Gas Prices Seriously Impact Quality of Life

Gasoline prices are news.  But is it the incessant drone of the media on the issue of gas prices or are average Americans really feeling the pain in their pocketbooks?  The definitive answer to that question is yet to be written, but two recent polls hint at how Americans and foreigners feel on the subject.

An AP/Ipsos poll has found that 69 percent of Americans believe that over the next six months they expect that increases in the price of gasoline will cause financial hardship for them and/or a member of their family.  Some 30 percent said it would not cause financial hardship, while just one percent of the populace was unsure.

The magnitude of the problem is even more pronounced according to a national poll conducted by the Sacred Heart University Polling Institute.  Over three-quarters of all respondents, 77.6 percent, indicated that recent gasoline price increases are very seriously (42.3 percent) or somewhat seriously (35.3 percent) impacting their own quality of life. This is an increase from 71.3 percent recorded in April.

Interestingly, similar percentages of Australians, Canadians, Spaniards and Italians also say the rising price of gasoline is due to cause them financial hardship.  The French and South Koreans take an even bleaker composite view.  Some 90 percent of the French and South Koreans say that rising fuel costs will bring a pox on them or their families in the next six months.  The worldwide polling was conducted by AP/Ipsos.  The major difference is that in most of the above-cited countries the per-gallon price of gasoline is much higher than in the U.S.  For example, while Americans think a price of less than $3 a gallon is "fair," the French, South Koreans, and Italians say $4 a gallon is the fair price, and Germans and the British say nearly $5 a gallon is the fair value.

What are people doing about the high cost of fuel?  According to the Sacred Heart poll, over half of all Americans surveyed, 55.8 percent, indicated they will travel less this coming holiday season as a direct result of higher gasoline prices. Another 37.4 percent obstinately suggested they would not travel less and 6.8 percent were unsure.

Among those currently owning a car, 56.0 percent now report their next car will be smaller and more gas-efficient, up from 45.7 percent in April, and 45.2 percent of those who will purchase a new car will consider a hybrid vehicle, though 38.0 percent say they will not consider the new hybrids.

Sacred Heart researchers also asked respondents if they supported or opposed a number of suggestions and strategies some have offered to reduce the impact of higher gasoline prices, and the results were good news and bad news for environmentalists and proponents of increased governmental regulation.

A large majority, 79.5 percent, strongly or somewhat support allowing the Federal Government to permit new oil refineries throughout the United States as needed, and more than two-thirds, 68.4 percent, strongly or somewhat support allowing expanded drilling for oil in places such as Utah, Alaska and Colorado.

At the same time, over half of all respondents, 57.4 percent, noted they strongly or somewhat support lowering highway speed limits to 55 miles per hour.  But there is certainly no groundswell favoring higher taxes. Some 63.8 percent said they strongly or somewhat oppose adding 20 cents per gallon in Federal gasoline tax to support research on energy alternatives.

Based in Villeperce, France, Driving Today Contributing Editor Tom Ripley has to cope with $4 gas as he explores the auto industry and the human condition.

Stanford's Stanley Wins Driverless Race

These days the winner of an auto race usually does smoky burnouts on the track and then climbs the chain-link fence to salute the crowd.  But the recent Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) Challenge wasn't like that, because the winning car didn't have a driver.  In fact none of the competing vehicles had a driver because that's what the federal agency was looking for -- a vehicle that could complete its 132-mile desert course with no driver aboard. 

Last year Carnegie Mellon University's Sandstorm was the most successful robot-driven vehicle when it traversed less than eight miles of a 170-mile course. This time the Stanford Racing Team's autonomous robotic car, Stanley, equipped with serious amounts of artificial intelligence, negotiated the somewhat shorter off-road course south of Las Vegas in a little less than seven hours.  The winning finish qualified the Stanford team for DARPA's $2 million race prize payout and captured it a lofty place in the history of robotics and technology.

"The impossible has been achieved," said team leader Sebastian Thrun, an associate professor of computer science and director of the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, with more than a trace of hyperbole. (Certainly at an institution of higher learning as prestigious as Stanford they teach that if something can be achieved it is not "impossible.")

