Showing posts with label automotiveIndustry. Show all posts
Showing posts with label automotiveIndustry. Show all posts

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Impressive (Anti-) Demonstration of Traction Control Systems

I thought the season was over -- the season of pulling people out of the river at my campground. But a rear-wheel-drive Ford Transit van got stuck just after its drive-wheels hit the water. It's true that he chose the wrong place to cross.

Remembering what I learned from experimenting with a Nissan NV van a couple years ago, I told him to turn off the traction control switch on the dashboard. Naturally he had no notion what that meant. But he finally found the switch. By turning off that switch, the traction control system was supposed to surrender its capability to throttle back/down the engine when a wheel starts slipping. Still, it was supposed to apply the brake to the slipping wheel, thereby imitating a limited-slip differential.

But that isn't what happened in practice, with the Ford Transit van in the river, where one wheel still slipped, while the other was completely stationary -- just the malaise of an open differential, in olden times. All this occurred in reverse gear.

Then I had the driver turn the traction control system back on. No difference. But the tow vehicle, a Toyota 4Runner, and several men kept working on it, until they succeeded in backing the Texan (naturally!) out of the drink.

I guess I need to study the owner's manual for the Ford Transit van. So far, it would appear that their traction control system was completely inoperative or useless, at least in reverse gear.

This was disappointing. Unaccustomed as I am to being a cheapskate and trying to beat the System, I used to scheme about buying an unpopular and inexpensive two-wheel-drive pickup truck or van as my next tow vehicle, and then hope for modern traction control systems to overcome the "one wheel slipping" syndrome. That appears to be a false hope.

Saturday, July 8, 2017

German the Middle of a River

These days I feel like a professional accident-gawker. People are doing the craziest things, and not always getting lucky about it: driving across a high and fast stream in crossover utility vehicles; driving low clearance vehicles on rough roads; and in general, having the wrong tires on the wrong car at the wrong place.

They can't imagine being away from phone service, therefore they are confident that every problem can be fixed by whipping out their smartphone, and giving somebody a credit card number. Do they know how long it can take for a tow truck to arrive in the mountains on a festival weekend in a busy tourist town?

Don't they understand that automobile repair and tire shops are closed on the weekends in small towns? That a small town tire shop isn't strong in specialized European or barrio-style tires? That the river is higher in the evening than in the morning?

My favorite was a small Mercedes crossover utility vehicle that tried to do exactly that, cross over, our river. It was probably his license plate that I fished out of the river the next day. He learned that, despite the vaunted reputation of German engineering, it is not a good idea to put the alternator at the bottom of the engine compartment.

Naturally he didn't have a tow rope. (Why would he ever need a tow rope -- he's driving an expensive car?) Although there were plenty of pickup trucks who could have pulled him out of the drink, none of these ruff-n-tuff weekend warriers had tow ropes, either. (I did have one, but my van was in town at the repair shop.)

It took all day for a tow truck to come. I went out a couple times to check on their phone connection and their supply of drinking water. Then I couldn't believe what the tow truck had to do: a modern vehicle has an electronically-controlled transmission. So when the vehicle is electrically dead, you cannot shift into neutral. So the tow truck has to winch the vehicle up its ramped bed, with dead car's wheels skidding on the ground.

But we could drown in more examples like this. (ahem...) What principles do these examples illustrate? In general they show the disconnect from physical reality that most people from the big city have achieved.

Nobody knows anything about cars anymore. That part of American culture has been killed off by the mandated complexity of modern cars. 

Nobody knows how to use tools anymore. Everybody works in a cubicle,  and dicks around all day with spreadsheets and planning software.

Men have become useless to women in situations like this, and if they weren't useless, women wouldn't trust them anyway, or resent their sexist helpfulness.

People's notions of automotive capabilities are completely warped by television commercials showing some mommie-mobile blasting through snow banks or gliding over sand dunes.

But it is too easy to mock modern society. Let's end this post with a practical and positive suggestion: that it should be mandatory for high school students to read, "The Case for Working with Your Hands, " by Matthew Crawford.

Friday, May 5, 2017

Creating the Perfect Tow Vehicle Out of Imperfection

Wiser men than I have fallen victim to the 'previous investment trap.' That is my official excuse for taking so long to turn an imperfect -- and steadily worsening -- tow vehicle situation into a drastically better choice. 

(Since I refuse to carry a mountain bike on the outside of a vehicle, my tow vehicle choices are restricted to a van or a pickup with a heavy, expensive cap on the back. I am afraid the white cargo van has become such a stereotype that it will receive prejudicial treatment from rangers.)

In fact I haven't been this pleased and excited for a long time. There really is something to be said for agonizing over a problem for a long time before finally 'hitting the ball out of the park.' It adds drama to life.

When I put the doggie door into the rear cargo ramp in my cargo trailer, I finally broke free of the Previous Investment Trap. I abandoned the idea of making a screen room out of the back of the trailer, and decided to see if the mountain bike could be mounted on the cargo ramp.

Could it really be this easy?


But won't the bike snag or jam something as you raise it to the inside?

Nope. It is the same each time, so the empty space around the bike can be filled with storage bags or boxes.

But what about the chain reaction this was supposed to cause inside my trailer? It only took a day to work all that out. A bit of downsizing helped. Having the bike inside has only made things slightly more cramped.

The end result is that my next tow vehicle can be 'anything.' It will probably be a Chevy Silverado pickup or a Nissan Frontier. No cap will be necessary. I'll put a couple wheel-well tool boxes in the bed of the truck.


