Menace 2 Society


For reasons mentioned in a previous post, we got a new car. I had been hoping my next car would be self-driving, but that was not to be. The new car needed to be bigger than the previous as we have 3 children who sometimes all need to be transported. The Subaru Forester and similar sized cars are incapable of carrying three children in the back row in three car seats (which is what the law requires in some states, seriously the car seat lobby must be making a fortune on fear-mongering). This requires 3 rows. After filtering for size of car, we considered the Dodge Durango, GMC Acadia, Ford Flex, Honda Odyssey, Honda Pilot, and Toyota Siena. Nissan was out of the running based on previous quality issues (damn poor Sentry that stalled out at intersections), and in the end that did in GM as well (damn poor Chevette that leaked over the driver’s foot when it rained, because water accumulated in the vents). Based on quality of ride and build, and reliability (both perceived and real), and the fact that I would not want to be in a minivan, we wound up with the Pilot, which we have nicknamed Menace 2 Society.
The car buying experience was not great (I purchased at Buerkle (pronounced Berkeley) Honda). The salesman let me do a short test drive, I would have preferred to be longer. They had their best price. I asked for lower. They had their Costco price. I asked for lower. They said ok to a lower price (take that Costco price guarantee). I probably could have pushed them more, but I didn’t have all day, and didn’t want to come back (since I was in a daily rental from Enterprise).
But then they had their financing people. I chose to finance primarily because I don’t carry around that much cash, but interest rates are so freakin’ low it would make sense in any case. Strangely the finance people also sell the service contracts. I don’t have special fondness for dealer service (though they are usually fine in my experience, if pricey), but I like to make one organization responsible for everything so there is a minimum of finger pointing. It seems break-even in costs, based on history with previous cars, though they get some money in advance, but like I said, the interest rates are really low. They also sell the undercoating/rust proofing after-market. There is controversy about this, some say it is like mattress protection, and too expensive or worthless. I plan on holding the car a long time assuming it doesn’t break, crash, or the price of gas doesn’t go about $10/gallon, so I am interested in long term preservation. My last car was held 14 years, and after treatment did not rust (but was beginning to rust beforehand at edges with scratches.) At any rate, they sold as a package and it is hard to decompose how much it is for each item. There is an insurance aspect to this, hoping I won’t use it, but if something goes wrong in the first 8 years, they can be held accountable.
As part of their service contract, they include a contracted service (Honda Care Roadside Assistance via Cross-Country Motor Club) that is like AAA for stranded cars etc. Good luck finding them though, this is not information they want you to have, or a service they want you to use (since you already paid for it, using it is a cost to them without future revenue.) In some ways I want to test it, and see if it works. I worry though that if I call them I will get a “no one is home” message. We are still AAA members from last season, I am debating re-upping.
Honda Financial Services are not swift with their systems. First, their site says this:

Please note: email spam filters may block our emails from being delivered. If you have a spam blocker, please set it to accept email from:

Why would this be? Was your server taken over by spammers? Can you not fix this properly?
Second, once you sign up for electronic payments, they don’t actually debit the first payment, only the second. Again, why? Then, since you didn’t make your first payment (assuming naively that since you signed up, they could deal with it), they send bill collectors after you. Wouldn’t it be cheaper to just take the money that was offered the first time.
The car runs and rides very nicely. It feels like I am just gliding down the road (especially compared to a 1998 Subaru Forester). My main complaint is with user interface:

There are so many buttons and dials on the dashboard, if only they had voice control. It does, but it is voice control c. 1998 automated phone tree. You have to push a button, and then wait so long for it to tell you what you can do you have already reached your destinations. I complained about it in the test drive, and the salesman tried to explain that it wasn’t the most god-awful terrible piece of crap user interface (or something like that which I muttered), but really, this was a 2012 model, not a 1998 model.
The buttons are sort of randomly placed, environmental controls sandwiched between the radio and the navigation system. The problem is keeping your eye on the road and hitting the right button. I don’t have a solution, but I am sure Apple would. Start with fewer buttons, or maybe a touch screen that only gives you controls in the right mode (environment, entertainment, navigation, communications, car statistics, whatever), or maybe a good voice control that actually does what you tell it to.
The GPS is generally accurate in my limited experience, and not too intrusive, but programming it for the destination you want is a pain. Again touch screen would be really nice here. Give me a map, let me point to where I want to go, and then you find the best path from here to there. Or a smart voice control that could understand what I said at a normal rate of speech.
I periodically get surveys from someone on behalf of Honda about whether I would recommend it to a friend or family member. Thus far aside from the UI, I am happy with it, but as the saying goes, YMMV.

