Listening to Rick Dorschel Sell Cars at Thursday Thinkers

I finally managed to get out of the house and get to The Kate Gleason Auditorium at The Rochester Public Library (115 South Ave.) in time for Thursday Thinkers. Rick Dorschel was there to discuss, Where's My Electric Car? Imagine my disappointment when I found it to not only be a press conference (that is, "way to advertise for free"), but possibly the most ill-informed Thursday Thinkers I've ever attended.

He started out talking about the problems in the latest Toyota recall concerning accelerator pedals sticking. My dad said they showed a diagram of the mechanism on the news, and it was an affront to good design: even a cursory glance reveals to an engineer like him that the mechanism can easily bind. Dorschel, however, said the problem was related to the complexity of synchronizing 4 computers on-board — largely to meet efficiency and emissions standards (implying, in my opinion of his tone, that the days of carburated engines were far better, and further, that government interference in capitalism was to blame more than anything else). As a computer programmer and electronics designer, I can tell you flat out that synchronizing the behavior of 4 computers is not simple, but it is well within modern techniques to make it extremely reliable and to make it fail safely. Dorschel also said that the computer was designed to split user input on the accelerator and brake "50-50". What the shit is that? If you have an accelerator and brake system, if the user attempts to use both, you always pick the brakes! In these days of computer-controlled throttles, there is absolutely no reason to make the car behave like a 1960's muscle car.

He went on to reassure the audience that Toyota is still a quality car, and the problems they have encountered have been fixed. No drivers in the Rochester area have reported a stuck accelerator — it is, after all, rare. Alas, he did not say how the design process was changed to add checks to make sure such bad design decisions are not propagated to the public. I can only assume it's "business as usual" at Toyota until, and after, the next problem. Same as all car companies for that matter — there's no reason to buck the system when, as an amoral corporation, it can achieve such easy free publicity at the cost of a few dead customers. Heck, did you see the advertising they're doing about safety? Ride that publicity wave to profit, for that is all that matters.

But on to the actual topic at hand …

Dorschel starts out by referring to electric cars as "golf carts" that are street-legal. Way to kick things off with your GM-based logic — presumably referencing the literal street-legal electric golf-cart from Chrysler-owned Global Electric Motorcars, LLC. Anyway, his discussion was rife with inaccuracy. Dorschel is indeed good at selling cars. But on the topic of cars and transportation, not so much.

He referred to the future of electric cars as being hampered by the battery. In some ways, this is true: with today's technology, it is impossible to replace the quick-fueling internal combustion engine, and electric vehicles are essentially limited to (at best) a 300 mile daily range, followed by hours to recharge. However, he completely misses the boat that things are changing. Many people can get by without owning a car at all, relying instead on public transportation, bicycling, and walking for most trips, and using a car sharing or car rental service for when an automobile is most convenient. Considering the prevalence of car rental and sharing services, one could literally get by on a commuter car. Also, the notion of driving your own private vehicle to a far-away destination is a concept only possible after the middle of the 20th Century. The belief that all things that we have now will be available forever, and new things will only add to that is plain foolish.

He said that ethanol is a failure because it takes more energy to make than it produces which is true, but he went on to claim that hydrogen and the fuel cell is the answer. I had to pick my jaw off the floor on that one: hydrogen is, at present, a mediocre energy storage medium. It will always cost more to buy hydrogen than to buy energy some other way because it's one more step removed. In other words, energy is attained from one source (i.e. petroleum, coal, solar, wind, hydroelectric, or nuclear) and used to convert inaccessible hydrogen (like in water) into accessible hydrogen (like hydrogen gas). Therefore, hydrogen from petroleum will necessarily cost more than petroleum itself — it doesn't just exist in pockets below the earth like oil does. Another way to look at this is that ethanol produced from, say, corn is essentially energy from the sun; harvesting that energy takes more energy than you get out. Hydrogen is guaranteed to be the same way. His statement that we may someday use the hydrogen and fuel cell in our car to power our house may be possible, but it would be excessively costly compared to the energy systems we have now — for that matter, we can leave our car idling in the driveway and run an inverter to run our house today, but who's foolish enough to waste that kind of money?