But how does any of this help the reader if they are under different circumstances? The details don't, of course. But if we back up a step at look at the principles involved in the problem solving, it can be useful. 

1. Rebelling against the Previous Investment Trap.

2. Hitting a 'double' on the rear cargo door before trying to hit a 'home run.' (Think of the cautious, build-on-small successes taken by the USA and the UK in rolling back the Wehrmacht in North Africa, then Sicily, then Italy. Also, consider the island hopping by General MacArthur in the Pacific war of World War II.)

3. Being nudged by comments on this blog and on other blogs. Not trying to operate in a vacuum. Not surrendering to the romantic nonsense of the solitary inventor.

4. Realizing that I am dissuaded by a half dozen small disadvantages to some approach, because I have a tendency to exaggerate the cumulative effect of all of these. Perhaps it is the messy clutter that makes me lazy.

5. Solving the tow truck conundrum by not falling into the 'take that hill, boys' approach of a stupid general. The general should try a flanking movement or move his offensive to an off-center theater of operations. (Consider the success that General Sherman had in the Chattanooga/Atlanta/Savannah theater in the American War Between the States. I believe that, despite its failure, the Gallipoli operation in the Great War was brilliant. It failed because of tactical mistakes.)

6. The consequences of stubborn, moral intransigence. Even though my current mountain bike only has garage sale resale value, I have simply refused to transport it on the outside of a vehicle. That created the conundrum in the first place.

But I'm glad I didn't surrender on this point. 

7. Forcing myself to give in on something before I could expect to gain something.

8. Although it has never been a habit of mine to look back at a solved problem and lay out the principles involved, it should have been. It should be.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

A Predatory Truck Consumer Smacks His Lips

One of these days I will give up the bad habit of reading doom-and-gloom financial blogs. They don't do their readers any good. They are the proverbial 'broken clock that gives the right time, twice a day.'

These days they are screaming about how bad automobile sales are. Through the alchemy of confirmation bias, I seem to see a glut of automobiles for sale in make-shift parking lots where they don't even belong.

It is time to actually believe the doom-and-gloomers when the prices actually go down. Still, it is easy to believe them after the insane auto industry trends of the last seven years. The very apotheosis of these trends is the ridiculous size and popularity of pickup trucks. But don't let me get started on that...

Right now, all a consumer can do is visualize a serious predator, like a mountain lion or wolf, spotting a herd of unsuspecting deer. The predator moves in carefully, so as not to alarm the herd. And the predators allow themselves no demonstrativeness more than licking their chops.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Trying to Get Educated at a Repair Shop

I dared to hope. It almost worked.

I was laying on the ground, watching a mechanic install a new leaf spring on the unbroken side, so that I would have a matched pair of brand spanking new leaf springs on my single axle trailer. I was at the business from which we had ordered and shipped the first leaf spring. It was quite a large business actually, with a 'reputation' for being experts.

If I learned to repair a broken suspension part in the field, it might someday save me hundreds of dollars in towing, if the towing service balked at paying the tow truck to come to an inaccessible location. (Be aware that towing insurance is not a panacea. There are reasons why you don't want to camp in too backwoodsey a location.)

In fact I did learn a couple tricks of the trade before the manager came over to inform me that insurance regulations did not allow a customer in the work area. In fact, I had already thought of that, by laying down just outside the building. (My head wasn't underneath the trailer.) Nope, that wasn't good enough. He quickly shuffled me off to the customer's lounge, where there was the usual television playing daytime shows, and a variety of trashy glossy magazines.

Insurance regulations, eh? Well OK, but there are other reasons, too. Nothing is more irritating to the office types than a customer who wants to talk to the mechanic. In part, this is just marketing psychology. Any kind of repair facility, including a doctor's office, benefits from an aura and mystique when the customer drops off the problem, leaves a four word description of the symptom, the office-type (a glorified college-educated clerk) spends a half hour doing paperwork on a computer, and then at the end of day, the repaired item magically appears.

The more ignorant the customer stays, the more magical the whole process appears, and the easier it is to swallow the astronomical repair bill.

In my case, the first thing the mechanic did was jack the trailer up by the flimsy steel cross-piece. That is a classic no-no. One should always use the heavier frame that runs along the long axis of the vehicle. Seeing the mechanic make that mistake caused his aura to pop instantly.  This single observation means that they lost my business. Back at the small town where my original spring broke, the mechanic mentioned that he wouldn't use the flimsier steel cross-piece. He has won my business in the future.

But the disappointment at the big firm was more general than that. Rather than describe it in detail, let me insert a pertinent quote from Matthew Crawford's book, "The Case for Working with Your Hands."
Consider the case of a man who is told his car is not worth fixing. He is told so not by a mechanic but by a clipboard-wielding "service representative" at the dealership. Here is a layer of bureaucracy that makes impossible a conversation about the nitty-gritty of the situation. This man would gladly hover around the mechanic's bay and be educated about his car, but this is not allowed. The service representative represents not so much mechanical expertise as a position taken by an institution...

The example I have given shows that there is a certain rational self-interest on the part of the institution to separate the customer from the mechanic. But I don't like it anyway.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Can Retro-grouchery Get You a Better Truck?

It's Super Bowl season. What would the ancient Greeks think of the NFL player who dances in the end zone after scoring a touchdown? No matter how proud a modern secularist and rationalist is about their superiority to superstition, don't we still believe in hubris? We start to get nervous about feeling too pleased with ourselves, and especially, if we show it in public.

For instance my van (tow vehicle) recently passed the 250,000 mile mark. At first I thought about celebrating this achievement by posting about it. Then I decided to keep my big trap shut, lest I jinx myself.

