MMR Blog

My Word: “Brrr” and “Whew” Hard on Batteries

Posted on March 27, 2014 Comments (0)

By Denise McCluggage

Anyone who lived 13 winters on a northern Vermont hillside as I did looking across to ski trails cut on Lincoln Mountain (known to the world as Sugarbush) has experienced what deep cold can do to a car battery. Just the usual car battery that urges your engine into a welcome roar sending a steamy shawl of exhaust to wrap your salty Land Rover. Or. Or grinds in a string of decelerating AR-Ar-rrrrs into silence. Every morning is an unwrapped present. What will it be today?

Most Vermont cars had peeking out from under the hood the prongs of an electric cord ready for connection to something they are apt to call a charging station these days. Then I called it my house. I had a heavy-duty red extension cord which at 50 feet was twice as long as needed but I liked seeing the extra length coiled beneath the outdoor outlet. Safe from snow because my deck with the curving wrought iron stair was over it.

Of course the Land Rover was plugged in every night, but I didn’t have an engine heater – just a heated dipstick to keep the oil more like soup and less like Jello and easier for the starter to churn it up. In the darkness of midwinter the dipstick heat might not be enough as the temperature stayed sub-zero for weeks. Fifty below overnight was not uncommon at the mountain. And if I was trying to stretch the battery’s life expectancy – costly damn things – I might get the AR-Ar-rrrrs and not the roar.

So I give up. To Kingbury’s Shell station for a new one for sure when the day warms up to three or four degrees. Or I opt for a jump start. Some folks just removed their battery and took it inside every night. Some had more serious plug-in devices, some had – Lord blessed ‘em – heated garages. But all of us well knew that cold was cruel to the electrics.

Now we have a new study from the AAA telling us just how cruel to these things called plug-in electrics. And it’s worse than they expected.

Using the three most popular pure electrics in the country – a Nissan Leaf (2013), a Mitsubishi i-MIEV (2012) and a Ford Focus (2014) -- the AAA Automotive Research Center in Southern California ran simulations to determine what extreme temperatures did to battery performance. The test started with fully charged batteries to no charge in “city traffic” in a climate-controlled room. The temperature of 75 degrees F was dropped to 20 degrees F for cold (that’s cold?) and raised to 95 degrees F for hot (not in summertime Phoenix.)

The results: more degradation than expected, according to Greg Bannon, the director of automotive engineering for AAA. The cold temperature reduced the range by 57%; the heat by 33%. (In miles that would mean cold cutting an expected 105 mile range to 43 miles and heat from 105 to 69 miles. Did you make it home?)

Not part of the study was how rather necessary accessories – heating and cooling, for instance – might add to the reduction in range. But keeping the car’s occupants comfortable costs miles too. As do headlights and electronic gadgetry like a radio.

Nor did the test include any other temperatures. I wonder what one should expect from, say, another 10 degrees in either direction. Is the slide a steady one or does performance step off a cliff at true extremes?

In any case it is probably safe to warn any Tesla owners not to take their lovely car skiing in Vermont or summer sight-seeing in Death Valley. I know they didn’t test Tesla, but lithium-ion batteries are affected by temperature variations too.

Do I sound pleased by this bad news? I don’t mean to. Electric is an important part of the power mix in our rolling stock. But I think to make electric cars work you have to live where the following applies: places you drive are rather close together; you have a number of choices in cars you can use, and you can match the choice to the task at hand with ease and delight. And you don’t mind having a car dictate when and where you, say, have lunch while it charges enough to get you on your way again. Electric cars are as needful – and dictatorial – as children.

I think an electric car at this stage of development needs a dinghy. GM learned that with its first brush with electric cars when precious few people actually wanted to buy an EV1 but everyone wanted GM to make them anyway and said nasty things about the General when he collected them up and crushed them. That 1980s experience is why GM in its later experience with electric vehicles designed the Volt and the Caddy ELR using a right clever system that will get most people to There and Back on electric only. And in case it doesn’t – or minds get changed as to where There is – GM throws in a dinghy. It’s an onboard, gasoline-fueled generator. It makes There any place a road goes and gas can be found.

As cold as it got in Vermont I could fill the Land Rover with gasoline. The problem was keeping the battery capable enough to spark the engine and get me down the hill to Kingsbury’s where the gas pumps were.

