Monday, September 30, 2013 5:45:06 PM America/Detroit

Lies, Damned Lies, and Idiots

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), in 2009, 32% of fatal traffic crashes in America involved alcohol. When I see this (or similar) statistic in some internet article, some one will invariably comment, through bad humor or ignorance, that sober people caused 68% of traffic related deaths in this country. See! Drunks ain’t so bad!

Just for fun, because I’m an engineer, I looked up some other statistics.

In 2003, there were 196,165,666 licensed drivers in America. In 2009, over 1.4 million drivers were arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol or narcotics.

(Warning: math voodoo involving Estimates and Rounding in use in the next couple of paragraphs.)

Let’s pretend that those are roughly the numbers we have today in 2012. That means that the sober drivers involved in fatal crashes come from the 196 million drivers minus the 1.4 million drivers under the influence. So then about 194.6 million drivers (or 5.6 Canadas in metric units) are responsible for 68% of traffic deaths in America.

Which leaves the other 0.7% of the drivers in America (the 1.4 million drivers under the influence) responsible for 32% of the fatal crashes.

“Ignorance never settles a question.”
“Circumstances are beyond human control, but our conduct is in our own power.”
--Benjamin Disraeli

Crankiness Rating: 10 out 11 (Because Math is hard.)

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Slow Subaru, Practical Porsche

[see updates below]

Two months, two weeks, four days, one hour and fourteen minutes and lots and lots of dollars later, I finally got my car back. This included getting the car a new engine (short block), returning it for a check engine light (P0024 Exhaust AVCS System 2 Range/Performance), then promptly bricking the ECM when I got it home again (note to self: next time, brick ECM when car is in garage), and then finally getting the ECM quickly reset (thanks Cobb Tuning!).

The only thing that interferes with my learning is my education.
--Albert Einstein
2008 Subaru STI EJ257
“I see dead engines.”

I learned many things during this experience, such as being patient is for the birds, and that my wife’s yoga music can calm me down (at least for a few minutes).

I learned that the problem was not the typical Subaru piston ringland issue, but rather the connecting rod bearing. I can’t remember what the technician told me, so I’m going to pretend it was the #3 rod bearing.

2008 Subaru STI GR Piston
My souvenir, a 2008 Subaru STI EJ257 #3 piston

I learned that forged CP pistons (Carillo) are made of 2618 aluminum alloy, which have a higher coefficient of thermal expansion than stock cast pistons, so they need more gap than stock. I learned this makes my car sound like it has a diesel engine, even when warmed up, as the pistons slap around the cylinders.

I learned that forged Cosworth pistons are made of 4032 aluminum alloy, have a lower thermal expansion rate than 2618, and are quieter. I learned that the next time I blow the engine of my daily driver to go with the Cosworths.

I learned that there are two distinct, disparate views for seating piston rings (like everything else in life). There is the traditional, by-the-manual, drive-it-as-gently-as-you-would-any-virginal-entity for the first 500 miles break-in method. Then there’s the drive-it-like-you-stole-it for 50 miles method. Since I used up my patience waiting for parts, and since I’ve convinced myself as an engineer that it makes sense, I chose the latter rev-it-up-because-high-break-mean-effective-pressure-is-a-good-thing technique.

I learned that Topspeed Motorsports isn’t so fast at putting engines together. I’m sure they had valid issues (like I do when I miss my deadlines), and I’m sure the motor they put together will be great, but they sure tested my patience. It took them over a month to get my engine to the dealer.

I learned that my Subaru dealer, Dwyer & Sons, is not so fast at scheduling your car if you’re on vacation for two weeks.

I learned that no matter how nice the people are, it’s never a good thing when a dealer’s service department knows you by sight.

I learned to check the battery voltage when flashing an engine control module (ECM).

I learned that shipping a control module overnight is really, really expensive, but still cheaper than replacing it.

“A little learning is a dangerous thing: Drink deep or taste not the Pierian spring.”
--Alexander Pope
2008 Subaru STI ECU
2008 Subaru STI ECU board
What shocks me is that the housing is just a cheap piece of plastic. I wonder how Subaru handles electromagnetic interference. Also, someone confirm for me that this uses a Renesas controller, like the older generations, so I can figure out how to reset this myself.

I learned that my 23-year-old Porsche 944 Turbo can be a good daily driver. It has a range of almost 500 miles, which means I can go a week of commuting before having to fill up with gas (versus 3 days with the Subaru). Okay, I need to get the air conditioner fixed, but otherwise it’s been pretty good this hot summer. And sure it doesn’t have a cup holder, but we’re spoiled because American car companies have led the world in cup holder technology for years now. Germans have been especially lax in this area. I can’t believe that they don’t see the merit of being able to sip a Big Gulp while cruising down the autobahn at 200+ km/h. How can you do it safely without cup holders?

And finally, I learned that I really like my cars a lot, whether I’m missing them, or driving them daily.

“Everybody who is incapable of learning has taken to teaching.”
--Oscar Wilde

Addendum: What I apparently still have to learn is to avoid high RPMs on high-g corners.

“I am still learning.”

Crankiness Rating:1 out 11 (Just so happy to have the Subaru back home. I’ll worry about the bills later.)

[Update 2012-08-12] Crap. Never mind. Another check engine light (P2440 Secondary Air Injection System Switching Valve Stuck Open Bank1). Breathe in.... and out... ommm... ommm...

[Update 2012-08-13] The diagnostic trouble code (DTC) was no issue. It’s related to emissions, so of course I took it to the dealership to make sure I wasn’t releasing extra hydrocarbons (it’s part of the contract you sign when buying a Subaru. I also have to hug trees). So although I could simply reset the DTC or remove the air pump completely, I would never do anything that would tamper with my car’s emissions. I would never mask this fault out so it never appears again. I love my government. (My car does not have heated seats so I have to cover my butt as well as I can.)

My sister sent me the appropriate passage from the Book of Subaru:

Engines 11:18 “You must do a Subaru dance to appease the engine spirits that have been displaced because of the engine swap. You must anoint yourself with Mobil 1 and shampoo with antifreeze. Then you must find an old Subaru intercooler to offer as a burnt sacrifice.”

At least this DTC does not involve chicken sacrifices. I hate those.

