Thursday, October 29, 2009

When engineers get bored...

... or in this case, creative, they design things like this:

Stefan Riederer is one of BMW's engineers (and a heck of a nice guy), and in talking with him over dinner during the launch of the new (and impressive) ActiveHybrid 7, he mentioned that he designed and built the unusual bicycle-based hydrofoil seen in action below.

Completely human powered, it doesn't float at all, relying entirely on forward motion and hydrodynamics to keep it from sinking. Stefan used to work in BMW's aerodynamics lab, which no doubt helped in this pursuit.

What would he like to tackle next, were space and expense not major considerations? Human powered flight. Doubtless this man could do it...

(Photo courtesy of Stefan's website, found at the above link)

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Truth in advertising...

...but should they really have to tell you?

(2010 BMW ActiveHybrid 7)

Thursday, October 22, 2009

When engineers get bored...

...they design hubcaps with hubcaps, and then use plastic caps that thread onto the wheel nuts to hold the whole arrangement on...

Oblivious, apparently.

Most days I wonder how a species as completely oblivious as ours ever managed to dominate the planet. I mean really, isn't our defining characteristic supposed to be intelligent thought?

Often times, customers will drive into the parking lot of our two-bay shop and pull up in front of our bay doors. Quite often they bypass the vacant parking spot immediately to their left. Or the other empty spots elsewhere in the lot.

Granted, there are frequently times when our lot is full, in which case, OK, I can see that there's no alternative. However at any other time, you are now preventing us from bringing cars in or taking cars out, and this ability is the lifeblood of our business. I have to wonder if these same people would park in the drive-through lane at Timmies to go in and choose their Timbits from the rack.

Today our parking lot was jammed to overflowing - all of the spots were full, our secondary (not marked) spots by the road and by our property line had cars in them, and we had a couple of cars double parked in front of our shop and in front of the far bay door. A gentleman who hasn't dealt with me since before my boss took over five years ago parks in front of my bay door (the bay with no car in it, since I was just about to bring one in), and asks if we can "just do brakes" on his full-size pickup. He has his own parts, so it shouldn't be a problem, right? He needs it done today; can't wait until Monday. Seemed surprised and a bit dissapointed when we were unable to help him.

My past dealings with this gentleman have been positive, but the only thing positive about this encounter was his being positively oblivious. Oblivious to the congested shop environment that he'd just pulled into, oblivious to the concept that hey - we make a profit on parts, so aren't keen on installing yours, particularly when your cut-rate junk parts go bad and you'll probably expect us to warranty the work - and oblivious to the explanation that there are several loyal customers and major jobs in the queue ahead of you that take precedence.

Maybe opposable thumbs are all that human beings really have going for them...

Sunday, October 18, 2009

The Credit (where credit is due) Department

It is just as important to recognize things done right as it is to point out shortcomings, so I've created "The Credit Department" to give it where it's due.

Not everything good has to be major - sometimes it's little touches that delight, like a dampened glove-box door, or the perfectly counter-balanced trunk that pops up just enough to aid arms-full openin
g, but not so much as to instantly expose the entire contents of the trunk to the rain.

Kudos today to whoever builds and/or designed GM's generic audio head unit (the part in the dash that the driver interacts with) - I'm guessing it's Delco/Delphi, but it could be Clarion or anyone else.

Sure, it sounds just fine in most of the applications that I've encountered it - in some it sounds fantastic. But that's not why I like it.

It's not because it's the prettiest out there either, with its oddly positioned knobs. Not that I'm complaining about that - I'll take knobs over rocker switches any day.

What it's got going for it is that it's easy to use, yet also allows for a pleasing amount of customization - right down to how many "pages" of radio station presets you want.

Why does that matter? Most GM vehicles with steering wheel controls allow you to thumb through the presets, and if you don't have enough stations to fill 36 slots, you don't have to backtrack, or go through multiple vacant or unset presets to start back at your first saved station.

Better yet, those presets can be any combination of AM, FM, or XM, in any order. Want to organize by genre? Mix and match freely.

I'm also pleased that this radio's XM tuning is n
ear-instantaneous from channel to channel. I'd speculate that the system monitors the channels on either side of the current one to make that happen, since few others that I've tried can do that - not even the excellent-sounding ELS surround system found in Acuras, which have a considerable delay in playback when switching XM stations.