Did I mention deep cold is really unkind to batteries?


My Word: Keys, Switches and Megabucks

Posted on March 27, 2014 Comments (0)

By Denise McCluggage

Must be a guy thing. I've seen more than a few toss this handful of jangle on a cafe table with a cool pleasure and a metallic clatter that delights something deep inside them.

What is it about keys? I suspect the bearers carry every key they ever use from one for the tool chest in the pick-up bed to another for an obscure drawer in the cellar. Certainly a key to the riding mower and every car they own and some they don’t any more. The key that opens access to the spare tire on the wife's SUV -- either the wife or the SUV before the current one. And probably at least one key that doesn't open anything.

All these, and maybe a piece of bone wrapped in copper wire that serves as a key fob, dangles from the ignition as they drive. It's a wonder any ignition switch survives the first month of its use.

And now General Motors is in deep trouble over failed switches in some of their cars. As someone most certainly should be. The problem was known about for far too long -- a bulletin about them might date back to 2001. Certainly 2004. And the risks are serious. An engine suddenly dead in fast-moving traffic, power steering gone, power brakes -- not circumstances intuitively dealt with. And airbags, meant to be protective in emergencies however created, rendered useless by the absence of power.

The figures usually mentioned are 31 crashes, 12 deaths in Chevrolets, Pontiacs and Saturns. Other estimates run far higher.

The thought crossed my mind. Did someone say; "That isn't our fault. It's those fools with the heavy keys." But abused parts aren't supposed to fail any more than properly used parts. How could GM have let the problem go on so long? Sometimes that outfit can be so obtuse.

Law suits are lining up, possibly criminal as well as civil. Stock holders have filed theirs claiming GM's inaction damaged the value of their holdings.

Now because of GM declaring bankruptcy midstream in the matter car owners who suffered problems before 2009 cannot sue the "new" GM. Their problem is with the old GM which means problems lining up with a bunch of others before the bankruptcy court. Possibly GM could all but choose to pay in chalk and cheese, if at all. It becomes a public relations dance. They must look benign and properly contrite doing more than they "have" to.

But then again they could be up the creek far farther than anyone suspected. After all, if the government decides GM knew about the troubled switches and the company's possible liability before the bankruptcy then fraud might be involved. That's not a good word in a law court especially if someone is pointing at you.

And then something more ominous appears in a Georgia case in which a pediatric nurse died in 2010 in her five-year-old Cobalt on her rainy 29th birthday. She had the day before retrieved the car from her dealer where she had taken it because the engine had inexplicably died on her in traffic a couple of times.

GM settled this case. This was not one of the 12 deaths mentioned above but an additional one.

A particularly savvy lawyer for the young women's family had discovered that the ignition was indeed not on. The power had shut down. But more than that he investigated a number of Cobalts and discovered something that could really bode Ill for the General. He found that some Cobalts had beefed up parts in their switching mechanism. A definitely different switch. Yet the parts number was the same. Odd.

And GM had not informed any of the complaining car owners -- nor the government -- about this apparent effort to fix the switch. Something required by law. Was it a shhh, we'll make it go away move just a few guys at the plant would know about? Is that a yellow-feathers-on-the-chops way of dealing with a problem or what?

Is that a smart lawyer who did deep research to uncover the switch switcheroo. That's one thing for sure in all this tangled web.

Everyone watching what they call "Switchgate" notes familiar faces on the government side that just extracted 1.2 billion bucks from Toyota for that company's awkward handling of the so-called unintended acceleration claims against Toyota brands. A record fine. Observers see something in that range for GM -- or even more. In Toyota’s case no electronic flaw was ever determined to have caused the "runaway" cars. Maybe a misplaced floor mat under the accelerator.

GM might be more vulnerable. Toyota is known for keeping lots of cash on hand. GM just emerged from bankruptcy. And this might be another record fine. Could this send them back into bankruptcy? Could it change the whoops culture at GM? The new CEO Mary Barra is a change in the gender of top management. She will have to mean a major change in the way management handles problems too. It's not the switches, it's the way their failure was dealt with -- or not -- that really matters. Try two really different approaches for a start: transparency and speed. Trying to save money by not facing up to a problem can cost much more in dollars and in hard-to-restore reputation.

But about those keys. Can't all be guys driving those cars. Particularly those cars. So what's the appeal of all those keys in one weighty mass? Must be a metaphor in there somewhere.


