On Directions

I’m a little bit fussy when it comes to directions – driving directions, that is. In most cases, I find directions (given by other people) to be unhelpful – I prefer to just get an address and then use either the atlas/map books I have in my car, or Google Maps to find my way. Strangely enough, as an admitted gadget freak, I shun the use of GPS systems.

Why is this, you might ask? Let me explain.

Long-time readers of this blog will remember that I used to work as a courier in the city of Boston and surrounding areas. Because of this, I learned to find my way around with nothing but a map and an address for the destination. This was in the days before GPS units became common as they are today (although they did exist at the time, I just could never hope to afford one). Additionally, a GPS unit takes time to input a destination, and if you get off track… well, sometimes they’re good at getting you back on track. And sometimes they take you by very strange routes. (Just Google for some stories of GPS units taking people down streets that don’t exist, or telling them to turn off of cliffs – and some people just blindly follow these directions!) As a courier, having a map with a clear view of all the surrounding streets – the “context,” so to speak – was far more helpful than turn-by-turn GPS navigation. So, this might have some bearing on my “direction preference.”

However, I’m also a computer programmer by trade – and computers, as you may or may not know, are very literal. When writing code, you better say exactly what you mean, because the computer doesn’t have any intelligence to figure out what you meant. It will follow your directions precisely.

As such, dealing with ambiguity is a big part of my work – ambiguity is what causes computer systems to fail, what causes good ideas to become lousy programs, and the main reason that people find certain user interface systems difficult to use. So basically you could say that I abhor ambiguity. And most written or verbal driving directions are inherently ambiguous.

Now, I’m not picking on people’s inability to state precise driving directions here – after all, we’re only human! And to state directions as precisely as would be needed to eliminate ambiguity would require such verbosity that you might as well just walk randomly around the Earth, hoping to arrive at your destination, because that would be faster.

Now, atlases and map books are not perfect – roads change, maps can be inaccurate, and road signs can be misleading – but when I’m navigating to a location using only some maps and my own brain, if I get lost, it’s entirely my fault. And as a programmer, I prefer it that way – it’s more natural to me. After all, if a program crashes, it’s not the computer’s fault – it’s mine, for not writing the code correctly.

And that’s why I’m such a stickler when it comes to getting directions from people. Unless I know them very well, and trust their directions to be accurate to the level I require, or if there are special circumstances that require first-hand directions (strange street layouts, construction, or what have you), I’ll just ask for the street address, and find my way there on my own. I’m not trying to be difficult, it just works out better that way in the end.

I Miss my Stick Shift

I miss my stick shift, I really do. I miss being able to row through the gears on a twisty country road. You can approximate a stick shift with a manu-matic (as I have in my Outlander), but it’s not quite the same. In fact, there are some serious shortcomings with automatics of any type, but you can boil it all down to one thing: the ability to select a gear before you need it.

Let me explain. (First, though, a disclaimer – what I’m about to talk about applies largely to small-engine vehicles; i.e. 4-cylinder engines. With bigger engines, the power band is different, so some of the values I’m about to talk about will be different, although much of the same principle applies, it just applies at different speeds and engine RPMs.)

Let’s say you’re cruising around at about 35 MPH. In most cars, this is a gray area for the transmission – you could be in 3rd or 4th gear, depending on certain factors. If you’re cruising along a flat road, your automatic transmission will probably have you in 4th gear – the top gear in many cars – like mine. But let’s say you need to accelerate quickly, maybe to take a corner or zip past someone.

In an automatic, all you can do it put your foot down on the gas to get going. The car will detect the increased throttle and try to respond. Since you are in 4th gear, and probably running around 2,000 RPMs, this is too low for the gear ratio, so the automatic transmission will have to down shift into 3rd, or maybe even into 2nd, depending on how hard you mash the throttle.

Sounds well and good, but what you have to keep in mind is that you’ve already put your foot down – you need to go now. But your car has to wait a moment while it realizes that it can’t go, and then you’ve got all sorts of hydraulic (or, depending on your car, electronic) systems that need to adjust their settings so that the car can shift gears. This takes time – and that is the problem. There’s always a lag with automatic transmissions from when you mash the gas down, to when the car actually responds by shifting gears. Now you’ve wasted a second (or two, if your transmission is sluggish) just sitting there, hardly accelerating at all. This may be fine for around-town driving, but if you like spirited driving, it is no fun at all.

With a manual transmission, you know that you’re going to want to accelerate in a moment – because you are the one who’s going to do it. So you pop the clutch and shift gears, and then, when you mash on the throttle, the car is already in 3rd, and you zoom away – keeping the car’s engine in the “power band” for your engine, with the RPMs tuned just right. Zoom-zoom, baby!