But by now, the gods have probably moved on to other things, and they won't notice if I do a little dancing in the end-zone about this.  Of course, when a person considers a new vehicle, all they can really do is stack the odds in their favor with statistically-valid generalizations. It still comes down to one lucky or unlucky specimen in a general category. But it is still worth mentioning my good luck with this Ford Econoline 250 van (1995), just as an illustration.

Why not choose a new van or truck with the same mindset as before? Why mess with success? But this should not be interpreted to mean 'Stick with Ford.' The more modern Ford engines are not similar to the engine in my old Ford van. But some of the semi-modern GM engines are!

By 'success' I meant sticking with tried and true and hopefully more durable technology, rather than getting suckered into more complex engines that only get 20% better fuel economy. Trucks and vans get lousy fuel economy because they weigh almost 3 tons, have a frontal profile the size of a barn, and are non-aerodynamic. It is a fool's game to keep adding complexity to engines to improve the fuel economy by 1.5 mpg. We are already past the point of diminishing returns. But Congress likes to write laws that try to enact popular environmental sentimentalisms, the entire culture is disconnected from physical reality, and career bureaucrats at the EPA need something to do, so we get modern engines with:
  1. Overhead cam engines, higher rpm, timing belts with expensive replacement, or timing chains with plastic tensioners, four valves per cylinder, and four camshafts instead of one.
  2. Variable valve timing.
  3. Cylinder deactivation. A V8 collapses to a V4 under low-load conditions. Why doesn't vibration tear the engine apart?
  4. Two turbo-chargers. Oh goodie, vrrooom vroom! Thousands of dollars to repair.
  5. Fuel injectors inside the combustion chamber!
  6. Fuel injectors upstream as well as in the combustion chambers.
  7. Active (closing, sliding) shutters in front of the radiator that make things a little more aerodynamic.
  8. Plastic air dams on the front bumper, which smash into the ground.
  9. Automatic engine shutdown when you are idling at stop lights, guaranteeing an earlier demise of the starter motor.
  10. Active suspension that jacks up or lowers the body, depending on your driving conditions.
  11. Aluminum pop can bodies. Bet those will really hold up to getting dinged in the parking lot by the adjacent car.
  12. Electrically heated transmission lubricant, for the first three minutes of a drive.
  13. A toy-like spare tire. 
  14. Future technologies? How about new improved outside mirrors? They could rotate at highway speeds to become more aerodynamic and improve your overall fuel economy by 0.12 mpg. When combined with new mandatory anti-collision cameras, they would retract the mirrors in parking lots so the battleship-on-wheels actually fits in the parking space. Furthermore, the side-view cameras would automatically turn off when a law enforcement officer approaches your side window. 
It's not that any of these items is intrinsically bad. But they will cost you when you buy the vehicle, and they give Murphy's Law many more opportunities for making your life miserable. 

But let's be fair: EPA requirements haven't yet forced automakers to use hollow plastic crankshafts, made from recycled grocery bags.
It is a good idea to avoid getting a vehicle the first year or two that is has been redesigned. Of course, that is just the time when the hottest "spokesperson" at the Detroit Auto Show will demonstrate getting in and out of the car, while wearing a tight mini-skirt and stiletto heels; and the year that the vehicle qualifies to win the Motor Trend Truck of the Year; and the year that its commercial is chosen Favorite Super Bowl commercial.

Soon the hot new vehicle might have a recall.  Fan-boys will be bitter and disappointed. But a new model has a lot of wrinkles to iron out. When are people going to learn not to be an early adopter!? 

That certainly wasn't the case with my 1995 Ford Econoline van. Even better, it was just a year or two before Ford switched to the overhead cam Triton engines. (Recall their exploding spark plugs.) My van had ye olde "pushrod" design, with a camshaft in the engine block itself, and no vulnerable timing belt or long timing chain to worry about. If you want a pushrod design now, you must go with a GM "small block" engine. (Or a Chrysler Hemi.)

I am leaning in the direction of a 2008-2013 Chevy Silverado (or its GMC doppelgänger), with a (Fourth generation) 4.8 liter V8 Vortec engine. Unlike the 5.3 liter engine, the 4.8 eschews cylinder de-activation. (But I think it does have variable valve timing.) Also, the 4.8 liter engine is usually paired with the old-fashioned four speed transmission. The newer transmission with 6 gears might be desirable, but only if they don't have "double clutch" designs; these lack (fluidic) torque converters.

(As an added plus, it is fairly common for the GM trucks to have a locking rear differential. The RPO code in the glove box is G80. This is a good way to obviate the need for a four wheel drive tow vehicle.)

In 2014 GM went over to their Eco-tec engines with fuel injectors inside the combustion chambers, fed by high pressure fuel pumps. (I don't even want to think about it...)

I am not an automotive engineer, a good auto mechanic, or a "car nut". So don't be bashful about pointing out errors in this write-up. I'll quickly edit your corrections into the post.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Appreciating Intellectual Pleasure and Applying It

A person can actually learn to enjoy intellectual pleasures, although it is rare to do so. There are plenty of folks who work with their brains, but that is a different game because it is mainly about making a living, and an outlet for ambition, with a certain amount of ego-gratification. By intellectual pleasure I mean a more disinterested appreciation of something that is beautiful simply to think about, after a certain amount of time and struggle for the thinker.

For my part, the greatest intellectual pleasure comes from trying to look beneath the surface appearance of things in order to see the Cause. Even better, I like to visualize the conflict of large trends and fundamental belief systems. I always visualize this photograph of my first dog, taken in his middle-age, some years ago.

