Self-Driving Cars and Impact Drivers

At some car show or another, Nissan as well as a few other auto companies announced their plans for Self-Driving cars. Google’s been testing them for quite a while. They’ve racked up somewhere over one million (“accident-free” miles, as they’re quick to point out) among their beige, bland, boring, depressing fleet of automobiles fleet of precision machines.

The CEO of Daimler (the guy with the mustache) went on record saying:

“Autonomous vehicles are an important step on the way to accident-free driving.” — Mustached Executive

Even I am not going to argue that this isn’t a great achievement. It is. I write software — it’s difficult not to stand in awe that someone has actually solved something that is actually a very difficult problem. There. That’s said. What I will argue with though, is that they solved it wrong.

Here, I want to talk about a horrible tool called an Impact Driver. The idea is quite simple, you have a high-torque phillips head screw. For those of you unfamiliar with this, it’s impossible to actually apply any force to said type of screw to loosen it, because there’s no way you can get a ‘grip’ on it. Often, you’ll therefore fine these types of screws in totally inappropriate places where the screw is torqued down so far that you can’t get it off without drilling it out. Enter: IMPACT DRIVER. It’s simple. You put it on the screw head like any ordinary screw driver, and then hit it with a hammer. The driver compresses driving itself into the screw and turning slightly. You can take the screw out.

 

Awesome. Except, it shouldn’t exist. Every application where there is a heavily-torqued bolt, there should be a bolt, not a screw with a phillips head that is rusted stuck.

 

 

This, I think, is like autonomous cars. It’s an amazing, amazing tool that solves a problem that shouldn’t exist. I continue to advocate for cheaper, more effective solutions to distracted (and hence, accident-free) driving, like Driver Education and Public Transit and Not Driving if you don’t feel personally qualified to do so. Education and competency solve other problems too, like high text messaging bills that arise from when you should be driving (Ok, I know everyone has an unlimited plan, but bear with me). Someone put a screw in the wrong place and auto companies are trying to invent the impact driver for it, when really, we should have just put a 10mm bolt there, easily accessible with a breaker bar.

Alignment is Everything

I’ve found myself in (business) organizations with entire meetings around some magical thing called “Alignment”. That is — everything is pointing in the direction that it’s supposed to be pointing. I’ve often written those meetings off, and depending on their greater context, I may continue to do so.

But suddenly, I can’t write them off. Earlier this month I stumbled upon a tire Deal-Of-The-Century. An hour spent with my impact gun and a pair of (very crappy) jacks, the S2000 was rolling on the best rubber the Department of Transportation slaps their accolades on. Even from that, the difference was amazing. The steering response, the road feel. My bushings are 75,000 miles old, but man, I felt connected to the tarmac some 13 inches below my feet.

There was still more to be done on the performance front though. I felt that I wasn’t extracting every ounce of grip from my suspension. So I needed an Alignment. An aggressive one. So there came the fun part. I hit the forums (namely, S2ki) researching suspension setups suitable for autocross and occasional track driving. I picked some numbers based on Race Car Vehicle Dynamics, comments from The Internet, and other various amounts of research. Maximum Front Caster, Zero Front Toe, .33 degrees total rear toe, and -1 and -2 degrees caster respectively.

What I wasn’t expecting was the difference. According to my alignment printouts, I only got half a degree more of caster (which is  basically steering response), about +.3 degrees of front toe (back to zero — which again helps with turning response) and half a degree and a whole degree more camber (respectively). Relatively minor changes.

WOW. It’s like a new car. Even just going through some turns or making slalom-like movements in a parking lot felt like the difference between night and day. The funny part? It’s still subjective — except Camber, which is almost a direct correlation to grip. Toe is what steering response feels like — and it depends on what you want. It’s a tradeoff between straight-line performance and steering response. Same with Camber and Caster too. But I think I picked good numbers. I can’t wait to race now.

Consider this as a closing thought though — everything else is like aligning a car. I briefly present to you a math problem. On a typical car, you have something like +- degrees of camber to adjust (-2 to 2, maybe), maybe 4 degrees of caster, +.30 inches to -.30 inches of caster, and the same camber and toe on the rear (no caster on the rear, unless you have some horrific rear steering system).

