Cars Driving Family

End of the driving drought

Every once in awhile, during a typical workday, I’ll come up from my basement desk and look out at my car sitting in the driveway.

Recently it was covered with a fine mist of yellow pollen, which is easy to spot from that vantage point; harder when you’re up close. Then it was small leaves blown around by early summer winds and rain until they took up residence on the windshield wipers, on the door frames and in the crevices of the side mirrors. Every other car in the neighbourhood is dealing with the same affliction. This stuff would, of course, blow off if we drove a bit.

When the pandemic first hit and we started staying home, traffic slowed to a trickle. Our street connects two east-west routes in Toronto and while it’s hardly a major thoroughfare, it’s typically busy. It was eerie to see it so silent in those first few days and weeks of lockdown.

It’s fitting though that the most recent drive I took was to bring my daughter to her first Covid-19 vaccination. A 33-minute drive away, just over 27 kilometres. Traffic was substantial on the highway but given that it was mid-day and many of us are still working from home, where are you all going?

The answer could be nowhere. Throughout the winter and last fall, and last summer for that matter, a drive became a thing to do. Let’s just drive downtown and see what’s going on, we’d say. Knowing that there’s probably not much of anything happening. The streetcar would be crawling along its tracks and people would be walking, sure, but the typical weekday and weekend crowds were non-existent.

Look, there’s my office (now closed as we await a signal that all is clear to return to work, but in a new location). Is Brandy Melville open? my daughter would ask. Yes, but with strict capacity limits and an inevitable lineup outside.

When were kids, our parents would once in a while take us for a drive. Usually on a Sunday evening and only in the summer. Sometimes we’d convince our father to take us to our favourite park in Paris, Ont. For my sister and me at the time it probably seemed exotic (it had a twisty slide. We had to make do with the regular straight slides in the parks in our neighbourhood.) But I remember the thing we seemed to do more often was drive along country roads. My father, as we would come to know, thought of himself as a farmer stuck in a stock broker’s suit and the country drives were an attempt to get back to his rural roots (and routes).

Between that long ago then and this suspended now, a drive was replaced by a commute. Which was punctuated by trips to see friends or family a few hours away. Those were in turn replaced by road trips–to New York, to Myrtle Beach, to Orlando, to Athens, Georgia. Trips that were defined by being behind the wheel, moving across the pavement putting kilometres behind us as we looked ahead to the many more to come. Stopping as strangers in some locale and greeting others who were doing the same thing.

But the aimless drive? That just didn’t happen. Until at least we were cooped up in homes/offices rarely going farther than the grocery store (which became at first an expedition in itself: Gloves? Check. Hand sanitizer? Check. Mentally prepared to stand in line? Check.) But we needed to get out. Somehow. Anyhow. The idea of a drive became both entertainment and escape. Forgotten were the hassles of traffic, aggressive drivers, construction-induced gridlock.

Now, as I come up from my basement office and look at the car in my driveway, I remind myself that automobiles are made to move. Humans are too. And once in a while we both need to exit the driveway and let the wind take the dust away.

Bikes Cycling Safety

To clip in or not to clip in

When I bought my Specialized Allez road bike in 2014 (after scouring bike shops, taking in bike shows, looking over and trying out more bikes than I care to disclose and, after my wife said to me, after barely listening to yet another list of bike specs, features and pros and cons said: “Just pick one and buy it!”) I made a conscious decision not to acquire more bike-related stuff than I truly needed. I was going to focus on the riding, not the accessories.

Of course, I needed a few necessities like water bottle and cage, lights, helmet and, of course, padded shorts (that need became apparent after the first ride.) Then when I picked up my new bike, the guy at the shop told me that even though the bike came with the cage-style toe clips I would probably want to replace them with clipless pedals.

I dismissed the idea as another useless accessory but at the same time wondered if I should just fully commit to the whole road bike milieu and clip in like most of the other road cyclists. They were the riders whose pedalling cadence seemed more fluid. Plus their pedals made a satisfying clack when they clipped in. It sounded to me like a type of starter’s pistol. Let’s go, they said. Take on that road.