I am entitled

2012-08-29 at 17-11-28

In 1998 I bought a Subaru Forester at Albany Subaru in California. We test drove two all-wheel-drive vehicles with high reliability, it and the Outback. We asked Jeff, the salesman, which car would be better in the post-apocalypse. He said the Forester. In the event, that need has not arisen (yet), but the car was surprisingly useful once I took a job in Minnesota, the White Subaru being the car-du-jour of the Minneapolis Winter. When I moved to Minnesota, the car was still mortgaged to a California Credit Union, but I dutifully transferred license plates. We paid off the car sometime around 2001, and thus owned it outright. I never received the title, it was probably never sent, or may have been sent to my old California address. One never looks for things one is not expecting. For 11 years, this never mattered.
Though we maintained the car well, sometimes the fate of cars is as shown in the picture on the right (no people were seriously injured in the making of this photograph). It being a 14 year old car with serious body damage, it was not worth it for us to repair. We had been considering upgrading for a few years anyway, this accelerated the decision. The car was in the St. Paul impound lot. We had several options for disposal
(1) abandon it on the St. Paul Impound lot. This would get rid of the problem, but not provide a tax deduction;
(2) donate to charity;
(3) sell it untitled on Craigslist;
(4) abandon it on the street to be picked apart by recyclers.
To get it off the lot, or get anything out of the car, you have to pay rent to St. Paul. Since we still had things in the car, we paid the rent. Then AAA helpfully towed the car to the front of my house. However the car was barely operational. Surely it would be picked up in a day or two. I quickly realized that was not to be. I concluded after about a day I did not want to drag down property values in my neighborhood anymore with the unrepaired eyesore, and burned some rubber (the driver side rear tire was bent inward and so created a burning rubber smell when it moved, but it did move while making an awful noise and mechanically the car still worked) and drove the car from the front of my house to my garage in the back alley.
Anyway, we wanted the second option, as it would give us a tax deduction. Unfortunately, all the charities require a title.
I searched my otherwise complete records. I had no title. (I had every insurance form since 1998, and every car care receipt, but no title). A charity helpfully informed the car title was registered in California.
I obtained a notarized lien release letter from my Credit Union, who is remarkably at the same address and phone number as 12 years ago.
At the beginning of September, I filled out a form and sent a check, with the lien release, and asked California to send me the title. About a month later I received a letter in reply returning the check uncashed saying they don’t keep records older than 4 years.
The next day, I sent a letter to Minnesota, filling out a form, with various explanations, asking to transfer title from California to Minnesota, with a check, a copy of the letter from California, and the lien release notice from the original lender. A few weeks later I got back a letter, with my original attachments, the check uncashed, saying that was the wrong form, and I need to send them a letter with a different form, asking for a title for untitled vehicles, rather than a transfer.
I sent them the new form. A few weeks later, they sent back a letter asking me to send them the letter from California and the notice from the Credit Union that they held no lien on the car. Naively I assumed they didn’t need that again, since they saw it the first time. Surely they would scan it and have it in their records.
So I resent the new form, with the letter from California and the lien release.
Success, finally in the beginning of December, I received a title in the mail from the State of Minnesota.
The next day, we went to Newgate School, which teaches car repair, and gave them the title and the keys to the car. I held the title for less than 24 hours. Two days later, they towed the vehicle from our garage. I hope someone learns something about bodywork, and someone else gets a decent car in return. We got our garage back, which the new car barely fits.
I thought about calling this post “DMV: Or why people hate their government”. People often have unpleasant experiences with their government, especially the bureaucratic end (as opposed to the other non-bureaucratic end, like ?). DMV is perhaps the most common and most regular, but I could discuss the planning and permitting offices of local government, which are needlessly bureaucratic and succeed in preventing me from legally doing ethically reasonable things with my property. I don’t want to pick on Minnesota DMV (technically Driver and Vehicle Services here), since when I get my driver’s license, the line is far shorter than say it was in Maryland or California.
My main gripe has been the annual vehicle registration DVS has. I can do it online, if I pay an extra fee, or I can do it the old-fashioned way and write a check, which is cheaper to me, and must be costlier to them. Does no-one think about incentives?
Further, it was clear what I wanted on my first letter to them (the title to my car which they know I own and I have registered legally here for 13 years), they should have been able to handle it, or called and asked if they could tick a different box on a different form if that is what makes their databases happy. I could have done this in person, but mailing a letter is faster in terms of using less of my scarce time, though not faster in terms of solving the problem in real-time. In short, I would like people to think about ends and not just means.
California really shouldn’t be dumping data after 4 years either (are hard drives that expensive?). They must have some privacy rationale, but really, this is a car title, it is in the national registry, they should have been able to handle this too.
(In short, no wonder gun owners don’t want to be registered.)

