Monday, March 30, 2015

Editorial: The West Coast Port Labor Dispute

Image courtesy of Zero Hedge
A few weeks back, I posted an editorial about how the aftermarket parts industry hit a sales slump due to the new generation of drivers and the cars that are important to them. While these factors have made an impact, another more recent situation has created another problem for the aftermarket, as well as the automotive, motorcycle, and cycling industries in general. For anyone that follows the news, you should already be familiar with the recent port congestion situation that created a massive backlog of vessels and containers along the entire West Coast. If you are not familiar with this event, it simply boiled down to the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) working without a contract since July of last year. In order to force the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA) to agree to the ILWU's terms, a labor reduction situation occurred, causing massive backups at all of the major ports along the West Coast. The details of the "slow down" are a story for another time though.

Friday, March 27, 2015

News: Feds targeting deceptive auto dealers

Image courtesy of knowyourmeme.com
Have you ever seen one of those loud and obnoxious commercials where a skeezy looking car salesman spends the entire 30-second spot yelling at the camera about ridiculous deals that sound too good to be true? While I usually change the channel when those commercials come on, apparently enough people did not and got duped into visiting these deals and then actually purchasing a vehicle that the Federal Trade Commission has decided to look into the issue. Dubbed "Operation Ruse Control," the FTC will be cracking down on deceptive advertising and financing practices as well as other forms of fraud committed by auto dealers around the US.

There is certainly no shortage of anecdotes of people going into dealers, spurred by promises of super cheap cars or ridiculously lenient financing terms, only to be given the bait and switch routine when they sit down to sign the paperwork. On top of that, there have been numerous recent stories of dealers self-financing deals and then recalling buyers to essentially tell them that their loans were not approved in order to gouge them for more money on the monthly payment. The most recent round of unscrupulous behavior to make the news has been Dodge dealers taking orders on Challenger and Charger Hellcats that they not only know they do not have in stock, but will likely not ever be able to order. This kind of behavior is precisely why Americans absolutely despise the process of buying cars and why people seem to be willing to support the idea of direct sales on certain cars, a process that Tesla has used to great effect since it started deliveries on the Model S.

The Feds have already filed suit against several dealerships as well as financial services companies that have been accused of the alleged behavior and the campaign will continue until this kind of behavior stops. Best of all, because the cases are often being brought as lawsuits, the FTC is actually forcing the defendants in the cases to pay back ill-gotten gains.

Click past the jump to read the press release and learn more about "Operation Ruse Control."

Monday, March 23, 2015

Editorial: Gas tax or mileage tax?

A couple of weeks ago, the state of Oregon, once the pioneer of the user pay principle as the first state to institute a gas tax, announced plans to trial a mileage tax option for its residents. 5,000 volunteers will have the opportunity to test out OreGo, the state's new mileage tax program that will charge drivers 1.5 cents for every mile driven. Those users will receive a monthly bill for their mileage driven and receive a refund of gas taxes already paid.

In principle, this idea of a mileage tax makes sense for several reasons.

One, our cars have gotten increasingly efficient. Your high volume sale family sedan these days gets miles per gallon in the low 20s in the city and low 30s on the highway. Even among entry luxury cars, it is not uncommon to see over 30 mpg these days for highway mileage. That reduction in fuel consumption has led to a significant reduction in the collection of gas taxes, which have not increased proportionally with the increase in fuel economy; a fact that has led to significant reductions in the upkeep, maintenance, and construction of new roads.

Two, the introduction of plug-in hybrids and battery electric vehicles, which use absolutely no electricity, allow those users to dramatically reduce, or in the case of BEVs completely skirt, the payment of gasoline taxes. While the reduction in gasoline consumption is good for the environment, it does so at the detriment to the roads. That is not to say that BEV owners do not contribute at all, as they still pay other taxes and the usual registration fees, but their usage is not contributing proportionally to the funds needed to maintain the roads. As a BEV owner, I am certainly not averse to the idea of paying my fair share, especially since my vehicle still weighs a rather portly 3,600 pounds.

Three, mileage taxes would allow us to reset the expectations around road usage and if priced correctly, might actually serve as a way to encourage the use of alternative transportation. Since the current gasoline tax has not increased significantly since its introduction, phasing in a new way to cover the costs while subtly adjusting for the discrepancy in costs would allow the highway funds to be replenished and might reduce wear and tear by reducing the number of users. Many road users, especially car drivers in metropolitan areas, could easily switch to public transit or cycling for their commutes which would reduce congestion and road wear during the work week and a mileage based tax might just be the way to encourage this behavior.