So, with a reasonable granularity of adjustment, on a per-axle basis, we get: 40*40*60*40*60 or 230 million choices. (disclaimer, I’m not getting a math degree anymore).

Maybe spending time for a proper alignment of any sort is worthwhile.

Egads — Look at what we can do!

Egads, it’s been a little bit since I’ve posted here. I’m quite sorry about that (or maybe you should be thanking me?).

Anyway, not too thrilled about that. As I’m sure you all know, life gets in the way. But oh, what a life it is. See, much like how I spent my June I’ve been biding my time doing interesting activities (OK, with the exception of moving). But I’ve started a wonderful lineup of classes, finished some good classes, worked more on cars, and generally have been having a great time.

At my last Solo event (autocross, as you’ll recall) I was very pleased with my performance. Not as pleased as I have been, but I made nearly 10 seconds of improvement from my first run to my last of four. I’m proud of that. But there’s still work to be done.

And then, as Rob can attest to, you have a moment where you realize that you can do that work. See, I spent the other day in the CU Math/Physics/Engineering Library reading Society of Automotive Engineer’s books. And other assorted books on cars handling. My S2000 was understeering a bit in corners when I felt that it shouldn’t have been. I know that I need a more aggressive suspension setup. No matter — Honda UK came up with an insanely well-recommended one. It’s roughly -1/-2 camber, front and rear respectively, with 0/.2in toe (also, respectively front and rear) and maximum caster on the front.

Great.  But suddenly I wanted to know why. I wanted to know everything about how to make a car handle. I’d just picked up some new tires in an amazing feat that can only be described as “Insanely meaningful”. I want to make the most use of them.

 

So I made a strategic acquision. See above. Race Car Vehicle Dynamics. I’d thought about it for a while. But suddenly it was time. One of Those Moments. If you know what I mean. If I had bought it earlier it wouldn’t be useful. But now I understand what it says. It’s over 700 pages of amazing. Suspension setups. Aerodynamics. Drivetrain setups. This is what winning is made of. And as much as no one likes to admit it, everyone wants to be the best at something. Maybe that isn’t winning themselves. But that could be the best damn suspension setup on the face of the earth. 

So we’ll see. I’m ever-amazed at what someone can do with a wrench, and if you haven’t found out what you can do with a wrench and some persistence, I invite you to find out.

 

 

A Strange Farewell to My Childhood Hero

5S-FE

My childhood hero, unlike most conventional people, is not a person. And if you would have asked me the question of “Who is your childhood hero?” a matter of years ago, I would have had a completely different answer.

I’m here to say though that this is my hero: a Toyota 5S-FE engine. In particular, really, this 5S-FE. It’s from my Celica. There are countless amounts of my blood and sweat on the engine block. And lots of cursing and profanity and pondering and sitting in my parents garage at 5 in the morning with a wrench in my hand trying to figure out what is going on. This 5S-FE is what got me into cars. It was my first engine. 80,000 miles of it’s life was spent under my command. It powered my first car, gave me my first ounce of freedom, and my true first taste of satisfaction.

I digress though, there’s more. You see, me and this engine actually go much farther back than 2007 when I bought my Celica. in fact, me and this engine go back to 1993.

You see, my mom had one of these:

A 1993 Toyota Corolla. You might be thinking “Hey, 1993 is awfully close to 1994”. And you’d be right. I admit, the Celica and the Camry share quite a great deal of parts. The Camry my mom had also had a 5S-FE mated to an S54 manual transmission. It comprised my earliest memories of being in a car. I’d ask my mom about shifting or what RPMs meant, and the relation to road speed.

But it goes further, because my mom also had one of these:

A 2000 Toyota Camry. It too had an identical drivetrain to the 1993. A 5S-FE (Albeit, one generation newer) and an S54 manual transmission. I remember this one more fondly, but for one big reason.

I learned how to drive a manual transmission on that 2000 Camry. And that S54 gearbox that I’d go on to own several years later. It’s one of those odd cases of something that sticks around in your life but you never really notice it.

Earlier today I tore down my 5S-FE. All 218,560 miles on it. It’s hard not to get a little sentimental. It’s the engine that got me interested in cars and gearboxes. It taught me how to drive. It taught me how to work on a car. It got me where I am today. And for that, I salute you 5S-FE.

