The U.S. delivers a Third World ground transportation experience?

Back in the 1980s, you knew that you were in a Third World country when

  • traffic congestion made daytime trips take 2-3 times longer than they would be on clear roads
  • your driver had only a tenuous command of local geography
  • your driver was not proficient in English

On a recent visit to Miami, my born-in-Colombia Uber driver was unable to find the Hyatt on Miami Beach, unable to follow the directions from the Uber app, and unable to speak more than a few words of English. Here’s Interstate 95 circa 6 pm on a Monday:

Upon arrival in Boston, my born-in-the-Dominican-Republic driver struggled with the English language (after six years in the U.S.; he’d been a bus driver in the DR so presumably hadn’t needed English there) and with the mid-December snow (thanks, Honda, for engineering the Accord so that I’m still alive!).

None of my previous 10 Uber drivers in Miami or Washington, D.C. had been native-born or were English-proficient.

Is it fair to say that, at least when it comes to traveling around our cities, the U.S. is delivering the Third World 1980s life experience?

[Tangentially related: We lined up for coffee and “Aussie pies” at a shop in St. Augustine, Florida a couple of days ago. The huge Christmas/New Year’s tourist crush was over, but the city was still packed with humanity (of course we need more via immigration!). It was 10:30 am and they’d mostly sold out of the pies. I noted to a former Soviet comrade: “This is just like what Westerners said life in the Soviet Union was like circa 1970. You wait in a long line and then when you get to the front find out that everything has been sold.”]

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Audi A4 review

This is a review of a 2018 Audi A4 after a week of driving around Colorado. The vehicle was rented from Silvercar, an Audi subsidiary. Usually I am a Hertz Gold member, but prices at DEN for a simple Hyundai were so high that I decided to try going off-airport and pay about the same fee for a fancier vehicle. The Silvercar experience is pretty good, though it starts with catching a shuttle to an off-airport parking lot. In Denver this isn’t an issue because you are 99 percent likely to want to head in that direction. The Silvercar staffer, Angela, showed me how to use the shifter (apparently this has not been obvious to previous customers) and suggested Apple CarPlay instead of the Audi navi system. She recommended Denver Biscuit Company for breakfast (truly awesome!). I couldn’t find an owner’s manual in the glove box, so I had to resort to a 400-page online PDF (not from Audi itself; the company does not seem to make any attempt to provides these on its web site).

The car is more nimble than our 2018 Honda Odyssey minivan. However, it isn’t as quiet nor does it soak up bumps as well. So it represents a different point on an engineering continuum, not some sort of huge advance over what Honda is capable of doing. The 9-year-old passenger said that she preferred the Honda.

The “roll a cursor around the screen” instead of a touch screen interface requires a lot more head-down time than a well-implemented touch screen. The steering wheel controls do not seem as intuitive as on the Honda, nor is it as easy to adjust radio volume. Fortunately, Audi puts a volume knob down near the driver’s right hand (to the right of the shifter). Changing the radio station can be done more or less by feel, flicking a dedicated button to change the main screen to radio tuning. There is no button, however, to go back to Apple CarPlay and the navigation map (if you are willing to accept that Apple Maps is legitimately “navigation”!). It takes a huge amount of head-down time to switch back to CarPlay. The “Back” button does not work for this.

I could not configure the central instrument cluster to put the fuel gauge anywhere that was visible. Its far-right location is obscured by the steering wheel and its stalks, at least from my (6′ tall) point of view. Ameliorating this issue is a continuous display of the range remaining and the car’s long overall range (more than 400 miles) and 30 mpg achieved in mountain highway driving.

The cruise control is not adaptive or at least does not default to being adaptive (since there was no owner’s manual in the vehicle I never figured out whether it was not included on this particular car or if it needed to be set somehow). If set to 75 mph, therefore, the car will try to ram itself into the car in front. As someone who has grown accustomed to Honda’s adaptive cruise control, this is disconcerting! I wonder if there will be a lot of “automation confusion” accidents as cars transition into assisted driving and drivers move from Car A where Task X is handled automatically into Car B where Task X must be done manually.

Audi engineers can’t make up their minds whether to have synthesized voice warnings or tone warnings. Thus there is a mixture. Start up the car and don’t have your seatbelt on? Confusing beeping. Shut down the car and open the door before unplugging your phone from CarPlay? Synthesized (loud!) voice warning about the phone still being connected. The overall impression was that the car was unhappy and beeping or warning far more often than the Honda Odyssey.

Warning for the drive-through crowd: The Audi A4 has no rear cupholders when operated as a five-seater.

