Wednesday, 28 May 2014

Google Car Prototype Pays Attention So You Don't Have To

Google Car
What was once a mere search engine is now a software developer, social network, email provider, planet mapper, information probe, tax dodger and a search engine. At this point, they might as well venture into the automotive world as well. We've seen modified Toyota Priuses and the like since 2009, but this is Google's own-brand autonomous car, developed in secret and from scratch to read the road hundreds of metres ahead and take care of that pesky chore of driving for you, so now you can text and check your makeup and pass out drunk and gaze inattentively out the window without being told off by the police or the parents of that person you just ran over.

What could well be the world's first commercially available self-driving vehicle, the electric Google Car is currently undergoing development testing. It has a top speed of just 25mph - I assume because the computers doing the driving can't process the situation fast enough at higher speeds - and when it eventually goes on sale in around 2017, it won't feature any driving controls at all. No pop-out steering wheel like in I,Robot, no nuthin' apart from an emergency stop button in case the car tries to follow its own GPS navigation into a river or something. You do get a screen displaying the route, and at the moment just two seats from which to see the world sliding past you auto-magically. Meant for built-up areas that have been scanned by Google and loaded into the car's brain, there are 100 test vehicles being prepared, each packing a primary electric motor and a backup one in case the main motor fails. Oh, and the nose is made of foam to make crashing a little bit more pleasant for pedestrians.

Would I have one? Ask a musician if they want a self-playing instrument...

However, I believe that there is a place in the world for autonomous cars, even if it's nowhere near my driveway. As the video briefly highlights, blind people would have the independence that their sight impairment otherwise takes from them if they could get around without controlling a car (or using a bus like some chump). The same goes for tetraplegics and other disabled people, of course. Plus, the elderly wouldn't have to hold you up or dither at junctions or go the wrong way, and most importantly, people who don't really care about driving wouldn't have to spoil it for the rest of us any more. This would vastly improve road safety and reduce the number of accidents, because the main cause of car crashes isn't speed or terrorists or pelicans, it's people not paying attention and/or not knowing what they're doing. For this reason, I welcome our autonomous overlords... just as long as I can still drive my car myself and they can do more than 25mph before too long. I wouldn't want to freak them out by overtaking them all the time.

Oh, and as well as going faster, it would also be nice if they didn't look like a mortified Toyota POD:

Saturday, 24 May 2014

Toyota's "Love Driving" Ad Has The Wrong Car In It

Of course, all irritating things have hashtags now, too...

This fucking advert. I see this advert fairly regularly when watching Sky F1 (which is now actually rather watchable as a channel) on my laptop. I really don't want to be a grumpy old man shouting at the telly, as it were, but damn this irritates me.

It's the same problem I have with the MINI Superleggera Vision. It's perfectly acceptable... right up until the brand is applied.

This advert - which advises you not to have a loveless existence and to fall in love with driving again - would work reasonably well if the car they were advertising wasn't so utterly boring, uninspiring and frequently rated as being a very average driving experience. Besides, anyone with a brain stem knows that "six million people" bought a Toyota Hybrid because of:

1) Eco Cred
2) Money saved on fuel

There is no other reason unless you live right near a Toyota dealer and are easily persuaded. They are not exciting cars, and they will not make you fall in love with driving again. Or ever. A GT86 could, maybe, but then they've already tried advertising that car as something to make you love driving and it was banned on a whim, in a blaze of irony...

Toyota shouldn't just flat-out bullshit everyone like this, because anyone who cares won't be fooled by it. An Auris, hybrid or otherwise, should be sold on the strength of quality and reliability and trustworthiness, because that's what it's really engineered for and that's what Auris customers are more interested in. Just because that's not an exciting point, doesn't mean you should pretend it's like owning a soul-stirring sports car...

MINI Superleggera Concept Has The Wrong Brand On It

Of course, all irritating things have hashtags now, too...
Hey everyone, it's that time again!! You'll find on this blog that any posts about the 21st-century MINI are angry rants about the cars they're making. Quite honestly, I keep thinking that they can't bother me anymore, that at this point trying to convince BMW to finally make a genuine successor to the original car is a lost cause and I should just get over it. But no, they keep pushing their empty-hearted marketing experiments further and further, and now we have this concept car for a small electric roadster.

