Thursday, January 04, 2007

In-car surveillance

Okay, so this will probably get me branded as a member of the foil-hat crowd, but I'm getting concerned about the amount of surveillance we're under in our cars. I'm not quite to the point where I think it's Alberto Gonzales' idea (I'd be REALLY worried if that were the case!) It just seems like more and more little things are coming together to allow someone to forensically build a pretty good picture of what's been going on in your car.

Many cars today have a "black box" that records many different types of events. Since car manufacturers are still using older, stable technology, there's not a tremendous amount of storage in these boxes so they're not keeping a running account of your driving (yet), they're just recording major events. Basically any car with an airbag has some form of event data recorder, and it's likely that every new generation will be more capable and store data on more events and over a longer period of time.

Some readers are thinking "But I have nothing to hide, why should I care about this?" Well, let's take as an example a minor fender-bender. You are convinced that the other driver is completely at fault because he failed to yield when he pulled into the major road from a side road, and you're sure your insurance rate is safe. How happy will you be when his (or his insurance company's) lawyer subpoenas the data from your car's black box and shows that you contributed to the collision because you were driving 5 mph over the speed limit?

I think the best hope for keeping manufacturers from putting all sorts of collectible data that's not necessarily pertinent to maintenance and service will come from my least-favorite source, a lawsuit (or fear of a lawsuit.) If the manufacturer feels that collecting unnecessary data within every customer's is a potential liability, they'll think twice before collecting it "just because they can."

Monday, January 01, 2007

Still glacial progress in practical cars

I suppose there is only a certain sized market for reasonable cars, and people who are thinking practically about their ride are willing to buy boring. This is fine for the everyday transportation unit, but I think if the American car-buying public had some different options, it might not be considered punishment to buy a practical family car.

Don't get me wrong, there's some nice stuff out there these days. The Saturn Aura is actually a very appealing car, and for the not-quite-enthusiast it's a compelling product. I'm still not going to consider one, because there's no manual transmission. I'm one of those crusty anachronistic types who thinks everyone who's physically capable should be taught to drive a manual transmission vehicle. I'm not stupid, I realize that it's easier to learn to drive with a slushbox. After all, you really only have to point the car in the general direction you want to go and remember which pedal does what you want, and you have a 50/50 shot at that. People only rarely run down crowds of people or crash their cars through the walls of buildings because they pushed the wrong one, and it's NEVER their fault, right? I think that if more people actually had at least a vague clue about how the car works, they might be able to figure out that if you put the bloody thing in neutral it'll eventually stop, even if you have your idiot foot planted firmly on the accelerator. Wait, this is starting to sound like an earlier post, that's not what I set out to say.

Chevrolet has actually released pictures of a Malibu that aren't painful to look at. Ford's Fusion is not the prettiest car I've seen recently, but it's a damned sight more appealing than a Taurus, and is almost modern. The thing that mystifies me is the fact that the Aura method isn't used more often. Here we have international companies spending billions on design and engineering of different cars around the world. GM has brought over a SINGLE version of a SINGLE model, their Opel Vectra and Americanized it less viciously than usual to produce the Saturn Aura. It's a nice enough car, but they have available on that same platform hatchback and wagon versions, with efficient gasoline engines, clean, highly-efficient diesels and 6-speed manual transmissions. I recognize that there are certification issues with bringing engines over, but the return on that is the reduction in total number of different engines around the world, and the potential to offer a line of efficient cars in the US that someone would actually want to drive. I'd certainly consider a Saturn version of the Vectra Signum 4-door hatchback someday when it's time to replace my Legacy Wagon.

People in Europe voluntarily buy Fords, and not just because their daddy was a "Ford Man." None of the many Fords models people actually WANT over there are even available here. Their Focus isn't on a platform that's nearly old enough to vote, and their larger cars (equivalent to our midsizes) are unrelated to the Fusion and Five Hundred. Americans will buy any shiny thing you market effectively to them, you just have to deprogram them from the "Big SUV is better" brainwashing Detroit's been doing for the past decade. Gasoline that costs nearly as much as a latte at Starbucks is starting to wake some people up... when the bottom of the middle class have maxed out their cards filling up the Tahoe, they may look around and see that there's something modern, quiet and comfy that gets 3x the mileage without hauling around 500 lb of batteries or requiring occupants to pedal. The automakers need to be ready to fill that need, and someone should tell them that if you make a desirable product people will buy it without being expensively bribed.