Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The Basics of Vehicle Rollovers

The latest fad towards ever taller cars is the result of a lack of understanding of the physics of driving. It has been pointed out over and over that tall narrow cars tip over more easily than low wide cars. And yet still people buy high narrow cars and drive them at foolish speeds. Obviously we need a refresher course on basic physics.

There is really only one vehicle that can be tall and still go fast, and that is a motorcycle. And that is because the motorcycle leans into the turns. Cars that sit on four wheels cannot lean into a turn and so are vulnerable to a rollover in case the turn is taken too quickly. I think almost everybody knows this rule about tall narrow cars, so let me just add a few caveats to it.

The first caveat is this. Just because you call your car a truck, or even better, an SUV, does not mean it defies the rules of physics. A lot of people who are in denial about the roadholding capabilities of their vehicle think that this law only applies to cars. Just because SUV has the word "Sport" in it does not make that vehicle competent at high speed. And by high speed, I mean a cruising speed for a "normal" low and wide car.

The second caveat is this. You can roll over even on a perfectly straight road. This can happen in any one of a number of ways. First you may leave the road momentarily, getting the right wheels on the gravel shoulder and over correct coming back. Second, you may be hit from the side by another vehicle either in a T-bone or a sideswipe. Third, you may swerve to miss a raccoon in the road. You don't swerve for raccoons you say? OK then child. Fourth, you may get on black ice and spin. I can think of more, but you get the idea.

So now for the physics lesson. Is there actually a law of physics that says a high narrow car will tip over and roll more easily? And is there any way that a car can be designed to be high and narrow but not tip over?

First, lets deal with the concept of "Centre of gravity". In order to simplify calculations on a car, it is useful to find a point where the average of all the mass converges. You can imagine this if you could balance the car on one finger. If so, the centre of gravity would be somewhere on a line directly up from your finger. In order to find exactly where it is on that line, you turn the car on its side, and balance it again on one finger. Now you have a different line through the car, but amazingly, at some point those two lines will cross each other. Where they meet is called the centre of gravity or centre of mass, and it is very useful in determining how the car will act while in motion. By the way, in case you were wondering, this also applies to boats, planes, trains. It does not apply too much to non rigid objects like people, who can change their CG by bending. There are also some cars that can actually change their CG, like the Citreon DS. Also, remember you can change a CG by loading a car. Also, the CG can change if the load shifts, but let's just go with as simple a model as possible for now.

Now look at the diagram, where CG and the pivot are marked. The car will start to roll by rotating around the pivot, in this case one of the wheels, seen from the front (it does not matter which side if they are symmetrical). If the weight of the car is 1000 kg, there will be a force of 1000 kg directly down from the CG, and that will stay the same through the turn. If you are going straight, the sideways or tipping force is zero. This sideways force is called centrifugal force.

Now let's imagine that the car is turning. I don't want to get into a theoretical argument about whether or not centrifugal force does exist. That argument is only for people who have an understanding of physics. For everybody else, the faster you turn the higher the centrifugal force. If you have a whole bunch of cars racing around the same curve at the same speed, they will all have the same "G force". By G force, I mean that if you have a 1000 kg car, with a centrifugal force of .5 G, the car will have a 500 kg force pushing it sideways. If you have a 2000 Kg car at the same speed on the same corner, it will also have a centrifugal force of .5 G, but a sideways force will work out to 1000 kg. for the heavier the car. So you do not gain any advantage by having a big heavy car in going around corners. While you have a heavier weight to keep you down, you also have a proportionally stronger force pushing you out.

Now let's think about the height of the CG. Imagine a rectangle with one corner the CG and the opposite corner the pivot. The important thing is the difference between the height of the rectangle and the width of that rectangle. If the height and width are the same, the car will be able to corner at up to 1 G but no faster, or it tips over.

For the purpose of simplification, I am not considering the limitations in cornering because of tires which will slide instead of roll over on ice and snow, or even bare pavement.  So, not considering the slipping of tires, if the rectangle is half as high as it is wide, the car can corner at 2 Gs before flipping over. And if the rectangle is twice as high as it is wide, the car can only corner at one half G before it rolls over.

The only real advantage you can have in not rolling over, is to keep the CG low compared to the width of the tires.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

On My Ride, I discover the Effects of a Solar FLare

Although Mary Ann is sick today, I did go out for a ride. Just before I went, I checked our mailbox and found Cycle Canada for May 2010. I'll read that when I get back.

I decided to do a moderate sized loop east of Kitchener. That means I drive north to St Jacobs. Then follow roads clockwise around the city (imagine on a map) until I am south, then I drive home. Somewhere on that trip I want to find a restaurant for lunch, and I don't feel like Tim Horton's, so I will take a chance on some unknown place. But what to look for? There are literally hundreds of places to eat.

My main criteria for a restaurant, which I established when I first left home: No cloth napkins. Of course I violate this rule occasionally now, but never when I'm alone. Funny how a person's experience at seventeen years old can leave such a lasting impression. Since then I have added one more. Never go into a restaurant where there is nobody else getting food.

I decided to try a new selection tactic. Go to the motorcycle shop where I bought the Vulcan, and then find the closest likely restaurant with no cloth napkins. I found one called "Fish and Chips to Go or to Eat In". It also had a couple of other things I look for, when I'm riding. Nearby parking, and windows from the eating area to allow me to see my parked motorcycle. So far, so good.

I ordered the fish and chips special, and a Sprite. The waitress seemed to not understand English, but that usually does not bother me, as "Sprite" is universal, as is "lunch special, fish and chips". Obviously those would be understood. I never get into complicated orders when at restaurants, another thing I gave up when I was young. I might as well tell that story while I'm at it. I was about 15 years old, out with a bunch of high school friends, and ordered a ham sandwich. The waitress asked what I wanted on it, and I said mustard, lettuce and tomato. (this was in French). Except that in a mental lapse, I ordered cabbage instead of lettuce. And I really hate cabbage in sandwiches. The waitress never batted an eye, and I got what I ordered.

So at this restaurant, I got water instead of Sprite. But the PA system was playing "Born to Be Wild" which of course makes up for a lot of little mistakes. I made a mental note to challenge the bill if they also charged me an extra buck fifty for Sprite when I didn't get it. Then I got my fish and chips which I would have to rate below the perch dinners at Knechtel's in Port Dover, but then not everybody can make great fish and chips. When I went to the cash to pay up, I told the cashier that I had the special. He said I didn't I had the Haddock and chips. The waitress came out, but she couldn't speak English, and the cashier couldn't speak Chinese. But apparently she had switched two orders, and neither one of us had said anything. Of course not: how am I supposed to tell the difference between the fish and chips special and the Haddock and chips non-special? Anyway he reversed the bill, and charged me for my original order and I left. But as I was cruising down the road, I remembered. I got dinged for the Sprite in the confusion.

I didn't even get out of Guelph before I felt like trying coffee shop, so I went to the Second Cup to try my luck again. This time I ordered a French Lemon Tart, and a decaf. The tarts were right there under the glass near the counter, but when it was put on the counter it did not look like the other ones. All the others had a ring of blueberries on top, this one didn't. You would think at think point I would say "get this washed up French tart out of my sight and bring me one of the nice ones". But I didn't. I guess I was still in shell shock from the Fish n' Chips fiasco, and wondering if there had suddenly been a solar flare this morning that zapped the brainwaves of every restaurant employee in North America. And, sadly the French lemon tart, which I did eat, was also kind of sour.

Anyhow, the weather was holding up and getting warmer by the minute. On the way home, as I was hitting about 160 on the 401, I wondered: maybe my decaf was not really decaf either?

That was the end of the ride, but I still had the Cycle Canada magazine at home, and my favourite bike (other than mine) was on the cover. The new Honda Shadow 750 RS. Although this bike seems to be a pretty nondescript thing, to me it has great potential significance. That's because it is a Honda, and it is a standard motorcycle. To my dismay at the time, Honda abandoned standard motorcycles back in the early eighties when they dropped the CX500 in favour of their new "Shadow" line. Since then, the motorcycle world has generally offered low seated, feet forward cruisers as the mainstream bike. Either that or the "ass in the air" sport bikes, or the very high on/off road bikes. The only nice standard motorcycle in the last thirty years have been retro models like the Kawasaki W650, or the new Triumph Bonnevilles. But finally here comes a standard from Honda that looks a bit like a cruiser, and it may be the sign of things to come. That's what I'm hoping for, anyway.