Of course, OreGo is still in an early test phase and it will be a while before we see how the results actually pan out. As progressive as Oregon might be, its residents are just as wary of some of the potential privacy issues that a mileage-based taxation program might bring. That is one of the key reasons why OreGo will have options for owners on how they want to report their mileage. But at the very least, Oregon is once again taking the initial plunge and is at the forefront pioneering a new idea, that may eventually trickle out to the rest of the states. This is one experiment that we will be watching intently to see what kind of results are produced.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Long Term Test: 2014 Acura RLX Tech post #3

Third update
Current mileage: 7,333

One of the things that the car magazines have continued to complain about with the RLX is the dual-screen infotainment system that debuted with the car in late 2013. Most of the complaints say that the system is confusing, difficult to use, or slow to respond. Most reviewers, who spend only a matter of hours with the car, never having the time to dive deep into the system to tweak its many features to suit their usage, feel that the system becomes an encumbrance to the overall ownership experience and that the design can feel dated. Of course, I will not disagree with those reviewers on the graphical design used for the interface as Acura is often noted for being a few steps behind the curve when it comes to this kind of stuff, but I will disagree about how user-friendly the system is.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Road Trip: Monterey Bay

It had been many decades since I had visited Monterey Bay. My last trip would have been when I was about 8 or 9 years of age and we took a family trip to San Francisco, stopping in Monterey along the way. I recall rather vividly that night, my dad white-knuckling the rented Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme along the then much less well-developed 17-Mile Drive in near total darkness while we sang along to the endless stream of Chinese pop songs pouring from the cassette player. Our hotel was difficult to find because it had changed names literally within the week before our trip and in the age before email and smartphones were popular and readily available, the hotel had not gone through the trouble of updating all of its guests.

This time around, while it was still a family trip, things were significantly different. We would depart during the day to ensure that there was plenty of daylight along the way and our ride was not a rented car, but rather our trusty and spacious 2014 Acura MDX.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Editorial: BBC's Top Gear Might Be No More

Image courtesy of http://emblemsbf.com/order-1181.html
If you have not heard the news already, BBC's Top Gear host, Jeremy Clarkson, got into a "fracas" with one of the show's producers. Clarkson had allegedly punched said producer after food was not available after a long day of filming. As a result, Clarkson had been suspended from the show, and the three remaining episodes of the season will not be aired. A petition sprang up over his suspension to reinstate the beleaguered host with the hashtag, #BringBackClarkson. Anyone who is familiar with the show knows that Clarkson was already in quite a bit of hot water with the BBC's top brass, with most of his problems stemming from allegations of racism. Unfortunately, it seems that Clarkson himself has had enough of the BBC and has insinuated that he may not continue to work on the show. As a result, the very future of Top Gear itself is in jeopardy.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Daydreams: F-Body Camaro SS and TransAm WS6

GMs F-body cars have always had a particular appeal to me. It could be that I got hooked after growing up as a huge fan of the Pontiac TransAm that served as the basis for KITT on the 80's classic TV show Knight Rider. It could also be that I just loved the long hood look of this traditional RWD platform. Even the classic Camaro's from the first-generation of this platform, which started the iconic look are oft admired, though mostly from afar. Of course, growing up in the 90's meant that it was the Fourth Generation F-Body cars, the Camaro and Firebird, that stuck in my mind. Those swoopy designs with all of the crazy body kits and powered by push-rod based American V8 muscle were among the more attainable cars that I lusted after as a kid and it still makes me smile to see the rare pristine example driving on the road.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Editorial: Would getting more people biking actually help the US economy?

A frequent argument that many cycling detractors use against cyclists is that they do not pay taxes and therefore do not have a right to use the road. While the usual counter argument to this fallacy is that many cyclists are also owners of cars, and thus pay their share that way, there may be a different argument that could have an even greater impact. What if I told you that getting more people to ride bikes could actually have an improvement on the overall US economy?

At first glance, that seems almost too simple so as to be laughable, but hear me out. The Wall Street Journal recently published an article discussing how the US economy was being impacted by the inability to maintain and replace aging infrastructure that forced many US companies to lose efficiency in the name of meeting their obligations to customers. One example they gave was that the amount of congestion in large cities can get so bad that UPS, one of the largest package delivery operations in the world, was forced to place additional trucks on the road to cover the same route just to be able to ensure that they could make all of their deliveries on time. Having those extra trucks on the road not only adds to the congestion that is causing the problem, but also contributes towards pollution, a less visible cost. Those extra trucks also result in greater wear and tear on that aging infrastructure, further accelerating its deterioration.