Conclusion: It is a nice car, but I would be just as happy with a Honda Accord. What about the boring folks at Consumer Reports? They give the A4 a score of 85 and say that it costs $36,000 to $44,500. The Accord scores 84 with a price range of $23,570 to $35,800.

Readers: Who loves Audi? What do you love about the A4? (More importantly, who has experienced the new A8 and its active suspension?)

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With a cap on Ubers they will mostly hang out in the richest neighborhoods?

In “New York restrictions on Uber will increase inequality?” I wondered about how the profits from this new government regulation would be distributed.

Now I’m wondering about the cars themselves. Taxis were capped in NYC for decades (leading to the $1 million medallion price). The result was that taxis were plentiful in rich parts of Manhattan and scarce in poorer and outlying neighborhoods. I wonder if the same thing will happen with Ubers now that they’re capped. Manhattan and hipster Brooklyn will be packed with Ubers while folks who live elsewhere… can walk.

Readers: Does the above make sense?

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Conventional wisdom says “never leave a dog in a car” because he’ll die from the heat.  A modern car, however, has nearly all of the makings of a perfect kennel:  (1) two energy sources:  battery and gas tank/engine, (2) fans that can bring in fresh air, (3) interior temperature sensors (cars where you set “72 degrees” on the dashboard), (4) power windows, (5) clear windows that are coated with high-tech materials that reject IR and UV light.  Plus the car is a familiar place for the dog and most dogs seem to prefer being in their normal car to being tied up somewhere unfamiliar.  With 100 lines of computer programming a car could do the following:

1) blow air in or, ideally, out of the car when the temperature rose above 70 degrees

2) roll down the windows a bit

3) turn the engine on and start the air conditioner, notifying the owner that it was getting a bit roasty out there for Fido [doing this mass-market would require a working wireless Internet infrastructure in the United States, something that has been discussed here earlier but is apparently not a high priority for our politicians]

4) if the gas tank were getting low, roll down all the windows and shut off the engine, notifying the owner that the dog was at risk of escape or theft

The system could be made a bit better if the car had, in addition to the windows, a slideable stainless steel or Kevlar mesh that could roll up and down.  Then the dog and the car could be secure with all the windows up.

Because car makers don’t open their computer systems to programming (I never thought I’d say this but I wish that cars ran Windows XP so that I could add the above features myself in Visual Basic), it isn’t possible to build this right now very easily.  However, I think I have a solution.

Suppose that you don’t really use the back seat of your car.  You can install a stainless steel wire mesh on the inside of the back windows, essentially stapled to the door frame.  Attached to the inside of the mesh on one side put a 12V exhaust blower fan.  You can now roll down the rear windows, put a sunshade across the windshield, and the temperature inside the car should not exceed the temperature outside.  Maybe add a provision for a temporary fine-mesh screen for summer evenings so that mosquitos don’t get into the car.

One issue with the car/kennel idea is that the motor might run the battery down.  However the only time you’d want to use the fan is in the summer when the battery power is at its peak and the power required to start the engine is at its lowest.  You wouldn’t be leaving the dog for more than an hour or two so even the most powerful fans wouldn’t exhaust the battery.

I’m planning to do this with my next car.  I like minivans because it is easy to keep a bicycle in the car (I have trouble walking so like to have a bike available at all times).  There are some new minivans available that have middle windows that roll down, e.g., Toyota Sienna 2004.  Before I trade in my 5-year-old minivan I am hoping that someone will introduce a gas/electric hybrid minivan but if it doesn’t happen by February 2004 I’ll buy a new Sienna and start stapling.

Better ideas anyone?

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Hitler speaks from beyond the grave

Today’s New York Times notes that a new translation of Hitler’s sequel to Mein Kampf is available (story).  The West’s conflict with the Arab nations has made Nazi-era writings and history much more relevant.  For example, one reads in the newspaper that opinion polls are showing that many Arabs regard George W. Bush as the world’s leading war criminal.  A parallel can be found in Berlin, The Downfall 1945 (Antony Beevor).  On April 14, 1945, Adolf Hitler commented on the death of Roosevelt: “At the moment when Fate has removed the greatest war criminal of all time from this earth, the turn of events in this war will be decisive.”

Hitler’s spirit is alive in 2003 in the USA as well.  Pick up some marketing literature from Mercedes for example.  Hitler named his underground command bunkers at Zossen (20 km south of Berlin) “Maybach I” and “Maybach II”.  The latest luxury car from Mercedes is called the “Maybach” (see  It costs around $360,000 (not a problem for former American Airlines CEO Don Carty; the board of directors finally had to fire him for nearly running the company into bankruptcy and for looting the last bits of cash for himself and a few other top execs but he can console himself with a $13.5 million “supplemental pension”).  Hitler probably would have loved this car.  Although the Fuhrer is best known for his work with Porsche to bring the Volkswagen Beetle to the German people, for himself he preferred the most luxurious Mercedes cars of the day.

