastards who are orchestrating all the unconscionable profiteering.

What’s that you say? I must be deranged? Yes, you may very well be right. I would certainly be the last to deny the possibility, but in this matter there is some method to my madness, although most will not appreciate in the least the reason for my glee. Why? Because I am cheering the fact that every additional penny at the pump hastens the demise of the monster trucks and Tyrannosaurus SUV’s that so many have adopted as their primary mode of transportation without any legitimate need whatsoever.

This lowbrow fascination with supersized vehicles, which began in our country’s ghettos, was adopted by the vacuous sybarites of Rodeo Drive to symbolize their devotion to conspicuous overconsumption. It quickly trickled back down to our self-absorbed, self-important, self-entitled masses and was in dire need of someone – anyone – to drive a stake through its unholy heart. Thank you, OPEC, for stepping up.

From its very inception, the dynamic of vehicular supersizing has run contrary to everything most car guys hold dear. Agile? You must be kidding. Efficient? Fugeddaboutit. Attractive? Only to another Stegosaurus in heat. To frame these monstrosities of automotivedom in real estate parlance, the typical full-size SUV is the automotive equivalent of the Mc Mansion. Rambling, clumsy, wasteful, and garish.

Unfortunately, as long as the financial penalty for this egregious lack of good automotive sense remained relatively insignificant, car lemmings everywhere continued to snap up vehicles far larger than they genuinely needed. Typically for no other reason than because they wanted to drive something even bigger than whatever their friends and neighbors drove. After all, the philosophy in this particular segment has always been, “Size is King,” and the most powerful words one could utter have been, “Mine’s bigger than yours.” Fortunately, four-dollar-per-gallon fuel prices and hundred-dollar fill-ups, coupled with our severely depressed economy, have forced many to re-evaluate this philosophy.

There was a time in my life when I held out great hope for the human race. I have long since abandoned that hope. Allow me to take this opportunity to make my opinion of humanity perfectly clear. As a species, WE SUCK! The lower animals are kinder to one another than we are and demonstrate better sense than people do. We hunt other animals for sport and kill each other – both individually and en mass – for the most untenable reasons. We deify various idiot celebrities simply because they’ve captured our attention for the moment, propagate without restraint, poison without regard the very planet that supports us, and relentlessly pursue power and wealth because we have lost the ability to find peace and happiness within ourselves. We are a race of liars, cheats, thugs, and killers. If the hand of God came down from heaven right now and struck us all dead, I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised.

I digress. Those of you who are still with me at this point may be asking yourselves why I would begrudge others their rolling mastodons and why I’m so gleeful about the impending demise of these monsters. Well, primarily because I can no longer see past the barn door rolling along in front of me. That’s why. During the peak of our society’s SUV infatuation, fully nine out of every ten vehicles around me on the road were of the high profile persuasion. This made piloting anything other than a similarly supersized vehicle an exercise in fear and frustration for anyone who has been trained to scan down the road as far as possible while driving. Being one of said people, I applaud the fact that the number of rolling barricades around me has dropped to six or seven out of every ten, and I look forward to future higher fuel prices improving that ratio even further.

T-

 

05 FEB 11    Car Collecting as a Treatable Personality Disorder

A young boy and his father were walking through a graveyard one day. As the boy read the various inscriptions on the headstones and markers, he turned to his father and inquired, “Daddy, where are all the bad people buried?” Fact is, there’s really no way, based on those epitaphs, of differentiating the scoundrels and fools from the beacons of virtue. You’ll observe a similar dynamic if you ever visit a vintage car auction. The atmosphere elevates every old piece of tin with a fresh coat of paint to an object of supreme desirability, prompting otherwise prudent men (for how else could they have amassed the disposable funds necessary to acquire one of the auction’s often dubious prizes?) to part with sums of money for these treasures far in excess of their true value.

Many are downright ugly cars, too. I have seen countless old cars that I personally would have been embarrassed to be seen in back in my younger days sold for enormous prices at auction. Homely, pitiful, misshapen things. Ramblers. Studebakers. Hudsons. A myriad of old Buicks, Chryslers, and De Sotos. Most of us have probably witnessed the ugly duckling-to-swan phenomenon at least once in our lives. The mousy middle school wallflower who blossomed into a drop dead gorgeous woman, but that is certainly not the situation here. These cars are every bit as ugly now – arguably more so – than they were when built. Other than simply being old, these poor, disfigured senior citizens of the automotive community possess no allure whatsoever. Aside from psychological maladjustment, what could possibly persuade grown men to purchase such monstrosities?

Oh, and heaven forbid that anyone should be so presumptuous as to attempt reducing said homeliness. To be sure, a bit of prudent cosmetic work can do wonders for the appearance of a car, just as it can a woman. But while Botox lips, Dow Chemical breasts, and porcelain veneer teeth appear for many to be perfectly acceptable cosmetic augmentations to feminine pulchritude, any deviation from the assembly line appearance of a car – in fact the introduction of any aftermarket part whatsoever – mysteriously reduces its desirability. Please explain. While I’m not a huge fan of frivolous cosmetic alterations – to either cars or women – I can certainly appreciate tastefully applied changes as value-added modifications, especially those accompanied by better materials and/or functional enhancements. Not so, the average collector. He wants his tin unadulterated, apparently because the original parts were such perfect, state-of-the-art, cost-no-object components. Puh-LEEZ!

Another area in which collectors place the dynamics of women and cars in opposition is that of advancing age. I don't mean to imply that older women do not possess many sterling qualities, but as women age, men typically consider them less attractive and less desirable. That’s just the way men are wired. We’re dogs. (Have you ever heard of a married man having an affair with an older woman? Of course not.) But collectors view cars differently. The older a car becomes, the more its desirability and value appear to escalate. This is absurd. I would not dispute the fact that there are many very beautiful and desirable older cars, but they are selling for prices far in excess of those commanded by very beautiful and desirable new cars. And cosmetic considerations aside, if we agree that a car’s intrinsic value arises predominantly out of its performance capabilities, then this price schism is sheer lunacy. The most ferocious exotic obtainable twenty years ago hasn’t a prayer keeping up with any of today’s top performance machines and might even find itself embarrassed by many contemporary sport sedans. And the further back we go, the bigger the price/performance disparity becomes. Tempus fugit. Technology advances. Performance improves. Get a clue, fellas.

Paying astronomical sums of money to acquire old, under achieving, often less than attractive automobiles that would be trounced by most modern machines is just plain wrong, and indicates there's something fundamentally unbalanced about the car collector psyche. I’m not saying I wouldn’t enjoy owning another ’67 Rally Sport Camaro to remind me of my misspent youth. I might even be persuaded to fork over as much as $20K for a premium example to account for inflation (my first one ran $3600, spankin’ new), but I’m not about to pay the absurdly inflated going rate for one. First and most importantly, I don’t have that kind of loot to squander on a piece of memorabilia and likely never will. Second, having owned one fresh off the showroom floor, I am intimately familiar with the car’s many shortcomings, such as its front suspension – GM's very first CAD/CAE suspension design – that was lamentably unable to hold an alignment beyond its first shock jounce, resulting in unbelievably accelerated tire wear. Similar shortcomings were the rule back then, not the exception, so most of those old rides were covered with such warts, which makes their current valuation all the more baffling.

What’s that you say? Old cars are acquired to be viewed and admired, not to be driven? Well, yes, that’s unfortunately true for most, and therein lies the rub. Each old relic is typically transported very carefully to its new berth beyond a velvet rope in some climate-controlled showroom or garage, there to reside until sold again for an even more outrageous sum than the one just paid. Folks, these are cars, not paintings or sculptures or other static objects d’art. The true joy of owning them lies in the driving experience and in the images of brighter days they provide from behind their wheels, not in gazing at them from time to time in hygienic shrines. If you’re an old car collector, do yourself and all us po’ folk a favor: release your Daddy Warbucks grip on that horde of old tin that many of us would love to drive again, but can’t afford because you and your cronies have driven their prices out of reach. Take up coin or stamp or baseball card collecting, instead. Those items are much more suitable for ogling in static displays. You’ll have our undying gratitude, and just think of all the space you’ll free up in your garage. If you absolutely must continue to acquire old automobiles from time to time, please limit your acquistions to the ugly, slow, stupid examples that no one really wanted when they were new. God knows, there are plenty of those, and as conversation pieces they'll serve just as well as the old Porshes, Jags, Ferraris, and Detroit muscle cars.

