Archives : 2016 : August

Already Outside: Your Uber Self-Driving Car will be Arriving Shortly

August 30th, 2016

This blog has discussed the benefits and drawbacks of hybrid and electric vehicles, but self-driving cars may be the biggest auto tech we have yet to cover. In some ways, it’s hard to imagine this is even real.

Well, we can all pinch ourselves. It is real—maybe a little too real—and it feels like completely different territory than anything we’ve seen thus far from the auto industry. With industry giants like Apple, Google and Uber paving the way for self-driving car tech, we can rest assured that the technological competition is going to be fierce.

A looming question is now dominating the Internet as we consider how quickly this technology is arriving, and it’s straight from the Philosophy 101 textbook: what are the ethical consequences of putting millions of non-human entities on the roads, computing life-and-death decisions in less than a microsecond? And what about jobs? Are the machines taking over?

reaper

Sketch of the revolutionary McCormick reaper at work

Historically speaking, there have always been game-changing moments in technological development. The McCormick reaper of the mid-19th century changed farming practices that had been around since the dawn of agriculture itself and created a near exponential population growth in that time; nothing like it had ever been seen. The iPhone freed us from the work desk in ways that are still being discovered. And now, self-driving cars will alter how we live, commute, spend recreational time, etc. They may also threaten jobs. So, what can expect the future of self-driving cars to look like?

Philosophy, Ethics and Self-Driving Cars
This headline reads like a college undergrad Philosophy course. (Class of 2027, anyone?) If you’ve read the classic science-fiction novel I, Robot or seen the adapted movie, you know that author Isaac Asimov’s first rule of robotics is that robots may not hurt humans or allow humans to be hurt by outside means. Oh, how things have changed! The issue of “car ethics” has been raised by a recent study, published in Science but here cited from a CNN article, which contends that self-driving cars are arriving soon and bringing with them ethical issues that are pretty scary to comprehend.

Author Isaac Asimov's Three Rules of Robotics

Author Isaac Asimov’s Three Rules of Robotics

For instance, if you were driving in the pouring rain and suddenly saw a crowd of people right in front of you, you might determine that your options were to swerve off the road and risk only your own life or brake and risk the lives of others. Before you roll your eyes, we know what you’re thinking: 1) “I wouldn’t have been driving in the first place in those conditions.” Fair enough. 2) “Is this really one of those what-would-you-do things? What are we, 12 years old?” Good points all around. But should it happen, you only have seconds—or less—to make a decision. The dilemma is very real when it comes to self-driving cars, and it was raised by Jean-Francois Bonnefon, co-author on the recent study. He claims that a self-driving car must make these ethical decisions by using math. So, what should come first, the passenger or the world?

Eeny, meeny, miny...

Eeny, meeny, miny…

Furthermore, this might as well be a study in how people give contradictory responses when you ask them variations of the same basic question. According to the study, 76% of people surveyed said it is “more moral for a driverless vehicle to sacrifice one passenger rather than 10 pedestrians,” while “81%… said they would rather own a car that protected [the passenger]… at all costs.” In other words, people believe that society is more important than the individual, as long as that individual isn’t them. Jonathan Handel, adjunct professor at the University of Southern California’s Gould School of Law, refers to this as the “not in my backyard” problem (or “back seat problem”). People are less likely to concern themselves with outcomes that do not affect them personally.

Much of this discussion stems from what is known as the “Trolley Problem,” which refers to a situation where the conductor of a train sees a family of five that will surely die if the train’s route is not altered, but if a lever is pulled, the train will veer off and kill one lone man who is completely unaware of the train. The conductor must make the choice. The Trolley Problem asks us to determine which scenario is worse: the one where we do nothing and can’t be held responsible for five deaths, or the one where we choose to take action but save more lives in doing so.

Of course, it’s not just the Trolley Problem that’s at play here. Sometimes animals fly or run out in front of us, and we have to decide whether or not to brake. What will self-driving cars do about ducks in the road? Squirrels and birds? Deer? As humans, we calculate these risks and make decisions quickly, sometimes in less than a second. It’s reasonable, isn’t it, to ask that companies like Google and Uber reveal their risk-calculating software to the public? We think so.

