The Danger of Autonomous Cars

Autonomous Cars – embracing the inevitable

Let’s face it, we all dream about it but know it can’t happen – a self driving car! Yet, this is on the cards. Mercedes, Kia, Toyota, Ford, Audio, BMW, Volvo, you name it, they all have a car which can drive autonomously. “Not on our roads though” say the authorities.

It wasn’t that long ago that our great-grandfather was told never to drive faster than 100 m.p.h. because the blood would leave his body. In those days 40 m.p.h. was classified as breathtaking. Now we have Andy Green in his ThrustSSC breaking the sound barrier. He might have been white as a sheet when he cruised to a halt but his blood flow was normal and his body parts were still intact. Of course we digress but isn’t this what science is about – proving it wrong!

Autonomous or rather automated vehicles which require external and environmental assistance through usually magnetic strips and road navigation transponders is not something new, in fact was on the drawing board in the early 1980s. However, with smaller, faster and more reliable computers, highly sophisticated sensor systems and state of the art electro-mechanical output devices we have come to a cross-roads – cars which are driven near autonomously and when to mass manufacture? Only time can tell although major manufacturers already talk about the latter part of this decade, some as near as 2017. Unfortunately all of this will come to a nought, we believe, because of the road traffic authorities. Actually more so, the fraternity of global electronic engineers all shake their heads in disapproval. The thing is, we can fly an aircraft totally unmanned only because there are critical backup and redundant systems in place, not many obstacles to bump into and even less corners to negotiate. Motor cars are on land, they rely on absolutely accurate input data at all times and last but not least, the critical thinking aspect to this entire exercise, no errors or hardware failure. And this is where we have a problem. Imagine driving merrily along at 70 m.p.h when a sensor fails, the radar decides to stop working or the computer decides to reboot (unlikely but who knows).  The global think tank may be right.

Control freaks will never let go of the steering wheel. They are also some of the world’s worst drivers. Every year hundreds of thousands of people, pedestrians, drivers, occupants, (animals too) are killed on our roads. Traffic authorities have all but given up. What percentage is caused by driver failure?

Partially automated vehicles already protect the occupants of a vehicle when crossing lanes inadvertently, applying brakes when needed, stabilising a vehicle which may be on the verge of rollover and preventing unnecessary skidding.  So why can’t they be made to drive the occupants to a destination without driver intervention?  Because it cannot. It’s called the unknowns. What happens if?

Interesting to note that driverless cars use the cloud but flight MH370 didn’t. Losing communication to the driverless car may make it pull over to the side of the road and stop. What happens if the side of the road happens to be a cliff, dropping 300m to the sea or a rocky outcrop? No thanks. Although the same electronic engineers designing the workings of your trusty four wheeled carriage will swear to the reliability, they are the first to banish the notion of driverless cars. Quite rightly.

Autonomous Cars – if the roads allow it

Just as one was told that you may drive safely but not necessarily the “other” driver so it just so happens to be the reason why driverless cars may be on the drawing board and even successfully tested, it’s the “other” car that remains the problem. Just because the roads in Sweden and Germany are better than most third world countries makes the very idea of driving the Yungas without a steering wheel a frightening thought.

But no, as a matter of fact we do believe that driverless cars are here to stay. We do believe that if the road is not safe the driverless car will stop and tell you that you are on your own. If a machine which has proven to have more powerful thought processes than the driver’s brain pulls over because it is not safe then believe me, you are not safe.

Many years ago most drivers took to the roads because of the pleasure of it. Nowadays it’s a case of whether you will make it back alive. We cannot blame the authorities neither can we blame the electronic, automotive and mechanical engineers. Unfortunately scientists and engineers alike know that we can no longer rely on the human element, there has to come a stage where there is forced intervention. We can only blame ourselves. The authorities and engineers shouldn’t put a ban on it but embrace it.


Audio Amplifiers – Passed the Edge

On the Edge – amplifier design

Isn’t it frustrating to shop for the ultimate sound system on a limited budget. You see one, you hear one and that one on the next rung up always sounds that little bit better.  Fortunately we have good news. It’s all in the mind.

Anyone being an avid reader of any electronics and audio magazine that does comparison tests will often get overwhelmed by the amount of products on sale, let alone by the costs of these high end pieces of equipment. It’s almost like playing chess against a grand master – no matter the move, there is always one better. So it is with audio gear. The problem is, we often fall foul of the marketing machine and sales personnel pressure. Don’t. Whatever you do, never buy a sound system based on whatever someone else tells you.  What we do know is that power output is no longer directly linked to pricing, semiconductors are cheap.  Even Chinese manufactured toroidals are no longer the price it was ten years back. But what should one know?

Inputs and more inputs, all with the same output

Most audio amplifiers brought out over the last few years have surprisingly good build and sonic quality. For movies one loves the idea of being able to set up the sound stage through a microphone and an automatic process. However, audio installers complain about most users not setting up their systems properly even with electronic assistance Read up on this in the manual. If you are only buying the integrated amplifier like most of us do then ensure you have sufficient inputs. This seems to be the most important thing in the designs found currently on the market – millions of inputs. On a practical level these inputs should be HDMI and one or two for legacy use.

Marketing trends push for big power and in our experience this is true, go rather for overkill.  Pick up the amplifier, weigh it if necessary. Most of the weight is transformer and cooling based. A Class D amplifier is light – that’s a design advantage. Class AB will be heavy – that is also a design advantage. If it’s Class AB, delivers upwards of 60W x 5 or 7 channels it will be heavy. How heavy is heavy? We have our own estimations but do look at manufacturers such as Marantz and NAD. These guys don’t skimp on components least of all quality of the mains transformer. The importance of this is multi-fold. Read up on how tests are done and in this case, specifically output power measurement. Transformer secondary (output) voltages sag when under load. Power supply regulation is critical and to compete with the best there should be no compromise. This is where most budget systems cut costs.

