Monday, October 24, 2016

Editorial: The Trolley Problem

Image courtesy of onedio
For those of you who are unfamiliar with what the "Trolley Problem" is, it's actually quite simple. It's a simple thought experiment in ethics that asks you to imagine a trolley headed towards a track with five people tied to it. By pulling a lever, you can divert the trolley to a different track with one person tied to it. So the question here is whether or not you do nothing and let five people die, or do something and let one person die. But what does any of this have to do with cars? With the advent of autonomous cars hitting our roads within the next few years, people have begun to ask a similar question, but about autonomous cars: should the car be programmed to avoid hitting pedestrians, but possibly endangering the occupants, or to hit the pedestrians and save the occupants inside the car?

Image courtesy of Mercedes-Benz
It's an interesting question that doesn't seem to have a truly correct answer to...unless you're Mercedes-Benz apparently. During the most recent Paris Motor Show, Car and Driver spoke with Mercedes-Benz's Manager of Driver Assistance Systems, Cristoph von Hugo. During their interview, Car and Driver brought up the "Trolley Problem" with von Hugo, knowing full well that this is a question that manufacturers do not like to address. Oddly, von Hugo did address the question, stating that Mercedes-Benz's level four and five autonomous vehicles would prioritize saving the occupants of the vehicle.

While not implicitly stated, von Hugo's answer does imply that Mercedes-Benz's autonomous vehicles will run over a group of pedestrians if it means saving the occupants inside the car, or as Jalopnik's Raphael Orlove so eloquently puts it: "My dude. Holy shit. You know what you’re saying there, right? You’re saying that a Mercedes S-Class or whatever, driving down the road, will happily if not gleefully run over a child if it guaranteed saving the caviar-guzzling millionaire inside. Not just a child. An orphan. A group of orphans. A group of sick, orphans with leprosy."

Again, this goes back to the idea that there really is no correct answer to the "Trolley Problem." For a car manufacturer, any answer given will shovel bad PR its way. Save the pedestrians? Why is your company's car killing its customers to save random people? Save the occupants? How could you let your autonomous vehicle become a rolling death machine? In the end, someone is going to be upset and someone is going to get sued.

So, readers, I pose the question to you: if you were in charge of programming the brain of a new autonomous vehicle, how would you try and solve "Trolley Problem?"

So it would seem that as I was writing this article, Mercedes-Benz has clarified that some of von Hugo's comments in the Car and Driver interview were left out. Mercedes' official stance on the problem is "...neither programmers nor automated systems are entitled to weigh the value of human lives." In short, Mercedes-Benz is now also side-stepping the question along with other auto manufacturers.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Overseas Adventures: Transportation culture in Toronto, Canada

As fans of the television series Parks and Recreation, my wife could not pass on an opportunity to tap into her inner Leslie Knope at a parks conference in Toronto. Since I had never been to Toronto before, aside from a few brief stints at Pearson airport while in transit, I felt like this was a good opportunity to explore another Canadian city. We had such a great time in Montreal back in 2014, I expected to have a similar experience this time around. So we hopped on a plane and and after a five hour flight, found ourselves sweltering in the heat of Toronto's summer heat wave.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Long Term Test: 2016 Honda Accord Touring post# 1

For a while now, East Brother and I have been talking about getting a car that we could share. One that I could use as a daily driver to work, and that East Brother could use when he needed to go somewhere outside the range of his Focus Electric. Our original plan saw us aiming towards the end of the year to make the purchase, but ongoing back pain from driving my S2000 daily to my new place of employment in West LA pushed our schedule up by a few months.

We tossed plenty of ideas around, but our decision came down to two choices: the 2016 Honda Accord Touring, and the 2016 Volvo V60 T5 Platinum. Initially, we were pushing for the Volvo as we are both fans of wagons, but there wasn't a single dealer in the area that had the car equipped the way we wanted it. Realizing that it seemed a little pointless to keep pursuing the Volvo, we started shooting emails to our local Honda dealers to get quotes on the Accord. Within a few short days, we took home a Modern Steel Metallic Accord Touring.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Long Term Test: 2007 Honda S2000 Post #7

Update #7
Mileage: 82,057

As much as I love my S2000, I have to admit that it is starting to wear me down a bit physically. I recently changed jobs, necessitating having to travel to West Los Angeles daily. This is only a mere nine miles north of where I used to work by LAX, however, during rush hour traffic, that nine miles easily translates to an extra 30 to 40 minutes added to my commute. Driving from the South Bay to LAX and back was not all that painful, but driving from the South Bay to West LA and back is starting to actually hurt my back. It is also probably not good for my blood pressure either, as I find myself angry at other commuters far more often than I used to be.

East Brother and I have been talking about jointly getting a car for quite some time now, and we decided to push our timeline up. The idea was to get a car that I could use as a daily driver, and that East Brother could use as a road trip car if he and his wife needed to go somewhere that was beyond the range of their Focus Electric. We will reveal which car we picked over the course of the next few weeks. Of course, this is a post about my S2000, and not our new car.