Taking in the Big Picture, after bagging another Colorado peak.

Retirement and leisure certainly help this process, as does getting out of a metropolitan ant hill. Perhaps tuning out the daily trivia of the mainstream media is the most important aid. The key is detachment from the mob.

Old age is under-rated in this process. No doubt, there are 20-year-olds who have more perspicacity than me; neverthleless an old kaBLOOnie can do a better job than a younger kaBLOOnie.

Travel is helpful. The hackneyed notion that travel broadens your perspective is certainly true.

This is probably why I go on about my frustrations with the trends in the automobile industry. It is after all one of the bigger expenses in a (non-house-owning) travel lifestyle. The motor vehicle affects where I can camp and how I will live. What causes these trends, and how ridiculous can they get?

Trend #1: Awe of and subservience to big government.

The foundation myth of the current American Imperium is the "Good War", World War II. A good story should end with a big bang, and in this case, that was literally true with the mass slaughter of Japanese civilians by Washington's nuclear bombs. The Manhattan Project that produced these weapons was certainly a spectacular case of a government program that succeeded. Why, it's like government simply willed it into existence. Gee, I guess that means that politicians are almost gods who can command the powers of nature, just by increasing federal spending.

The Apollo project was a faint echo of the Manhattan project. Apollo didn't have to do anything radical. It was a bit like starting a government boondoggle that aimed to be the first to the Poles, or the first to climb Mt. Everest. Still, getting to another heavenly body and returning resembles the god-like. It was the last hurrah of the Cold War.

Trend #2: The post-industrial economy.

Fewer and fewer workers in the USA are concerned with making anything physical. Work means sitting in a cubicle, subtracting column DG from column A in a spreadsheet, and then dividing by column ZQ, and believing that it means something. The same could be said of playing around all day on a word processor, sticking catchy graphics in it, attending meetings, yakking on the telephone, playing with the "planning software", etc.

As a result, the average worker is disconnected from physical reality.

Now let's combine Trends #1 and #2. It is completely "natural" for the modern citizen of the USA to believe that politicians and bureaucrats can develop better fuel economy and greater safety at the same time, even though more weight helps one of these, and hinders the other.

Citizens believe that the political establishment can simply write a law or regulation that creates a miracle. Trade-offs don't matter anymore. It is just a matter of having nice sentiments.

They have completely lost track of the concept of diminishing marginal utility in automobile design. As the reductio ad absurdum, consider improvements like "active shutters" over the radiator, or lowering the ground clearance of the vehicle to the point of scraping on common roads and driveways. 

Is four valves in each combustion chamber enough for you? No? How about eight? Does the average voter think that Moore's Law from the microelectronics industry will actually apply to automobile engines?

There's high pressure fuel pumps for direct injection engines -- as if replacing the low-pressure fuel pumps didn't cost enough! But the valves get dirty with direct injection engines, as GM has proved. So Toyota's new engines will have fuel injectors inside and upstream of the combustion chambers. Oh goody, more parts, more electrical connectors, higher prices!

But have you seen the fuel economy improvement of all these mandates? It's about 3 miles per gallon.

Speaking of the Apollo project, imagine if NASA had started on their way to the moon by building lighter and lighter balloons. Every new attempt would have succeeded a little bit. But each billion dollars of improvement would have yielded smaller and smaller returns on the investment.

Monday, September 7, 2015

Watching the Automotive-Bubble Drive Home

I really don't know what to believe about the liquidity bubble built by most of the world's central banks since 2009. I have become numb, and simply shake my head in disbelief.

But a recent article on Zero Hedge got me thinking about a more concrete manifestation of the liquidity bubble. They think the motor vehicle bubble is ready to pop. In particular, there are millions of leased cars and trucks that will be turned in soon, creating a glut of 3-year-old used cars and trucks.

Since I think the used truck market is even more over-priced than the new truck market, their prediction is mouth-watering, even more so considering that circa 2013 trucks are likely to be as good as trucks ever get. Of course they could start making smaller pickup trucks, but don't hold your breath.

Have you seen the ridiculous numbers that CAFE, the government-imposed fuel economy requirement, is demanding in the years ahead? What are they planning on doing?  Much of the low-hanging fruit has already been picked. For each incremental unit of complexity that is added to modern vehicles, you are going to see the fuel economy improve by 0.3 miles per gallon here, and 0.2 there.  

But I enjoyed thinking about this article on the day that the masses head back to their hamster wheels. At the McDonald's of a crossroads town in a touristy area, you can watch the most amazing parade of motor vehicles, trailers, and toys. Why, I almost felt sorry for the poor losers who had huge pickup trucks pulling house-sized fifth wheel trailers, because other people had super-crew pickup trucks pulling fifth wheel trailers with three axles.

It's a wonder that we aren't seeing three-row pickup trucks by now! Or how about quartz kitchen counters in motorhomes, now that granite counter-tops have become so common and declassé.

Think of all the trends in the automobile industry, during a long lifetime, that came out of nowhere and went crazy: giant fins in the post-Sputnik era that were supposed to make the car look like a jet; muscle cars in the late 1960s; Pintos and Vegas after the oil shock of 1973; minivans in the 1980s so that baby-boomers wouldn't feel like their parents driving a station wagon; truck-based gas-hog SUVs in the early 1990s that allowed Mom to avoid a minivan; and now the super-crew, four-wheel-drive monster pickup truck that allows cubicle-bound, suburban husbands to feel like real men. 

