How To Get Into Cars – Choosing Your First Project Car

The automobile is a wonderous invention, perhaps one of the most transformative of the 20th century. They’re machines that often inspire an all-consuming passion, capturing the heart with sights, sounds, and smells. However, for those who grew up isolated from car culture, it can be difficult to know how to approach cars as a hobby. If this sounds like you, fear not – this article is a crash course into getting your feet wet in the world of horsepower.

So You Like Cars, Eh?

Project cars let you do things that you’d never dare attempt in a daily.

The first step to becoming a true gearhead is identifying your specific passion. Car culture is a broad church, and what excites one enthusiast can be boring or even repulsive to another. Oftentimes, the interest can be spawned by a fond memory of a family member’s special ride, or a trip to a motor race during childhood.

Knowing what kind of cars you like is key to your journey. You might fall in love with classic American muscle and drag racing, or always fancied yourself in the seat of a tweaked-out tuner car a la The Fast And The Furious. Movies, posters, magazines, and your local car shows are a great way to figure out what excites you about cars. Once you’ve got an idea of what you like, it’s time to start thinking about picking out your first project car. Continue reading “How To Get Into Cars – Choosing Your First Project Car”

New Silicon Carbide Semiconductors Bring EV Efficiency Gains

After spending much of the 20th century languishing in development hell, electric cars have finally hit the roads in a big way. Automakers are working feverishly to improve range and recharge times to make vehicles more palatable to consumers.

With a strong base of sales and increased uncertainty about the future of fossil fuels, improvements are happening at a rapid pace. Oftentimes, change is gradual, but every so often, a brand new technology promises to bring a step change in performance. Silicon carbide (SiC) semiconductors are just such a technology, and have already begun to revolutionise the industry.

Mind The Bandgap

A graph showing the relationship between band gap and temperature for various phases of Silicon Carbide.

Traditionally, electric vehicles have relied on silicon power transistors in their construction. Having long been the most popular semiconductor material, new technological advances have opened it up to competition. Different semiconductor materials have varying properties that make them better suited for various applications, with silicon carbide being particularly attractive for high-power applications. It all comes down to the bandgap.

Electrons in a semiconductor can sit in one of two energy bands – the valence band, or the conducting band. To jump from the valence band to the conducting band, the electron needs to reach the energy level of the conducting band, jumping the band gap where no electrons can exist. In silicon, the bandgap is around 1-1.5 electron volts (eV), while in silicon carbide, the band gap of the material is on the order of 2.3-3.3 eV. This higher band gap makes the breakdown voltage of silicon carbide parts far higher, as a far stronger electric field is required to overcome the gap. Many contemporary electric cars operate with 400 V batteries, with Porsche equipping their Taycan with an 800 V system. The naturally high breakdown voltage of silicon carbide makes it highly suited to work in these applications.

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Brussels Looks Towards Banning Fossil Fuel Transportation As Soon As 2035

Many cities around the world routinely struggle with smog. Apart from being unsightly, heavy air pollution has serious negative health effects, both in the short term and with regards to long-term life expectancy. Over the years, governments have tried to tackle the problem with varied tactics around the world.

When talking about smog, Brussels is not one of the cities that comes first to mind. Regardless, the local government has developed its new climate plan that seeks to abolish fossil fuel vehicles from its streets by 2035. The scheme has a variety of measures that will be staggered over the coming years. It’s part of a broadening trend in transportation, and something we’ll likely see more of around the world in coming years.

What’s The Go?

Brussels is in the process of reducing congestion by converting former roads into pedestrian-only spaces. REUTERS/Eric Vidal

Under the new plan, diesel vehicles will be banned from the city’s Low Emission Zone, or LEZ, by 2030. This will further extend to gasoline vehicles in 2035. Furthermore, special categories of higher polluting vehicles will have bans enforced even earlier. Motorcycles had previously been exempt from the LEZ, but moving forward, the most polluting models will be locked out of the city centre as soon as 2022. The aim is to reduce emissions, with a goal of cutting CO2 output by 40 percent by 2030, and becoming carbon neutral by 2050. The city is also exploring the concept of a Zero Emission Zone, or ZEZ, expanding upon earlier efforts which transformed the Boulevard Anspach from a heavily-trafficked road into a pedestrian-only plaza. Continue reading “Brussels Looks Towards Banning Fossil Fuel Transportation As Soon As 2035”

Tesla’s Smart Summon – Gimmick Or Greatness?

Tesla have always aimed to position themselves as part automaker, part tech company. Their unique offering is that their vehicles feature cutting-edge technology not available from their market rivals. The company has long touted it’s “full self-driving” technology, and regular software updates have progressively unlocked new functionality in their cars over the years.

The latest “V10” update brought a new feature to the fore – known as Smart Summon. Allowing the driver to summon their car remotely from across a car park, this feature promises to be of great help on rainy days and when carrying heavy loads. Of course, the gulf between promises and reality can sometimes be a yawning chasm.

How Does It Work?

Holding the “Come To Me” button summons the vehicle to the user’s location. Releasing the button stops the car immediately.

