2 Sep 2014

Relax, It's Only a Self-Driving Car

Bill Crittenden reckons driverless cars are a good thing


Recently Google released images and information on a self-driving car. What is the epic realization of so many overly optimistic 1960's World's Fair displays is apparently an abomination that will be the detriment of petrolheads the world over.

Because, based on what some seem to believe, only silly-looking bubbles that drive themselves will dominate the roads in a few years. Car guys sure are acting like they really think that they'll be forced to trade in their Challengers and Porsches for one of Google's plastic "cars," because they're squealing like Ted Nugent at his imaginary threat of a government agent come to take his guns away.

Here's what the Google car can do, and what it won't do:

Holy shit, it really seems to be able to drive itself. Aljazeera America showed a blind man driving himself home, and this will be an amazing technology for those who physically or legally can't drive themselves. Let's look at the potential here: besides the aforementioned blind man, there are the very elderly, those with debilitating injuries or mental issues that prevent safe driving, and people on medications that make driving unsafe, all of whom can now find themselves safely mobile again without the assistance of anyone else.

Those are just the people with permanent issues who could benefit from a self-driving car. Then there are the people who could benefit from a self-driving car for temporary reasons. I, for one, have been stuck at work on an occasionally unexpected double shift and have had difficulty staying awake behind the wheel. One could start driving during the day and let the car take over at night, making trips to and home from college quicker and cheaper. People with injuries or sudden illnesses can take themselves to the hospital. How about all of the folks on their way home from the bar or the ballpark who have had a few alcoholic drinks? They sure could use a self-driving mode in a car, as could the rest of us who have to share the road with them.

Which brings me to another point. Google's car is mostly a prototype. Like the "safety cars" of the 1970's or the Toyota Prius, it was built to show what could be done. Crumple zones and gas-electric hybrid engines both filtered down into more conventional cars that people will buy. The technology, once proven on its test platform, will proliferate into all types of cars from economy to luxury, utility trucks and sports cars.

Google's bubble is going to be a museum piece while the Camrys and Camaros of my son's generation are embedded with more developed versions of the sensors and software that make Google's car run on its own.

It won't be an all-or-nothing system, either, as it could be operated as an "autopilot" on a car with conventional controls, activated when needed. Modern cars are already doing away with mechanical links in favor of enhanced drive-by-wire, so inserting a new control method into the system isn't going to ruin what we already have in the modern car's control system.

We're already seeing this on-demand electronic self driving in the form of "park assist" functions newly available on some cars. We're also seeing the safety potential of cars that can take over and override the in attention or mistakes of its drivers in Mercedes-Benz's automatic brakes. But these are, primarily, cars that humans drive that assist us either when we ask them to or when safety demands the computer step in. Both systems have added to convenience and safety without ruining the enjoyment of actually driving.

That is, of course, when you want to drive. Not all car trips are joyrides through the countryside. Imagine the convenience of your own automobile with the free time of a train ride to work. No schedules, no walking from the station to the office, but you can still read the paper each morning as though you were on the Metra, and arrive at work without the stress of focusing in stop & go traffic for an hour and the occasional road rage incident that inevitably happens when a half million irritable drivers share the road on a Monday morning.

No, Google's bubble car isn't going to kill "real cars" like the Mustang and replace it, it's testing out technology that's going to make it so that in ten years a new 2025 Mustang will drive you home from the bar itself if you get too drunk and save you from the tedium of rush hour the next morning.

How can that not be the coolest, most historic, most positive game-changing automotive technology that's come about in any of our lifetimes?



Why Driverless Cars May Be A Good Thing


I don't particularly like the idea of driverless cars.  For a start, where's the fun in it? If I wanted to travel in a carriage that I had no control over I'd use public transport but, seeing as I have a highly tuned sense of smell and like the idea of personal space, I don't.

I like to control a car, I like to steer it, use the throttle and brakes, play with the limits of adhesion and scare myself every now and again.

