Consuming Chairs

My car died recently. This meant I was unable to get to work so had to buy another one soonest. normally I have taken the time to ask around and do some research on what sort of cars would be best for me. This time I didn’t and instead just went to garages and looked at what was available.

I am not a car person. There seem to be a lot of car people who are interested in geeky performance data, gadgets, that supposed status their car choice projects etc. For me a car is simply a relatively cheap and convenient way of getting around. I did survive for three years without one once, which was great [see my ramblings on small towns], but I need one to get to work at the moment so i’m stuck with the expense of having one.

For me the process of buying a car is entering into the strange world of buying a product that is not marketed at people like me at all. I have this experience a lot. I’m mostly vegetarian, I’m still not into fashion, have eclectic taste in music and books. Retailers are simply not designed for the likes of me. My life has always been finding the stuff i want around the edges of contemporary consumer culture.

Being such a way has it’s advantages. Often certain facets of things command a premium price, that apparently people are prepared to pay more for things with these facets. So when you are not looking for these things, your selection criteria often isn’t price related. It’s strange that items with the criteria you want appear across the price range from the top price items to the bargain bin.

Once I needed a desk chair, it’s the one I’m sitting on right now. There are hundreds of different desk chairs available on the market. There was no shop nearby for me at the time so I went online to office chair websites with a plethora of choice, yet i found that it wasn’t even possible to search for the criteria I was interested in. I had to click on every ruddy chair and read the smallest print to get the information. I did get a very cheap chair which has what I needed, but there was little convenience in finding it.

People often describe me as fussy. I suppose I am, but really I just seem to have a different set of criteria to anyone else, though this writing probably does give the impression that I am some chair obsessed maniac.

My criteria for chairs and indeed cars is simply this. I like to seat comfortably, there I’ve said it. We spend hours sitting on chairs, so having comfortable ones to me is the most important thing. Yet you go to a shop and look at the trendy top price designer chairs , they are not that comfortable. They may look cool and have various other features, but they are not very important to me.

So, when buying a car, by far the most important criteria is a comfortable driving seat. I often drive for two to three hours, sometimes longer, so being able to sit in comfort and arrive at my destination with the minimum amount of tiredness is the most important thing.  I have always bought ten year old cars, largely because I’m not rich, but also because comfort levels in cars are getting lower. This is largely because cars have lots of safety features and furthermore styling, reducing comfort. Alert unstressed drivers are generally safer drivers, but it seems we have an industry which doesn’t regard this as important. I am in that 5-10% of people for whom comfort is important, but catering for this market, isn’t important when a motor manufacturer can secure far more sales promoting some other feature. Have you ever seen a car advertisement where comfort features?

As I said, I am not a car person. I kind of get it as there are things that are important to me. Apparently i am a little bit of a Hi-Fi geek. The numbers on bits of Hi-Fi have meaning for me. I can get into a long geeky conversation with someone else into Hi-Fi. I like music and can appreciate when music sounds more like the performers are live in my room, rather than muffled and distorted. There are also car geeks, but there enough of them to influence the marketplace. Sadly Hi-Fi geeks are fairly rare these days. People have been happy to listen to low quality playback of music, if the device has other features that they like. Most people listen to music on their phones, either from files compressed to hell to fit enough onto the device or streamed. I do this too, but it’s just yucky.

It’s so sad that people spend so much of their lives stuck in their cars in traffic just doing ordinary things like grocery shopping. We have clogged up roads, burning fossil fuels like there is still no tomorrow and don’t even do this is comfort. It’s madness. I’m so looking forward to when I can live somewhere without a car again. The governments of the world have woken up to this rather late and are trying to reduce car use. My problem with this is that it is all stick and no carrot. It’s just extra taxes on the poor and no investment in a better solution.

It is more taxes on the poor. The rich can afford the latest electric cars which have lower taxes and can afford to live centrally near public transport hubs. They could use public transport, but usually don’t as they have invested a lot of money in a car and they have one of the cleanest cars in terms of emissions on the road. Conversely the poor live, live away from the hubs, so need cars to get to work and do everyday life. The poor also have older more polluting cars. Yet the taxes are on the older cars, like mine, of people who don’t have a choice, yet not on the rich who can use/afford public transport.

Investing in public transport would help, especially if they had comfortable seats. Really car manufacturers only need to keep their seats more comfortable than public transport. Yet on public transport the seat comfort is also lowering. It just feels like a conspiracy sometimes. It’s not the solution though, it’s enabling people to be housed where all their everyday needs are walkably close by and in large towns and cities there is a decent, affordable spokes to the centre transit system.