Smart Summon is activated through the Tesla smartphone app. Users are instructed to check the vehicle’s surroundings and ensure they have line of sight to the vehicle when using the feature. This is combined with a 200 foot (61 m) hard limit, meaning that Smart Summon won’t deliver your car from the back end of a crowded mall carpark. Instead, it’s more suited to smaller parking areas with clear sightlines.

Once activated, the car will back out of its parking space, and begin to crawl towards the user. As the user holds down the button, the car moves, and will stop instantly when let go. Using its suite of sensors to detect pedestrians and other obstacles, the vehicle is touted to be able to navigate the average parking environment and pick up its owners with ease.

No Plan Survives First Contact With The Enemy

With updates rolled out over the air, Tesla owners jumped at the chance to try out this new functionality. Almost immediately, a cavalcade of videos began appearing online of the technology. Many of these show that things rarely work as well in the field as they do in the lab.

As any driver knows, body language and communication are key to navigating a busy parking area. Whether it’s a polite nod, an instructional wave, or simply direct eye contact, humans have become well-rehearsed at self-managing the flow of traffic in parking areas. When several cars are trying to navigate the area at once, a confused human can negotiate with others to take turns to exit the jam. Unfortunately, a driverless car lacks all of these abilities.

This situation proved all too much for the Tesla, and the owner was forced to intervene.

A great example is this drone video of a Model 3 owner attempting a Smart Summon in a small linear carpark. Conditions are close to ideal – a sunny day, with little traffic, and a handful of well-behaved pedestrians. In the first attempt, the hesitation of the vehicle is readily apparent. After backing out of the space, the car simply remains motionless, as two human drivers are also attempting to navigate the area. After backing up further, the Model 3 again begins to inch forward, with seemingly little ability to choose between driving on the left or the right. Spotting the increasing frustration of the other road users, the owner is forced to walk to the car and take over. In a second attempt, the car is again flummoxed by an approaching car, and simply grinds to a halt, unable to continue. Communication between autonomous vehicles and humans is an active topic of research, and likely one that will need to be solved sooner rather than later to truly advance this technology.

Pulling straight out of a wide garage onto an empty driveway is a corner case they haven’t quite mastered yet.

An expensive repair bill, courtesy of Smart Summon.

Other drivers have had worse experiences. One owner had their Tesla drive straight into the wall of their garage, an embarrassing mistake even most learner drivers wouldn’t make. Another had a scary near miss, when the Telsa seemingly failed to understand its lack of right of way. The human operator can be seen to recognise an SUV approaching at speed from the vehicle’s left, but the Tesla fails to yield, only stopping at the very last minute. It’s likely that the Smart Summon software doesn’t have the ability to understand right of way in parking environments, where signage is minimal and it’s largely left up to human intuition to figure out.

This is one reason why the line of sight requirement is key – had the user let go of the button when first noticing the approaching vehicle, the incident would have been avoided entirely. Much like other self-driving technologies, it’s not always clear how much responsibility still lies with the human in the loop, which can have dire results. And more to the point, how much responsibility should the user have, when he or she can’t know what the car is going to decide to do?

More amusingly, an Arizona man was caught chasing down a Tesla Model 3 in Phoenix, seeing the vehicle rolling through the carpark without a driver behind the wheel. While the embarassing incident ended without injury, it goes to show that until familiarity with this technology spreads, there’s a scope for misunderstandings to cause problems.

It’s Not All Bad, Though

Some users have had more luck with the feature. While it’s primarily intended to summon the car to the user’s GPS location, it can also be used to direct the car to a point within a 200 foot radius. In this video, a Tesla can be seen successfully navigating around a sparsely populated carpark, albeit with some trepidation. The vehicle appears to have difficulty initially understanding the structure of the area, first attempting a direct route before properly making its way around the curbed grass area. The progress is more akin to a basic line-following robot than an advanced robotic vehicle. However, it does successfully avoid running down its owner, who attempts walking in front of the moving vehicle to test its collision avoidance abilities. If you value your limbs, probably don’t try this at home.

No, not like that!

Wanting to explore a variety of straightforward and oddball situations, [DirtyTesla] decided to give the tech a rundown himself. The first run in a quiet carpark is successful, albeit with the car weaving, reversing unnecessarily, and ignoring a stop sign. Later runs are more confident, with the car clearly choosing the correct lane to drive in, and stopping to check for cross traffic. Testing on a gravel driveway was also positive, with the car properly recognising the grass boundaries and driving around them. That is, until the fourth attempt, when the car gently runs off the road and comes to a stop in the weeds. Further tests show that dark conditions and heavy rain aren’t a show stopper for the system, but it’s still definitely imperfect in operation.

Reality Check

Fundamentally, there’s plenty of examples out there that suggest this technology isn’t ready for prime-time. Unlike other driver-in-the-loop aids, like parallel parking assists, it appears that users put a lot more confidence in the ability of Smart Summon to detect obstacles on its own, leading to many near misses and collisions.

