Auto-start Auto-stop Engines

I recently had the opportunity to drive a car with these new auto-start/auto-stop engines. You know the type. You are standing next to an idling car, and suddenly the engine stops. In the old days, we called it a stall, but new engines are doing it for fuel savings and saving the environment. I am all for protecting the environment, but I am not a huge fan of these engines. Let me explain.

These were first seen in high-end Mercedes and BMW cars. Today, they are everywhere that is not a hybrid. The idea, as I said, is to reduce carbon emissions while at idle, something most cars do a lot of in urban environments. Idling creates a lot of carbon because the gas does not fully combust, unlike when the vehicle is in motion (not entirely sure why) and it also creates a pocket of concentrated CO2 gas, along with some other not so healthy gases. So anything that makes idling cleaner is a good thing.

The problem comes about when you need to actually get going again. Because the engine actually stops, there is a brief delay before it gets started again. This is a bad thing in certain situations.

For example, if you are anything but number one in line, the delay in getting the engine started, and the gears engaged (all of which is automatic) is not a big deal. The three or four-tenths of a second it takes is manageable and usually is accounted for by the car in the number one slot getting his vehicle moving. Not a big deal.

However, if you are in the number one slot, and the car behind you is not suffering from waiting for his engine to start, you are going to get honked at, at the very least. I had a couple of near collisions simply because it took that much longer to get the car moving off the line when the light turned green.

The second issue is safety. I was taught, when I learned to drive a stick shift, that you never ride the clutch. The engine should be engaged at all times. The problem is that the sensor that puts the engine to sleep when you are idling at a traffic light does not know the difference between idling at a traffic light and waiting to make a left-hand turn. I had the engine cut out just as I had an opening to make a turn and missed the opportunity because the engine was off and had to restart. Fortunately, there was no one behind me trying to make the light as well. This is not safe. The same is true with stop and go driving. I had the engine shut off just as I went to touch the accelerator.

Finally, a minor note. The engine shutting off also shuts off the air conditioner. It will kick back on, but I can see where hot climates will result in higher in-cabin temperatures, especially in stop and go driving, where the engine shutting off actually makes it more uncomfortable inside for the passengers. Again, I cannot see this as a win.

I am sure someone has done the math, and everyone is perfectly happy with the reduced emissions, while the safety issues are perceived as minor. As a driver, I do not find that these sorts of engines are good, or safe. Time will tell.

Reservations required

Walt Disney World is the childhood milestone of many as the first “happiest day of their life” — or at least half of your day at the park is. During the other half of a trip to Walt Disney World, you’re waiting in line. But a new ride is demoing a system that Walt Disney World wants to try out in the future to evade the obnoxiously long wait times — allowing guests to make a reservation in advance to assure they will land a ride. (Inquisitr)

Now, I will be the first to say that on crowded days, the wait for some rides, especially the Toy Story ride where they are going to try this, can be hideous.  I have waited in that line exactly once and the ride was fun, but as pointed out in the article, not fun enough to wait in an hour (or considerably longer).

That being said, I am not sure I like the idea of making a reservation. DisneyWorld is supposed to be a vacation, and yet as I spend more time there, I feel less like I am resting and more like I am back in the office, only with more deadlines, time constraints, and you have to be here now. Makes the whole idea of a vacation kind of moot.

I am looking at this also from the position of someone that is part of the Disney Vacation Club. I own at Disney, so I do not have all the same issues as those that are coming for what might be that one magical weekend of their life. I can go back anytime, and in fact that is why I bought into the DVC was precisely so I do not have to commando the park from open to close, including magic hours when I am there. If I want to spend an hour, I spend an hour, if I want to spend a day, I spend a day. I have that option.

I learned long ago that you need to make reservations for dinner, especially if you want to eat in the parks or at busy times of the year (like Christmas). But I really don't want to make reservations for rides. I want to walk up, get on, have fun, get off. And that might explain why I am going on fewer rides. I just do not want to wait an hour for a three-minute ride. Which I guess is the point. If you are only going once, you will make the reservation. But it sure is not much of a vacation.



