Saturday, 24 November 2012

Intelligent Design

       The little Smart car that is my workhorse is fantastic in many respects - it is small enough for me to park in my overcrowded street where other cars can't fit into the space, it takes daily battle scars of people pulling in on the narrow hill, letting their foot of the foot break or plainly misjudging their car's clearance and banging into the wings of it and I have a box trailer for occasional heavy loads. And it is economic.
        I can live with the BMW drivers who insist on coming right up to my rear on the open road as I know I can easily blow them away on my motorcycle, but what I find is mind-numbing is a discovery that has temporarily left my intelligently designed little Smart car a piece of useless plastic metal and rubber parked on the road, awaiting a cost effective solution.

Compact, turbo charged 50+mpg Smart Fortwo

    Last week after heavy rainfall (that drowned at least one car driver, so I shouldn't complain) as I switched the ignition on, the left flasher came on and stuck on. It later revealed that the engine management system, a tiny 'black box' crammed full of circuitry that controls absolutely everything on the car is sited under the dashboard and right underneath the windscreen that apparently is prone to leaking. So, having owned over a dozen minis in my youth and remembering that the distributor cap was always prone to damp but one could easily seal it with a plasticising spray or wrap it in insulating tape, I was dumbfounded to discover this little expensive and crucial black box called a 'SAM' (app £500) was not even protected against water ingress, quite apart from the inherent design fault of the leaking windscreen right above it! The official verdict is water in the SAM - replacement. 
     It takes no Einstein to ask why such an intelligently designed car would fail so totally and what makes matters worse is that once the little black box is removed it can't be repaired, a new one is not currently available from Mercedes and even if a new one is replaced it will incur further expense in re-coding to suit my car which means driving the car to Mercedes - Hang on . . . 
    To add injury to insult, once the engine management system (called a SAM) is removed the car is stuck in gear which means it cannot be freewheeled out of the way if it has to be moved.
     Now, this is what is called 'Intelligent' design - a car knowingly designed and based on decades of motor engineering experience by a world leader that has such a basic design flaw and I am referring now specifically to the fact the car can't be moved once the black box control system is removed!. Nobody cares because the 'intelligent' thing is that when things go wrong you can't fix them as in the 'old days' but you bin them and pay a fortune for a replacement and labour charges plus VAT. You are basically f....d.  
    Okay, the devil is always in the detail today so we understand that the Smart car was engineered by Mercedes and was a collaboration with Swatch (the watch people) who I gather designed the body, so we have a cop-out clause that Mercedes didn't actually design the whole car but they put their name to it and if you want it serviced you receive constant reminder calls from Mercedes to book it in and they will tell you everything else that needs doing as well while you sit in the posh waiting room drinking free freshly ground coffee.
    I do think the Smart car is a fantastic car, not least the plastic body panels that flex when others hit you before they break, unlike a metal car that crumples. But this problem of engine management computers is not just peculiar to Smart but runs all across the motor industry today. I heard of someone with a Nissan Micro where they had to go all the way to source the replacement part in Japan - final bill for water getting into it - £2000. 

I do like the Smart car for urban use and I have considered an electric version but the technology is still in its infancy. Renault have brought out a dinky little electric car called the Twizy and I'm really tempted for my cramped city use but you have to lease the batteries at around £50 per month and each 50 mile charge will cost £1 at today's electricity prices. So your running costs are not that much cheaper. It doesn't bother me that the Twizzy isn't really a car but a four wheel scooter as it is a tool I am looking for to do a job not a label! 

 Renault Twizy - funky little urban electric car

Audi is bringing out an electric car, I think in 2013 which looks interesting but not very good for British urban traffic calming road humps!

Audi electric concept car

In the meantime I am continuing to work on my Raffo Belva sports car re-build project, with the help of a local garage. I'm putting a 2 litre Vauxhall diesel engine into a plastic bodied car of half the donor vehicle's weight and as aerodynamic as a straight plank of wood being placed along the front bonnet and windscreen. It will run on vegetable oil. No leaks here or complex computerised car management system other than basic engine management ECU. All the other electric's will be carefully and individually wired by me and sited right where I can access every single fuse and relay in the cockpit.

Raffo Belva no 7 being re-designed and re-built by Jeremy Broun

If I applied the design strategy car designers/manufacturers wilfully employ to my furniture designs I would be a millionaire in 'after car' costs. I might even use their sales slogans. One manufacturer's website caption is 'if you are vague about ethics you know where to focus your attention...' or words to that effect.