T-

 

05 DEC 10    Your Car May Be a Rat!

To no one’s particular surprise, technology continues to play an increasingly prominent role in our inexorable march toward the dubious utopia envisioned and methodically pursued by our ruling class. Predictably, along with enhanced surveillance and scrutiny, courtesy of this new technology, comes Big Brother’s assurance that the “greater good” is best served by the reduction of our personal privacy. “Be safe, be well. We have your best interests at heart.” Right.

As I write this, automotive EDR’s (Event Data Recorders) are being positioned to become an integral part of this questionably benevolent plan to help “keep us safe” from ourselves. Originally intended as an aid to auto manufacturers during prototype crash testing, EDR’s have entered the automotive manufacturing mainstream. In the past few years, the deployment of these “black boxes” has kicked into high gear and has been progressing at a breakneck pace, predominantly at the behest of insurance underwriters and law enforcement agencies across the country, so your vehicle may very well be an informant programmed to spill its guts to any insurance investigator or LEO who cares to ask. And let’s not overlook the possibility of your local Mr. Goodwrench using EDR data as an excuse to deny your warranty claim.

The rather transparent motivation for the big push by the insurance industry is the pursuit of a foolproof mechanism for denial of claims, which would precipitate increased profits. Dealership service departments and law enforcement types are merely in search of an irrefutable “eye witness” that will enable them to place blame. Essentially, all three groups are looking for someone to nail to the cross, and that someone is you! None is the least bit concerned about violating your constitutional right to privacy, so they’re turning your trusty steed into the stool pigeon that hangs you out to dry.

Just exactly what is an EDR, and what will it do for you. Well, it will record certain vehicular and occupant information, and it will retain this data for a short interval, continually overwriting older information with more recent. That is, until something untoward, such as an engine failure or perceived crash, occurs. Once the EDR recognizes such a trigger event, it locks in the data for the interval encapsulating (immediately preceding, during, and following) the event. This enables Mr. Goodwrench, your insurance adjuster, Officer O’Malley, or any combination thereof to scrutinize your vehicle’s status and your conduct or misconduct related to the regrettable event. Trust me, the EDR will tell all. If you can think of it, the EDR will record and report it. Nice, huh?

If yours is a fairly recent model, you may already be driving a vehicle equipped with an EDR, since the number of vehicles so-equipped has been steadily growing since the turn of the 21st century. Nearly 65% of all 2005 vehicles were equipped with some form of EDR, and every new Generous Motors vehicle currently in production is sporting one. If your vehicle is so-equipped, its manufacturer is required to tell you that it is. Check the index of your owner’s manual for “Event Data Recorder.” A detailed breakdown of all the data recorded by your EDR should be contained in that section of your manual. However, the exact location of the device is not disclosed. Auto manufacturers hide them in various places in their different models, so the infernal thing could be located almost anywhere.

According to the National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration, ownership of the data contained in these EDR’s is up to the individual state legislatures (typical buck-passing by the Feds). Although NHTSA considers the rightful owner of the data to be the vehicle’s owner, courts have the right to subpoena EDR data in certain circumstances, such as crashes. This opens a Pandora’s box of secrets that may be used against you.

The advent of the automotive EDR sounds to me like a wonderful development for everyone except – you guessed it – you, the vehicle’s owner. Even a spouse cannot be compelled to testify against his/her significant other in a court of law, but it appears that his trusty steed is not only allowed, but required to tell all. Adding insult to injury, you’re the one footing the bill for this marvel of modern technology. Not the interested parties who are pushing to stuff an EDR into every car; not the people who stand to gain from its deployment. Just you, the only one who stands to lose. Beautiful. To further insult our intelligence, we are being asked to embrace this new technology on the basis of reduced insurance rates. Sure. Want to buy some beachfront property? Seems to me that the EDR is just another camel’s nose under the tent. One more step in the relentless dismantlement of our personal privacy. As of this writing, I can offer no suggestion regarding an effective countermeasure. Not without risk of legal repercussion.

T-

 

19 SEP 10    The Rolling Media Lounge

For quite a while, right up until the not too distant past, the driving experience, itself, provided sufficient excitement and entertainment to sell new cars. Back in the day, auto manufacturers hawked their wares with slogans directly related to the driving experiences that their various models supposedly imparted. I’m sure that some still remember the “Rocket 88” moniker, many recognize “the Ultimate Driving Machine” slogan, and who could forget Volkswagen’s “Drivers Wanted” ad campaign, to name just a few? Even the old “road-hugging weight” slogan, as abhorrent as it sounded to devotees of nimble, lightweight cars, at least spoke to the driving dynamics of the vehicles to which it was applied.

This has changed over the years as an ever larger percentage of drivers have adopted mindsets relegating their personal conveyances to the status of transportation appliances. Getting there is no longer considered half the fun, but an interval to be endured on one’s way between points A and B. With the ascendance of SUV’s and crossovers, the topics of performance in general and driving dynamics in particular have become irrelevant. Think about it. When was the last time you turned to your significant other and suggested something like, “Honey, let’s take the family truckster out for a quick blast through the twisties?” The very thought is absurd, and no one even remotely interested in handling drives a high mass, high center-of-gravity vehicle, rabid soccer moms notwithstanding.

In addition to vehicle dynamics, automotive sensuality took a big hit when the family SUV replaced the family car – a development directly attributable, no doubt, to the SUV’s ability to more comfortably accommodate the super-sized derriere of the typical American driver. In any event, the appeal of a well-turned fender became unimportant and automotive glamour faded away. Of course, there are still many stunningly beautiful cars on the market, but they tend, by and large, to be astronomically priced. The vast majority of genuinely attainable vehicles are now about as attractive as rolling toasters, and about as easy to distinguish from one another, as well.

To keep the wheels of capitalism spinning and generate desire for new vehicles in the absence of any further interest in automotive beauty or performance, auto manufacturers recently began focusing their advertising campaigns on their offerings’ capabilities as mobile media and entertainment centers. Everything from GPS navigation, satellite radio, and Bluetooth connectivity for your cell phone to game controllers and DVD players with in-dash, overhead, and seatback video screens to help you and your passengers endure the tedium of “getting there.”

This trend does us all a disservice, and if you’re not interested in focusing on the task at hand, i.e. piloting your vehicle in a responsible and responsive manner, please designate someone who is to do the driving. Hire a chauffeur if need be, but stop deluding yourself with the fantasy that you’re adequately controlling your vehicle while simultaneously texting or talking to your friends, emailing your business associates, or watching some damned video instead of paying attention to the road. Driving distractions slow traffic and promote accidents. It’s just that simple, and it’s a fact supported by every driving study ever conducted. If you insist on retaining your position behind the wheel, shut off the damned video, forego the Twitter chat, and wait until you arrive at your destination to check your email. These and other components of the mobile media lounge are counterproductive to getting there.

If you’re just looking for an effective way to keep your kids in check during long drives, and you shy away from the proposition of better living through chemistry, do them, as well as future humanity, the favor of instilling a passion for books and reading in the little darlings, rather than relying on videos to mesmerize them into bipedal mushrooms. Who knows? Maybe, with sufficient exposure to the printed word, they’ll learn to distinguish among the plural and possessive forms of various nouns, differentiate among our numerous language homophones, and even spell with a reasonable degree of accuracy. Do it now. Please. Before Microsoft and Apple reduce us all to the exclusive use of hieroglyphics for written communication.