Instead as a society investment is thrown at the car gadgets as this makes the manufactures richer, rather than investing to make society better. My new car has cruise control. It is the first car I’ve ever had with it. Probably when it was new this was a feature that helped someone decide to buy it. However I drive in Wales, along our windy hilly roads, where by the time you’ve set the cruise control you need to break or change gear for a steep hill, it’s like a little toy to play with on long journeys, but no use as an actual foot rest. The only time they are useful is on long straight roads, the motorways, but I don’t do that often, though I can understand the advantage of being able to rest your right foot for a bit on long journeys. I now have an ugly grey car, with styling the complete opposite of my personality, but i don’t care because it’s comfortable and I can drive two to three hours in a reasonable degree of comfort.

 

 

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The Lights that Blind

Often on this blog I’ve highlighted the importance of diversity, that we as humans are all different and we have differing needs, that one size fits all approaches never work. So, I wish to discuss a very disturbing recent development with cars, that has failed to respect diversity.

In recent times there has been a trend towards ever brighter lights on cars. I used to think that it was just a few modders not considering other motorists, but they seem to have become standard on many new cars. I am talking about Xenon and LED lighting.

The idea behind these lights is that they are more energy efficient (which is great) and enable the driver to see more with there headlights (which by itself is also a good thing). However such lights dazzle other road users. Technically this is illegal:

UK Highway Code Rule 114

  • use any lights in a way which would dazzle or cause discomfort to other road users, including pedestrians, cyclists and horse riders

However this rule is as far as I am aware never enforced and there is no upper brightness limit in law, so dazzle is defined as being subjective. So if I experience dazzle then technically a vehicle with these lights is illegal. Yet nothing is being done about this!

It’s all of the lights on a car thus fitted, which does cause problems:

Headlights

More powerful headlights allow the driver to see more and may decrease some accidents. There has always been the problem of headlights at night causing reduced visibility to on coming drivers and drivers have developed strategies to cope with this. However when the brightness is increased the danger of decreased visibility to other drivers is increased which may increase accidents. There is a balance to be achieved here. However there is no mechanism in place to ensure the safest balance is achieved.

Day Running Lights

What is the point of these, other than to dazzle other drivers? They offer the driver no increased clarity, merely decrease other drivers vision.

Rear Running Lights

These are essential at night so other drivers are can be aware of other active vehicles. However, dazzling the car behind doesn’t help anyone. Most rear running lights are not too bright until brakes are applied

Rear Brake Lights

Perform the vital role of signaling following drivers of braking, that the car is slowing down and that the driver may have spotted a hazard ahead. However id they are too bright, as many of them are now, they dazzle the following drivers, causing them to be able to see less, which has no advantages.

Stationary Brake Lights

When I learnt to drive, the importance of Handbrake – Neutral was drummed into me. This action switches off the rear brake lights, mainly for safety in a collision but also to stop dazzling the driver behind.

Now, sometimes, we are lazy and we hold our cars on the foot brake. This didn’t cause dazzle problems for most people as the lights were not overly bright and on older models of cars the lights were lower down on the car body, more importantly below eye height, so the light wasn’t directly in the centre of the field of vision. This is an increasing problem as most drivers where I live have dropped the Handbrake – Neutral action when stopped temporarily and more worryingly some modern cars which switch the engine off to save fuel when stationary keep the rear brake lights burning holes in following drivers retinas, well give us sun spots anyway. The problem with this is that the following drivers eyes adjust to the bright light, so for a while afterwards their vision is dimmed, which has safety consequences.

So how did we get to a point where new cars are not designed to be safe?

Part of the issue is that we are all different and have different light sensitivity. I raised this issue with friends and colleagues and most people don’t find these brighter lights dazzling or a problem, even though their vision is still dimmed. However I realised that I am not alone, there seems to be a significant minority of people who are more light sensitive, for whom brighter lights are more dangerous.

Remember we are all different and even see the world in different ways. For example, I didn’t realise quite how prevalent various forms of colour-blindness are. So the needs of the light sensitive should be taken into account when designing and regulating cars on the roads.

There doesn’t seem to be any action on this front. I wrote to the government and they are not even looking into this issue. The difficulty is that the car manufacturers lobby governments for minimal regulations, as surely the market will regulate for safety as it is what drivers want.