I Am Captain Slow

It pains me slightly to admit this, but I’ve come to the conclusion that I really want my car to be comfortable.  This is kind of a painful, heretical admission for me, but hear me out.

Two years ago, I bought a 2011 Mazdaspeed3.  At the time, it didn’t matter to me that the inside of the ‘speed3 was a nightmare of mismatched, rattling, cheap plastics, or that the designers of its suspension should be tried at The Hague for crimes against humanity.  I only cared that it had 263 horsepower and 280 torque, a stupid amount of power (especially for a front-wheel-drive hatch).  I loved that car for all its mad, ridiculous faults, because it accelerated like a wild beast and it cornered like few other cars I’ve driven.  But the ‘speed3 positively ruined my spine, and that’s why I’ve just recently sold it.  Next time I buy a car, I’m making ride quality a priority, and I don’t care if it’s a little bit slower than the fire-snorting Mazdaspeed3.

Matt and Rob will make fun of me for writing that last sentence.  Matt in particular, being the most Jeremy Clarkson-esque figure of our trio, will probably tell me that I’m no longer allowed in his garage after he reads this post, and he won’t let me touch his new engine.  But this blog is a place for differing perspectives, and I’ve just decided that in the spirit of that, I will be our resident Captain Slow: representing the interests of the performance-oriented motorist who also sometimes experiences back pain.

Top Gear’s James May—the real/eponymous Captain Slow—once (well, maybe twice) suggested that the Nürburgring should simply be bombed, since it is now used almost exclusively as a proving ground at which automakers are inspired to make their cars completely unusable on real-world pavement.  He has bemoaned the fact that the auto industry gets so bogged down in the pursuit of Good Handling and Nürburgring Lap Times that they forget to focus on the preservation of a vehicle’s occupants.

I agree with Mr. May on this point.  Having watched Top Gear for years, I never thought I would find myself agreeing with “Mister Slowly” (as the Italians call him), but after two years of owning a car that despised and brutally punished its occupants, I am utterly convinced that he is correct.  Luckily for me, cars which tread the fine line between comfort and performance do exist.  Before I talk about them, however, I’d like to spend a minute looking at what, precisely, is wrong with the Mazdaspeed that broke the writer’s back.

For those of you who don’t keep up with the historical chassis engineering of hot hatchbacks (and really, why wouldn’t you keep up with that?), I want to tell you two things about the 2011 Mazdaspeed3:

1)      It’s not, strictly speaking, a Mazda, and

2)      It’s older than you might think it is.

Underneath the hideous, characterful, goofy Mazda3 grin, the ‘speed3 chassis is basically a tweaked version of the last-gen Ford Focus chassis—and engine, for that matter; what Mazda calls its MZR 2.3L DISI Turbo is basically just a bored-out Ford 2.0L Duratec.  As you can see from this detailed walkaround of the MS3 suspension, it is stamped in many places with “FoMoCo,” short for “Ford Motor Company.”  That’s because Ford owned Mazda a few years back, and Ford therefore decided to give Mazda its platforms to underpin Mazda models.  The problem is that this car is still on sale, with a suspension engineered almost ten years ago, tweaked—not redesigned—by Mazda.  If you don’t know from experience, take my word for it: Mazda engineers only know how to make things sportier (read: harsher on real roads).

Judging by the acclaim which Mazda’s CX-5 and 6 have garnered in recent press, their solo engineering endeavors since the breakup with Ford are producing wonderful results, and I expect the forthcoming 3 (and strongly hinted-at ‘speed3) to be impressive indeed.  But when it comes time to put my money down on a vehicle, I’m going to end up in a VW GTI this time.  Why?  Because it has something in its history that few other models can claim—progressive, iterative development.

So right now, you’re probably asking yourself how in the name of all things holy I could possibly be excited about something that sounds as unexciting as “progressive, iterative development,” but hear me out, because this is the best thing about a lot of great cars.  Some of the best cars your money can buy right now are the products of decades of iterative development.

