klooiblog 2

Door mux op donderdag 01 februari 2007 19:57 - Reacties (1)
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mux' rant about cars

Most people who know me, even just casually, don't identify me with cars or motorized transportation. In fact, I have a pronounced distaste for cars in particular. Through the years I have tried to pin down exactly what it is that I really hate about cars, but I never had more than a couple hours worth of exposure per month, if that even. However, I have recently had the opportunity to use a car for prolonged periods of time and I think it is time for a rant. Here we go.

This is a great car

There is absolutely no disputing the sheer craftsmanship that goes into a modern car. Let me throw in something that should have gone into the introduction: I am currently driving my parents' second car, a Nissan Pixo '09 998cc (gasoline). This is a verbatim rebadge of the Suzuki Alto, a very popular 5 door compact car that has had many revisions in the past. Let me first start with this: this car cost my parents less than §9500 to buy. For this money you get a ridiculously technology packed piece of kit like you wouldn't believe. As an outside person looking in (I have nearly zero interest in cars as a commodity product) I literally cannot believe the price tag, somebody must be losing money on this or optimizing every possible step in the production and distribution chain. This car costs less than a good 3 weeks of billable hours for me. For reference: this includes sales tax (back then 19%) and something called BPM which is a mysterious couple of tens of percent extra tax in the Netherlands for no particular reason. Basically, this car has to be produced, distributed and serviced for 3 years (during the warranty period) on a budget of about §5000. The prices of the Maruti Suzuki (Indian subsidiary of Suzuki) reflect this kind of base price - there are almost no taxes there.

Most people seem to look at these rock-bottom compact cars with some kind of disdain, like they're not real cars. I have honestly never understood this attitude, I think this is some cultural thing in cars that I never learnt. Apparently, very cheap cars are bad or something. Right, how do you explain the amazing everything in this car then? The engine is a true beast.

Oh, right, this leads to my next complaint about cars: apparently like in electronics where the processor frequency is apparently the one and only true measure of performance, in cars the number of cylinders times bore times stroke is the ultimate measure of performance. Or the amount of brake horse power, like, that figure that you never ever attain ever in any practical situation. By the way, this engine is rated 68hp @ 6krpm. Aside from shifting errors, I have never logged more than 3600rpm on my OBD2 logger. I cannot see how this horsepower figure matters to anyone using a car for transportation rather than running laps around the NŁrburgring.

Oh, by the way, for a couple of months I have been living about 30km from the NŁrburgring. I can see it in the distance if I peek over this hill. It's apparently awesome :)

Sorry, I get distracted. The engine. It's awesome - it has all the modern bells and whistles you would like and actually get: it of course has fully variable injection, variable valve timing, 5 manual gears actuated with dual cables, a reasonably economical 1:3.9 diff, I learnt just today that it has a non-return modulating fuel pump, maximum torque at just 3400rpm (that is low for gasoline), idles reliably (!) at 650rpm, is safe life rated for 300Mm... This is basically a fully decked out (for 2009) ultra-commoditized but lacking absolutely no features engine. By the way, it is the Suzuki K10B engine for those who want to look it up. The car has steering assist, brake assist, ABS as standard with about 120kW braking power at maximum grip. Most people will say 'uh, why is this a big deal? this is kind of standard on all cars nowadays?'. It wasn't 10 years ago! And a car you'd have bought 10 years ago with those features would cost twice as much - accounting for purchasing power parity of course.

OK, so things get better through the years. Yeah, but this is not something that works with Moore's law. Car engines don't scale like silicon chips. Metalworking techniques don't get cheaper. In fact, it's gotten substantially (almost 1.5x) more expensive to manufacture steel from half fabricates, and more than twice as expensive to transport anything significant. They have managed to reduce cost to an insane level, and we get more (and great) features in addition as well!

This car drives great. There is no question about it. No, it doesn't have air conditioning, it is a bit (but not much) louder than a BMW X5. It doesn't have wank useless features like seat heating or what do they sell these days, make up dispensers or something? I don't know, I don't really have any interest in that. But seriously: back in the day I remember my parents driving a HFL 30 000 car (that's dutch guilders, our national currency before the Euro, 2.2HFL = 1§) to our holiday destination about 1000km away. They had to switch 3 or 4 times along the way because it didn't have steering assist, and even on highway use that was really tiring. It had shit lights that did little more than help you be seen, but without roadside lights they didn't help much to avoid disaster. The ride comfort was so bad that I regularly almost had to hurl. And the fuel economy was not good at all. Even though it was a station car, it didn't actually have that much boot space, and it was awkwardly shaped. Oh, and our holiday destination was in the Alps, and the car had trouble even at high RPM to get us up the mountain passes - this was a 110 or 120hp engine as well.

Compare that to this Nissan Pixo. No contest, you say? Well, let me tell you. It has steering assist and actually reasonable suspension. I regularly drive about 350km between Germany and the Netherlands now, and I have no trouble doing that in one go. I often still go out for a walk just to keep safe in traffic, but there is no question that this car can comfortably carry me for 1000km in one sitting if I'd want to. It drives effortlessly. That is not a specific praise of this specific car - it is in general the state of cars nowadays: there are no bad cars. They are all great. Same goes for the engine. 70hp is actually a heck of a lot of power for an 880kg car. It has a better power to weight ratio - and a significantly better torque to weight ratio than the great majority of higher end cars with 1.2 or 1.6L engines. Yeah, sorry about the engine capacity comparison, I know I'm a hypocrite. Because the maximum torque point is relatively low in the RPM range, and because the power curve is fairly flat above that, you *can* actually use the power in daily driving, instead having a nice sticker saying '70hp', but actually only ever being able to use 30 or so. I can drive up an 8% grade hill at 110km/h and have power to spare - even getting up an 8% grade at city driving speeds was challenging for my parents' old car!