However, in this case, market forces don’t work. If your car dazzles others it doesn’t affect you as driver, all you see is your slight improvement in visibility, the negative effect is suffered by other road users. But other road users have zero influence on your choice of car and it’s lighting. Having a really bright car that is more noticed may mean that there is a decreased chance of other people running into you, however when all cars are overly bright this advantage is lost and everyone is left with overly bright cars and the roads are overall less safe places.

It is simply dangerous to not consider the needs of others, especially when no wider advantage makes up for the loss of a particular minority. Everyday I witness inconsiderate driving that may cut a few seconds off someones journey only to slow down everyone else. What is more disturbing is when these issues are built into the cars themselves.

There is a potential solution. Driving spectacles have been developed to reduce light glare. Basically they have a yellow tint which filters out the UV/ blue light spectrum which reduces headlight dazzle. I’ll have to check these out!

 

 

 

Boxes on Wheels

At the risk of being the instigator of the classic afeared conversation starter at a party:’What are you driving at the moment?’ This leading to a conversation about cars you are desperate to escape from. A lot of people are interested in cars and I don’t really get it, I am one of those people who view cars as a convenient and often necessary way of getting around. Really, the lines of traffic all going the same way just suggest to me that it would be simpler and more efficient having a comprehensive public transport network. However public transport in the UK at least is rubbish and the solution the world is heading towards is self-driving cars, which isn’t a terrible idea.

Cars have two big advantages, you can go where you are going quickly when you want to and you can choose a car to suit you as an individual. This choice of car has led to massive design efforts, marketing development and driven technological advancement, notably in fuel efficiency.

The thing is, with cars, like most other consumer products, makes me feel like an outsider, rarely do I feel that anything is marketed at me; I’m a white male , this shouldn’t be happening to me! What I require from a car is simply comfort, but I include in that having a semi-decent stereo. It just seems that there is huge amounts of development of unimportant features and comfort is only considered as an afterthought. I’ve about to move to a city again with a new job, so until I find a new place to live, I’m lumbered with up to four hours commuting every day. Anyway, on my car, one I’d picked for comfort, the windscreen wipers broke, so I left it at a local garage to fix and was given a courtesy car. The courtesy car was one of them superminis, just really uncomfortable for a tall chap like me. What I noticed was how much it drank petrol, due to a really low gear ratio. What this made me realise is that I have a preference for medium size cars. I have this preference because beign a rural person most of my journeys are over an hour long, the nine hour drive from Mid Wales to Fife in Scotland was a regular thing when I lived in Scotland. So perhaps this is why I value comfort, ease of driving over long distances and fuel efficiency. However I can see the point of a low gear ratio supermini, they are great for driving around cities: they are nippy (you can change lanes  and turn tight corners quickly and easily), the low gear ratio makes them really efficient  at sub 30mph driving and they are easy to park. Having a medium size car it’s always frustrating driving between 25 and 30mph, not quite fast enough for 4th gear but inefficient in a high revving 3rd gear. So, my courtesy car was great getting out of the city, but hopeless on the 45 to 60mph cross country drive.

I’m not a terrific driver but I do enjoy it, when I’m not stuck behind something (so I only have to worry about my own driving and not the person in front of me) it’s just nice to be able to have the excuse to listen to the radio for extended periods. I do like the idea of self-driving cars, but it will utterly change what we do on journeys and should radically change how cars are designed, once the need for humans to take over from the computer is eradicated. This worries me because, at the moment I can find a car that suits me and how I drive, simply because there is so much subtle diversity in makes and models of cars. However I fear that once the marketeers take over and a possible end to the owner-driver model (I imagine a system where most of us will effectively use driver-less taxis), that cars will become less comfortable and my needs will not be catered for. Us rural types have it bad enough in being ignored in most technological advances, we still don’t rely on 100% mobile phone signal coverage. Indeed rural people need cars to survive in a way town and city dwellers don’t; because urban dwellers have most needs near-by and public transport for medium to long distance journeys. Yet, as I have written in the past, even cities are getting harder to live in as shops become more spaced out, I even read somewhere that housing near supermarkets is more expensive.

It’s just the whole marketing of cars, still seems to be largely at men, about features and image, completely irrelevant things to me. However I have spent my life not being part of the market, always finding the things I like at the fringes, in the small independents. Actually, my new job is really strange, it’s the first time I’ve ever worked in a proper office and I sit in meetings discussing marketing campaigns, I have to rely on doing lots of statistics to discover what customers apparently want, rather than any innate ability to know what the majority of customers want. It’s such a different world as is the world of commuting by car. In the past I’ve always managed to find ways of either using public transport or even walk to work (that was so nice).