The rules to follow when getting your kid a car

It used to be the bigger the better, but nowadays safety features and fuel economy are key features to look for

When you write about the auto industry for enough years, you learn there are a handful of perennial questions you will get from readers, the same ones that pop up over and over again. Sure, there are more queries around hybrids lately, and some people demanding more round-a-bouts and some demanding fewer, but my top three have remained: should I use regular oil or synthetic, why do idiots hog the passing lane, and what’s the best used car to buy for my kid who is going away to college?

The first question can be answered in your owner’s manual, not even Kreskin knows why those idiots can’t get out of the passing lane, but the used car question? That one is fun.

There are still some tendrils of old school thinking that show through, especially when it’s a grandparent asking the question. Bigger must be safer, right? I mean, my parents sent me off to school in a 1976 flaming orange AMC Matador wagon, and despite the hole in the passenger side floor and the fact I had to call for a boost most nights, it was perfect. My parents imagined me safely ensconced in a tank. They didn’t know it essentially made me a taxi service, as I happily ferried all of my friends around. I’m sure my parents didn’t realized they were creating a clown car, but there is nobody as inventive as university kids when it comes to doing dumb things with cars.

Which brings me to my first rule of Which Car Should I Get My Kid. No matter how hard you think you’ve covered all the bases, they will come up with new ways to make you crazy. The condition of that vehicle is about to test your patience. Here are a few more rules:

Bigger is not necessarily better You may be anticipating your student on the highway traipsing back home for holidays, but in reality, that car is probably going to be used in a more urban setting. Think packed parking lots, jaunts for groceries, or half the residence floor cramming in to head out for the evening. With the versatility provided by even compact cars these days, your student can maximize cargo space without having to wedge a barge into tight parking spaces. If your student is commuting daily, fuel economy will be important. Having said that, understand no matter what size vehicle you get, it will come home with door dings on the outside and garbage up to the windows on the inside.

You’re probably gonna need a bigger budget Today’s cars are built better and last longer. You are not going to get a three-year-old car for a few thousand dollars. The upside is there are some great cars out there that are eight-years-old and have lots of life left in them. Consider using a Certified Used Car seller for added protection, but if you buy privately, make sure any purchase you’re considering has the okay of a good mechanic as well as a seller’s package.

Determine true need If you’re only thinking about slogging a roomful of furniture into student housing, you might be overlooking the fact it’s easier, safer and cheaper to do that trip twice a year with a rental. Instead, consider the true day to day needs of your student. That smaller car will make more sense.

Get good information This may seem like a no-brainer, but the used car world can be overwhelming. Check places like Driving.ca for reviews, and plenty of classifieds for a general guide on prices. I also wouldn’t buy anything without checking online with sites such as Consumer Reports or an actual copy of the Lemon-Aid Car Guide, put out annually by the Automobile Protection Association (APA) (full disclosure: I work with the APA, and they produce my TV show, the Lemon Aid Car Show). You may be sidling up to a great deal for your kid, but these guides will tell you how the vehicle has fared over its lifespan and if the mileage means it’s time to ask about the timing belt.

Maintaining a long distance relationship This is how you will now be dealing with that vehicle. You’re probably used to have a hands-on approach to things like tire rotations, oil changes and sorting out that funny grinding noise. Accept that your student, busily immersed in school away from home, will be less fastidious about upkeep. Make sure it has decent tires, switch them to winters at Thanksgiving, and put an extra washer fluid jug in the trunk. I’m aware if a kid is old enough to be away at school they’re old enough to maintain a vehicle. I’m also aware if this is a first car, there will be a learning curve and it will take place in a new city. If the oil change interval is close, let your student know that a quickie oil change at a franchise is fine, but not to okay any of the upsells that will inevitably be tried. Make an appointment with your own mechanic when you know the car will be home.

Check insurance first Check with your broker to ascertain how the vehicle will be insured because this will have implications on what car fits your price bracket. If your kid has successfully talked you out of a ten year old Caravan (lovely tanks, those, in spite of having to replace so many brakes), don’t let them lead you into a two-seater slingshot. Newer cars are often cheaper to insure because they have so many safety features. Where we were once conditioned to see size as being the relevant safety feature in a crash, now we know its airbags and collision avoidance. Weigh those things carefully.

As for the actual cars? I’m frequently surprised at which cars turn out to be the workhorses in some households. I had a ’94 Chrysler Intrepid from my late mother and that thing ran forever. I’m a Hyundai fan in recent years, and I wouldn’t be entirely surprised if my first new vehicle, a 1984 Dodge minivan, is still on the road somewhere, that thing performed so well.

Readers? Your turn. What’s the best low-maintenance, sturdy vehicle you’ve ever owned?

Posted in Drive She Said | 3 Comments

Rally shows its heart with Moroccan medical work

Finishing the gruelling race is rewarding, but not as much as seeing the work done by the Coeur de Gazelles

Women participate in the Rallye Aicha des Gazelle – the Gazelle Rally – for many reasons. Some are looking for something that tests them at the highest levels of their mental and physical capacity; some are celebrating milestones, battling demons, seeking redemption from a previous year, or simply trying something new. But for whatever brings them here, the Rally itself has very important reasons for existing.

