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June 2 Weekly Open Thread--Driverless Cars Update

Join us out here on the front porch for some lemonade and car talk. You can steer the conversation in any direction you would like.

This past week, there seemed to be a sudden burst of news activity concerning self-driving cars. Google unveiled its newest self-driving car project, a purpose-built electric "city car" with a 25 MPH top speed and a 100-mile range.

Prior versions of the Google Car were built for semiautomatic freeway cruising and required the driver to stay engaged and function as a co-pilot. According to MIT Technology Review,

That approach had to be scrapped after tests showed that human drivers weren’t trustworthy enough to be co-pilots to Google’s software. When people began riding in one of the vehicles, they paid close attention to what the car was doing and to activity on the road around them, which meant the hand-off between person and machine was smooth. But that interest faded to indifference over weeks and months as people became too trusting of the car’s abilities. . . . 

That convinced Google it had to give up on switching between human and machine control, says Fairfield. That also ruled out building on top of conventional car designs, because they assume a human is on hand and ready to take over in the event of an emergency.

Google is building a fleet of 100 of the new electrics for testing this summer. Under current law, those that venture out on the public roads will have to be equipped with steering wheels and other controls.

Meanwhile, over in Europe, the development of driverless Bimmers and Benzes is bumping up against a rather restrictive legal environment.

Back on our side of the pond, a company called Peloton Technology is working on a system for large trucks that combines active cruise control with short-range wireless communication to allow two big trucks to travel in a "platoon" with only thirty feet of space between them. 

This cuts down drag on both trucks--the same aerodynamic boost that geese get from flying in formation, and NASCAR drivers get from "drafting" on an opponent's back bumper--and saves fuel, as much as 10% for the good buddy in the "back door" position.

--Cookie the Dog's Owner

Carspotters' Challenge #109--Wagon Train

Wagon Train (SWF Jim 68cuda)

Appropriate music here.

--Cookie the Dog's Owner

(Photo obtained from the Station Wagon Forum collection, contributed by member "Jim68cuda.")

Subaru Justy 1987-1994

Following a bit on my post from last week on the Subaru Outback, I thought I'd send a shout out to another of Subaru's goofy little models: the Justy. I'll be honest: I don't really lust after this car. It was Suby_justysmall and underpowered and not very interesting to look at and I'm not sure what all else, but I never thought much of it, with one exception: I really liked the commercial. 

Other than that, it was more or less derived from a Kei car, and had a tiny 1.2-liter 3-cylinder engine and came with either front- or four-wheel drive. The 4WD was what really set it apart; it may not have been the first or only 4WD subcompact out there, but it's the only one that immediately springs to my mind at least. And while I gently deride the engine -- the original carbed engine put out a (none too) whopping 66 bhp -- it did get fuel injection in 1991 which bumped that up a bit and I think was a neat feature for such a tiny little car. 

And, no, I don't know where the name "Justy" came from. 

But, alas, unlike the BRAT which I would dearly love to have, I'm content to just reminisce a bit over the Justy. And it gives me an opportunity to link to their utterly and completely brilliant commercial:

Continue reading "Subaru Justy 1987-1994" »

May 26 Weekly Open Thread--Wagons, Ho!

The school year is ending, and the summer is upon us. This is the season for the traditional family vacation, in the form of a long car trip in a station wagon.

According to folklore, the legendary Captain Obvious was born here.Any plans for a long car trip this summer?  Anything else automotive that you want to discuss?  This is the place to discuss it.

--Cookie the Dog's Owner

(Photo obtained from the Station Wagon Forum.)

Carspotters' Challenge #108--Strategic Lobster Reserve

For this week's edition, we bring you a series of photos taken in York Harbor, Maine, at the southeast end of the nation's vital Strategic Lobster Reserve, in the summer of 1981.

York Harbor ME 1981-1 (SWF GTW)York Harbor ME 1981-2 (SWF GTW)York Harbor ME 1981-3 (SWF GTW)

--Cookie the Dog's Owner

(Photos obtained from the Station Wagon Forum collection, contributed by member "GTW.")

Subaru Outback: I've Got a Dyslexic Heart

Do I read you correctly, I need you directly
Now, help me with this part
Do I love you? Do I hate you?
I got a dyslexic heart
-- Paul Westerberg, "Dyslexic Heart"

OutbackGen1Yeah, that pretty much sums up my feelings regarding the Subaru Outback. Do I love it for being a practical, non-offensive-looking, Everyman's sport utility wagon? Or do I hate it for being soulless and and styleless and intimately associated with the Birkenstocks-and-socks-wearing set? Who will get irritated most depending on which side I come down on? 

Sometimes it's tough being a Car Lust contributor.

I'll readily concede that I'm occasionally influenced in my taste for a lot of things by the (real or imagined) kinds of people associated with certain items. I admitted as much in my gentle diatribe against the BMW 3-Series and that same sentiment extends to other things. Ferinstance, I was reluctant to get a Mac for a long time because, well, I didn't want to be seen as a Mac PersonTM ("OOOoo, let's wait in line 36 hours for the new iPhone. The headphone jack is on the bottom this time!"). There's even a chance I might have bought a Grateful Dead album at one point but I'd never have gotten past the thought that someone, somewhere might associate me with Deadheads (What do Deadheads say when they're not high? "Hey, this band really sucks."). Not that there's anything wrong with that.

I also admit that I have a proclivity, on occasion, to try for the Ironically HipTM look. You know, like driving around in a hopped-up old pickup truck with fuzzy dice dangling from the rear view and Spandau Ballet cranked up really loud. But I digress.

So I have some trouble with the Outback. I want to hate it, but I just can't; I want to love it, but I just can't. It's functional and practical and efficient and reliable and . . . .bland. Not that there's anything wrong with that. But. . . .