Purchasing an amplifier which lacks oomph will cost more in the long run – you will be disappointed. If it’s a headphone amplifier you want then one needn’t be looking at killing your ears in one sitting. And no, you cannot put audio amplifiers in series to get more power. What you can do is purchase separate pre-amplifiers/processors and power amplifiers. It will work out cheaper in the long run if you need to upgrade for higher power.  This a more expensive solution but possibly a better long term plan. A well looked after, carefully selected preamplifier/processor may even prove to be a lifetime “investment”.

Six channels or more, two is best

Two, three, four, five, six, seven or ten channels? Here the choice is yours. There are many audiophiles passionate about their movies but only use two channels or stereo. The home movie expert may prefer the most amount of channels he can afford. 5.1 is still rated about the most common.  Quantity over quality? A good quality stereo setup beats a multi-channel movie theater setup for music anytime. (of course this is bias).

Tubes versus semiconductor?  Dollar for dollar there is absolutely no equaling the transistor or semiconductor. (I will add this though – my own opinion is that early transistorised amplifiers lacked the musicality of tube amplifiers. If transistor amplifiers were first on the market maybe I would have rewritten this and in all likelihood battled to justify the rationale. The fact remains though, musicians on a whole tend to prefer tube sound. So there!).

Why on the edge?  The objective of any audio amplifier is to faithfully reproduce the input signal as an exact image except for amplitude at its output. Through the years scientists and engineers have near perfected this art. A bench tested audio amplifier which reproduces with clinical precision the input program material to its output will sound good through a quality loudspeaker system. Most amplifiers today, except for cost cutting in the power supply will do exactly that. So where to now?

Digital is Doomed

Although we are living in the digital age man and machine will never be the same. Our logic is often irrational and therefore biased. We cannot live in peace with each other because of this exact reason.  With audio equipment we take a very sophisticated (in scientific terms) analogue signal, convert to binary, we then read the binary and convert to analogue. We them chop the analogue at a high frequency, modulate with a sawtooth wave, switch at a high voltage and finally filter out the high frequency component. We then feed the analogous high amplitude signal to a transducer which is an analogous device. Then the marketers come along and tell us vinyl is back!

We have fine tuned the Class D amplifier for home use but yet it’s true advantage is when used in cellular technology. We have lowered the cost of high powered audio amplifiers through this technology but yet loudspeakers have always been the obvious weakness, both in cost and efficiency.

It is time for manufacturers to look at cheaper and more efficient methods to reproduce this amplified signal.  The fixed magnet, moving coil paper or synthetic cone speaker *aka dynamic driver) should be cast to the ash heap, audio amplifiers have been re-looked at so many times that it’s run out of steam.

How it works… further reading:  Loudspeaker types

Worlds Safest Cars – ever

Safest Cars - Volvo

NCAP Vs Driver Safety Vs Safest Cars on the Road

Although there is no doubt that cars with high safety standards are a feather in the manufacturer’s cap it can also be said that many argue about the reliability of some of these cars and indeed, gauging by the number of comments posted by readers on some of the safety reviews, whether statistics are biased or somewhat ambiguous.

We don’t believe that these stats are wholly skewed though as cars with a higher safety spec, often the German marque, do reflect a lower incidence of drivers and passengers succumbing to injuries in the event of an accident. The argument is often more about the vehicle size than safety. The argument is based on smaller cars causing more injuries. Our argument is that it is very seldom the car but always the driver – cars don’t cause accidents, drivers do. Guns don’t shoot people – people do. A driver is not legally entitled to drive a vehicle which is not roadworthy, neither under the influence of narcotics or alcohol.

Safest Cars Vs Safest Drivers

Not wearing a seatbelt is considered illegal in most countries and provinces. A question arising here is whether seatbelts and airbags are interlinked. Of course they are. This question comes up quite often and here we have another dilemma – why aren’t learner drivers taught this at driving school? Any person taking to the road for the first time should have been taught about the differences between AWD, FWD and RWD vehicles, stability and traction control, ABS,  wet weather driving, gravel roads, speed, under and over steer, overtaking and HP versus torque. Not just where the pedals, horn and indicators are located. We know that talking and texting over a cell phone is not a legally entertained practice but what about eating and drinking in a moving car? We need to get this right first and then can talk about what can happen in the event of an accident.

Motor cars are dangerous beasts and the faster one drives the less chance occupants of a vehicle will get out alive in the event of an accident. Which accidents are worse, head on collisions, side or T-boning, rear-ending, overturning or landing in the drink? Most accidents can be avoided by taking the defensive driving approach which then of course includes driving within the speed limit and thinking ahead. Ever notice how some drivers speed up when it rains? Often AWD vehicle drivers are the worst transgressors. And small pickups (empty) with very little traction on the rear wheels.

Driving the Driver

According to the more technical, modern motor cars are driving the driver – the driver becomes reckless knowing that his car can pull him out of a tight spot. This is a dangerous take on any situation.  Motor cars all have a safety margin of safety and a head on collision at 100 mph is not one of them. Braking hard at 100 mph may be fine in a Mercedes AMG but not in a 1995 Ford Escort. Driving under a truck with both vehicles will not leave much behind even at 50 mph. NCAP ratings don’t necessarily expect one to drive under a truck.

Safest Cars - Volvo
Volvo S90 – Manufacturers making a difference

The safest cars on the road today are often the most unreliable. Well this is a view from many armchair critics and gauging by the amount of negative publicity that certain cars have produced it’s an easy conclusion to come to but truth be told we don’t know how often the car gets serviced, how it is driven and neither the condition of the roads.  What we do know is that if one specific car can get 300 000 miles and another of the same type only 20 000 then we need to look at the driver and of course, the old theory about Monday cars. The fact is that modern cars are more reliable than older cars.

Feeling safe with AIDS

Stability control is a proven life saver for countless amount of drivers in SUVs but we’d rather know that the driver is aware of the risks of driving a high center of gravity vehicle at speed rather than him or her relying on an aid. Because that is what it is, an aid. An airbag may save your life but it is useless without a safety belt. Which brings us to the last point: driver safety.