If all it takes is a user holding a button down to drive a 4000 pound vehicle into a wall, perhaps this isn’t the way to go. It draws parallels to users falling asleep on the highway when using Tesla’s AutoPilot – drivers are putting ultimate trust in a system that is, at best, only capable when used in combination with a human’s careful oversight. But even then, how is the user supposed to know what the car sees? Tesla’s tools seem to have a way of lulling users into a false sense of confidence, only to be betrayed almost instantly to the delight of Youtube viewers around the world.

While it’s impossible to make anything truly foolproof, it would appear that Tesla has a ways to go to get Smart Summon up to scratch. Combine this with the fact that in 90% of videos, it would have been far quicker for an able-bodied driver to simply walk to the vehicle and drive themselves, and it definitely appears to be more of a gimmick than a useful feature. If it can be improved, and limitations such as line-of-sight and distance can be negated, it will quickly become a must-have item on luxury vehicles. That may yet be some years away, however. Watch this space, as it’s unlikely other automakers will rest for long!

Takata Airbag Recalls Widen To Potentially Affect Other Types Of Airbag

The Takata airbag case has become the largest product recall in history, caused over 20 deaths, and cost many billions of dollars. Replacement efforts are still ongoing, and sadly, the body count continues to rise.  Against this backdrop, further recalls have been announced affecting another type of Takata airbag.

The recall affects BMW 3 Series vehicles, produced between 1997 and 2000. Notably, it appears these cars may have been built before Takata’s fateful decision to produce airbag inflators using ammonium nitrate propellants, known for their instability. Instead, these vehicles likely used Takata’s proprietary tetrazole propellant, or Non-Azide Driver Inflators (NADI). These were developed in the 1990s, and considered a great engineering feat at the time. They were eventually phased out around 2001 for cost reasons, leading to the scandal that rolls on to this day.

As these airbags were produced before the switch to ammonium nitrate, they have thus far escaped scrutiny as part of existing recalls. Two recent incidents of airbag misdeployments in Australia led to the recall, causing a death and a serious injury. BMW Australia have advised owners not to drive affected vehicles, and are offering loan or hire cars to affected vehicles. Given the age of the affected vehicles, the company is considering a buyback program in the event that suitable replacement parts cannot be made available.

This development is foreboding, as it suggests yet more cars, originally considered safe, are now at risk of injuring or killing occupants in the event of a crash. It’s not yet clear exactly which makes are effected by this recall, but expect the numbers of vehicles to continue to climb.

[via Sydney Morning Herald]

Converting A Tesla To A Pickup Truck

The renowned inventor of useless robots [Simone Giertz] has outdone herself this time. She, along with a team of engineers featuring [Rich Rebuilds], [Laura Kampf], and [Marcos Ramirez], recently decided to convert a Tesla into a pickup truck, and make a video along the way, all while salvaging what remains they can of the back of the car and making the final product roadworthy. Yeah, this is a couple weeks old now, and yeah, it’s kind of a commercial, but really: [Simone Giertz] and Co. rock.

In her vlog of the experience, the team starts by gutting out the interior of the car in order to find out the weight distribution and form of the outer frame. Essentially, in order to create the pickup truck, a portion of the back of the car needs to be removed, with additional beams and support welded in depending on the consequent structural integrity. With a sawzall and angle grinder, the top portion of the frame is cut and taken out, but not before a worrying glance brings about the realization that the car needs exterior support during its modifications.

After the cushions, glass, wiring, and all other accessories are removed, they install a truck bed from another sacrificial pickup truck, as well as a roof rack to complete the look. Amidst the deconstruction and reconstruction, there are moments when the car encounters a “Safety restraint system fault” or when the team accidentally lines the inside of the car with fiberglass right before shooting their video. Between complaints of the different clip sizes used and the clear time pressure of the project, it’s a funny and informative look into a pretty unique car mod.

The final commercial they made of their Tesla-pickup hybrid, dubbed Truckla, is available on [Giertz]’s YouTube channel.

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Worn Out EMMC Chips Are Crippling Older Teslas

It should probably go without saying that the main reason most people buy an electric vehicle (EV) is because they want to reduce or eliminate their usage of gasoline. Even if you aren’t terribly concerned about your ecological footprint, the fact of the matter is that electricity prices are so low in many places that an electric vehicle is cheaper to operate than one which burns gas at $2.50+ USD a gallon.

Another advantage, at least in theory, is reduced overal maintenance cost. While a modern EV will of course be packed with sensors and complex onboard computer systems, the same could be said for nearly any internal combustion engine (ICE) car that rolled off the lot in the last decade as well. But mechanically, there’s a lot less that can go wrong on an EV. For the owner of an electric car, the days of oil changes, fouled spark plugs, and the looming threat of a blown head gasket are all in the rear-view mirror.

Unfortunately, it seems the rise of high-tech EVs is also ushering in a new era of unexpected failures and maintenance woes. Case in point, some owners of older model Teslas are finding they’re at risk of being stranded on the side of the road by a failure most of us would more likely associate with losing some documents or photos: a disk read error.

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