There were a few other articles of interest in Cycle Canada, too. Ted Bishop on "Slow Fun" in other words slow motorcycling. He had a good line for trying to drive a fast bike slowly. "like dealing with a four-year-old at the mall: it's always trying to take off". I liked the article on a Peugeot scooter. And then there was one about the Ducati Streetfighter, where this comment was written: "We won't bullshit you about the Streetfighter-it is an almost entirely useless motorcycle ." Of course, to the people at Cycle Canada, that is not an insult, it is praise. I think that Cycle Canada is showing signs of a comeback, after the loss of much of its old writing staff several years ago. And thankfully, no bare backsides in this issue either.

The solar flares take some away but they also give some back.

Picture: The Ducati Streetfighter. Can't you just tell that this bike is entirely useless?

Monday, March 29, 2010

Another Toyota Throttle Scandal: This Time It Won't Open

I just happened to catch the finish of the Martinsville NASCAR race on TV this afternoon. It was won by Toyota 1-2 in a surprise finish.

Just to catch up on the shenanigans in NASCAR, Toyota decided to compete in NASCAR in 2007, and stirred up a hornets nest of fans and competitors who thought that NASCAR should be for American makers only. Very soon after Toyota's debut, NASCAR officals got an anonymous tip that Toyota was using a banned substance in their fuel. They tested the Toyotas and found the substance, then imposed stiff penalties on the Toyota teams. Some people lost their jobs over this fiasco. Nobody really knows who did it or why.

By 2008, Toyota cars make too much horsepower for Ford and Chevy to compete, so NASCAR has a rule that says if you make too much horsepower, measured on their dyno, they will mandate a restrictor plate for your cars to reduce the power to the same as the competition. Toyota continued to win, and the competitors called for another dyno measurement. Obviously those Toyota cars needed more restricting. But during the dyno test, it was discovered that somebody had installed a small magnet to block the throttle from opening fully for the NASCAR inspectors. This of course resulted in further sanctions, and an even more restrictive throttle plate for Toyota.

Those were the conditions today as Toyota won 1-2 with the double restrictive plates. It was kind of a neat finish, where two competitors were trying to block the faster Toyota on the last lap, running side by side. The Toyota driver rammed one of them from behind, then moved behind the other car as it accelerated to keep up. Then the two cars in front hit each other, went off to the side, and the two Toyotas got through for the win.

Best NASCAR action I've seen in 45 years. And the drivers can even blame a stuck throttle for the bump.

Disclaimer: I have not followed NASCAR for 45 years. I do not understand the rationale behind restrictor plates, nor do I understand the big picture of who is racing what class and why. If I have made any misstatements, and you can clear me up on this, please leave a comment. I have never heard of restrictor plates being used in automobile competitions before, unless it was for beginner classes or training purposes.

Ann Coulter Fails to Prove Canada Suppresses Free Speech

Several Canadians have expressed concern about the stifling of Ann Coulter by the University of Ottawa.

"The costs of free speech may be high, but the costs of doing without it are even higher to our democracy."

From the Toronto Star
Nathalie Des Rosiers
General Counsel, Canadian Civil Liberties Association


"Was it her potential message that Canada found unpalatable? If so, what are the RWB[*] approved messages that might lead other nations to a high press-freedom rating like Canada's?"

Rob Brandreth-Gibbs North Vancouver
Vancouver Sun *Found it strange that Reporters Without Borders rated press freedom higher in Canada than in the USA

And I'm sure there was a lot of similar hand wringing from coast to coast. Relax, people, let me explain. First let's take a measure of the intellectual level of what is being said here. I'm going to go with just one example. Ann Coulter says Arab students should be barred from flying on any airplanes due to the danger they pose. An Arab student asks what alternative they have. Ann Coulter says "Take a camel".

I could go on for hundreds of examples if I cared to take the time, but this would not be the first time that someone is judged by one isolated statement. And, actually, this statement is fairly representative of the type of statements that made Ann Coulter famous and even loved by the racists in the USA and Canada.

Only a Nazi would say that Hitler's call for the gassing of the Jews was a "contentious view". To Jews it goes far beyond contentious, all the way to threatening extermination. Calling a black man a "Nigger" is not a contentious statement, in my opinion, it is a racial slur. Ann Coulter's camel statement is not really a "contentious view" either. It is an ignorant and racist insult designed to threaten and provoke rage. It belongs on Fox News, or on an American Hate Radio program. If the University of Ottawa had not invited Ann Coulter to speak, their students would have been none the dumber for it. On the other hand, by inviting her and finding out how they got played for suckers by the racists, I hope those U of O people learned a valuable lesson. Don't play with fire unless you have asbestos underwear.

We do not need the presence of Ann Coulter in Canada to prove that we have free speech. So by logical extension:
If it does not deny free speech to NOT invite her, it is not suppressing free speech when the affair is cancelled.

Now to deal with the question of who has the greater freedom of the press: Canada or the USA? I will explain this with a simple parable, without mentioning any names. Please do not try to fill in the names for me, because this is a logic exercise only to prove a point. Just keep an open mind and follow the logic.

There once was a country filled with hate, run by one party, the party of hate. All peace loving, tolerant reporters were fired, only the hateful reporters kept their jobs, and they are monitored constantly to make sure they continue to spew hate against the oppressed minorities. Nearby, there was another country of peaceful, tolerant people, who never fired a reporter for their views, even if that reporter sometimes said hateful things. That's because that country was "tolerant" and valued freedom of the press.

One day, at a university in the peaceful country, it was decided to invite a reporter from the hate filled country to give a speech, the better to understand their hate-filled neighbours. A protest was staged, and the speech was cancelled.

So, logically, does that mean the tolerant peaceful country has no more freedom of the press than the country of hate?

The answer is no. Because freedom of the press involves much more than people sitting quietly and listening to hate speeches. And freedom of the press should never be mutually exclusive to freedom of public protest.

I am not trying to make a point about either Iran or Canada. Simply that "Freedom of the press" is not necessarily at stake with one protested speech by a guest reporter. Freedom of the press is a measure of how many reporters fear for their jobs in a given country, based on their views. Or how much pressure is put on reporters to stick with a "party line" in that country, on the average. It is also a measure of whether or not one party line had predominance over the other.

I think the Reporters without Borders probably believed that in Canada, there was less of a tendency to force reporters to conform to one side or another of a political discussion. And there was less tendency for reporters to be fired for disagreeing with their bosses. I'm not sure they would even factor in the Ann Coulter controversy in this measure, as she is not a Canadian reporter and does not normally report on Canadian affairs. Recently there have been several right wing pundits fired for not being right wing enough in the USA. Just last week it was David Frum. I remember during the last political campaign it was right winger Christopher Buckley, son of William F Buckley who came under fire.

And naturally, when you suggest taking away the rights of certain groups of citizens, you may expect them to protest, and not sit quietly and listen to you. The freedom to protest without fear for your life is a part of free speech, and that seems to be doing well in Ottawa.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Little Ice in the Gulf of St Lawrence for the Seals

A story about the annual seal hunt was briefly mentioned on Radio Canada news on TV (in French). Just to recap: 30% of the annual eastern seal hunt in Canada is in the Gulf of St Lawrence, a large sea area bounded by Quebec, Newfoundland, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. Usually the seals have their pups on pack ice which is always plentiful in the gulf at this time of year.

But in 2010, the Gulf of St Lawrence for the first time has little or no ice for the birth season and the seals are either having their pups in the water, or some are having them on the beaches or rocks. In either case, the survival rate is quite low, although it may take some time to figure out the true effect of the lack of ice on the seals.

This comes at a bad time once again for the hunters. Although they have seen prices drop from $100 to $16 per seal pup since Europe banned the import of seal fur, medical research has indicated that baby seal heart valves may be superior to any existing heart valves used for transplants to humans. If this proves to be true, the seal hunt would be set to stage a comeback.

I would like to see this whole seal/ice story get more coverage for two reasons. First, to show that the seal hunt is really not that cruel, if you compare it to the hardship and suffering in nature, rather than the coddled life of human pets. And second to offset the anti-global warming stories that multiplied as the Eastern USA had a bad winter. Environmentalists could have a propaganda windfall with this, if they used it like they did the stories of polar bears drowning.