T-

 

18 SEP 10    The Buttered Side of the Bread

Several decades ago, when I began reading most of the major automotive magazines, I observed that these revered periodicals could be a bit fickle when it came to publishing the lowdown on the vehicles they reviewed. This is still the case. Countless times, I’ve seen the printed remarks about some particular vehicle morph from accolades verging on prom night infatuations to outright disdain as that vehicle traversed its life cycle.

Please understand this observation isn’t intended as an indictment. After all, every publication’s first duty is survival, and few, if any, survive by biting the hands that feed. Obviously, every magazine on the rack is beholding to its advertisers for the funds required to keep the wolf from the door. Furthermore, it becomes difficult to obtain test vehicles and invitations to corporate events, such as private unveilings, after you’ve been less than kind toward a manufacturer’s previous offerings. Discretion is, therefore, the better part of valor in the literary world with regard to calling it like you see it.

Considering that even such misshapen monstrosities as the Pontiac Aztec have been greeted with guarded enthusiasm by the automotive press, where can one turn for accurate appraisals of fresh offerings? Certainly not to one of the consumer advocate rags. I personally shy away from relying on those to form a basis for the purchase of even my next toaster, much less for selecting my next vehicle. Where then? Believe it or not, the automotive press.

Yes, as I’ve pointed out, car magazines are inclined to indulge in editorial hyperbole whenever a new model comes along simply because they are keenly aware of on which side of their bread the butter lies, but the truth – or at least a significant portion of it – is generally there for you to see if you’ve learned to read between the lines. I wish I could be more specific about this technique, but it relies on an ability acquired only gradually, after years of immersion in the culture and jargon of the car mags. However, once you’ve honed this ability, you’ll forever be able to distinguish the automotive wheat from the chaff with a reasonable degree of certainty.

With the automotive press loath to speak ill of any new release, developing this “code talker” skill is your only viable option for creating your own short list if you’re truly intent on making an informed decision when considering a new steed. From there, it’s all up to you. Once you’ve arrived at the pageant’s swimsuit competition (please excuse the male chauvinistic anachronism), only you will be able to determine through hands-on experimentation which contestant will get your vote. Whatever you do, don’t just look for the buttered side of the bread. If you take the car mags at face value, every new car falls on that side.

T-

 

02 SEP 10    Automotive Absurdities

The things some people's kids do to their cars! Criminal ignorance coupled with a complete lack of good taste really ought to be against the law. Come to think of it, there are long-standing laws addressing much of this automotive stupidity, but they're broadly ignored. Let’s spend a little time today contemplating some of the more egregious automotive absurdities – both fads and cognitive distortions – that most rational individuals consider completely ridiculous. The following hit parade will remain a work in progress. I’ll start with a baker’s dozen, but I reserve the right to augment the list as fresh developments and observations dictate.

  1. Spinner wheels – These absurdities are among the paraphernalia typically inflicted upon otherwise perfectly serviceable vehicles by completely graceless Neanderthals possessing a complete lack of automotive sensitivity and absolutely no sense of style whatsoever.

  2. Huge oversized wheels shod with ultra-low profile tires, especially on trucks and SUV's – An inbred relative of “Spinner Wheels,” above. Ah, but nothing like sporting over a hundred pounds of wheel/tire at each corner, eh? You bet. Does wonders for ride quality and vehicle dynamics.

  3. Teeny wheels with undersized tires on full-size vehicles – Truly one of the stupidest, not to mention most dangerous, automotive fashion statements ever conceived. Invariably accompanied by spacers or wheels with extreme negative offset (generally chrome reversed rims) to push the rubber out well beyond the fenders. Rolling accidents just looking for somewhere to happen.

  4. Single-piece wheels with phony fasteners – The wheels of choice for poseurs and village idiots. Rumored to be installed on the vehicles of most present and past U.S. politicians, as well as those of many stockbrokers, investment bankers, and real estate speculators.

  5. The notion that louder is faster – Louder is not necessarily faster. This is a perfect example of non sequitur reasoning. While enhanced exhaust flow is generally accompanied by an increase in sound level, there is no one-to-one correspondence between a car’s noise effluence and its accelerative potential.

  6. The fantasy that black is the new chrome – Wrong. While many crackheads, Goths, and other denizens of assorted subcultures may attempt to peddle this nonsense to anyone who will listen, chrome is still the only chrome, although it may be tinted in various hues. Black is still the same dreary lifeless absence of color that it’s always been. Black is also impossible to maintain, which is what turns many normal people into Goths and crackheads to begin with.

  7. Neon interior and undercarriage lighting – Just what I always dreamed of, my very own rolling pachislo machine. I hear the better kits come with extra tokens.

  8. Blue/violet headlights – Great idea. Really. No legitimate need to see where you’re going after dark, right? Oddly, many of the same morons who are quick to shoot down others for running Japanese wheels are peering out at nighttime landscapes "illuminated" by these gems. Physician, heal thyself.

  9. Cars that go boom – Not especially bright to begin with and all downhill from there. Wildly exaggerated bass homogenizes your gray matter (obviously a very minor consideration for many who aspire to such nonsense). Mondo-bass also vibrates every fastener in your car loose, as if being forced to drive around on our bombed out roads weren’t turning your ride into scrap metal quickly enough.

  10. Any paint scheme or aftermarket panel added exclusively for visual impact – Nothing but look-at-me garbage invariably installed by post-pubescent nimrods who suffered neglected childhoods. A dead giveaway of former “class clown” status.

  11. Lambo-style vertical door hinge kits – Puh-LEEZE!!! This moronic modification is directly related to the item above, with the same desperate look-at-me psychological component. Not only do vertical doors look ridiculous on most vehicles, they typically make entry and egress considerably more challenging than need be. Nothing like shooting yourself in the foot to garner some attention, eh?

  12. Donks and Lowriders  "Yo! Who da biatch copped my grill [sic]?" Add a substandard intellect to the psychological components of both immediately preceding entries and you should have a fairly accurate mental picture of the individual attracted to this sort of automotive atrocity. 'Nuff said.

  13. Monster trucks – The ultimate in-your-face automotive statement. Monster trucks (including the H1 and H2 variations of the Hummer), although greatly favored by many under-endowed males and bull dyke females, really have no place on public roadways. Their huge knobby tires and lofty centers of gravity, which produce an eerie Martian rover-like appearance, endow them with a nasty propensity to roll over at the slightest provocation, creating rolling death traps for their occupants. Bumpers that line up approximately mid-windshield with many non-supersized vehicles make these grotesques a menace to those around them, as well. Federal bumper height regulations, which have been in place for decades specifically to preclude such David-and-Goliath matchups, have been universally ignored by one and all, so it's left to you to just steer clear.

  14. Floppy little rubber radio antennas – A tasteless fugitive from the set of The Fast and Furious and a favorite among pimple-faced kids and adults who grew up to become professional children. What is that thing supposed to be, anyway? Some kind of sad phallic symbol?

  15. Styling bars on convertibles – Strictly for poseurs. Who else would buy and install what looks like a roll bar but offers no structural support whatsoever? If you're going to ruin your view of the sky by sticking a big hoop over your head, at least make the thing functional.

  16. Windscreens in convertibles – Why in the world would you buy a ragtop to enjoy the feeling of the wind in your hair and then install a barricade to avoid feeling the wind in your hair? Lame.

  17. Convertibles driven with their tops down and windows up – A cost-free variation of the convertible windscreen. Cheaper, but just as asinine.

  18. Valve/cam cover breathers on street cars – The poster child for selfishness and egotism. Nobody really wants to inhale your crankcase vapors, so get over yourself and reconnect your PCV system.