A modified Volkswagen Touareg, Stanley earned the prize and the glory by completing the rugged off-road course with the quickest time, 6:53:58. Only four other cars of the 23 in final contention managed to finish. Two cars from Carnegie Mellon University, H1ghlander Hummer and Sandstorm, followed Stanley with times of 7:04:50 and 7:14:00 respectively. The vehicle entered by a team hailing from Metairie, Louisiana, finished in 7:30:16. (Some of its team members had lost their homes to Hurricane Katrina but soldiered on in the DARPA Challenge anyway.)  The last vehicle to finish, a yellow behemoth of a military truck named Terramax, didn't cross the line until nearly a day after the other vehicles finished.  Its human-piloted chase vehicle broke down en route so DARPA officials had it stop repeatedly during its run on the course.

Perhaps because DARPA is a government agency, it didn't declare a winner until some 24 hours after the Stanford entrant had crossed the finish line.  But when the belated news came the Stanford team went crazy -- writing algorithms and testing hypotheses late into the afternoon.  In a fit of exuberance team members also poured two enormous Red Bull cans containing ice water over Thrun's head and shortly after, Thrun and postdoctoral researcher Mike Montemerlo were hoisted aloft to ride on the shoulders of their sleep-deprived teammates.

"We had a good day," Thrun said playfully after a throng of media perched on a nearby platform pressed him to say something.

How did Stanley manage to set the pace?  Just the same way you get to Carnegie Hall -- practice, practice, practice.  Stanley "learned" during countless hours of desert testing in the months leading up to the race, often going days at a time without a drink of water or a cigarette. Equipped with a wide variety of sensors and a heap of custom-written software including machine-learning algorithms, Stanley grew smarter with practice. Eventually the special Touareg became a master of finding the path, detecting obstacles and avoiding them while staying on course.

The defense agency sponsored the competition because applications of the technology could range from the development of unmanned ground vehicles for dangerous military missions to driver-assistance systems that keep civilian drivers, passengers and pedestrians safe.

Based in Villeperce, France, Driving Today Contributing Editor Tom Ripley writes about the auto industry, the human condition and, in this instance, the inhuman condition.

New Has Big APEAL, Says J.D. Power

New-vehicle buyers like vehicles that are new.  That is one conclusion to be drawn from the J.D. Power and Associates 2005 Automotive Performance, Execution and Layout (APEAL) Study that was just released, and while that seems like a no-brainer, it's really not.  Why?  Because the automotive market is filled with vehicles that aren't really new; instead, these so-called carry-over vehicles are virtually identical to the models that preceded them save for a new color, perhaps, or a new piece of standard equipment.  But the APEAL study makes it clear that if you want to win the hearts of new-vehicle buyers then you better come out with something all-new.

So what is APEAL anyway?  In an industry that is filled with studies of things gone wrong and problems per hundred vehicles, APEAL is an effort by J.D. Power and Associates to measure "things gone right."  In the company's words, the study "measures owners' delight with the design, content, layout and performance of their new vehicles."

If this is the case, owners seem to be getting more and more delighted with their cars.  Overall industry APEAL has increased annually for the past nine years, and J.D. Power attributes that, in large part, to the continual introduction of a large number of all-new and redesigned models.  In 2005 for example, the market included more than 50 all-new or redesigned models, up from 43 in 2004.

What excites and delights buyers the most?  Apparently looking good still trumps feeling good.  Styling and exterior design continue to be most important to new-vehicle buyers when it comes to APEAL, but features dealing with the vehicle's interior, such as seats and comfort/convenience, have increased in importance over the past five years.

On the brand level, the vehicles that most delight their owners come from (in descending order) Porsche, Land Rover, Lexus, Jaguar and Mercedes-Benz.  Infiniti, BMW, Hummer, Cadillac and Audi round out the top 10.  At the other end of the scale, the brands that least excite their owners are (from the bottom up) Saturn, Suzuki, Subaru (obviously "S" names are undelightful), Jeep, Hyundai and Chevrolet.
 