Cars do not lose control, drivers do. Stick to the speed limit, don’t drive intoxicated or suffering from fatigue, adhere to the road traffic signs, keep off dangerous roads, slow down in the rain, ensure that your car is roadworthy and yes, checked by the AA once per year, play by the rules, be courteous, be watchful and alert and then you may be surprised to find that NCAP doesn’t really mean much at all.

The world’s safest cars are only as safe as the driver.






Do computers make us lazy?

How to become lazy by doing things!

“We often miss opportunity because it’s dressed in overalls and looks like work” – TA Edison

Loading the latest piece of freeware that looks like AutoCAD but isn’t I was enthralled by the complexity, the genius of the software engineers and the ease of use. Much, much later I realised with dismay that we had friends coming around for dinner. Why is it we always friends around for dinner when I am testing out new software? Interestingly enough I am not a design engineer but this software had me enthralled. One month later it still had me wrapped around it’s finger of bits and bytes.

In that month I could have built a bird cage, rebuilt my old Ford engine, gone to the movies, reconnected with old friends and even re-landscaped my garden. I didn’t though because I was stuck behind the screen, as my brother calls it, in “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” mode.  Computers are interesting that way, they make us damned lazy. Unless you are using your computer to make money like many do most of us are captivated by the ease of use,  games and other novelties. We use it to “Google” and “Wiki”, we use it to paint, draw and write. We use it to communicate and write blogs, post pictures and troll. All of this at a price.

A computer is a very useful tool in the right hands. It was designed for the user to capture and manipulate data, it was designed to be a tool. Now we have become the tool. We communicate less effectively, we no longer write and we certainly don’t feel the urge to do something constructively once we sit down to jot our memoirs on Facebook. In short we have become freakin’ lazy.  Instead of using time at work constructively, as one is paid to do, we What’sApp friends and family. We “Google” for easy fixes – as if the page will jump out and fix the kettle. There are three things a person needs to know about your common and garden kettle – it has an on/off switch, it heats water and it will make a noise when the water boils or switch off automatically. How many people “Google” for a rapid fire response when their kettle fails. I do! Most probably so do you.

I recently watched a technical video on how to strip and repair an automatic gearbox. I learnt a lot and now when we talk gearboxes I can with absolute authority maintain my own in any conversation. How many people out there are like that?  Those same people have never wielded a spanner nor know the difference between metric and imperial. If ever there is an industry which has been most hard hit by the internet it must be the IT industry. There are now so many computer technicians floating around I wonder often whom is growing the beans? With a few key-strokes and a click of a button we find out which university degrees are hardest to get, read up a little and then become experts.

A few years back I needed some forms to be printed. The lady doing the job dropped the completed forms off and told me with a voice of authority that I need to check my grammar in future. I felt my stomach drop through my butt. She used spell and grammatical usage with what Word had decided and used that instead. One thousand forms written in Computer English.  How many times does one read of the word “loose” being used instead of “lose” and the other favourite, “witch”. Writing a blog now has become rather simple nowadays because most people reading the content will only read one paragraph. I do this with emails, skip over most of the content and think I have enough information to generate an accurate reply.

One wonders how much the use of a computer, the switching on of a TV receiver or the playing of games on a tablet has lead to diabetes and heart disease?  We sit behind a computer these days and do things. That’s what I do. Each and every day. I thought I was the only one until I looked across the sales floor.

I envy those that fix automatic gearboxes and landscape gardens.

“Progress isn’t made by early risers. It’s made by lazy men trying to find easier ways to do something.” sci-fi author Robert Heinlein


Africa – Our state of manufacture

manufacture - Egyptian Masterpiece

Manufacture – the art of production without slavery

History, if left unchecked has a nasty habit of repeating itself. In the case of Africa this may very well be good news. From our young schooling days we learnt about slavery, the bad guys and the good guys. Depending on which side of the river you sit the bad guys may very well have been good guys. Liberators are the bad guys that become the good guys. In essence if there is one thing that history has taught us is that we cannot get on with our brethren. If there is one thing that evolution has taught us is that we all came from the same seed.  We are taught that Africa has very little history but yet common sense tells us that it can’t be so, Africa is the cradle of mankind. Searching through hundreds of pages on the subject, comprising of white papers and reports, some from highly reputed sources such as KPMG and leading intellectuals, the one that caught my eye was that called Africa before Slavery.

     3. Egypt

One senses that Egypt has always been at war. Although we single out Singapore as being an 8th Wonder in how the nation rebuilt itself under the leadership of Lee Kuan Yew, Egypt has been remarkably resilient, under the control of the British Empire, through WW2, The Six Day and Yom Kippur Wars Egypt has re-invented itself. It is now in the top five African countries showing a strong economical growth and having the most powerful military. Strategically speaking it could very well see itself as being the strongest nation in Africa over the next few years. Will this happen though? Stability and controlling the sea route through the Suez Canal are key drivers.

manufacture - Egyptian Masterpiece
San Stefano – Alexandria
By Realman208 at English Wikipedia – Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons., Public Domain,

      2. The Republic of South Africa

The Republic of South Africa, previously the strongest of all the African nations economically as well as national defence is fast seeing itself being reduced to junk status, poor governance and high levels of corruption being major causes. The legacy of the apartheid system, current racial tension, militant workers and poor educational levels does not bode well for this country but it’s not all doom and gloom. Natural resources, raw minerals, strong financial sector, an under valued currency and the importance of the east-west trade routes remain critical i it’s survival.

  1. Nigeria

Nigeria is currently the strongest economical component of the African Union. Joining OPEC in the early 1970s did little to grow the nation, then being military run. After two successive wars between 1967 and 1970 left the country under military rule and it was not until 1999 that the country had a new leader, a new democracy. By 1999 revenues were largely just an indicator of what could become,  the return never given back to the nationals to improve housing, education or local business which has left Nigeria with a staggering nominal GDP for an emerging country but an impoverished society. This is changing however.

