You may remember an oft told tale of a genie that immerged from a magic lamp and would grant three wishes to a mortal human. You may also remember how, in the story, that the human struggled to deal with the opportunity to ask for anything – and the consequences of receiving their wish.
Remember when prices for gasoline were forever increasing and it appeared that petroleum was looked at as a necessary evil that we wished we could tame? Then along came the idea of turning corn into fuel. Ethanol, to be specific. Our government reacted to our cries of woe much like a parent trying to quiet the tantrums of a screaming child. They would save us by mandating the inclusion of 10% ethanol in our gasoline. On top of that they would raise the highway tax on our fuel. On top of that they would subsidize the use of ethanol in gasoline, or in other words, they would tax us again.
Soon the miracle of ethanol became part of our energy system and the price of corn went up. Then it was discovered that our automotive vehicles were not compatible with ethanol and had to be modified in order to ingest it without causing problems in the fuel system. In addition it was found that ethanol is a corrosive so that in concentrations higher than 10% (some say that any amount is a problem) it is incompatible with storage tanks and fuel station pumps as well as the entire fuel system of cars. In fact for model years 2001 through 2011 manufacturers contend that nothing more than a 10% blend with gasoline can be used. Less than half of cars built after 2011 can contend with a higher percentage.
Yet the government is refusing to admit that ethanol is not the wonder fuel it was thought to be, and is advocating a 15% mixture be mandated so that the subsidies can continue. It is believed that only 6% of vehicles on the road today can possibly contend with an ethanol mix in that high a concentration.
So why do we bother? Why don’t we end the experiment and admit that it was not as good idea as it once appeared? Go back to using a food grain as a food grain. End the expense of subsidies.
Nah, let’s see how screwed up things can get first.
Look at the dashboard of your interior and you will likely spot the initials SRS. In case you don’t know, these letters stand for Supplemental Restraint System. What a lovely sounding name. Almost as lovely as “Airbag”.
“Airbag” conjures up visions of a soft pillow coming to life at just the time you need it and gently cushioning the potential trauma of an accident. In truth of fact airbags are not gentle. They are an explosive device that inflates with noxious gasses for an instant and then lose any ability it might have to cushion an impact.
Perhaps you are aware of the massive Takata airbag recall. It involves millions upon millions of vehicles and will take years to rectify the problems. Toyota has over 1.5 million vehicles affected, Chrysler has over 4.75 million, Honda over 5.5 million. Figures that high make BMW’s affected vehicle number of 765,000 seem almost paltry.
How did we get here? Well, we wished for cars that would be safer in an accident. We didn’t want to be bothered with the safety devices that had been proven effective in automobile racing. Who would want to contend with maneuvering their body past a roll cage side bar? Or wear protective suits and helmets. Who would want to deal with form fitting protective seats and strap themselves in with multiple harness belts? Nope, we just wanted to be able to get in and out of our vehicles with as much ease as possible and let a magical bag of air save us from the bad effects of a collision.
Only there was no magical bag of air. Instead we got multiple exploding bags to surround us and discover that they suffer with the consequences of humidity degrading the chemical composition of the explosive charge set off by a complex computer program that was monitoring various sensors that would alert the computer to deploy them properly in a collision. Maybe.
No, not the TPS reports from the movie Office Space. TPMS is part of the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards known as Tire Pressure Monitoring Systems. It is supposed to alert the driver of a 25% to 30% tire under-inflation condition. It does this by having a device installed in each tire that monitors the pressure. So if your tires should be inflated to 32 pounds per square inch of air pressure you will be alerted when that pressure drops by 8 psi. So by that time your tire is inflated to 24 psi and if you haven’t already noticed that your handling is getting squirrely, your tire may have already overheated and either exploded or incurred damage to its structure.
But at least you don’t have to concern yourself with manually checking your tire pressures.
Of course you do have to contend with the cost of replacing the in-wheel sensors that can get damaged during tire mounting and balancing. The costs can vary from $45 to $150+, depending upon the make and model. Oh yes, and the annoyance of the TPMS light going off because your spare has lost air, or the routine and expense of re-programming the TPMS system of your tire sensors after new tires have been mounted.
On the same topic many car companies have eliminated the irritation of a spare tire by mandating “run-flat” tires on their cars. These mean that if you have a leak you can continue to travel on the deflated tire at no more than 50 mph for about 50 miles. Not to worry that these are premium priced tires and that if you get a large puncture or sidewall damage all bets are off. Oh yes, the ride sucks, too.
What, another acronym? ESC stands for Electronic Stability Control. It is part of a comprehensive plan by the NHTSA (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration) to reduce the serious risk of rollover crashes and the risk of death and serious injury in those crashes. Obviously the NHTSA really does care about our safety.
For our benefit they have established Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard No. 126 to ensure our safety. The ESC system uses automatic (you have no control or choice) computer-controlled braking of individual wheels to assist the driver in maintaining control (actually pretending to let you control) in critical driving situations (as determined by the computer programming based on data returned by multiple sensors). The NHTSA contends that these systems will reduce single-vehicle crashes of passenger cars by 34%. Hallelujah!
This mandate also means that it is more than the brake system that is under control. Much more. Your accelerator is now no longer mechanically connected to the throttle. It is “drive-by-wire”. That means the computer interprets what input you have on the accelerator pedal and determines just how much acceleration it will allow. It is also the same for steering input. The power steering is now controlled by a computer program that decides what the wheels should really be doing.
From 2012 on all light vehicles are mandated to have this system and it was instituted in many cars prior to that year. Kinda of gives you a warm feeling to know that you are being watched over so well. Your vehicle is now fully networked with sensors and actuators that are under the control of the miracle of computer programming. You hardly have to worry about driving at all.
And what could go wrong? I mean, airbags have been around for ages and whatever went wrong with them?
Google has been at the forefront of this revolution in driving and transportation. It has been testing in the state of California with amazing success. Sort of.
It has been involved in 13 minor “fender benders” in 1 million miles of autonomous driving. Not bad! Well, it would be if you were a driver between the ages of 16-19. They average 20.12 involvements per million miles. Oh yeah, and drivers 75 and older who average 12.23 per million miles. If you are between 40 and 64 the number is 7.2.
The reality is that the Google cars drive like an 80 year old. They’re never the first off the line at a stop light, they don’t accelerate quickly, they don’t speed, and they never take any chances with lane changes. In other words they are irritating and their behavior is at odds with typical human driving habits. So they get rear-ended at stop lights by human drivers.
The current iterations would fail in superb fashion if they had to negotiate patches of snow-covered roads, driving at night, or highly urban traffic such as you would find in Boston and New York City. In other words they drive like your 80-year-old grandmother in Florida.
Not to worry, Google is now getting into the vehicle insurance business as well. Not content with acquiring all the data on regular Google users search and buying habits, they now have Google Compare to gather all your demographic and vehicle information and “helping” you search for the best deal in auto insurance. Thank you Google.
Google Compare has gone live in the UK and offers a comparison of quotes from 124 insurance companies. The UK already approve the testing of driverless cars on public roads, as well.
Can you see where this is going? In the future Google will position itself to underwrite its own policies and in particular for its autonomous cars.
Like I said – Be Careful What You Wish For