Sunday, September 28, 2014

Alaska - A Long Trip to the End of the Line

The 49th state of the United States of America (established January 3, 1959) has the longest contiguous  coastline of any American state, and in size is large enough to contain Texas, California and Montana.

Population is just 735,000, with 65% of those living in the city of Anchorage. Juneau, the capital is further south and is least like any capital city I've ever seen. However, that's deceiving, because all you can see from the cruiseship is the tourist strip along the waterfront. A bus ride away, downtown Juneau is a bustling centre.

Like towns such as Skagway and Ketchikan, Juneau clings to life on the Pacific Coast, like a pocket of civilization carved out of the surrounding woods. Yes, Alaska is rugged and not for sissies. Famous for oil, natural gas and fishing, most tourists see Alaska from the highly popular cruises during the short summer season.

More than 65% of the state's lands are administered by the US Federal Government,   and the hardy souls who call it home share the land with bears, bald eagles and lots of salmon!

The area known now as Alaska was opened up by Russia, with the first expedition landing in 1648. Originally Alyeska, it was subject to colonisation efforts by Spain, France, Great Britain and finally the USA. Under U.S. Secretary of State William Seward, the colony was purchased from Russia in 1867 for USD$7.2 million (USD$121 million adjusted to todays currency values).

Alaska is an interesting place with a pretty convoluted history of development. Beginning with timber and fur trading, Alaska became a centre of attention when oil was found. 

Following that discovery was the tapping of huge natural gas reserves, and now with the controversial practice of 'fracking', the immense oil shale reserves may well give up enough oil to release the USA from the grip of oil exporters in the Middle East and South America.

Despite the popularity of cruise ships introducing vast numbers of tourists to the State, most people come away with the same impression as me. Small, look-alike frontier towns, huddled on the coast, existing on tourism with most of the main street stores trading in precious stones, duty-free watches, tacky souvenirs, winter apparel, and tee shirts!

However, the real beauty of Alaska lies inland away from the seaports. There are a lot of activities - whale watching, dogsled rides, off roading, searching for bald eagles and other fauna. The tricky part is that most cruise ships only stay a day in port, and there's a limit to what you can fit into one day.

Some cruise ships do stay overnight in some ports, allowing the opportunity to sample more than one activity. But, if you want to discover the real Alaska you go by air and schedule activities on your own timetable.

One fascinating transport choice for most inland-dwelling Alaskans, and tourists alike, are the multitude of float plane services. They are a vital lifeline to the interior.

Like many parts of the USA, Alaska was really opened up by the railway; but nowadays we have the long, tough, windswept Alaska Highway.

Driving in Alaska? It's all trucks, trucks and more trucks!

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

On The Road, Again - North America

To begin this trip DRIVING & LIFE is in Vancouver, possibly the cleanest, friendliest and most beautiful city in North America.

One element which clearly separates Canada from the USA is the renowned spirit of independence (aka defiance to be described as 'Americans') among its citizens. They believe they are different, and will go to any length to demonstrate that you are not in a 'Colony of the USA'.

A key area is the willingness of Canadians to accept alternative forms of private car use. Car sharing is big time in Canada, with companies such as Car2Go and Moda being at the forefront.

Basically these are sophisticated pool cars which can be hired for varying time periods, to save the driver the cost of full time car ownership. You can check out the websites for the details, but it is very obvious that Canadians have embraced this concept with enthusiasm.

I parked myself close to a Car2Go parking area in a public car park and over a period of an hour watched people casually walk up to a car and drive it away, or return a car to a free parking spot and walk home. The costs are reasonable and in some cities you can choose a SMART car powered by either petrol or electricity.

MODA operates slightly differently, but the principle is the same. A car when you need it, and all for a cist way cheaper than owning a car - parking it, insuring it and watching it depreciate!
Another innovation sweeping Canada is the 'Meter App' which you download to your Smartphone. Once you've opened an account in your home city, you simply park the car, click on the app and select the amount of time you want to park. The app deducts the charge from your pre-paid account.
Just before your time is up, you get a reminder from the app, and you can then add more time, if your meeting is running overtime. This is technology that's simple to employ, use and is a win-win for the city council and the citizens.