I like to be able to have my own things in my car and to play my own music. I like the fact if the sun is shining I can reach for my sunglasses and put them on, because they live in the door pocket. I like the fact that if somebody else is going too slowly I can overtake them and I like the fact I can travel by varying routes to get to the same location just for the hell of it.

Then there's the safety aspect of driverless cars.  Even brand new cars go wrong, never mind old ones.  Accelerators stick, steering goes wrong, wheels fall off.  Steering is the last bastion of human control. We have brake and throttle by wire and adaptive cruise control and these are fine but steer by wire, no thanks.

Having said that we already have a car on the road with no mechanical link between the road wheels and steering wheel, the Nissan Q50.  That scares the shit out of me.  What if, as millions of cars do every year, it goes wrong?  You can deal with a runaway car by the application of common sense, sadly something missing in many drivers, but not with one that suddenly veers to one side, and possibly into me.  I don't like that.

Computers and electronics are brilliant but they are built by humans and humans are fallible, and sometimes stupid.

So, I don't like driverless cars.  But I hate motorways even more.

Not motorways when they're clear you understand, but when they're crushingly, hatefully, awfully slow.  When the traffic goes from 70mph to 0mph and back again every half mile.  

I don't know about you but I feel physical pain when the car(s) in front of me are travelling slower than I want to go.  My toes curl, my chest tightens, my hands grip the wheel tight.  My son and I often joke about the invisible rocket launcher we keep in the car for blasting the road ahead clear.  

Yes, impatience is not a virtue and it's rather selfish but I can't help it.  At least I don't tailgate. I'd rather leave space in front so I've an escape route in case the numpty behind has slower reactions than  a teenager at 7am.

And this is why driverless cars can be a good thing.  So everyone else can use them.  Then we wouldn't have random braking, random steering inputs and random pulling out of junctions in front of you.

Just think, lanes one and two on the motorway would be full of cars moving at a decent pace, with a sensible distance between each one.  The slower drivers could cruise with the HGVs in lane one whilst we who can drive properly would sit in lane two then hop into lane three when we like.

In fact the motorways would be so safe we could happily raise the speed limit to something more sensible, like 100mph.

Driverless cars?  I'm all for them.

By Matt Hubbard





1 Sep 2014

Back To Skule - Five SUVs Worth Considering For The School Run

It's September once again, the school holidays are over and you've got to get up that bit earlier and take the kids to school in the family car.  Here are five SUVs that will make the school run that bit easier.  Click on the car's name for a full review.


Range Rover Evoque


The Evoque is one of the very best SUVs because it delivers the benefits of an SUV (tall driving position, extra space, off-road ability) without compromise and with dollops of style. For a stick in the mud such as me who prefers the driving position and cornering ability of a normal car the Evoque is the one to have.  It's a little expensive but the engine is great (although more thirsty than the official stats would have you believe), the interior is best in class and it looks great.  It also has a Range Rover badge on the boot but costs half what a real Rangie would set you back. Buy the 5-door for practicality.

Toyota RAV4


The old RAV4 looked drab and was a bit basic. The new RAV4 is light years ahead in every area.  On paper the Toyota RAV4 is no better car than any other mid-size SUV but drive one for a while and you really start to appreciate the small details that add up to make it a much better than anything else in the price range. It has no rough edges, no annoyances or things you would want to change. It could do with leather seats as standard but that's the only fault I could find with it.


Volvo XC60


The XC60 is probably a bit more expensive than you would expect but this is all part of Volvo re-aligning itself as a premium brand. The XC60 is typical of any modern Volvo in that the interior is amazingly accomplished, the tech is better than anything short of an S-Class, the ride is refined rather than sporty and the engines (now Volvo is building its own) are superb. Go for the D4 which delivers 50mpg on a run.


Mercedes-Benz GLA


When I first saw the GLA I didn't like it, when I drove the GLA I was expecting to hate it - but I didn't. It really is a great little car. It's basically a beefed up A-Class so has that car's space but the interior feels better and the GLA looks better than the A. Its interior is almost as good as an XC60's, its engine returns more mpg than almost all the competition, it drives more as a car than an SUV and it's a Mercedes-Benz. Just don't buy one in white which makes it look more drab than it should.