Democracy and great manufacture are not good bedfellows

Why are these three countries so fundamentally important to Africa as a whole? They aren’t because there’s a host of others but these three are the top players in their field right now, financially and in the state of manufacture (albeit low). Iran hosts some of the top engineers in the world, let alone Africa. If all states of Africa had to have financial discipline, possibly on par with that of the RSA and to be safe as Botswana then we are all in for an interesting ride. Unfortunately cultures, beliefs, greed and corruption get in our way. Democracies are never what we think they are and liberators often end up being jailers.

Many years ago there was talk of the African Monetary Union as having one common currency. Read Is it beneficial for the African Union to have one currency. Idealistically, yes. Realistically we need to look at the EU and their state of manufacture

Skills shortage. Much emphasis was placed on Zimbabweans to get a proper education, thanks to current president Robert Mugabe, a former teacher. In many African regions there is a shortage of broadband and internet facilities, let alone PCs and laptops. Distance learning is of great importance to school goers and university entrants. On a theoretical level this applies to artisans as well. On any level the hands on approach is the most beneficial to get results quickly. Africa lends itself perfectly to the manufacturing of electrical goods, which also implies armature winding, switch gear, conductors, insulators and consumer goods. What about tools? Why do the Germans manufacture the best tools in the world? Africa can too.

Textiles. South Africa was a formidable textile producing country. Unions destroyed this through their militant behaviour. The production of affordable clothing is always a good entry into the world market.

The motor industry. South Africa remains a very large motor manufacturer. Most roads in Africa are conducive to modified two wheelers, designed to be used on difficult terrain. Yet Africa falls short in this area and India has the upper-hand. Kenya may change this with Honda investment.

Africa at War

When driving through the roads of many African countries one gets the feeling of overwhelming hopelessness yet the human spirit endures. People are friendly but are dirt poor. Yet opportunities exist, many more opportunities than in Europe and the USA. Africa is new but it is also very old. Western powers are tired of giving hand-outs. A beggar will never work if he or she doesn’t have to.  Western powers are quick to hand out guns and ammunition and never get tired of this. Yet small boys and girls become killers. One doesn’t have to be a genius to understand the desperate need to prohibit the use of landmines world wide, not just in Africa. There are numerous resources on this horrific practice.  Are there winners after a war? There are many articles written about the influence of the Cold War on Africa – South Africa was not the only one.

Egypt was King

Although Africa has never been known to be a great manufacturer of goods one needs to look at the influences of Islam and Egypt going back centuries. Africa needs to distance itself of the political influences of the west (and east) and go it alone. War in Africa has never been a solution, only a catalyst of destruction. Right now China is brokering deals with African nations to foster partnering in projects. There is no such thing as a free lunch, in this case, a “free road or bridge”.

Educate, Upskill, Build

(Author’s note: One needs to live and work in any country to understand the cultures of the people. Afro Americans do not share the same cultures of the peoples of Nigeria, neither Afro Europeans of Tanzania. If one is white and born in Africa this does not make one a Euro African or Euro South African. I am South African. There are Khoisans living in London whom are British).


Vehicle reliability statistics – are they reliable?

Reliability Statistics - Toyota comes up trumps every time

Reliability statistics – a dodgy dump of grievance

About ten years ago my sister-in-law phoned her husband frantically telling him that her engine had just fallen out of her Renault Modus. It was a protection cowling. She now drives a Spark.

Wiki: Reliability in statistics and psychometrics is the overall consistency of a measure. A measure is said to have a high reliability if it produces similar results under consistent conditions.

Reliability Statistics - Toyota comes up trumps every time
First Generation Toyota Corolla – from Wiki
Toyota Corolla that appeared in 1966. The photograph is taken in industrial technological memorial (TOYOTA TECNNO MUSEUM) in Nagoya City in October, 2005. Photo : taken by D.Bellwood, modified by Tennen-Gas

Plugging up your service plan

It wasn’t all that long ago that cars ran forever and you only needed to change the plugs, condenser and points for a full service. Now we have a major problem on our hands: cars are unreliable according to statistics and you need to be a millionaire to own an entry level car.  Ummm, not quite.

Cars are much more reliable these days. Engine design, materials and lubricants have improved many times over. Your old 2.5l Chev motor may have put our 90HP, modern day engines put out 300 or more HP for the same capacity. And they last longer. But the truth is out….

It’s all in the driver.

Drivers don’t have a maintenance plan!

Find out which cars are owned by whom? Would a 20 year old settle for a 2001 Toyota Corolla when he can get an Audi A4 for the same price and it’s a 2005 model. Would a 60 year old fisherman settle for a Q7 or a HiLux pickup? A Honda Civic is a sensible car. It’s known for high mileage, cheap to service and fairly fast. Sell it to a 20 year old, it gets chipped, after market parts and an impressive set of wheels. Suddenly it becomes unreliable. Are we looking for longevity or something that never breaks down? A Formula One is reliable but is not known for longevity even when it’s just parked.

Reliability sells but it won’t catch you a cheerleader.

Repair prices and vehicle failure statistics can make or break a sale. Toyota sells off the used car floor faster than a porn star takes off her underwear. Likewise Honda, Subaru, Golfs and Polos. German cars of the luxury variety are getting some serious media attention these days and it’s not good news. They are just plain unreliable. But here’s the thing, are these stats taken in the USA or Germany? The Germans are pioneers in precision. Don’t say their technology is too advanced. They were sending rockets into space when the rest of the world were trying to figure out why our blood doesn’t leave us at over 100 m.p.h.

A wolf in a sheep’s negligee

Statistics cannot be reliable when one doesn’t know that Joe Blog uses his Mazda RX 7 as a jet ski, that Auntie Sue drove her Galaxy to church only, at 80 m.p.h. in first gear and Uncle Percy could get up the Himalayas in his Vauxhall which was towed by a Land Rover.

What If – my car has a tow hitch in the front?