Also, for people who happen to think that an ice-free Gulf of St Lawrence is a good thing, the Magdalen Islands are suffering a major amount of erosion this year, and it's going be expensive to save some of their exposed real estate. Pack ice along the shore usually acts as a barrier to the waves from spring storms.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Why Does Toyota Make Big Honkin SUV's and Pickup Trucks?

For a company that claims to be green, Toyota makes a lot of large SUV's and pickup trucks. What could be more natural than making these honking big luxury all wheel drive vehicles if it makes money? Well, it's not that simple.

The only place in the world where these large gas-wasting vehicles sell well is the USA, and that is because of low gasoline prices, which are kept low by the political danger of imposing taxes on fuel in America. And even in America, as we have seen, the price of gas sometimes rises to the point that vehicle sales decline. (especially the gas-hogs)

Toyota started off in the sixties sending fuel efficient cars to the USA because that's what they made for their home customers, and that's what they understood. Not only that, but since 1963 there has been an import duty on light trucks coming to the USA of 25%. It is called the "Chicken tax" as this import tax is applied to potato starch, dextrin, brandy, and light trucks in retaliation for a European import tax on American chickens. OK, sorry that this is getting complicated but really so many things we consider natural came about through unnatural and complicated legislation.

Anyway, Toyota continued to make cars for the US, content to ignore the truck market. Then the US congress began to pass laws requiring increasingly strict standards for fuel economy, crash safety, and clean burning engines. Toyota complied, and set their engineers to work conforming to these regulations. Meanwhile, Detroit began to exploit a loophole they had at their disposal, by getting light trucks exempted from all these laws. Once again, Toyota more or less ignored the unfairness of this, and continued to build fuel efficient cars. The American car makers, on the other hand started pushing the definitions of what exactly was a light truck. Eventually, Detroit managed to include all minivans as light trucks and even started making pickup trucks with no bed at the back, calling them SUV's. Toyota still had no response, but things were getting worse. When gasoline prices declined in the nineties, sales of SUV's, pickup trucks and minivans increased to the point that cars became an endangered species in the USA (literally!). And finally, I guess the thing that pushed Toyota over the edge was the proposed CAFE standards.

Although CAFE (Corporate Average Fuel Economy) did not pass, it threatened Toyota's existence in the US market. The law proposed a percentage improvement in fuel economy on each corporation, over time, starting with their existing fuel economy average. The problem was that if Toyota was starting with mostly fuel efficient cars, it would have to compete against American makers who were starting with wasteful vehicles. It is hard to increase the fuel economy of a Corolla, but easy to do if you are starting with fuel wasting American style vehicles.

As a result of (or sometimes anticipating) all these pressures, Toyota decided to enter the truck market in the USA, so that they would be on an equal footing with the Detroit companies in case CAFE ever became law. To do so, they set up truck factories in the USA, because the chicken tax of 25% would have made them uncompetitive to import from Japan. And now we have the Toyota Tundra and the Toyota Sequoia, and several other big honking things you would not expect to find many years ago in a Toyota showroom.

Last year, both GM and Chrysler declared bankruptcy. They were relying too heavily on their big truck sales for profits, and when fuel prices went up along with job losses, many people stopped buying the trucks and SUV's. Toyota fared better and became the world's biggest automaker because of their superior line of cars.

But now Toyota is facing billions of dollars in lawsuits in the USA because of the not yet proven "runaway acceleration" syndrome.

So it's not always as simple as you might think.

Picture: Photoshop was not used in this picture. I did not reduce the size of the person in the drivers seat. The Sequoia is just a very big vehicle, at least for a Toyota.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Ann Coulter and Ottawa

I feel saddened to hear that Ann Coulter was invited to the University of Ottawa and paid $10,000 to speak. It would be OK in a certain context, let's say that she was invited to a closed laboratory and asked to speak in front of experts on mental illness, so that they could do some research on how to stop the spread of Ann Coulter's disease. But not to invite her to speak in front of a crowd of undergraduates including Arabs. That is nothing more than than a setup for the type of freak show that is Ann's bread and butter.

Making things worse, the Provost of the University sent her a letter ahead of time warning her of Canada's hate laws. A better way to handle this would have been to let Ann deal with the laws herself. Or just not invite anyone who needed to be warned. Just imagine the U of O inviting Hitler to speak and sending him a message beforehand saying "Be careful of Canada's hate laws, you could get locked up". The reason you invite Hitler is because of his hate speech, and only because of his hate speech. Without the hate, Hitler is just another Austrian kid that nobody cares about.

The most important thing to understand is that Ann Coulter is not suitable for a University setting. She is not logical, she does not make sense. Instead of paying her money to insult people's religion and race, just get a panel of experts to debate her impact on American society. That would be educational.

I wonder how her next engagement at the University of Alberta will go down. Alberta probably has more Ann Coulter sympathizers than any other place in Canada, I'm guessing.

Picture: T-shirt commemorating Ann's response to Muslim student asking how she would be able to travel with Ann's call to ban Muslims from all airplanes.

Coincidentally, there is a CBC show on TV tonight "Love Hate and Propaganda" about WW2.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Why Does a Motorcycle Need a Gearbox?

Recently I was quite surprised to find out how many car drivers had no idea what "Neutral" meant on a shift lever, or why you might need to use it. But actually I should have known that some remedial work was needed. After all, there has been this controversy "Torque or Horsepower, which is more important?" going on for at least ten years. If most drivers knew what a gearbox was for, the answer to that question is easy.

Why is it that so many people don't know what gearboxes are for these days? You might blame the quality of education in high school. Or the fact that 80% of cars in North America have automatic transmissions. In either case, a tipping point has been reached, where even if someone tries to explain the function of a device using basic physics, they are no longer going to be understood, and there will also be a large number of people to argue against them. When that tipping point is reached, where you can find more misinformation than truth on the Internet, it's hard to get the knowledge back. I Googled "what is a gearbox for" and couldn't really find anything to explain it, so my usual response is to put the explanation out there myself though this blog.

I have to start with a simple lesson in Physics, don't worry it's short. First a reminder of the law of conservation of energy. No device can create or destroy energy, only convert it from one form to another. A gearbox is a form of simple machine that transmits energy without adding or subtracting from the energy, or converting it from one form to another. So you have mechanical energy going in one side, and the same mechanical energy coming out the other.

Now to answer the question, if a gearbox doesn't DO anything, why do you need it? The answer is that although the total mechanical energy remains the the same while going through the gearbox, something has indeed changed. Mechanical energy has two aspects, speed and force. The engine spins a shaft at a certain speed, and with a given amount of force. You cannot have mechanical energy unless there is both force and speed. Stop turning, and the energy is zero, no matter how much force you are using to hold the shaft still. And you can spin as fast as you like, but unless there is some force to it, the energy is also zero.

The function of the gearbox is to change the amount of force compared to the speed. For example, the gearbox can slow down the shaft to half speed, which doubles the force while the total energy stays the same. Or it can double the speed by cutting the force in half, again without any change to the total energy. So you have an input shaft running at 1000 revolutions per minute with a force of 50 units, and the output shaft from the gearbox might be running at half the speed at 500 rpm but doubling the force to 100 units. Most motorcycle gearboxes have 4 to 6 different gears you can choose from depending on your needs.

Just an aside here, the force of a turning shaft is actually called "torque" and units of force used to measure a turning shaft are typically foot-pounds or sometimes known as pounds-feet.

Now to get back to the actual use of a gearbox. The gearbox is placed between the engine and the driving wheels of car, to change the speed and torque (force) of the driving wheel as compared to the engine. This is necessary, because the engine cannot go as fast or as slow as the drive wheels need to go. But that's not the only reason. The gearbox is also there because sometimes the engine cannot produce enough torque to move the vehicle, and sometimes it is producing more torque than we could possibly need.

So to select a gear, you need to change gears if the engine is moving too fast. For example out on the highway, you might need a "higher" gear, which speeds up the rear wheels and slows down the engine. Or if you are climbing a very steep slope, you may need a "lower" gear which speeds up the engine and slows down the driving wheels while multiplying the torque on the driving wheels.

The basic compromise of the gearbox is this: You can get a lot of torque (or force) in a lower gear, but you have to slow down. Or you can go very fast, but not have much torque on the driving wheels.