Subaru Outback


The Outback is the outsider. It isn't a classic SUV but is a jacked up estate car masquerading as a sort-of SUV. However it is quite brilliant. Jeremy Clarkson called the old Outback the 'perfect car' and, having owned two, I wouldn't disagree. This generation is a bit duller on the outside but is more accomplished elsewhere. Of all these SUVs the Outback is the one I bonded with the most. Its only real let-down is an utterly crap infotainment system which has Bluetooth but is almost impossible to use, and doesn't have DAB. Otherwise it pretty much is the perfect SUV.


By Matt Hubbard




30 Aug 2014

Iron Horse - Why Motorcycles Are So Much More Evocative Than Cars

I've just arrived back from a spin out on the bike, a Triumph Street Triple.  I used a tankful of fuel and can hardly remember where I went.  Perfect.


Motorcycles carry the spirit and enliven the soul in a way that cars can never do.  I've ridden only a handful of bikes in my life but have driven several hundred cars and no car ever came near any bike. Sure, cars can be epic, uplifting and invigorating but step on a motorcycle and the experience is multiplied several times over.

Lemmy got it right when he wrote Iron Horse/Born To Lose.  It's written for and about Tramp, leader of the Hell's Angels in Britain in the 70s.  Bizarrely enough Lemmy isn't a biker.

Iron Horse/Born To Lose


He rides a road, that don't have no end
An open highway, that don't have no bends

Tramp and his stallion, alone in a dream
Proud in his colours, as the chromium gleams

On Iron Horse he flies, on Iron Horse he gladly dies
Iron Horse his wife, Iron Horse his life

He rides the roads, he lives his life fast
Don't try to hide, when the dice have been cast
He rides a whirlwind, that cuts to the bone
Wasted forever, and ferociously stoned
On Iron Horse he flies, on Iron Horse he gladly dies
Iron Horse his wife, Iron Horse his life

One day one day, they'll go for the sun
Together they'll fly, on the eternal run
Wasted forever, on speed bikes and booze

Yeah Tramp and the brothers, say they're all born to lose
On Iron Horse he flies, on Iron Horse he gladly dies
Iron Horse his wife, Iron Horse his life



29 Aug 2014

Renaultsport RS 01 Race Car - Is Renault Missing a Trick?

Renaultsport has released photos and information about the new RS01 race car, but surely a road car would make more sense.

Renaultsport RS 01
Renaultsport RS 01

This is the Renaultsport RS 01. It has a carbon fibre monocoque with a steel roll cage and is designed exclusively for racing.

The RS 01 weighs 1,100kg and has a twin-turbo 3.8 litre V6 engine derived from the Nissan GT-R which produces 493bhp and 443lb ft of torque.  It's rear wheel drive and the gearbox is a 7-speed semi-automatic sequential unit.

The car has been designed for the track, indeed Renaultsport's Design Director, √Čric Diemert, says: "...the reach of Renaultsport R.S. 01 had to extend beyond the range to make it an iconic brand model. This is why it looks nothing like a production vehicle."
Well it will be an iconic brand model but it does look like a production vehicle.  Surely it would have been better designing a road car that looked and went like the RS01.

It wouldn't be beyond the bounds of reason for Renault to bring a very similar looking car to the road, after all many car companies like Audi and Lotus have managed it.  Take a look at the Alfa Romeo 4C to see how much a reasonably expensive sportscar with a carbon monocoque can do for a brand's profile.