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My Cars Hate Me

I started this blog because I like driving. A lot. And therefore things that prevent me from driving the way I want to make me very cranky. Up to this point it’s been other drivers or traffic infrastructure that makes me frustrated and annoyed. I’ve suddenly discovered an insidious new source of crankiness.

My cars have turned on me.

I need Imola Yellow to finish the set
Here they are plotting against me

Driving implies control over a vehicle to make it do what you want. But control is really an illusion, like your tax dollars at work or “food quality” at a fast food restaurant. You don’t really control your car, it controls you.

Of course, I should have seen this coming. The signs have been there for years, but I’ve been blind to them. The same thing will happen to mankind when GoogleNet SkyNet goes active, or when the ape apocalypse starts—it’ll suddenly be upon us before we know it. For zombie invasions, however, we will have more time because they stagger slowly.

Milla Jovovich giving a helping hand
In case of aliens/vampires/zombies/bad tenants, I’m hiding behind this woman
©2011 Davis Films/Impact Pictures (RE5) Inc. and Constantin Film International GmbH.

When you bring a new car home, you’re all excited and start its care and feeding. You bathe it regularly, change its oil, and feed it premium fuel. You think you’ve done your job, but no!


It’s constantly sucking down gas. Not only do you need to change the oil regularly, but all of its fluids. And tires? Where does this thing go that it needs tires all the time?

“You can learn many things from children. How much patience you have, for instance.”
--Franklin P. Jones

And if you’re not careful, there’s the danger that it could pick up bad habits like hanging around the race track. Your car will start telling you it’s getting droopy and needs new springs for the road, but you know those springs are really for the Skeet House turn at the Waterford Hills road course. Do sway bars really help with Michigan potholes? Does it truly need 600 hp for your steep driveway? You don’t know, but now you’re out more cash.

The only way it gets worse is if they start asking you for tuition money.

And what do you get for your devotion? Trouble. That’s what happens when they get older. Three of my cars are over 100,000 miles (the other will exceed that later this year, if I ever get it back). In the past year, I’ve had to deal with a new clutch, timing belt, locked brake caliper, clutch hydraulics, and a short block (!) for my various cars. Two cars were towed to the dealership on the same day.

My oldest hasn’t had air conditioning in years, and on a 90°F day it decided to start venting super-heated turbo exhaust into the passenger compartment on my hour drive home. I’m sure it was because I made it a daily driver for a month. And because of a broken $2.25 ($7.00 S&H) plastic Porsche clip.

The Cerberus Clip: 944-572-314-00-M100
The Clip of Hades, because without it, the flames of Hell come through my heater. The metal rod with the threads is supposed to be in the clip.

Whenever I hear a strange sound (shake, rattle, or roll) or smell something funny (brakes, fumes, burning leaves) in the Porsche, I just assume it’s coming from my car.

I haven’t even seen my youngest in almost a month (see: short block). The wait is killing me. And making me poorer. It’s supposed to be my fun and reliable daily driver.

It just never ends. Next month, it’ll probably be another brake job. Maybe rotate the coolant. Or re-align the dilithium crystals in the flux capacitor. Whatever it is, it will cost a lot, or involves me upside down and covered with Mobil 1 oil and ATE Super Blue brake fluid. Actually, I’m sure it will be worse than that.

“What is a home without children? Quiet.”
--Henny Youngman
“A child is a curly dimpled lunatic.”
--Ralph Waldo Emerson

Wasn’t this supposed to be fun? Where did I go wrong?

I’m pretty sure there’s only one cure for this. It’s time to wipe the slate clean.

I have to buy a new car.

Having another car will make everything better. I can add it to the horde I currently have. It will preferably be an import whose parts are machined from the liquid metal tears of hunted Romulan wumpuses and hand delivered by Jawas from Tatooine. No Pep Boys for me.

The new car will help straighten out the other cars. The other cars are too old to be jealous, and it’s always a good idea to have a spare car or three sitting around the house.

Now all I have to do is convince my wife that we can afford another (premium) gas tank to feed.

“The prime purpose of being four is to enjoy being four—of secondary importance is to prepare for being five.”
--Jim Trelease, The Read-Aloud Handbook
“You know the only people who are always sure about the proper way to raise children? Those who’ve never had any.”
--Bill Cosby

Crankiness Rating: 6 out 11 (Can you really stay that mad at your own? Well, maybe.)

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It’s The Most @#$%(*! Time of the Year

Ahh... Christmas. That special time of year. There’s a certain something in the air that makes me just a bit... crankier. Is it all the preparation? The stress looking for presents? The unrealistic expectations of holiday cheer? Nope, it’s all those @#$%^&* shoppers out on the road.

I don’t know where they all come from. I work near a shopping mall, and it’s crowded around there all the time now. It seems like a perpetual rush hour. It’s as if you’ve turned on the light in a scary kitchen in an old creepy house, and seen thousands of cockroaches running around the floor in every direction. And you just want to stomp on each and every one of them.

And this is the valet parking lot. And yes, that is the Mach 5 on top.
A typical parking deck around Christmas time

I don’t have agoraphobia, a fear of crowded places. I just don’t like all those cars around me, impeding me. If I had to describe it, I think I have EManesiratus, which is Latin for “get the @#$% out of my way.”

Most of these drivers seem to be driving distracted. They’re looking for stores or yelling at their kids in the back or talking on the phone. There’s a lot of randomness to their driving. Some are worse than Sunday drivers. They’re more like once-every-season drivers, and the name of each of those seasons is Drive Slowly in Front of EMan season.

Why have these people not heard of Amazon?!

I think this is where technology will be key. I’m not just talking about Google’s self-driving car. I’m talking about when we all become Googladroids or Facebooklings or Amazonians or iWannaBes, and after years of collecting our intimate, personal data, these companies will tell us and our friends what we need to buy for Christmas without going to the stores, leaving roads and mall parking lots empty, and having presents delivered right to our doors as if transported by an overweight, cherry-nosed, pipe-smoking elf.

Here’s to dreaming of a UPS/Fed-Ex Christmas.

