What Were They Thinking: Musings on Automobiles and Carpool Lanes

A few news articles related to cars have caught my eye, plus I’d like to share with you some additional musings on carpool lanes, and hear your opinion…

  • Lose That Spare. The LA Times had an interesting article a week or so ago about the increasing tendency of auto manufacturers to sell cars without spare tires. I’m not talking about a temp spare instead of a full-service tire; no, I’m talking about no spare tire at all and no place to put it. You either get a “run flat” tire (which is heavier and wears out sooner) or a can of patch fix. This is a bad idea—these new approaches can leave you stranded if a sidewall blows or a tire shreads.
  • Remote Access. An article in the NY Times over the weekend discussed the increasing use of smartphones and internet devices as door locks. Yes, you too can start your car and the A/C 20 minutes before you get in, or unlock your house from the safety of your office. To me, I think these are bad ideas, for the systems are far too easy to break. There’s nary a mention of security; there’s not even proof that you are you. This is an increasing tendency of society to go for the ease of use and not think about the security consequences. I’d rather have an entry system that really authenticated the individual against a strong access list and provided me an audit log.
  • Spend Like the Government. Saab has announced a number of new models, including new compact and luxury cars. You remember Saab, don’t you. Lost money for Sweden, sold to GM, who sold it (after months of trying to find a buyer) to the Chinese. The company hasn’t built a car since April 6, owes a bunch to suppliers and couldn’t pay its 3,700 workers a couple of weeks ago. So what do you do? As soon as the joint venture ink is dry, announce new models: small Saab called 9-1, and two big ones called 9-6 and 9-7. Somehow, I’m not sure they will be successful.

Lastly, a few thoughts on carpool lanes. These are based on a question I received from Mr. Roadshow, who is working on an article about the decrease in use of carpool lanes, at least in Northern California. He asked me what my thoughts were—did I think that carpool lanes work, and why or why not? He also asked my opinion on HOT (high-occupancy toll lanes, where you can buy your way in). Here’s some of what I wrote him. I’m curious your thoughts on the subject.

Well, perhaps I’m a little biased with my answer, and not because I’m the California Highway Guy. I’m also a vanpooler, and I’ve been commuting from the San Fernando Valley to El Segundo for over 20 years. That’s a distance of 35 miles straight. I’m also part of a company that has one of the oldest vanpooling programs in Southern
California (we’ve won numerous Diamond awards). Before the HOV lanes, I’d guess it took us perhaps 75 minutes in the morning, and the commute home, for those 35 miles, was about 110-120 minutes on average. My commute is directly along I-405 (if you have a map, from roughly Nordhoff to El Segundo S of LAX). We also have 15-20 minutes
of surface street driving on the northern end from the freeway to Northridge, and about 5 minutes on the southern end to my employer. We have an 8 passenger van, and we normally run between 5-8 passengers. Since I’ve been on the van, the HOV lane southbound on I-405 has been completed, it has shaved perhaps 10 minutes off the southbound commute. Northbound we only have lanes as far as I-10 (the rest are under construction), and from US 101 to CA 118. On days when traffic is good, we can now make it home in perhaps 80 minutes; our average is about 90 minutes (we’re a bit slower due to the 405 construction of late), with the worst being about 180 minutes (fire in the pass).

So do I think the lanes work? Depends what you mean by “work”. They work in that they save time for those in van and carpools, and in that aspect they reduce congestion. Do they work in enticing people out of their single-passenger cars? Probably not, because people are unaware of the time savings. There’s also a cost savings that people don’t realize. Do you know what my commuting cost is? $0. I start the van, so the van is parked at my house. Thank’s to IRS rules and contributions from Metro, my company reimburses me for my van bill up to $230. I’ve never had a bill that high. So I pay nothing to commute, plus I have lower milage on my personal vehicle, reducing auto insurance. But most people do not see that aspect.

The unsaid question in all of this, of course, is whether changing those lanes to mixed flow would improve traffic. I think there the answer is mixed. It might in the short term, but people would see the freeway moving better and move back off of surface streets… which would bring the traffic down again. I think there’s an analogy to gas
prices: do lower gas prices make gas cheaper in the long run. In both cases we’re dealing with a fixed commodity, and in both cases, the long term answer is to encourage efficient use of the resource.

Lastly, let’s address whether making HOT lanes works. I’m aware of only a few experiments — I-15 down in San Diego, I-680… and they are talking about I-10 and I-110. I haven’t seen statistics of whether they work. My thoughts are that the answer depends on price. If they are too cheap (defined as perceived to be cheaper than the additional fuel used), they will be overused, and you’ll only temporarily decrease congestion. Price them too high, and they won’t be used. There are examples of that — look at the toll roads in Orange County, which I believe are never congested. So the trick is finding the right price point that will move some traffic over.