California “bans” Mapping Apps

A recent ruling in California bans drivers from using mapping apps like Google Maps, after a man was caught while checking his smartphone for directions. (Autoevolution)

Raise your hand if you still have a paper map book in your car? Raise your hand if you have a third party GPS in your car (a Garmin or some on board system). Raise your hand if you update either of them more than once a year? Raise your hand if you live in an urban area?

Chances are you answered yes to the last one but no to the others. Which means that the way you navigate is by some form of on-line, cell based mapping application. One of the questions I keep asking myself and my elected leaders, who thus far have not answered, is how to I get from place to place, when the tools to navigate are not allowed anymore? Am I supposed to print out detailed maps and carry them like me like old fashioned map books? Clearly, according to California, the answer is going to be "yes." But what is worse, is the with the rise of the GPS device, the map book publishers essentially went out of business over night. I have not seen a current paper map of my region in at least three years, which means the maps I still have are grossly out of date, missing new roads, showing roads that no longer exist and a comedy of other errors.

Do not mistake me. I am all for laws that punish distracted driving. But this current spate of new laws for old purposes is little more than political window dressing. Distracted driving was around long before cell phones and will be around long after they are legislated out of vehicles. But not everyone has a car mounted GPS, either because of the cost of the upgrade or the practical reason of "but I have it on my phone and I am already paying for the service."

This is not to say that electronic maps are always accurate. Apple proved that with their poorly thought out mapping app released as part of iOS 5, but the point here is that if you do not have a GPS, or you do not know the area, you are now unable to use one more critical tool to help you navigate your way. And that could be the difference between life and death.

Feeling heavier?

While Americans expend fewer calories at work, they spend more time in cars -- almost twice as much as in the 1970s. They spend 26 hours per week consuming TV or online entertainment. Americans could theoretically compensate for more sedentary lifestyles by stepping up their recreational exercise -- but only about 20% of Americans bother. Some 80% never do -- including presumably all those failed dieters. (CNN)

If you, like me, read this article and nod your head, then you, like me, understand why it is getting harder and harder to lose those extra pounds (or kilograms) each year.   And I have to admit, I would certainly like to.  I started last year by cutting back my intake of the sugary sodas (no, I will not start drinking Diet Coke....for starters, I don't like the taste of artificial sweeteners and I am not about to replace something natural for something artificial.  It is better to just go without), but clearly I have not cut back enough so this year will see me cut back more.  Of course, what I really need to give up is my Starbucks habit and my wine habit.  So I am going to try.  We will see what happens.  If nothing else, forgoing Starbucks should save me close to $100 a month, so that should be incentive enough right?

But it is more than giving up, as our beloved politicians should begin to realize about ten minutes after they are sworn into office.  It is also about increasing energy output.  My job is sedentary.  I sit in front of a screen for at least 8 hours a day and I spent another two (on average) driving from point A to point B.  I used to get a good walk in as part of my daily commute, but now, I do not even get that.  So I need to find an excuse to get off my butt and get moving.  I will admit that I am not a gym person.  Maybe it is the 20+ years I spend going to the pool every day, but getting me to a gym to lift weights and cycle to no where is not going to motivate me to get more active, which makes it even harder to get active.  The normal activities of youth are no longer available and the traditional methods are so unmotivating that they are pointless, but I will have to find something, since buying new pants is not in my plan.

America is getting larger.  And it is going to take more than willpower and desire to reverse the trend.  As Frum points out, changing this will require a great deal of effort.  Effort beyond the simple idea of getting off our backsides and at least going for a walk.

Transportation Woes

If you live outside of the United States, you probably think you have a long commute.  Even if you live in the United States, unless you live in New York, Chicago, Atlanta or Los Angeles, you probably think you have a long commute.  If you live in Washington, DC, you know you have a long commute.  A couple of extra minutes?  On a good day, at 3 AM.  On a normal day, anywhere from 10 to 30 minutes above normal and on a bad day.  Well, pack a lunch.