Each vehicle brand carries the culture of the manufacturer.  The manufacturer homeland 0ften carries a semblance of the culture of the country. And so it goes. Putting this another way, experience showed me that the Panasonic TV (CRT) was the most reliable TV of all time. Phillips made wonderfully easy to repair TV sets.  Sony made really great to view TV sets but once out of warranty could be a bastard to fix. What we do also know is that in many of these brands the failure was usually caused by Electrolytic and Tantalum capacitors. This then caused other parts to blow, usually semiconductors. Picture this now in an automobile where stresses are much higher and of course, the temperature.  Picture the crises we face when hybrid cooling systems fail because we get water in the transmission fluid. Cars parts must be more durable. In an aircraft there is absolutely no room for error. If NASA designed a TV set or car it would run for ever or at least it should. What’s the message here? Stress and heat kills. And here we have the “what if” scenario.

What if a manufacturer took the bull by the horns, went back to the drawing board and laid out a plan which took all possibilities into account which may reduce unreliability many times over. We would have a perfect car.  But here’s the thing though – they try to. That’s why we have R&D and crash testing. The bigger problem here is how fast do they want a new product on the market to stay in competition (and some cynics ask whether they want their cars to be all that reliable). A common complaint is that Toyota stick to the tried and trusted formula, their style is conservative and it reflects in their cars. Good for them. “What if” is important. That is why Boeing and Airbus stick their necks out and make sure if something can happen it won’t. But it does.

The best advertisement on earth.

Toyota also take great pride in their product and do ensure that the owner gets the best bang for his or her buck for every little part used in their vehicles. So what if the door clangs, at least it doesn’t fall off. Remember that Top Gear series which had a HiLux as the unintended star of the show. After trying to destroy the vehicle through hitting trees, drowning in sea water, dumping a caravan on top of it and then cruelly sending it to planet earth in a building demolish this HiLux made it through, not unscathed of course but still running and moving under it’s own power. Off the top of your head what do you think this meant for HiLux sales. And the Arctic expedition?

Maybe other manufacturer’s should be letting Jeremy do the same with their products. Then again maybe that would not be a good idea. Me, I am a Volvo guy. I fell in love with the 144 and every product thereafter. I’d love to see a Volvo falling off a building on it’s roof. And then driving off. Toyota appeals to me but their high end models are very expensive. Because they are so good at what they do Toyota gets good resale value on all their products, sometimes more than what one paid for it. Anybody for a Conquest?

Marriages made in hell.

What happened to the great Chrysler-Mercedes wedding? Ford and Volvo? It’s no hidden secret that Ford wanted the Volvo roof to use less steel because there was no proof that it saved lives. Ouch! Ask breakdown truck owners whether this is true or not? Or the authorities. It’s also true that Chrysler and Mercedes do not share the same company culture, employee culture, country culture. Geely and Volvo? The outcome here is going to be interesting. From my armchair I predict that for the first time ever Volvo is going to be giving the German’s the shakes like the South Koreans and their Japanese competitors and yes, even VW. Volvo needed a cash boost. I would have loved Volvo to go to Tata but Geely is under powerful leadership.

Car parts cheap today, much cheaper than yesterday!

Car parts are a sticky subject, not because they can be expensive but because they get sold to more than one manufacturer and their resale prices are oh, so different. I had the pleasure of befriending a mechanic whom showed me the margins made. Oh-Oh. Heater fan motor for a Golf goes for $38 compared to Mercedes $150.00. Same part number. And yes, it was a Bosch. So yes, when we complain about unreliability we often mistakenly look at the repair bill. Some parts are marked up over 1 000%.  Luxury cars also carry a fancier labour rate per hour. Car part pricing needs to be monitored and if excessive the supplier needs to explain. Watch those anti-competition lawsuits.

Doing some research of our own:

Our own research has lead us to believe that the following holds true: (forums, tech notes, professional guidance from experienced mechanics and looking at workshop service manuals).

  • Previous driver history, not necessarily the car.
  • Your history book does not tell you everything.
  • Manufacturers should own up to problems that will arise after the warranty has expired. i.e. Radiator failure causing damage to the transmission.
  • Where was the car manufactured. German cars in Germany?
  • Is the dealership qualified to be working on your car? More often the small company private owner come technician in the grey overall has better quality control on the vehicles leaving his premises than a high end dealer.
  • Engineer change notices are not always available to the public.
  • Vehicle usage. Mileage means nothing – how was it used?

This list is virtually endless.

Most vehicles on the road have their own glitches, some not even pertaining to same year models. We have heard about the Monday and Friday manufactured car.  What about the car driven at 24:00 hours after a visit to the local pub. Street racing and other little jaunts.

Germany is proud of their engineering ability, likewise Italy, France, British, America, Australia, China, Sweden, India, South Korea, Japan and even South Africa. It’s in their culture.

You as a driver, what’s your culture?




Aisin Warner AW55-50SN and AW55-51SN Transmissions

Aisin Warner / Graziano A/T

Japanese Aisin Seiki – American Borg–Warner

The Aisin Warner AW55-50SN and AW55-51SN automatic gearboxes are used in a wide array of motor vehicles on the roads today and gauging by the amount of complaints they should never have been manufactured or at least they should have been replaced by a better gearbox. That’s how the story goes in any event. Truth of the matter is that these gearboxes are plentiful and because of their popularity they would reflect as having a high failure rate but the true test is how many have been manufactured versus failure rate.


Aisin Warner / Graziano A/T
Graziano Transmission – ZF 6 gear automatic gearbox 6HP-28A with integrated, electronic all wheel allocator for cars.
By Stratos L –, CC BY-SA 1.0

General motors have also used the Aisin Warner AW55 series under their naming code AF33 which is identical, also a trans axle designed to drive the front wheels. Whatever naming convention is used,  AF23/33-5, FA57, SU1 or RE5F22A the reliability of these gearboxes has been more often than not taken a beating from car owners because of solenoid failure and usually expensive repair. Many auto technicians do not like computerised gearboxes and will refer the owner to a specialised repair center. Although the internet is full of DIYers completing successful repairs on the valve body it is ill advised to dive into the electronics or mechanical aspects of these gearboxes unless one has a full understanding of their inner workings and has the specialised tools.  It is generally accepted that certain malfunctions can leave one stranded but the more cautious of us will be aware that a faulty gearbox can be dangerous.