In this one, even the channel name comes up immediately, and the remaining artist/song info is available pretty well the moment that station is tuned. You can choose what XM/RDS info displays as well - it doesn't have to be the station ID. A clock displays independently of the radio's readout.

GM would do well to retain the interface architecture of this design as they update their models, since the more integrated audio system found in the 2010 Chevrolet Equinox that I've just driven wasn't nearly as user-friendly.

The type pictured (this one is in a Saturn Aura) passes what I call the "rental car test" - how fast could an unfamiliar driver figure out the basic audio controls, find a station, or even set their presets. The last BMW that I drove, a 750Li, required seven separate i-Drive steps to set one radio station preset. This GM unit? Select the band (one button), then twist the tuning knob until the desired station appears. Push and hold any preset button for a few seconds until the setting is acknowledged. Your preset stations will be displayed above the button that selects them. How much more simple could it get?

Monday, October 12, 2009

Hard to Love

Daily, I face a huge conundrum, as I'm forced to balance my unabashed love of cars with my occasionally deep hatred of fixing them.

It's only at certain times, or during particular tasks, but I'm convinced that there are at least two parallel conspiracies afoot.

Conspiracy 1: Automakers not only don't care about what is involved in servicing their vehicles once they're manufactured, but that they often deliberately make them both failure-prone and as difficult to service as possible.

Why, you might ask? Well, it costs money to take the time to consider service access while designing a vehicle, and even more money to actually implement those changes. That's not gonna happen - as long as the POS makes it out of warranty and doesn't require any recall work, it doesn't matter to them. Almost nobody buys a new car based on ease of future service, so why would they care?

As well, if they can force consumers to have to return to the dealerships for repairs, that's money both in their franchisee's pockets and their own, as factory parts and equipment are typically required. A perfect example is body control modules, many of which now have the anti-theft system built-in. Replacement requires reprogramming, and in some cases, the module has to be in the car and the car connected to the dealer's corporate uplink to make it happen. Some independent shops have the equipment for this, but precious few, and fewer still can reflash more than a couple of makes.

Even creating parts that will be difficult or cost-prohibitive for the aftermarket (ie: non-factory) suppliers to produce will ensure that consumers have to return to the dealership for parts. GM did this in the mid-eighties with its (initially) non-serviceable CS-series alternators. Took the aftermarket about three years to suss that one out.

Conspiracy 2: I like to call this "proof that a mechanic slept with an engineer's wife"; designs so needlessly stupid that they could only have occurred through malicious intent. I give you the DOHC GM 3.4 litre "Twin Dual Cam" V6. This is the only engine that I know of that has both a timing chain and a timing belt. I understand the reason for it (a pushrod engine retrofitted with DOHC heads), but I don't understand why the rear cylinder head has to overhang - by less than 2 cm - the oil pump drive, whose seal is/was a well-known and considerable oil-leak point. This means that replacing this $4 seal
- it's on that circular silver item near the centre of the photo - requires removing the rear cylinder head. Oy!
Other gems include serpentine belts routed through engine brackets (mid '90's GM 3800 V6), spark plug access that requires triple-jointedness and the dexterity of a Cirque du Soleil performer (Ford Aerostar), or overly complicated diagnostic procedures that don't always condemn the correct parts (certain Honda EVAP failures).

Not to mention nearly every automaker locating the oil filter on at least some of their models in such as place as to guarantee
a) a big, oily mess that will drip on the customer's driveway for days, even if you empty half a case of brake-clean trying to rinse it.
b) multiple lacerations from all of the precision-sharpened heat shields and plastic fan shrouds placed in tight proximity.
c) second, or possibly even third degree burns if the vehicle has been running for more than a two minutes in the previous three hours. These will likely occur from a combination of the 150ÂșC oil running down the tech's arm and the hot underhood components (like catalytic converters) that the filter will be sitting next to or immediately above.
Not that you'd expect to ever need to change the oil filter.

Geez folks, you make it hard to keep feelin' the love...

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Well, at least it cranks and starts...

Welcome to my grand experiment!

Those who know me know that the blogosphere isn't my natural element. Those who don't, well, prepare to watch a train-wreck in slow motion as I stumble around, learning as I go. Definitely a training-wheels-on exercise, so please bear with me.


I'll post this disclaimer just once:

I work in a town that has a General Motors assembly plant, therefore there is a disproportionate amount of GM and domestic product both in my door at work and around where I live. Don't think that I'm singling GM or the Detroit Three out for my rants - I just see more of their vehicles to rant about.