Renault is missing a trick if the RS 01 remains a track-only car.
Renaultsport RS 01
Renaultsport RS 01

Renaultsport RS 01
Renaultsport RS 01

Renaultsport RS 01
Renaultsport RS 01

Renaultsport RS 01
Renaultsport RS 01

Renaultsport RS 01
Renaultsport RS 01

Renaultsport RS 01
Renaultsport RS 01

Renaultsport RS 01
Renaultsport RS 01

By Matt Hubbard






28 Aug 2014

2014 Mitsubishi L200 Barbarian First Drive Impressions

I'm driving this Mitsubishi L200 Barbarian for the next week.  Here's a short review

2014 Mitsubishi L200 Barbarian
2014 Mitsubishi L200 Barbarian
Why did I book a Mitsubishi L200 press car?  Well, because it's different, and because I've always liked the look of pick-ups, and thought I'd see if it would make an off the wall alternative to an SUV.

The first thing you notice is how big it is. At 5,185mm it's as long as a Mercedes S-Class, although this, the Barbarian, does have an extended load platform.  The Barbarian is almost the top of the range and comes with all the usual gizmos you'd expect in any car.

It's a damn fine looking thing with lots of character and a commanding presence.  Open the driver's door and the interior looks pretty good too.

Climb in and you'll see it's got electric windows, cruise control, satnav, DAB, Bluetooth, leather seats and, strangely for a car like this, an automatic gearbox.

You also notice that the driving position is ideal for those with short legs and long arms - perhaps designed for those who might buy one - but not so much for those of more normal proportions. I found the steering wheel too far away, and it only adjusts up and down.

The seats look good but have no lumbar support, or even much in the way of support generally. They feel like leather-clad church pews.

The infotainment system is a touchscreen Kenwood unit and has too much of an aftermarket feel, although to be fair it's not much different to those found in many other low volume Japanese cars such as the Subaru BRZ.  The sound quality from the speakers is dire.

The engine is a 2.5 litre turbo-diesel with 175bhp and 258lb ft of torque. It has plenty of grunt and pulls the L200 along well.  The auto gearbox might only have 5-speeds but it doesn't feel like it needs more and the time taken to change gear, and the frequency it changes is better than in some road cars I've driven.  Despite a bit of gruffness the engine and gearbox work well and make the car feel quicker than it is. 0-60 takes 12.1 seconds but it feels faster.

The L200 has a payload capacity of 1,120kg and a towing capacity of 2,700kg.  Because of this it has leaf spring rear suspension which makes for a bouncy ride. The impressively long suspension travel is designed for practicality rather than handling and as such the Barbarian leans in corners like Land Rovers of old.

Mind you it does off-road well. I took it down a local green lane with some seriously big ruts and bumps and the L200 took them all in its stride.

It strives to present an image of a fun, interesting car that's also a practical pick up.  It is very practical but you'd be disappointed if you bought one as an alternative to an SUV.

Having said that I like it. It has so much character I can forgive its shortcomings.

Stats


Price - £28,798
Engine - 2.5 litre, 4-cylinder, turbocharged, diesel 
Transmission - 5-speed automatic
0-60mph - 12.1 seconds 
Top speed - 111 mph 
Power - 175 bhp 
Torque - 258 lb ft/400 Nm 
Economy - 32.1 mpg 
CO2 - 208 g/km 
Kerb weight - 1,865 kg
2014 Mitsubishi L200 Barbarian
2014 Mitsubishi L200 Barbarian

2014 Mitsubishi L200 Barbarian
2014 Mitsubishi L200 Barbarian

2014 Mitsubishi L200 Barbarian
2014 Mitsubishi L200 Barbarian

2014 Mitsubishi L200 Barbarian
2014 Mitsubishi L200 Barbarian

2014 Mitsubishi L200 Barbarian
2014 Mitsubishi L200 Barbarian

2014 Mitsubishi L200 Barbarian

2014 Mitsubishi L200 Barbarian

2014 Mitsubishi L200 Barbarian

By Matt Hubbard


27 Aug 2014

The 2015 Volvo XC90 Is Finally Revealed - Stats, Price & Photos

After the longest build up for almost any SUV Volvo has finally revealed the all new XC90. But why is this so important for Volvo?

2015 Volvo XC90
2015 Volvo XC90
Twelve years ago Volvo was known for building boxy estates and saloons.  They weren't sexy cars.  They were safe cars. The two didn't mix.