Porsche 911.  Mustang.  Corvette.  Class leaders by many metrics.  The 911 has been around for 50 years; next year will see the 50th birthday of the Mustang as well.  The Corvette is already over 60 years old.  Many things make these cars special, but one of the intangible things is the sense of tradition you feel when you get in one of these cars.  You get in a modern 911, and you think, “Wow, fifty years of engineering and refinement and re-engineering and crazy, off-the-wall ideas went into the creation of this one car.”  It is the ultimate, distilled expression of the work of dozens, maybe hundreds of brilliant minds working over many years.  This is what I’m talking about when I preach the benefits of progressive and iterative development: not just the feeling that a car is special because of its heritage (though that is a wonderful feeling), but indeed the results of the process: some great minds started with an exciting idea, and through the endeavors of countless more great minds over a long period of time, a lot of work has been put into the improvement of that idea, so that the idea is now light-years ahead of its original design, and as close to the perfect realization of the initial concept as possible.

Porsche has honed its insane rear-engine setup for fifty years.  Ford has made a sports coupe with a live rear-axle that handles better than a lot of cars with fully independent suspensions can manage.  The Corvette is a supremely American sports car and grand tourer, for less than the price of almost all of its rivals.  Just so, the GTI is the realization of the idea that a practical car need not be slow, uninteresting or unengaging—and that a fast car need not be hilariously impractical or impossibly rough-riding.

The Mazdaspeed3 is a second-generation vehicle—though I suspect that the only reason the third generation didn’t come along two years sooner is because Mazda has been in a deep financial mess.  The VW GTI is now in its seventh generation over the course of nearly four decades of development.  That’s as many generations as there have been of Corvettes.  The GTI has been refined, reinvented, and honed, over and over again, since the 1980s.  The mere fact that the GTI was the original hot hatch is by no means the thing that makes it the definitive hot hatch; the thing that does that is its refinement.  Others may do certain things better, but VW has been doing it longer.  Chris Harris once said (quite profoundly), “[The GTI] has a very particular set of responsibilities.”  Those responsibilities have developed over the years, as VW’s engineers decided what they wanted the car to be; now it has well-defined parameters for each successive generation, and a fanatically dedicated share of the market.

When I bought my erstwhile Mazda two years ago, I was ready to be a Mazda zealot.  I bought t-shirts with “Mazda” printed on them.  I bought a coffee mug that said “zoom-zoom.”  I was even thinking of joining an owners’ club.  But somewhere along the line, the car lost track of what I wanted—or maybe I lost track of what it wanted.  Driving the MS3 taught me a lot of things—it taught me how to manage understeer when you absolutely cook a corner.  It taught me how to shatter speed limits on interstates.  It taught me that even Japanese cars can have bits rattle and go wrong, forcing your already-ridiculous 3,500-mile service schedule into a never-ending spiral of trips to the garage.  Most importantly of all, though, that car taught me what kind of car I want to own (or, more bluntly, what kind of car I don’t want to own).  The second-generation ‘speed3, with its Ford chassis (seemingly dipped in liquid nitrogen to improve turn-in), its Ford motor, and its not-entirely-endearing styling inside and out, was something of a factory FrankenCar, and none of this was helped by the fact that it was a markedly uncomfortable place to be.  Some would call these quirks “marks of character.”  Having lived through them, I have some other language in mind.

I have high hopes for Mazda’s new ‘speed3 to really refine that car’s raison d’etre, but until those insane, mad, crazy engineers at Mazda figure out that their car will be driven by people with spines—and I really believe it will take another couple of generations of MS3 for that to sink in—I will have to put my Mazda t-shirts and mug in a box in the attic.  I’m prepared to replace the old zoom-zoom with a bit of Fahrvergnügen.

A Means to an End: Why We Get Up

Upon meeting a new person I default to two general set of questions that I ask them. The first is:

“Why did you get up this morning? Why are you alive? Why not just kill yourself? What are you doing that’s useful? Or are you just aimlessly wandering around and wasting air for the rest of us?”.

The second question (more important in my opinion) is:

“What are you passionate about? What is that thing that when you sit down for a cup of coffee with somebody and a certain topic crops up that you could find yourself chatting about for hours with ease? The thing that lights a fire inside of you?”

Now I wouldn’t call assaulting a new relationship with these interrogations standard to the norm. That’s exactly why I ask them. I have substantial problems with people asking the vague and standard questions of: “What’s your major? What do you want to do? How was your day?” (and not actually giving a hoot about how your day really was). Those questions are bland, and usually courtesy questions. I’m not about courtesy questions, I’m about getting to know the real you. What were the events that shaped your identity into the person that stands before me? What do you struggle with on a constant basis? What do you really enjoy, and why you enjoy it?! Sub-standard relationships are boring and unfruitful to me, and for that I chose to ignore them for the more important and depth filled encounters that I come across.