How would this relate, for example to my Vulcan 900's performance? If I want a lot of rear wheel torque, I would choose the lowest gear possible. So to out-accelerate a Harley Davidson, (for example) from a standing start, I would obviously start with first gear and full throttle. I would hold that until about 70 kph, where I would shift into second gear. As soon as I shift to second, I am cutting the torque to the rear wheel, and consequently I am reducing my acceleration. But I have to shift at 70 kph or the engine will spin too fast. The Vulcan's engine management computer will cut off the engine at about 70 kph in first gear. Other bikes without a rev limiter may simply blow the engine, YMMV. Second gear is capable of getting me to about 110 kph, so I will hold it in second gear until that time. By now, the Harley may be way behind, and a radar trap is up ahead, so the race is over, and I simply close the throttle.

To summarize, you have a gearbox to match engine speed to road speed, and the way you use the gearbox has an important effect on your motorcycle or car or truck's performance. For maximum acceleration, use the lowest gear that your engine can handle without blowing up from over-revving. For maximum fuel efficiency, use as high a gear as possible without lugging the engine (That's the lower limit of the engine's power band)

And why do we have neutral? In case the clutch fails, you need some way to disconnect the engine from the drive wheels in order to stop the bike, so you don't have the runaway acceleration problem like Toyota.

Picture: That's a car gearbox, basically shaft in, bunch of gears, and shaft out. The stick is missing from this picture. You move a stick around to select which gear you want to use.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Everything You Need to Know About Engine Performance*

* But were afraid to ask.

I did mention in an earlier blog that horsepower is not what limits top speed or cruising speed. But there are a lot of myths out there about engine power that need to be addressed.

A typical question about engine power is this: What can I do to my engine to wring more power out of it? And it has to be cheap! I need to keep up with my friends 1000 cc sportbikes on my Honda Shadow 600.

If that is the type question we start with, I feel there is a need to back up to the fundamentals, and work forward from there. I am first going to assume that your friends have (wisely) not lent you any of their 1000 cc sportbikes for a high speed run. If they had, you would be half way to answering your own question. (The answer is nothing, no chance.) And it's not just engine power, it's everything from seating position, to tires, to chassis stiffness, shock absorbers, even the footpegs.

But let's get back to engine power, because there is another statement which I find just as weird. "My Vulcan 900 feels too stressed on the freeway at 120 kph, so I need to buy a bigger bike." For every person who is trying to push a 600 cc Shadow past it's limit, there's another one who is afraid to drive a bike at speeds well within its design potential.

Let's just start off by looking at how an engine makes horsepower. In a word, it's by turning. Each turn, or revolution of the engine, draws in 600 cc of fuel (On a Shadow 600 anyway). The 600 cc of fuel is not liquid gasoline, it is air with gasoline vapour in it, mixed just right so that when you light a spark, the gasoline vapour turns to carbon dioxide, and releases a lot of energy while doing so. The faster the engine turns, the more fuel it takes in, the more often it converts the fuel to energy, and the more power it produces.

There is a limit on how fast an engine can go. (Also how slow, but that's not relevant to making power) The limits are set by the construction of the engine. Some piston engines can go to 18,000 rpm or so, others may be limited to 3,000. Why the difference?

One of the limitations of the engine is vibration. Many parts inside the engine move back and forth and spin. Any spinning part can usually run faster with better bearings and perfect balance. But the parts that move back and forth are going to always cause vibration. And the bigger that part, and the further it has to move, the more it will vibrate. So one solution to making an engine spin faster is smaller parts, but still the same amount of fuel per revolution. That can be done by scaling down every part of the engine to half the size, then putting two half size engines together. So instead of a 600 cc twin cylinder engine, you could have two 300 cc v-twins together making a 600 cc v-four. The four cylinder engine will move faster without breaking up, and so make more power.

A weak point in the internal combustion engine is the piston ring. In case you were not aware, the most difficult job in the engine is sealing the piston against the cylinder wall. That is because the piston is moving up and down quickly, and whenever the fuel ignites, it pushes against the top of the piston with great force and heat, and also tries to go around the piston. If the burning (actually a controlled explosion) fuel manages to get by the piston, it will eat away at the side of the piston and reduce it to molten slag, at which point the engine stops. Back in the nineteen thirties, engines needed to be torn down regularly to put in new piston rings. And that was just a stopgap. Several times in the life of a car, you would also need to rebore the cylinders one size bigger, put in new, bigger pistons, and also one size bigger piston rings. Even driving from Ontario to Vancouver you may want to stop in Winnipeg for a ring job. That's why not many people travelled that way by car, and when they did, they rarely came back. California is full of such people.

You probably didn't know that the piston ring has the most difficult job in the engine. That's because they last so long these days that the car will likely be crushed first before needing new piston rings. But a huge amount of engineering, and manufacturing skill has gone into solving this problem. Stuff that you will never see and never even think about while driving. I'll go into a few of them.

Engines today have shorter strokes, partly to help the rings last longer. That means the pistons don't have to go up and down as far, and their maximum speed rubbing against the cylinder wall is reduced. So is the vibration, which tends to shake them loose in their grooves.

The pistons are designed and manufactured today so that when they are cold, they are not perfectly round. But when they are running at normal speeds in the engine, they will achieve their perfect round shape and size. That is quite difficult thing to do, but having the piston fit perfectly in the cylinder helps to enormously extend the life of the rings. The rings themselves have become specialized, there are rings to scrape the oil, and other rings to hold the gas pressure. The rings to hold the gas pressure are perfectly designed so that the pressure of the gas itself helps seal the piston ring tightly against the wall. And even though these rings may not look it, they are different on the top and bottom, and must be installed right side up or they will not last.

So all these things together, and many more (such as oil technology, and cylinder wall coatings) have extended the life of the piston rings. But this depends on other advances, such as liquid cooling. If your engine is air cooled, the range of temperatures is so great that the pistons will rarely have the perfect shape, and rings will not last. Also if your pistons have a long stroke, the rings will not last. I have to mention Harley Davidson here, as they are still made with long stroke cranks and no liquid cooling. How do they survive? The simple answer is by limiting the speed and power of the engine. If Harley Davidson engineers had their way, they would of course go with liquid cooling, and a short stroke crank, and put out an engine with some serious power. They already have, it's called a Harley Davidson V-Rod, and it usually sits on the showroom floor gathering dust. On the other hand, the Kawasaki Vulcan 900, which supposedly resembles the Harley, actually has liquid cooling and a short stroke and can handily outrun a much bigger engined Harley Davidson with a traditional engine (Not the V-Rod) Not only can it outrun the Harley in the short run, but on the long haul, where the heat generated by an air-cooled engine will build up and make things worse.

I still wonder why there is so much resistance to modern engines among many motorcyclists. Even BMW owners have demanded a two cylinder engine without liquid cooling. I guess part of the reason is the mellow sound of a slow engine, and the simplicity of not having to worry about a radiator. But I worry a lot more about my piston rings melting down in stop and go traffic than I do about the radiator needing to be topped up.

Manufacturers have figured out ways to make an engine of a certain size produce reliable power, but many motorcyclists have not been able to adjust their thinking. Yes, if you could run an engine from 1935 at 10,000 rpm, it would blow up immediately. But my 1969 Honda CD175 was designed to run up to 10,000 rpm without breaking. Coincidentally, Mr. Honda who founded the company, got his start trying to make piston rings for Toyota before WW2.

This resistance to modern engineering does not happen so much with cars, where the engine is isolated from the driver, but many motorcyclists do not understand the engineering behind modern engines, and so insist that if any engine runs over 5,000 rpm it will blow up, and even if it doesn't, it sounds like it will. Years ago I used to hear about an event at Harley Davidson rallies, where they would take an old Honda and rev it until it blows. It usually wouldn't, to the great consternation of the assembled faithful. So they would remove all the oil and try again. It would keep running so long that some spectators were sobering up. So to keep the spectacle short, they would simply start shooting it or hitting it with sledge hammers. Once the ritual was over the bikers would drift away back to the wet t-shirt contests, satisfied that they had once again proven the superiority of the air cooled, slow revving engine.

Picture: I found a picture on the Internet of a person installing piston rings on a piston. You have to bend them to do it.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Horsepower Alone Does Not Equal Speed

Motorcycles keep getting more powerful, and according to many motorcyclists, the speed of the bike is to be judged by the power of the engine. That is just plain nonsense unless you are actually driving at the Bonneville salt flats, and even there you may sometimes find that engine power is not what is limiting your speed.