Cycling purists will tell you that clipless pedals are the only way to ride. They’ll imply that you have to use them if you want to be considered a real roadie.

So I took the plunge.  They were easy to install (especially since I’d also bought a bike repair stand.) I practiced with them in the backyard, making sure the tension was set so I could snap in and out quickly.

Clipless pedals certainly helped on a climb when I had to get out of the saddle and stand on the pedals. My feet always felt secure and I knew they wouldn’t slip out of the pedals.

Trouble is, I had this nagging suspicion that I couldn’t get my feet out fast enough. I didn’t like the feeling of always being attached to the bike, especially in Toronto traffic when inevitably a car would stop suddenly in front of me or pull into my path from a side street or parking spot.

Everything I’d read about riding clipless mentioned that you should expect to crash at least once. That thought didn’t appeal to me — especially when I researched some of the crashes. For one, there’s this guy (granted, he was on a mountain bike but scroll down through his post and check out his x-rays.)

Still, I’d prefer not to create some x-rays of my own, so I’ve gone back to using the cage-style pedals that came with the bike, albeit with the adjustable straps removed, leaving just the centre clip for the toe of my shoe to slip under. While they allow me to slip my foot out quickly they’re still tricky to get back into when I’m pulling away from a stop.

So I’m in the market for a compromise solution. There’s these platform “pin” pedals (often used on mountain bikes) and these “Click’r” pedals that can be used with or without cleats. So, that means I’m still buying more stuff. But this stuff should let me concentrate not on my feet but on the fun of the ride.





Bikes Cycling Transportation Travel

Going Dutch: Amsterdam by bike

I travelled to Amsterdam to see the city by bike and then wrote about it for the summer 2014 issue of CAA Magazine. It was my first visit to Amsterdam and I loved it. Now I just have to make the time to go back.

Auto industry Cars Transportation

The cars that drove the culture

This book review appears in the Winter 2012 edition of CAA Magazine

Engines of Change-A History of the American Dream in Fifteen Cars

Engines of Change (Simon & Schuster, 2012) by Paul Ingrassia is a fascinating look at the intersection of cars and culture. And it’s as much about the ground-breaking cars of the 20th century as it is about the people who championed and built them, like Lee Iacocca and Hal Sperlich

In 1961 Iacocca, the relentless marketing man, tapped into the fast-growing “youth movement” and found that young Americans were hungry for a small, fast, sporty car. He and Sperlich, an ambitious product planner, led the teams that took the chassis of the dowdy Ford Falcon and gave it a modern sleek body, creating the Mustang. The car personified youthful optimism and ushered in the Pony Car movement and Detroit’s horsepower wars.

Iacocca and Sperlich were both eventually fired from Ford and found their way to Chrysler in the ’70s. As Iacocca fought to save Chrysler from collapse, Sperlich saw potential profits in a new type of family vehicle: the minivan. He bet that the young people who had bought Mustangs in the ’60s now had families and needed a more practical vehicle. Ford had already rejected Sperlich’s idea, but Chrysler had little to lose. And they had a front-wheel-drive platform that begat the dull but successful K-car, which in turn would underpin the Dodge Caravan when it debuted in 1983.

Engines of Change is full of great stories and anecdotes—from Honda’s audacious entry into North America to Jeep’s many near-death experiences. Even the most oil-stained car enthusiast will be entertained for hours.

Paul Ferriss

Cars Safety Technology Transportation

All aboard the ‘road train’

A new European Union research project is giving new meaning to the term tailgating.

The SARTRE project is looking into what it dubs “road trains” or highway “platoons” – essentially groups of cars all heading to a common destination led by a vehicle driven by a professional driver with all the cars in the train linked and controlled by sophisticated navigation systems.

The goals of SARTRE – which stands for Safe Road Trains for the Environment – are to improve traffic flow on major highways, reduce fuel consumption and lower CO2 emissions.