  19. Solid suspension and chassis bushings on street cars – Automotive fashion accessories worn by little boys who want to look tough. The automotive equivalent of leather biker jackets with studs and chains. Go for it. Kidneys are highly overrated organs, and you start off with two, anyway, so you can afford to lose one before you wise up. Besides, who cares if his ride turns into a rattle trap overnight? There are much more intelligent ways to fix whatever ails a street car's suspension or driveline, but tough guys really don't care to hear about them, so go for it tough guy.

  20. Ripping out a perfectly good IRS in favor of a solid rear axle – An unbelievably misguided move for any street-driven car, especially a daily driver. Even the world’s worst IRS is still light years ahead of the world’s best SRA with regard to ride and handling, and you can take that to the bank. Why not just buy a stick axle car to begin with if you want a poor riding, ill handling vehicle? This form of vehicular retrogradation may be justifiable for a dedicated quarter-mile door slammer. Maybe. Street car, no way.

With regard to the above list, I've devised a rudimentary psychosocial rating system. We use the honor system around here, so you can score yourself. If you secretly agree with all my politically incorrect comments and observations, but hesitate to publically admit as much for fear of reprisal, consider yourself normal. If you personally identify with three or more of the above absurdities, please extend the rest of humanity the courtesy of avoiding any type of automotive-related career beyond car wash attendant or valet. If you approve of five or more, I'd be willing to pay for your sterilization procedure if you're interested.

T-

 

29 AUG 10    Legislative MADDness

The unrelenting criminalization of automotive activities frowned upon by polite society parallels the continual criminalization of the human condition in general. In our headlong rush toward the utopian society that the ruling class envisions for us, our legislators have enacted Draconian laws to thwart much of what once made automotive tomfoolery so much fun. There was no such animal as an “exhibition of speed” traffic violation when I obtained my first license. Not in Phoenix, anyway. Now, it’s a serious moving violation. Friendly street contests weren’t illegal back then, either. Now, street racing is a FELONY here! How’s that for turning up the heat? When I was a kid, DUI’s were treated the same as any other moving violations and were considered on par with speeding violations with respect to the severity of the offense. Even decades later, there was no such transgression as "Criminal Speed" or "Felony DUI." Now, conviction for the former will buy you some jail time and being found guilty of the latter will get you sent down to the Big House. Holy crap!

I don’t wish to imply approval for reckless, irresponsible behavior, whether or not it’s conducted behind the wheel of a vehicle, but I do want to make it clear that I sincerely believe the punishment for these crimes has become disproportionately punitive in nature through the continual escalation of their criminality. Felony DUI, for which you can be convicted without having caused any harm whatsoever to either person or property, is currently classified in Arizona as a “Class 4” felony offense (on a scale of 1 to 6). That’s RIDICULOUS! Think about it. We have begun sending people to prison for what might have happened because of their misbehavior, not for what actually did happen.

The clowns at MADD and kindred spirit bleeding heart clubs have had much to do with the meteoric criminalization of traffic violations. The squeaky wheel is always the one that gets the grease, and these axle nuts have been extremely noisy, so it’s been easy for them to have their way. Unfortunately, these dimbulbs, together with self-serving legislators eager to be re-elected on various phony law-and-order platforms, have found it convenient to completely ignore the fact that adequate laws were already in place to dispense ample punishment to offenders if/when they actually did do harm. Back in the days before the ante was raised, offenses such as excessive speed or DUI simply became "lesser included offenses" to those on the books for dealing with property damage and personal injury. The only difference was that something bad actually had to occur before those existing laws came into play. Now, nothing other than being caught breaking one of the new laws needs to take place.

What’s wrong with a little preemptive law enforcement? Glad you asked. The problem is that, other than disobeying a government edict, these people have done no wrong to anything or anyone. No property damage. No bodily injury. Nothing. In fact, aside from the State's assuming the mantle of surrogate victim, there really is none. But people are being incarcerated for disobeying these laws, nonetheless. There’s something fundamentally wrong with this. The notion of locking people up for what might have happened summons images from the Spielberg film Minority Report to my mind. I don’t know about you, but the very thought scares the HELL out of me.

Let’s also not lose sight of the fact that the requirements for being found guilty of these crimes is continually being relaxed at the same time the related punishments are being enhanced. For example, the blood alcohol content necessary for a DUI conviction in my state has fallen to barely more than a third of what it was when I first began driving. In fact, the level required for a more severe “Extreme DUI” conviction even falls below that old standard DUI level. (Back then, the "Extreme" variation of the offense hadn't yet been concocted.) Hell, the way things have been going, driving past a liquor store in the curb lane will eventually be enough to put you at risk of a DUI conviction. What’s going on?

Lest you become deluded by all the safety rhetoric and propaganda, allow me to point out that the Establishment has historically never pursued any activity at all without an ulterior, self-serving motive. (Some of us still recognize the line, "I'm from the government, and I'm here to help," as the biggest lie ever uttered.) With respect to the criminalization of human behavior, the primary motive is relatively transparent. An obedient, unquestioning populace is considerably more manageable than a country full of rowdies. It’s just that simple. Never mind that this country was founded not too terribly long ago by similar rowdies. That was then, and this is now, and reflexive obedience is now the ultimate goal of the ruling class as they inexorably herd us toward that “utopian” future they have planned for us. The one in which they have even more power and wealth, and we have even less. So whenever the dogs won’t obey, apply a bigger whipping stick. Simple.

On an even more sinister level, there is a less obvious motivation behind all this incessant criminalization of the human condition. There’s big money to be made along that path, and the law enforcement, judicial, and confinement industries are all determined to ensure they get their share. While destroying people’s lives to make a buck may sound callous, it’s not a historically novel concept, although it does chap my hide to think the participants in this endeavor are the ones supposedly wearing the white hats. This isn’t idle paranoia. Our incarceration rate is now by far the highest in the world. According to current statistics, the United States, with only four percent of the world’s population, warehouses more than 25% of the world’s prisoners. Here’s a quick visual to help illustrate my point:

 

The chart above represents the number incarcerated in 2008 per 100,000 of each listed country's entire population, including everyone from infants through senior citizens warehoused in our country's nursing homes. Disregarding our nation's infants and children, we currently keep more than one full percent of our men and women (more than one in every hundred U.S. adults) locked up. You can easily verify my figures if you doubt them. To provide the proper context for these numbers, I must further inform you that countries with adult incarceration rates of 1/2% or more (at least one in every two hundred), have long been considered Police States. What does that make us? Nothing to be proud of, that’s for sure. Do we have a significantly higher percentage of "bad" people here than other countries? I don't think so. I think it's all about the power and money, just like everything else in AmeriKa.

Here's another 2008 graphic for those of you still having difficulty grasping the significance of this situation.

 

I really love this second one, because it provides an excellent visual comparison of the incarceration rates of ALL the rest of the world to ours. Just by looking at it, you can easily see we lock up far more of our people than the Chicoms, more than the Cubans, more than the old Iron Block countries, even more than the Ruskies. We lock up so many of our people, that the U.S. has a color all to itself. Not an enviable accomplishment.

T-

 

28 AUG 10    "I want to say one word to you, just one word. Are you listening? Plastics!"

For those of us familiar with the old Dustin Hoffman classic, The Graduate, those words have proved eerily prophetic. And Walter Brooke, who uttered them as the film's character Mr. McGuire, has become the harbinger of the new plastic world in which we live. Back then, we laughed at the notion that plastic could find a future anywhere but in Tupperware containers and cheap poker chips. Little did we suspect that plastic would play a major role in creating the disposable society in which we now find ourselves immersed. Who knew that its widespread adoption would precipitate a corporate philosophy of stripping the substance from every product in the marketplace, especially our automobiles, and that by and large, companies would become interested primarily in making things cheaper, not better?

Although the fact may escape many younger drivers, auto manufacturers have been quietly deleting parts and accessories from their vehicles ever since The Graduate hit the silver screen. They euphemistically refer to this process as “decontenting,” and I imagine every major auto company in the world has a team of “decontenting engineers,” or whatever they’re called, sequestered away somewhere, searching for the next bit of automotive structure or equipment that might be deemed superfluous and dropped from future vehicles without too much flap from the buying public. Why? Because in the world of volume production, there’s big money to be saved by omitting numerous instances of relatively inexpensive components.