In my experience, what limits your speed is the enforced speed limits, the congestion of the roads, and the condition of the roads, more or less in that order. I guess a lot of other motorists don't see it that way, simply because they have never really experienced anything different. Well, in my first three years of motorcycling, I never saw a radar trap, or a police car, or even a speed limit sign. So of course it was a shock to me to come back to Canada where, other than a mall parking lot, there is no place in the entire country without a posted (or at least stated somewhere) speed limit.

Only once in Canada did I have the opportunity to ride a powerful motorcycle on a good road with no congestion, and effectively no speed limit at all. It was an 80 kilometer paved section about 300 km south of Labrador City, in Quebec. There was no police detachment within 300 km, and even if there was, that week the police were on a "work to rule" strike action where they refused to hand out speeding tickets. There was only about one car every half hour. Luckily I still had a bit of caution in me and I decided to cruise at only 180 km per hour. The reason I say luckily is because within about ten minutes (during which I covered 30 km), I hit a frost heave that was all but invisible, just a wave in the flat surface of the road. At 90 km per hour, that would be a big bump, and at double that speed I almost came off the bike. Come to think of it, that bump might be the reason that I had to replace a blown fork seal when I got home. Although there were a lot of other reasons for blowing the fork seal on that particular trip. Anyway, after the frost heave, I dropped down to 100 kph, and it felt almost like I was standing still. So to make my point, the speed was limited only by the effectiveness of the suspension, not the horsepower of the motor. To do any better, I would have to travel back and forth on the road to check it out for bumps first, but then I would run out of gas before I got to the nearest filling station.

I normally avoid going to Toronto, as it is slow going and hard to find parking. But that's where I went on Thursday, and I actually enjoyed it, traffic jams and all. I don't know if I am testing the bike or myself or both. But now that I've recovered from my bladder stone operation, the bike itself feels better on rough roads. I should mention that I now have an Air Hawk inflatable motorcycle seat cushion, and I think it also adds to the comfort on this bike. Going in to Toronto on the 401, at times the fast lane traffic speed reached 150, and I was able to keep up with them quite easily.

As I explained, what I appreciate more than engine power is suspension smoothness and control. It's easy to find higher powered engines than I would ever want, but not many bikes have a suspension that is so good I don't need it. Over the last couple of years, up until my operation last month, I was feeling considerable harshness in the Vulcan's rear suspension. I was even considering replacing the rear shock. But now I'm recovered, and I'm having fun hitting some of the bigger bumps without any pain. It almost seems like the faster I go, or the rougher the road, the better the suspension is on the Vulcan 900. I was actually wondering if maybe heating up the shock going over many big bumps, makes it work better. When I'm going slow, trying to avoid bumps because of organ problems, the "softail" Vulcan feels more like a hardtail. Although it has a decent 4 inches of rear suspension travel, it seems to hardly ever use more than an inch when I take it easy. But when I speed up, and start hitting the bigger bumps hard, that's when the Vulcan seems to smooth out and perform according to the specs. When the road is really rough, many bikes have suspensions that bottom out regularly with spine jarring consequences. But over the last week, as I have been riding my bike harder and faster, I have yet to detect the suspension bottoming out. And some of those roads are quite frost heaved because of the time of year.

Another problem I have had with the Vulcan is high speed instability, because of the large handlebar mounted windshield. That problem seems to have disappeared, and I don't know why. It could be because I put a new rear tire on, or that I'm sitting at a different place, or I adjusted the windshield or handlebars. Or that I am just getting used to the bike, or many other reasons. But it feels more stable than before at high speed passing trucks.

When I am on tramcar tracks, or longitudinal cracks on the highway, I really appreciate the fat tires. The 401 sometimes has cracks 5 cm. wide between the lanes, and the Vulcan can traverse them easily without too much wiggling or getting caught.

One interesting point now is that it seems Mary Ann can out corner me on the traffic circles. Her Burgman just zips around, while the Vulcan is either too clumsy, or I'm too chicken to lean it over as far. The one time I did try to keep up, I scraped a floorboard while she never had anything dragging. I'm not too worried about it, because I think the Vulcan corners well enough, although it's more prone to wobbling in the corners than any other bike I've had except the Honda CD175. I think it's a basic characteristic of a long heavy bike with fat tires and a rubber mounted engine. Rubber mounted engines do not contribute to chassis rigidity, and fat tires let the contact patch move farther off centre than a narrow tire does.

The only problem I had in the last week is the right lower windshield bracket bolt worked a bit loose, and I could tell because the windshield was flexing more on the right side at high speeds going into the wind. I have it tightened now. Its the second time since I had this bike that it came loose.

Picture: This is the sign in Germany for no speed limit. I have never seen this sign myself, but I might like to.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Three Lake Ride and Tundra Swans

I have just completed a three-lake ride. With all the nice weather, I couldn't just drive back and forth to Port Dover every day, I needed to use my imagination for once. I hit on the idea of visiting three lakes in three days. Kitchener is perfectly situated for such a ride, being in the middle between Lake Ontario, Lake Erie and Lake Huron. Lake Erie is obviously done, that's where Port Dover is Located. Toronto, where I went yesterday is on Lake Ontario. Today, Mary Ann and I went to Lake Huron. She included a couple of extra stops, one to visit her sister, and one to see the migration of the Tundra Swans before they disappear. They always visit the same field between Port Franks and Grand Bend every year. Earlier this week there were 15,000 of them, but today there were probably no more than 2 thousand at best.

By the time we got to Grand Bend, we were starving, so we went down main street looking for a restaurant. I forgot: the restaurants close in the winter. No, actually I knew that. What I really forgot is that it is still winter! We stopped to discuss the dilemma, and decided to head north to a restaurant appropriately called "I'm Starving" where they were advertising the Friday special halibut dinner. "Stop just for the halibut." This is the type of restaurant that both of us like. You might consider the funny signs posted all over as character, such as "Children left unattended will be served espresso and given a free kitten." But that's not where the real character is found. No, it's in the quirky little things that make no sense. Like the fact that the Friday special costs two dollars more than the every other day of the week menu. Or that the men's bathroom stall and urinal cannot be used at the same time because the door only misses the urinal by about an inch. We were talking to a local couple in the parking lot about our bikes, and I must have looked very rich in my "High Visibility" jacket because they offered to sell me their house for half a million. Mary Ann said "We already have a house." Did I mention she is Dutch? After they went inside, she said to me "Exactly how much did you pay for that jacket?".

Then we were off to get some gas and visit the Swans. There were quite a few cars stopped on Greenway Road looking at the distant white dots in the field. We decided to make ourselves comfortable, so we lay down on a grass covered embankment and used our binoculars to watch them fly overhead. Some of them are on the south side of the road, and some are on the north and every few minutes a group of northerners decides to visit the south and vice versa. So a lot of swans are flying overhead.

After about half an hour we were ready to visit Mary Ann's sister, but before that we needed an afternoon coffee in Lucan. The Timmy's in Lucan unfortunately mixed up our order, and it was impossible to tell which was decaf and which was real coffee. So instead of pitching them out and ordering another two, we simply took a chance. By midnight tonight I should be pretty sure which one I got. And then, to make up for the whole fiasco, we won a free coffee on the roll up the rim. Apparently there are 30,000,000 winners a year in the annual three week contest. And by my rough calculation, probably 150,000,000 losers. Meaning altogether 180 million used cups hit the landfill in three weeks. This information did not please Mary Ann, who is a conservationist, among other things.

We finally started for home about 5:00, to get home before the sun goes down and temperatures drop. After a while I noticed that I forgot to close my saddlebag, so I pulled over on a side road and snapped the lid down. But for Mary Ann this was the perfect opportunity to suggest we explore this road, so off we went. It was actually a good short cut, but it was mostly gravel which we travelled at about 70 kph. Mary Ann explained later that when it gets loose, you just let the bike steer itself when it gets wobbly. I suppose that is good advice, except that every once in a while you might get thrown off regardless. At least we had a lot of heavy clothing on, and the road was hard packed for most of the way.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

New Jacket and Ride to Toronto

Motorcycle riding is feeling good this year. Not only have I recovered from my operation now, but the weather is almost like summer. The weather is so good that my winter clothing is too hot, and I have been borrowing gloves from Mary Ann and trying to use my summer jacket. While I was surfing the net I came across a motorcycling jacket that looked like an improvement over the Joe Rocket jackets that I have now. It's called the Commander by Scorpion, the same company that makes my new helmet. I checked for local dealers, and decided to go for a ride to Snow City Cycle in Scarborough, to have a look at them. But before I got too far, I stopped at Zdeno's for a new pair of motorcycling gloves. And right in the corner I spied the Commander jackets. It was easy, the colour is so bright you can hardly miss it even among all the other jackets. They had a variety of sizes in the high visibility colour. As I was trying them on, Gerry came over to comment how good the coat looked on me. It's impossible to resist when you find exactly what you are looking for, at a discount, the right size and the right colour, and somebody also tells you it looks good. While we were talking I mentioned to her that I saw her on TV last night. That TV spot might partly explain why the parking lot was full when I arrived.