Unlike some sporting events that show up, put on a show and leave the tattered arenas behind them in their wake, the Gazelle Rally has formed long term partnerships in the most remote areas of Morocco to bring in medical care, education and job creation. The infrastructure is year round, meaning the work goes on long after the last 4X4s have packed up and headed home.

The Rallye des Gazelle is the brainchild of Dominique Serra, a force of nature, who, 28 years ago, sought to create a rally that would be world class, environmentally innovative and deliver a key message: women can compete at the most extreme levels of motorsport. There is nothing watered down about this event. Women are tested for eight days to the limits of their physical, emotional, mental and intellectual capabilities. Serra tossed aside the traditional rule book of most rallies: the Gazelle Rally is about the shortest distance between two points, not the fastest one. Without the aid of GPS and navigational systems, it is an old-school test of your abilities with maps and compasses, rulers and coordinates. It is insanely difficult, both to navigate and to drive.

I was initially going to cover the rally solely as a report, but some brainstorming eventually put me in the driver’s seat of a Toyota Land Cruiser Prado, with my sister in the navigator seat. We are both new to this, but how better to understand what goes on in the mind – and heart – of a Gazelle, than to become one? Competing and reporting simultaneously immediately presented problems I hadn’t foreseen: I underestimated the toll the rally would take on me while overestimating my ability to wear two hats. The cost was getting unranked in the early goings, but Serra has thought that through, too.

Unranked (a breakdown or call for help that falls outside the acceptable on-course fixes) may mean you’re out of the points contention, but you can still drive every day and continue. It’s a brilliant consolation prize, because once you start competing, a bad day simply makes you impatient for the next one to begin – at 4am.

Being unranked also allows you to delve a little deeper into the work the organization does in the area. Missing a checkpoint one day wasn’t a complete wash; I spent time at the day’s location of the medical caravan that is the hub of the Coeur de Gazelles. Serra’s daughter, Marina Vrillacq, is the president of the Coeur de Gazelles, created 17 years ago to bring teams of medical experts to those living in the most unreachable parts of this country. They use existing infrastructure in these communities – on-the-ground people who identify those who need assistance and help create conduits between the population and the medical help.

Backed by European Volkswagen Véhicules Utilitaires, Aicha (A Moroccan food company) and ATOL Opticians, the Coeur de Gazelle partners with the Moroccan Ministry for Health and 50 volunteers in a large and growing range of medical specialties, including pediatrics, gynecology, general practitioners, dentistry, ophthalmology pharmacology, dermatology and screening for diabetes, cataracts and trachoma. In 2017, the organization reported:

3,912 people received medical care
3,795 prescriptions were provided
9,610 medical services, including 4812 consultations and 16 surgeries
1,787 general medical consultations
690 pediatric consultations
283 gynecological consultations and 128 ultrasounds
417 diabetes tests
465 dental consultations

During the two weeks the Rally is in the area, the medical caravan moves daily, usually operating out of schools or public buildings. Doctors set up shop and see hundreds of people who often walk hours just to receive medical attention. Staff tell me some of the highlights: seeing someone have a pair of glasses put on for the first time, and truly seeing clearly. Kids receiving toothbrushes and toothpaste for the first time; parents learning how to spot and treat fever in children; how to cope with diarrhea, a constant threat in parts of the world without clean water; women receiving help with nursing their babies; all patients receiving instruction in preventative medicine. Organizers know who to expect – that fabulous local network again – and beyond medical care, clothing and things like wheelchairs are delivered, too.

When you actually see this happening, the crowds of people politely queuing as they wait to see a doctor, it’s hard to ever see the Gazelle Rally as just an off-road motorsports event. The tendrils of what the rally means to competitors – the tears, the exhilaration, the sweat, the anguish, the triumphs and the setbacks – reveal the heart of those who pay to play. Learning the Coeur de Gazelles provides ongoing medical support – transporting patients to city centres for more intense care, year round – reveals the heart of the organization.

The Gazelle Rally is fiercely proud of its ISO 14001 certification, acquired in 2010 and the only motorsport event in the world to have it. The bivouacs sort waste to recycle, compost and incinerate, water and waste is filtered, and nothing is left behind. Water bottles are collected – a new project here creates buildings by filling the bottles with sand to form walls. There are no scars left behind on the landscape, and those who participate sign up to respect that ethos.

I had my own reasons for wanting to participate in this exceptional rally. It’s touted as the adventure of a lifetime – and it is – but is also fundamentally alters your thinking about more than just yourself.

You may show up here uncertain of what to expect, but you cannot leave here unchanged.

Posted in Drive She Said | 2 Comments

Lincoln, Genesis pick-up services could do more than just save time

Time is valuable for customers, but also for dealerships who might want to get fixes right the first time

Starting March 1, Lincoln dealers will pick up a client’s 2018 vehicle when it is time for service and drop it off when finished.”

Lincoln, you have just said the magic words.

The best way to make my vehicle service experience fantastic is by removing me from the equation. Let me avoid the faux ficus and the leather-like couches; let me not drink a partial cup of lukewarm pod coffee while I read the promotional material perched on the pile of tires for the umpteenth time because the Macleans is a year old and the declared Sexiest Man Alive, well, isn’t.