Even the boot is not bad at all. The back seat flips down (again, one of those features that are standard now, but weren't always) to get more space than my parents' old, 1700kg station wagon. What the hell. The actual liter capacity and useful (also called pallet) capacity of this car is not that much worse than many sedans or station wagons. Real, usable space for stuff. Like bikes. You should ride a bike. Of course, you wouldn't be able to fit two pallets worth of stuff in it, like in a Volvo 940. It's still a compact car.

It seems like I'm harping on and on about trivial things, but I'm not. You're getting incredible value for money and those people at Suzuki are absolutely _not_ treating you like a second class citizen. You get an extremely usable car with a great engine for daily driving, more than adequate comfort for any occasion and practical features that you don't even need 99% of the time, but they are there. And they're selling it with undoubtably razor-thin margins. As an engineer and technology enthusiast I cannot repeat enough my amazement at this.

Yes, there is a 'but' coming. I've been ranting a bit through the text, but the worst is still to come. Where to start, oh man, where to start. Okay, let's start with engineering first, because that's my thing.

Cars are not engineered very well

Let me preface this by saying that I have an aerospace background. I know a fair bit about materials of all kinds (metals, plastics, composites), engines (aircraft engines and rockets mostly, but I do have a lingering interest in reciprocating and rotary engines as well), manufacturing methods and of course systems engineering. I know how to put different things together. So... alright, let's start with the obvious: the shape. I should not accept this, the boxy car of today. And in some respects I don't accept it.
A car is about as aerodynamic as a brick
The majority of resistance at appreciable speed is wind resistance. You should try your best as a car manufacturer to reduce frontal area and more importantly: to streamline the entire car. Here lies a bit of ignorance on the general public as well, and sorry if I am insulting you here, but: cars are about as aerodynamic as a brick. All cars. There are no aerodynamic cars. At all, none, nada. You see those nice pictures of cars in a wind tunnel? That's not to reduce their air resistance, that is to reduce wind noise and eliminate stability issues. It has absolutely nothing to do with air resistance. Even cars that are purportedly optimized in this respect still break every rule of aerodynamic design, and as such I cannot take them seriously for such claims. They're vanity claims. Whoopdedoo, we have 10% less drag. Let me tell you something: airplanes, even very small ones, have better fuel economy than cars and transport people at 10x higher speeds. Air drag scales with the square of speed, so that's 100 times lower specific air drag*. You have a long way to go, cars.

If any car manufacturer would be serious about air drag, they would not make flared wheel arches but instead enclose at least the back wheels, preferably front as well. They would have an entirely closed nose, they would have no transverse gaps on the body in the front portion of the car (like the bonnet and windscreen wipers), they would rely entirely on a rear view camera and get rid of those useless mirrors. Also, they would close off the underside and at least do a first attempt at fixing the separating airflow at the back (although I agree that that is by far the hardest thing to accomplish given reasonable size constraints). These are not hard things to do. At all. This is something you can do in your back yard. Ecomodders do this kind of stuff in their shed with absolutely horrible workmanship and get awesome results. The only reason car manufacturers aren't doing this, is because they are conservative backwards people. They have to be! They rely on extreme mass manufacturing, having guaranteed sales in the hundreds of thousands, millions even. They need to make sure that a car is not a spaceship, that people will not be put off by the shape in any way. So they make the same fundamental design errors that they have made for tens of years. Even though I am sure they know deep in their engineering hearts that they are wrong.

Other things that are incomprehensible from an engineering point of view are things like the use of metal in decorative places. Cars are extremely heavy as they are already - they have far and away the worst payload-to-empty weight figure of merit. Airplanes almost always have more mass in fuel than structural material, and another 2 to 5 times (!!) as much payload. You can get a 20 ton airplane transporting 15 tons of fuel and 50 tons of people and cargo at 1000 km/h and still get better fuel economy than a car. A 15-kg bike can transport a 120-kg person+bags. But a car needs to be around about a ton to carry a single person - at least most of the time. So why not make an effort to reduce a little?

Why is my roof made of metal. Well, I know exactly why: because it's a class 0 surface. It's shiny and smooth, and that is what sells. If they would save 30kg and made the roof out of plastic, nobody would buy the car (in their minds at least). Because plastic by itself can never have the same surface finish for the same price.

"Well, some parts in the car serve a dual purpose, both decorative and structural" - bullshit. All external surfaces can and should be the lightest possible material. Many steel parts in a car can be replaced by much lighter alternatives. Their structural function can be much better fulfilled by a differently shaped structural beam underneath - which can of course be made out of steel. But: _less_ steel. And you can cover that turd up with a nice sheet of lightweight plastic. Looks good enough to sell and saves you a lot of weight. Of course, cost is also a major concern here, which is that other big driver of suboptimal material choices.

And don't even get me started about car batteries. Lead? Zinc? Didn't you hear about lithium ion? Lithium Iron Phosphate? That stuff was new about 20 years ago, has at least 10 times the specific energy and even better specific power... Just no.