First of all, I'm going to show you some pictures of it, because this new MINI (they always use all-caps, probably to highlight that their MINIs are bigger than a real Mini) is irritating in a different way to the Paceman or whatever:

Most of the cars that MINI shills these days are actually quite ugly and bloated-looking. In fact, with the dawn of the new hatchback, all of them are. But this? This looks fantastic. From the front wheels back, there is not a single thing I would think to change other than the patronising Union Flag tail lights, and even they are well-executed. That's because this car wasn't designed by BMW. It was designed by Italian coachbuilders Carrozzeria Touring Superleggera, the same people who gave us the Alfa Romeo Disco Volante (both the 1952 original and the 2012/3 remake seen on TopGear). Oh, and the Aston Martin DB5. And the Jensen Interceptor. And a few other sharp Italian suits for other car makers over the years that rank among the best. Whether it's the great proportions, the awesome tail fin that references Cooper F1 cars of the early '60s, surfacing that's clean but not boring, or the modern, minimalist interior, this car is a very well-judged and well-executed design, and executing that design mostly meant hand-beating sheets of aluminium with hammers, just like in the good ol' days.

However, aside from putting British patriotism on a German car with an Italian body in the shape of those tail lights, I feel a grave error has been made: This car shouldn't be a MINI at all.

I'm not saying it shouldn't have been made, because the world needs more attractive small roadsters with Italian bodies, and as I've said, everything from the front wheels back is brilliant. But it's got completely the wrong badge on it! Imagine if this was a new Fiat Barchetta, with different headlights that didn't make it look like a scared fish and a slightly reshaped grille. I can dig the rally lights, but I could do without the indentations between the headlights that are meant to look like Cooper bonnet stripes. BMW aren't giving us any tech specs as this is really just an attention-grabber for motor shows, but apparently a single electric motor is involved, most likely powering the front wheels. With a Fiat nose and an Abarth 500 engine (complete with LSD) this would be an awesome MX-5 rival. Or perhaps this body could have an Alfa Romeo grille on the front and be married to the chassis of their upcoming version of the next-generation MX-5, to become the new Spider (that's still a thing, by the way). Then you'd get rear-wheel-drive. Hell, keep the patriotic tail lights on and bring back the 1990s Lotus Elan! There are so many cool and enticing things that this car could be, but as a MINI? It just looks like a great design that's been misplaced, and yet another new model (potentially) that strays even further from those four capital letters sat inside that winged badge.

It's just another example of BMW flagrantly ignoring the very name of the brand they're exploiting as much as possible. As a result, this car just makes me sad. Considering they way it looks, it shouldn't, and that just makes things even worse.

Tuesday, 6 May 2014













And that's what I did at the beach today.

This joke was brought to you in association with Austin Powers... Babay.

Thursday, 1 May 2014

Obrigado Ayrton

Before you read on, I have also written a tribute to Roland Ratzenberger, which I feel you should read as well.

If you were to type "Ayrton Senna" into Google, you would probably find thousands upon thousands of tear-sodden tributes and list articles of his greatest performances, some of which rank among the greatest Grands Prix ever. This will be especially true today, the 20th anniversary of the day he was killed. No, the day he was immortalised. Across the globe he has been a sporting icon for so long, drawing people in not just with his sensational qualifying laps and ruthless determination in races, but his complex and charismatic personality shown in interviews. The video above, however, is not focusing on Ayrton Senna da Silva as an heroic racing driver. Instead it gives us a look into his more tangible legacy, and looks at the triple world champion as a human being.

The Instituto Ayrton Senna was set up to educate those less fortunate in poverty-stricken Brazil. Ayrton was born into the nicer side of Brazil's rich/poor divide and looked at the other side of the coin not with contempt, but wishing that they had been given the same opportunities he had. The mini-documentary - directed by the same man who directed "KAZ," a look into the life and mentality of Gran Turismo creator Kazunori Yamauchi - gives us an insight into why the institution was founded, its work and its motivations, and by extension Ayrton's legacy in his home country. Oh, and the director's previous work isn't a coincidence; this was made for Gran Turismo as they intend to release content relating to Senna over the next month. They've already launched a tribute site here.