Inhale deeply. Exhale slowly. @#$%*! smile.
Have a Happy Holiday and a “Good Slide” into the New Year

“Christmas is a necessity.There has to be at least one day of the year to remind us that we’re here for something else besides ourselves.”
--Eric Sevareid
“Oh, for the good old days when people would stop Christmas shopping when they ran out of money.”
--Author Unknown
“In the old days, it was not called the Holiday Season; the Christians called it ‘Christmas’ and went to church; the Jews called it ‘Hanukkah’ and went to synagogue; the atheists went to parties and drank. People passing each other on the street would say ‘Merry Christmas!’ or ‘Happy Hanukkah!’ or (to the atheists) ‘Look out for the wall!’”
--Dave Barry, Christmas Shopping

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The Gentle Curve of Death

“Every curve is exciting, if you go fast enough.”
--EMan’s sister

There’s a Simpsons episode (season 16, episode 13, “Mobile Homer,” for those that care) where Homer and Marge are on the freeway chasing Bart and Lisa, who are in a recreational vehicle. Marge is looking ahead and says, “I can’t see past all the SUVs.”

Homer replies, “Don’t worry about the SUVs. There’s a gentle curve up ahead.” As the SUVs reach the curve, they all fall off the road into a burning mass of mangled, molten metal, presumably because the tv writers hate SUVs but like alliteration.

Probably not Ford Explorers with tire pressures at 26 psi
Most fatal rollover crashes are single vehicle crashes. (source: NCSA - pdf)

I wish SUVs would crash in curves more often. That would at least give a real reason why people drive slowly through curves. You know what I’m talking about. You’re following a car as in enters a bend in the road and its driver invariably steps on the brakes. Is it because of a disabled vehicle at the side of the road? An accident perhaps? Pre-trail braking? Bambi’s dad running across the road pushing a stroller filled with nuns holding internet kittens? Nope. It’s The Gentle Curve of Death.

A significant portion of the driving population fear this Gentle Curve of Death. At least, that’s what I believe since I see so many people tapping their brakes for one. My guess is that these drivers think that by slowing down 1 mph before the curve, they will avoid the fiery death and destruction that awaits other vehicles traveling 1 mph faster.

Meanwhile, their Gentle Tap propagates backwards into the Traffic Caterpillar of Death. That’s where each preceding car has to brake harder than the car in front it of, progressively getting slower until cars further than half a mile back of the Gentle Curve of Death are actually driving backwards.

Why? Why do people drive this way? I often ponder this deep in the night as I try to blunt my cranky rage by watching videos of Ken Block doing donuts* on the intertubes. Is it from all of those 1960s driver ed films of people flying through glass windshields of cars? Are these drivers on their phones and don’t know realize until too late that the road is changing direction? Or is breathing through their mouths and driving just too much load on their cerebral cortex?

(*There are two types of Ken Block videos on the intertubes: Ken Block doing donuts, or Ken Block crashing a rally car. Both are hypnotic.)

A local road course in the Detroit area, Waterford Hills, is a small 1.42 mile, 13-turn track, which local car club regions regularly rent for “driving schools.” Its back straight isn’t that long, so ultimate speed isn’t the main thrill on this track. It’s all about the turns. It’s staying out of the gravel in Turn 1, holding your line on Hilltop, not splashing into the swamp in Swamp, and so on. The turn’s the thing. Years of driving here has created a different problem for me on public roads—I tend to speed through corners.

This leads to sometimes having a higher speed on an entrance/exit ramp than the freeway itself. Or forgetting to exit the plentiful Oakland county roundabouts (yelling, “yee haa!” optional). Or subconsciously following a Mustang that just zoomed by me through the curvy parts of I-696 in my wife’s Subaru station wagon at 135 mph. Um... all hypothetically speaking, of course.

Gentle Dragon Tail of Death
Death Awaits Everywhere

So what's the difference? Is it simply driver skill? Does taking driver education classes from sports car clubs on a race track safely provide the instruction, experience, and confidence one needs to control their vehicle through the Gentle Curve of Death over traditional, brain-dead driver education courses designed for 16-year-old students with ADHD? We may never know.

There is a simple solution to this problem. If you fear the Gentle Curve of Death, get off the road. Don’t drive. Stay home. Or hitchhike on lonely highways in the desert. At night. In the rain. Do anything but get behind the wheel. I already have to deal with the Curse of the Freeway Merge. Please, just let me drive through Gentle Curve of Death in peace.

Because I like the curvy parts.

I’m impressed--she’s 2 months older than I am, and she killed and skinned a family of leopards just to stay warm in the desert
A typical desert hitchhiker

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Back to the ’Bahn

I’ve just returned from a week long trip from Germany, and experienced something that makes me even crankier than driving—flying through Charles de Gaulle (CDG) airport in Paris. It’s a large airport, so you’ll probably have to walk pretty far for your connection. Being big isn’t extraordinary, but CDG adds a couple of twists to make it annoying. There’s no shuttle between terminals, of course, but to go between terminals, you leave the security area so that you have to re-enter security every time you go between terminals. This adds 15-30 minutes to your time to catch your connection.

Then there’s always that added element of danger that the roof can collapse again.

If you go through Paris internationally, hopefully you have at least 2 hours to catch your connection.

My future wife showing me the sights of Paris (1999)
I would like to re-locate this tower somewhere up Charles de Gaulle airport’s way

I’ve mentioned my thoughts on the autobahn before, and I don’t have too much more to add except this: why are there so many Geisterfahrer (ghost drivers) on the autobahn? A Geisterfahrer is someone driving the wrong way on the autobahn. As you may expect, this is not good.

“Tower, this is Ghost Rider requesting a fly-by”

“Negative, Ghost Rider, the pattern is full.”

If there’s a Geisterfahrer somewhere, they usually announce this on the radio warning you about it. I heard a report for one every day I drove while in Germany. I have a theory about this. First, the entrance and exit on the autobahns are right next to each other, separated by just a white line. That’s it. It would seem pretty easy to drift into the other lane and wind up going in through the out door.

Another problem is that the line separating traffic going in the other direction is white. So if the you are driving next to dashed white lines, you may not know if the other lane has traffic going in the same or opposite direction. I like the method used in the U.S., where a yellow line indicates that traffic is going in the other direction. Germany will never change this, of course, because they have no yellow paint.

