The Fundamental Difference Between New Jersey and Massachusetts Drivers

I’ve finally figured it out – the fundamental difference between Massachusetts drivers (of which I am, sadly, one) and New Jersey drivers (which I have been spending a lot of time around lately, for obvious reasons).

I’ve complained before that there’s something unnerving about going to a part of the country where people drive differently. People complain about it as well, without knowing it – it’s why people from other states are always proclaimed to be too slow, too stupid, or whatever. It doesn’t matter where you’re from; people from other states always suck.

However – in this case, I’m just dealing with the two states I have experience with – Massachusetts and New Jersey. Here’s what I’ve come up with:

New Jersey Drivers are suicidal; Massachusetts drivers are homicidal.

When you think about it, it really works well. I’ll leave it to you to think of all the implications. ;-)

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!