Back to my S2000. Since my last post, I have had to take my car in for its 90,000 mile scheduled tuneup. I always knew maintaining the S2000 was not exactly going to be cheap, but this scheduled tuneup ended up being quite a bit more than I had expected. All those years of sloughing around in 405 rush hour traffic clearly did not do my car any favors. After spending well over $1,500 to get my S2000 back into top shape, it is interesting that it will only see duty on weekends now. I definitely still love the car, and I do sometimes miss driving it daily. The plan now is to see how things work out with our new vehicle, and to possibly turn my S2000 into a project car. I suppose we will see what happens down the line.

Oh, and that infernal clutch pedal squeak is back. See what I mean? Mind of its own.

Monday, August 29, 2016

Editorial: California legalizing lane splitting is hugely important

The debate has been a long and boisterous one, but after all the battling, the stats finally won out and the state of California is the first in the US to officially make lane-splitting legal. Lane-splitting has always drawn a lot of controversy in America, a country dominated by car drivers who selfishly believe that the roads are theirs and theirs alone.

Even in California, the practice had previously only been allowed because it was not expressly disallowed. The California Highway Patrol (CHP) supported it because it allowed their motor officers to move more freely through the gridlock traffic that burdens the greater LA and San Francisco areas during nearly all hours of the day. Motorcyclists support it because it allows riders the ability to move through traffic and keep air flowing to prevent overheating (mostly of the rider, though some older bikes benefit from it too). Car drivers, however, have long disliked the practice because it requires that they be more attentive about lane position and lane changes. Still, most drivers who have lived in California long enough have grudgingly adapted to it, some better than others.

But by taking it from a tolerated act by virtue of lack of legislation to a totally legal act backed by legislation and with guidelines to be provided by law enforcement, California has changed the game. By making it expressly legal, California is saying that lane-splitting is not just safe enough to be a practice, it is safe enough to be a law. That has long been a major argument used by detractors of lane-splitting to fight its implementation in other states. Many opponents have argued that by allowing one kind of traffic to travel between other traffic, it increases the chances for collisions, even though this has not been backed by the statistics. If anything, it has reduced one of the most common car-motorcycle collisions, which is motorcyclists being hit from behind in slow moving or stopped traffic. When practiced with abundant and appropriate caution, lane-splitting makes motorcyclists safer with little impact on car drivers at all.

By taking the step to make lane-splitting a fully legal act, California is hopefully the first domino to fall in what will eventually be more states allowing the act. Attempts have been made to legalize lane-splitting in states such as Arizona and Oregon, but all were quashed by legislators representing car-centric constituents who are fearful of change. But now that someone else has taken a major leap, hopefully more attempts will be made to bring up lane-splitting legislation and more "trial periods" will be considered as other state legislatures begin to realize the potential safety and traffic relief benefits that lane-splitting can bring.

Friday, August 26, 2016

F-Type vs. S2000: Is the Jag Really Worth an Extra $42k?

Ever since we acquired a Jaguar F-Type in our long term garage, we have been wanting to pit West Brother's S2000 against it in a sort of "David vs. Goliath" type scenario. Seems like an apples to oranges type comparison, right? Strangely enough, not really. The 2015 Jaguar F-Type we have access to is the standard, supercharged V6 equipped model, making 340 horsepower. Its fastest recorded zero to 60 time is five seconds flat, with a 13.0 second sprint to the quarter mile. West Brother's 2007 Honda S2000, while having a 100 horsepower deficit, makes up for the power difference with a huge weight advantage. The fastest recorded zero to 60 time is 5.4 seconds, with a quarter mile sprint completed in 13.8 seconds. Just by looking at the numbers, there really is not a huge difference in performance. From just performance alone, the Jag has a hard time justifying that extra $42,000. But what about the rest of the car?

Friday, August 12, 2016

Test Ride: 2016 BMW F800R

Lately, while having the K1200S serviced, I took the opportunity to take one of the dealerships loaners out for a day. My local dealer, BMW of Long Beach, has a number of brand new F800R nakeds available as rented loaners for riders who did not originally purchase their bikes there. For $50 a day, I had essentially unlimited miles and a chance to play with a brand new motorcycle.

Designed to compete in the middle weight super-naked class that has increased in popularity in recent years, the F800R is BMW's answer to bikes like the Yamaha FZ-07 and Kawasaki Z800. However, taking a decidedly BMW spin to the idea of a middle weight super-naked, the existing F800 sport touring platform was modified with a regular chain-drive rear wheel and stripped down to the bare essentials. Using a 798cc parallel twin making 90 hp and 63 lb-ft of torque, the streetfighter comes standard with ABS and ASC to ensure safety, but provides strong torquey power low in the rev range making daily riding in city traffic as easy as lofting its front wheel at a twist of the wrist.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Long Term Test: 2015 Jaguar F-Type V6 post #4

Update #4
Mileage: 9,863

I finally got a chance to spend some quality time with the Jag and good lord is it a magnificent grand tourer. A car that is this wide and with visibility this poor can be nerve-wracking to drive. Thankfully, given the amazing weather here in Southern California, I am able to drop the top and alleviate the visibility issue, but even that doesn't make the big Jag feel narrower. Driving along the wide freeways of the Los Angeles area, the F-Type still seems to fill the lane and I am always wary of the other drivers around me. While this car starts to shrink down when pushed hard, at cruising speeds, there is no denying that it is a big car.