Now, some of the more astute readers out there might think “but you still have a time delay – you have to shift gears yourself, mash the clutch in, move the gear shift lever, and that takes time too!” And you’d be right. But the important thing to remember is that YOU moved the gears BEFORE you needed them (mechanically speaking). With an automatic, the gear change happens AFTER you need it. That difference is what makes an automatic feel sluggish, while the same car with a manual transmission (and a competent driver, of course) feels “sporty” and responsive.

So what about a manual-automatic hybrid, what some people call a “sport-tronic” or “manu-matic” transmission? Just pop the lever over to “manual” and down-shift, right? Well, not quite.

You see, unlike a manual transmission, an automatic transmission is always “in gear,” so to speak. I’ll spare you the technical details of planetary gear assemblies and so forth, but suffice to say that in automatic transmissions, the engine is always connected to the drive shaft. In a manual transmission, by definition, when you push the clutch in, you are disconnecting the engine from the drive shaft. The engine is spinning freely, with no load on it. Because of this, you can use the accelerator to bring the engine up to the right speed (RPM) before you re-engage the drive shaft. Thus, when you let out the clutch, the engine is already at the speed (RPM) you need for the most power. An automatic has to struggle through a (very brief) period of going either too fast or too slow for the gear you are in, before things get back “in synch,” so to speak. (The more technical readers out there are going to take me to task over this simplification – bear with me here guys, I know the details and I know this isn’t exact, but I’m trying to make a point here.)

So there you have it – even with a “manu-matic” transmission, there will always be a delay in power delivery when shifting gears, while a manual gives you the ability to anticipate power needs and shift gears accordingly. When someone invents an automatic transmission that can read your mind, maybe this won’t be a problem anymore, but until then… a manual will always win.

(p.s. Let’s leave out of this discussion the “flappy-paddle” shifting cars that actually do have a clutch, but the car controls it, rather than the driver controlling it via a pedal. These sorts of systems are popular on high-performance – and expensive – sports cars, and they work surprisingly well, but the computer is still in control – not you – even though you can force gear changes with the paddles and get the same benefits described above to having a clutch. Such systems don’t exist in the “average” car yet, and I don’t know if they ever will, due to their complexity. And even if they do work their way down to everyday cars, as I said, the computer is still controlling the clutch, and it will never be as “smart” as you – the driver – nor will it be able to anticipate your intentions the way you, with full manual control over the gear changes, could do.)

Behind the Wheel: 2006 Chevrolet Impala LS V6

Since I love to rant, I’ve decided to start writing about every different car I get behind the wheel of. My trip down to New Jersey this week gave me some time in a 2006 Chevy Impala LS – and let me say right now, I didn’t like it. Let’s run down the list, shall we?

First off, some pros: the car, even though it only had a V6, had plenty of power. Going from 30 to 65 MPH was easy, smooth, and most importantly, quick. And the V6 really sips gas – we averaged 26 MPG during the entire trip. That’s better than my 4-cylinder Outlander gets! Of course, that was mostly highway driving, but still!

The climate controls were also quite nice – the dials were easy to use and very classy.

On the minus side, however, the list gets quite a bit longer. Let’s start with the engine – the power in the Impala is great on the highway for passing, but because it’s a front-wheel drive car, it’s very hard to get that power down on the ground when you need it for a quick start – i.e. merging into traffic. The wheels just spin, and although some people might like being able to spin the tires, I consider it wasted power. Of course, I am biased from having AWD, but still – you want to be able to get going by just putting your foot down. In the Impala, you can’t do that – you have to carefully press the gas to make sure you don’t do a burn-out. (And if you have the audacity to really put your foot down, there is QUITE a lot of torque steer!)

And that brings up another issue I have – the gas is quite… well, I’m not sure if I can say “touchy,” but it requires a bit of force to get it moving (the pedal, that is), but at the same time you must modulate it very, very carefully. That equals “not fun” in my book. Also, letting up on the gas does NOT slow the car down – although this may simply be a condition of bigger cars with bigger engines; but as someone who uses engine braking – even just simple “letting up on the gas” – to slow down (especially on the highway), this behavior was… frustrating.
On a similar note, the brakes were most definitely “touchy.” They’re quite powerful, but they come on very quickly when you depress the pedal. Even after driving it for several days, I was still “lurching” occasionally when trying to come to a gradual stop. The car also tended to do quite a nose-dive during hard braking – so much so that it almost felt like the back end of the car was coming up off the ground as you stopped. Not a reassuring feeling!

And while we’re on the subject of the back end of the car, the rear platform in this car is quite high – higher than in my Outlander, which blocks the view when you are trying to back up. It’s rear blind-spot is quite large for a sedan, and big C-pillars didn’t help things. Maybe it’s just me, but I like to be able to see where I’m going when I back up!