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The Chinese car

The June 14 issue of The Economist has “Extinction of the Car Giants — Why America’s car industry is an endangered species” on its cover.  The magazine predicts the death of GM, Ford, and Chrysler at the hands of Honda, Nissan, and Toyota.  The Economist cites statistics such as the $1000 per car cost to GM of pension benefits.  Perhaps if they were to look 10 years out they would see a lot more turmoil.


Home Depot sells window air conditioners for $80.  They are made in China.  When it breaks you throw it out.  Twenty years ago a window air conditioner cost $1000 in today’s money.  When it broke you called the repairman.


You can buy a 27″ TV for less than $200.  It is made in China.  If someone asks you what brand of TV you have, unless you’re a geek with no life, you won’t have a clue.  You don’t see ads for Daewoo or Apex TVs.  When it breaks you throw it out.  Forty years ago the TV industry employed at least one million Americans.  TVs were made here.  They cost so much that they needed to be financed, thus creating jobs in banks.  If they broke every neighborhood had a TV repairman to come out and service the machine.  Some of the most expensive advertising campaigns of the day were for cars.  Consequently, consumers were intensely brand-loyal and proud to own an RCA, a Philco or whatever.


Once something can be assembled in China out of 100% Chinese-made components it can sell for approximately 1/10th the previous price.


Let’s look at cars.  According to the auto industry employs at least 5 percent of Americans.  People have jobs making cars.  Because cars are so expensive people have jobs financing them, repairing them, and insuring them against collision and theft.  Because cars are so expensive, people have jobs marketing and advertising them (more than $1000 of the price of a normal car has gone into advertising, probably closer to $5000 for a Mercedes or BMW).


Within 10 to 20 years the Chinese will be able to sell a car that is very similar to today’s rental car:  4 doors, 4 seats, air conditioner, radio, new but not fancy.  It will cost between $2000 and $3000 in today’s dollars.  With cars that cheap it will be unthinkable to manufacture in the U.S.  Consumers won’t bother to finance a $2000 purchase separately (maybe they’ll add it to their credit card debt).  Drivers will still carry liability insurance but won’t bother with collision or theft coverage.  With cars that cheap it won’t make sense to advertise.  If Ford or Toyota tried to sell the average person a $25,000 car they would simply laugh, much as a Walmart shopper would think you’re crazy if you tried to persuade him to spend $2,000 on a TV.


People react with disbelief to this idea.  Americans love their cars and identify with them.  Consumers will pay for prestige and image.  All true, of course, but think of how liberating it is to drive a rental Camry or Taurus with the Collision Damage Waiver.  You don’t lock it.  You don’t worry about it.  You’re care-free.  You don’t say “this is the greatest driving experience of my life” but the car is more than fine for sitting in traffic, which is mostly what urbanites do.  After three years when it begins to require service you re-export it to Latin America and buy yourself a new one.


So it is true that there will probably still be a market for $50,000+ cars that say “I’m a rich bastard and can afford to squander money”, just as there are still $4000 plasma TVs in an era where most people spend $200 at Walmart.  But the market share will be negligible.  It is one thing to step up from a $27,000 Honda Accord to a $45,000 BMW.  It is another to say “I think I’ll give up the vacation cottage and restaurant meals so that I can upgrade from my Crawling Tiger car to an American or European car of roughly the same function”.


Aside from vast job losses the implications of the $2,000 car are profound for the U.S.  Parking and traffic jams, already hellish, will get far worse.  If the U.S. ever develops an appetite for information technology again we’ll charge people for using the roads during periods of congestion (using Fast Lane/EZ-Pass style sensors).  If not, the government will force people to buy a $3000 annual “right to drive” disk like they have in many European countries.  The alternative will be most U.S. urban areas descending into a Bangkok-like snarl.


[If George W. had only declared war on urban traffic congestion instead of Iraq!  We’d have sensors in the roads talking to navigation systems in the cars telling drivers which streets to avoid (London is doing this right now).  We’d have computer-organized ride-sharing systems.  Instead of handing out cash to people who hate the U.S. we’d hand it out to people like (I’d be a user of the service myself if not for the fact that you’re not allowed to bring a dog).  We might have ended up saving enough gasoline that we wouldn’t have needed to add Iraq to our collection of overseas possessions.]

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