If you’re playing devil’s advocate, you may scoff at the idea that this ethical concept has landed front-and-center in the self-driving car discussion. After all, should the mathematical “ethics” of self-driving cars concern us deeply if these sorts of occurrences are few and far between? Many thousands are already injured or killed annually from traffic collisions due to human errors. It’s hard to imagine technology mucking things up worse than we already have, in terms of safety. (Here’s hoping I don’t have to eat my words.) So how important is this issue of non-human ethics? Survey says…

Are Self-Driving Cars Job Killers or Job Savers?
No discussion on auto technology is complete without considering the economic impact of the change. We’ve discussed here how mechanics need to continually update their maintenance and repairs to keep ahead of the curve (i.e. electric cars, digital dash displays). If self-driving cars hit the market by way of millions of units, it stands to reason that fewer drivers in front seats means fewer jobs for commercial drivers. Or does it?

Uber

Uber CEO Travis Kalanick

If you ask Uber CEO Travis Kalanick, Uber’s track record of creating jobs (made possible by the advent of mobile phone apps) and adapting to new technological circumstances is proof that self-driving cars will afford workers new opportunities for employment. By comparing the upcoming change to phone operators who all lost their jobs once phone switchboards were no longer a thing, he seems be admitting that the role of drivers is going to change, even disappear. Without supplying a timeline, Kalanick says that self-driving cars are still a long ways away. Uber is still figuring out simple things like bridge-crossing, so yeah, it sounds like there’s time.

Google self-driving car prototype

Google self-driving car prototype

It’s interesting how aware Kalanick is of his company’s problem: if he’s not “tied for first” at the end of this race for the perfect self-driving car, he knows Uber is finished as a company. It’s not easy to take away the drivers who make Uber possible and change up an entire business model. Google, in light of its own self-driving car endeavors, earlier this year announced dozens of manufacturing positions. One engineering position included this in its job description: “approving fixture designs used in the assembly of electronic modules for the self-driving car.” Tantalizing! How roles like these, as well as more numerous low and mid-level labor jobs, will expand remains to be seen. Unlike Uber, which already has millions of drivers in its global network, Google is just entering into the driving marketplace, so they don’t have to worry about losing a labor force (drivers) who will eventually be replaced by self-driving car tech. This might make the change more difficult for Uber.

In the long run, it’s hard to say how jobs will be affected. For one, there are no clear timelines here, so it’s difficult to think about long-term planning. If you’re an Uber driver, maybe there is some reason to be concerned for your job. Is this enough to make you want to get up and quit before you’re let go? Second, who knows how many jobs will really be created. It’s easy to see manufacturing positions that were once held by humans be replaced by machines. In fact, that’s nothing new in today’s manufacturing era. This is sure to be a major discussion in the years to come.

In either case, if you live in Pittsburgh, let us know how those free self-driving car rides feel. As it turns out, the weird, wild future of self-driving cars is pulling up shortly.

Uber self-driving car, developed by Volvo

Uber self-driving car, developed by Volvo

Two-Post Lift Safety: Lifting Points, Adapters and Common Sense

August 16th, 2016

red lightIf you were out driving your car and came to a red light, it would be pretty ridiculous if you pulled out into the middle of the intersection and parked, right? That’s common sense. We know that safe driving means stopping before the thick white lines, staying in your lane, using turn signals, etc. Likewise, certain common principles of safe usage apply to the operation of two-post lifts: engage the correct lifting points of the vehicle; use appropriate adapters when lifting trucks and SUVs; always balance the vehicle’s center of gravity. When cars fall off two-post lifts, 99% of the time the cause is preventable. (To be politically correct, we won’t say, “100% of the time,” but in our many years of experience, cars don’t slip when they’re properly set on top of lifts.)

Vehicles topple or slide off lifts when users don’t adhere to one or more of the following crucial procedures: setting the vehicle at the proper lifting points; installing the wrong lift adapters; using adjustable adapters in the wrong fashion; neglecting to account for the vehicle’s center of gravity; and so on and so forth.