MMR Community Newsletter

Posted on March 21, 2014 Comments (0)

Racing and punditry were in full song this week. In this issue we review two big races, another Denise McCluggage story and the Friday and Saturday of our Amelia Island Concours Adventure.

Australian GP — What we’ve got here is a failure… of technology.

The first F1 race of the new era and the year has concluded. Or has it? As they say at the horse track, the previously formidable Red Bull team did not win, was kicked out of place and probably wished they hadn’t showed… up.

Sebring; where except for twelve hours a year, time really does stand still

Sebring is an anachronism. It was an old airport when it was new racetrack that needed paving and after 62 years it is now an old racetrack that still needs paving. Yet there remains a mystique about the 12 Hour Race. Winning it is a major accomplishment. It has heritage well worth preserving and seemingly able to draw entrants prepared to overlook its physical shortcomings.

Denise is Back!

Denise is still in rehab in Albuquerque NM and getting stronger by the day. She thanks you all for your good wishes. Armed with an IPad and a hospital TV she shares her observations with us this week.

Climb to the Clouds!

In 2009, nine BMW enthusiasts who met online, did the first Climb to the Clouds. Each year it has expanded. Last year they had 75 attendees of which 40 were Bimmers. This year’s Climb to the Clouds Six is a four day tour of New Hampshire (you can jump in and out) that includes touring New Hampshire, a climb up Mt. Washington and a run on the 35.5 mile Kancamagus Highway. The Kanc is the Northeast’s answer to The Tail of the Dragon and if you haven’t done it yet, you must. The event benefits SurvivetheDrive.org, a driving school for teenagers run by MMR friend Bob Green. Check it out on the MMR Calendar.

Road to Amelia Part II: Friday – Saturday

The Friday drive to Amelia was not without its memorable moments. Somewhere in South Carolina in the mid afternoon it began to rain. At first it was just a light rain. My road companions were pickup trucks and semis. Nobody lifted. Older engines like mine like humidity and rain makes them run better. On the other hand, the wipers on a 308 don’t like rain.

This week’s Michael Furman image is of the Simeone Museum’s Type 57G Bugatti.

Next stop… Sunday’s Concours. See you next week.

Peter Bourassa


My Word: F1 – The Green Flag Falls

Posted on March 20, 2014 Comments (0)

By Denise McCluggage

It is St. Patrick’s Day as I write. I see green things around me never meant to be green—beer and bagels. Then I am struck with an “aha” moment. On the weekend I saw something like beer and bagels that was also never meant to be green: A Formula 1 Race.

If a race were meant to be green there’s a simple way to assure that it is—don’t have it. If you’re planning an intimate party, don’t rent Yankee Stadium. What is it, I wonder, about “antithetical” that the FIA doesn’t understand? A selection of wheeled objects on which lots of money, engineering brilliance and time were expended and a season of races planned as far distant as they can be one from the other to decide which of these costly objects can go faster than the others. Beautiful in its simplicity, if not egregious in its expense.

All this is created so as many people as possible can pack into their own wheeled objects and get to these venues to watch the purpose-designed wheeled thingies perform. All the time hoping that as much noise of a pleasing din level can be made for their near-pain pleasure. Has anyone asked if this is socially desirable or in the best interest of humankind?

Hardly relevant, really. If a foot has been set on the path it is too late isn’t it? And cannot something be soul-satisfying without having redeeming social virtues? Like racing has been for most of us forever. Wasteful, pointless, marvelous and fun. Rationales have been created—improvement of the breed etc.—but racing doesn’t really need them. After all it’s hard to overcome the simple fact that the start line and the finish line are the same. That’s important, isn’t it? But if you wish you can point out the rear-view mirror was invented at Indy in 1911. Breed improvement rampant I’d say.

In all this did someone this year actually say, hey wait. F1 must be meaningful. F1 must act in the interests of frugality and fuel-saving technology. F1 must express relevancy to our time.

Why? Really. Why?

We are talking about F1 which is an embodiment of one Bernie Ecclestone, the very essence of excess. What’s relevant to Bernie is money. That’s why and how F1 exists. Who sold him on this social relevance irrelevance? Green is meaningful to Bernie only in stacks of bills. Was it Jean Todt? Crikey, I knew that guy would get up to nonsense if given half a chance.

