March 29, 2013

Licence To Spill

Many parents would jump at the idea of a vacuum cleaner built into the car. When children occupy the back seat, it may soon look like an unruly horde of fairies have been by sprinkling, not fairy dust, but an assortment of crumbs, bits of paper, mud, pieces of toys and other debris. The backseat could look worse than their rooms, that make you wish you had a giant vacuum cleaner to pull it all out in one go and start over.

Well, now you can. Honda offers a van-sized vacuum cleaner, in the shape of an Odyssey minivan with a built-in vacuum hose. The hose is said to reach every nook and cranny of the van's interior. I have seen no specifications on the suction power, but it had better be good if it's to deal with the backseat debris. Certainly if it has to do that within eight minutes, the amount of time it can run on the car's battery.

If you need more than eight minutes, you need to turn on the minivan's engine to power the vacuum cleaner, so yes, now you have what amounts to a 248 HP vacuum cleaner. To put that in perspective, the engine in my trusty Miele has 1200 Watt, or 1.6HP. Even that is too much for most household jobs.

"Where's the common sense?" It's something CelloDad says often. (I reckon if he gets exasperated enough he'll start his own blog). I suspect that the very presence of a vacuum cleaner encourages more littering, crumbs and carelessness.

You don't need a vacuum cleaner built into your car. All you need is a switch of perspective inside your head, and that of your children: Stop thinking that the car is a living space.

March 28, 2013

One Year Mark

It's been one year, almost to the day, that I came home with a 2012 Volkswagen Golf TDI, having left a 2001 VW Golf at the dealer. The transaction nearly doubled the fuel efficiency of our family car.

The mileage meter says 8300 miles. That's a little higher than our average annual mileage over the past ten years, about 8000 miles, but well within the year-to-year variation.

So it appears the old adage about higher fuel efficiency being futile as it leads to higher annual miles doesn't apply to us. I never did believe that tale, anyway. In my particular case, I would have to start driving 15,000 miles per year instead of 8,000: where would I find the time to put on those extra miles?

The car has been averaging 38 mpg. On the one road trip we've taken with it, it got 45 mph on the highway. Since it was carrying all four of us (but not the cello), its per-passenger carbon emissions rivaled that of a European high speed train (Amtrak needs to do some catching up in that respect).

I've had no trouble getting diesel fuel: when traveling, it's not hard to find fuel stations dispensing diesel - and with a 500-mile range, it's easy to plan ahead a little. Around town, there are one or two stations where I've become a familiar customer.

In the normal course of things, I visit that fuel station just about once a month. I like it that way.



March 25, 2013

Do We Need Mobile Communication - For Our Cars?

You know how people leave their windshield wipers sticking up when they park and it's snowing or sleeting? It may look silly but that way the wipers don't get frozen onto the glass, and everything is easier to clear off when you return.

Well, doing that is impossible in my car. The wipers are tucked away under an overhang of the hood. It gives a neater look. On the other hand, you can't make them stick up. I tried to trick it by turning the car key in mid-swipe, hoping to stop the wipers while they're in the upright position. But the system was smarter than the owner: a small processor detects the wipers' position and parks them neatly, quite independently of when you take away nominal power.

I really don't appreciate it when my possessions try to outsmart me.

Don't get me wrong: I like stop/start technology. I like the variable timing technology that regulates the fuel injection for optimum efficiency at any speed. Those are just two examples of features for which you need a processor, that is, a small computer, in your car. In those cases, a computer can do much better than I, and I am happy to relinquish control.

Photo Wikiuser100000

Until it's time for a repair. The illumination of the Check Engine light is a blunt reminder that when you want to ask what's wrong with a contemporary car engine, you need to speak UNIX not physics. I resent that. I like being able to crawl in and touch this and wiggle that and being able (sometimes) to fix the problem myself, on the spot, without much to-do and very little expense.

March 21, 2013

A Non-Toxic Cleaning for your Car Interior

Welcome to the March 2013 Natural Living Blog Carnival: Naturally Spring Cleaning.

This post was written for inclusion in the monthly Natural Living Blog Carnival hosted by Happy Mothering and The Pistachio Project through the Green Moms Network. This month our carnival participants have written posts about how they keep their homes clean - naturally.