I think the sky is definitely bigger out West
Yellow lines of Wyoming

Although I drove over 1,300 km on the autobahn last week, I didn’t see as much of the craziness as I’ve seen in the past. The worst was a guy in a SEAT station wagon from the Czech Republic. A truck with a double trailer filled with cement road barriers went in this guy’s lane while the guy was still in it. This infuriated the SEAT driver, and when the truck moved back to the right lane, the SEAT driver drove next to the truck driver for a while, yelling. Then the SEAT driver got in front of the truck pulling two trailers of heavy stuff, and slammed on his brakes. Somehow the semi was able to keep from completely flattening the SEAT. I steered away as far as I could from this situation. I don’t know if German rental cars are equipped with spatulas.

Of course, I had the typical problems Americans have driving in Germany: “Why does that sign say I can only go straight? They must have forgotten to paint a right-turn arrow. I’ll go ahead with my turn now;” “This car is supposed to fit in that parking space?!” “Wait—what’s the speed rating on this rental car’s tires?”

Stau on the A9 to Munich
I’m recycling this picture because I didn’t have a camera with me on this trip.

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The German Paradox - The Autobahn

(Also: The German Paradox - Parking)

The Autobahn. The word evokes a mystical essence about German driving. It’s the last automotive frontier, like the old American wild west. It’s still unlimited. Thoroughbreds like Porsche, BMW, Audi and Mercedes (okay— and VW for that GTI guy) still roam the autobahn. And every encounter in the left lane is about who’s faster, and who needs to move now.

Unfortunately, it’s all a big crock.

Sure, it’s still technically possible to find open stretches of unrestricted autobahn today, but in reality, this is becoming more rare. Many sections now have speed limits of some sort, some permanent, some conditional, such at night or during wet weather.

Best traffic sign in the world
End of Restriction traffic sign. It means no more restrictions on speed, passing, staying up late, sodium in your food, or how much tv you can watch

So what if you just ignore the speed limit signs? In Germany, they check your speed with photo radar and with police cars, marked and unmarked. The unmarked cars can be anything from an old Opel to a blacked-out Mercedes.

They also play radar roulette. There are overhead electronic signs that also contain windows for the radar guns. The radar can be in any lane, and in any sign. You’ll know it’s there if you see a red flash as it takes your picture. They also have mobile radar units that I’ve seen on connector ramps (like from the A93 to the A8— it’s probably there right now).

You’re probably thinking to yourself, I’m just passing through town in a rental car. I’ll never have to worry about it.

Not quite. If caught by a police car, you may have to pay on the spot, with higher fines in city limits. If you’re captured on film, they will track you down, even through the rental agency, and mail you the ticket all the way to the U.S. Or if you’re staying long enough, two uniformed Polizei will knock on your hotel room door to deliver the ticket (probably the best service you’ll get in Germany).

Let’s say you’re able to find unrestricted stretches of autobahn. If it’s around the beginning or end of the work day, there will be a herd of traffic going your way. They apparently have rush hour there, too. If it’s the weekend or a holiday, then it could be the same thing— again, just like here. Believe it or not, they even copied the strange practice of putting orange barrels randomly in the middle of the roads just to slow traffic.

Stau on the A9 to Munich
The Autobahn: The world’s fastest parking lot

Then there are the Conestoga wagons of the autobahn, the lumbering semi-trailers. By law they’re limited to about 50-60 mph. You’ll run into these trucks (sometimes literally) when they’re passing each other at a delta of 1 mph. Their smaller cousins are the cars from the old Eastern bloc countries. There are fewer of these around now, but you’ll still see the occasional Lada from Hungary who will try to pull into the left lane without realizing how fast that German Panzer is bearing down on him.

Can’t you just drive around in your Ruf-modified Porsche flashing your high-beams at those in front of you, like in the old commercials? Nope. That can be considered road rage. Don’t do that. Or flip someone the bird. Or tap your index finger to your forehead repeatedly/wave your open palm in front of your face. I think mumbling profanities in your own car may still be allowed, but I’d check first.

“The reason there is so little crime in Germany is that it's against the law.”
--Alex Levin

And if there’s an accident, you're screwed. I’ve measured 25 kilometers (15.5 miles) of traffic (or Stau) on the autobahn on a Sunday due to an accident. Much like toll roads, there aren’t too many exits, so if the autobahn is blocked, you might as well break out the picnic basket. I’ve sat in my car for over an hour while they cleared off an accident.

(It goes without saying that an accident at speed on the autobahn equals death-carnage-mangled-metal-old-Ohio-drivers-ed-film-Mike-Tyson's-life-Waterworld disaster. Try to avoid that.)

If you do happen to find a stretch that’s open, don’t be an American— stay out of the left lane except to pass. There are two good reasons why you shouldn’t ride the left lane. First, it’s against the law. (Actually, some drivers do this, but they’re usually going pretty fast and will move out of your way if you’re faster).

It’s the frakkin’ Law
It’s apparently a law here, too, but we’re illiterate or something.

Second, it can be dangerous to drive there for extended periods of time. You are a hazard if you are hanging out on the left lane. No matter how fast you’re driving, somebody will eventually come by going faster (I’ve been passed while doing 150+ mph). These cars will brake at the last moment and slow to your speed right at your bumper if you don’t get out of the way.

Also remember, passing on the right is strictly verboten.

If the autobahn is really that bad, is it even worth it for an American to drive there?

Hell, yes.

Because it's still better than anything we have here. Because the roads are smoother. Because the road sides aren't littered with billboards. And because you can go as fast as you want (in those precious few miles of open autobahn).

Not only that, but people actually pay attention when they drive there. That guy in Ohio on I-75 who was in front you for miles and miles in the left lane doing 61 mph— you won't find him on the autobahn.

My wife even drives faster than I do there.

You should experience this driving wonder before it disappears forever.

[Note: You should also know that the “advisory” maximum speed on the autobahn is 130 kph/81 mph.]

The German Paradox - Parking

(Also: The German Paradox - The Autobahn)

To a driving enthusiast, the allure of Germany is undeniable. An unlimited autobahn? The Nürburgring? Home of Porsche, BMW, Mercedes, Audi (and for that GTI owner, VW)? What could be better?