*gross oversimplification, but when you do the math it does boil down to about 2 orders of magnitude
Cars do not take the user very seriously
Let's vary things up a bit. I have been ranting about engineering for a while now, let's talk usability annoyances. I have been infinitely pissed ever since I found out that your speedometer in your car is structurally and intentionally lying. Apparently everybody knows this, but I was not informed. What the hell. Here is how it goes:

Your car knows exceedingly well how fast it is going. It has speed trim data in the on-board computer matching your tires, it knows the rpm of your wheels, ergo it knows exactly how fast it goes. It then throws this information over CAN or OBD and this gets picked up by the speedometer, which intentionally adds something like 3 km/h to this figure and then displays the resulting WRONG speed. The speed as displayed on my speedometer is not actually my current velocity! And people accept this shit? What the hell!

Apparently, this is being done so people don't speed. The speedo says your speed is higher than it actually is, so you don't easily go over. That's like outfitting an aeroplane with an altimeter that always says you are 10 meters lower than you actually are - so you don't accidentally hit the ground. Sounds like a good idea, until you want to actually land. Whoops, wrong data, we missed the runway, better crash in that patch of grass there. I cannot wrap my head around the fact that essential operational instruments are intentionally lying to me. I have to mentally subtract an undocumented offset from my dials to get my actual speed. Why are they even fitting speedos in the first place? Might as well fit a farting monkey, that's at least something entertaining to watch during a long-haul drive.

So what I've been doing is I have installed an Android App called Torque and I plugged in a cheap $5 ebay OBD2-to-bluetooth module. Then I placed a suction cup phone holder right on top of the speedometer and placed my phone there, which displays the actual OBD2 speed (like, what is actually measured and not distorted by backwards assholery). Oh, and all the other information that my dashboard just happens to forget to display. Like engine RPM and fuel economy. Why is this not on my dashboard? Was it that hard to do? Don't shit me with cost reduction, this is intentional removal of features for market segmentation. Especially when I can add back such functionality with $5 cost on my part..

People driving cars are exceedingly stupid

Okay, even if you didn't agree with anything I ranted about in the past sections, you have to agree with me that car drivers are stupid. But I am not talking about superficial stupidity, neglect and assholery on the road. This is not about road rage at all - this is about driver behaviour being counterproductive to any goal you might have driving a car.

So, what do you want to do in a car. I presume you intend on doing any selection of this list:
  • Get to some place as quickly as possible
  • Choose your own time and route, i.e. authority over your vehicle
  • Have as low cost transportation as possible without sacrificing other parts of this list
  • Have fun
So... why are people displaying driving behaviour (and yes, I am talking about almost all people driving cars, trucks, etc.) that is fundamentally counterproductive to all of this? First of all, let's talk about rush hour. This should not exist anymore. There is a mathematical theorem that states that the RMS value of a signal is always higher than or equal to the average value, where the only intersection of these two statistics is when the signal is constant. This is an extremely fancy way of saying that it is always better to spread out any load on a system as much as possible, instead of loading a system very much at one time and leaving it sitting idle the rest of the time. Rush hour is a stupid, idiotic system. And there is an extremely easy way to fix it: shift around working hours a bit.

Oh but mux, this is totally not possible because EVERYBODY ALWAYS needs to work from 9 to 5 otherwise distributors whinge whinge bullshit crap. In the Netherlands, only 30% of the working public works at a company with a 9-to-5 policy and even better, less than the majority of the employees are required to be there in a very strict timeslot. The real and only solution to traffic jams is not making roads wider, it is spreading around working hours. This has a very profound effect: right now, rush hour is created by a peak amount of cars driving in a timeslot of about ~20-25 minutes. If the government or just large companies themselves would only adopt as company policy that people have to come in 30 minutes earlier or later (and leave accordingly), you would remove this peak, causing traffic jams not even to happen. Also, cars shouldn't be driven by people, but it's going to take another couple tens of years before that is a reality...
Traffic jams are caused by behaviour, not road capacity
Talking about traffic jams, did you know that very few traffic jams actually are caused by road capacity? The most common cause of traffic jams ('harmonicas') is simply driver misbehaviour. It is an unstable system response in slowing traffic. When for whatever reason (bad weather, birds flying into a windshield, somebody having car troubles on the other side of the highway, etc.) people start slowing down, the response of the person directly behind that car is to brake harder than the first one. And the person behind that brakes even harder. And this continues until the slowest car drops under about 70km/h, then you are almost guaranteed to cause a complete stop at some point. And a harmonica traffic jam as a result. Butterfly flapping its wings.

This doesn't just cause traffic jams behind the first point where mother ducky flew over the highway. The cars slowing down suddenly see that the traffic in front of them is moving... it's actually moving pretty fast! Greedy as people are, they accelerate as fast as they can only to find out that they are kind of overshooting and need to brake again. This causes a ripple of harmonica jams both in front and in back of the first incident.

And traffic jams have this very nasty property of reducing road capacity significantly. You can go down to less than 20% road capacity in a traffic jam. This means that even if the amount of traffic coming into the back of the jam reduces by 80%, you will still perpetuate the jam. It needs to drop ridiculously much in order to dissolve the jam. And mind you - a traffic jam might not even be caused at peak road capacity. More often than not it's not even created near 50% peak road capacity. There is a very wide band of road usage percentages that can easily trigger this unstable driver behaviour, and this severely limits how we need to design our roads. Because of rush hour and driver behaviour, our roads need to be many times wider and have much higher capacity than strictly necessary to carry the average amount of traffic they get. I just cringe at the inefficiency of this obviously horribly designed infrastructure.