Profitmobiles (EVs)

Quartz: Elon Musk’s electric car company Tesla Motors is now cash-flow positive:

“Elon Musk just disclosed on CNBC that last week, for the first time, Tesla Motors was “mildly cash-flow positive.” That’s only a couple weeks later than Musk’s earlier prediction that Tesla would become cash-flow positive by the end of November. The electric-car company is also paying back early its $465 million loan from the US Department of Energy, and the company is ramping up production to 200 cars per week.”

10,000 cars per year is still a bit less than the 13 million cars per year in the US market, but it is more than zero, or what EV production has been historically. It would be about half of Nissan Leaf sales (18,000) or a third of the Chevy Volt (~30,000).
More on Electric Drive sales here at the industry trade group. Sales of hybrids + EVs are now up to 3.3% of the total market. Most of that is hybrids though.

The Next Big OS War Is In Your Dashboard

Wired Autopia: The Next Big OS War Is In Your Dashboard :

“‘The theme I hear time and time again from every single one of our customers is you’ve got to help us move at the pace of consumer electronics,’ Derek Kuhn, vice president of sales and marketing for QNX Software Systems, told Wired. ‘It’s no longer acceptable to innovate at the pace of automotive.’”

Self-driving vehicles and self-preservation

New Yorker on Self-driving vehicles and ethics: Google’s Driver-less Car and Morality:

“‘Ethical subroutines’ may sound like science fiction, but once upon a time, so did self-driving cars.”

In the end, “preservation of the driver” is where we will land, as there will never be consensus on ethics (this has been going round and round for thousands of years), but there is a consensus on the ethic of self-preservation. Hopefully this will be a rare occurrence.
Determining the strategy for self-preservation will inevitably be easier than determining the strategy for what others are doing, as the others (a crowd of people, other cars) is much less predictable. If everyone assume the other will do self-preservation, that is more stable than me trying to predict what you will do to avoid hitting me while you try to predict what I will do, ad infinitum. In short, if I assume self-preservation on your part and you assume it on my part, we are likely better off than if we assume possible altruism on each other’s part. This might not always be the case though.
Imagine a scenario two cars driving fast around a narrow curve on the side of a mountain which don’t detect each other until two late. The best standard routine is for both cars to swerve to their right (or their left, but everyone must agree). If one swerves right and the other left, they collide and kill everyone involved. If I anticipate you will try to be self-preserving, and I am self-preserving, we can call the same (standard) sub-routine. But if on the left is a cliff (down) and the right is a relatively flat piece of land, we might see both altruistic cars going off the cliff, or both selfish cars swerving to the flatland, both scenarios killing everyone. But if both have a standard routine, we can save at least one of the cars. The scenarios are endless.
Marginal Revolution discusses as well.

85th Percentile Rule

Elizabeth Macdonald, Rebecca Sanders, and Alia Anderson write: Performance Measures for Complete, Green Streets: A Proposal for Urban Arterials in California:

“In the State of California, speed limits are set using requirements in the California Vehicle Code, which states that the speed on multilane State highways (which includes State urban arterials) will be 55 MPH unless a traffic and engineering study has shown that speed is not reasonable or safe in that location. On the other hand, on a non-State highway in a business or residential district, the Vehicle Code sets the speed limit at 25 MPH. Although these speeds can be adjusted by the DOT or by the local government through a series of studies and petitions, it does not seem reasonable that, in urban areas, State and local arterials should be treated so differently.
Furthermore, localities can petition to have their speed changed if they demonstrate that 85% of drivers are driving a certain speed. In other words, the 85th percentile rule adjusts the law (speed limit) to fit the behavior (actual speed). According to the Vehicle Code, “a reasonable speed limit is one that conforms to the actual behavior of the majority of motorists, and by measuring motorists’ speeds, one will be able to select a speed limit that is both reasonable and effective.” While this system may be appropriate on freeways and major highways, it is not suited to urban environments where roads are shared by a variety of users. Research has shown that posted speed limit signs appear to have a limited effect on reducing driver speeds when not accompanied by enforcement and roadway design.108 While enforcement can be effective, it is a reactive approach that is limited by financial resources. The most proactive and long-term approach is to design arterials for the safest and most appropriate behavior (actual speed) for each location.”