It’s possible to get a taste of this driving paradise in many ways. Companies such as Fast Lane Travel can get you in a Porsche to drive on the autobahn and see the sights of Germany. You can get lessons on how to drive on the Nürburgring with the BMW Car Club of America. And if you want to save some money on your next German automobile, you can take European delivery of you Porsche, BMW, Mercedes or Audi. You can save a few thousand dollars by picking it up at the factory and driving it around Germany (and a few other countries) for up to six months before it’s shipped to the States.

You’re probably thinking to yourself that this is all fantastic. Germany must be the nirvana of the automotive world. The only way it can get better is if you actually moved to Germany and got to do this everyday.

Not so fast, Hans.

Caring for a Nice Car™ in Germany was one of the most frustrating experiences I’ve had with a car. It made me very, very cranky. Of course, a large part of my problem was the culture clash of the my American Midwest mentality dealing with the European Way. And because they don’t give me a bag with my groceries.

For every wonderful driving experience in Germany, there’s a frustrating aspect to car ownership there. I’ll cover various topics about this in future posts, but today let’s start with something basic, like parking.

In Germany, there isn’t any. Forget about it. Just park in a field outside of town and take the bus in. Or walk.

If you do feel adventurous, you could try the various 6-story paid park houses in the cities. If you drive up and down for a few hours, somebody is bound to leave. You may find the parking spaces a bit narrow, but rest assured they are designed for tiny European cars, not motorcycles. And yes, somebody will ding your door.

“Those who cannot remember the past will spend a lot of time looking for their cars in mall parking lots.”
--Jay Trachman

There are some metered parking areas in the city streets, but the rest are usually reserved for residents with permits. If you do find one of these metered parking places, it will probably require parallel parking, a skill that’s disappeared from America shortly after the introduction of the automobile. In Germany, you will get the added pleasure of trying to parallel park while busses, cars, and mopeds are all trying to get around you. If you hear people talking, they are making fun of your parking inadequacies. And yes, you will scrape your low-profile wheels on the square curbs.

I'm pretty sure no cranes were used
Somehow this man got his car in and out of this spot with leaving a mark on my red 944’s bumper. The space ahead of my car is no parking.

“When I get real bored, I like to drive downtown and get a great parking spot, then sit in my car and count how many people ask me if I’m leaving.”
--Stephen Wright

Are you one of those drivers that use the bumper of the cars around you as a parallel parking aid? That’s not such a good idea in Germany. That would technically constitute an accident if you hit another car, even at low speeds. Leaving a note on the other person’s car doesn’t cut it. You have to wait for them, or call the police. If you leave, that would be leaving the scene of an accident, and yes, somebody will call the police on you.

One of the leading industries in the city where I lived in Germany is the distribution of parking tickets. I used to watch the city parking “guards” (they’re not police) watch the meters run down. They’ll usually give you a few seconds to leave. Otherwise, if you’ve run out of time, you will get a parking ticket. Or two.

“A real patriot is the fellow who gets a parking ticket and rejoices that the system works.”
--Bill Vaughn

If you live in the city, you can get a permit to park on the street in some areas, usually for overnight (don’t forget to fold your driver side mirror in). But do you really want to park your Porsche outside? Some apartments have underground parking for their residents. If you’ve had previous experience navigating supertankers into port, then this will be a piece of cake for you. Otherwise, you will scrape a mirror on something, somewhere, somehow.

If you own or rent a house, then there’s a chance you’ll have a garage. The garage will probably be bigger than a breadbox. It should hold one (European) midsize car, like a VW Golf. Your passengers will have to get out before you park it inside. And yes, you will open your door into the brick wall when you get out.

So the next time you take your Nice Car™ out of the garage and park it way in the back of the Meijer’s parking lot, be glad that a) there is a “back of the parking lot” b) if someone parks next to you, you’ll still be able to open your door, and c) parking is free, as in beer (and speech).

Don’t it always seem to go
That you don’t know what you've got till it’s gone
They paved paradise and put up a parking lot
--Joni Mitchell

Kindred Folk

I was reading the Booth Babe’s article about summer driving events, when I made the mistake of reading the comments. I hate reading the comments, because I lose all hope in my fellow man (again).

As I thought about the article and its comments, I found the whole thing ironic. Here’s an article asking people to behave in a civil manner, and the most of the comments are anything but civil.

The Booth Babe is an anonymous product specialist in the auto industry. She writes for The Truth About Cars and her own blog, Do You Come With The Car? (That’s a lot of links, and I’m not even getting paid for this. I think that’s called “being nice,” or something like that.) She provides a behind-the-scenes peek of the auto show industry, which I find fascinating. I love auto shows.

Some of her articles also deal with people, which I find just as interesting. I think if I hadn’t become an engineer, I would have become a psychologist, because how people act and think intrigue me. (Okay, that’s not true. It would be to experiment on people for fun and profit.)

If you were to read these people articles from the Booth Babe, they may sound bitchy or whiny. I see the message as, “people, get a clue.” In other words, she could be the Cranky Booth Babe.

The anonymity of the internet (or a freeway) seems to give people an excuse to behave badly. We live in a world where the words “please,” “excuse me,” and “thank you,” have disappeared; where common sense isn’t so common any more; and where single-digit salutes have replaced the friendly wave. We’re approaching the world of Idiocracy meets Beavis and Butthead (oh wait, it has).

And then there are the People of Walmart.

I’m not going to kid myself into thinking that our culture could change overnight and fix all of this. All I’m asking is to be nice to each other once in a while, and act with at least a modicum of common sense.

One final thing. I’m not defending the Booth Babe— she doesn’t need defending. But I do get annoyed by comments to her like, “What do you expect when you’re wearing a miniskirt.”

How about: No.

By the same logic, if you were an idiot, I should be allowed to slap you upside the head (mmm... upside the head...), because, well, what do you expect? But I don’t. Most of the time, I will just politely ask you to try breathing through your nose instead.

You don’t have to act on every thought or whim. That’s what the mushy stuff between your ears is for— to think and reason with virtue and decency. One would think that’s one of the few things that separate us from the beasts.

And no, I’m not a misanthrope, but I’m working on it.

“Achievements on the golf course are not what matters, decency and honesty are what matter.”
--Tiger Woods

(Let’s try this again.)