I bought the coat right there, and a pair of gloves. Luckily I brought along a bunch of bungee cords in case I wanted to buy a new jacket while I was in Toronto. So I bungeed the old coat to the sissy bar. This jacket is a lime green neon glow colour that does not exist anywhere in nature. It's also the same colour as many police vests, which even heightens the visibility, as many motorists are always looking out for cops. When I put it on and sat on the bike I was alarmed that I might have overdone the whole visibility thing. The handlebars, the windshield, the controls, the headlight, the speedometer housing, all were glowing bright neon green just reflected off the coat. It was getting overwhelming. So I decided to really test this out, I would drive to Toronto, even though I didn't need to go there any more.

Toronto is the road rage capital of Canada. It is also the place where drivers are least likely to notice you, where pedestrians and bicyclists also run into you and block your way. They also have streetcars, which is pretty much like driving on train tracks with trains coming at you front and back. But for whatever reason, this coat was like magic in Toronto. Actually a bit like Moses parting the Red Sea. Car drivers gave me space on the 401. When I got onto Yonge Street, a very busy place, cars, even taxis, would let me merge into their lane to get around the delivery trucks. At one point I had to make a left turn on to Bloor street with nothing but a stop sign to help me. I had a pedestrian stop and wave me forward! Then the traffic in the street also stopped and let me through. To be honest, there was a red light on the next block, but I have seen worse behaviour in Toronto.

After driving around Toronto for a while, I was going home on the very congested QEW freeway, and in the next lane a Jeep Cherokee from Massachusetts went by with two girls in it. I was just wondering why college students would go north to Canada for March break, when the passenger rolled down the window and reached out to give me a wave. Will the benefit of a high visibility jacket never end?

Toronto is actually a beautiful city to ride around, only two problems. Too much traffic, even during March break. And I don't understand the parking. Apparently you can park at the curb free if you have a motorcycle, but I could not tell where I was allowed to park, or where there was no parking. I saw some scooters parked on the sidewalk, but they have different rules. So I was driving down the Danforth, which is lined with dozens of interesting outdoor cafes, and I wanted to stop but I couldn't figure out the parking. Then I saw a McDonald's with its own parking lot. Finally, the kind of parking I understand. I'm sure if Mary Ann was with me, there would have been comments, but on my own I often unconsciously end up in McDonald's parking lots.

Much of this drive was almost too warm, which is a first for me, in Canada anyway. One roadside billboard in Burlington announced the temperature as +20c. (I have got to put the + there, this is Canada, it's March, and even -20 could be interpreted as too warm.) The only snow I saw was on the ski hill near Milton.

Picture: The Scorpion XDR Commander jacket. You computer screen is most likely not able to show the colour correctly, so you have to trust me that it's really bright.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Easy Ride to London in March

Today the plan was to visit some friends, but that got postponed. With a full day of perfect weather, almost like April, I decided to go to Hully Gully in London. I passed through Stratford on Highway 7, the main road from Stratford to London. It is too rough to be enjoyable. Maybe if I was testing the shocks, I might want to go there, but not for normal recreation. I finally gave up and headed off on a side road in the general direction of London. That's something you really don't want to do without a GPS to guide you, and I don't have a GPS. Eventually by pure luck and intuition I did end up in London. Then I went through the middle of the City, heading west to intersect Wonderland road. I did know that Hully Gully is south on Wonderland. Somewhere on Wonderland I started to get hungry, so I pulled over near a McDonald's. They had a play area, and it's March break, so I started looking around to see if there was anything else more appealing than a Big Mac and a bunch of screaming kids. I was virtually surrounded by fast food establishments. Wendy's Taco Bell, KFC, Tim Horton's, to name a few. Then I saw right behind my a little place called the "Out 'n Back Cafe", specializing in lunches. I decided to chance it, so I left the helmet on the bike and walked in. It was small but there were lots of people in there eating lunch, that was encouraging. I went over to the cafeteria style lunch counter, and ordered one of the specials which was chicken with herb sauce on rice. As I gave my order, I thought I caught a flicker in the eye of the girl on the counter which probably meant "Ohhh! very bad choice, but I'm not allowed to say that with the boss right over there." Actually, it tasted a lot better than it looked, because I don't normally like the look of green sauce. But unfortunately they had to add an awful lot of salt to bring it up to that level.

Before I went to Hully Gully I had an idea in mind of what I was looking for. I wanted to see the new 2010 Honda Shadow 750 RS, which is a little bit retro, and a little bit Harley Sportster. For me what makes it significant is that it is competing head to head with the Sportster at the same price level, and traditionally Hondas were cheaper than Harleys. However, with the weak US dollar, prices are even. In my opinion, a Honda is actually worth more than a Harley, and I would pay more for one myself. But a lot of other people think that Hondas need to be cheaper to sell. Time will tell. Naturally, before I left home, I did not phone ahead to see if they actually had one of those bikes, why spoil the surprise? As I pulled in to the parking lot, I noticed the sign said Yamaha and Suzuki. Not Honda. So I went in anyway, bringing my helmet with me because I don't trust those biker types in the parking lot.

I actually saw a few Hondas in the showroom. As I was walking around looking lost, a lady came up to me and asked if I was out for a ride with my helmet, and if I was looking for something in particular. I said are you not a Honda dealer? She said, they were for about 27 years but lost it two years ago, and now they have Suzuki and Yamaha. She asked me if there was anything other than a Honda 750 RS I might like to look at. I said how about a Kawasaki Concours 1400? She said, that would be a Kawasaki, we have Suzuki and Yamahas. Well then, that was a fruitful visit. On my way out to the parking lot, I noticed that I was parked next to a Harley Davidson touring bike with the helmet sitting on the seat, right where my Scorpion Helmets instruction manual says I am not supposed to put it. I looked a little closer and saw this sticker "In case of accident do not remove this helmet without prior inspection of Doctor", and a whole bunch of other legal boilerplate to scare the bejeebers out of Emergency Aid Workers. But the funniest part was that the helmet was just a little plastic beanie, actually easier to remove than a baseball cap. Usually those warnings go with hard-to-remove full face helmets.

So I headed back through the city aiming for Richmond street and just as I passed Masonville mall heading out of town, a BMW rider pulled onto the street in front of me. So I decided to fall in behind rather than rudely pass and start a race. As I followed along, I was kind of shocked to notice the BMW rider was hand signalling all moves, in addition to having the blinkers signalling the moves. He or she even signalled when moving side to side in the same lane. Then also hand signalled braking (which apparently is left arm out and forearm pointing down.) I'm not saying this is bad driving, but it is different. I use hand signals myself, but I use them to indicate something unusual that the driver behind may otherwise misinterpret. For example, if I'm making a left 20 metres before a big intersection, where the other driver may think I'm turning left at the big intersection.

A rule of thumb I usually go by is BMW riders are the most enthusiastic about rules, and Harley riders are the least. So that could be one explanation. But this was pretty extreme, even for BMW riders, so my other theory is that the BMW rider was doing an official observed road test where if you want to pass, you have to drive in a special way that nobody else ever does.

So just to complete the day I had to make one more stop at Tim Horton's in New Hamburg. As I was looking over the selection, I remembered my doctor's warning: Lots of fruit and veg. So I picked the strawberry filled donut.

Just before I got home, a sign of global warming.  Morty's Pub on King St. in Waterloo had the outdoor patio full of customers on March 16th.  

Monday, March 15, 2010

Sudden Unintended Acceleration Made Simple

By The Lost Motorcyclist, March 2010

Ironically, the invention of the first motor vehicle was seen as a solution to the old problem of runaway acceleration. Back in the days of the cowboys, it was a real problem to halt a runaway team of horses. The brakes were just a stick rubbing on the wheel to stop the coach from running into the back of the horse on a downhill. One solution of course was to climb on the backs of the galloping horses, and walk your way to the front and grab the head of the lead horse, who usually had the bit between his teeth. Another way was to use a gun, but that involved killing one or more of the horses. It was better than killing all the passengers.