Vent wings, drip rails, and rear seat ashtrays were among the first to be declared frivolous or obsolete, and summarily removed from the automotive landscape. These were followed by many other bits and pieces over the years, such as the exterior lock cylinders on rear passenger doors, various courtesy lamps, and the airflow dampers inside the HVAC ducts. Rear passenger armrests even disappeared for a while, but made a miraculous reappearance with the advent of molded interior trim panels, which made restoring the armrests a no-cost proposition.

More recently, decontenting engineers have focused on socio-political trends to arrive at their latest targets of opportunity. Perception is, after all, everything with respect to minimizing public outrage about paying more for less, isn’t it? Consequently, it wasn’t until smoking anywhere within the good old US of A had been socially engineered into a stigma akin to a predilection for pre-pubescent children that accessories related to smoking, such as cigarette lighters and front cabin ashtrays, became prime candidates for extinction. However, a significant minority of us still smoke, so it was deemed too early to completely eliminate such accessories. Instead, they have been relegated for the time being to the option list as “smokers packages.”

Decontenting is, of course, just one component of the “make it cheaper” corporate philosophy that’s been running rampant through board rooms for quite some time. Closely related to the decontenting regimen has been the systematic derating of the materials used to build what’s left of our vehicles. Enter plastic, stage left. An alarming number of both interior and exterior parts formerly constructed of metal are now made from injection-molded thermoplastic. I happen to subscribe to the truism that plastic as a structural material is grossly inferior to metal, even pot metal. All structural plastic eventually deforms, loses its elastomers, and breaks apart. That’s just the nature of the stuff, and there’s nothing you or I or anyone else can do about it. Furthermore, of the plastics, thermoplastic is the WORST choice for any structural application, because after it breaks – and it will – there’s no bonding agent in the entire known universe capable of repairing it. Nothing will stick to the junk for any length of time, so when it eventually breaks, it’s a throwaway part. Swell.

Even the few automotive parts still made from metal have been severely compromised by corporate bean counters. Consider body panels. In the dark ages, when I was still cruising the boulevard in my first brand new ride, we often congregated in fast food parking lots to shoot the breeze or just relax. Back then, none of us gave a second thought to the act of reposing atop our hoods. We had no reason to think twice about it, because we knew the sheet metal comprising our cars’ body panels would support us. That’s no longer the case. Metal body panels are now absurdly thin, which is why new vehicles are so susceptible to dents and dings, and why an entire new industry has grown up around automotive paintless dent repair (PDR). Auto manufacturers would like us to believe that using a gauge of sheet metal about the same as a beer can of 40 years ago is okay, because we're now getting “high strength” steel. That’s nonsense. Body panels thin enough to be easily dented by errant shopping carts are TOO THIN! This is an obvious durability deficiency.

How have manufacturers been able to get away with such compromise and content reduction? By being able to sell their cheapened products as briskly as their better ones ever sold, that’s how. We continue to buy their products as if nothing has happened, because we've lost the ability to recognize the essence of quality. Somewhere along the line, we stopped equating it with substance and durability and bought into the plastic, disposable society, where what passes for real quality is nothing more than eyewash. When the shiny wears off, we just throw the old item away and acquire a shiny new replacement. Come to think of it, why not? Isn’t this a fitting dynamic for a society populated primarily by plastic people?

T-

 

31 JUL 10    Where's All That Money Going?

Anybody besides me ever wonder where all the taxes we pay are going these days? I mean, schools used to provide meals and books with some of the money collected for school taxes. Where’s that money going now? What about the portion of our property taxes that used to cover city sanitation services? Where’s that ending up now that we’re being billed every month for those same services. Even our Fire Department invoices for its services nowadays, but I haven’t noticed any decline in my tax assessment. Quite the contrary, in fact. Everywhere we look, we’re paying more for less. A lot more for a lot less. And nowhere is this dynamic more painfully obvious – literally – than in our road systems. City streets across the country are pockmarked with potholes and tar patches, and our highways have become a disgraceful array of bombed out washboards.

There should be more than enough money available to prevent this. I don’t know about your state, but Arizona annually extorts genuinely oppressive "lieu taxes" in addition to vehicle licensing fees for everything that rolls. Add to that our state gasoline tax, and you’re looking at a rather handsome cache of loot. In return for this princely sum, we are extended the privilege of driving our vehicles on predominantly shitty roadways. Why? Where in the hell is all that money going? And why aren’t people screaming bloody murder about this?

I, for one, would really like our thieving politicians and crooked construction companies to quit lining their pockets with quite so much of my hard-earned moola. I’m not asking them for complete honesty – God knows, the shock of such a radical turnabout would probably kill them all. No, I’m just asking for a little moderation that might perhaps lead to my ability to enjoy a short drive without having to search the car for lost fillings upon my arrival at my destination.

I suppose I must accept responsibility for my unhappy situation, at least in part. My choice in personal transportation for the past four decades has invariably been a sports car or sport coupe/sedan, and this has accentuated my perception of the gradual demise of our streets and highways. Nevertheless, I can still clearly remember when driving a car with a taut suspension wasn’t accompanied by a huge penalty in personal comfort. Back in the days when trucks accounted for less than 15 percent of our vehicular mix, and SUV’s and crossovers hadn’t yet been dreamed up, our roads were reasonably smooth.

Maybe roads had to be smooth back then, because most folks drove cars, not trucks, so they wouldn't put up with terrible roads. I guess that’s no longer true now that nearly every vehicle on the streets around me is a truck or a pseudo-truck, and I suspect that someone – maybe a lot of “someones” – is/are taking advantage of this by stuffing all our road improvement money into their pockets. I'd like that redistribution of wealth to ease up a bit, because – and here’s the real insult to injury – despite having pushed the entire cost of initial road construction onto the land developers building the neighborhoods and shopping centers around me, my municipality still appears completely unable to maintain them after they're finished.

My property taxes are up, despite my home’s value having plummeted to a figure significantly below what it cost me well before the housing boom ever even started, and the tax base around here has exploded from all the new construction while town services have dwindled. Yet we have no money to maintain our streets in decent condition. Where’s all that money going?

T-

 

03 JUL 10    Unjamming Our Traffic

The concept of "taking to the open road" has become archaic. By and large, we have abandoned the notion of pleasure drives, because our roadways are continually clogged with traffic creeping along at a snail's pace. When we do venture forth, we encounter nothing but hostility and over-competition for what little space remains between the striped lines. It is apparent that our road systems are being required to bear vehicular volumes well in excess of their design capacities, and those volumes continue to grow unabated.

Overburdening our roads significantly aggravates our energy deficit and inflates our carbon footprint in addition to casting a pall over the prospect of vacating the garage. While we grumble about prices at the pump and pay lip service to attaining energy independence, we choose to disregard the fact that slogging along in incessant creep-and-beep traffic conditions easily doubles, if not triples, the amount of fuel required to traverse the distance between points A and B. (Just what sort of fuel mileage do you suppose your car is returning while you're sitting at a dead stop?) And extrapolating from this the rise our in carbon emissions per mile doesn't require an advanced degree in mathematics. Alright, what to do? First, let's agree that what we have thus far explored in the way of remediation by demanding alternative fuels and better fuel efficiency from our vehicles is far too little, far too late to meaningfully impact the problem. To effectively address this issue, we need to facilitate the movement of people to their destinations. That should be obvious by now.

But where should we be focusing our attentions? Expanding the scope of comfortable, efficient, and convenient mass transportation would certainly be a fine start. As much as I love automobiles and driving, I would gladly trade my gasoline expenditures for transit pass credit with respect most of my commuting needs, provided that trade weren't accompanied by undue hardships related to comfort and convenience. I'm sure many folks feel the same way, and each of us riding the bus or train would make that much more space for all the lard-asses on the road who absolutely will not relinquish the wheel. So, why aren't we doing more to make good mass transportation more widely available? You tell me.