Car lifts are objectively dangerous tools when used by inexperienced or misguided technicians. When you even hear the words “car lift,” your brain should automatically register the fact that lifting a vehicle is a serious endeavor with life-threatening risks if mandatory lifting precautions are ignored or for whatever reason forgotten.

Before You Use or Buy a Car Lift
To begin with, you should never even consider a two-post lift that is not certified according to ANSI/ALI ALCTV-2011 or ANSI/UL 201. There are, unfortunately, companies that make grand claims without providing evidence of certification. You’ve seen those Carfax commercials? “Show me the Carfax,” is their catchy slogan, and the company provides car shoppers a set of important safety standards that apply to used cars. The same concept of high standards should apply every time you’re looking at a two-post lift. “Show me your ANSI certification,” isn’t as catchy, but it’s important.

Lift Points and Center of Gravity
Vehicle lift points are located at different places, depending on the make and model of the vehicle being lifted. You probably know this, but it only takes one mistake to ruin your day (or your life). Because the center of gravity is not necessarily located at the “true center” of any given vehicle, using the right lifting points is crucial during every lift.

van center ofgravity

A vehicle’s center of gravity is usually not the “center” of the vehicle

Why some people consistently neglect to do this, mechanics included, is beyond our ability to reason. Failure to place the lift pads at the correct lifting points results in an imbalanced sitting on the lift arms, which overloads the arms and leads to cars sliding off their intended placements. If for some reason you cannot find the lifting points on your vehicle by using your eyes, the Internet or calling the vehicle’s customer service line, you can still measure for the center of gravity and determine where those lifting points can be found.

Using Adapter Sets
Clearly labeled on your car lift manual, you will always find instructions for using lift adapters. Adapters, sometimes sold separately from the lift(s) they accompany, are meant to be used on trucks, SUVs and other vehicles with recessed lifting points that require a little “boost” to be reached. In the picture below, you can see a vehicle that was not properly set on a lift; as a result, the vehicle slide off the lift pads and onto the arms.

wrong adapter

Operator should not have stacked two small adapters or used flat pads

Two critical errors are at play here, so it’s no wonder something went wrong. For one, note the far-left pad adapter in the distance. The lifting points for this particular vehicle require a 6″ adapter and frame cradle pad. The image, however, shows that two, 3″ adapters were stacked together, a complete violation of common sense and factory-recommended protocol. Additionally, flat pads were utilized instead of recommended frame cradle pads that are required on a vehicle of this size. Frame cradle pads prevent adapters from slipping off heavier vehicle frames. This information is all part of the basic operations guide that accompanies every two-post car lift, regardless of the manufacturer.

If you consider yourself a responsible mechanic, technician or DIYer, you know the scene pictured above is an embarrassing and haphazard setup that’s also a recipe for disaster. We’re happy to report, however, that no one was hurt as a result of negligence in this case. To reiterate, two small adapters do not replace a single large one; and as mentioned, one should never skip out on using frame cradle pads (pictured below) when they’re recommended for the vehicle one needs lifted.

frame cradle pad

Frame cradle pad for two-post lifts

By the way, the phrase “factory-recommended” is not a mere take-it-or-leave-it suggestion. Any time a manufacturer “recommends” a procedure, they are legally releasing their liability for product performance in cases of user error, negligence and/or misinterpretation of the instruction.

It goes without saying that all instruction manuals should be read front-to-back by lift operators. To speak as broad of a truth as we can, no company/manufacturer on the planet will hold themselves liable for an operator’s unsafe operation of a car lift. If you’d like to see learn more about two-post lift safety, a more technical safety guide can be found here.

Complacency, or When Common Sense becomes Uncommon*

dilbert

We—as a society—rarely hear people admit to their lack of common sense, but we’ve all said at one point or another something along the lines of, “He’s a nice guy… poor fella just doesn’t have any common sense.”