I noticed during the congressional hearings, that some representatives asking questions were completely unaware that runaway acceleration has always been with us. Runaway acceleration is not an exclusive Toyota problem, and reappeared soon after the horseless carriage was invented. It also does not apply only to Toyota. Just two weeks ago my sister had a case in her 2003 Honda Civic.

Even in the days of horses, runaway acceleration was an intermittent problem, and so it is often with computer controlled cars. You cannot fix a problem that is rare, intermittent, and leaves no trace, in the way you can fix a problem of outright failure like a fallen bridge. Intermittent problems are very difficult to fix, because they usually function correctly when being analysed.

Highly publicised intermittent problems tend to encourage false reports, which further hampers the investigation. Eyewitness accounts can be inaccurate and misleading.

You can't solve an intermittent problem by completely tearing apart one or more cars. From a purely scientific, logical point of view, you should sort the problems into various categories, and resist the temptation to blame evil spells or magic.

A runaway acceleration reports might fall into one of these categories:
  • Driver pressed accelerator instead of brake by mistake
  • Accelerator got caught in floor mat or under some other object left on floor (such as 500 page drivers' manual)
  • Accelerator mechanism stuck at pedal hinge
  • Stuck linkage or cable (if old style connection) to the throttle on the engine
  • stuck/iced throttle plate on the engine
  • Software logic error glitch within the engine management computer (if new fly by wire system)
  • External radio frequency interference upsets engine management computer
  • Driver accidentally set cruise control on high speed
  • Cruise control fault resulting in acceleration
  • Driver had an accident by own fault, but sincerely believes the car "ran away" on its own
  • Driver had an accident by own fault, is consciously lying, in order to avoid responsibility
  • Driver deliberately rammed something, and is using runaway acceleration as an excuse
  • The accident is blamed on runaway acceleration but is clearly something else (e.g. swerving suddenly off the road)
  • Nothing at all happened, but driver reports it to seek attention, or to hurt the car company, or to make a political statement

The various safety backups failed to prevent the accident
- There was no time to try to control the car (close quarters)
- Brakes failed to slow car at all
- Brakes initially worked, but eventually gave out and burned up
- Brake/throttle interlock failed (if so equipped)
- Shifting car to neutral was not possible/not tried
- turning engine off was not possible/ not tried.
- Car driver panicked no action was taken
- driver panicked in stressful situation, acted irrationally and made things worse

Picture: I photoshopped it to look like a runaway stagecoach with the outrider preparing to stop the horse by other means.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

The Long Distance Motorcycle

A long distance motorcycle is something that you cannot find in a store. In fact, it seems there is no real definition of what a "long distance" even means. To some, it may mean burning an entire tank of gas without stopping for a snack, to others it is nothing less than one complete circle of the globe. I'm going to go with this rule for long distance riding: at least one overnight stop where you carry on going further the next day. I don't usually do that unless I'm serious about getting somewhere I can't get to in one day.

For long distance riding you would need to start with a bike that can keep up with traffic on the major highways, because if you really want to get somewhere in North America, you probably will have to deal with freeways at some point. That might mean a minimum of 400cc or thereabouts, if solo, and maybe 500cc if two up. And you would want a bike that is reliable and has a reasonable dealer network and parts supply. Because even if you can't find a dealer, you should be able to get parts couriered to you anywhere in the USA or Canada, then get a general purpose mechanic to do the work. Smaller bikes, and less reliable bikes can of course be used, but be aware that this would be called an "Adventure", to be written up for the edification of others, not as a normal way to do long distance motorcycling.

Beneficial features on a long distance bike, are comfortable seating position, comfortable seat, and big gas tank. And not too much vibration.

Next, think about luggage. You have to figure out what you're taking with you, and hopefully you will keep it light. But make sure you bring at least spare clothes in case you get soaked, rain gear, and some extra motorcycling gear, as you will be pretty sure to need it. Make sure your luggage is waterproofed and windproof, and securely attached.

Finally consider some weather protection. When you are far from home, you cannot avoid meeting unexpected weather. A windshield or fairing in front of you. Then splash guards for knees and feet are very helpful.

In the preparation, I think it is best to get the bike ready a week before leaving, and do some riding to test it before you go. Just don't be fiddling with it up to the last minute.

Every bike I have ever had, with the exception of the Honda CD175, has been used for long distance motorcycling. But none of them ever broke down far from home, although I had to troubleshoot problems a few times and do a bit of minor repair work along the way. For example a BMW saddlebag hinge cracked and was replaced in South Dakota. A two-stroke muffler plugged up in Saskatchewan. The BMW developed an oil leak in the rear brake in northern Quebec. I blew a few fuses because of electric vests in two different bikes. I had to stop early one night because of rain water on the spark plugs of my Honda CBX.

I had to be rescued once when my Honda CD175 threw a cam chain. I was not on a "long distance" ride, so Mary Ann could come to get me with a car and trailer in less than a day. But it did happen at about the furthest distance from home I had ever ridden that bike.

The BMW K1100LT went the furthest, and in the toughest conditions, of any bike I had, but it was also the only one to have a sudden catastrophic failure. At least it had the good grace to do it at the top of a hill where I was within coasting distance of home.

Pictures: Tisdale Saskatchewan in the '70's, when rape was rape, not "canola". Second picture is the scene of the rescue in Grand Bend, Ontario. The dead Honda had thrown a cam chain and it took me all winter to repair the engine. Next spring, it was back on the road with every single internal part of the engine replaced, except the cam chain. That's one difference between how shade tree mechanic and a pro would work.

Downsizing the Motorcycle

Even though many motorcycles today are bigger than they need to be, a topic that is rarely dealt with in magazines is downsizing your motorcycle. Over the last 40 years, I have most often either doubled the horsepower or doubled the price each time I bought a new bike, with the exception of the current one, the Vulcan 900. I'm not counting my vintage bikes, where I am buying more for nostalgia than for transportation. Unlike all my other purchases, the Vulcan 900 was a downsize of the BMW K1100LT in price and horsepower, by about half, although it is still about the same weight.

I think that if there was the right bike out there, I may be tempted once again to double up on the the horsepower. But after the BMW, nothing looks that much better to me. The newer BMW's are not so superior to the 1992 K1100LT to make it worth trading up again. Now maybe if they had a really exciting looking 6 cylinder sport touring bike, I might be tempted, but that bike may be several years off if it ever does appear in the showrooms.

Frugality is one of many reasons for wanting to trade down, and none of the other reasons for downsizing are really exciting either. My wife had bought her own bike a year earlier, and it made more sense for me to get a smaller bike just because I would not need to carry her with me on long trips, and I was sure I wouldn't need anything like a new BMW to keep up with her Burgman.

Getting old is another reason to get a smaller bike, if you have trouble reaching the ground, or swinging a leg over the seat, or holding it up. Sometimes people get stiff as they get older, and a lot of bikers are getting older these days.

Where the Vulcan may still fall short of the BMW is a road like I-75 in Detroit. There, the Vulcan, which felt so smooth and steady at 100 kph, would vibrate and feel unstable at about 140 kph. But on this road, the BMW's tingling vibration would smooth out, and you could begin to appreciate the steering, which is just the right balance between being stable in the wake of the big trucks, and flickable around the frequent potholes and debris. The BMW throttle, which was difficult to modulate at 100 kph, was perfectly suited to matching the bike's speed to the speed of the surrounding traffic on I75. With a little extra twist, it would accelerated or decelerate with the amount of force needed to merge into other lanes. Normally you would not need even need the brakes unless there was a traffic jam ahead.

On the moderate speed roads around Kitchener, the BMW's handlebars would buzz at 100 kph. The throttle twist grip had to be almost shut, and tended to jerk the bike with the slightest movement either opening it up or closing it down, which was kind of annoying. The Vulcan on the other hand, was designed to ride at these moderate speeds. Modulating the Vulcan's throttle at 100 kph is effortless, and the speed never creeps up without warning. The Vulcan's lazy gear changes are so smooth as to be almost unnoticeable. Even the vibration is just a gentle reminder that the engine was running, instead of a harsh buzz.

