I am often not home for my Anniversary. Comes with the territory, I'm afraid.
I was also not here for the 25th Anniversary of Wheels earlier this week. Hey - somebody had to fly to Croatia to drive the new Bentley Continental GTC Convertible, and then to Maranello for the Ferrari 458 Spider, and I drew the short straw.
I hope you did catch our special section celebrating that milestone.
For various reasons of space, etc., a piece I had done as an overview of the changes in the motoring world over that time frame did not make it into that section.
So at the risk of violating the blog rule of being short and concise, here it is:
A lot has changed in the car business over the 25 years of Wheels.
Companies have been born, others have died.
Some have married, some have divorced, and in some cases re-married again.
Two of the domestic Big Three - General Motors and Chrysler - had to file for bankruptcy and succumb to government support to get out from under the so-called ‘legacy’ costs, largely due to the failure of the US government to adequately protect the health and retirement prospects of its own citizens.
A long story which I have told in these ‘pages’ (dead-tree and electronic versions) before, but don’t have room to go into again.
The other domestic - Ford - managed to dodge bankruptcy, but only by putting a 15 percent mortgage on every paper clip in Dearborn.
All three have recovered nicely, however, and have brought out excellent new models to counter the inroads the Japanese industry has made in the interim.
Only to find that another Oriental power, Korea, in the form of the Hyundai / Kia conglomerate, is poised to eat everybody’s lunch.
Already, Hyundai is the Number One seller of cars in Canada; lucky for the domestics that no Oriental company has yet been able to figure out how to build a competitive full-size pick-up truck.
But: Competition improves the breed, so let the best car company win.
Aren’t we lucky to live in interesting times?
Without doubt, cars are better than they have ever been. They don’t build them like they used to? Give thanks to your SuperPower of Choce for that.
I’d give credit to the Japanese manufacturers and to the market research firm J. D. Power for much of this improvement; the former for building better cars, the latter for quantifying just how much better, and for pointing out - to the manufacturers and to the customers - who was doing better, and who was slacking off.
The difference between the best and the worst is now orders of magnitude smaller than it was.
Thanks to emissions regulations and American Corporate Average Fuel Economy requirements, engine technology has undergone a geometric increase in complexity - as futurist Amory Lovins put it, we’ve gone from driving cars with computers in them to driving computers with wheels on them.
The most remarkable aspect of all this is that engineers are not merely nibbling at the margins of efficiency of internal combustion technology; given that smart people have been beating on this technology for roughly a century and a half, it’s nothing short of amazing that they’re still finding double-digit improvements, in power, economy and emissions - all simultaneously.
We’re still only using about 30 to 35 percent of the latent energy in a fossil fuel, so presumably there’s lots to be gained yet.
Has all this technology necessarily been the best way to achieve these goals? For sure it has made cars much more expensive to buy, and to maintain.
But this is the road we’ve come down, and it is a one-way street. We aren’t going back to points and condenser.
Everyone seems to think that electrification will continue to grow. But continue to grow from what?
Toyota especially has been beating the gasoline-electric hybrid drum for ten years now, and while there have been successes in some world markets, hybrid share in North America hovers around three percent.
If the Grey Cup game is 97 to three at half-time, is anyone watching the second half?
They sell more Diesel vehicles in the United States than they do hybrids, and ‘everyone knows’ Americans won’t buy Diesels…
Pure electric cars have made a few tentative baby steps into the market over the years - I drove an electric Skoda in Toronto, must have been 20 years ago, give or take.
Everybody is jumping on that battery-powered bandwagon now, ignoring the basic science that says it will never work, at least not to a meaningful level.
In contrast to the on-going improvements we’re seeing in gasoline and Diesel engines, electric cars still can’t travel much further on a single charge than the Baker Electric did in 1913.
As US energy journalist Robert Bryce puts it, “Electric cars are the next big thing - and they always will be.”
It’s the height of irony that the only electric car that actually has a chance to be practical for the vast majority of North American consumers is the Chevy Volt - and it has a gasoline engine to re-charge its batteries.
Yet, it costs almost twice as much as a conventional car of similar size, and only has a look-in to the market by virtue of government subsidies to the tune of about a third of its cost, as do other electric vehicles.
One of the most positive stories of the past two and a half decades is that despite more people driving more cars greater distances than ever before, we’re killing fewer and fewer people.
It’s still way too many - it’s about the equivalent of a 9/11 disaster every year in Canada; more like a 9/11 disaster every month in the United States.
But it is progress in the right direction.
By far the greatest contributor to this improved result is seat belts. Ontario made usage of them mandatory in 1976, the first province to do so.
And our traffic deaths plummeted.
The US was far behind us, and some states still do not have what is called a ‘primary’ belt usage law - the cops can only ticket you for not wearing a belt if they’ve stopped you for something else.
This is particularly bone-headed, because apart from impaired driving, nothing else really matters in automotive safety as much as wearing a belt.
As a result, the US traffic death rate is far worse than it should be.
We kill about 2,700 people on our roads annually. In the US it’s not the 27,000 which the ten-to-one population ratio of our two countries would lead you to expect; it’s closer to 40,000
Canada has a national belt-wearing rate somewhere in the mid-90 percent range; it’s still mid-70s in the US.
Virtually all of that death toll differential can be attributed to the difference in belt wearing rates.