There is something you can do as an individual, and it is incredibly effective. You can, by yourself, completely dissolve a traffic jam on a 1- or 2-lane carriageway. This works for the ripple-type jams only, by the way, not for things like road works. Just roughly estimate the actual average speed of the jam (not the highs and lows) and start driving at that speed. This may only be something like 20 km/h. Don't mind people honking their horn behind you - you are doing them a service if they like it or not. Every time the jam moves faster in front of you a large gap will arise, every time the jam moves slower you will catch up to the guys in front of you. But everybody behind you drives at the average rate. You can stabilize their behaviour by moving ever so slightly slower than the average speed of the jam and very slowly accelerating through the jam. If you see a worse jam coming up, do not brake and do not even light up your brake lights, but just leave the car in neutral and roll... until you see that you can safely pick up speed up to the average value again. It literally only requires one car to do this. Why? You increase road capacity so dramatically in such a short amount of time that you cause even 'bad' driving not to fuck this up. Look at google maps and see the jam behind you turn from red to yellow in a matter of minutes. Especially considering the road rage of some people this may require balls of steel, though.


Well, let's not generalize. (Wait, what?) There are people that do this, and even moderately successful attempts at sending police cars on the road to dissolve jams this way. But during rush hour this is a futile effort, because people will still exhibit the same behaviour and cause new jams behind the old one. This leads me to the next stupid cause of traffic jams: manoeuvering jams.
This is a heading in the same vein as the last one
Manoeuvering jams are caused by people on ramps trying to merge with the outermost lane of traffic. The idea of on-ramps is that people have the opportunity to accelerate up to the group velocity of the traffic and merge like a clothing zipper. Many countries officially call this idea zipping - in their own languages ('ritsen' in Dutch). It's not just on-ramps, it's also other lane merges, as well as lane size reductions in front of road works. In general everything that requires people performing a maneuver on a highway or throughway causes this kind of jam.

The problem that causes the actual jam is that people don't match their speed to the traffic and then merge. They accelerate like mad to the end of the on-ramp, realize that there is a line in front of them, braking like mad, standing still for a while until there is a tiny gap in traffic and then merge, causing everybody behind that point to have to brake like mad as well. This severely reduces road capacity near the on-ramp because of course it is impossible for people to see this coming and preventatively merging onto the other lane or, you know, keeping a sane distance from each other so people could actually merge in the first place. Yes, both sides are at fault here. Not just the people on the on-ramp, but also the people in the outermost lane attribute to this problem.

And not just that. Some people on the innermost lane suddenly realize 'OMG I NEED TO EXIT HERE' and then swerve and brake through the packed traffic on the outermost lanes to eventually arrive at the furthest possible exit point. This causes mini-harmonicas on all the lanes, provided there is enough traffic.

A significant influence on this is the European speed differential between trucks/semis and passenger cars. You see, here in Europe most of the traffic is usually limited to 130km/h, whereas trucks are limited to 80 or 90 km/h. This means that on most highways, there is no other sane way of organizing traffic than to put all the trucks on the outermost lane and the rest of traffic on the other lanes. This is different in other parts of the world, where traffic is a bit more uniform usually. These trucks often drive in very long trains of trucks with not that much space in between. Such a train can be hundreds of meters, sometimes kilometers long (tens of vehicles). People on the innermost lane wanting to exit have to find a spot in between to be able to merge out and eventually exit, but this requires much more than the average attention span of ~500m. Of course, this is only a part of the problem but in general I would like to point out: all this trouble is caused by a combination of large speed differences between groups of traffic and suboptimal road design. A great way of solving this is for instance to have dual exits: one off-ramp starting very early, and a second off-ramp lane starting a couple hundred meters further down the road, allowing traffic that didn't have the opportunity to merge to still exit the highway later on.

But all of this can also be very, very easily resolved with behavioural changes. Maybe even with legislation. Right now, the rule is: you have to always choose the outermost lane to drive on, unless you're overtaking somebody. I don't think this is a very good rule, because it causes relatively close-packed and impermeable traffic on the lane that sees the most critical maneuvers. I'd rather see that the rule would be to prefer the second lane. This way, the rightmost lane stays as much 'swiss cheese' as possible, allowing for easy traffic merges from and to ramps. On the behavioural side, next time you drive on a highway or large throughway, keep in mind that there is a great reason to keep a lot of distance from the car in front of you - aside from safety. It's to allow other people to pass in front of you to other destinations. Remember, swiss cheese!
People are even stupider. If that is mathematically possible
Another great example of public property destruction and los of value for the entire human race is the fact that some people seem to forego even the most basic maintenance on their cars. They treat their car like shit, and as a result a great majority of avoidable on-road failures are caused by lack of maintenance. Cars overheating, brakes not functioning properly, low-pressure tires, very long-running structural problems with the car that are known to the owner but never addressed. We are talking about the basics here. Actually a pretty high percentage of motor vehicle failures causes way more loss in time of others (i.e. people having to stand still in a traffic jam) or destruction of public property (vehicle fires causing road damage, trucks driving on flat tires and ripping creases in the road, etc.) than what their repairs would cost. A great analogy is small criminals.