I came across this little nugget during the course of the week whilst looking for common problems with these gearboxes which just makes one think how many other gems we miss by not doing a proper search: The AF33 Is A Common Transmission That All Shop Owners Should Learn About. GM technical training on the AF33-5 is listed on the site.

Tech Files:  AW55-50SN

AW55-50SN/AW55-51SN  (from our friends in Russia, the ATSG service manual)

Do you have a personal favourite company specialising in gearboxes, engines, suspension, clutches and brakes? Please use Business Entry to add the company.  You will do all of us a favour. You will need to be registered or logged in.

Please add your experiences with the Aisin Warner gearboxes under comments.

Oh yes, why are Volvo resale prices so cheap?  Is your Volvo hard-shifting?





Racing engines – gas to electric


Noisy engines versus silence in a Formula E

A question recently posed by a colleague in our electronics prevalent industry was in which direction motor racing was going with the current V6 technology in formula one as opposed to the formula-E which many technologists believe is the future. From a personal belief I would rather never want to see internal combustion engines disappear off the race track which I see as akin to the disappearance of two stroke racers. Sure they may not have been green but wonders just how much of a pickle we would be sitting in if there was proper population control.

Electric engines - the Tesla S Tesla Model S – hugely popular in the USA.

By free photos & art –

Electric versus ICE

Well as luck would have it Le Mans is going to see some exciting stuff from Nissan this year, a car with a 1.5L 400HP engine known as the DIG-TR delivering 380Nm of torque.  What is more spectacular is that it delivers this power with only three cylinders and weighs in at less than 100 pounds. The car, known as the ZEOD RC will do one lap on only electrical power and thereafter powered by the DIG-TR. Some awesome pictures here at Asphalt and Rubber.

Electric motors have been around for longer than any internal combustion engine and the inner workings have remained almost the same. Their main advantage over any ICE is the mere fact that they deliver huge amounts of torque from start which makes a gearbox really not necessary. Formula E cars do have a two speed gearbox where drivers usually do a shift at over 100km/Hr.  Tesla’s motor vehicles bear testament to the torque range of these motors, spinning wheels at intersections at the push of the throttle, doing doughnuts with ease and easily attaining the magic 100 mph in a few seconds. They have a drawback however. They don’t run on petrol (gas).  They are powered usually through a multitude of Lithium Ion cells delivering a few hundred Volts at many Amperes.  Their capacity is measured in kW/Hours which sadly, although sounding immense does not equate to many hours on the race track but more in the range of a few minutes at full engine power.

Limitations of the Electric Propulsion Induction/Brushless Engine

Petrol (gas) engines run for as long as the fuel supply is present, they are quick to refuel and still carry man to the ton in a few seconds. Formula E racers have two drivers and two cars per driver per team.  Even with two cars the teams are at the mercy of the battery bank. The electronics we believe is stable and reliable. Likewise the engines. The excitement will possibly be likened to that of owning your first Scalectrix set with the same sounds and smells. Possibly not in the rubber burning department.  The upside of this is that electronics engineers will have a lot more to do on their week-ends redesigning, cooling and doing extreme tests on brushless motors and inverter packs.

The downside to any motor sport will always be the cost. Although high speed electric motors have their place on the DIYer workbench this is not sadly the case for the fuel supply. Battery banks are horrendously expensive and the unknowns of the effects of a rapidly discharging Lithium Ion battery far outweigh that of a petrol (gas) engine making high energy battery supplies possibly more dangerous than that of a flammable fuel type.

Home tinkerers – DIY Engines and Batteries

There is a place for the home tinkerer however and that would be in the utilisation of 72V battery power through lead acid accumulators, the control circuits and brushless motors. Industry types could lay out a framework which would include chassis weight, gearboxes, differentials or multi-motor and a solid safety mechanism to prevent injury.  This may be a cue for the budding scientist to design a lightweight solution to our current affordability problem as well as pave the way to better engineering practices. Of course Tesla springs to mind – how could they leverage off this? And all the other electric vehicle manufacturers.

Looking at Nissan’s DIG-T R and Volvo’s 450HP 2L engine it is hard to believe that these internal combustion units are slowly creeping up to the power-to-weight ratio of their electric competition but there is one thing we need to bear in mind. Just how many mechanical parts are required to get this power and what is the lifespan?  That we don’t know right now but what we do know is that the simple brushless cooling fan used at home runs for years without a problem. Adding heat into the mix may cause premature breakdown but with electric motors running with ease at over 100 degrees Celsius we doubt that this will ever be a problem.

Taking the battery supply out of the equation for a few minutes one need no longer deliberate, electric powered vehicles are the way of the future and the sooner we get there the better.  My money is on the Asians, most probably the South Koreans in getting us there.



Who makes that Auto Part?

Why are my auto parts not made by Mercedes?

Damn, this is getting silly!  Almost every motorcycle or car website has a forum which complains about one specific model car (or motorcycle) which was a lemon. Either the engine or transmission is a dud. Then we have the electronics. That model “xxxx” is a piece of crap because of the high ECU failure or model “yyyy” has a known problem with solenoid B in the valve body.  Well here’s the gen:  Most car manufacturers do NOT make their own transmission, engine, electronics and even seats.  Yes, this is correct. From brake pedal rubber to lightbulbs, these can be obtained by the Original Equipment Manufacturer or OEM at a better price than at your dealer. Ever priced a headlight bulb at the dealer?  Be cautious, look at what you drive and then discover the truth about auto parts. A complaint often heard is that because you purchased a pirate part the bottom is going to fall out of your world. Well, here’s the thing – maybe, just maybe your car has always used that so called “generic” or “pirate” part.