What else should we be doing to assist traffic flow? Well, we should be making traffic control devices smarter, for one. We already possess the technology to meaningfully reduce traffic delays by simply making our traffic management and information equipment perform more intelligently. I'm not talking about merely synchronizing lights. We're beyond that approach doing any good at all. I'm talking about an integrated, interactive system that can analyze and predictively adjust intersection light sequences to minimize both the number of times vehicles are forced to make complete stops and the amount of time they spend standing still. Considering many intersections in most larger metropolitan areas are now equipped with traffic cameras and machine vision has been a reasonably mature discipline for some time, this should be not only well within the realm of possibility, but reasonably cheap to accomplish. Oh, and here's a personal request: dear Mr. Traffic Man, please make the spiffy LCD traffic advisory signs along my city streets display something more relevant than "SIGN UNDER TEST" and "BUCKLE UP," which are all they have said since being installed five years ago. Something like, "TRAFFIC LIGHTER ON X STREET" would be so much more helpful. If it's not too much trouble, that is.

Good, readily accessible mass transit and intelligent traffic control would constitute a great start at easing traffic conditions, reducing our nation's energy dependence, and helping us "get our green on," but the lion's share of potential savings is still on the table. The problem is the means to achieve those savings are immanently unpopular among the masses and their very mention is tantamount to political suicide. Nonetheless, I'm going to throw them out there for your consideration, because eventually we will need to implement both. Make no mistake about this.

First, we need to begin requiring that those who aspire to pilot motor vehicles along public roadways demonstrate a reasonable proficiency behind the wheel and an adequate understanding of the prevailing rules of the road. What's that you say? It's already plenty tough enough to obtain a license? Right. Bear with me while I recall the grueling examination I had to pass in order to obtain my initial driving license. First, I was required to achieve a score of at least sixty (60) percent on a twenty-question multiple-choice written test. For the victims of progressive education among us, that means I had to get at least twelve answers right. Although how anyone could actually fail that test is utterly beyond me, I must admit to having had a maternal aunt who managed to do so on three consecutive attempts, and was then required to wait six months before taking another stab at the thing. She finally got her license after two more tries. I understand there are many folks like her. They're all around me every day on the road. All around you too. Scary, huh? But wait. It gets scarier. Since I was seeking my very first-ever driving license, I was required to prove that I could actually drive a vehicle as part of my exam. What a novel concept. Unfortunately, all I was really required to demonstrate was my ability to back out of a diagonal parking spot in front of the DMV office, make four right-hand turns on 30-MPH streets, and then park in another diagonal space in front of the building we had just left. That was it. I never even needed to make a left, much less parallel park, and I never had to drive faster than 30. Of course, no other prospective new driver in my area was expected back then to demonstrate any greater proficiency. Now, that's scary! Furthermore, my subsequent renewal tests consisted of nothing more than the written portion of that same exam. Now, even written renewal tests are a thing of the past here in Arizona. Once one has managed to pass the driving test once, renewals are available online.

After obtaining my initial license, I went on my way mistakenly believing that I could drive as well as anyone else, despite no less than three accidents during my first two years behind the wheel, all my fault. Although I had taken Driver's Ed in high school, it wasn't until I was "adopted" by the U.S. Army that I learned to effectively control a vehicle. As part of my training, I was required to undertake a "combat driving" course. Successful completion of this course was necessary for me to obtain my military driver's license prior to shipping overseas. Furthermore, I was forced to accomplish this feat in a nasty old M151A1 quarter-ton utility vehicle (Jeep to you civilians), a squirrelly, top-heavy beast with a propensity for rolling over on its back at the slightest provocation. The program was intense, but I learned more during that training about reaction time, vehicle dynamics, and panic maneuvers than most civilian drivers will ever learn over their entire lifetimes. And I learned to flog that olive drab death trap to its very limits and beyond without rolling it a single time or bashing the vehicle running at 60 MPH just three feet ahead of me. Not even once. Thank you, Uncle Sam, for the driving lessons.

I've been told that civilian license testing has become somewhat more rigorous since the days of my first exam, but it's obviously still not what it should be. We need to bump it up a notch or two to make it a legitimate test, rather than a mere formality. I'm not advocating that we demand the kind of proficiency that was required of me to obtain my old military license, but I believe testing somewhere in between those two extremes would certainly be a step in the right direction, and I strongly support bringing our licensing requirements more in line with those of such European countries as Germany, so we can be reasonably certain that those behind the wheel genuinely belong there. If we do this, I imagine as many as 20% of American drivers – 10% at the very least – would be relegated to the bus or passenger seat. Imagine that. A 10% reduction in traffic congestion by simply requiring drivers to be able to drive and to demonstrate an adequate understanding of our driving laws. And not only would this policy change help to improve traffic flow by eliminating the worst drivers from our roads, but it should ameliorate the automotive insurance premiums of our remaining drivers by reducing collision rates.

Finally, and the recommendation that will meet with the greatest resistance, we must globally reverse our unbridled population growth. Make no mistake: we will eventually be forced to implement some form of birth quotas similar to those already in place in China, and the longer the rest of us postpone implementing our own programs, the more we all will suffer. Believe it. By virtue of the fact that Man has no significant natural predator (other than Man), we, as a species, have managed to become a runaway infestation of our own planet. The earth is now an overcrowded ship spinning out of control through the cosmos, while we deplete its resources at an alarming and ever-escalating rate. Sooner than you think, we'll run out of not just petroleum, but food and water. Many scientists are even now predicting water riots arising from shortages within the next 50 years. Water is fast becoming such a precious commodity that huge corporations are scrambling to privatize water supplies around the globe. As demand begins to outstrip supply, they'll raise their prices to outrageous levels and reap huge profits. Can't pay? Die. It'll be just that simple. Human greed knows no bounds, you see. Doubt this is already happening? Research it yourself.

Certainly, the most important aspects of reducing our world's population are that they will give our planet an opportunity to recover and to replenish renewable resources, and they will enable the earth to reduce the horrific levels of pollution with which we have blighted this blue marble that is our home. But beyond those benefits, the prices of food, housing, and durable goods will fall by virtue of reduced demand. (Naturally, Big Money will absolutely hate this.) These benefits and many others will all overshadow improved traffic conditions. Nonetheless, improved traffic flow will result simply from fewer drivers competing for space on our roadways.

Who knows? Maybe, the concept of taking to the open road for the sheer pleasure of it will one day be redeemed from the status of quaint anachronism. I won't live to see it. Neither will you. But if we act now – right now, just maybe your great, great grandkids might.

T-

 

27 APR 10    The Betrayal of a National Economy

We live in a country that is engaged in warfare every bit as bloody and brutal as you will ever find, and we are losing. I'm not referring to the war games underway in the Middle East. The warfare to which I refer isn't even conducted with guns and bombs. It's all done with electronic fund transfers, and the blood that flows isn't red; it's green. But make no mistake about it, it's your blood and mine, and rightfully so to a large extent, because the least responsible of us have quietly accepted our economic destruction while the most responsible have wholeheartedly embraced it.

When I was a kid, the good old US of A enjoyed strong agricultural and manufacturing bases, and the fact that we produced the lion's share of what we consumed kept us fiscally strong, because our money stayed within our national borders and was recirculated into our own economy to provide workers with better pay and to create new jobs. To a man, woman, and child, we took great pride in buying products bearing red, white, and blue labels that proclaimed, "Made in USA." Only poor folks who couldn't afford the real McCoy bought cheap import knockoffs of American goods.