Well, I don't want to deprive anyone else of what they like. But for my part I want the pickup truck market to crash and burn. I will be there to salvage something at a decent price.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

The Ideal Tow Vehicle Fantasy

I actually went for a test drive, the other day, of a 2014 Nissan Frontier pickup truck. Much to my surprise I was allowed to put my mountain bike in the cargo bed, and learned that the short (5 foot) beds of the more popular crew cab models are not long enough for a mountain bike with a front bag. Good grief -- what could you use a 5 foot bed for? The 6 foot beds of the non-crew-cab models would work for a mountain bike, but only 10% of the used Frontier markeplace is non-crew-cab.

Still, it was worth having this experience just to savor the fantasy of my ideal pickup: it would actually be a van built on a small or medium pickup platform. That is,
  1. rear wheel drive with 6000 pounds of towing capacity.
  2. no direct fuel injection and no turbos.
  3. high ground clearance and big tires. 
  4. a non-open rear differential, be it a traction control system that applies brakes to the slipping wheel, or locking or limited slip (mechanical) differential.
  5. six drive gears or more, and I don't mean with 2 of the 6 as overdrive.
  6. stripped and utilitarian in the cabin.
The small pickup truck has virtually disappeared from the North American marketplace. You could look at this and say, So What? The only customers who want small stripper pickups are auto parts stores, the phone company, the city water department, etc. And they can buy one of the small vans that have appeared the last couple years, such as the Ford Transit Connect, Nissan NV200, and a couple others. 

But these small vans have low ground clearance, and so are virtually useless off-pavement. Since they have front wheel drive, they are useless for towing.

In fact, Nissan sort of made my ideal "pickup" when they morphed their full-size pickup, the Titan, into a humongous van, their "NV". But I already drive a full-size Ford Econoline van, and am sick of it.

So I am stuck with a sterile fantasy.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Part 1: Improving Traction in the Tow Vehicle of a Trailer

Rewrite: good grief, I started off on how-to trivia before I discussed the 'why' of getting better traction: it will give you more freedom in choosing campsites and provide a higher quality experience. 

But I have gotten-by just fine at dispersed camping without making a big or expensive project out of better traction. My rig was nothing special, traction-wise: a two-wheel-drive van pulling a 4000 lb (loaded) travel trailer. It had the standard open differential and lacked an electronic traction control system which is standard on newer vehicles. 

But remember that an "equipment X worked well enough for me" type argument is a circular argument. You know the limitations of your equipment, and compensate for them by restricting your campground choices. That is what I want to rise above. (Circular arguments like this eat up enormous amounts of time and space on public discussion forums.)

'So what?' if you get stuck every couple years? Be a good sport about it. See it as an adventure. If nothing else, you will leave feeling pretty good about the human race when a passing motorist stops by to be the hero, probably in less than 30 minutes. Then he will not even want to accept a few bucks from you as a token of gratitude, despite having just saved you towing charges and hours of waiting for it.

Work it out in advance so that the hero's time is not wasted: get a piece of chain, a couple quick links, and a nylon tow rope. Find the right spot on the frame to hook to. You might even want to mount a hook or eye-bolt to the frame.

Don't worry, I don't plan on becoming a recreational four wheel drive (4WD) off-roader. But the 4WD sub-cult supports an industry and products that can also help the general public (of non-enthusiasts) get better traction in their tow vehicle.

Recall that somebody (like me) who gets a higher clearance and lightweight trailer needs to finish the job by improving their traction (and possibly clearance) in their tow vehicle.

The Yuma 4WD mafia has already provided some useful advice to me. A business who helps the sub-cult modify their jeeps was clear about where I should start: get the tire inflator needed to "air-up" the tires after you are done with the backcountry road. More on that in a minute.

1) But step one is to use all-terrain tires with more aggressive tread. That is such an obvious thing, but it is hard for a cheapskate not to go looking for the least expensive pavement-oriented tires at one of the big tire outlets. Knobbier tires will probably cost and weigh a little more and take a little off your fuel economy. But if you are serious about getting better traction, you must give in on something!

2) He recommended dropping the tire pressure to 18 psi during off-pavement use. Of course, he was referring to a light jeep, not to a heavier pickup or van. Besides a more comfortable ride, the lower pressure gets you better traction in soft sand and mud since it results in a bigger contact patch ("flat spot") at the bottom of the tire. 

Once again, this is an obvious idea, but it is hard to overcome one's timidity in lowering the pressure to the 20 psi area. 

So why don't we do it? Because it is a hassle to put the air back in, that's why! And you must do so before driving at high speed on the pavement. Say what we will, something must be convenient or we won't do it. Some four wheel guys use pressurized tanks (like little scuba tanks.) Some install on-board compressors. 

3) But the least expensive way to air-up is to use a portable tire inflator. Your mind should turn red with rage over your past experiences with these. You probably bought a cheap piece of crap for $30. In the past I got better results with a screw-on brass tire inflator tip, rather than those hateful lever style inflator tips. Of course, you can get lucky and get a good lever style tip -- one that leaks air slower than the rate of pumping it in -- but over time the rubber ages, or gets too hot or cold, etc. 

4) But there is still a problem if the inflator is powered through the cigarette lighter. These connections are limited to about 9 amps DC; they are also unreliable. There are heavier duty inflators available that clamp right onto the battery posts. Both Viair and Slime make this kind. It permits raising the amperage to 15--30 amps DC. Excellent!

5) What about "getting unstuck" products like "Portable tow truck" and their competitors? (Search traction pad, traction mats, getting unstuck in mud, etc.) These are corrugated mats or boards, usually of tough plastic, that can be jammed in front of the drive wheels when they are stuck. Does anyone have any experience with these?