Perhaps a better way to look at the study, however, is to examine the vehicles that led their respective segments in APEAL.  Here it is obvious that all-new is a ticket to ride, because all-new or redesigned models such as the Pontiac G6, Toyota Avalon, Lexus GS 300/GS 430, Ford Mustang, Chevrolet Corvette, Honda Ridgeline, Kia Sportage, Lexus RX 400h and Honda Odyssey each ranked highest in its respective segment.  The non-new vehicles that also topped segment rankings were the MINI Cooper, Kia Amanti, Lexus IS 300/IS 300 SportCross, Mercedes-Benz C-Class, Lexus LS 430, Cadillac Escalade EXT, GMC Sierra HD, Nissan Murano, Nissan Armada, Land Rover Range Rover and Chevrolet Express.

The 2005 APEAL Study was based on responses from more than 115,000 new-vehicle owners who were surveyed during the first 90 days of ownership. Eight categories of vehicle performance and design are measured to assess buyer satisfaction, including: engine/transmission; ride, handling and braking; comfort/convenience; seats; cockpit/instrument panel; heating, ventilation and cooling; sound system; and styling/exterior.

Driving Today Contributing Editor Tom Ripley writes about the human condition and the auto industry from his home in Villeperce, France.

Volvo Overseas Delivery Experience

The chance to drive through Europe is a dream many of us share.  Most recently my wife, Sandi, and I had the opportunity to live out that dream as we participated in Volvo's Overseas Delivery process (OSD), which happens to be the most-used of the European-delivery services offered by several automakers based on the Continent.  As outlined in the two-part feature "Take Your Car on Vacation" that ran here at Driving Today the past two weeks, our adventure was idyllic.  I'm a veteran of many a driving trip in my 20-plus years in this business, but I'm hard-pressed to think of any that was more enjoyable from start to finish.  The combination of vehicle, route, sightseeing opportunities, accommodations, restaurants and other attractions was simply stellar, and I think Sandi and I would repeat the trip in a Stockholm-second if we could.  But you could well be asking, was this an anomaly?  Was the trip a fluke of good-timing or was it a reliable, repeatable bounty of fun that you and yours would also enjoy?

The answer to that seems to be the latter.  Volvo says its surveys indicate more than 95 percent of its OSD customers are "highly satisfied," and a large number of individual testimonials from Volvo's customers are equally positive about the experience.  Frequently the process is described by its buyers as "too good to be true."  We'll let you judge that for yourself, but the essential facts, which we will lay out next, are pretty compelling.

First, if you purchase by Overseas Delivery, you will get a "one-price, no-haggle" deal from your local dealer that is eight percent below the Manufacturer's Suggested Retail Price (MSRP.)  While the very best negotiators among us on their very best days might be able to better this net price on some of the models in the Volvo line, for most buyers this, in itself, is a screaming deal.  But in addition to that, buyers taking part in OSD get additional advantages, the key one being two roundtrip tickets from their home city to Gothenburg, Sweden, Volvo's home.

Once you land in Sweden, you and your group are picked up at the airport by a Volvo limousine and deposited at a first-class hotel -- currently the SAS Radisson -- in Gothenburg for a complimentary overnight stay.  The following day your group is shuttled by limo to the Volvo headquarters complex where you can tour the famous Volvo Cars Safety Center or the factory where your Volvo has just been built.

After that immersion, you might be itching to take delivery and hit the road, but not so fast.  First, you should indulge in a classic Swedish lunch at the Scandinavian-modern Volvo Delivery Center.  (Yes, Swedish meatballs are on the buffet.)  Then stand by as your English-speaking delivery expert explains the simple paperwork, the included European insurance coverage and the nuances of your new Volvo. 

That done, you are ready to take command of your vehicle and venture out onto the Swedish road system.  Many Volvo OSD patrons confine their journey to Sweden, but the whole European Continent is at your beck and call.  Volvo also offers a wide variety of packaged tours -- hotels, meals and other amenities -- at what appear to be bargain prices.  You can get the latest on these offerings by logging onto the VolvoCars Web site.

Drive around Sweden for a couple of days, venture to Europe for several weeks or keep the car with you for an extended time in Europe (as long as six months.)  When your overseas journey ends, you don't have to return the car to Gothenburg for shipment back to the United States.  Instead, you can drop the vehicle off at one of some 20 drop-off points across Europe.  If you return the vehicle to Gothenburg or to Volvo's shipping center in Bremerhaven, Germany, there are no shipping charges at all for its passage to the U.S.  If you use one of the other drop-off points, you pay for the vehicle to be transported to the European port for overseas shipping, usually a matter of a few hundred dollars.