Then there’s always the last debate: which improves congestion more: letting people buy their way into the HOV lanes, or letting Prius’ into the lanes. It really is the same thing: people paid a premium for their car to get into the HOV lanes. What was the effect of that experiment on congestion? How much less congested were the lanes today, now that the Prius stickers are no longer effective?


Driven to Distraction

Continuing on the transportation theme from yesterday, today’s theme from the lunch-time news reading appears to be related to automobiles:


Humpday News Chum

Lunchtime on humpday. Time to clean out the links. I have a few items for you…


Humpday News Chum

Lunchtime on Humpday. The time to empty the link collection…

  • The Importance of Humor. Roger Ebert is getting his voice back, and he’s testing it by telling jokes. Actually, this is a serious article on how Ebert is using an electronic device to regain his voice, using snippets of his actual voice collected from innumerable broadcasts. Yes, he is testing it by telling jokes: “If the computer can successfully tell a joke, and do the timing and delivery, as well as Henny Youngman, then that’s the voice I want,” he says.
  • Saving the House. Two historical houses from literature are in the news. From London, there is an effort in progress to save the workhouse made famous in Oliver Twist. On the other hand, the Sands Point NY home that was the inspiration for “Lands End” in The Great Gatsby appears doomed.
  • Finding Good Mechanics. For those that don’t avail themselves of Car Talk’s automotive files, the AAA has always been a good alternative. However, did you know that AAA charges the mechanics an annual fee to be inspected and listed? This, of course, means that those mechanics that don’t want to pay don’t get listed. On the plus side, only about a third of shops that inquire about approval end up submitting paperwork… and of those, only 30% pass the rigorous inspection process. Further, unlike the Better Business Bureau, which can be aggressive in pushing certification on businesses, AAA waits for repair shops to apply for approval. News you can use, indeed.
  • Kitchen Science. The NY Times has a review of what may be the ultimate in kitchen science books: the six-volume “Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking”. From the review: “As scientific as it is gastronomic, it is virtually an encyclopedia of cooking, a visual roller coaster through the world of food and cooking tools, as well as a compendium of 1,500 recipes.” Looks like fascinating reading, but I guess for most people, it would sit on the shelf. Further, with the price ($625 ($467.62 online)), I expect few would buy. I think I’ll stick with “On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen
  • ETA: Missed one… Putting a Stamp on Things. It looks like Sweden may be getting rid of postage stamps, and replacing them with text messages. Specifically, the Swedish postal service, Posten AB, is looking to launch a system wherein letter and package senders pay for postage using their mobile phones. Swedes would send a text message that would bounce back with a code. The code would be written down in place of a stamp as proof of payment. Personally, I think this could be a pain if you had a lot of mail to send (just imagine trying to do it for a bunch of wedding invitations… oh right… no one sends those anymore, they just use Facebook).

News Chum Stew

It’s Friday. You know what that means is on the menu… that’s right. News Chum Stew.

  • Worrying About College. One thing that has been on my mind this week is the simple question: “How am I going to pay for my daughter to go to college?” We are working with some folks to help us with that (and I should note they have a very good blog), but there were some articles I found this week that also have useful information. The first concerns something I’d never heard of: the Western Undergraduate Exchange. Through this program, students in western states may enroll in more than 140 two-year and four-year college institutions at a reduced tuition level: 150 percent of the institution’s regular resident tuition. The second is an article about Sewanee College in Tennessee, which has decided to reduce its tuition–something very rare these days.
  • Worrying About Money. Of course, college is an expense, which can be helped by income. Alas, recent surveys are showing that technical salaries are stagnent for a second year in a row. Some interesting numbers in the article. Nationwide, the average technology salary rose 0.7% to $79,384 in 2010, after a similarly weak rise in 2010. The average wage for a worker with less than two years of experience has dropped 6% since 2008. In California, salaries fared slightly better, rising 0.9% to $90,521 in 2010 after a 1% increase in 2009. In comparison, the national cost of living rose 1.5% last year and 2.7% the year before, according to the Bureau of Labor Standards. Still, nearly 40% of tech professionals think they could make more money if they change employers in 2011.
  • Chinese Cars. An interesting article in the NY Times asking “Where are the Chinese cars?”. An even more interesting article is a review of a Chinese Hybrid Compact.
  • A Landmark Is Gone. Alas, the Shoe Tree on US 50 is no more. Vandals have cut it down.

Rite of Passage

Well, I’ve now had the traditional dad’s rite of passage… I took my daughter out to practice driving today. She cut a right turn a little close, and the bumper went over the curbing. Backing away gently, the plastic holding that corner of the bumper to the car popped. My right front bumper is now dragging a bit.

On the minus side, the car will go to the body shop this week, and hopefully the repair won’t be too bad. On the plus side, I didn’t get angry, no sheet metal was bent, and no one elses car was damaged. I guess this goes with the territory of teaching a teen to drive.