6) There are tire chains of course. Like most people I have never had these because of cost, weight, noise, and the inconvenience of installing them. Perhaps this last issue is 50% psychological? But you can't install tire chains after you have gotten stuck. 

Ahh but wait, yes you can. There are temporary chains for short distance travel at low speeds that can be installed after getting stuck. They are metal chains that are completed with a nylon strap and buckle -- you just insert the nylon straps through the holes in the rim, if you have them. Perhaps I could overcome my reluctance to bring chains if the cost and weight were low enough.

Next episode I will discuss possible ways to get better traction without getting stuck in the trap of overpaying for a four wheel drive, over-sized pickup truck. 

Thursday, December 11, 2014

A RetroGrouch Has a Good Day and a Bad Day

It has been quite a few years since I went over to Algodones, Baja California Norte, Mexico to get my teeth cleaned. Thus it was time for a little bit of nostalgia -- I hadn't been to Mexico since the early Aughts.

As I walked into the lobby of the oficina dentista, my heart sank. It had been gringa-ized! Pretty decorations, glossy magazines, nice furniture, and a marble floor. One of the attractions of going to Mexico used to be that it helped you to realize how much of what you pay for in the USA is just worthless overhead.

Ideally you should walk into the dentist's office and find a dirt floor. Then you would sit down on a bale of hay. In front, a burro or two would be snoozing. To kill time during your wait, the customers could throw snacks down on the ground for chickens and roosters.

Then you would go into the dentista's room, and find it full of state-of-the-art dental equipment from Siemens. It used to be somewhat like this idealized picture.

Back in the USA I went to a Ford dealer to ogle some pickup trucks. Much to my surprise I found a white F150, rear wheel drive, regular cab, low-trim-level pickup that had been recently sold to one of Yuma's agricultural firms. I wanted to swoon like a lady of the Victorian era. The truck had roll-up windows and non-motorized seat adjustment levers.

It wasn't a base model: it had the V8 engine, the tow package (for only $400 or so), and an eLocker differential ($450 option).  In other words it had low-cost options that made it more useful as a pickup truck -- a working tool -- for a real guy.

No power mirrors, leather seats, eight speaker stereo, or premium cup holders. I'm still waiting for the hot new trend in the $60,000 pickup truck market to be a telescoping thermometer probe that RAMS up your wazoo, takes your rectal temperature, and then adjusts the power to the heated leather seats. In contrast this pickup truck oozed integrity, one of the rarest qualities in modern America.

So I was smitten. Now I must find the right way to add an aftermarket locking differential to a used pickup truck. (It will probably be too difficult to find a used truck already equipped with one.) People in four-wheel-drive (Jeep) clubs are good for advice. One recommended a local shop that had installed an economical "True Lock" locking differential in his Jeep. Even though his Jeep was four wheel drive, the locking differential made all the difference. Imagine what it would do for an economical, rear wheel drive pickup truck, pulling a little trailer, on muddy roads during the monsoon season!

Friday, November 7, 2014

Euro-Vans, Go Home!

Once again I took advantage of a mountain biking event to check out the motor vehicles, used to carry bikes and camping gear around. Once again I didn't learn much, because most people had the bikes on external racks. No thanks.

I didn't see one homemade, plywood cap/shell on a pickup truck. That is my best plan for the future. The commercial caps are expensive, not tall enough (at the stern), lack barn doors (at the stern), and have too many windows. (The first mistake in any vehicular design is too many windows.) Besides, I want to mount furring strips, shelves, and hooks on the inside, just like a cargo trailer. Are you really going to drill holes through a new commercial $2000-3000 cap?

But then I got a little excited about seeing the rebadged Fiat cargo van that Chrysler is selling as the RAM "Promaster." My goodness, where do they put the engine in this ugly, snub-nosed thing? But 'ugly' is OK with me. I knew that it was front wheel drive, and therefore wouldn't be much good for towing. But at least the ground clearance in front looked pretty good.

As the RAM Promaster van drove away, I managed to get a photograph of its rear end, practically dragging in the dirt. Maybe this is how they grade roads in Europe:

Gee, now that you mention it, maybe the "Zamboni" (that smooths the ice skating rink) is a branch of Fiat of Italy.

They can't be serious?! Why don't they go back where they came from? We don't cotton to their kind around here, in the great American West. 

Monday, October 20, 2014

Finally! The New Ford Van in Real Life

In August 2014 Ford started manufacturing the full-sized Transit van -- not to be confused with the teeny Transit Connect. The full-size Transit is the replacement for the venerable full-sized Econoline E-series vans, which is what I have been driving for the last 239,000 miles. 

So why haven't I been able to find one on a dealer's lot? Somebody suggested it was because the dealers don't really know what the market wants, and they don't want to guess wrong. The new 2015 Transit has a lot of choices: three roof heights, two wheel bases, cargo versus passenger, and three engines to choose from.

At long last I got lucky and saw one at a truck stop:

Unfortunately it was a long-wheelbase passenger van, rather than the short wheel-base, low roof, windowless cargo van that I want. Still, it made a positive impression. Remember that this is a uni-body -- stamped and spot-welded sheet metal -- rather than a box on two frame rails, like a truck.

I didn't have a tape measure handy but there was a Ford Econoline van right next to it, for comparison. The new Transit was a couple inches lower in overall height, an inch or two narrower (hooray!), and closer to the ground (boo!). 

The ground clearance was better than I thought:

Looking from the bow, towards the stern. Pretty clean underneath.
I've often wondered how they measure the "ground clearance" of a vehicle: to the lowest point? To the lowest vulnerable point? And how vulnerable?