Auto Parts - the worlds biggest supplier: Bosch
The Bosch R&D center in Abstatt, Germany, which is a major site for the development of automotive components. Work by Timo Engelmann – Wiki Commons

ZF Friedrichshafen – high end gearboxes for BMW, Land Rover and Jaguar

Years back I had a Kawasaki 750 twin which unfortunately through stupidity on my part ended up with a damaged voltage regulator. I ended up purchasing through Toyota a Volvo ( yep! ) regulator which worked just fine.  This regulator cost me at the time about 6 US dollars.  (in the 1980s)!  The same Kawasaki part was offered to me at 150 dollars.  Interestingly enough this was not even a Kawasaki part and I really don’t recall the manufacturer except this was a blatant rip-off.  Then we move on to Lucas, the Prince of Darkness and the butt of many other jokes e.g. “get home before it’s dark” and inventor of the intermittent wiper. Lucas was in fact a very proud and able manufacturer and the many experienced technical resources complain more about lack of maintenance causing issues than anything else. Having owned a Morris Minor 1000cc as a kid I do recall the pathetic cotton insulation covering wires and harness (and the positive earth). But yet all electronics had cotton insulation for everything, just look at the old valve/tube radios.  An article I recently read covered the imbecilic generator which used commutator brushes which wore out. I wonder whether the author is aware of slip-rings in alternators and that they also wear out.

Can modern cars handle a reverse polarisation (battery in the wrong way) as wonderfully as the older vehicles. Definitely not! If there was damage it could be quickly and cheaply put on the road again. Modern vehicles use semiconductors and if there is no way to shunt the reverse polarised battery to ground through protection circuits and blow a multitude of fuses you are in for a very, very costly wake up call. So Morris Minors may have had a bad rap but first look at the power distribution system maintenance before pissing all over your Lucas.

In THE dreaded situation of having the gearbox fail on you don’t be quick to blame your auto manufacturer, have a look at the maintenance on the vehicle. Some cars look really neat on the outside but positively suck once you get to the suspension, engine or gearbox. Some DIYer types just bypass the radiator / cooler for transmission with an external cooler. They have proven NOT to be reliable and cost some to replace, costing even more once there is water ingress into the transmission.  Here we can quite easily blame the manufacturer.  There is plenty of BS floating about pointing fingers to lack of maintenance but truth be told we also know of just too many car owners that did go through the full maintenance and warranty process only to find themselves out of pocket when things went belly up.  The shame here is that the manufacturer did decide to go with the combi radiator/transmission cooler. The negative side here is that to date we still continue with this process. Older sedans never had this problem. So Aisin Warner, GM and many others should not always be blamed for a shoddy product but rather chastised for keeping quiet. Oh yes, just read about CVT transmissions now, transmissions fast on to the market with possibly too little research into durability.

Will an automatic transmission last if left in the sun or your dog pisses on it?

In a recent article the technical writer come author talks of traffic congestion being the biggest cause of premature transmission failure through overheating. Some gurus will tell you to put the car into park whilst idling in heavy traffic. But we read about lack of lubrication whilst in Park. We also read about putting the transmission in Neutral because of the extra wear on brakes etc whilst in Drive. And finally we settle on keeping the car in Drive with parking brake up. What does the manufacturer state?  I have looked high and low and there seems to be a lot of misguided information out there. What I can say is that if in Park and a car rear ends your vehicle you will have a serious problem with the gearbox afterwards – parking pawl breaking etc. In Neutral which is where you would be in a manual shift there will be no damage to the gear train. In Drive, your car is always edging forward so the result may be even more devastating. All logic tells me that the vehicle should be in Neutral. Yet drivers through the ages will recommend to always leave in Drive, it causes less wear and tear. Hoo Boy! So back to square one, what does the manufacturer recommend and not the vehicle manufacturer?

Next comes your fluid changes. ATF should be changed every 15 000 miles, some say 30 000 miles and the car manufacturer recommends that the fluid should never be flushed or changed – it is sealed for life. What does the manufacturer state? Not the car manufacturer.

Car engines nowadays are remarkably resilient. I have heard that the older Opel Astra models have a problem with the oil filter – now this is an interesting one. A mechanic told me they just drop off and the engine seizes. What the…..  I have never read about this idiosyncrasy. Surely there is a Haynes manual for these vehicles?  There is of course a bigger problem – hearsay.  I know two mechanics, one is a Ford lover and the other, VW. Do you too? Listen to why the one hates the other. Like politics and religion there is just no stopping mechanics when they get together unless they both work for the same company. But not always. Personally I find both VW and Ford both very good companies with great cars. Just sometimes they bring out something which makes us wonder what the design team were smoking. And at what price to you.

Why expensive cars die but never roll over (or stay on the highway for long)

Problem after problem after problem. Nobody likes the unnecessary stress of being caught in traffic with a dead car. Yet we have all seen it countless times. In my experience these are almost always Audio, Mercedes and BMWs, all cars I’d love to own. And they all look new. (don’t forget the Volvo). So where to from here? – these cars cost a lot and they are expensive to repair. Road side assist for expensive cars but never entry level. I have never seen a Polo on the side of the road.

Blogging on auto parts

As this is purely a blog and most probably a highly opinionated one at that I do feel that manufacturers and car owners should take a strong stand about where their priorities lie. I’d rather have a cheap reliable car than one which boasts all the bells and whistles which falls over at the drop of a hat. Sure, fuel economy is important but not more important than losing 5 000 dollars through some shoddy design work on a car which impresses the neighbours. When one starts paying upwards of $50 000 for a trophy on wheels we expect it to do 350 000 miles with regular maintenance. This is not happening. When we do buy a 4 wheeler, especially, we do need to know where the engine and transmission is manufactured and their specifications given to us, not the manufacturer of the car. We need to have access to these parts and spares. We need to know what they expect from us. As a driver and owner of a car I expect manufacturers of both the OEM parts and vehicle to be in touch with us via email and not only through the dealership when there is a recall. There’s just too many cover-ups taking place leaving owners out of pocket.