Speaking of “back,” my back hurt quite a bit after being in this car for a few hours. The seats are NOT comfortable, even with 8-way power adjustments (including lumbar support, which was – for reasons which I will make clear in a moment – basically useless). The back part of the seat angles backwards (away from the steering wheel) about half-way up, leaving no upper back support. It seemed to be designed for the type of person who likes to drive while half lying down in their seat, rather than sitting upright. Adding lumbar support only amplified the problem, pushing my lower back out while leaving my upper back and shoulders unsupported.

As far as driving experience was concerned, the car handles well on the road – it gives a relatively quiet, smooth ride. It turns well (better than my Outlander, which is NOT known for having a good turning radius) and is fairly stable at high speeds – over all an easy to drive car (once you get it moving).

Interestingly, I saw QUITE a few of these Impalas out on the road during my trip – more so than I saw of Outlanders, anyway! So someone must like them, or else they’re all fleet vehicles (like this one was, being a rental). Overall, I wouldn’t buy the Impala, nor would I recommend it to anyone. The seating position is awful, the gas and the brakes are touchy and the wheels spin way too easily. The rear visibility is awful (although you get a HUGE trunk as a result, which is good, I guess) and without AWD I would never drive it in the winter in New England.

So there you have it – my review of the 2006 Chevrolet Impala LS V6. Coming up next: my thoughts on drivers in other states, starting with… New Jersey!

Behind the Wheel

I think I’m going to start a semi-regular section here at Core Dump.

Actually, I think I’ll start two:

Behind the Wheel: A series where I post my thoughts on the different cars I get to drive (mostly when I rent a car to go somewhere).

On the Road: Everyone always seems to think that people from “other” states drive worse than people of their own “home” state. Well, I’m no different, except that I’m going to write extensively about it!

Stay tuned for updates… it should be fun!

Manual vs. Automatic

A while back I read a couple of editorials over at The Truth About Cars regarding the “Death of the Stick Shift.” This got me quite worked up, though it took me a while to get my thoughts in order and get motivated to write about it. For reference, here are the articles themselves that spawned this dissertation of mine – including a final editorial in favor of manual transmissions:

So, here goes:

The manual vs. automatic debate has been going on for years, with the commonly accepted “facts” of manual transmissions giving higher gas mileage and better “control.” Some people have said that driving a stick shift requires too much concentration from the driver – in other words, a stick shift is distracting you from driving. Other people say that the torque converter in an automatic “sucks” power away from the engine, giving lackluster performance.

IMHO, in case it wasn’t painfully obvious from my many other posts on the subject, the manual transmission is superior. You just can’t beat the level of control it offers.

In the above articles, it is argued that modern automatics make the manual transmission obsolete. Now, this IS true – to a certain extent. The truly modern automatics are very good – like, say, the ones you can find on your $50,000+ luxury sedans & sports cars. Combined with sophisticated traction control, yaw sensors, and so forth, these systems can provide a superb driving experience.

But let’s face some facts – these systems are EXPENSIVE. And your average car doesn’t have them. At least, not anything I can afford.

So, let’s get to the meat of the argument: control. Does a stick shift really give you more control?

I’d argue yes, of course. You see, I’ve driven a lot of cars in my short 9 years of driving – automatics and stick shifts alike. I learned to drive on an automatic Dodge Omni; owned an automatic K-Car, started to learn stick on a manual Dodge Neon and then a manual Chevy S-10, and finally wrapped everything up with a sport-tronic automatic Mitsubishi Outlander. Along the way I’ve driven a full-sized GMC Seirra 1500 (automatic), a fun & sporty Alpha Romeo (manual), a powerful Pontiac LeMans (automatic), a bulky Ford Explorer (automatic), an even bulkier Lincoln Town Car (automatic), a wimpy Ford Focus (automatic) and even a slightly scary Honda 700cc motorcycle (manual).

The basic premise on which I base my assertions that the manual is better is control – specifically, control of engine power delivery. With a manual, I can keep the engine in it’s “power band,” and ensure that it’s in that power band when I want it to be. For “spirited” driving, there’s no comparison. The manual lets me keep the power of the engine right where I want it, based on the conditions of the road. No matter how sophisticated the electronics, the automatic transmission will never be smarter than the human brain that’s actually driving the car.

There’s also the issue of shift speed to be considered. Every automatic I’ve driven shifts slowly from gear to gear. Even the current Keithmobile – the Outlander, which its “sport-tronic” transmission that lets me shift up & down with the push of a lever – shifts slower from gear to gear than a comparable manual. When you’re doing that “spirited” driving, that delay is definitely No Fun.