Oh, for sure there have always been secret lists for premium brands, customers who never have to bump shoulders at the service desk with mere mortals, but this announcement from Lincoln is definitely throwing down the gauntlet. For the cost of anything sporting the Lincoln badge, you can be special, too.

Genesis offers a similar service, but that was mostly due to not having stand-alone dealerships, and a need for Hyundai to widen the perception gap between the little Elantra sitting in my driveway and the G90 I would buy if I could. But though there will be brick-and-mortar Genesis dealerships soon, the service will still continue. Ford/Lincoln has plenty of dealerships on the ground; they’re just letting you know you don’t have to go to them for service.

When Lincoln comes to get your 2018 car for service, they’ll leave you a loaner behind. To be honest, if more manufacturers did even just this, consumers would be less frothy about the service experience. I own a car because I need a car. If I’m driving a ten-year-old car that requires more care and feeding than a new one, I get that I can’t expect a dealer or manufacturer to accept blame for the fact my car is simply aging; what would be nice is if they stepped up more when things go beyond anticipated, reasonable maintenance. Especially when it’s a build fault, and not an owner fault.

And this is where the Lincoln Proclamation could truly steer the automotive industry in a whole new owner-friendly direction. For car owners, the number one time suck begins with the sentence, “We’re sorry, we were unable to replicate the problem you’ve described.” I’m not saying a dealer, and by extension the manufacturer, would work harder or differently if they were the ones traipsing back and forth trying to solve a mystery issue.

Oh wait. Yes, I am.

The Lincoln program will see the manufacturer and the dealer coordinating for its execution. To minimize waste in that program, they will no doubt not just be addressing needed service, but anticipating other things. If this car is in my shop’s bay right now, I’m going to check on recalls, remember any other hiccups that have occurred with similar vehicles and do whatever I can to make sure I’m not heading off to pick it up again next week. If I have a pricey loaner car out there (and it will be a Lincoln-for-Lincoln), I want it back.

For anyone who doesn’t like letting their car out of their sight, it’s been a long time since you could go past the garage gates and see anything anyway. When a tech comes out to announce they’d like to do a brake service, that information is just as quickly transmitted to you via your phone. You can easily look up service that is recommended by the manufacturer, make sure it lines up with service being recommended by the dealer (another huge point of contention between car owners and car sellers), and make your choice.

As this program rolls out into the next year or two, Lincoln is also smart to put their brand-satisfied customers behind the wheel of a new car a couple of times a year. What better way to show off the new product than by letting someone pilot it around for a day? These will prove to be invaluable test drives with zero pressure from a salesperson yakking away in the back seat.

Most new vehicles require very little maintenance. As more and more technology comes on board, however, it’s reflashes and reboots of computer systems that send cars back to the mothership long before the new car smell has faded. While more and more updates can be sent directly to the car, there are still growing pains and glitches in every brand, no matter how much you pay. To a consumer, taking the car to the garage is taking the car to the garage, regardless of the reason, and it throws a wrench into most people’s work day.

Lincoln wins with this program.

Posted in Drive She Said | 2 Comments

Car insurance looks to ditch pink slips, but it’s not as easy as it sounds

Survey shows most Canadians want it on their phones, but there are still a few regulatory hurdles to jump

Are car insurance pink slips finally on the way out?

They are if consumers have anything to say about it. Like rotary phones and letters in the mail, the inconvenient tiny documents are often misplaced, expired or forgotten after their annual glovebox shuffle. A new survey from the Insurance Bureau of Canada (IBC) asked Ontarians what they’d like to see insurance companies institute in the future.

The report, aptly named an “Innovation Agenda” captures where the insurance industry needs to head, and more importantly, where government needs to let them go. At this time, Nova Scotia is the only Canadian province that gives its drivers the choice of receiving their proof of insurance electronically. There are currently 46 American states that do so.

According to the study, 74 per cent of Ontarians want that option. No doubt because 37 per cent have discovered they were driving with expired slips, and 21 per cent have discovered this only when pulled over by police. The laws on the books state that insurance documents, including those pink slips, have to be updated annually and have to be mailed, couriered, or picked up in person and are only valid in paper form. As we increasingly graduate to carrying out more and more of our transactions online, and carry more of our information on smart phones, it makes sense to overhaul the insurance industry standards to reflect what consumers want.

At least 88 per cent of Ontarians already receive at least one of their bank, utility, phone or credit card statements online; 90 per cent find this to be a convenient way to access their information and 79 per cent believe receiving their insurance documents this way is just as safe as paper.

The Innovation study seeks to require the government to go, in essence, where the consumer already is.

It sets out four main recommendations:

1. “Allowing all insurance communications and transactions to be completed and delivered electronically if the consumer provides the necessary consent

2. Allowing insurers to provide consumers with the option of selecting usage-based insurance (UBI) to help determine the cost of their auto insurance

3. Integrating the sharing economy – specifically, technology-enabled ride- and vehicle-sharing services – into the auto insurance system so that insurers can offer new products to cover the risks that individuals face while using sharing economy platforms

4. Granting both incumbent insurers and new market entrants access to the regulatory super sandbox to encourage new innovations that will benefit consumers”

The “super sandbox”, according to Steve Kee of IBC, is “a means of relaxing regulator rules to test new innovative products and services.”