I have long doubted the reasonableness of the 85th Percentile Rule. Why 85th Percentile? Why any percentile? Presumably it has to do with safety. Copenhagenize discusses this today, and suggests it is due to the Solomon curve. I think it is older than that (1964), but have not been able to find the source. [Google Ngram viewer suggests 1959 as the first mention of the term 85th percentile speed, but that does not tell us about speed limit rules, which I don’t see until 1981, and that is far too late, maybe someone has a better query.]
Solomon’s curve is not gospel, Davis et al. (2006) Speed as a risk factor in serious run-off-road crashes: Bayesian Case-Control Analysis with Case Speed Uncertainty could not corroborate it, finding higher speeds associated with higher likelihood of certain crash types, but not lower speeds.
We can think of the rule as potentially acting as a positive feedback system, an upward moving ratchet for speed limits. In year one, speed is set at 30 mph but many drivers exceed it and the 85th percentile speed is found to be 45 mph. The new speed limit is set at 45 mph. Before 15% of drivers were exceeding 45 MPH, but now some drivers, seeing the higher speed limit, drive faster. (I.e. following +10 mph rule, that you won’t get ticketed if you are within 10 mph of the speed limit, you get more speeders). So the new 85th percentile speed is higher still. Sure there is an upper limit to this (e.g. if the speed limit were 100 mph, we would not get 15% of drivers exceeding it), but as noted in Copenhagenize what is safe for drivers may not be safe for other road users (especially pedestrian, bicyclists, neighbors).
There are lots of alternative strategies for setting speed limits, and rules for urban areas should differ from rural areas. Perhaps we don’t need explicit speed limits, which act as both a ceiling and a floor, everywhere if instead we moved toward self-explaining roads and shared space. Raising speed limits on freeways may improve overall safety (e.g. Lave and Elias) if you take impatient traffic off of non-freeways. The issues are complex.

Driverless Cars

Tim Taylor (Conversable Economist) on: Driverless Cars:

“The fully self-driving car isn’t right around the corner. Clearly, costs need to come down substantially and a number of complementary technologies need to be created. However, we do already have cars in the commercial market with cruise control and anti-lock brakes, as well as cars that sense potential crash hazards and can parallel park themselves. Changes like these happen slowly, and then in a rush. As the report [Self-driving cars: The next revolution From KPMG and CAR] notes, “The adoption of most new technologies proceeds along an S-curve, and we believe the path to self-driving vehicles will follow a similar trajectory.” Maybe 10-15 years? Faster? “

A pessimistic colleague of mine writes:

the arguments in favor of energy efficiency will be swamped by the added demand. Right now, people don’t drive more because it’s a pain. If I can drive while sleeping, I’ll be more likely to work in one city, commute to another; or, go to the cabin every weekend; or, allow little Johnny to sign up for a soccer league since the car (not me) will drive him; and so on.
automatic-drive cars would make travel much more convenient, which would increase travel demand — likely, a lot. That’s not a benefit for energy consumption.
maybe we’ll have electric-only cars, which would help with local emissions but not energy consumption; and, we’ll only get those if we require them, which it’s not clear we will..

I agree distances will increase, but the cars will be more efficient as human driving patterns (excessive braking and stop and start, e.g.) will be replaced. There are parallel trends in making cars more energy efficient as well. How this nets out is unclear, but I am more optimistic.

Mobile phones for driving safety:

Green Car Congress: New Mobile Life Guard app monitors driving behavior and issues verbal alerts:

“Ram Dantu, a professor of computer science and engineering at the University of North Texas, is developing ‘Mobile Life Guard’—a mobile app that will enable smart phones to detect weather, road conditions and bad driving using existing sensors in the devices.

The app then issues a verbal alert, such as ‘Sudden accelerate’; ‘Hard braking’; ‘vehicle wandering detected’; ‘tailgating detected’; ‘lane hopping detected’; ‘bad right (or left) lane change’; or ‘left (or right) swerve detected’, among other things. It also will warn you not to talk or text.”

JW writes:

I’ve suggested to a number of people that smart phones could detect when a car is driven in congested conditions. This article seems to confirm that.
The reason this is important is that for road pricing you want to internalize the negative externality of congestion. Time of day pricing is not as effective as detecting when a vehicle is actually in congestion. Time of day pricing actually charges drivers for externalities they are not imposing on others. The smart phone app could also address privacy issues because it would be unnecessary to determine where the vehicle is to charge congestion pricing rates. The congestion charge could be allocated statistically based on congestion observed through traffic management centers or regional transportation models.