Anyway on that March weekend of Australia I watched some boy racers do some fine things in the uncertainty of a new scene in new tools. And I saw some veterans get shat upon by those same tools. I suspected it would be entertaining to see who would literally and figuratively be up to speed in the new Formula. Though I would have just as soon given them all a pre-season opportunity to do their learning and make their adjustments so we could then get to racing right away in its simplest form of comparing speed to speed.

The FIA has its ways. Sigh. Complicating matters is a favorite.

And such high tech ways of doing it. Take regeneration. As Henny Youngman would say: “Please!?” What F1 needs is new ways to heat things up, produce smoke in odd places and at odd times. Collecting expended energy seems to do that. C’mon. Stop it. RACE!

And if you want to limit the fuel cars use (to interfere with their actual racing) just give them some barrels of it and say that’s it. No, the team engineers are too clever. They’ll find fiddle factors and ways to create an advantage. So make them eye-dropper the fuel out over time. Make them use FIA meters which don’t work properly and keep the metering out of the control of drivers. Why should racing drivers have control of their race cars? They’ve been giving that up for years.

Which brings us to Daniel Ricciardo and his second place finish. And don’t cry for him, Australia. He did finish second. You all saw it. The charming glee on the podium from the young newcomers (Magnussen was a trip, too) was refreshing and very good for F1 racing. That moment cannot be erased. It was real. Oh, the points can be erased and were. That’s what the FIA does hours after the fact. That’s why it is called organized racing.

But that performance cannot be erased. Racing occurred, a result resulted and we cheered it. An adjustment was made (open to readjustment) and we readjust to that, but that is scorekeeping. Not racing. Scorekeeping makes championships possible but that is an adjunct to racing. Racing is what happened and so congratulations to Danny Boy. Celebrate. So you are less likely to be champion this year but you may have beaten the guy who will be. While racing.

And the silly eye-droppering of fuel which mattered more to the green foolishness of the FIA than the racing stole the day. Perhaps I should be cheering the FIA’s earth-saving efforts to be bolstering to the planet. I have my own preference (for diesel power and algae-based fuels—but not necessarily for racing). Saving the planet isn’t a bad idea. I simply see the FIA efforts as insincere, misplaced and antithetical to what F1 is truly about—racing.

Green is the “go” flag. Other than that, forget it.

As for the sound of F1, I’ve lost any facility to judge that. I certainly liked the scream of the old cars though I knew it to be dangerous. I never wore ear protection when I was racing, so now I have over-priced under-performing hearing aids and say “huh?” a lot. Once your hearing is compromised that’s it. Be warned. Certainly protect the kids. Then go sit on an amp at a rock concert if you wish. But trust me, you won’t like the outcome.

Hearing aids are not spectacles for the ears. They cannot “improve” what you’ve lost. Hearing aids will fill your head with raucous noise at the expense of genuine sounds. Music is different, voices are different, engines are different. Lament the change in the new F1 engines but that’s going to change for you anyway with time. Simply hearing it will change it.

The decision is yours. Be thoughtful.


Australian GP: What we’ve got here is a failure… of technology

Posted on March 20, 2014 Comments (0)

The first F1 race of the new era and the year has concluded. Or has it? As they say at the horse track, the previously formidable Red Bull team did not win, was kicked out of place and probably wished they hadn’t showed… up.

Mercedes, who were impressive in pre-season testing, took the pole and the win in different cars. The pole car failed. Red Bull took second for a little while. Then we learned that while their technology worked, it didn’t conform. Driver Daniel Ricciardo was stripped of the position. That meant that second and third fell to McLaren, whose Lazarus-like resurrection from F1’s graveyard was really the only feel good story of the day. Ferrari, from which much is always expected, fell short again. While both cars finished in the top ten, it was not a glorious beginning to their season.

Despite all this, it was a rather entertaining race. And for many fans, that may be in part because the very heroes who failed have made F1 races a bit of a parade for the past four years. Vallterie Bottas, the young Williams driver, was fun to watch as he climbed up and down the positions ladder finished a surprising fifth despite losing a wheel and Nico Hulkenberg hounded Ferrari driver Fernando Alonso all afternoon to finish sixth.

The only real winner today was Mercedes. Although they could claim credit for supplying engines to the top three cars, the pole winning Mercedes engine failed. Nothing is perfect in paradise.