Why is the insurance industry so far behind utility companies, the banks and phone companies? Part of the problem is the choreography required with several governing bodies behind the scenes. Though the provincial government committed to giving consumers more choice online when it came to insurance in its 2017 budget, it’s been crickets as far as any actual changes.

It’s Ontario’s Insurance Act that requires paper proof, despite the Electronic Commerce Act of 2000 that essentially freed up other entities to keep pace with technology. The latter does not cancel the former, outlining the first line of hurdles. Next up? The Compulsory Automobile Insurance Act authorizes the Financial Services Commission of Ontario (FSCO) to determine what format proof of auto insurance will take. You guessed it: FSCO likes pink slips.

FSCO does have the authority to move online for proof of insurance, but here comes the next hurdle: “Ontario’s Privacy Commissioner advises that without additional privacy protections, an individual who gives his or her electronic device to a law enforcement officer to show proof of auto insurance could be vulnerable to that officer searching other content on the device.”

Those tiny slips of paper need the Insurance Act, the Compulsory Automobile Insurance Act, FSCO and the provincial Privacy Commissioner to all be on the same page. Before we can all just have our proof of insurance sent to our phone to be produced at a roadside stop, there has to be a law in place that the officer can’t snoop beyond that one item.

We’ve given up so much of our privacy in the name of innovation it’s almost like the frog taking a slow boil in the pot. Caution is good, yet it’s almost laughable how prehistoric this particular industry – auto insurance – is in relation to all the other business we now conduct online. California and Georgia have specific wordings in place that cover off notices of cancellation as well as wordings and proof of insurance. IBC recommends Ontario consider putting similar constructs in place.

The study is a broad attempt to push the insurance industry ahead, and in a direction that will find consumers receptive. Notable too is the push for better protection in the ride-share category, an entity that is changing almost as fast as it is growing. UBI – usage-based insurance – is increasingly seen as a way to more accurately assess not just risk, but to right-quote those who are willing to offer up their in-car privacy to a black box that reports back driving habits. So far it can only be used for rate reduction and not to set behavior-based higher rates, but I will forever be skeptical of where that will ultimately end up.

So save 31 million pieces of paper, say 80 per cent of Ontarians. Those same Ontarians are, for the most part, driving around in vehicles that are hardly environmentally friendly; but change starts somewhere, and the Insurance Bureau of Canada would like Canadians to have these long-overdue options.

Posted in Drive She Said | 2 Comments

Are you comfortable with your car giving up your secrets?

Recent stats indicate people are becoming more aware of just how much data will be at risk

It’s been nearly five years since some Canadian car insurance companies followed their American counterparts lead and introduced telematics as a way for consumers to save on their insurance. Let us put a black box, or dongle, into your car, and we will reward you for driving like you’re taking a road test every time you get behind the wheel.

Some of us – yours truly – detested the idea. I am naturally suspicious of anything that begets a response that includes the phrase, “If you’re not doing anything wrong, you have nothing to worry about.” That one dimensional thinking will never, ever put your personal benefit ahead of the corporate entity proposing it. Are we finally understanding just how much personal information we may be giving out, and how that information may be used or sold?

A recently released survey from Kanetix.ca, on on-line insurance marketplace comparison service, finds that people are indeed questioning the implications of constant monitoring. But the survey also tackles the question of our move to more autonomous cars; so much data is needed to advance how we drive, it can be a blurry line between the private and the practical. Where is the tipping point where a driver is surrendering more information than they perhaps intended, and who is doing what with that information?

Some of the results are expected. “Two-thirds of respondents said they are comfortable with voice assistance (e.g. Google Assistant or Siri)”. As this technology advances from muddled to very reliable, this makes sense. From a safety standpoint, it’s better to have a driver use voice assistance instead of stabbing away at a screen. Early voice activated systems were generally abysmal, but drivers have embraced this technology which has become generally good, and often excellent.

The trade-off for excellent navigational systems is, obviously, the ability of the car to transmit and receive location data. Similarly, many cars are now sporting systems that not only store vehicle data (all those codes) but also transmit it; manufacturers know when your car needs service not from a mileage guesstimate, but because the car is actually sending them the information. The survey reveals that 60 per cent of us (63 per cent men, 57 per cent women) are comfortable with that.

What your car knows about itself is one thing; what it knows about you, and what it does with that information, is another. Perhaps it’s a growing realization of the far reaching implications of hacking and data breaches, but drivers are digging in their heels about the availability of some information.

Kanetix.ca’s president and CEO Andrew Lo says after initial support for drivers opting to be Big Brothered for insurance savings, now “less than half (46 per cent) of people said they were willing to share lifestyle habits and driving information.” I don’t care if I’m not doing anything wrong; I don’t want it reported back, and I don’t trust how that information will be used. We’ve been told since the inception of insurance companies using telematics that the information will only be used to reward good drivers, not to punish bad ones. Or, more correctly, those who refuse to surrender to monitoring. There is no way that argument will hold, and instead we will no doubt see drivers turned away from insurance companies if they don’t agree to some type of information gathering device or app.