Of course, that sense of heft helps to improve the overall ride and comfort. At just over 3,800 lbs, the F-Type convertible is a weighty car. That translates into a surprisingly smooth ride, despite the rather stiff suspension. Combine that with the super adjustable seats and excellent seating position to make for a car that I can easily spend all day in, cruising at highway speed. The precise steering is not so jittery that it contributes to driver fatigue and the wind management with the top open allows for relatively turbulence free cruising. Even after several hour plus stints behind the wheel, I felt refreshed and relaxed.

Most impressive of all is that, despite the performance potential, high curb weight, and aerodynamic disadvantage of being a convertible, the F-Type was returning a shockingly spot on 29 mpg on the highway. That is cruising at just a touch over the speed limit and included a number of hard acceleration runs to get up to speed. Despite all the disadvantages stacked against it, the car more than delivered on its fuel economy potential, meaning a full tank of gas could easily deliver more than 400 miles of freeway cruising when there is no traffic. I know fuel economy is not usually a big selling point for cars in this class, but it is not every day you can have 340-hp and 29 real world mpg in the same two-seat convertible.

Stunning looks, great performance, excellent comfort, great fuel economy, and the aural escapades of one of the best sounding exhaust systems on a stock vehicle. Who could possibly not like this car?

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Editorial: Full Autonomy or Not, That is the Question...

Image courtesy of Engadget
Tesla has been in the news a lot lately, and not because the Model X is a runaway success, or the Model 3 is going to be the next best thing since sliced bread. Tesla has actually been in the news a lot lately due to the semi-autonomous driving capabilities of their cars. Dubbed "Autopilot" by Tesla, this mode will take over control of your vehicle much in the same way other manufacturers' Active Cruise Control and Lane Keep Assist works. By using a series of sensors at the front of the car, the Model S and Model X can now maintain cruising speed, distance, and lane without any driver input.

And therein lies the problem. Even though the system was designed to function without driver input, the legal mumbo jumbo you have to agree to in order to activate "Autopilot" specifically states that you should still pay attention to the road, your surroundings, and keep your hands on the steering wheel in case the system deactivates for any reasons. However, most videos you see of people using "Autopilot" show people doing reckless things, like filming vlogs, rather than keeping their eyes on the road. And so we get to a few of the high profile accidents that have occurred recently where either the driver or general public blames "Autopilot" for their accident.

Friday, July 15, 2016

Long Term Test: 2007 BMW K1200S post #7

Update #7
Mileage: 30,010

When people say BMW's are expensive to maintain, they certainly aren't kidding. This pretty much applies to both their motorcycles as well as their cars. While it has been a while since I have had to experience the bad taste of paying for repairs to a BMW, I did have to get maintenance completed on my K1200S earlier this year and the price tag was several times more than I anticipated, largely because of a few unexpected items.

First, the bike needed basic maintenance. That meant an oil change, inspection, and general check-up on electronic components. Typically, this costs around $150-$200. On top of that, I knew that the front tire was looking a little thin on tread after only 6,500 miles so I was expecting to need to replace that pretty soon. The low mileage is likely due to my tendency to ride with the preload set very high in the rear, resulting in greater wear on the front tire. It makes the bike handle better, but the trade-off is that the greater loading on the front tends to wear that tire down. Since I decided to go ahead and replace that tire, that added another $200+ to the tab for the tire plus the installation labor.

Brand new Michelin Pilot Road 4
front tire on the K1200S
However, within an hour or so of dropping my bike off at the dealer, they called and informed me that the rear brakes were worn and needed to be replaced while the battery was showing low voltage and needed to be replaced. That battery, which I had replaced just a few years ago, was apparently already out of warranty when the dealership in MA sold it to me. That dealership has a reputation for less than ethical treatment of customers so I suppose I should not be surprised when the Yelp reviews prove to be right. As for the brakes, the combination of linked brakes on this bike, where grabbing the front brake level also applies one of the rear caliper pistons, as well as my tendency to use the rear brake to stabilize the rear-end while doing low-speed lanesplitting, is the likely cause of the increased brake wear. The brake job was going to be another $300 while the battery added around $100 to the final bill.

With taxes and the cost of the rental bike, the total came to just under $1,000. What I save on gas and time with this bike likely gets made up with the increased maintenance costs. Fortunately, my enjoyment of the bike outweighs all of the cost factors and a few of the costs I can reduce by simply making minor adjustments in my riding habits.