Then along came the XC90, and everything changed for the Swedish company.  The XC90 was its first SUV and it was a hit.  As far as an SUV can be sexy this was safe and sexy.

Ford, who'd owned Volvo since 1999 sold the company to Geely in 2008. The Chinese company allowed Volvo to flourish, producing a range of good looking cars with a unique identity, although they were still based on Ford chassis' and mainly used Ford based engines.

In 2013 three Volvo concept vehicles were revealed. They came from the pen of Volvo's senior vice-president of design Thomas Ingenlath and looked sensational.  These concepts foreshadowed all future Volvo design not just on the surface but underneath.

The concepts are based on Volvo's flexible new chassis architecture which, unlike VW's MQB, allows  cars of all sizes to be designed and brought to market quickly. In addition the power plants are Volvo's own range of Drive-E engines.

The reason the XC90 is so significant for Volvo is that it is the first all new, entirely Volvo product in a generation.  And it should sell well. The XC90 was a sales success but as it's aged the newer, smaller XC60 SUV has overtaken it as the best selling Volvo.

All engines in the XC90 will be Drive-E engines. Petrol or diesel they're all 4-cylinder, 2-litres. I've already tested the D4 (in the XC60) and liked its power, economy and smoothness.

The range topping engines in the XC90 are the D5 (diesel) and T8 (petrol).  The T8 is a plug-in hybrid which is boosted by a turbocharger and a supercharger. It produces a stonking 394bhp and 640Nm/472lb ft of torque yet returns 110mpg and produces 60g/km of CO2.  The D5 is a turbocharged diesel and has 225bhp and 470Nm/347lb ft of torque.

Through a combination of construction technique and materials and technology Volvo reckons the new XC90 will be the safest SUV on the market.  Check out this video for evidence of that.

The only prices revealed so far are for the D5 AWD Momentum, which costs £45,000 and can be ordered in October and delivered in May 2015, and the special edition First Edition D5 which comes with every option box ticked and costs £68,000.  The First Edition is limited to 1,927 (to commemorate Volvo's founding in 1927) and can be ordered from 3 September only via Volvo's global website here.

I'll come back with a review once I've had the chance to drive one of the new XC90s.

2013 Volvo XC90 D5 review
2015 Volvo XC90

2015 Volvo XC90

2015 Volvo XC90

2015 Volvo XC90

2015 Volvo XC90

2015 Volvo XC90

2015 Volvo XC90

2015 Volvo XC90

2015 Volvo XC90

2015 Volvo XC90

2015 Volvo XC90

2015 Volvo XC90

2015 Volvo XC90

2015 Volvo XC90

2015 Volvo XC90

2015 Volvo XC90

2015 Volvo XC90

2015 Volvo XC90

By Matt Hubbard



26 Aug 2014

Reading To Paris And Back In A Volvo XC60 D4 (On One Tank Of Fuel)

This summer we took a short break in Paris. When we booked the trip I decided to drive as flying would be too much of a pain with the various rail transfers for such a short distance.  I'd also never used the Eurotunnel before so fancied trying that out.  What car to take, though?

I could have taken my own car but this was a good opportunity to evaluate another car over a distance and with my son, Eddie, on board it would highlight how suitable it was for children.

The Volvo XC60 is a decent SUV that has a lovely interior, a wafty ride, comfortable seats and now comes with Volvo's all-new D4 engine.  A Volvo XC60 D4 R-Design Lux in Passion Red it was then.
Volvo XC60 D4 R-Design Lux in Passion Red

Day one saw an 8am start for an 11.50am check in time on the Eurotunnel.  The M4, M25 and M20 were relatively traffic free and I used the adaptive cruise control for 90% of the journey.  The car had a manual gearbox but adaptive cruise still works well with it.

The seats are great in Volvos but the R-Design's leather, electrically adjustable seat (the passenger side is manually adjustable) was super comfortable.  Eddie spent the morning in the back, watching a movie on the headrest mounted DVD player.  The car didn't come with headphones so he plugged his iPhone earphones in. They were a bit too quiet but he was happy enough.