Take a city like Los Angeles, which is notorious for its traffic congestion and constant road work to maintain a massive network of roads that allow people to make their daily commutes. According to the US Census Bureau's 2009 American Community Survey, there are around 5.5 million commuters in the LA-Long Beach-Santa Ana metro area that commute to work every day and 84% of those commutes are taken by car. Of those commuters, 21.15% of them drive less than 15 minutes in order to get to work. That means there are potentially 1.17 million people who could probably ride a bicycle to work. If we conservatively estimate that we could switch 1 million people from driving to bicycling or other forms of mass transit for their commutes, that would remove close to 1 million cars from the roads during the most congested times, a reduction of nearly 20% in the volume of cars on the road.

Image courtesy of irishcycles.com
If we think about this further, that reduction in congestion would make commerce more efficient and would reduce the amount of money, time, and energy we would need to spend on maintaining and upgrading roads and other infrastructure. At the same time, to accommodate the increased volume in cyclists, new projects could be planned that provide protected cycling infrastructure to help urban and suburban roads handle the extra bike traffic which would be long lasting as bicycles, with their significantly smaller footprint, do not place much wear and tear on roads. Additionally, all of those cars off the road means less gasoline consumed and fewer pollutants released into the air.

An example of the kind of bike infrastructure
that could be built
Now the economic impact comes in a few different ways. One, the consumer spending on cycling and related equipment would provide a boost to the retail segment with many local bike shops as well as big box retailers receiving the bulk of the benefit and hopefully needing to hire more staff to handle the increase in sales. Two, studies show that cyclists are more likely to spend funds locally, which means local economies will likely see a boost in sales from the increased presence of cyclists leading to more sales tax revenue. Three, cyclists tend to be healthier so spending on healthcare will decrease allowing for more disposable income to be spent elsewhere, providing a boost to the retail and restaurant sectors. Four, the projects needed to put in place proper infrastructure to handle the larger volume of cyclists will also create new construction jobs locally that, while temporary, will help put more people to work. A side benefit of this is that cycling is more accessible to people and by improving the infrastructure, it allows more people to go further to seek out job opportunities. Finally, the reduced congestion and fewer cars on the road allows for an opportunity to finally fix all that aging infrastructure and design it properly to accommodate the new traffic demands, leading to yet more construction jobs. 

Of course, this is a greatly simplified look at the potential economic impact of increasing cycling, but hopefully one that provides some food for thought. While it is not possible for everyone to do, anyone who drives less than 15 minutes to get to work should take a serious look at cycling as a viable alternative for their commute. By making a minor change, especially in an area where the weather is cooperative year-round like Los Angeles, could have a tremendous impact on the overall quality of life all the residents in the area.

Friday, February 27, 2015

News: Legislation Proposed for a Federal Ban on Traffic Enforcement Cameras

Image courtesy of USAToday
I am not yet sure what to make of this, but earlier this month, Ed Perlmutter a legislator from the state of Colorado, proposed legislation to put in place a federal ban on the use of traffic enforcement cameras, including both red light and speed cameras. The motivation comes from the belief that the cameras are not used in the interest of public safety, but rather to fill the coffers of local municipalities to the detriment of the pocketbooks of local drivers. In the city of Denver, traffic enforcement cameras have netted more than $34 million in revenue. Having had my share of experience with these cameras while living in DC, I can certainly attest to the fact that I am no fan, but a full-on federal ban might be a bridge too far.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Product Review: Samsung Galaxy Gear Live

You might be wondering why are we featuring a product review for something that seems to have little or nothing to do with bikes, cars, or motorcycles, but I argue that it has much to do with all of them. For the past six months, I have been utilizing the Samsung Galaxy Gear Live Android Wear watch as a part of my daily routine, using it to enhance my life on two wheels and four. It was originally intended as a trial purchase to see if I would be purchasing a Moto360 as a gift, but I ended up enjoying it enough that I kept the Gear Live for myself as it suited my needs well. In particular, it offered me an unprecedented flexibility to make use of some of my phone's capabilities to enhance the riding experience without needing to actually access my phone.