[This post is not, strictly speaking, about house cleaning. But the car has unfortunately become such an integral part of our lives that you might consider it your second living room. Which needs its own type of cleaning.]


It usually comes at the same time: the cold finally lets up, and suddenly you can no longer ignore the crud that has accumulated inside your car during all the time it's been too freezy to even contemplate taking a wet sponge outside the house.

The situation depends on where - and how - you live. In my case, it's pretty dire in there, with the dust lying thick on the dashboard, the crumbs, beeswax bits and other droppings on the back seat, not to mention the slush residue and mud marks that make their way onto the most surprising parts of the car (what is a smear of mud doing on top of the headrest?).

Time to get out the big guns.

Please allow me to introduce my other set of four wheels. This baby is powerful, and well built: its door closes with a satisfying "whump". It's got great handling, zips around the tightest corners, and is easy to park since you can stand it on its rear. It's a Miele with a 1.6HP engine.

March 18, 2013

The Power of Names

(Image by Gareth Hughes)

"In the beginning was the Word."

These are the opening words of the Gospel of St John, and it is far from the only piece of writing that acknowledges the great power of words, in particular their power to create whole worlds. As just one example, think of the biblical echo in Shelley's Hellas:

Let there be Light, said Liberty,
And, like sunrise from the sea,
Athens arose.

Apart from poets, priests and politicans, it is also the admen who have a clear understanding of the power of words, and use them for the creation of entire universes in the minds of consumers, all in the name of profit and - that most ambivalent of words - "growth".

Admen know that the proper naming of products and their classification has a significant effect on companies' bottom line. Take a quick look around, you'll see it everywhere: "Tide" laundry detergent; "Rembrandt" artist supplies; "Seventh Generation" household products; "Green"; "Natural" - and so on.

March 15, 2013

Review: BMW 1 Series

BMW's 1 Series come in several flavours: Coupé, Convertible, and Sports Hatch. Of which only the first two have found their way to the US, and only since model year 2008. Before that, BMW USA looked like they didn't know how to count, starting as they did from 3 (sort of like Audi's position now -- because of course there is an Audi A1).

All versions of the 1 Series, including the new electric, have rear-wheel drive. It is the 50%-50% front-to-back weight distribution and the fact that the front wheels are dedicated to steering, that give the legendary handling characteristic of BMW.

March 14, 2013

A Locavore in Winter

Many thanks to Reduce Footprints, whose Change The World Wednesday challenge this week features my suggestion to find ways to eat locally in winter time. All in the quest to minimise food miles.

There are lots of ways to do this, including planning ahead when you buy seeds for your vegetable garden, and preserving the summer bounty found at CSAs and farmers markets.

Photo Sarah Charlesworth

Since my gardening skills are practically nil, and because I'm lazy (and because my freezer is too small to contain a winter's worth of food), I have opted for pushing my CSA farmer to start offering winter shares. I am happy to report that such a scheme is in the works for next winter. For this winter I've been hitting up the farmers market, which is much reduced from its summer glory but still operating, offering winter vegetables like cabbage, brussels sprouts (which is actually sweetened by snow fall), and a large array of root vegetables and winter squashes.

The farmers market in town (the one I can reach by bike) opens just once a month. For the rest of the time I go to the local health food store, which tries very hard to source its produce locally.

March 7, 2013

Carbon Tax is an Effective Tool to Reduce Cars' Emissions

We collectively need a drastic reduction of our CO2 emissions, especially from our cars, and as quickly as possible. This much is clear.

I have argued that an exclusive favouring of hybrid and electric vehicles makes no sense if other automotive technologies can also achieve emissions reduction (and I'm talking about real, lifecycle emissions, not just tailpipe emissions).

On the other hand, boosting funding for road maintenance by slapping a tax on hybrid and electric vehicles, as now proposed in several states, is a hare-brained scheme that gives precisely the wrong incentive. Assuming, that is, that we are serious about fighting climate change.

The most straightforward way to reduce cars' carbon emissions while simultaneously raising highway funds (and the most fair) is to impose a carbon tax, both on the buyer of gasoline, and the user of electricity. This way you will be taxed whether you drive a gasoline or electricity powered car. You will be taxed according to how much you drive - without the need for a tracking device. And you will be penalised for driving a gas/electricity guzzler, by bearing a higher per-mile cost, and rewarded for driving a sipper.