June 18, 2017

Outside The Box - the one with four wheels

In the early days, every car was a convertible.

Seriously. Just look at this early car ad from 1898, from the Winton Motor Carriage Company, one of the first manufacturers that sold cars in the United States.

The name says it all: they didn't make cars: they made carriages. They simply replaced the horse with a "hydrocarbon motor", promising "no odor". That last bit makes sense if you remember that, while you have to sit behind the horse and get to experience whatever comes out of it, the motor exhaust can be directed behind you where it brings pollution to everybody else on the road.

June 2, 2017

Climate Change and the Ministry of Truth

Unsurprisingly, the US has pulled out of the Paris agreement. Unsurprisingly, the world's news media is awash with the news, reactions, analyses. The entire online front page of the Washington Post is taken up by this.

I went to check out Fox News.

What climate change? What Paris agreement?

May 24, 2017

Is an EV best for the climate? - "It Depends"

The world is hopping on the electric bandwagon. Cities like them because they don't belch soot and other pollution on the road. Owners like them for that sweet kick in the lower lumbar region - electric motors have even more torque than turbodiesels. The climate conscious like them because once the source of electricity is also weaned off fossil fuels, their carbon emissions will be very low.

Right now, though, we are in a transition period: while renewable energy is starting to make inroads, the fact is that it still makes up a small fraction (single digit percentages) of the world's electricity supply. And how clean your electricity is depends largely on where you live.

The total carbon emissions from your car must also include the emissions from its manufacture. Apples-to-apples comparisons are very hard to come by, but there is one car that has three different incarnations: the Renault Fluence was, for a time, available in gasoline, diesel and electric versions (no hybrid). So the cars are identical except for their engines and drivetrains. Renault has done a lifecycle analysis for the three versions (PDF file).

Manufacturing the electric car makes more carbon emissions than the gas or diesel versions - this is often pointed out by dectractors of EVs. However, over the lifetime of the car (defined in the study as 150,000 km or roughly 100,000 miles), the electric car has significantly lower emissions than either of the fossil fuel propelled ones.

May 21, 2017

DYI Car Ad

I have stopped covering car ads released at the Super Bowl because they have become boring. They're not inspiring. They're not very beautiful. And most damningly, they are not funny.

But here is one that fills all of those requirements: A visual effects artist has made a video to help sell his car, a Suzuki Vitara. It's roaringly funny. It's a beautiful send-off of every "serious" car ad you've ever seen. It has been viewed more than 5 million times in five weeks.

And while it may not inspire you to rush out an buy a Vitara of your own, it may just inspire a new generation to get into computer graphics and visual effects.


"#BuyMyVitara"; also viewable on YouTube.



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February 27, 2017

Ocean Microplastic and Your Car

It used to be that the best facial scrub is a home-made facial scrub with ingredients that come out of your pantry, like sugar, sunflower or coconut oil, and some antiseptic like a drop or two of tea tree oil, lavender oil or that "Thieves" blend: everything biodegradable, nothing toxic.

Photo by Inkwina

That way, when you flush it down the sink, you don't contribute to ocean plastic which is so bad for marine life (and the people who like to eat it), because your nice home-made facial scrub doesn't contain plastic microbeads.

But now you can forget about all that. Because industrial facial scrub containing microbeads are now banned, thank goodness. So now you only need to be mindful of glitter in your makeup, and not driving too much.

Wait. What's driving got to do with microplastic?

February 23, 2017

Fuel efficiency rules, hated by carmakers, are the car owner's friend

Now that the White House has turned into a stable of climate change deniers, those who facilitate climate change are trying to grab hold of their oily and sooty coat tails.

The new head of the EPA, who has famously sued the EPA numerous times at the behest of fossil fuel interests, has barely had time to settle into his new office before a chorus of carmakers rises up asking him to get rid of the fuel efficiency standards known as CAFE.

But CAFE is our friend.

Under CAFE rules, American drivers of gasoline cars can count on saving $1.7 trillion dollars in fuel between 2011 and 2025, the lifetime of the rule. On the other hand, the auto industry would have lost $ 0.2 trillion because they are forced to sell you the car that better fits your needs rather than the oversized one they want you to buy that nets them higher profits.

Carmakers don't care that you and I can save $1.7 trillion dollars. They do care that they can boost their profits by any amount. So they will do their best to get rid of the CAFE standards. And it's up to us to uphold those standards: for 1.7 trillion reasons plus the big one: the round, green and blue one that we all call home.

Photo by Mark Buckawicki

This is why I say we're being ripped off at the pump.

February 19, 2017

Vision Zero

Have you operated your wrecking ball lately?

What, you think you have nothing to do with wrecking balls? Let me elaborate: A wrecking ball is a steel object that uses the kinetic energy of its motion to inflict damage. It can weigh anywhere between 1,000 and 12,000 pounds. And it has the capability to make entire buildings come down.

Okay, so mine happens to have four wheels, and I don't operate it by swinging it from a crane: instead, I send it hurtling down the road. With myself inside. Often with a child or two on its back seat. Although it's on the whole a very useful thing, my car does embody the damage potential of a medium-sized wrecking ball.

And there's no damage like loss of life. In the United States, more than 40,000 people died in traffic 2016. It is an astonishing number, and even larger than the annual deaths caused by guns, which itself is tragically high.