The three-year project is being led by engineering firm Ricardo U.K. and is partly funded by the European Commission. Several other Europe-based companies are participating, including technology and R&D company Robotiker-Tecnalia Technology Centre of Spain, Volvo Technology Corp. (a business unit of Volvo Group, which makes trucks, buses and construction equipment) and Volvo Car Corp. The core concept was proposed by Ricardo and refined with other project members that are part of the European Automotive Research Partner Association (EARPA) safety task force.

“The goal is to encourage a step change in transport usage through the development and integration of technologies that will lead to road trains being operated on public highways without modification to the road infrastructure,” says Tom Robinson, SARTRE project co-ordinator with Ricardo U.K.

Robinson adds that car makers have long built active safety systems into their cars, such as antilock braking systems and traction control. But some have also developed more passive technology, at least from the driver’s perspective, that allows a car to nearly drive itself (think of the Lexus LS460 sedan that is capable of parallel parking on its own, with minimal input from the driver).

Starting in 2011, SARTRE will begin testing technology that will take over control of a car’s acceleration as well as braking and steering along with what Robinson calls an organizational assistant that will facilitate commands from a lead vehicle. Lead vehicles and those in the train will be tested on closed tracks in Sweden and Britain and possibly later on public highways.

While many of the specifics of road-train usage haven’t been worked out, Robinson presents what could be a typical scenario: drivers leave their homes to take part in their daily commute. Shortly after they enter the highway, they would meet up with six to eight other cars travelling in close formation.

Once the car communicates (through an Internet connection) with the lead vehicle, which is controlled by a full-time, professional driver and a price is agreed to, the driver would let go of the steering wheel and the car would join the train.

The driver could then relax – make phone calls or read a newspaper. To leave the train, the driver simply takes control of the car to make an exit.

“The goal is for drivers to be able to relax, but not fall asleep,” cautions Robinson. “There will always be a requirement for a driver to interact in some way during joining and exit manoeuvres.”

How a driver handles that interaction is still being studied, as is the optimum distance that cars should remain apart while they’re in a road train.

Robinson acknowledges that average drivers might need additional training to cope with road trains – as would the driver in the lead vehicle – but the benefits would be worth it.

He estimates there would be a 10 to 20 per cent improvement in fuel efficiency among vehicles that are in the train because the cars are closer to one another and reducing aerodynamic drag. They’d also be travelling at a constant speed while in the train. Robinson also believes the trains would make highways safer.

“Given that the driver is a major contributor to road fatalities and we are providing the option for drivers to reduce their control, then we could envisage a 10 per cent reduction in fatalities,” he said. “There is less variation in cruising speed and consequently more stability to traffic flow overall.”

Transportation expert Wendell Cox, principal of consulting firm Demographia of Belleville, Ill., has worked on a variety of transportation projects in Canada and the United States. He says the SARTRE project could have merit, but it should first prove that it’s “commercially viable” and that it’s something that drivers will actually want to take part in, and will feel there’s a pressing need for.

“It raises all sorts of issues,” he says. “The first is, Will it do what it says it’s going to do? And what’s the benefit for the (individual) driver? Are fuel savings enough?”

While one of SARTRE’s goals is to reduce fuel consumption among everyday motorists, Cox says fuel prices will have to rise much further than the near $1 a litre that most Canadians are paying to motivate people to use road trains.

“Fuel is really not that expensive and vehicle technology has improved so much that the miles per gallon average is 20 and in a Toyota Prius it’s 50,” adds Cox.

“The real issue is can we solve the problem of the train itself,” he says, adding that a more intriguing idea is that of GPS-controlled highways, or even specific highway lanes, that allow drivers to access them and then give up control of their cars to satellite technology, while remaining behind the wheel. “But we’re about 20 to 30 years away from that.”

“The technology exists (for GPS highways) but we have to surrender control of the car,” he says.

Published in The Globe and Mail’s Globe Drive on March 25, 2010