If somebody breaks into your house he (or she) may force open a door, break a window (or two) and steal your HDTV. The actual value that this person gets from your stolen property on the black market is - even for electronics worth thousands of dollars - at most in the order of tens of dollars. Sometimes even single-digit numbers. These people are absolutely desperate for money. So let's do the math.

Broken window, new door, new TV. That's easily $3000 in damages, versus maybe $40 for the crook. That is an incredible destruction of value, not even the most highly paid corporate executives make 3 grand in 5 minutes. It would literally be cheaper for everybody involved to GIVE the criminal $1000 up front if he promises not to break in. Same goes for people who don't maintain their car. Tens or hundreds of people lose 15 minutes of their time, a couple liters of gasoline or diesel and the state can easily lose a couple grand (if not more) on repairs for the road as well as compensation for emergency services. This can all be avoided with a $150 checkup every year. Even if only one in a hundred cars that weren't checked would otherwise catch fire, this would still be cheaper than a single on-road failure of some kind. There is only economic benefit to proper maintenance. But people only think about themselves and society as a whole doesn't want to pay for other people's fuckups, even if it is better for everyone. That's one of those 'morality/common sense is contrary to the greater good' things. I'm a nihilist, by the way.

Oh god, the economy.

And here's another thing that pisses me off: Buying cars. I hope I will never have to do this, because my head will explode. I'm glad that I'm driving other people's cars. So here's the deal: money.

First there is the car manufacturer/dealer/reseller. You want to have a car with the latest awesome technology inside? Aluminum milled piece of fucking art engine block, totally safe life construction that requires zero maintenance? Sure, that'll be 2 cents. Oh, you want a 1940s radio with absolutely no useful functionality at all and Won Hung Lo speakers? Sorry, that'll be $2000 extra. You want USB on your radio so you can listen to some real music instead of rip-my-brains-out pop music? No, sorry, we haven't heard of USB yet. Want navigation built in? Sure, we will sell you navigation software from 2006 with $100 quarterly maps updates that don't actually have up to date maps (I didn't exaggerate this, this is what my parents have in their car, it's called TomTom).

Everything is an upsell. The most basic features are either lacking or sold at ridiculous premiums, even when the user has ample opportunity to replicate such functionality with literally $5 devices from eBay. I get it: they need to make money with high-margin supplemental products to subsidize absolutely razor-thin margins (especially with middle men like dealers) on the cars themselves, but cars are an extreme example of nickel-and-diming. Cars are worse than the App Store.

Next up is the state. Here in the Netherlands we have 5 kinds of taxes on motor vehicles:
  1. BPM, a tax that can be up to 30% of the purchase price of the car, depending on weight and fuel type/consumption
  2. VAT, value added tax
  3. road tax, a three-monthly payment for the use of the infrastructure, depends on weight and fuel type
  4. fuel levies, a fixed euro amount added to each unit of fuel, depending on fuel type
  5. 'bijtelling', a tax construction where the driver of a lease car (not the owning company) has to add a certain percentage of the car's catalog price to his taxable income, leading to a higher amount of income tax to be paid
Wait, what? This is just milking it. Don't get me wrong - I am all for the state taking a cut of something as poorly designed as cars and road infrastructure. But even I think this is unacceptable. There is no reasonable way to explain having to pay taxes in so many different ways. Except for VAT, all taxes have the intent of discouraging high fuel consumption vehicles and outside of the fuel tax and VAT they try to coax people into buying up to date, cleaner cars. But all these taxes are so incredibly... nonorthogonal! Why not just tax exactly based on fuel consumption, or emissions if you want to be really precise? Let me pay a fixed price per gram CO2 and other exhaust compounds. And if you want to discourage vehicle use, charge me per kilometer. But don't let me jump through these ridiculous hoops.

Alright, I get it. I understand why it works the way it does. If all the taxes had to flow in through fuel taxes, people would just import fuel (legally or illegally). If all taxes had to be paid through BPM or a special VAT construction, people would import cars or go through the black market. And if people could just 'get' a car from their employer without any worry about fuel and purchase cost, they would cheat the system as well. But my god, the hoops, the jumping!

The big problem I have with this is that no car is sold on its merits anymore. I had to dig deep into basically non-publically documented information to find out what kind of awesome technology is inside my car. But what is the marketing material let out? '0% bijtelling'. 'low fuel (litre) consumption'. 'light car = low road tax'. No! This is not what is good about the car. This is what is good for bean counters in a stuffy office. This is bullshit. I want a car, not an invoice specification.
As you know, cars are basically never used. They stand still for at least 95% of the time, and during that time they don't vanish into thin air. This would actually solve the parking problem, but the tech just isn't there yet. Uh...

In the Netherlands - but as far as I can tell basically in any dense urban area - parking your car anywhere will cost you money. 'Buying' a parking space or parking shelter near your house costs at least a couple hundred bucks a year, parking near travel destinations (shops, recreational destinations, etc.) will cost you a couple bucks an hour. Problem is; this is just nickel and diming. There is no reasonable explanation to justify having to pay anything for this. Think about it.