Death of a Brand

I’m taking a quick late lunch break today, and I’d like to have a moment of silence for a brand that died yesterday: Pontiac.

Now, I never owned a Pontiac, but I do drive a Pontiac-clone: the Toyota Matrix. Or should I say the Pontiac Vibe was the clone, as Toyota designed the car. Therein lies the reason for the death of Pontiac: they went from a distinct brand with distinct vehicles with distinct characters to rebadging of other cars. But when Pontiac was unique, they made cars that were unparalleled. I remember their heyday in the 1970s, when they were known for their muscle cars.

In mourning this passing, I’d like to quickly muse on the life of brands. To me, at least, I love the notion of brands and advertising characters. I was pleased to see a recent Alka-Seltzer ad that brought Speedy Alka-Seltzer back to life. I still mourn the original NBC Peacock (who remembers the NBC “N”) and the NBC Chimes. I miss “Little Nipper” of RCA, and talk often about that little minx, Wendy. I guess this shows the power of advertising to turn these ideas into tangible things that we become attached to.

So, my LJ and FB friends, what are your favorite departed brands and advertising icons?


Automobile News Chum

A number of car stories caught my attention as I was reading the papers this week:

  • From the “Brand Up, Brand Down” Department: A number of articles related to car brands. On the luxury side, Hyundai, off all manufacturers, is getting a very positive reception. Their new luxury car, the Equus, has been getting very positive reaction, especially for its technology. In fact, Hyundai has been doing what their Japanese bretheren did in the 1970s: turning around a reputation for cheap cars into a reputation as a high quality manufacturer with much more stylist designs. I remember a good friend, who works for Toyota, once telling us that their big fear was Hyundai: once they figured things out, they would clean Toyota’s clock. That’s happening, folks.

    Other luxury car brands, however, are suffering. In particular, buyers are turning away from Lincoln as a luxury car brand, and as a result, Lincoln dealers are closing. It is postulated that much of this is a side effect of the “bailout” advertising: in other words, people are realizing that Lincoln and Cadillac are part of the lower-scale Ford and GM respectively, and this is hurting their luxury reputation. Both Lexus and Infiniti have done good jobs of distancing themselves from their parent brands. Of course, this ties in to the previous paragraph: Equus is marketed as a Hyundai: will this hurt or help them?

  • From the “Company Up, Company Down” Department: Just as Hyundai is going up in quality, so are the Detroit automakers, and sales are showing it. Detroit is on a roll: improving quality, improving styles. They have realized that the nameplate alone doesn’t sell cars: it’s the product (for example, read this review of the Buick Regal). According to the linked article, customers are increasingly interested in Ford and GM products, with a spillover effect on Chrysler. The technology and quality innovations are paying off, and the bailoff permitted these companies to jettison the unprofitable portions of the past. In fact, customers are spurning the Japanese brands for American brands.

    We’re seeing a radical reshuffling of the car market here: Detroit is moving up, led by styling and quality. South Korea is also moving up, led by the same. The Japanese market leaders (Honda, Toyota) are falling, having gotten too confident in their success, having increasing quality problems and staid designs (which, I’ll note, is what created problems for Detroit in the 1980s and 1990s). The second-tier Japanese manufactures have improving designs (witness some of the Nissan designs of late (Juke, Leaf) and the growing success of Subaru), but the quality reputation for those manufacturers isn’t fully there yet.

  • From the “Speed Up, Speed Down” Department: There was always the belief that speeding tickets correlate to the color of your car, but of course that is an urban legend. However, another characteristic of the car you drive may be a factor: its make and model. A recent study has shown that drivers of stylish “spirited”-looking vehicles and the outsized Hummer H2/H3 were the most likely to be cited by law enforcement officials. Drivers of the Mercedes-Benz SL Class roadster were 4.04 times as likely to get a ticket as the average for drivers of all vehicles. Camry-Solara drivers were second at 3.49 times as likely to be cited, followed by Scion TC drivers at 3.43 times. Hummers came in fourth at 2.92 times as likely to get a ticket, and the Scion xB was fifth at 2.70 times. Want to avoid the cops? The Buick Rainier SUV was the least likely vehicle to get a ticket at .23 times the rate of the average auto. It also had the oldest drivers, with an average age of 61. The Mazda Tribute and the Chevrolet C/K pickup truck were tied for second, followed by the Kia Spectra sedan and the Buick LaCrosse sedan.
  • From the “Size Up, Size Down” Department: Lastly, the NY Times has an interesting look at microcars. Popular in Europe, especially in the 1960s, these tiny cars were never a hit in the US (although echoes of them are in the Smart ForTwo and the Mini). The article highlights cars such as the Messerschmitt KR-175, which was less than 10 feet long, weighed 396 pounds, and had just 3 wheels.