I clearly remember being taught in school that one of the things that made America economically strong was our abundance of natural resources, which enabled us to provide for ourselves, rather than relying on imports. There, I also learned that companies assumed certain responsibilities to the communities in which they were located, just as the individuals who resided there had civic responsibilities. Furthermore, every company's management and staff recognized mutual responsibilities toward one another that enabled our economy to continue to grow and prosper. Management contributed financial investment, vision and strategy, and fair compensation for a fair day's work, while employees applied themselves within their various areas of expertise. This arrangement worked well for decades, enabling companies and individuals alike to enrich themselves.

That was then. Eventually, greedy financiers sold company stockholders on a scheme to reap extraordinary profits by abandoning their corporate responsibilities one by one. The corporate battle cry became, "More with less!" Of course, this really meant, "More for the 'haves' and less for the 'have-nots.'" Long-standing company fringe benefits, such as medical, dental, and retirement plans, began to disappear, and the standard 40-hour work week grew into the 48-hour week, and then into the 60-hour week. All for the same level of compensation. That's certainly more with less. The worker bee provides more work for the same money, while corporate management and stockholders reap huge bonuses for cutting costs. But it gets worse. Led by avaricious investors and the bean counters hired to do their bidding, companies have abandoned the very communities and country that made them all wealthy to begin with, moving offshore for everything from materials and manufacturing to phone support in order to boost their profit margins even further.

Nowadays, blue-collar workers had better plan on learning foreign languages, because they'll probably need to relocate to some third world country to find work. Unless they're happy flipping burgers or greeting folks at Wally World, that is. How can this be? Simple. We, as a people, have enabled – even encouraged – this corporate exodus by adopting a collective philosophy that reduces everything we buy to the status of a commodity. We have empowered these corporate profiteers by embracing their greedy mindsets. Remember full-service filling stations? They disappeared because we were too selfish to pay an extra couple pennies per gallon at the pump to keep some poor slob off the government dole. The demise of those full-service filling stations was the camel's nose under the tent and a clear signal that we were beginning to lose sight of the fact that, in any society, we all have mutual responsibilities toward one another. It was a fast downhill slide from self-serve filling stations to automated machines for all sorts of services that our worker bees had previously provided, including everything from grocery store checkout to banking transactions. Even worse, somewhere along the way, we quit taking pride in buying American to ensure Americans had incomes to support their families. Saving a buck on a similar item from a "cheap labor" country had become more important to us.

It wasn't long before this mindset was applied to our personal conveyances with a vengeance. Nowadays, look up and down your neighborhood street, and what do you see? It's filled with imports, isn't it? Domestics are the minority in every price range and every neighborhood. (And yes, even the imports that were screwed together in plants over here are still imports. Merely assembling vehicles stateside doesn't make them domestics.) Make no mistake about it, the profits from the sale of all those import cars were whisked away at the speed of light to parent company accounts in foreign countries, and each sale is another nick in our national economy that is bleeding money out of our country. Every time you buy one, what you've done is tantamount to treason in my book. And I am not alone. Where have your national pride and loyalty gone? How do you rationalize what you're doing to this country - your country? What do your parents and grandparents think about what you're doing? I ask these questions because I am so ancient that I can remember when nearly every vehicle in my neighborhood was one model or another from an American manufacturer. I can even remember a time when Texans took such great pride in the Fords they built that every car and truck they produced bore a decal proclaiming, "Built in Texas by Texans." And the folks who bought those old Fords were proud enough of the fact to leave their stickers in place.

But we have forsaken our national pride. Nowadays, I hear the same justifications over and over for not buying American. "We deserve to get the most for our hard-earned dollars, don't we?" and "Why buy American when imports generally offer better value?" Short answer:  because the money stays here. It all comes down to that mutual responsibility toward one another that we share as a nation. Buying American keeps Americans employed and rolls the profits back into our own companies, rather than some other country's, for investment in R&D, expansion, and fresh tooling. What we neglected to take into consideration in our haste to abandon our national pride was that our economy is driven from the bottom up. The guy on the street needs discretionary income for the system to work. If he doesn't have any, then goods languish on store shelves, and vehicles sit rusting on the back lots of automotive dealerships across the country. This dynamic has already begun to manifest itself, and as our jobs continue to disappear and our GDP takes it on the chin, the value of our currency and our purchasing power fall commensurately. That affects all of us.

Sadly, we, as a society, have become so selfish and egocentric that everything is all about entitlement and self-gratification. After all, we deserve to have the very best for our money and to acquire the very most for every dollar, regardless of whether or not our choices are detrimental to our country as a whole, don't we? That appears to be our philosophy these days. We refuse to spend a little more in support of our industry, because it's all about getting the most for ourselves, and everyone else be damned. Hey, that's just savvy consumerism, right? We have become so selfish that we adamantly refuse to sacrifice so much as a nickel in financial support of our country, yet we can somehow justify sending our young men off to fight and die half way 'round the world in a senseless and futile military campaign by proclaiming that freedom isn't free. The message is clear:  certain sacrifices are unavoidable if we are to protect our way of life ... as long as it's someone else who is being called upon to make those sacrifices. Sound philosophy, America. Very nice.

If those supposedly representing us in government were really interested in our country's best interests, they'd re-implement stiff import tariffs to bring our trade deficit back into balance, but they won't do that because they all owe their souls to the Company Store. By the time they rise to positions of any real influence in politics, they're already indentured to various multinational corporations whose principals burn incense at the alter of the Sacred Bottom Line. In 1811, Joseph de Maistre observed, “Toute nation a le gouvernement qu’elle merite.” ("Every country has the government it deserves.")  I'm confident that we'll all eventually get what we deserve.

T-

 

08 APR 10    Thank You, Gloria Steinem

The New York State Police formally defines an Aggressive Driver as anyone who:

"Operates a motor vehicle in a selfish, bold or pushy manner, without regard for the rights or safety of the other users of the streets and highways."

That definition works for me. Traditionally, men have greatly outnumbered women in this deplorable category, but we have seen a dramatic shift in recent years. The number of aggressive women drivers is rising rapidly. In fact, the aggressive drivers in many areas are now predominantly women.

The next time another driver flies by you like you're standing still, despite the fact you're moving along at ten over the posted limit, or intentionally cuts you off, or sits tight enough on your back bumper to swap paint, make a mental note of that driver's gender. If you do this each time an aggressive driver kicks sand in your face, you just may discover a phenomenon that will surprise you:  often – and in many locales, most often – that maniac behind the other wheel is a woman.

BBC News attributes this phenomenon, which many of us have been observing for the past decade, at least in part, to more successful and stressful female careers.

"Some young women do drive in a similar way to young men and that's often because they have the same jobs, are faced with the same pressure, and are driving the same powerful cars."

One woman interviewed by BBC News admitted, "I always feel I have to do everything quickly and if someone gets in my way I can't bear it. If someone's next to me at the lights then I have to be first away." Sounds a bit aggressive to me, and her response was typical of the women interviewed.

Still, most news stories on both sides of the pond these days contain little more than cheap sensationalism; hardly damning evidence of a paradigm shift. By contrast, a recent study by the Allstate Foundation titled "Shifting Teen Attitudes: The State of Teen Driving 2009” does provide some hard data, and it is rather alarming. This study reveals that teen girls are now more likely than their male counterparts to demonstrate risky and aggressive driving behaviors. Key findings include:

bullet27 percent of the female respondents admitted to speeding more than 10 mph over the posted limit versus 19 percent of males
bulletOne in four females (25 percent) said that they frequently read and wrote text messages/emails while driving compared to 15 percent of males
bullet16 percent of the females reported that they were very aggressive while driving in 2009, while only 9 percent reported that this was the case in 2005
bullet13 percent of the males reported that they were very aggressive while driving in 2009, compared to 20 percent in 2005

“Risky behavior while driving including speeding, aggression, and texting is trending upward for teen girls across the nation but appears to be softening for teen boys. These results are consistent with a growing trend among adolescents," said Dr. Allan Williams, former Chief Scientist at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. “As more young women participate in activities like competitive sports and take on a more assertive lifestyle, they are narrowing the gender gap when it comes to risk taking in all aspects of their life.”