An oft-heard explanation is that it's basically compensation for lost usable area. If you do the math; non-building space in the Netherlands costs about §100 per square meter; a regulation parking space is almost exactly 10 square meters. That is §1000 in land value, add to that another §1000ish for (under)pavement and about §1000 every 8 years for maintenance (assuming parking spaces are repaired/renewed simultaneously with road repairs, which is usually the case). §2000 initial investment and §125 a year maintenance. If we use a typical 35 years for the depreciation period, the break-even point for a municipality should be about §125 + 2000 / 35 = §180, include VAT and opportunity cost to get to a nice and even §250/year. Actual costs? You'd be very hard-pressed to find a parking space for less than §500 a year, with §1500ish being more common in the larger cities.

But wait a minute, we're already paying for road maintenance and these parking spaces were already designed into the infrastructure. They haven't gone out of their way to provide you with a parking spot; it was there and paid for already. All this money you're paying - including an often not insignificant service fee - is just a commercial endeavor.

And things get even weirder with parking places near shopping centers. It's hard to find any paid parking spot for less than §1/hr, usually it's between §2-5/hr. For a capacity factor of 20-25%, that is 3500-10k§/year per spot. That is an extremely high rent for a bit of pavement to put your car on. I'd expect at least a shared shower, toilets and central heating for that kind of money. And a pearl necklace if you don't mind.

Again, I can try to be reasonable and say that this is one of the very few ways in the Netherlands for municipalities to levy taxes on their citizens. It is essentially a local tax. Enforce by law, no less. Not paying for parking isn't just a civil offence (i.e. a problem between two people), it is a proper misdemeanor (stepping on the toes of the state) according to the law.
Fuel should be sold by megajoules, not by volume
Now that we're talking about stupid people again. Why are fuel prices such a mess? First of all, why is fuel measured in volume? The property of fuel that makes it valuable is its energy content. Not its volume. And this matters, people! Fuel is appreciably denser at lower temperature, and appreciably more viscous. This viscosity is alleviated by pump holders and fuel distributors by adding small amounts of more volatile (and less energetic) compounds to the mix at low temperatures. When you go and get gas in winter, you get less MJ per liter than in the summer, except if it's really hot and the holding tank has also gotten appreciably hotter. And no, this is not compensated at the counting mechanism. You are really getting less energy for your liters, and another thing: you're paying more.

Another thing: why the hell are people stupid? Sorry, let me rephrase that. Why do people say Diesel cars are more fuel efficient than gasoline or LPG powered cars? They're not. Come on people. Diesel has about 10% more energy content per LITER than gasoline. LPG has 20% less energy content per liter. This does not mean that diesel, gasoline and natural gas-powered cars use appreciably different amounts of energy per distance driven. It's the energy content of the fuel, not the efficiency of the engine that makes the big difference. And yes, I am aware that Diesel engines can actually be more efficient than stochastically injected gasoline engines, but this difference in practice is significantly smaller than simply the energy content of the fuel.

So... did I ever tell you that Diesel is actually much cheaper than gasoline in the Netherlands? Yeah. You get much more energy that you can use more efficiently for much less money. Crazy, eh? Again, let me just fuel up my car in megajoules. Everybody will be much enlightened, there is no way to fuck around with energy content, prices and taxing becomes that much easier. Also, people will know a lot better how to compare stupid internal combustion engines and awesome wonderful electric cars.

Electric cars are awesome.

This chapter needs no explanation. Electric cars are just the best thing ever. Buy one now. I recommend the Renault Twizy.

I didn't finish my rant about vehicle weight

Sorry, I have another big issue with conventional car design. It's safety, and the associated weight penalties. I can honestly not believe how people are so ignorant about car safety, and don't understand what matters in a car. I'm talking about emergency safety. I actually have the end-all, be-all solution for perfect crash safety. I know exactly what you need to do to make a crash have as little physical impact on the human body as possible. It's quite incredible. I could patent it, but I don't believe in that system (rant for another time). Here it is: reduce acceleration as much as possible.

That is all.

So... acceleration. Well, most people will want me to say deceleration here. Most of the time, when you're in a crash of some kind, you will decelerate fairly rapidly. Maybe against another car, maybe against a solid object like a giant Lenin statue. I don't know, pick SOMETHING. So here's the deal: acceleration is measured in m/s/s or m/s2, i.e. meters per second per second - or speed per second. How many kilometers per hour do you lose per second. Say you take 1 second to go from 36 km/h to a stand-still. That is 10m/s starting speed, 0 at the end, this takes 1 second, i.e. 10 m/s/s. Average of course. 10 m/2 is what is colloquially known as 1g. You have about a 50% survival rate at an impact of around 50g. You will never survive an impact of 100g.

During an impact, you necessarily need to decelerate a lot, and you often don't have much room to do it with. Say you're about to hit a brick wall. The wall won't budge. What will budge, is your car and your body itself. What car manufacturers try to do, is to let the entire body of the car up to you crumple up as much as possible, while keeping the part of the car around you intact. This way, the amount of deceleration you need to do gets spread over the distance that the car can crumple. It's literally called the crumple zone, and on almost all cars it is about 1 meter.

We can do math with this. Say you're driving into a brick wall at 36 km/h, i.e. 10 m/s. You have 1 meter to decelerate in. What is your average deceleration? There is a formula for that: s = 0.5 x v2/a. s means distance, v means velocity, a means acceleration and t means time. We know that s=1 meter and v=10 m/s, so what is a? It turns out that it's 50 m/s2 or about 5g. 5 g-forces is a tiny shock to be honest - fighter pilots regularly get in excess of 8g in normal flight. Peanuts, it's almost trivial to survive this.