I’ve been asking varieties of those two essential questions (why not kill yourself, and what are your passionate about) for around two years now to a host of individuals with varying responses. Usually the person is pushed back on their feet conversationally by the barrage and is uncertain as to how to answer such an inquiry. But after a few examples and guiding comments there arise some answers. Few people actually find themselves a substantial answer to the first one, but always some response to the second. Those range from a  love of music, working with animals, bringing a changing force to society, helping people or what have you. The beautiful thing about these discussions is that unless an honest answer is found the question will bite at the individual until such a conclusion has been reached.

However the questions always turn their attention from the person whom I asked them to, back to my own response. I found a long time ago that if you ask questions like that and don’t have answers for yourself it voids your authority to ask such questions. Because of this I give these inquiries much thought on a regular basis since the answers are malleable and dynamic. My response two years ago looks a little different than it does today.

My response lately to the first question came in the middle of a class I took last semester at my university. The answer had little to do with the social psychology class I was sitting in, but more to do with where I was at in my life. At this time I had just recently broken up a long-term relationship that meant very much to my on a personal level and the absence of said relationship left a void and many questions about my identity. When such identity questions arise I take them to what I consider my God, a higher power that has saved my life on many occasions. Now don’t discount this post, my ideas and thoughts due to my relationship with a higher being as I understand Him. Rather approach the rest of this with an open mind and save that debate and prejudice for a later discussion. I sat in my early morning lecture quite depressed and lost with the radical emotional changes of this break up. The professors words entering one ear and leaving the other with much ambivalence. I was asking why did I show up to class today, why am I still trying? I got a response. “Wake up my beloved son. There is life to be had today, come alive in me and be free.” Though there is nothing of substance to those words alone, but spoken to the depths of me at that particular time they hit me like a sack of bricks. The right answer for the right time. I wake up every morning because there is life to be had. I am not alive on this earth to wander aimlessly, I am here for a purpose. This answer lead into a response to the second question…

My passions are cars (why I’m writing on this blog), writing and people. I love people. Over the past two years I’ve had countless opportunities to walk alongside dozens upon dozens of young men and women as they search for the answer to the first question. To dig into the trials and tribulations they were suffering and provide help. There is nothing more satisfying to me than watching someone who is struggling so hard with life one day wake up and have the light behind their eyes beam up and everything click into place. A deeper understanding of why we wake up everyday. This gift I’ve been given to aid others in times of emotional wars brings me no greater joy and meaning to why I wake up. On the reverse side many of these men have been able to aid me when I’ve fallen down. A true connection and community in relation with others. What we are all searching for.

Now you might be asking, this is all fine and dandy, but what does this have to do with cars on an auto-blog? I’m glad you asked. I’ve been working on cars for about four years now, I’m a self-taught mechanic who’s owned more cars than years I’ve been alive. I have done every job on a vehicle except a transmission rebuild or a quality paint project (I have done a few rattle-cans and Rustoloem jobs). I’ve always been a tinker, I can remember when I was a kid I would take random objects in my house apart to see what was inside. I didn’t always get them back together though, my parents didn’t like that part….However through the process of learning how to work on cars and spin wrenches around I have found it to be a very meditative process for me. In essence car repair is quite simple. If broken, remove parts to access broken piece, replace then re-install in reverse order. Any gear-head will know though it isn’t always that simple. There are stuck bolts to deal with, rusted on pieces, broken knuckles and such. Why all of this is important however is how automotive related ideas can be the spark (means) to a new community and relationships (the end).

If you go to a car meet-up you will find an eclectic group of people who would not co-mingle otherwise. A skin-head with tattoos talking to 60-year-old man about a classic 454 V8 in a fastback mustang. A 16-year-old kid who works at McDonalds with a Honda Civic talking to a 29-year-old IT Consultant with an Integra Type-R. Cars open the door to a whole host of new interactions that otherwise wouldn’t exist. There is a love and bond created over the engineering quality of a vehicle, or the exterior design that just can’t be formed any other way. If you read websites such as Canibeat or Stanceworks their origin stories start out in the same fashion. Some guys bonded over a genre of cars that they loved and life-long families were born. Not just friendships, but brothers who carry each other when no one else will. The point of me working on my car isn’t the inanimate object itself, but it’s what I get out of that frame wearing rubber shoes in relation to others that makes it significant. The relationships I’ve formed through auto-work when someone heard that I can work on a car and didn’t want to take their truck into a shop where some guy named Gary doesn’t actually give a shit if the job is done right or not. But I do. Because I give a shit about you.