Narrowing the gap? Maybe, Dr. Williams should take another look at the numbers.

I readily admit to being a male chauvinist pig. I miss the Ozzie and Harriet and Leave it to Beaver days, the days before the Women's Liberation Movement came along and hijacked our gender roles. Women back then provided a moderating influence on men, so we were all a little kinder toward one another. Life was simpler. Men went out and killed the bear, and women were adept at getting their share – and then some – by applying their feminine wiles. How terrible was that? Now, thanks to Women's Lib, we're all down in the mud fighting over every scrap, including every inch of roadway. Thank you, Gloria Steinem.

T-

 

02 APR 10    The Ultimate Nanny Vehicle

Whether by design or coincidence, as a society, we've been dumbed down to the point that we apparently need to be protected from ourselves in every aspect of our lives. Everything from ladders and extension cords to computer keyboards now bears an array of warning labels (delivered primarily in hieroglyphs nowadays because we have also lost the ability to read text other than the juvenile pseudo-text tweeted around the globe and into the cosmos for us by our cellular providers). And beyond the droll signage, we have a myriad of nanny safety devices to save us and our precious little ones from otherwise certain demise at our own hands.

Nowhere is this anti-Darwinian, neo-fascist, Safety Nazi philosophy more apparent than in our automobiles, because we have obviously lost our collective ability to drive, as well as to read. And in its infinite wisdom, rather than require prospective drivers to acquire and demonstrate reasonable proficiency behind the wheel, and provide viable mass transit systems and for those unable or unwilling to do so, our government has embarked on a relentless program requiring auto makers to continually compensate for our increasing levels of ineptitude.

The camel's nose under the tent was, appropriately enough, the advent of the "crash" bumper. Automotive bumpers of the mid-seventies through mid-eighties bore strong resemblances to Olympic diving platforms. Ugly with a capital 'U', so people quit buying cars, and the automotive business nearly died then and there. Not a moment too soon, advances in materials and manufacturing techniques enabled automakers to hide the hideous impact beams behind reasonably attractive end caps, and the auto industry gradually recovered. Nonetheless, what this marvelous invention has done for the motoring public is to continually recycle bad drivers back onto the roads, rather than allowing them to do us all the favor of permanently removing themselves.

After crash bumpers, there followed ABS (Anti-lock Braking Systems), with which we were graced because we had either forgotten or never learned how to modulate our brake pedals in panic situations. Early anti-lock systems extended us the courtesy of providing defeat switches. Those switches now are history, because we obviously cannot be trusted to exercise good judgment in their operation. Far be it from me to allege that ABS isn't a good thing for most drivers in most situations, but there are venues in which an ABS-delete option would be mighty beneficial. Ever attempt a panic stop with ABS on loose gravel, ice, or a rain-slick roadway? Not an experience I'd recommend to those with weak hearts. In any event, how do those of us who have never driven vehicles without ABS reflexively respond to a panic braking situation? We stand on the brakes, of course, and pray this nanny system will save our bacon. Not always the best course of action, but that's the evil of technology:  we become over-dependent on it.

The next stage in the evolution of the ultimate nanny vehicle (let's call it the UNV) was the advent of SRS (Secondary Restraint Systems). These are the passive restraint systems that have been installed in our cars, because we cannot be trusted to buckle up (despite the fines for failing to do so approaching the GNP of many Third World countries), and the government is disinclined to suffer a reduction in its tax base. Many of us still remember the nightmare that was the "automatic seatbelt" system, a poster child for the bad idea. That aborted first iteration of the passive restraint concept was followed by the exploding balloons to which we refer as "air" bags for some bizarre reason, although breathing that "air" will kill you. In contradiction to the principle of Natural Selection, this marvel of modern engineering will save most of us who are too stubborn or too stupid to fasten our seatbelts from becoming traffic fatalities. If it doesn't kill us, that is. But is that really such a good thing? Next thing you know, those same folks will be back on a road near you, looking for a new place to crash. Is that what you really want?

But the aforementioned contrivances have been around long enough to have become passé. Since the Asians, being the diehard gadget addicts that they admittedly are, have become a dominant force in the auto industry, we have been introduced to a plethora of amazing new Mr. Wizard gizmos designed to save us from our motoring indiscretions. These days, we can opt for backup cameras and alarms to assist those of us unable to pilot a vehicle in reverse any better than we do in a forward gear. We enjoy Lane Departure systems to help us keep our trusty steeds in their designated lanes in the event we are too busy indulging in unprotected text or yakking on the phone to do so ourselves. (It seems the braille system provided by raised lane markers just wasn't sufficient for some.) We have Adaptive Speed Control, which automatically scrubs speed whenever we approach another vehicle from behind fast enough to alarm the little electronic genie inside the bottle. (Never mind that we were intentionally gathering speed on a two-lane blacktop in order to pull out and pass the other vehicle as quickly as possible.)

Beyond the blatantly safety-oriented systems with which modern cars are equipped, semiconductor price erosion and a morbid fascination with electronic gizmockery have precipitated many flatulent new "convenience" and "performance" enhancements, as well. For instance, we are now offered all sorts of "manumatic" transmissions that enable even those of us too inept to drive a stick to pretend we are Formula 1 stars. Unfortunately, many of the new whiz-bang systems, such as traction control, stability control, and adaptive suspensions, artificially influence vehicle dynamics and disconnect us from the laws of physics in general and the tarmac in particular, much to the chagrin of many experienced drivers. Worse, we are now being disconnected from the very machinery we are attempting to control, as well as from the road, through the advent of "drive by wire" systems, and the next logical development, "brake by wire" systems, further removing us from the act of driving.

Slowly but surely, we are being incrementally moved toward the utopian conveyance that is the UNV, the future vehicle in which the only difference between the left chair and the one on the right will be the view out the window. Steering wheel, what's that? HAL will handle all the mundane tasks required to get us between points A and B, and won't that be wonderful? We'll be able to devote ourselves entirely to the various diversions that enable us to avoid being alone with ourselves, rather than being periodically interrupted to assist in the process of getting where we're going. I, for one, am not particularly thrilled by this prospect, and I am reasonably sure that I'm not the only one above ground who isn't. A few of us still enjoy driving when the prevailing conditions are favorable (alas, less and less frequently these days).

Okay. But meanwhile, what's wrong with all this wonderful automotive wizardry? Aside from the fact that programming bugs and electrical system failures spell almost certain disaster for these vehicles, there's the false sense of competency they impart. Based on their sheltered driving experiences, the current generation of "drivers" actually believe themselves to be eminently capable behind the wheel. Not so if their wheel time has been limited entirely to these rolling pachinko machines. Not really.

In truth, all the wizardry designed to make driving safer and easier has, to some extent, made it more dangerous, because many individuals who fancy themselves drivers aren't, and don't discover the truth until it's too late. As we all know, the nostalgia rage has many folks with enough money snapping up old cars for outrageous prices just as fast as they can. It's a status thing. If you have enough money, you drive an old car to announce to the rest of the world that you're flush. (Another rant for another time.) This craze, in and of itself, isn't necessarily bad, but how are those who have spent all their drive time coddled and cocooned by an ever-growing armada of nanny devices expected to survive behind the wheels of antediluvian machines, with no ABS, no traction control, no stability assist, etc? How will they be able to drive their cars without HAL to help? Poorly and at great peril to themselves and to those around them. That's how. Perhaps, Darwin will have the last laugh after all.

What should you do? Add one more rule to your defensive driving repertoire. Give all collectable vehicles piloted by those who don't look like they grew up with them a wide berth. Today's Fast and Furious are living on borrowed time behind the wheels of classic muscle and sports cars. They are truly in over their heads. Don't allow one of them to make you a casualty, as well, when the clock runs out.

T-