So what if you're driving on a highway at 70mph, or 120km/h around metricland. Let's round it off to 30 m/s. Stuff starts looking a lot more grim now: 450 m/2 or around about 45g. A bit more than a 50% survival rate. So... here's the kicker: in actuality, we're seeing only 50% surival rates at an impact of about 50 km/h. Much less than half the speed, and a fraction of this theoretical calculation. What is going on here?

The problem is that cars don't behave like perfect shock absorbers - at all. There is all kinds of shit in a car that prevents a car from 'cleanly' crashing and providing the, let's call it, 'optimal crashing experience' for the passengers. For one, there is a big, stiff, heavy piece of metal in the form of the engine block that prevents the crumple zone from properly crinkling up all the way to you during a crash. Less effective crinkling means less path to decelerate on and higher accelerations. Also, by far not every crash is from the front - many times people will swerve before they crash into something, and the crash will be from the side or at an angle. This reduces how the effectiveness of crumple zones.

To be fair, things have gotten a whole bunch better since the 90s. For one, back in the day it was fairly common to have barely sublethal or even lethal injuries even at low-speed impact. This was because without something like an air bag, you reduce the deceleration path even more - to effectively zero when your head bangs against the console. In many cars, parts from the engine bay or chassis would decide to pierce through your body during an impact because, well, that's just their failure mode. And even if you'd survive a crash, the car around you would be so incredibly mangled that you had bled or burned to death before rescue workers could get you out. This has all been fixed with things like reinforced cage constructions and some extra care put into the failure modes of structural components during a crash. You are unlikely to die from such causes in a car crash nowadays.

But you are still much more likely to die at way lower speeds than you should. And let's face it - behind pedestrians and motorcycles, cars are still very much the least safe mode of transportation. Way less safe than we should accept given the level of risk acceptance in other parts of our daily lives.

Cars, at least conventional car shapes, are really not very well suited towards this goal. There are these fundamental problems in cars that don't allow for a nice low constant deceleration rate during a crash. There is an internal combustion engine in the way that honestly can't really be put anywhere else in the car, there is very little crash protection to the sides just because of the shape of cars. And most importantly: people are horrible car control systems.
Really bad control systems. Seriously.
So let me take a detour here before I start getting back to safety and weight. Control systems are a fancy name for stuff that controls some parameter in a machine. For instance the thermostat in your refrigerator is a control system. It has a temperature input, and by a few preset rules it determines if, when and how strongly it should turn on the compressor. The same goes for a car. Currently in the vast majority of cars, a human uses a set of fairly fuzzy but predictable rules to steer, brake, accelerate and do other things in the car. Now from a high level you would think: how can a human response be predictable? Everybody is different, right? Everybody will react a little differently to different situations. Yeah, true, but there are a few basic parameters that all humans seem to share (and this has been researched exhaustively).

For instance, all humans have this really strong lower limit of reaction time based on simply the time it takes for signals to travel through our bodies. If something really unexpected happens and sudden action needs to be taken, it takes at least almost exactly 1 second to get our feet to do that action. It takes almost exactly half a second to let our arms do something. Fun fact: this is the reason why our legs seem to feel 'slower' or 'less responsive' than our arms. Try doing precision work with your feet, or try to follow unpredictable patterns with them. It's much harder with your feet than with your hands, simply because signals take longer to register. This is a control theory issue.

Anyway. There is this concept of stable control systems. A stable control system never under- or overshoots its target operating point. Let's say you instruct humans to follow a certain route on a road that they have never seen before. Everything is new, they have not learnt the track at all. When you drive over the track really slowly, you are very unlikely to oversteer or understeer, it is easy to compensate for anything you don't do exactly right immediately. But as your speed increases, you will tend not to be as precise anymore. At some point, even the most experiened drivers will not be able to accurately and stably steer into all the corners anymore. This is when the human control system breaks down, we say that this is the point where the control system becomes unstable.

The human-car control system is something that has been studied really intensively by car safety experts, and they have come to the conclusion that for most road conditions, the human-car control system is only stable up to a maximum of about 50 km/h. This figure varies a bit - in tight quarters it can be as little as 15 km/h, on wide freeways it can be about 60km/h. But definitely not more than that. Think about it. If anything unexpected happens, this means that at high speeds most people will actually NOT respond appropriately. They will respond by braking too hard, steering too much, etc. Or maybe too little. Humans are really bad control systems at high speed. And from a control systems engineering point of view, humans should not be accepted as a control system for fast vehicles.

The reason we are putting up with these really crappy control systems is 1) because it's us, and we believe in our own authority and 2) because we're still producing marginally acceptable results. Because of the splendid quality of our infrastructure a lot of the inherent drawbacks of human control systems are compensated and we can actually drive fairly fast without getting in too many accidents. This does mean our carriageways are 4 meters wide per lane instead of the technically sufficient car width + 10cm, but whatever.