“Previously, you had to physically install a device on your car to opt in,” Lo says. “Now, it can be done with a computer app.” Sounds great, but now, instead of it being your reckless teen who blows the stats on your squeal box attached to your actual car, unless you shut down the app, it could be anyone you’re driving with.

New vehicles are not just receiving information, they’re interacting with the driver. “58 per cent of the audience said they were comfortable with augmented reality or heads-up displays where speed and navigation, for example, appears on the driver’s windshield, with men being much more comfortable than women by a factor of 10 percentage points.” Heads-up displays are still most prominent on higher end vehicles, at the higher trim levels. This statistic could reflect men purchasing more in this segment.

The survey finds a further gender split on the topic of autonomous vehicles, with an overall 59 per cent of respondents being uncomfortable with them – females at 65 per cent, males at 52 per cent. Perhaps unsurprisingly, “the most accepting of autonomous vehicles is the 18 to 34 demographic at 55 per cent, versus 30 per cent of middle aged (45+) respondents.” That’s a huge gap, though not a surprising one.

Andrew Lo spoke to me from the Consumers Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas. He noted a key trend in thinking surrounding how manufacturers and insurance companies will tackle driver behaviour as the car takes over more and more control.

“There will be a shift from personal to commercial, with the risk shifting away from the driver and onto software developers and car manufacturers,” he explained. He cites Tesla teaming with specific insurance companies (in Canada, Aviva) and sees it as a sign of things to come.

If someone got hold of your personal computer or accessed what it held, you’d have no secrets left. Your vehicle is getting close to acquiring the same level of information.

Maybe in the name of safety. But maybe not.

Posted in Drive She Said | 1 Comment

Double drive-thrus bring out the selfish in society

Idling for minutes, racing ahead of the next person, taking too long to order: is it all worth it for that double-double?

In Burlington, ON, the city I live in, with a population just under 200,000, local government aims to keep business drive-thrus out of sensitive areas and downtown cores. Most jurisdictions are following suit, because we know the denigration of our air quality is a real thing with real repercussions.

Having said that, I’m also seeing a proliferation of double drive-thru lanes in those places that have been allowed to install them, or have had them grandfathered in. But back to that air quality thing for a moment: even though many parts of Canada began introducing idling bylaws beginning as early as 2005, drive-thrus are exempt. You may get ticketed for idling your car in your driveway for over a minute (or three; the timing may vary even if the mileage doesn’t), but you can sit for ten minutes trudging along in a lineup for your double-double or Big Mac with nary a concern.

Nuts, eh?

I’d make this column just about idling, but it doesn’t make any difference. Idling bylaws are one of those feel good/look good things that city councils do that is a hollow declaration that they’re doing anything at all. The law is rarely enforced because they hope smart, decent people will do the right thing and not let their vehicle sit there belching out particulate while grinding their teeth as their neighbour starts his truck half an hour before he pulls away. It’s bad for your car, it’s bad for the environment, but selfish is as selfish does.

I’m far more intrigued (and entertained) by the behaviour that takes place at drive-thrus. Especially those double lane ones that seem to be carved out of spaces tighter than a snail’s shell. For the uninitiated, they sport two entry lanes with two order consoles. From there, you merge to funnel to the usual pay and pick-up windows. In theory.

Queue management, as the technique is known, is hardly new. It’s why years ago banks started making you serpentine in line until the next available teller was open. It’s why everywhere from grocery stores to airports, planners have long debated the optics versus the science of individual lines. For every time you show me a shorter line, I’ll show you someone price matching or returning a sweater with no receipt.

The dual-lined drive-thru is a sort of halfway option, but the introduction of people being ensconced in their vehicles instead of afoot changes all the rules. I’ve often seen people exasperated when a line is plugged in a store, but I don’t think I’ve seen anyone come to near-blows. Not so in a drive-thru when there is a cruller on the line.

I’ve written before that zipper merging on a roadway when a lane is ending has been proven repeatedly to be the most expedient way to carry out a merge. Some argue because they think science is dumb, but it matters little: people refuse to do it, and because driving is a team sport, if one person screws it up, we all pay. The double drive-thru is zipper merging slowed down. Or at least it should be.

The “I was here first” concept is hard at work even when it makes no sense. I had a man in a pickup truck order after I did at a dual drive-thru. He’d arrived first, but unbeknownst to me, my little squawk box went off first. I just ordered and pulled ahead, figuring he must have a laundry list of an order or something, until I realized he was climbing the curb in his truck and mowing down a decorative shrub because he was gonna be first, goddamit.

The cashier shrugged tiredly, telling me it happens constantly. They’re forever double-checking who ordered what because people like the dude in the pickup believe an Egg McMuffin is capable of doing time travel and be handed out the window before he orders it.

I use drive-thrus occasionally, and I won’t argue they were life savers when I had two kids belted into car seats and the weather was horrible. But any able-bodied person who will sit in a lineup idling for ten minutes instead of parking and going in is lazy. And anyone who orders a thirty buck laundry list of “One poppy seed bagel, light cream cheese on half, three chocolate TimBits, is there pulp in the orange juice? Four cranberry muffins, oh wait, you only have three? One sec I have to make a call, and can you do that thing where you mix half coffee with half hot chocolate?” needs to get their arse out of that drive-thru line.