Canada may live in the shadow of the USA, but this is a country which is technologically advanced and a living environment which seems to produce friendly and get-ahead people. It is refreshing to visit Canada, put it on your trip list.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Beware! You May End Up Paying For Electric Cars!

If you read my self-indulgent Blog regularly you will know I'm the world's biggest skeptic when it comes to pure electric cars, being a large scale solution to driving cleaner cars. Outside of defined, inner city areas they make no sense at all.

Buyers are staying away in droves, mostly because of the high cost of buying one, next by the fear of insufficient driving range (aka 'range anxiety') and finally, because there's no-one else around to help shoulder the cost of recharging infrastructure.

Believe me, these Battery Electric Vehicles (BEVs) are not a serious answer to the challenge of providing 'clean' motoring. They may not emit gasoline or diesel fumes, but the cost of recharging them is a BIG WHACK. And soon it may hit the community at large!

In California a number of electricity-generating companies have come up with a neat idea (for their benefit). They will build charging stations all over the place, but to fund it, they want to spread the cost over ALL their current subscriber base - whether they will use an electric car-charging station or not!

Give me a break! In the USA, at last count only 200,000 BEVs have been registered. In Australia, the number of BEVs is 700 - they are hardly mainstream vehicles.

Recently on my Grand Tour of Italy and France I came across four charging stations in the city of Bordeaux, right by the main railway station. Parked in the re-charge bays were four BlueCub electric city cars, designed and built by the Italian coachbuilder, Pininfarina.
A local told me that the cars were well used, and appeared to be popular with rail travellers who needed to spend a day or two in the city and needed a car to get around.

Here's the rub. Just like most of Australia, Bordeaux generates its electricity from coal-fired, or nuclear power stations, so in the big picture recharging creates probably as much pollution as four small petrol-powered cars.

I hope governments (federal, state and city) resist any urge, or influence from whackos like the Green Parties, to fund re-charging infrastructure for electric vehicles en masse.

You know why this idea is popular with electricity-generating companies? Demand for electricity in the USA and Australia is flatlining, they're going broke, thanks to more reliance on renewable energy, like solar panels. These companies are not promoting this idea because it's good for the environment - it's just good for them, seeing lots more cars plugging into their grids.

There are some exciting developments in lithium batteries, and we may see some hydrogen fuel cell cars soon, but in the meantime if you want to drive a 'clean' car you can buy a brand new petrol or diesel car right now, because in the whole history of the automobile, the industry has never produced cleaner engines, and there's more to come.

This 2011 Audi TDI engine emits less than 100 grams CO2/km!

Toyota Australia - The Little Engine That Could

This may appear to start out as a confusing, multi-faceted story about Toyota Australia, but bear with me.

The automotive media has been hurling bouquets at Holden and Ford Australia for years, because of the companies’ well-known flair for initiative, innovation, can-do approach and the instinctive ingenuity of their design and engineering staffs.

However, Toyota Motor Company Australia (TMCA) has its own story of  bulldozed
John Conomos, AO
independence and successful initiatives. Also, under ex-CEO John Conomos, TMCA followed the Japanese lead and played the long game. Investments that were seemingly silly, proved to be right, further down the road.

By global measure TMCA’s local design, engineering and manufacturing facilities are tiny, and one might think ineffectual, but they punched above their weight. TMCA fought for its independence from its Japanese parent, and managed to win some key battles. I don’t think enough people understand the boldness of its moves and the benefits they brought to the company and its employees.

Three examples stand out. For a long time Corolla has 
1970 Corolla
been Australia’s best-selling car (it drifts in and out of top spot), and it’s one of the main planks in TMCA’s model structure.
TMCA needed to sell the car with an automatic transmission in order to appeal to the widest Australian market, and the parent said NO, we’re moving to CVT, if necessary. The automatic transmission used in the Corolla is an ancient Aisin Warner-manufactured unit, originally designed by the now defunct Borg-Warner.

TMCA was told that the parent would not invest a dime in further upgrades to the unit, and TMCA said “Fine, we’ll live with it, as is.” It may not be modern and slick, but it works, and satisfies market need.
1973 Corolla

In addition, the parent said we’re changing the name of the model from Corolla to ‘Auris’. TMCA argued that switching the badge would confuse Australian buyers and simply jettison 38 years of brand image building. TMCA won that argument too, and Corolla continues to be TMCA’s most popular car.