But here's a thought for you: cars have not progressed at all in performance for more than 50 years. You were able to drive 80mph on freeways in 1960, as you are now. Computers have gotten 1000 times faster. Cars not. Actually, our average speeds are going down in urban areas. The only way to get progression here, is to get rid of humans as the de facto control system in cars. Only then will we be able to safely get up to really interesting speeds. Who wouldn't want to commute to work at 400mph? It's technically perfectly feasible, but we ourselves - the creative motor behind all our progress - are holding this kind of future back. It is high time to get automatic driving systems, if we ever want transportation to progress.
Back to safety and weight
So this also ties into the speed argument. As I've said, the rate of lethal injuries crosses the 50% mark at about 50km/h. So why the hell would any lawmaker allow us to go faster on highways? It's a one-way ticket to the afterlife when a family of bunnies decides to cross the road in front of your car! Well, the reality is always a lot more nuanced. One really important innovation for safety (arguably the most important one) in recent history is the standard inclusion of anti-lock brakes in cars. This allows people to reliably reduce their speed in emergency situations. In the past, at maximum tilt your wheels may lock up and cause the car to slip. This not only reduces the ability of the car to brake, but it also usually slides it into a less favourable position to crash into an object, e.g. it starts slipping sideways. You do not want to have a high speed sideways crash.

In reality most cars don't come to a sudden stop against a hard obstacle at high speeds at all. You're likely to either completely stop with just the brakes, or maybe barely touch a tree with about 40km/h - which is a very survivable speed provided you have seat belts on. Actual head-on crashes at highway speeds, without braking at all, are extremely rare (and deadly). By the way, another big innovation here are the flexible guide rails on the side of freeways. These are true lifesavers. Much like your crumple zone, they are able to deform a lot and in that process absorb a lot of your kinetic energy.

So. This somehow all ties into vehicle weight. Yes, cars are increasingly safer but this comes at a really big price. In order to make reliable crumple zones, cage constructions and other strenghtening/stiffening provisions in your car, you need to spend a lot of weight on steel bars and whatnot. More importantly: you get what is called a large growth factor. If somewhere in your car you add another kilogram of material for whatever purpose, all these chassis parts and big steel components need to be strengthened just a little bit extra to be able to support the extra weight. The amount of material you need to add to support an extra unit of weight is called the growth factor, and for most cars it is far in excess of 3. This means that if a car company is installing a 1-kg entertainment system in the backs of its seats, the entire car gets 3kg heavier. 1kg for the actual entertainment system, and 2 more kilograms for the added construction materials. This high growth factor is a direct result of the shape of a car combined with restrictions on safety and stiffness (ride quality). And it's a fucking pain in the ass. For reference: aircraft usually have growth factors in the order of 1.5-2, and the human body about 1.3-1.4.

One last thing: status symbols?

So this blows my mind, right? OK, I can imagine that owning a car is a rite of passage of sorts in the United States, as you really can't get anywhere without a car. It is something that is engrained into the culture because of necessity (mostly because the cities have quite stupid design, but that's history for you). But believe it or not; the Netherlands for all its great public transport and bicycle infrastructure everywhere, has some of the highest car ownership and usage in the world. Per capita. As such, car culture is quite big here. Even though we don't have any of the patriotic garbage associated with it; we don't have any major car producers here.

For something that is so commoditized, it is just mind-boggling to me that now, after these things have been around for pretty much a whole century and are basically old news, cars are STILL seen as status symbols by some. This mindset is waning, and for good reason, but the fact that cars have been held up as some kind of measure of self-worth or even as valuable beyond its practical use is crazy.

Cars are very good pieces of internal engineering, but honestly nobody seems to be interested in this in the general, car-loving public. Most status-enhancing features are:
  • The shape, color and general aesthetics of a car (because... humans are visual beings or something?)
  • The sound they make (what?!)
  • Their performance in out-of-this-world impractical circumstances that the buyer will never perfom with any kind of prowess
  • Their age?!
As with everything in this rant; I get it. I truly do. I understand perfectly well that cars are part of our prolonged culture. They still represent, at least psychologically, a sense of agency and freedom. Some cars are aesthetically pleasing (and tastes can differ as to which is the 'prettiest'). But this sentiment doesn't hold water nowadays. As a society we should have moved on from this now-ancient piece of technology that is holding us back rather than giving us freedom. Cars in my opinion hold an undeservedly large amount of cachet, they are a status symbol of a by-gone era.


So I finally did it. This is SUCH a relief. I sat down and wrote down everything I love and hate about cars; from the infrastructure arguments to the engineering and oh my god the people. Silly humans.

Every individual pain point in this rant is done much better in some other form of transportation. Bicycles are my personal favourite; the engineering on them is just exquisite, they are fundamentally incredibly efficient in every way and they suffice for pretty much all my transportation needs. But they have their limitations, and trying to fix those by changing bicycles is completely missing the point. Bicycles are fundamentally the wrong way to go if you want to travel long distance or at greater speed. You need other stuff.

Aircraft are another one of those marvels of technology. Slightly worse than bikes in the efficiency category, but still orders of magnitude ahead of cars and public transportation. They do take away agency though, which is a big issue for how we live our lives.

So let's face it. Cars are a unique intersection of infrastructure and vehicle type that you just cannot replicate in any other way. Cars are, for better or for worse, here to stay. But I see clear avenues for improvement.

In my opinion, self-driving cars (actually, 'autos' of any kind) as well as electric cars solve a great deal of my gripes with the tech. As it is now, I would never want to spend any money on a traditional car and by proxy perpetuate this idiotic travesty of horrible engineering and morality. But an electric, self-driving car... well, I would approve of such things as these. Maybe I don't even have to ever buy into cars. Maybe 'self-driving EVs as a service' will become a thing. I'd love that even more. One thing is for sure: no. Just no. I don't even.