If you can’t idle your car in your driveway for two minutes you shouldn’t be able to willingly take part in a drive-thru gridlock for many times that long.

Or take out innocent shrubbery.

Posted in Drive She Said | 1 Comment

How can we stop impaired, distracted drivers once and for all?

Perhaps the best way to fight impairment and curtail distractions is through a completely zero-tolerance policy

Proponents of an all-autonomous driving world usually cite safety, with a corresponding plunge in death and injury, as a leading reason drivers need to be done away with. I may hate the idea in principle, but they have a point: Drivers are idiots. So how do we stop the worst – the impaired and the distracted – once and for all?

Easy: Zero tolerance for booze and drugs, automatic surrender of any handheld device if you’re involved in a collision, and manufacturers must make infotainment systems that require severely limited physical interaction unless the vehicle is in park. Easy.

For decades, police and the courts, both the bricks-and-mortar kind and the public opinion kind, have struggled to punish, warn, scare, beg, plead and coerce people into not drinking if they intend to get behind the wheel. You’re allowed to have this many drinks, but not that many. You can blow this but not that. One set of rules if you’re 19, another if you’re 21. The resources that go into campaigns to serve as carrots and laws to serve as sticks continue to meet hard resistance.

According to Statistics Canada, one in six drivers charged with impaired driving has already been charged in the past decade. You’d think having a DUI on your record make you just a little ashamed; guess you’d be wrong. So, make it zero. Every jurisdiction has their point-oh-somethings for car seizure, for this charge, for that felony. Everybody argues how many beers it’s okay to have in your belly before you head for home; Ride Check officers debate your “just a glass of wine with dinner six hours ago” as they shine a light in your eyes. Remove the debate. Zero.

We call it impaired driving now, instead of drunk driving, because of the proliferation of both illegal (though, soon not) and legal drugs. We actually establish law on not whether you can drive while impaired, but how impaired you’re legally allowed to be. Scrap that. If you’re behind the wheel, you have to be clean.

The lawyers will have a field day, of course. They will argue that the cough syrup your mother gave you when you were seven-years-old has caused you to blow .02 when you’re 35; lawyers are good at that stuff if you pay them enough. So, the courts will get clogged and entrepreneurs will be mass-marketing boozefest morning-after pills that will mask the evidence better than the Russian Athletic Federation. But just like seatbelt usage, we will eventually move into a time when zero is the acceptable norm.

Distracted driving is actually a far bigger threat on our roads these days, and it’s only getting worse. The initial attack was on handheld devices, and rightly so. When having a phone in your car started becoming a thing in the early 1990s, nobody – well, at least not I – could have foreseen the total immersion of entire populations into a screen they held in their hand.

It doesn’t matter how large the fine, how high the demerits or how extreme the toll. People won’t put their phones down. So, cut to the chase: If you’re involved in a collision, wouldn’t you want to know that the other idiot was texting when it happened? Make everyone hand over their devices. We do this when there is a fatality; why wait?

Vehicle manufacturers have crammed so much technology into new cars, drivers now have more decisions than the Apollo astronauts – and they got to the moon. Many of those decisions can be activated by voice command, which should be perfected and all drivers should learn to use. But the only way to actually stop the fiddlers is to remove the ability: Navigation and similar systems should only be able to be set or changed when the car is in park. Not stopped at a red light. Parked.

I’ll go one step further. Heating, including seat and steering wheel, and volume controls should be tactile – a button or knob accessible without taking your eyes from the road. If you crash your car while reading your Twitter feed or trying to figure out if that’s Journey or REO Speedwagon playing, you’re merely being human and playing with all the cards the carmaker gave you. They should give you fewer cards.

None of these things will be implemented, of course. But just because we can’t make people do the right thing, including saving their own lives, using reason and law, doesn’t mean we should acknowledge the pinhead dancing taking place. We could do more to fight impairment, and we can do more to curtail the distractions.

If we want to.

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Christmas surprises aren’t always under the tree

Found in a rummage sale lot, a used Fisher Price garage was more appealing than the new toys

I grew up with many sisters.

It’s not that we were immersed in a world of Barbie dolls and ballet slippers – we weren’t – but nor did our Christmas stockings come stuffed with Hot Wheels and Tonka trucks. If I’d asked for a holster and a couple of cap guns, I’m sure my parents would have acquiesced, but I never did so they never had to face down the idea of their wee daughter rampaging through the neighbourhood, guns ablazin’.

When the fireworks of a present frenzy have finally settled, no matter how careful your planning or predictable your child, there will always be surprises. The much-begged for gift sitting idly by as some dollar store widget captures everyone’s attention, the leather jacket making the newly vegan cry, and the perplexed parent who mixed up Star Wars and Star Trek. I recall my own mother’s endless lists and plans, all ready to receive a spanner to the gears when one of us randomly changed our minds.

When I was a kid, my mom used to organize an annual local church rummage sale. For three months leading up to early December, people would drop off their unwanted, gently used and sometimes bewildering castoffs. The church ladies would sort and organize, but not before I got there first. In the chill of that unheated garage, I’d go treasure hunting.