Damon Hill at Imola earlier this year, looking up at Senna
as millions do and have. Damon was his team mate at that
fateful race.
But one question keeps coming back into my head: Why him? Anniversaries of Jim Clark's life and death come and go with little more than a passing mention, and he along with Senna and Juan Manuel Fangio are the three most likely to be top of any given "Greatest F1 Drivers of All Time" list. There have been other multiple world champions who influenced the sport afterwards, like Sir Jackie Stewart. Why does Senna have such an emotional impact on so many people inside and outside of the sport? Is it just that he died young? While Clark also died with plenty left to give, he didn't do so when Formula 1 was watched globally on live TV by hundreds of millions. People are often guilty of glorifying Senna-type people, sporting heroes that left us behind too soon, but even stripping that away and including the thoughts of those who didn't idolise him still give the impression of someone who ranks among motor racing's all-time greats on a number of levels. I don't honestly know. Personally, I never saw Senna alive. He died when I was two years old, so even though I've watched F1 since I was a child there's no way I could have any memories of him. Somehow, though, he has an impact on me that I can't easily describe. I think the eponymous 2010 docu-movie has played a big part in this. I already had an idea of his significance, but really he was "that famous F1 driver who was killed" until I watched Senna in the cinema. That excellent movie started in the normal way for biopics, but before too long it draws you in and you become emotionally invested in what you're seeing (it also means more here than in normal movies because all the stuff you're seeing actually happened in reality). I'll put it this way: even though I already knew the ending, it still hit me quite hard. Hell, when the first shot of the Autodromo Enzo e Dino Ferrari came on screen in the cinema with the caption "SAN MARINO GRAND PRIX, 1994," you could've heard a pin drop. Everyone watching either knew and sat in dreading silence, or had no idea what was about to hit them. I'll never know for whom the fatal accident was worse to watch, but I'll always remember the intense feeling of that moment.

Maybe that's it. Maybe the movie accurately represented Ayrton Senna simply by captivating the viewer and making them feel. It does seem like he had that kind of personality. People talk of an aura he had around him whenever he entered a room, and such like, plus the contradiction between the charitable empathetic Christian out of the car and utterly ruthless, determined, entitled racer inside the car (Murray Walker says that Ayrton believed he had "a God-given right to win races") must have made him mysterious to many. His bitter and infamous rivalry with Alain Prost helped draw attention to him as well, but this is where the movie invites criticism, because after Prost retired at the end of 1993, the two quickly became close friends and Ayrton confided in the Frenchman about many things related and unrelated to F1. The movie omits this completely, including a moment at Senna's final race weekend when he recorded a lap of Imola for the French TV channel Prost commentated for, and wrapped it up by saying "We miss you Alain." This once again shows the dual personality he had, because as a racer and a rival Senna wanted nothing to do with Prost and openly bashed him in interviews for being a coward or a moaner or whatever else. But once Prost retired, he realised that his greatest motivation had gone with him, and his high respect for the Frenchman surfaced.

Again though, I can only hope to build up a reasonably accurate picture of him based on the available footage and interviews with people who were there. I asked my Dad, who has watched F1 since well before Senna, how he remembers the Brazilian in context:

"There were quite a few characters around at that time. Prost was the Little Professor, and he was quite big on safety. When it was really wet, he was always the one complaining the most. I was aware of Brundle, but didn't know much about him. Schumacher and the Benetton story were interesting, just because it was a small team and he was a young guy. It was good to see Damon Hill starting out because I remember watching his Dad, and I was delivering newspapers when they had the story of his death. Plus there was Mansell, of course.

So there were lots of different drivers around. But Senna was the one that stood out because he appeared to have something that the others didn't have. It seemed like racing was what he was supposed to do, whereas the others had just learned how to do it. He seemed to be a natural, although we know nowadays that he worked at least as hard as anyone else on the preparations.

He definitely wasn't like the others."

The closing line is the impression I see most often, I think, whether it's pundits, onlookers or drivers from that time. While I try to filter out the hyperbole surrounding Senna, I probably just have to accept that he really did have a special something about the way he was, or the attitude he took to everything. Certainly he's the most quotable F1 driver in history. How do I see him as someone who has only the recounted memories and replays for aid? Not as a God. Not as the saint he's often painted as by his more emotionally-inclined disciples. To me, he was for sure one of the sport's all-time greats, but more than that, he was perhaps the most openly-human F1 driver I've seen or heard of, combining undeniable raw talent with a passion and charisma we just don't see in modern motor racing very often. When you factor in his compassion for people in Brazil and other racing drivers - running across the track at Spa to help save Eric Comas, investigating the sites of serious accidents himself and asking friend and F1 doctor Professor Sid Watkins (R.I.P) how he could help injured drivers like Comas - it's clear that he was equally and highly admirable both as a racing driver and as a human being, albeit in quite different ways. The reason he can touch people's lives even in death is because of all this, and probably more besides. He was an unstoppable force, and despite his flaws and controversial actions, he was, and is, an inspiration and a worthy hero.

Obrigado Ayrton. I hope you're on that fishing trip with Sid up there.