“Don't overestimate the decency of the human race.”
--H. L. Mencken

“I much prefer the sharpest criticism of a single intelligent man to the thoughtless approval of the masses.”
--Johannes Kepler

“The mass never comes up to the standard of its best member, but on the contrary degrades itself to a level with the lowest.”
--Henry David Thoreau

“I hate quotations. Tell me what you know.”
--Ralph Waldo Emerson

The Egoist

Hey! You in the dark blue Chevy Chevrolet Impala talking on the phone! Get out of the way!

Die ganze Welt dreht sich um mich, denn ich bin nur ein Egoist.
Der Mensch, der mir am nächsten ist, bin ich, ich bin ein Egoist.

You’re driving 70 mph on the left lane on I-696. Are you crazy? This is Michigan— you’re going to get rear-ended. You may be at the speed limit, but minivans driven by soccer moms who have to be somewhere are swerving around you. You are a clueless, talking, moving hazard. Vacate the left lane now.

You’re also drifting in and out of your lane (a classic case of someone who needs a lane departure warning system and a slap upside the head). I really don’t care if you scrape your car on that concrete divider, but every time you go onto the shoulder, you’re sending Detroit freeway flotsam at my car. But if I’m lucky, something there will give you a flat tire and get you out of my way.

Have you noticed the gap in front of you? Of course not, you’re yapping on the phone while creating a tear in the fabric of the traffic-time continuum. Don’t you realize that’s how wheel-warping potholes are created? Meanwhile, we’re all piled up here behind you, tailgating like dogs in heat. You really need to get out of the fast lane.

By the way, what’s so important on the phone that you’re oblivious to everything around you? You’re probably just talking to your buddy. “Dude, did ya see the game last night? Was that awesome!?” No, it was not awesome. Move. Over.

“Dude,” you’re not hanging out at your buddy’s place. Nor is this your living room couch. Get your feet off the metaphorical coffee table and get the #%@! out of the way!

It’s a wonder Detroiters don’t shoot each other more often on the freeway.

(Thanks to DYCWTC for the image. I need one of these.)

What Comes after Two Days of Rain in Michigan?


“The best thing one can do when it’s raining is to let it rain.”
--Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

“Don’t knock the weather. If it didn’t change once in a while, nine out of ten people couldn’t start a conversation.”
--Kin Hubbard

“No matter how rich you become, how famous or powerful, when you die the size of your funeral will still pretty much depend on the weather.”
--Michael Pritchard

Safe at Any Speed

All drivers do stupid things. This includes you and me. At some point in time while driving, we will be distracted or not paying attention in some way.

So I was pleasantly surprised when Eddie Alterman, Car and Driver’s editor-in-chief, wrote about his dinner with Dr. Ralf Cramer and Samir Salman of Continental Automotive. They told Mr. Alterman about Continental’s goal to put advanced driver assistance products, such as adaptive cruise control, blind spot monitoring, and lane departure warning, in as many vehicles and as inexpensively as possible.

My full disclosure here is that I not only work for the men and company mentioned above, but on the products they are trying to sell. And it’s no revelation to say that the more of these products we sell, the more toys I’ll buy longer I get to bring food home to my family.

I work with these products every day, and I would definitely want them for myself and my family. It’s an added safety net for driving. And the more people have them, the safer driving becomes.

One of the products I would personally like to see adopted more is a collision mitigation system. This will autonomously brake the vehicle if a collision is imminent and the driver has not applied the brakes. It can also provide higher braking levels if the driver has not pressed hard enough on the brake to stop (a more common situation than you may imagine).

Picture yourself in stop and go traffic. You’re inching along with everyone else while you stare at the icons of your radio’s touch screen display. The car in front of you has stopped, but you’re still fighting with your radio, which insist you want to listen to Kenny G while you swear you didn’t even know you had any Kenny G on you iPod.

The BANG! you hear next over the sweet sounds of Kenny G is your deductible going out the window.

Or, in an alternate reality, a radar sensor would detect the car stopping in front of you in less than a blink of an eye, and applies the correct amount of braking to stop you as close as possible to the car ahead of you, maximizing the braking distance of the vehicle behind you. Kenny G is safe.

“The best car safety device is a rear-view mirror with a cop in it.”
--Dudley Moore

What was not so surprising were the comments like this from Marc Mitchell:

“Seatbelts, yes; airbags, sure; but all these techno-nannies (from which the aforementioned gents will surely reap monetary rewards by the forced addition of them) will make the roads more dangerous by reducing the necessary driver involvement.”
blah blah blah blah

This is a common response to any driver aid in a vehicle. I remember this when ABS (anti-lock braking system) was being introduced. I’m sure it was said when the first steering wheel was proposed (“All I need is my tiller! This new-fangled steering wheel will just make people lazy drivers! You kids get off my lawn!”).

And just to be clear, automotive companies like Continental do try to make money whenever something is mandated, like airbags. It is a business after all.

Mr. Mitchell needs to realize there should be less driver involvement. Bad drivers are not going away. I know Mr. Mitchell can’t respond to me, but who cares— he’s bragging about his CTS-V in the snow, a car that has stability and traction control— better known as techno-nannies.

Mr. Mitchell asks, “How many traffic deaths would have been prevented by the addition of blind-spot warning to your Pinto?” This is a valid question. The answer would be very few.

But in my mind, any deaths or major injuries prevented is A Good Thing™. The principle behind driver assistance products makes more sense to me than airbags, an area I worked in for over 15 years. Driver assistance products minimize accidents, while airbags minimize injuries in an accident.

Isn’t it a better goal to prevent accidents in the first place?

The FAA has a goal of zero accidents. Obviously they don’t meet that, but they try. Why can’t we have the same goal for traffic accidents?

By definition, an accident occurs when someone did something they weren’t supposed to do. This could be anything from not paying attention to not doing what you’re supposed to be doing. Like when drivers talk on the phone, or go faster than conditions warrant.

It could be argued that machines and computers break down and make mistakes. I will agree on the first part, since nothing is perfect, and dispute the second part. Computers just do what they are told, in general it is their programmers that make mistakes. This doesn’t mitigate something going wrong, of course. I’m just saying it’s probably not the computer’s fault.

Computers and machines aren’t infallible, but the real question is: are they better than humans? In cases where good judgement and reasonable thinking aren’t required, I would take a computer over my fellow man. Actually, how many people do you know exercise good judgement and reasonable thinking, especially behind the wheel of a speeding vehicle?