We’re going to diagnose this “common sense problem” as a complacency problem. Complacency, as one business journalist for the Washington Post writes, “occurs when employees feel really comfortable with the way things are or have always been.” The worst thing that can happen to an auto mechanic is for complacency to set in around what is arguably the most dangerous and routine part of the job: lifting and lowering vehicles. There are people—having never experienced a vehicle slipping off its lift points—who will try to save a few minutes by setting vehicles by memory or feel; in other words, there are people who take (or ignore) serious risks in the name of better efficiency. The photo below shows another angle of the “double small adapter” scenario we discussed earlier; it’s the result of doing things “in the name of better efficiency.”

crushed

Even your experienced 10-year veteran mechanic can get so used to lifting and lowering vehicles a certain way that he/she skips steps in the process. Lifting vehicles by feel, trusting in one’s own experience and intuition, using eye tests and quick taps to assert safe lift pad placement, etc. are all shortcuts that result from being overly complacent in the workplace. To avoid scenes like the one above, use the factory-recommended lift points at all times and know how to properly utilize adapter sets. In other words, use your common sense.

4 cradles

Correctly positioned frame cradle pads

close up cradle on car

Side view of correctly position frame cradle pad

*When this final section was being written, the author, who had grown complacent (a.ka. cutting corners), had solely drafted work on a cloud-based server, did not reserve a backup copy of the draft and lost a significant portion of text when the browser demanded an unexpected log-in because “the session expired.” Wisdom à la Alanis Morissette comes to mind.

Should I Buy Diesel, Gas, Hybrid or Electric? (Part 2 of 2)

August 9th, 2016

Part 1 of this series focused on diesel and gas options. Part 2 explores the pros and cons of hybrid and electric vehicle types.

If you’re interested in hybrid and/or electric car options, you’re probably a go-getter who finds excitement in all things futuristic, new, advanced and efficient. Can’t say we blame you! Most of the headline-grabbing advances in auto tech seem to be happening outside the realm of conventional gas and diesel. So, what can we really expect to see in the future?

conan_zpsfc975021

Tip of the Hat to Hydrogen (Who’s always been “Number 1”)
You got us: it’s neither hybrid nor electric, and the technology might not be mass-produced for some years to come, but hydrogen cars are simply too cool to ignore, so we’re shedding a little light on the situation.

While hydrogen-fueled cars are slowly entering the picture, with about 3,000 of Toyota’s Mirais scheduled to be released by the end of 2017, we suspect it’s going to be a while before manufacturers refine the technology, convince the public of its safety, build fueling stations, train professionals on servicing new parts and make the vehicles cost-effective for a majority of consumers. The technology lives but it’s limited. Hundai’s Tuscon is a new hydrogen-cell car that, like the Mirai, is only available in select parts of California. All this being said, things have come a long way since the turn of the millennium. The prospect of hydrogen, hybrid and electric cars makes this an exciting time to geek out over car tech.

Hybrid Pros and ConsHydrogen
The Toyota Prius may be the poster child for hybrid efficiency, but luxury, utility and SUV options are becoming as much a part of the hybrid mainstay. The 2017 Honda Accord Hybrid is back after a year-long break, during which Honda shuffled manufacturing facilities. The new model looks to compete directly with the Toyota Camry Hybrid and is a great example of the trend we’re seeing in newer hybrids. The interior is sportier than the comparable Camry hybrid and costs $3,000 and some change more, but it has better fuel economy (Accord, 48 mpg / Camry, 40 mpg). Despite these differences, the most significant factor here is the overall change in direction we’re seeing from hybrid producers. Consumers want more than just bread-and-butter gas efficiency. They want style and the feel that they’re driving a real car, not a modified go-cart with a backseat bench. The best indicator of this change is the fact that more luxury hybrid vehicles are hitting the market each year.

The bottom line on hybrids is that you’re going to spend a little more to save on mileage over the life of your car. Like we said in Part 1 about diesels, if you don’t actually keep your car long enough to see the mileage rewards, what’s the point? If you want better mileage but price is the sticking point, you can always buy a hybrid used, save a few thousand and still get great mpg.

Hybrids are also smaller and less powerful than their gas counterparts. If 4-cylinder engines just aren’t your thing, there are a few hybrid trucks out there (the Chevy Silverado 1500 Hybrid comes to mind), and an upcoming Ford F-150 scheduled for 2020 that looks interesting, but other than that, you’re not touting much power and speed when you go hybrid. But you already knew that, right?