The car has plenty of storage space. The boot is big and the glove box is pretty cavernous. There are cupholders ahead of the armrest and there's a cubby under the 'rest itself as well as the door pockets.

I kept myself entertained with digital radio and a playlist I'd put together for the trip streamed via Bluetooth from my iPhone to the excellent sound system.

We arrived at Folkestone ahead of schedule and were put on an earlier train.  You check in whilst in the car and are waved through and on to the train itself where you park up and stay in the car.

The XC60's electronics shut down after 10 minutes (to preserve the battery no doubt) but the journey under the English Channel is only 20 minutes long.

In Calais and the Volvo's adaptability reveals itself.  A twist of the indicator stalk and km/h is shown in the digital dash.  A couple of sub-menus in the infotainment system and the headlights are set to driving on the right.

And so to Paris. 180 miles and driving on the wrong side of the road. My brain needs rewiring but the car is so easy to drive it lets me recalibrate without undue interference.

The D4 engine is strong. It's a 2-litre turbodiesel with 181bhp and 280lb ft of torque.  In the D4 power is fed through the front wheels.  This is fine for economy but highlights the torque and lack of locking differential. It does suffer from torque steer.  An e-diff might have been a sensible option.

This doesn't matter on the motorway though. The ride is super-soft, the controls well placed and the infoscreen and dials clear and easy to read and use.

We arrive at our hotel having covered 310 miles.  The fuel gauge is showing just over half full and the XC60 has returned over 44mpg.  The car reckons there's another 430 miles in the tank.  In the UK we cruised at 70mph but in France the limit is 130km/h so we travelled at 80mph.

Day two was Disneyland, which was 10 miles from the hotel. Eight members of my family were at the hotel so Ed rode up front and my two nieces, eight and six, were in the back.  The XC60's integrated child seats perfectly suited them, and there was space to sit someone else in between.

Day three was Paris itself and we left the Volvo at the hotel and used the dreaded public transport.

Day four of our short trip saw Eddie and me leave at 9am bound for Calais.

The XC60 soaks up the miles.  The engine is smooth and quiet and the various driver aids (most of which are options) are useful.  Again we arrived early and were put on an earlier train.

The M20 was pretty busy but the M25 was another level of hell.  It was nose to tail all the way around to the M3 where we dived off to escape the misery.  The car's stop/start function saved a few mpgs but economy suffered as we crawled along for mile after mile.

Near Gatwick we had 60 miles left to go and the trip computer reckoned there were 65 miles in the tank.  I was absolutely bricking it and drove as frugally as possible.

Having a manual gearbox means you can eke out the fuel but we were still flying too close to the wind for my liking.

When we got home the car had just 10 miles left in the tank.  But we'd done it. 5 miles west of Reading, Berkshire to the suburbs of Paris and back on one tank of fuel.  Impressive stuff.

I was ambivalent towards the XC60 before we set off, preferring the V60, but after 630 miles and four days I'd grown to love it.  Eddie liked it too - a lot.  It is a very likeable car.

Watch my video diary of the trip and the car here

You can see the XC60 D4 R-Design Lux's price and stats here.
Volvo XC60 D4 R-Design Lux in Passion Red
Eddie in the back seat

Breakfast!

Volvo XC60 D4 R-Design Lux in Passion Red
On the Eurotunnel

Volvo XC60 D4 R-Design Lux in Passion Red
Hello!

Volvo XC60 D4 R-Design Lux in Passion Red
No need to headlight stickers in the XC60

Volvo XC60 D4 R-Design Lux in Passion Red
Cruising...

Volvo XC60 D4 R-Design Lux in Passion Red
Paris!

Volvo XC60 D4 R-Design Lux in Passion Red
Ed loves his Pink Floyd t-shirt

The XC60 is big but not too big for parking spaces

Eddie pointing out that you're not meant to get out of the car in the Eurotunnel

Volvo XC60 D4 R-Design Lux in Passion Red
Reading to Paris and back on one tank


By Matt Hubbard