A computer can calculate how much time it takes until you hit that object in front of you until the cows come home. It can calculate if you are drifting outside your lane dozens of times before you even realize what’s happening. That’s what it does best.

Some of the sensors used by advanced driver assistance products are even better than human senses. There are radars that can detect objects in the fog, and infrared sensors that can see in the dark.

Let’s look at a couple more arguments against driver aids:

“I’m a fantastic driver who pays attention all the time. I don’t need these driver aids.”

Then shut them off. Most driver aids can be turned off.

“Driver aids will add unnecessary costs to the vehicle.”

Is it unnecessary if it prevents an accident? Preventing accidents may be difficult to quantify, but the point of the original article is to also make the products more inexpensive.

To make Mr. Mitchell’s Rhetorical Pinto GT safer, maybe he would prefer putting a sharp spike on the steering wheel pointed at the driver. That would certainly make the driver “necessarily more involved.”

So to Mr. Mitchell I say: we should have more techno-nannies. We need as many as possible in the car, to the point where most morons don’t have to drive. I would like to see fewer of my fellow man behind the wheel of a 3000-plus pound car. I don’t think they should even be on a bicycle.

In an ideal world, drivers would be trained better and avoid accidents, but we don’t all live in Utopia, FL.

“I’m sorry Dave. I’m afraid I can’t pass here.”

I would rather have a DARPA-inspired, self-guided Skynet Hal 9000 vehicle take these people to work, school, or Walmart. They don’t want to be driving anyways. Robot vehicles will know the rules of the road. They’ll stay out of the left lane except to pass; they won’t run red lights; they won’t tailgate. And you won’t have to worry about road rage with them. Until they evolve, of course.

Like I said, computers aren’t perfect. But they are still better than that guy on the phone wearing a backwards baseball cap, drinking a large Slurpee, drifting into your lane.

“Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity; and I’m not sure about the universe.”
--Albert Einstein

[update 2010-07-03: This article talks about the same thing.]

Black Plague II: Electric Boogaloo

Being a conscientious driving enthusiast is not without its problems, especially about the environment. I wrote an article about this over 10 years ago, and more recently, the Booth Babe wrote about the same issue. I have no straightforward solution to this topic. Not even a bent, twisted one. But I bring this topic up today because of the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

I have to admit that oil companies get me very cranky. It maddens me that they make so much money, and yet hike up gas prices. I hate the damage they are capable of. And I hate that I need them to feed my driving addiction.

So on top of the following problems BP is causing for untold years to come:

  • environmental impact on the sea life in the Gulf
  • environmental impact along the coastal region
  • economic impact on the families in the area
they are also wasting oil that could be used to fuel our cars. The nerve.

(And yes, that last part is a joke. It’s the internet, these things need to be explained.)

Whoa, mercy, mercy me
Oh, things ain’t what they used to be, no no
Oil wasted on the oceans
And upon our seas, fish full of mercury
--Marvin Gaye (1971)

BP-- the new Black Plague
(artwork: Mike Mitchell— but not that Mike Mitchell. source:

I’ve been buying BP gas for my cars for about 25 years, all the way back when it was Amoco here in the States. (Back then, some of the gas stations I used still had the old Standard Oil logo, the company John D. Rockefeller created.)

There is no easy solution to stop this oil spill. I’m an engineer, so I understand that theoretical solutions may not work out practically. But BP is one of the largest companies in the world, with annual revenues from $245-366 billion over the last 4 years. They should have done a better job preventing, minimizing, and containing this disaster.

For my tiny part in this catastrophe, I am voting with my wallet and will no longer buy BP gas.

For those who are on Twitter, I would recommend following @BPGlobalPR, who does not work for BP (this would seem obvious after reading their posts, but again, this is the internet so this, too, has to be explained).

You can find out more about @BPGlobalPR and Leroy Stick here.

If you’re a Lady Gaga fan, you can try this song.

If you want to see how big this spill is, check out this site. Warning: The links on this site will make you angry.


Distracted Driving for Dummies

So there I was, stopped at the traffic light that had just turned red. I looked in my driver side mirror and saw a car still speeding towards the light. He eventually slammed on the brakes, and stopped partway into the intersection. As I looked over, I saw that he had a phone to his right ear. Typical, I thought.

After the light turned green, I ended up behind him to go around another car, and then I noticed that there was smoke coming out of the cell phone guy’s window. Amazing— he had a cell phone in one hand, and a cigarette in the other. And of course, after a couple more puffs, he threw the cigarette out the window (pet peeve #4).

What I couldn’t tell is if he scored a trifecta by also reading a book or newspaper. Perhaps he may have had a laptop steering wheel desk, very handy for business people on the go. Who needs to text while driving when you can send e-mail?

(image source:

“You can always find a distraction if you’re looking for one.”
--Tom Kite

Unfortunately, wishing that this guy be Darwinized may be a case of calling the kettle black. When I think of all the things that I allow to distract me when I’m driving, I may be as guilty as this guy. For instance, I have a bluetooth handsfree setup in my car, which is useful if you have a manual transmission car. But it’s simply the act of having a (phone) conversation that is distracting, as studies have shown.

This is why I also don’t like driving with passengers. All that yelling and screaming from the passenger seat can be very distracting. Passengers should also pray more quietly.

Back in the previous century, I used to listen to radio stations, cassettes, and CDs in my car. Those radios had nice buttons that let you navigate without taking your eyes off the road. Today, I have my entire music collection on my iPod. I control it with a touch screen radio. To change anything, I have to stare intently at the screen to press one of the icon buttons. And then I have to yell a bit as the radio decides which button it thinks I pressed, eventually requiring me to try and press more icons.

And if that’s bad, have you ever tried to select a particular song out of a list of thousands? This can be daunting, even pulled over on the side of the road.

But the worst has to be the navigation system. I know there are lawyer screens on them saying that you will DIE if you use this while moving— please press OK. For once, I think they may be right. Trying to type in an address or look for a restaurant can be hazardous if you’re driving. Some of the newer GPS devices have voice recognition, which is a step in the right direction. I would rather yell, “find me a Starbucks now!” than hit impossibly small touch screen buttons at speed. (Is it me, or is there a hint of condescension in my GPS’ voice when she says, “recalculating...” after I miss one of her directions?)