Meanwhile, your sojourn in Europe over, you and your guest fly back to your home city via Scandinavian Airlines and its partners.  At the same time, your Volvo is beginning its journey to rejoin you. In eight to 10 weeks time your Volvo arrives at your local dealer ready for you to take delivery again.  

Are there downsides?  The only one that jumps to mind after participating in the OSD experience is timing.  First, you must order your new Volvo from the local dealer of your choosing at least eight weeks prior to your desired travel time.  Then, at the conclusion of your overseas adventure you won't have the use of your new car until eight to 10 weeks after your return.  But with proper planning these hurdles can easily be overcome.  And the benefit is not only the purchase of a fine vehicle but also the opportunity to go on a European vacation that almost pays for itself.

Driving Today Managing Editor Jack R. Nerad has been a frequent visitor to Europe on reporting assignments since the 1980's, but he still doesn't like schnitzel.

Hot Rodders Can Go Home Again

Old hot rodders never die; they just keep firing up their engines.  And they will prove that yet again this September 30-October 2 when the NHRA California Hot Rod Reunion comes cackling back to Famoso Raceway outside booming Bakerfield, California.  The nostalgic event is being held in a venue with a rich and gritty history.
 
When California Highway 99 was the main north-south route in the state and the Interstate highway system was merely a gleam in the eye of the man who was not yet President Eisenhower, a local car club placed its focus on a parcel of land in McFarland, north of Bakersfield as a great location for drag racing.  Now called the Auto Club Famoso Raceway, it has grown over the ensuing years without ever losing its
place as a track of dreams for drag racers.

"Auto Club Famoso Raceway has deep historical significance as one of the earliest tracks to host major events," said Greg Sharp, curator of the non-profit Wally Parks NHRA Motorsports Museum, which produces and benefits from the reunion.

Initially formed as the Bakersfield Coupe and Roadster Club, the organizers of racing at Famoso changed their name to The Smokers in 1948, putting their primary focus on drag racing.  Their first event was held at Famoso in March, 1951, setting the stage for the well known March Meet that continues today at Famoso every spring.

"The Famoso site itself is so steeped in drag racing history and legend that it is almost a tangible presence during any visit," said Vic Cooke of the NitroGeezers' Web site. 

The Smokers began building up Famoso quietly until 1958 when, skeptical of the reported times and speeds set in the east by Don Garlits, they invited "Big Daddy" to compete with them.  In March, 1959, he did just that.  The result was the first U.S. fuel and gas championships, often called the "Woodstock of drag racing."  Although Garlits lost in the first round, and Art Chrisman became Top Eliminator, Garlits went
on to become the most celebrated drag racer in history and number one on the NHRA's Top 50 list.  Garlits' presence spread the fame of Famoso far and wide. In 1992, the NHRA California Hot Rod Reunion, thought at the time to be a single event, brought together older cars, drivers and fans to celebrate an earlier era. 

"When we were looking for a place for our Reunion, there was no question that we would come home to Bakersfield," said Steve Gibbs, Parks Museum board member and then Museum director.  "The event has grown over the years and trees have been planted in what's now Famoso Grove to honor the memory of drag racers of the past."

The Grove provides a setting for the street rod display that's an integral part of the annual Reunion, the major autumn event at the track. In 1994, the March Meet at Famoso was resurrected as a race for nostalgic front-engined cars, with entries limited to pre-1972 style racers. 

"In the world of front-motor dragsters only one other event rivals the March Meet," said Jim Davis of wediditforlove, "and that event is The California Hot Rod Reunion."

Although California 99 has long since been supplanted by Interstate 5, it continues to provide great access to the track and the city of Bakersfield. Meanwhile, the track's local events continue unabated, with a full schedule helping to fulfill its original mission of keeping the kids from illegal street racing. 

Cleveland-based Driving Today Contributing Editor Luigi Fraschini is hoping to travel to California for the upcoming Hot Rod Reunion.