Today was a bad day.  Rain always complicates the commute.  As does sunshine, snow, and cell phones.  But today was a trifecta of  bad weather, accidents, and emergency construction.  People coming north on I-95 were advised to pack their patience and a snack.  Estimated commute times were upwards of 90 minutes along a ten mile stretch of the highway.

I have been tracking my commute since the last week of August.  I have a 15 mile commute, a straight shot up Route 28.  About a third of the commute is local in that there are stop lights, the other two-thirds are highway in that there are overpasses and flyways to keep the traffic moving.  According to Google, the trip should take 20 minutes.  According to my non-rush hour driving, it takes 15 minutes since the trip north of I-66 is officially 55 miles an hour.  Over the course of the last 10 weeks, my average commute time has been 40 minutes, or more than double.  Most days are in the 35-45 minute range and the high point has been 75 minutes.  I have only made the commute in 15 minutes once.  And that was when I was on the road at 5:00 AM.  And I will admit I have a very short, simple commute.

As the Presidential candidates (and even some of our local political hacks) go after each other over such things as Immigration or jobs, one question I have for all of them is what are you doing to reduce the time spent wasted commuting?

Now, before you trot out the normal stalking horses, like move closer to work or use public transit I will remind you that moving, especially moving a household, is not a trivial exercise.  If you are lucky enough to be able and pick up an move without a moment's thought or issue, good for you, but you are in the minority.  Moving a household is a big deal.  Even someone like me who moved every year for more than 10 years finds moving to be a pain.  Public transit is an even bigger joke.  In DC, public transit means moving people to DC.  Period.  And while I have used public transit when I worked in DC, where I work now does not have a viable public transit option, and that is assuming there was money in the coffers to support a public transit solution.

You might say I could work from home, and you would be right, if working from home was an option offered to me by my company.  In fact, in these days of increased austerity, you would think that companies would be encouraging people to work from home.  In fact, the opposite is happening as people are desperate to prove that they are valuable and useful and that mean presenting themselves to the office every day and ensuring the face time is achieved.  Since people are not clamouring for the ability to work from home, companies are not making it an option.

So the roads are congested and there we all sit, twice a day, with little option.  And they wonder why people are texting when they drive?  Is it any real surprise?

Tell me they are not gouging

Unless you live and work in the same building, or are independently wealthy, you cannot help but notice that the price of gas has gone up significantly in the last couple of weeks, even more so than during the unrest in Middle East, or even during the initial invasions of Iraq in 2003.

The experts are saying it is an issue of demand.  Drivers are demanding more gas.  And yet other experts, pointing to increased use of fuel efficient vehicles and radical changes in driving patterns in general say it is speculators driving up the price.  But who is speculating and what are they speculating on?

Recent reports have the price of oil dropping through $90 a barrel, normally the main driver of high gas prices.  In fact, oil has not exceeded $100 a barrel since the unrest in Libya began.  Other commodity items are similarly declining.  So who is speculating?

It will not come as a surprise that the oil companies themselves are already out in front of this with advertisements that portray them as the good guys, investing in new technologies, communities, and mom and apple pie. Yet it will not come as a surprise when they announce yet new record profits at the end of the quarter, driven by gas prices over $4 a gallon.  And yet no one can prove they are gouging, or price fixing, despite every station having the same price, and moving in lockstep when the new truck load arrives.

Clearly the United States needs to find a solution to the problem.  But the average American does not have the ability to cut back much more because of the poor design and zoning decisions that have been made over the last 100 years.  Most people cannot afford to live where they work, nor are they in control of the traffic that they have to wrestle with on a daily basis.  So until I see some real change, I cannot think that the oil companies are doing anything but gouging.  And I will not easily change my mind on this.