He gave a sheepish shrug when he said that Americans want giant cars. Someone asked, "if Madison Avenue can make giant SUV's and pick-up trucks desirable, why not energy efficient cars?" He had no answer, but said that all he knew is that they have such a hard time with consumers because they demand big cars when gas is under $2/gallon and small ones when it's over $4. After a grumble of support for gas over $5/gallon, he claimed that it would be yet another way that government interfered with our freedom. I had enough and asked, "why, then, is it okay to pay property taxes to pay for roads, but not for that same amount to come from gas tax?" He said that he hates government interference as well, and we should probably start a tea party (I believe he was talking about the conservative-funded astroturf protest called the Tea Party movement.) I think it's funny that he thinks that subsidizing his industry is called "freedom" but taxing based on use is "government interference".

Alas, in the end, Rick Dorschel struck me as a stalwart buggy-whip salesman. The fundamental business model under which car dealerships operate is eroding as people migrate toward more reasonable, ecological, and debt-free solutions.

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The Wagon's Grinding Gradual-Slowing

Ali and I were out running around in our Buick Roadmaster Estate Wagon to every furniture store in town looking for her perfect couch. Thus far, we had found one that was nice but very expensive, and several others that were cheaper but not quite what she was looking for. We went to Charlotte Furniture and Appliance (3200 Lake Ave.) and the salesperson asked what we were looking for. They had exactly one couch with furniture buttons on the back. When we went to see it, Ali saw the love-seat and thought, "that's perfect if only there were a sofa" just as she saw the sofa. It was perfect. And as cheap as the couches we didn't like. It was great. She ordered it on the spot, picking out the fabric and getting set up with financing.

So we headed out toward 390 via Stone Rd. From Ridge Road we went to get on 390 but as soon as we hit 45 miles per hour or so, we suddenly heard a sound like we were dragging a plastic barrel under the car so we pulled over. We looked under the car but saw nothing — not even from the driver-side rear wheel area. We tried driving again but it made the terrible noise again when we got to 25 MPH or so.

We called the service I signed up for: Better World Club — sort of like AAA, but without all the lobbying for bigger cars and more roads [heck, they even offer roadside bike assistance.] They contacted Towbuster Towing (510 Hudson Ave.) for us and said it would be about 45 minutes. We decided to limp the car to Ridgeway. We checked under again, hoping that we might be able to get it home on our own. Alas, it kept making the noise and I found a chunk of metal all ground down that was warmer than the cold ambient temperature — evidence enough for me that it came out of the car.

We got it to a parking lot on Lee Road and waited. Towbuster called us and said they were 20 minutes away and they had no room in the cab of the truck so we'd have to get our own ride. We wrangled a friend of ours to pick us up — the tow truck even arrived at the same time. Well, despite telling them what kind of car it was, they brought a truck that was too small. The distance from the rear axle of the wagon to its bumper was too long for the truck to accommodate. Well, it was just big enough, but they couldn't do anything more than a really gradual turn. The flatbed truck was another hour away so we decided to just leave the car and go home.

Actually we went out to dinner: Paola's Burrito Place (1921 South Ave., formerly Big Dog's Hots). We received the worst news in the world: Arturo is moving back to Austin in 6 months or so to be with his family, closing Paola's. So, if you like the place, go get your fill because it'll be gone soon. The Upper Mount Hope Neighborhood Association sent out a note that he was leaving in two months, but we're hoping he was correct. Naturally dinner was great.

Anyway, we had our poor wagon towed to Integrity Auto Repair, Inc. (241 E. Henrietta Rd.) As it turned out, the flatbed would have had the room for the both of us to ride along so had Towbuster sent it first, we would have had an easy way home.

As it turned out, it was probably good that we had the wagon towed. The brake drum had been machined beyond specification and the liner finally disintegrated. Had we driven home, we probably would have totally ruined all the brake parts inside. Integrity did a nice job with it and it's fine now. My wallet … well, not so much.

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