My roommate just swapped a 3s-GE Beams engine into his 6th generation Celica. Over the six weeks that this project took place we argued about how to do things, bickered over whose car was better and almost got into some fist fights. But even through that there is a bond that him and I share that started with our love of cars and torquing down bolts to the right specification that goes beyond the bickering. I ask him hard questions because I care about his overall well-being, I push him (sometimes too far) because I know he has more potential than what he is giving. That’s the end that matters, not the means of a car that will come and go. But the substance that is formed over them.

So why do you get up? What are you passionate about? Where does your meaning in this life lay?

matt and I

My Horrifically Appropriate Personification, The Engine.

As much as I eat, sleep, and breath what I call The Philosophy of Fine Motoring, I’m not the biggest fan, from a journalistic point of view, to have nothing but philosophy posts and whatnot.

But I promise a humble review of my even-more humble 59 horse power slice of German Perfection, also known as the Volkswagon Polo that Dollar Rent-A-Car  happily equipped me on my far-too-brief to Munich.

MeWithBeams

This post though, is not about that slice of German Perfection. Rather, I’m progressing through my BEAMS project. The engine is now so free from the subframe that it’s on an engine stand. Regretfully the engine stand is from Harbor Freight. Hopefully I don’t wind up eating my words later. Alas. With it up on the stand, me and my friend Rob started talking about the engine itself. He noticed quite a few parallels between it and myself.

  • We’re both quite rare (yes, I’m very biased here). the BEAMS was only available in Japan. Hopefully I haven’t been cloned.
  • Parts are nearly impossible to find. Similarly, try to find things for me. Lunch, apartments, cups of coffee? I’m incredibly picky. Except when it comes to waffles. Me and the engine differ extremely in this manner. (As far as I know, the BEAMS eats gasoline, not waffles).
  • We’re weird as fuck. And I don’t mean that as a good thing. The BEAMS being only available in one country, meant it wasn’t the best engineered thing in the world. I admit, that’s not entirely true. It puts out 100hp per litre. But it also retains every subtle feature from the 3S-GTE engine. The places where additional oil lines are are simply welded shut. Me? I wake up at 4 in the morning. And I run this damn blog.

Nonetheless, as cliche as it is (and it’s insanely cliche), I have to wonder if like everything else, you ultimately wind up with something that’s really as close to being “you” as is possible. Despite whether one of you is made out of amino acids and chemicals and some part of the periodic table or whether you’re made of red paint, aluminium and run on dead, ground up, gourmet dinosaur juice.

My Engine of Change

BEAMS

When the Camry Hybrid first came out, they made a commercial with gratuitous shots of nature and a Camry driving through beautiful scenery (presumably) saving the planet. I’m not insanely fond of Camrys(although I did learn to drive stick on one), but the ad asks “When does an engine become an Engine of Change?”. All of the dictionary definitions of ‘engine’ tell me that an engine is merely something either used for warfare, or a classic internal combustion engine. What I see as an engine though, in this context, is something that moves more spirit than self.

Toyota Ad: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nIJn2gyUNCQ

Some people have different Engines of Change. I mean this to be something that changes someone. For some, that might be the Bible or another book on philosophy. Some might find that moving to Florida is the engine that gives them change, or getting the first job, or getting married. It’s the what gives the wake-up call and what perpetuates the waking up early.

Because I’m me though, my Engine of Change is an actual engine. A 1998 Japanese Domestic Market (Only) BEAMS 3S-GE Redtop. And I couldn’t be more excited.

It produces something in the neighborhood of 197 horsepower. And it’s going in my Celica. I’m sure that it will pave the way to me expanding my arsenal of Japanese expletives (of which, my arsenal is currently of size 0).

Two brief notes on “Why”:

  1. It seemed like the thing to do.
  2. “Chaos often breeds life when order breeds habit” – Henry Adams

Anyway. More to come.