The Vulcan is not a corner carver. If you hit a bump in a corner, you need to correct the steering a bit. Every once in a while, I scrape the floorboards on a corner, a reminder to slow down. These things never ever happened in all the time I had the BMW. But since I only meet one high speed curve every half hour or so around here, this is not a problem. And even if I was on a trip with a lot of curves, the Vulcan is more than adequate to keep up with any normal traffic.

The Kawasaki also happens to be a cruiser, your feet are up forward, and the handlebars reach back, which makes it easy to lean on a backrest.

I don't think I miss the horsepower and the speed. I have had no speeding tickets yet with the Vulcan, but it's only been three years. Traffic in Southern Ontario is slow enough that the Vulcan 900 can easily get past it if I want to, especially if I am riding solo. But I hardly ever need to do that if Mary Ann is riding with me on her Burgman. The BMW would need an autobahn or mountain roads with high speed traffic (or sparse traffic) to really have fun, and Mary Ann would have to be a passenger to make full use of the horsepower.

Announcements of interest:

1. The runaway Toyota Prius in California that got so much press attention turns out to be another "Bubble boy" stunt on closer inspection.

2. Canadian Broadcasting Corporation is running a six part series on WW2 propaganda.

3. The March Equinox is Saturday, but day and night will be equal length in Kitchener on Wednesday. The explanation is here:

Picture: A family motorcycle ride a couple of years ago. Paul and Mary Ann didn't have motorcycle licences then. The newest bike in the picture is the 1986 Suzuki 400, and it is the only one that is gone today.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Pink Dump Trucks and Runaway Toyotas

I went for another motorcycle ride today, the warmest day so far. It was 14c when I left home. I turned back at New Hamburg, and took Bleams road back to Kitchener. In New Hamburg I saw a rare sight, a dump truck painted all pink. The driver was a man, I did check.

One thing that prompted the trip was this feeling that I should enjoy life as much as possible before I die. I always get that feeling after my regular checkup with my doctor, which I had at 2:30 PM today. This time there was nothing wrong with me, although the doctor did suggest eating more fruits, fiber and vegetables and fewer Tim Hortons donuts. Otherwise my probability of having a stroke is 13%, I did not inquire further about this alarming statistic. So today I ordered a raisin bran muffin as a compromise. And a large decaf. I don't usually order large, but with my last coffee, I won a free large coffee, and I had to cash in my winnings.

On the way home, I was stopping for a traffic light, and as I came to a stop, the car to my left suddenly accelerated and went through the light just as it turned red. It was a new Toyota Camry, what a coincidence. But I highly doubt that this was a case of UNintended acceleration. I might even call that "INtended acceleration". Why is it that Toyota drivers think they can get away with this stuff just because the newspapers and TV are filled with stories about unintended acceleration? I wonder if I was driving my Toyota, and I went through a red traffic light, and then either got stopped by the police, or had an accident, would I have the nerve to blame it on "Sudden Unintended Acceleration"? I don't think so.

While I'm on the subject of unintended acceleration, I am really surprised that there is still a debate about whether brakes are stronger than the engine. Some people think the engine is stronger than the brakes, some people think the engine is stronger in the short run, but brakes are stronger in the long run. Some people believe that to stop a car, you need assistance from the engine, which provides some drag when your foot is OFF the throttle. And another weirdness, some people think that all car brakes are "Hydraulically assisted". I think what they mean is that the brakes are "Hydraulically actuated" which is a totally different thing. Assisting means adding some force to the braking pedal, as in "power brakes". Actuated means transmitting the force of your foot directly to the brake hydraulically.

It is shocking how much ignorance is out there about car driving. But there are people reading while driving, which is about a hundred times dumber than not knowing the physics how brakes work.

So once again, I come to the rescue of Toyota. With dry pavement, the stopping distance of a car from 60 mph is 150 feet. I'm working in the old non metric system, since apparently in almost all cases of unintended acceleration, the driver only seems to understand feet and inches. The accelerating distance of a car, from 0 to 60 mph is 370 feet. The stopping is done mostly by the brakes, the acceleration is done by the motor. And the shorter the distance, the more power, whether it is braking 60-0 or accelerating 0-60. Now obviously, acceleration varies enormously, from an overloaded Toyota Yaris (longer distance) to a Turbo Porsche (shorter distance). So that gives you room to dispute the fact that according to distance alone, the brakes are twice as powerful as the engine. However in all cases, acceleration is limited by the power of the motor. But the brakes are limited by the traction of the tires. That's right, in order to be as powerful as the brakes, you would need a car with four wheel drive that is also capable of smoking all the tires from zero up to sixty mph. A car with enough engine power to spin even one tire, leaving a black streak on the road is rare. But to lay down four strips of rubber for 150 feet is likely going to require over 1500 hp. I have never seen a car that could do it. But the majority of cars can lay down a four wheel skid mark from 60 mph to zero.

And now for the long term. The engine can continue to put out that power until the gas tank runs dry, about 400 km. The brakes can continue to absorb that power for only about 1 km. until they burst into flames. Which means, if the engine takes off on its own, get that car stopped using the brakes in less than 1 km. If not, the other 399 km could get exciting.

Picture: Pink dump truck I got off the internet. I didn't have my camera with me to snap the pink truck I saw, and why bother when I can find a picture of anything imaginable on the internet?

First Two-Bike Ride of 2010

It was Mary Ann's first ride of the season. Our plan was to ride to Port Dover on Tuesday March 9, and have a Perch dinner at Knechtel's. Of course her Burgman started up immediately. It took only two stabs at the starter button to fire up and keep running after almost four months sitting in the garage just waiting.

We have had a run of nice weather, the only thing I don't like is that the snow is still melting and causing a bit of water in some places on the road. So the bikes are getting a little spray on them. Otherwise, plenty of sunshine and warm enough that I don't need handlebar muffs or an electric vest. There are a number of other bikes out too.

On our trip down there was one situation where once again I came up behind a slow moving farm tractor in a village, pulling trailers with piles of stuff (I don't remember what) that blocked my view of the road. I pulled out to pass, and tried to not make Barry's mistake last year of exceeding the speed limit and running into a radar trap. This time I went around nice and slow, but immediately ran into a four way stop. It's hard to know what to do about tractors pulling trailers blocking the road. Some people follow along for miles at very slow speeds, adding to the confusion, some drivers go around at the first opportunity.

When we got to Port Dover, we almost had another accident. I put my helmet in the underseat compartment of the Burgman when we parked at Knechtel's and started to take off my jacket. Mary Ann had to take my helmet out again just for a minute to get hers in, and placed it on top of the seat, but then the seat moved and the helmet started to fall off. They say right in the instructions for the helmet, don't place the helmet on the seat. Apparently if it falls off and the shell cracks the pavement, you should replace it. And naturally, they always fall off if placed on a seat, even if it's only for one second. Luckily I caught it, it's really bad luck when you have the same helmet for 7 years and never drop it, then the third ride with a brand new helmet, down it goes.

Knechtel's was almost full at 12:15, and Mary Ann figures it must be a popular place with the locals. A perch dinner costs $10.00 and includes a salad bar, four pieces of perch, fries and coleslaw. It doesn't sound like much, but it really does taste good.

We left our bikes parked and went for a walk along the beach after dinner. As we walked along, we were passed by a guy on cross country skis. That's because for some reason there is a shelf of ice and snow between the sandy beach and the open water of Lake Erie, that you can actually ski on. We explored around the town a bit, and ended up at Tim Horton's for a coffee and donut. That's where you usually meet the motorcyclists on weekends, but even during the week it seems some riders like me, who are able to get out. Mary Ann is not usually interested in standing around talking about bikes, but when I'm there by myself I do that instead of walking on the beach.

On our way back to Kitchener, I was feeling kind of tired, so we stopped for a rest in Paris where the railway tracks go over the river. I usually like to go down the embankment where I can lay down on some concrete slabs that feel as comfortable as a Lazy Boy recliner, but Mary Ann stopped me and brought a sign to my attention that says "Do not pass this point". So instead I found another slab that was just as comfortable, except that it was actually a historical marker for the site. Mary Ann was horrified, but as I pointed out, there was no sign saying I could not use the historical marker as a backrest.

We decided one more stop for coffee in Paris before heading home. I'm not used to coffee any more, as I almost stopped drinking it because of my bladder stone, which has now been removed. So I found out one medium Tim Horton's coffee at 3 PM managed to wake me up and keep me awake until 2 AM.

Pictures, the Port Dover cemetery, and the Paris Green Lane Tim Horton's.