Now, let’s consider TMCA’s desire to capture a bigger slice of Australia’s six-cylinder market. Toyota previously offered six cylinder models, like the staid Cressida with an inline six; and the Vienta, which was just a new badge for the Camry with a V6.

2000 Avalon
In 2000 Toyota launched the Avalon (Model code XX10) on the USA market. To say this car was conventional, boring and dull would be massive understatement, and the parent forced TMCA to flog this car (unsuccessfully) from 2005-2006.
However, in 2005, Conomos’s management team came up with a very smart idea. As TMCA has very low throughput (see; facility under-utilization) at its Avalon, Victoria, assembly plant and was currently producing just Corolla and Camry, “Why don’t we kill the dreadful Avalon; drop the V6 option in Camry; change the exterior design slightly and make two cars from one. The four cylinder Camry and the V6 model (let’s call it Aurion)?”

See huge sigh from Tokyo, and affirmation. “Okay, go ahead.” So, model XV40 was born.

The parent already knew at that stage of TMCA’s desire to get the Hybrid Camry on the market in Australia, and that in order to assemble it Down Under TMCA would have to stop making Corolla and import it.
2010 Aurion
Now, no one in Australia would admit the Aurion V6 is a true competitor for a Falcon or Commodore, BUT, Aurion gave TMCA a player in the segment, and what a refined, sweet car it is. It’s modest in size compared to its larger competitors, but it boasts one of the sweetest V6 engines ever made, ever! It also has plenty of interior space, large trunk, good equipment levels and excellent performance and fuel economy.

This is a car that Commodore and Falcon buyers should consider, but they didn’t because most buyers reckoned it was too gutless to “tow the caravan” and it was Front-Wheel-Drive, not a ballsy rear drive like the Yanks.

However, TMCA beavered away and although its sales numbers aren’t show-stoppers, Aurion plods along. It is a very, very nice car. Having travelled a couple of thousand kilometres in a Sportivo version, I can say, with hand on heart, it’s a car I would seriously consider.

Now, there’s the saga of the Camry Hybrid. With a lot of pressure from the Greens, the Australian Labor Government was planning a ‘Green Car Fund' to boost the development and sales of alternative fuel vehicles. From a government policy perspective this was clearly one of the dumbest decisions ever made. It merely confirmed that the ALP and the Greens are definitely NOT business-focused. They dream a lot these people.

However, TMCA knew it had a car in the wings which could establish Toyota as a major player in the Green Car Game, and once it dropped Corolla from its local manufacturing line-up, it could be assembled alongside Camry and Aurion, making for much smarter utilization of the manufacturing facilities, and at least creating a talking point for Toyota in the media and the marketplace.

Okay, it was too expensive; potential buyers couldn’t see why they needed to switch from conventional fuels to a hybrid; and there was also the question of used car values, which was a complete unknown. Not only were buyers unconvinced, more importantly, Toyota dealers thought it was a waste of space, and marketing resources.

Once again, TMCA walked where no-one else dared, and has supported Camry Hybrid (yes, they dropped the price, and added more kit to create a better value equation). But, there is no doubt in my mind that all the talk about pure electric vehicles is hogwash, and in fact, as a short term answer to providing an alternative to gas-guzzlers, the Hybrid system is a smart idea.

Camry Hybrid
Think of it. Great fuel economy, if driven intelligently; no range-anxiety issues; and it’s a sweet car to drive. No, it’s not perfect, but credit TMCA with being smart enough to get into the game from Frame One and establish its bona fides as a key player in alternative cars.

This is why I have great respect for TMCA. It has been smart, it has been managed smartly, and it has done a lot with less resources than its American competitors – who, after having had zillions contributed by the Australian taxpayer, will swan off into the manufacturing sunset with nary a care.

Thinking about Toyota’s global presence, I think its Australian outpost deserves a pat on the back. I don’t blame it for withdrawing from local manufacture. In terms of economies of scale it never made sense, but it did keep a lot of Australians employed for a long time, despite ever-rising costs, most of which were pumped-up by greedy unions.

TMCA, take a bow!

Postscript: Remember Toyota was the company named by the authors of the book, 'The Machine That Changed The World', as the best, most efficient and profitable company in the world! It must be doing something right.