Just as  motherboard manufacturer will not build their own capacitors the same is true of your vehicle. The ECU was not made by Volkswagen. The heater fan motor was not built nor designed by Mercedes. The brake rotors and pads do not come from Volvo or Ford. There needs to much more transparency. BS to the person that says makings too much transparency is leading to confusion and misguiding the public. Tom’s Hardware makes users more informed and critical of what they buy. Our goal is to do the same.

For many, auto part resellers are just another cog in the trasnmission. They aren’t – getting the right part every time and knowing where else these are used will go a long way to see just how much we are being ripped off.


Breaking the bank for an Automatic Gearbox

Automatic Transmision 8 Speed

Automatic Gearboxes – are they really all that unreliable?

There has been a lot of controversy surrounding the reliability of automatic transmissions over the last five years, not least the semi or manual automatic. In a survey done of the numerous forums covering the steady migration of drivers over to automatically assisted drive trains in all make of vehicles one thing becomes abundantly clear:  Are manufacturers really doing us all a favour by computerising their transmissions?


Automatic Transmission 8 Speed gearbox
By Ritchyblack – Stefan Krause – Own work, CC BY 3.0,

Most drivers in Europe, Australia and Africa have one thing in common and that is their preference for manuals or stick shift. Whilst drivers in the USA have never felt the need to have stick shift thrown at them a lot must also be said for their vast open spaces – akin to Australia roads perhaps? Lazy driving doesn’t always point to roads with less sharp corners and cheaper gas. Modern manufacture has veered in the direction of computerisation, better shifting, lower emissions, faster acceleration and a smaller gas bill.  But at what cost to the owner?

Manual shift has long been the favourite of racing drivers and those wanting to have control over their vehicle. Manual shifts are also cheaper and gauging by the user forums, a lot more reliable. And here is the topic of the conversation – almost every forum is going to have someone whom will never buy a specific vehicle again because of the automatic transmission. Always at a ridiculous cost! Now this is interesting because there aren’t that many manufacturers designing and building their own trannies. Aisin Warner is one of the most commonly used transmissions on the market but it gets a bad rap. GM likewise. Yet some forums claim them to be the best. VW the worst? Some claim the VW direct shift to be the best. Honda is bad, Honda is good! We can rattle on and on but here we need to come into this with an open mind.

Gearbox Abuse

The best transmission is the one that will handle abuse over as many years as you like and not fail. Manual transmissions can do this. I’ll stick my head out here and say straight off that an automatic gearbox is not a dandelion. It can handle plenty of hard riding and will not fall over but NEVER load it beyond manufacturer spec. Likewise manual transmissions. Three out of three people I know having damaged their transmission which was caused by doing stupid things – driving over sand dunes, pulling a tree out of the yard and driving through the sea. But there is another gremlin at work – the cooler.

The Grim Reaper:  Water/ATF combination

The radiator and transmission cooler often sit in the same frame and corrosion through the separator causes the higher pressure water to flow and mix with the ATF in the cooler. If caught in time your transmission can be rescued but sadly this seldom happens. It is the death knell of the transmission – the small ingress of water is sufficient to damage the friction material used in the bands and clutches, moreover dissolving the adhesives used in the bonding process of clutches and brake bands. The higher running temperatures cause the water to boil off causing damage to bearings and seals as well. Although there have been cases where the auto technician has managed to salvage the gearbox through a total flush manufacturers will tell you the bad news, that the transmision is going to break down possibly even a few months from the flush. And this will be a costly repair. Is this fair to the owner of the vehicle?

To answer the above question one needs to see what the average Joe DIYer does to prevent this problem again, indeed often doing this as soon as the vehicle is out of warranty. He will put an aftermarket cooling system which is completely isolated. One would think this is common sense. I know of Volvo and BMW owners that sat with $3 000.00 repair bills. This DIY remedy cost 200 dollars. The forums are full of drivers or vehicle owners which succumbed to the dreaded water/ATF mix, 99% of them had to redo their transmissions.

Older kit

In the early 80s I purchased a Rover SD 2600 (1977 vintage I think).  The car cost me about 350  dollars and did about 150 000 miles with only the engine being serviced. I forgot completely about the gearbox except to top the fluid up on occasion. The gist of this story is what many forum users are complaining about – modern automatics aren’t as reliable as their older sibs. With modern technology one would think this would be the other way round. Gearboxes are just not making the same age as the engine.

Maybe it’s time to go back to the drawing board?

Some Do’s

Always inspect and change fluid every 30 000 miles. (minimum)

Manufacturer claims to have a sealed for life gearbox is for warranty purposes only. It also prevents you from putting the incorrect fluid into the box.

Burnt fluid does not mean a damaged transmission – but do replace it immediately.

Fluid or ATF as it is more commonly known is not always a pink colour. Read up on the fluid type.

Always use the right fluid – given by the manufacturer and/or hopefully owner’s manual.

Always get a second opinion – the web is full of stories which will put you off auto trans “experts” for life.

And the eye opener of the year – read up about why auto technicians sometimes shouldn’t even work on a wheelbarrow – the 2002 Volvo XC70 which shot it’s bolt……
Some interesting videos

Understanding the basics of automatic transmissions, solenoid hydraulic fluid control, drive train and how your gearbox interacts with the engine and driver. Links to top websites or videos are below.

Planetary Gear Set Operation – Automatic Transmission

This planetary gear set operation video edited by John D. Kelly at Weber State University is a true classic. Much of what is seen on You Tube with regard to auto transmissions is either covered by a person that is also clueless or the video footage is weak. Here we have both a strong classroom lecture as well as exceptional footage. Thank you!

Automatic Transmission – Basic hydraulic flow (Weber State University)

Torque Converter Operation and Components – (Weber State University) – tutorials and section quiz