Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Stop, thief!

Just as cars seem to be getting smarter than we are, along comes a software developer to show them who’s boss. With a few jabs and thrusts to the keyboard, voila! By hacking into Suri voice recognition software, this guy can start and stop his car – and pop the trunk and hood.

Could computer nerds be the next unstoppable generation of car thieves? Nowadays there are more computers in one car than there are in the basement of the average 15-year old boy. Once, all these kids wanted to do was get their driver’s licence. Now it seems computers and smartphones are the rite of passage de jour.

The old-school car thief used a slim jim and maybe knew to hot-wire a car. Now they can use a smartphone or an iPad. The more computer chips there are in your car, the easier it will be to hack into. Which will make car thieves even more brazen and powerful than they already are. Could a computer hacker in, say, Japan, one day be able to steal a car in Canada? It’s a possible, scary scenario.

At one time, drivers just wanted a car that was good on fuel and easy on the environment. But cars are so loaded down with personalized audio and GPS systems and all other kinds of toys, you gotta wonder.

Recently the local constabulary kicked off the holiday season’s “Lock it or Lose it” campaign at Yorkdale mall, one of the larger temples of conspicuous consumption in the GTA. That is to say, if you don’t lock your car, you lose it … and/or whatever’s inside it. Locking a car almost seems feeble and futile in this computer hacker age, but it's all we've got.

Would we be further ahead if we just “lost” some of the electronic goodies? Maybe these dubious devices should go the way of the 8-track. You’ve got to wonder if that’s also hiking up the sticker price and weighing down the car.

Now, that’s an idea worth stealing.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

The little east German car that could ...

In some ways, the car in this photo has been frozen in time. The proud Trabant was once one of the few means of personal vehicular transportation available to the proletariat in Eastern Europe under Communism. Imagine, spending years on a waiting list for a car, handing over your hard-earned deutschmarks, rubles or zloty – and this is what you get. A two-stroke, smoke spewing, whiny and rattling Trabant. And the very definition of what the French call “jolie laid”, or “pretty ugly.”

When someone starts to weiner on about German engineered cars, I like to bring up the Trabant. Those resourceful east German engineers were probably given a bucket of potatoes and told to design a car. And they managed to hook up a lawnmower engine to a lightweight body that could schlepp four adults around the Eastern Bloc. Never mind the capricious powertrain, the noxious exhaust and Duroplast body – essentially, a paper compound. Over 3 million of these were sold from 1957 to 1991.

And to those exotic car aficionados who like to brag about their car being hand-made, I like to point out that the Trabant was also lovingly made by hand. All it took was a mullet and a mallet to get the job done.

In the 90s, the collapse of the Berlin wall and the closing of the Trabant factory made more than a few people nostalgic for the little bug-eyed denizen of the Deutsche Demokratische Republik (DDR), with folks bragging about how Mรคnner aus Stal fahren Autos aus Pappe (men made of steel drive cars made of paper).

But the Trabant is having the last laugh. The polluting punchline of the East German auto industry made its debut at the 2009 Frankfurt auto show as – an electric vehicle. Since then, the automakers have been looking for investors so the electric Trabant can hit the showrooms in 2012. I would guestimate their main drawback has been the price – almost $30,000 for a Trabant?

Stay tuned.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

How to tell if your car is Canadian

You could be forgiven for thinking the snow-entombed car in this photo might be Canadian. In fact, this photo was actually taken in Washington, D.C. by “Woodley Wonderworks”, where a car buried in a few inches of snow is a big novelty that must be digitally documented. Which is how you know that this car really isn’t Canadian. We see this all the time and it’s boo-ring.

But here are some tell-tale signs that your car is truly, madly and deeply Canadian:

  • Your car is sporting winter tires but only because you waited until it actually snowed, dashing your hopes that Toronto might finally, magically turn into Jamaica.
  • Your car is not a convertible.
  • Your car is not a motorcyle.
  • There is a ripped-up, stanky old “Go Leafs Go” t-shirt lying on the floor that’s used to clean your tires.
  • The coin drawer is jammed full of Canadian Tire money. There are no coins in it. We do not have coin-operated road tolls.
  • In the glove compartment, there is bug spray, serviettes, and a pack of Smarties.
  • There is a warm plaid blanket on your back seat, even in August.
  • You carry a snow brush and ice scraper in your trunk year round.
  • There are heated mirrors … inside.
  • At least one of your radio presets is a traffic station.
  • At least one empty Tim Horton’s coffee cup lurks somewhere. It’s next to the Robertson screwdriver.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Best car colour? Stealth!

Cop cars are best not seen or heard, but the Stealth models like this one totally rock, as long as they're not in the rear view mirror with the cherry a-flashing. That dark blue ghost finish over the gaudy decals is genius. They know they're not foolin' anyone - as if a Crown Vicky with a massive cow catcher is, like, a regular car.

At least the cops have some imagination. It seems the most happening car colour these days is white, which makes the most exotic ride look like a stupid bathroom fixture. And in Canada, a white car just blends in with winter blizzards. Does anyone really want to be that invisible on the road?

Perhaps it's that lighter coloured cars are supposedly good for fuel economy. Scientists at the University of Berkeley claim a lighter coloured car will have 1.1% improved fuel efficiency over a black car, along with reduced emissions. That's a sound, scientific reason for choosing a car colour.

Especially as opposed to superstitious bunk like green being an unlucky colour for a car. Although anyone who's had a British Racing Green Triumph with the Lucas Prince of Darkness electrical system will probably agree with you. But so far, being "green" hasn't jinxed the Prius or other eco friendly rides - the Japanese tsunami that put most Japanese cars and car parts in limbo for months doesn't count.

Another myth that just won't die is that red cars cost more to insure and are targeted by the gendarmes. Nonsense. Check out any online insurance application and see if that question pops up. As for the police, they don't care what colour car you're driving over the speed limit or otherwise breaking the law.

The late, great Jan Zurakowski, World War II flying ace and test pilot of the Avro Arrow, didn't really care much for cars. But he quite liked his blue and white 1987 Subaru Legacy wagon because the two-tone colour made it easy to find in a parking lot.

Thankfully, blue and red are the colours of choice for cars in the good old Czech republic, the nation that spawned Bohemian crystal and good taste. Hopefully, they're on to something.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

When is a cigarette like a cellphone?

When is a cigarette like a cellphone?

They’re both addictive, go well with coffee and absolutely do not belong behind the wheel of your car. Yes, distracted driving has been around ever since someone lit up a cigarette behind the wheel of a Model T. But it took until May 2007 for someone (in Italy, of all places) to recognize the risk of smoking and driving.

In Ontario and many other jurisdictions, it's illegal to use a cellphone while driving (unless you're the mayor of Toronto). Ontario also has all kinds of laws about where you can't smoke, but it's only illegal to smoke in your car if there's a child.

In fact, there are a trunkful of seemingly innocent activities that can seduce your focus away from the road. Here’s a sample, compiled by the Canadian Automobile Association.

  • Something unexpected alongside the roadway
  • An unexpected noise
  • Operating the radio
  • Adjusting the temperature
  • Using in-car devices like GPS
  • Eating, drinking and smoking
  • Grooming
  • Talking to passengers
  • Tending to children
  • Reading or writing

Recently, the Insurance Bureau of Canada claimed that talking on the cellphone while driving impairs your driving ability as much as someone with a blood alcohol content of .08 percent!

Finally, the good folks at Lifespan did a study that showed ignoring a full bladder can impair your cognitive functions to the same extent as too much alcohol or sleep deprivation, and therefore affect your driving.

That’s why gas stations have washrooms. Pull over, please!