Thoughts on random topics.

Autonomous Driving

I will admit that I have never been in a fully autonomous vehicle. Frankly I am not looking forward to that day.

Advocates of autonomous vehicles say they will cut down on traffic congestion, pollution, accidents, and just about every bad thing that human driven vehicles are accused of. I don't buy it.

It's not that autonomous vehicles will never get there, maybe they will. But the programming will have to get way better than it is now.

I drive a lot of new cars, I review them. Many, almost all, have smart cruise control which is a form of autonomous driving. With smart cruise control the vehicle maintains a set distance from the vehicle in front of it. It will even bring the vehicle to a complete stop. Add in lane keep assist and you have a semi-autonomous driving. And I don't trust it.

Why don't I trust them? The simple answer is they cannot anticipate, they react. Let's say you are on the highway doing 70-75 mph and a car cuts in front of you. Yes the computer will brake to maintain that preset distance but it will brake hard, really hard if the car is too close. Maybe so hard that the car behind you rear ends you. Because the computer, despite all the inputs, did not anticipate some fool.

The semi-autonomous cars can scan the road but they don't see the car coming up behind you weaving in and out, the car a few car lengths ahead that you've been watching changing lanes, or the toddler that is running ahead of mom and just might hop off the sidewalk. 

I don't doubt that someday autonomous cars will be able scan the same 180 degrees a human is capable of scanning and predict behavior. But they aren't there yet. So despite the technology my foot will always be hovering over the brake pedal as my eyes scan my surroundings. 

Are EVs really our clean vehicle saviors?

I've driven many hybrids and EVs; generally I don't have a problem with how they drive. They are just an automobile, or rather that's how they should be seen.

But are they our savior? Maybe, maybe not.

There is no denying that Internal Combustion Engines create pollution. They produce far less pollution today than they did even twenty years ago, and they were darn clean then, but they still pollute. 

If you believe this pollution is harmful to us and our environment you want to lessen it as much as possible. The idea of an Electric Vehicle sounds like a good step, at least on the face of it. 

But, and there's always a but, EVs have their own forms of pollution. The most obvious is the generation of electric power. Right now only 23% of this nation's electricity is generated by renewable energy (clean). This varies by state.

A bigger problem to my mind is the EV batteries. Lithium-ion batteries are made from elements that are mined, and the mining and refining process is far from clean. Lithium extraction consumers a large amount of water and energy, and lithium mining can pollute the air and water with chemicals and heavy metals. Lithium is not easily or economically recyclable. 

I've said this before but it's worth saying again and again - If we really want to lower vehicular emissions we need to reduce the number of vehicles on the road not just change their mode of propulsion. 

In the USA about 76% of the approximately 150,000,000 Americans who work drive solo to their jobs (that number is most likely lower since the pandemic but still high). In California with its 38-million population only 4.9% use public transportation to get to work, and around 18-millon work. Of those 73.8% drive solo (lower than the national average). If we could get even 10% of that number into public transportation we could reduce vehicular pollution by a huge amount. 

When I was on the California Inspection and Maintenance Committee (IMRC) we learned that a large number of the worst polluting vehicles were old pickup trucks. Who drives old pickup trucks? Folks who most likely cannot afford an EV. In fact these people often cannot even afford a new vehicle of any kind.

I don't mean to sound elitist but we need to get rid of the older, poorly maintained vehicles. We need to get the working class into cleaner vehicles and/or we need to provide better transportation options for them. 

The cost estimate for the California Bullet Train is at $128-Billion dollars. That money could build a lot of regional public transportation projects that would definitely reduce the number of cars on the roads. It is time.

Are new cars too expensive?

This isn't a dig at car companies, they are in business to make money. But the cost of a new vehicle does tie into the problem of air pollution. New vehicles, especially "clean" vehicles are simply too expensive for the working poor. 

Right now the "average" new car cost is over $48,000. That rises to over $53,000 for an EV. If you need a truck for your work expect to pay around $60,000! New prices have driven up the prices of used cars. 

It is no wonder that lower income workers, often the working poor, drive ultra-high mileage vehicles. And often the higher the mileage the more they pollute. 

It's nice when governments have buy-back programs for older cars but the amount isn't enough. If you are eking out a living the money offered in California ($1,500 max) might buy you something just about as bad as what you are turning in.

It is a common problem for lower income workers - to get a job you need transportation but the jobs don't pay enough to buy reliable transportation. 

Car names bug me

Yup I admit it, silly things sometimes bother me. 

Recently I had a discussion with a fellow auto writer about a Mazda Miata, aka MX-5. I just don't understand why Mazda no longer uses Miata badges on the car. 

Mazda is not alone. I don't understand Ford's Mustang Mach-E or Maverick. How can a Mustang be a 4-door SUV, or a Maverick be a pickup? 

Then of course there was the Acura Legend and Integra. My understanding of why the Legend became the RL is that Legend became a legend. Everyone knew it was an Acura but they never said "My Acura Legend", they said "My Legend." Same went for the Integra. Acura has reinstated the Integra name thankfully but the Legend remains a legend.

Some car names just have a certain je ne sais quoi, they take on a life of their own. Among Mustang fans a 5.0 will always be a Fox-body OHV V8. A 'Vette is a Corvette. Car companies should feel lucky when the public knows a model by name. Why tinker with history?


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