Continue reading "Subaru Outback: I've Got a Dyslexic Heart" »

May 19 Weekly Open Thread--Cars as "Positional Goods"

Stutz D'ItaliaI was reading an op-ed article the other day which brought up the economic concept of "positional goods." As the author explained:

A positional good is a good that people acquire to signalise where they stand in a social hierarchy; it is acquired in order to set oneself apart from others. Positional goods therefore have a peculiar property: the utility their consumers derive from them is inversely related to the number of people who can access them.

Positionality is not a property of the good itself, it is a matter of the consumer’s motivations. I may buy an exquisite variety of wine because I genuinely enjoy the taste, or acquire a degree from a reputable university because I genuinely appreciate what that university has to offer. But my motivation could also be to set myself apart from others, to present myself as more sophisticated or smarter....

If I value those goods for their intrinsic qualities, their increasing popularity will not trouble me at all....But if you see me moaning that the winemakers/the university have ‘sold out’, if you see me whinging about those ignoramuses who do not deserve the product because they (unlike me, of course) do not really appreciate it, you can safely conclude that for me, this good is a positional good. (Or was, before everybody else discovered it.)

So what has this got to do with cars? It's obvious that certain cars are pitched to the consumer as positional goods. One example is the 1970s "revival-era" Stutz: between 25 and 50 or so were sold in each year during the peak of its production. Like the seats at the cool kids' table in the junior high cafeteria, there were only so many to go around, so getting one put you in an exclusive club.

There's another phenomenon that seems to attach to particular cars: whether intended by their owners as "positional goods" or not, they become cultural markers for a particular (stereotyped) subculture. The 3-series BMW was a cultural marker for yuppies in the 1980s; the VW Type 2 Microbus was the same thing for hippies and assorted Bohemians in the 1960s and '70s; Subarus have been strongly associated with the "granola" lifestyle for several decades.

Please share your thoughts on this, or any other automotive topic, in the comments box below.

--Cookie the Dog's Owner

The photo of several textbook examples of positional goods--polo ponies, a fur coat, and a Stutz D'Italia--came from Peter Madle's Stutz history website.

Carspotters' Challenge #107--Old Smithstonian

May is the peak month for 8th grade school trips to Washington, D.C.  With that in mind, we bring you a photo taken outside of the original Smithstonian Institute building sometime in the 1970s.

Washington DC 1970s (SWF Olds Weighty Eight)

Once you've identified the cars, take a crack at the missiles.

--Cookie the Dog's Owner

(Photo obtained from the Station Wagon Forum collection, contributed by member "Olds Weighty Eighty.")

Car Lust Mustang Classic: My Mustang II

And here we come to the end of our Mustang retrospective with my very first contribution to Car Lust: My very own Mustang II. I've also included a link to something of a followup post on the old Mustang at the bottom. It's recently retired and is moving off into new adventures which will be recounted in a future post. 

by Chris Hafner on March 19, 2008

Submitted by Anthony J. Cagle

I acquired this car back in 1990 while on my way from Seattle to northern California for some MustangBeacharchaeological fieldwork. My month-and-a-half old 1984 Bronco II's engine seized up in central Oregon and, not being able to afford an on-the-spot engine rebuild, I swapped the dealer for something off their lot.

Up until that point I'd not paid much attention to Mustang II's--like many others, I thought of them as "glorified Pintos" and "that thing that Farrah-Fawcett drove"--but this one was in mint condition with only 43k miles on it. It really was owned by the proverbial little old lady who drove it to church on Sundays. And it had a V8! So the deal went down and I drove off with a 1978 Mustang II.

After all of the trouble I had had with both the Bronco and my previous 1975 Buick, the Mustang was a god-send. It drove well, was mechanically sound, but most importantly it just worked. I drove all over northern California for several weeks without problem. And it was fun to drive to boot. The beach photo above was taken shortly after purchase.

Also see this post on the rigors of owning this vehicle.

To view and comment on this post click here.

Car Lust Mustang Classic: Mustang II Cobra II

We end our Mustang retrospective week with a true classic Car Lust: The Mustang II. This post generate moderate interest when it was first put up, but after I linked to it on a Mustang II enthusiast site the partisans came out to defend their car. As much as I love the II's -- I own one, after all -- I had to admit that Chris was mostly correct: It wasn't the greatest car of its time. My view is that the II tried to be too many different things at once -- pony car, personal luxury car, small sporty import, etc. -- and ended up not being very good at any of them. I still think it was a far better car in a lot of ways than the preceding generations, but there you have it. 

by Chris Hafner on September 21, 2007

I wouldn't feel right running a week-long Poseur Muscle Cars in the Afternoon feature without honoring the granddaddy of faux muscle cars, the hands-down premier combination of puffed-up ostentation with knock-kneed weakness, the in-the-sheetmetal realization of the saying "All Hat and No Cattle."

Yes, we're discussing the Ford Mustang II--the Pinto-based blasphemy to the Mustang name. Even today, if you mention the Mustang II to hard-core Mustang fans, they're likely to blanch and quickly change the subject.

When the Mustang II was introduced in 1974, the idea of a downsized Mustang was a pretty solid one. The previous-generation Mach 1 was a massive car--still easily the largest Mustang of all time--that could nevertheless really only fit two people comfortably. Given the trends of the time, a smaller car and a smaller engine made much more sense.

Still... a Mustang based on a Pinto? The Mustang II, symbolizing, I suppose, the rebirth of the Mustang, wasn't a terrible-looking car when it debuted. In fastback trim, with the original relatively understated graphics, it looked pretty good. The Ghia luxury notchback edition, on the other hand, looked pretty awful.
 
Pictured above: This is a forlorn Chevy Vega photographed by reader Gary Sinar. (Share yours)

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