In addition, there are other features of the manual that I miss to this day – the ability to rev the engine up for a lightning-quick start; the ability to break the rear wheels loose with a bit of clutch & throttle play around a sharp corner; and the ability to do engine breaking. For example, I used to be able to bring the Keithmobile-C (the S-10) to almost a complete stop – without using my brakes. Come to think of it, in the nearly 100,000 miles I put on that truck, I don’t think I ever replaced the brakes. Every time I had them checked, the people doing the checking would say something like “yeah, your brakes are fine, they look like they’re still being broken in!” Not so in the Keithmobile-D (the Outlander). It’s brakes are due for replacement next month, and I’ve put far fewer miles on it than the Keithmobile-C had.

Now, having been a courier for 2 years, I can appreciate the seductive allure of the automatic transmission to the average commuter. Goodness knows I’ve complained enough about driving in traffic with a manual. And during the time I was a courier with the Keithmobile-D, it was quite a bit nicer to not have to shift – though the constant braking was almost as annoying as the constant down-shifting. Go figure.

For the “average” driver, an automatic may be a good choice. And the automatic has its place in other circumstances as well – for example: plowing. As you’re probably aware, it’s snowed quite a bit around here lately, and I can tell you there are very few people out there doing professional snow plowing with manual transmissions. It’s just not practical – you’d burn out your clutch. The torque converter in an automatic takes the abuse of pushing tons of snow around at slow speeds much better than a manual would – mostly because of the wider gear range in an automatic. And for taxi drivers and limo drivers, there’s not even any realistic choice – it’s an automatic all the way. And big trucks, that is, big diesel trucks (and buses) need an automatic to handle the job of moving a huge mass of metal (although many of these big automatic systems are “sport-tronic” in the same way as my Outlander). UPDATE: I should correct myself somewhat here – most buses are automatic, due to the constant stop & go factor, “tractor-trailer” trucks that haul large, heavy loads still tend to have manuals – although this is changing in many areas as automatics are built that can take the load and provide the necessary gear reduction – which is the primary reason big trucks have been manual in the past.

The argument of economy often enters into this debate – some say one system is more economical than the other. IMHO (again), a stick, driven properly, delivers better economy than an automatic. I point to my truck (the Keithmobile-C, the S-10) as a prime example. I got great gas mileage from that thing, no doubt about it. And let’s not discount the savings from brake wear – something I didn’t have to worry about much. And a friend of mine had a Neon that was an automatic – having ridden (not driven, alas!) in it, and having driven a manual Neon, I can say the manual was far more “peppy” and it was without a doubt more fuel efficient. Of course, other people driving differently than me might find an automatic to give better economy.

The argument of safety also comes into this debate fairly often. While it’s true that driving stick requires more involvement from the driver – hell, you even have to take one hand off of the wheel to shift – I don’t think that’s a truly terrible thing. Unless you SUCK at driving stick, the shifting process is as natural and automatic as turning the wheel or using your directional signals or windshield wiper controls. It’s just not a big deal. Conversely, of course, the automatic lets the driver focus on other cars & whatnot, while keeping both hands planted firmly on the wheel. Still, I think it’s valid to say that this kind of ease of driving can, let’s say “encourage” the driver to engage in other activities not conducive to safe driving. Such as talking on a cell phone, among many others. As a courier, I had to use my cell phone from time to time, and I can tell you, it’s hard to do while driving stick in traffic or around a city. In many cases I just had to wait until I stopped to use the phone – which is arguably the right thing to do. When I had the Keithmobile-D and it’s automatic, I found it easier to use the phone (naturally), and honestly – I did tend to use it a bit more. Now, of course, it IS hard to dial a phone while driving stick, and anyone who attempts to do so is putting themselves in more danger than the automatic driver doing the same thing, but the argument here is that a driver with an ounce of common sense will just leave the damn cell phone alone while driving stick, since it is so obviously just an accident waiting to happen. The automatic driver might be lulled into thinking the cell phone (or double mocha latte, or MP3 player, or makeup, or cheeseburger, etc) is quite safe, since they can still “drive” while doing whatever it is they are doing. Which they are clearly not. (Think about this the next time you see an accident.)

So, both systems have their place – an automatic is easier & often more economical (for the circumstances), but a manual is more controllable and certainly more desirable for the driving enthusiast. (As a side note: try rocking your car back & forth to get it un-stuck from snow with an automatic. Now, try it with a manual. You’ll appreciate the stick shift almost immediately. Now that’s control.) In the end, though, you just can’t beat a manual for driving control – and since that’s what rates highest in my book, I put a manual above an automatic. But of course anyone who has different expectations from their car may disagree – and be perfectly justified in doing so. The fact that many cars these days don’t even offer a manual transmissions speaks volumes as to what “most” people “want.”

But I’ll never get over the joy of shifting. Long live the stick shift!!