I was probably 7 or 8 when I found the perfect Christmas gift amidst the boxes of dead people’s clothes and musty books. The Fisher Price Action Garage might have been on the market only a couple of years, but the one I found looked like it had been through the wars. None of the pieces – small bobble-headed people, tiny perfect cars – were intact. The “three-storey” toy had a crank elevator, a kid-controlled gate at the bottom and an obnoxious bell that signalled a car had arrived. Or left. I can’t remember, only that that bell got on my mother’s nerves; didn’t I know she had a headache?

fisherprice

The stickers were peeling off, and somebody had spilled something on the outside ramp. I didn’t care. I had a fake Hot Wheels car that had come in a cereal box, a Batmobile and a 1960s era red convertible I’d stolen from Mark, the boy next door. This was my fleet. Up they’d go in the elevator, bing went the bell, then they’d have a pileup waiting for the arm to lift so they could go on their way. I released marbles down the ramp and put plastic army men on guard on the roof. I pumped fake gas into pretend gas tanks. My mother told me to put the toy garage back in the real garage. I told her I wanted to keep it.

If we wanted to keep something, my mom would put money for it into the kitty. This usually meant books, or sometimes my Dad would find some weird tool that somebody else had deemed too useless to hang on to. Mom looked at the Fisher Price garage, battered and looking like a dog had peed on it, and sighed. I knew she wanted it out of her house. I clanged the bell with the Batmobile to help change her mind.

My mother shopped very carefully for Christmas gifts. Money was always tight and she would spend a year getting ready for a day, yet as I learned early and often from that rummage sale, another kid’s castoff toys were infinitely more exciting than new ones of my own. My father worked for Dofasco, and every year at their massive family Christmas party, employee’s children were taken to a huge warehouse and allowed to choose a gift. You had tickets that said, “Girl, 7” and that was the booth you went to. My mom asked one year if I could choose from the Boy booth. This was a reaction they were unprepared for so I dutifully went home with another Spirograph or a life sized teddy bear or an Easy Bake Oven or whatever else wasn’t a Hot Wheels track or a slingshot.

The Fisher Price Garage became part of our playtime streetscape alongside a Barbie dream house and anything else we carved from shoeboxes. It sat in the cupboard in the rec room long after I’d grown up and moved out, until my own sons discovered it. They, of course, had a box of toy cars at Grandma’s house, and plastic dinosaurs joined the army men guarding the roof. They looped sections of track around the garage, up over counters and across stacked piles of books. The garage was joined by supersonic boosters and fancier cars, all play involving the chasing down of batteries at some point – except for the garage itself.

The last I can recall of that grubby garage my sons were encouraging a hamster named Cookie to go in the elevator; Cookie was buried in the garden nearly two decades ago. I see people on eBay selling toys new in boxes, to protect their value. I consider how much play I, and then my sons, got from that toy and wonder if people know what toys are for.

A toy’s value is in the imagination of the child holding it.

And parking a red Corvair next to the Batmobile.

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Mercedes says goodbye to diesel in North America

Rather than the result of a scandal, it could be due to improper fuel south of the border

While it was hardly surprising to watch Volkswagen flee the scene of its diesel crimes, a just-released listing from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is offering another interesting morsel: it appears Mercedes-Benz is also throwing in the towel on their diesel entries in North America.

Vehicle manufacturers must submit product information to the appropriate governing regulatory body – in the U.S., it’s the NHTSA, in Canada, it’s Transport Canada – ahead of those vehicles hitting showrooms. They must provide documentation that all vehicles are in compliance with safety and emissions rulings. They must also note any changes from previous model years, and include supporting data.

The current submission to NHTSA from Mercedes-Benz is devoid of any of their diesel models, which signals they won’t be selling those editions of their vehicles in that country.

Why?

Mercedes-Benz ducked most of the fallout from the Volkswagen debacle, though the stain was deep enough to tarnish anyone still dealing in diesel. But the answer might be more basic than that: American buyers simply can’t get the proper fuel to use in their BlueTec vehicles.

Most fuel stations in the marketplace sport a blend of diesel fuel and biodiesel, the ‘bio’ being derived from a plant base or recycled oil. Mercedes-Benz requires owners to use diesel with less than 5 per cent biodiesel, called B5. The problem is that many outlets throughout the U.S. offer diesel with up to 20 per cent biodiesel – B20. This higher level wreaks havoc on the engine, leading to expensive issues not covered by warranties because people have used the wrong fuel.

“Continuous use of B20 fuel can lead to fuel filter clogging and injector deposits, and can cause the engine oil level to rise due to unburned fuel washing into the oil pan. A clogged fuel filter as well as injector deposits can cause engine performance degradation while increased engine oil levels due to dilution by unburned fuel can cause engine mechanical damage.” That’s right from a Mercedes pamphlet.

“My guess is that if Mercedes is dropping its diesels in the U.S., it’s because of the fuel problem,” says John Raymond, a consultant with the Automobile Protection Association (APA). “The manufacturer’s requirements are at odds with what many states are implementing. They want to make use of products and technology they see the most benefit in – and there are a lot of corn fields across large parts of that country. Raising the ethanol content – which comes from that corn – is good for them, but not good for customers who are driving vehicles they can’t reliably fuel and still maintain their warranty.”