Final thought here: we talk to a lot of car guys and gals in our line of work, and not many of them get very excited about wrenching on hybrids The tech is beyond a lot of DIY-folk who grew up rebuilding old Fords and Chevys; some just prefer the simplicity of working with purely mechanical parts. Nothing wrong with that.

Hybrid Verdict
As you might expect, we think hybrids are awesome and keep getting better. They retain their value pretty well, and the higher upfront cost compared to conventional gas is well worth the long-term savings. Just don’t expect a nice return on investment if you’re going to swap cars every couple of  years for the newer, prettier model. Hybrid drivers, especially those who find the premium 40+ mpg range, make significantly fewer trips to the gas pump but may have increased repair costs. Unless you somehow rack up crazy repair bills, this sort of financial give-and-take should still work in your favor if you decide to go hybrid.

teslacharge

Tesla Model S charging at home

Electric Pros and Cons
Let’s first briefly (and non-politically) cover the controversial price of “going green.” It’s appropriate to put quotes around the “green” label, as carbon emissions come in many forms, including the way your grid produces electricity. In fact, the Devonshire Research Group, an investment firm that attempts to put “true value” on tech companies, believes Tesla has an overvalued stock and an image whose eco-friendliness is over-hyped. If we’re honest with ourselves, we know that it takes energy to produce our electricity, which sometimes means carbon emissions (especially if your electricity is produced from coal), and we know that auto manufacturing is likely never going to be 100% green. When all is said and done, the gas we burn in conventional engines is still leaving a larger eco footprint than electric vehicles. If being eco-friendly is important to you, an electric car is definitely a step in the right direction. (And run your dishwasher at night, take shorter showers, don’t let the water run when you brush… you know the drill.)

But let’s look into that other price: the one you know is waiting for you on every sticker on every car in every dealership in America; the one your frugal father used to have vivid nightmares about; the one that made you stop car shopping altogether. Yeah, that one.  There’s a wide price range in the electric field (no pun intended), but you’re looking at spending at least $25,000 – $30,000 for a new electric car. That link should give you a sense of what hybrid and electric cars cost.

Price aside, one of the biggest drawbacks of electric vehicles is the limited driving range they offer. The upcoming Tesla 3 is getting a lot of hype for it’s 200+ mile range, whereas many other cars, like the Chevy Spark, are getting about half that distance per charge. If you have a garage that you can plug into every night and don’t travel much beyond the daily commute, you’re probably fine!  Apartment renters might be out of luck, unless you see yourself waiting at a charging station every other day. (Pro tip: don’t do that to yourself.)

We would be remiss in writing this article if we didn’t point out the obvious: you’re going to save a lot of money with an electric car. The IRS offers tax breaks for many electric cars (including some hybrids, as well), which can save you up to $7,500. Additionally, charging an electric car costs a fraction of what you pay at the pump. It’s hard to pin down what you’ll pay because the price of electricity is always in a state of flux, and different states have different rates, etc. etc. One government estimate says you’ll pay $25 – $107 per 1,000 miles (Hawaii being on that high end). Those are hefty savings compared to gas. How electric vehicles are serviced is another question, however. The repairs are more expensive, as they are with hybrids. How you drive and how often you wind up in the shop should be taken into consideration, as well.

Electric Verdbaby-with-a-laptopict
Buying a car is kind of like deciding when to have a baby, isn’t it? You’ve got to plan out every need and obstacle you may face along the way, brace yourself for short-term down payments and expenses, and have a reserve for incidents that might occur down the road. And like a baby, now may not be the right time. This is especially true when it comes to electric vehicles. You need a house with a garage to get your charging done, so forget about electric if you can’t house and charge the thing properly. Extended road trips might not be feasible unless you plan accordingly and find charge stations along the way, but this is likely to become less difficult with time. And last but not least, electric cars tend to have a higher sticker price than comparable gas models.

For now, weigh your options and conduct thorough research. With the exception of our little nod to hydrogen tech, the all-electric car is the most significant, and potentially difficult, purchasing leap to make. If it’s worth it to you and not a deep hassle to make the switch, we wouldn’t be shocked if you wind up loving your new electric car. Pun intended.

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