January 15, 2017


Innovative design is, by definition, unprecedented. Think of the iPhone. Think of Uber. Think of the Kübelwagen.

The what?

Photo Bundesarchiv, N 1603 Bild-192 / Horst Grund / CC-BY-SA 3.0

December 5, 2016

Thirty-five days

"Hey, I wonder who filled the tank?"

I'm so used to be the one taking care of the car that it comes as a pleasant surprise when someone else in the house takes on a task, even if it's a matter of pulling up at the gas station. What tipped me off was that the gas log we keep for the car seems to be missing a month.

I skipped a line to record the current fill, hoping to recover the sales slip from the previous fill. I'm a geek and love to record data - even if that data is just the gas usage on my car. At every fill, I write the date, the mileage, and the gallons put into the tank.

But it turns out nobody had taken a turn filling the tank but me. The last fill really did happen at the end of October, and I had simply skipped over the month of November. That makes 35 days between fills.

While I go around bragging that I fill my car's tank once a month, that actually only happens on quiet months. In October we had two sets of houseguests from overseas, and we took them to see the sights - in the car, of course, as that is part of the American experience. Between that and shuttling to the airport, I had to fill the tank every other week. So 35 days between fills feels good.

Yeah, I know: the world is getting off diesel. Our next car is probably going to be electric. Until then, I like the one that requres a fill only once a month.



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November 5, 2016

Jack Kerouac Goes to Standing Rock

These weeks, there is a big flurry of rideshares being organised to and from Standing Rock, to join the Standing Rock Sioux and other native American tribles who have gathered there to protest the construction of an oil pipeline.

In the old days (in the 1950s) a travel bureau could match you up with a car going in your general direction, or if you had a car, they could match you up with riders who can keep you company, and help out with driving and gas money.

These days, you use social media.

If Jack Kerouac wanted to go to Standing Rock today, he would go to a Facebook group called Standing Rock Rideshare which serves as an electronic travel bureau where you can offer or ask for rides.

November 2, 2016

Three Climate Change Documentaries to Watch on the Eve of the 2016 US Elections

America is between a rock and a hard place. The choices in the 2016 presidential elections are essentially between two intensely disliked candidates with more warts than you can reasonably expect their spin doctors to erase, and two candidates burdened by the history of Ralph Nader, who is widely believed to have lost Al Gore the 2000 election.

Actual policy has been given short shrift in this sorry election season, at least by the media. But that doesn't mean that voters aren't paying attention.

Amid all the scandals, the week before the election on November 8 has seen the release of no fewer than three documentaries on climate change.

The truth is that in this age of globalisation, "domestic" applies to affairs on the planetary scale. The jobs go where they are cheapest, whether that's China, Brazil or India. The price of oil and coal is determined by global demand. And the policies of all nations make a difference to our largest commons, the atmosphere that makes our planet so beautiful and so hospitable to life as we know it, in contrast to our bare moon which has no atmosphere (speaking both literally and figuratively).

Those policies are set by the people we elect to represent us. Which is why it's so important that everyone who has the right to vote, actually casts that vote.

We all have our priorities: There's the economy to consider, healthcare options, the cost of education, national security. Not many people use climate change as a yard stick by which to measure candidates, but if you think about it, you should. Because climate change has an impact on most of those things that people care about, and that sway their vote. Climate change will make healthcare more expensive. A single hurricane can wreak economic damage in the tens of billions of dollars. In the not too distant future, the upheaval caused by climate displacement will become a real national security issue. Addressing these needs policy on a national scale: they are not things you can influence by changing a light bulb in your living room.

And that is why these documentaries are released on the eve of the 2016 US elections. Which shows you that James Comey, the beleaguered director of the FBI, is not the only one with a sense of timing.


The Doubt Machine: Inside the Koch Brothers' War on Climate Science (30 mins) is a documentary produced by the Real News Network, that sets out to expose how the Koch brothers are working to expand their coal-based empire by manipulating the public's views on climate change. To rub that in: they are trying to tell you and me what to think, and they have been disquietingly successful.

The brothers are also throwing their vast wealth behind political campaigns, in a barely veiled attempt to buy government officials who will be friendly to their business. Nobody has run afoul of EPA regulations more than the companies controlled by the Koch brothers, and they would love to see the EPA crippled, if not dismantled altogether.

Or as the climate scientist Michael Mann says, "They have polluted our public discourse; they have skewed media coverage of climate change; they have paid off politicians."

The documentary is narrated by Emma Thompson, whose voice manages to convey controlled anger even as she goes through the factual narration.

The Doubt Machine: Inside the Koch Brothers’ War on Climate Science from The Real News Network on Vimeo.


Before The Flood (90 mins) is Leonardo DiCaprio's powerful and deeply personal account of climate change. DiCaprio talks to climate scientists, politicians, even Pope Francis, on his quest to get to the bottom of the causes and effects of climate change, and the solutions.

September 25, 2016

Getting Ripped Off At The Pump

There's an ongoing debate about whether or not your car really needs premium gasoline (for which you pay premium prices). The American Automobile Association has done helpful research that says that, unless the car is built for premium gasoline, you don't need the more expensive fuel. It's a waste of your money. Apparently Americans collectively pay more than $2bn too much every year for premium gasoline our cars don't need.

Photo by Naotake Murayama

But never mind that: the discussion around super unleaded masks a much bigger rip-off: the one you commit to when you buy your car.