Consistent use of the higher B20 biodiesel blend gums up the works. Online forums are full of exasperated owners whose vehicles are underperforming, experiencing brutally high repair bills, or finding out they’ve voided warranties. Some states made changes at the pumps after affected motorists purchased their vehicles, but most would agree it’s become a case of challenging the government versus just not buying that car. Raymond thinks the cessation of diesel by Mercedes-Benz in the U.S. is in response to buyers not needing the headache. B5 is readily available across Canada, though Mercedes-Benz in Canada pulled diesels from their 2017 lineup when they couldn’t get certification under newly-devised standards, a fallout of the Volkswagen mess.

A spokesperson for Mercedes-Benz Canada says that there is no immediate update on diesel options for Canada. But Silvina Pica, a brand specialist with Mercedes-Benz Durham, says her dealership just doesn’t offer a diesel option.

“We’ve been told due to restrictions from the EPA, North America will not be receiving any diesel models,” she says. “They’ve been wiped from the system, and all the configuration programs.”

Manufacturers pack a lot of information into their owner’s manuals. Using the wrong grade fuel – or the wrong fuel, period – will void your warranty. The changing formula for diesel fuel and the changing emissions standards appear to be forming the tipping point for diesel’s demise.

Mercedes-Benz in the U.S. is indeed ditching their diesels, and Canada appears to be as well. We’ve long been the runty little brother when it comes to what vehicles we get to choose from, after the U.S. picks. We’re rarely significant enough to warrant receiving any editions of vehicles that our southern neighbours didn’t order first; the difference in that equation, however, has always been the diesels. We have a substantially higher take rate on them, in every brand, than our American counterparts ever have. Could the latest American decision be permanently reflected in Canadian showrooms?

It certainly is at Mercedes-Benz. Whether the other manufacturers with diesels in their lineup, including GMC, Jaguar, Land Rover, Chevrolet, BMW and Nissan, follow suit remains to be seen.

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Can we not wait for autonomous technology to have in-car advertising?

Ads in self-driving cars will be annoying, but GM’s Marketplace app for its current vehicles is downright dangerous

Just when I though the herald of self-driving cars couldn’t get any worse, companies like Intel are here to remind me I couldn’t be more wrong. What’s worse than a future festooned with four-wheeled crucibles moving in row after row of perfect robotic tedium? Why, being trapped in that cushy cage and being deluged with advertising projected right on the windshield. That’s what’s worse.

“Advancing what’s possible in autonomous driving… Intel announced a collaboration with entertainment company Warner Bros. to develop in-cabin, immersive experiences in autonomous vehicle (AV) settings,” says Intel CEO Brian Krzanich.

To be fair, the company – many companies – are viewing the promised future of cars that need no drivers as a bonanza to capture more eyeballs. They’re plotting how you’re going to spend the time in your car long before that car will actually be in your driveway.

Some aren’t even waiting for the safety – and promised distraction-proof driving – of autonomous cars. General Motors is currently rolling out its Marketplace app, which “… allows drivers to browse deals and place orders through an in-dash touchscreen with several major brands such as Starbucks Corp., TGI Friday’s, Priceline.com and Dunkin’ Donuts Inc,” according to GM. But the territory we’re encroaching on here is a bungle of two highly different concepts: features that are built for safety, and those that are built for advertising or entertainment. You can’t tell me somebody browsing deals and placing orders while they drive isn’t a menace, and GM expressly says Marketplace is intended for use while driving.

But it’s no wonder these companies are looking to in-car advertising, for both now and in the future. Peter Campbell in the Financial Times reports, “while GM’s current vehicles … have average earnings of $30,000 for the company over their lifetime, the company expects ride-sharing vehicles to earn several hundred thousand dollars, as consumers pay for usage.” This is an important point: automakers want – and need – to find other ways to make money.

Estimates say we spend about 300 hours a year in our cars, and advertisers and content providers are wringing their hands with glee about how to best to capitalize on those held captive in a car with nothing else to do. Ride share and in-car advertising are the next two biggest, richest, waves, but GM is trying to capitalize on this now, while we’re still trying to drive the car. To be fair, apps like the GM one are hardly novel in other applications, but pushing yet more information on a driver who, last time I checked, is still in control of driving, is too much, too soon.

The Intel vision of the future will take place in a car that doesn’t even have a driver’s seat. GM’s Marketplace could be in your car next week. I might find being overrun with entertainment and programmed ads annoying when I don’t have to do anything except be ferried about in my automated car, but layers of ads and shopping options in GM’s software are downright dangerous. Anything that takes a driver’s eyes and attention from the road is, including convoluted GPS systems and layers of screens to be tabbed through to change heat or radio settings. We only have laws about handheld devices, but many of these infotainment systems are just as dangerous – and adding advertising and sales makes them much more so.

It’s no surprise the auto industry is pushing a lot of chips onto the autonomous betting square. After decades of R&D into areas that haven’t proven to be much of a return on investment – electric, anyone? – autonomous vehicles, with the potential to make billions, of dollars more with advertising, are enormously attractive to automakers desperate for The Next Big Thing.

I’ve no doubt we can make personal vehicles both fully autonomous and also a fully loaded luxury saloon. Just let’s make sure we do the first before we do the second.

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