From the back we can see the lowest points, I think:

From the stern, looking towards the bow.

The lowest spot might be the welded bracket that grabs the lower end of the rear shock absorber. It also sticks out low on most vehicles, including pickup trucks.

Unlike the Econoline, the new Transit has a (horizontal) rear stabilizer bar, similar to the one in front. But this stabilizer bar is slightly higher than the bottom of the differential housing, as well as slightly aft of the differential. So although the stabilizer bar looks somewhat vulnerable, it might be protected by the differential housing.

The weakest spot in the Transit van are the small tires. There is no bigger handicap than small tires! They aren't even LT series. They are about 3 inches smaller in diameter than the ones on the Econoline van right next to this Transit van. 

But the wheel-wells are pretty roomy. If you could fit bigger tires on the Transit, it might be a viable option as a boondocking machine. But it is still over-priced, and fuel economy is poorer than a pickup with the same engine.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

How Can Morale Be So Good in Some Large Businesses?

Once upon a time, perhaps up to a decade ago, Walmart was a winner. You could feel something amongst its employees. But how would you ever have proved it was real instead of subjective and impressionistic? But I was convinced of an elan vital amongst all those low-wage employees in that giant corporation. But in the middle Aughts, it seemed that spirit started draining out of Walmart.

Today I went to Walmart for a routine oil and lube job. There were no long lines, which was a pleasant surprise. Or was it? The first thing they started doing was fumbling with those handheld gadgets that supposedly "manage information" about your rig: real rocket science stuff, like your name, address, and odometer reading. I've yet to see one of their employees use these gadgets without struggle and delay.  No doubt these handheld gadgets were sold as "productivity enhancers" by some executive in the I.T. (information technology) department, back at corporate headquarters.

The next thing they told me was that my tires were worn on one side and they weren't willing to rotate them. Furthermore 'I was to blame,' and so the tire company  wouldn't cough up some money for not living up to the guaranteed mileage. That argument was perhaps correct for two out of the four tires in question. In any case, it was asserted so quickly and aggressively that I became suspicious. 

Inside the store I was asked to sign too many legal disclaimers, avowing that I had been warned by Walmart that I needed a couple new tires.

(I had a flashback at what happened when I bought these lousy tires at Walmart a couple years ago. The employees seemed like real losers. When I got home I popped off the hubcaps and found that 2 nuts out of 8 had not been tightened.)

Hmm, what should I do? It had been years since I bought tires at one of Walmart's competitors. I drove over to Big O Tires. They showed a completely different attitude. The employee who grabbed me at the door did everything: helped me select a tire, gave me a sale price, helped me park in a rather crowded parking lot, and did the installation without making me unhitch the trailer! You know, air-wrenches and floor jacks!  He even finished up with the typical computerized cash register fumble, without handing it off to another employee. 

I was amazed that one employee "owned" me through the entire process. Typically the customer talks to a "customer's man" at the front desk. The guy typically know little about anything automotive or mechanical, but he dresses in cleaner clothes, speaks college-boy English, and is a little more personable. (Or thinks he is.)

The customer might have a pertinent piece of information: the symptom occurs after X, but not Y. Do you think any of that is going to be passed to the guy who actually repairs your car? I once had a repair job become a nightmare because of a poor information-hand-off like this.

The employee at the Big O Tire then helped me learn about a possible upgrade to my trailer tires. Once again, he immediately jumped in with a can-do spirit, infused with experience and skill.

So how would you analyze this company? Would you really learn anything by looking at a financial spreadsheet, subtracting column C from B, and then dividing by column R, ad infinitum? Even if you came up with the perfect formula, have you really explained anything? Can it predict anything? It seems to me that spreadsheet arithmetic merely confirms the Effect, without elucidating the Cause.

We live in an age when something must be scientific to be intellectually respectable. And to look scientific, it must be mathematical, or at least, numerical, countable, measurable. But what if the Cause of a company's success is about cultural values in the corporation? How do you measure or quantify those?

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Part 2: Thinking Your Way Out of, and Into, a Box

If you too are in the habit of coming up with "brilliant" ideas, only to find that they don't work out as well as expected, you might enjoy having a good laugh at my frustration.

Since only a small fraction of the readers have the same needs for a new tow vehicle that I do, I will try to drag my problem towards more general ideas, as the post moves along. 

Until then, recall the starting point of this problem-solving exercise: the most economical way to live at the point of diminishing returns regarding comfort and camping freedom is to pull a converted cargo trailer. I have had this opinion for a decade, and now I am proving it in real life. 

Now it is time to move on to Phase 2, finding a good tow vehicle for a lightweight trailer (3000 pounds loaded). By "good" I mean:

1. Something far less than the standard pickup price of $65000 (or whatever).
2. Something that can get over 20 mpg unhitched. (I only tow 2000 miles per year, so I can be a good loser and accept deplorable fuel economy when towing. Besides, there is nothing much you can do about it.)
3. As much ground clearance as a full-size van. Pickups and truck-based SUVs have more, crossover utility vehicles (except Subaru) have less, minivans and passenger cars have far less.
4. Modern goodies such as anti-lock brakes and traction control. I'd probably be happy with rear wheel drive, just for economy's sake. By "goodies" I don't mean electronic bells and whistles, motorized mirrors, and all the rest of that crap.
5. Good storage: the ability to carry two bicycles inside, with the front wheels off of course, but without lowering the saddle of the bicycles. Also I need enough room to store a half dozen medium sized plastic boxes and 20-30 gallons of water. 
6. A nominal tow rating of 5000 pounds.