In addition to these distractors, there are still kids, food, personal grooming, and so on that can divert your attention to the task at hand— driving safely.

So for my part, I will do my best to minimize watching video podcasts during my morning drive to work.

An Unexpected Turn

So there I was, driving down to my local Target store. It has two entrances from the road, the main entrance, and the driveway in the back of the store. When I’m coming from the my house, I normally take the back entrance, as it’s closer than the more commonly used main one, and I don’t have to contend with the traffic in the front of the store.

As I turned on my blinker to go into the back driveway, I am watching the minivan behind me. I slow down gradually and notice that the minivan isn’t slowing at all. At the last minute (second, actually), it slams on its brakes and avoids plowing into my back end. As I pull into the driveway, I notice the driver gesticulating wildly in my direction.

Let’s recap, shall we? I entered Target through an uncommon entrance. I signaled clearly ahead of my turn, and braked gradually. So it is obviously my fault for signaling my turn and not going to the main entrance that this driver almost slammed into the back of my car.

“To everything (turn, turn, turn)
  There is a driveway (turn, turn, turn)
  And a time for every purpose, under heaven”
  --Pete Seeger (Ecclesiastes 3:1-8)

Which brings me to the essence of this website: why are drivers such idiots?!

Now, I’m not a psychologist, but I can apparently play one on the internet.

This driver is obviously directing her inattentiveness and lack of clue-tivity (technical psychologist term) at me for exposing her aforementioned cluelessness. A “slap upside the head” is usually prescribed in such cases.

Some of My Driving Pet Peeves - Vol. 1

I consider myself to be a gentle, easy-going, control-freak type of person with compulsive-obsessive tendencies. In general, as long as you do as I say, agree with all of my opinions, and have the same interests as I do, we’ll get along just fine.

“It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.”

Just so you know where I’m coming from, here’s a list of things not to do around me.

1. Blocking the Left Lane on the Freeway

Other than firing armed veterans in post offices and listening to AM talk radio, this has to be one of the most anger-inducing behaviors known to man. Over 20 states in the U.S. have even passed legislation about this, with telling titles like “Road Rage Reduction Act.”

The drivers that commit this offense will enter a freeway, swerve to the left lane regardless of traffic, stay in the left lane come hell or high water. They will dive for their exit just before they pass it up. These drivers are ostensibly driving to the dealership to repair their broken rear-view mirror, but are in fact merely trying to annoy other drivers.

You may wonder, don’t drivers generally have the right to drive in any lane they want within the posted speed limits? In principle, this is true. However, the next time you go shopping for groceries, I will stand in front of your favorite cereal, denying you access to it, because I can. And if you really want this cereal, you can go over to the next aisle and reach through the back of the shelves to get your cereal.

If this is your driving style, please, please, please, get a clue.

2. Tailgating

I have no problems with brats, burgers, and beer in a parking lot before football games, but tailgating on the freeway at 80+ mph is too much. Please, do your grilling responsibly.

(So there I was, driving home late one evening on I-696. A black Ford Focus moves into my lane ahead of me. It seems to have a personalized license plate, so I decide to get closer to read it. The plate read: RU2CLOS. Naturally I proceeded to tailgate it to its exit.)

3. Weaving through Traffic

One of my favorite video games growing up was Pole Position, a driving game. I played a different version of this game on 8 Mile Road (yes, the same road with a movie named after it. Apparently that guy went to my high school). The idea was to stay in front of the traffic pack to catch the green light. It was often necessary to weave through traffic to stay in front and hopefully get an open slot (lane) for the green light.

Man, was I stupid.

Driving like that borders on dangerous, and it gets worse at higher speeds like the freeway (see: Laws of Physics). I think it’s possible to “gently” weave through traffic, but most people who weave tend to be more aggressive about it. This YouTube video shows an extreme example of dangerous weaving.

While I admit to driving fast, I try to do it safely. That may sound paradoxical to some, but what truly is safe? If really you want to drive safely, stay at home.

I have to admit that I sometimes commit #2 and #3 of this list because of people doing a #1 get me all cranky.

[update: 2010-05-05] I realized that I keep updating my pet peeves list and rearranging positions. I’ll post a full list one day.]

A Driver’s Rant

I’m really just an ordinary, normal guy. I work, I pay taxes, I have a wife and a daughter. And I have simple needs—I just want to drive like Speed Racer all the time, but I would settle for people getting the heck out of my way. I could to do this more often if it weren’t for all those people on the road.

Ordinarily I like people. Some people are even nice. However, let people have political offices, write blogs, or drive cars, and they turn into idiots. And if you put enough people together, their collective stupidity becomes truly staggering.

“Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity; and I’m not sure about the universe.”
--Albert Einstein

I witness this stupidity twice a day, every weekday, on my commute to and from work in the Detroit area. After over 20 years of daily driving, one would think I’d be used to this by now, or at least be sufficiently numbed and dulled. Instead my frustration has only mounted as I’ve observed people drive. Gasps of, “I can’t believe he just did that!” regularly chills my driving experience.

“Really stupid people should be slapped upside the head.”

So before I explode like Krakatoa, or start harpooning cars to overpass columns, I decided to write about it. Consider this my little effort to make the world a less violent place. At least until I perfect that hood-mounted, mobile Klingon disruptor ray in my basement (I’ll be taking pre-orders soon). Call it cheap therapy.

So who am I? I’m an engineer who has worked in the automotive field for over 20 years, both here in the Detroit area (where I currently live) and in Germany (where I lived for five years). I like all kinds of cars, but I consider myself a driver first, and a car-guy second. By that, I mean that I love almost all kinds of driving, and having a nice car to drive in just enhances the experience. In other words, I enjoy long, passionate cross-country drives, quaint quarter-mile quickies, and road courses with a sense of humor.

I plan on writing more or less on a weekly basis (or when the next guy cuts me off in traffic). I’m sure this will turn into monthly once the initial excitement of writing wears out. My focus will be in driving, cars, and the automotive industry. I’m not really qualified to discuss any of these topics, but that’s the whole beauty of the internet, isn’t it?

And it is my hope that this site helps make the driving world a less crankier place.

Please leave a comment, but if it makes me crankier, be warned that I’ll probably delete it. And if I start to sound too whiny, you have my permission to slap me upside the head.