It’s a proper scandal down there which no-one seems to give a damn about.
The easiest crash to survive of course is the one that never happens. This would appear to be obvious to everyone except those who actually write the regulations: we’ve had mandatory belts in cars since the late-1960s, and mandatory air bags since, oh, must be mid-1980s.
But Electronic Stability Control (ESC) systems, proven to prevent as many as 35 percent of all crashes?
They just became mandatory this very month.
What is wrong with the people making these regulations?
Traffic safety has always been a three-legged stool - the car, the road, the driver.
We’ve made the greatest strides in the car. Not just better belts and air bags all over the place, but stronger bodies, designed to crumple in a controlled way to absorb the crash energy before it is transmitted to the occupants.
You can walk away from some crashes today that would surely have killed you 25 years ago.
In addition to ESC, we now have ABS brakes standard on just about everything, better tires, better brakes, smarter control systems, all designed to prevent that crash from ever happening.
The main progress we’ve made in road design is that increasingly, we drive on divided highways.
It is one of the more interesting and perhaps counter-intuitive facts that our fastest roads - freeways - are statistically our safest roads. This because the hardest crash to survive is a head-on, and that’s pretty rare on a controlled-access freeway.
The second-hardest crash to survive is the Tee-bone. You’d think this basic fact would spur the introduction of more roundabouts to our urban driving landscape - it’s pretty hard to Tee-bone someone at a roundabout.
Sideswipes and some rear-enders yes, but they’re far less dangerous.
Ontario has a few roundabouts now, with more being built all the time.
But you still see way too many ‘conventional’ intersections being built, and as far as I’m concerned, ONE conventional intersection is ‘way too many’.
I also wish our urban planners would look into other possibilities in other jurisdictions. OK, maybe they do look, but they don’t seem to learn.
We never see anything like the ‘flyovers’ they have in Munich, where through traffic goes up-and-over the intersection; only right- or left-turning vehicles have to interact at ground level.
Very nearly the ‘separation’ of a full cloverleaf at a fraction of the cost.
If they aren’t going to turn Eglinton and Don Mills - historically, one of the most dangerous intersections in the country - into a proper roundabout, a ‘flyover’ system would seem like an ideal if partial solution to the problem.
Many European cities - even Montreal - use short tunnels in particularly congested spots to accomplish the same thing. There has been talk of burying the Gardiner Expressway which would be a great idea, if terribly expensive.
Boston just went through a tremendous upheaval burying their main urban freeway, so maybe it isn’t the answer.
Still, we’ve got lots to do.
What have we done to improve that third leg - the driver?
Apart from the introduction of graduated licencing in a few jurisdictions - the statistics make this an absolute slam-dunk; what’s keeping everybody else? - there have been no initiatives to improve driver education, or make driver's licences harder to get.
All we do is punish certain driving behaviours, and make no effort whatsoever to improve those behaviours.
By ‘certain behaviours’, of course I mean speed limit violations.
Has there ever been a more spectacularly unsuccessful ‘vehicle’ (you should pardon the expression…) for behaviour change than this?
We’ve been issuing tickets for speeding to the near-exclusion of every other traffic violation for approximately ever.
And what percentage of cars on the road still exceed the speed limit?
All that enforcement hasn’t effected the smallest change in our behaviour.
We put enforcement policies in place to stop bank robberies, and they work pretty well - not many people rob a bank.
Speed limit enforcement? It’s utterly pointless, other than the points which accrue against your driving record.
You might think that the factors which cause crashes would be enforced proportional to their frequency in the crash statistics.
But last time I looked, the percentage of tickets issued for speeding was vastly higher than the incidence of ‘speed too fast for conditions’, the only speed-related factor available to police officers on their crash reports.
Shouldn’t they be ticketing the behaviours that DO cause crashes?
Maybe I thinking too much like an engineer here...
Again, this is a broken record (parents over 40: you may have to explain that one to your kids…) to regular readers, but I’ve seen no progress in 25 years towards getting Canadian drivers to grasp the simple concept of Drive Right, Pass Left.
It’s 'right' there (hohoho...) in the Highway Traffic Acts of most jurisdictions; all we need to do is get our cops to start charging drivers for doing this, the Justices of the Peace to convict, and the Ministry of Transportation to stop designing highways where the driving lane keeps disappearing, which actively encourages this improper, dangerous and illegal driving behaviour.
It would also increase the throughput of our highways at zero additional cost, because we’d start utilizing all the lanes we’ve already paid to have built.
Right now, the only person in the right lane is usually me…
Again, what’s wrong with the people who design, maintain and police our highways?
There is an election coming up; I only wish some of these issues would be being discussed during the campaign.
I haven’t heard a word…
The next 25 years?
I have no crystal ball.
But we will have even more technology in our cars.
Theoretically at least, with GPS we almost have the ability now to know within a few metres where every other car is on the road, and to have our car steer clear of it.
Ford has shown some interesting warning systems that could be implemented fairly inexpensively; it would be more expensive but still technically possible to go from warning the driver to intervening on his/her behalf, as Volvo already does to a small degree with its ‘City Safe’ system.
There have been a couple of experiments - by Google among others - using radar- or sonar-based drive systems which eliminate the human factor entirely.
Not sure I’ll live long enough to see that, nor am I sure I want to live in that world.
As long as I can get into my Miata and steer it down a twisty country road, I’ll be a happy camper.