Does it seem like I am asking for "the moon and the stars"? I don't think so. But automotive industry, government regulations, and financialization trends have made it difficult.

My "brilliant" idea was to hang out in Crested Butte, CO, one of the founding fathers of mountain biking, and study all the vehicles coming in. Over half of them had mountain bikes. Surely I could get a good idea or two. Why 'reinvent the wheel?'

Alas, I was completely skunked. The visitors were just tourists with external bicycle racks, usually on the rear. I even saw a full-size van, like what I am driving now, with the bicycles stored on an external rack. Sigh.

So I retreated downriver to Gunnison, a far better area to mountain bike. While nursing my wounds, guess what I saw? A couple homemade pickup caps (shells, canopies). I said "cap" (an inverted tub that clamps to the rails of the cargo bed), not "slide-in camper."

Why didn't I think of that before?! Well actually I did, but a painted plywood cap seemed too downscale and embarrassing. Not so. They looked fine. I am really excited. 

This post is getting too long, so I'll live up to my promises next time.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

A Long Term Love Affair with a Certain Type of Land

While selecting a new tow vehicle I have been aware of the disadvantages of having once worked in the automobile industry. Consider the analogy of four middle-aged male friends, sitting at a cafe after golf. The geography of their table makes for some pleasant and harmless girl-watching, at which all of the men except one consider themselves an expert.

The foot-dragger is a middle-aged, male gynecologist, who has been putting in unusually long hours lately. He tries not to be a "wet blanket" on the discussion, especially after one of the men brags about how "hot" his new girlfriend is. But the best the gynecologist can manage is a condescending smile for the sake of his friend.

But I wonder, does the world-weary gynecologist really consider his ennui a higher form of wisdom? Or is there one part of him that envies the naive enthusiasm of his friends at the table?

This analogy doesn't just apply to someone like me buying a new tow vehicle. It also applies to a longtime traveler and full-time RVer. We naturally feel superior to the wannabees and newbies who drastically over-rate scenery and escapism. But don't we "old wise" ones want to hold on to something of the freshness and naivete of the newbie?

These two situations are best approached from the point of view of the "Zest" chapter in Bertrand Russell's "The Conquest of Happiness." I have been forewarned by his book against the conceit of feeling superior to those who enjoy topography and scenery. It's true that I spurn bar-coded postcards and photo cliches. But these are passive and mindless. It is far better to select land that the mass-tourist doesn't whip out his digital Brownie camera for. There are several choices. 

In my case it has been a long-term love affair with grassy ridgelines. There is a fine set of these overlooking the townsite itself of Little Texas #2, CO. Today my dog and I took advantage of the end of rain and hiked up these lush, productive, feminine, ascending rumples, starting at town level. For years I have lusted to do this, and now we finally have. I was not disappointed. 

I even backtracked to the trailer because I forgot my camera. But it didn't matter. We got such a late start (0800, blush) that the best light was already passed. Next time, sunrise. 

Perhaps it does the reader more good to be teased into imagining these rumpled ascending ridgelines, rather than to be spoon-fed photographs that he can passively consume. At any rate, I have found my long term love, and hope that you find yours.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Thinking Yourself into -- and out of -- a Hole

No doubt most readers have experienced dead-ends when they were trying to solve tough problems in life. Even worse, there is that dreaded feeling that the more they think about the problem, the less good it is doing them.

Yes, it infuriates me how large and expensive vans and pickup trucks have become. Perhaps the best way to start is with a sense of humor.

Consider the more-or-less useless car reviews written at the big name websites (Edmund's, Car and Driver, Car Connection, etc.) When it comes to a specific model made by Corporation X, their reviews are bland and innocuous. How could they be otherwise? The reviewer is at the mercy of the corporation for a freebie car to test drive. Typically the corporation flies the reviewer to the assembly plant, puts them up at the airport Marriott, wines and dines them, gives them a tour of the automobile assembly plant, and perhaps an interview with a high-level executive.

Even if all of this didn't butter up the reviewer, the reviewer has to realize that a negative review will mean that, next year, a rival reviewer will be the first to get the new car. And the corporation might become an ex-advertiser with the reviewer's employer.

So does this conflict-of-interest make reading car reviews a waste of time? Not completely. Reviewers can get away with being candid about entire categories of vehicles. For instance they are having fun with the minivan-ization of the so-called crossover utility vehicles. These are the vehicles that have virtually replaced the heavy, gas-sucking, truck-based SUVs that every other suburban soccer mom drove between the early 1990s and the late 2000 Aughts.

We aren't talking about Toyota RAV4s and Subaru Foresters. We are talking about the Chevy Traverse (and its corporate twins), the Toyota Highlander, the redesigned Nissan Pathfinder (better called the "Mall-finder") and even the larger version of the new Hyundai Santa Fe. These are good vehicles, but they are also thinly-disguised minivans for 30-45-year-olds who don't want to look old, married, and stodgy.

I was hanging out at a bakery in Little Texas, CO, the other day, and watched one crossover "utility vehicle" after another roll in. I noticed that the side panels were stamped with a slight crease around the front and rear wheels. No matter how superficial this was, it still made the mommy-mobile look more "rugged" and "truck-like". This trick really works! It was funny. (Serious trucks and SUVs have flare-outs in the fenders around the wheel wells. It is supposed to make you think of muscular shoulders.)

And that is the right attitude to have. Laugh it off, while continuing to try to beat the system, no matter how restrictive and idiotic the modern vehicles have become. In fact I noticed something on somebody else's pickup truck that might come in quite handy for a guy like me. Next time...