Did You Deserve That Speeding Ticket?

Speed kills. That’s a truism in the world of auto safety that is held sacrosanct. In 2009, according to our own federal government, speeding was a contributing factor in 30 percent of all fatal crashes, and 12,628 lives were lost in speeding-related accidents. In addition to the deaths -- which dwarf the number of U.S. military personnel killed in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan during the same time period -- the economic cost to society of speeding-related crashes is estimated by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to be $28 billion per year. So you can see why local, state and federal agencies want to regulate speed on our roads. But at the same time, virtually all of us have received a speeding ticket or other “moving violation” that we felt was unfair and unfounded. Now, thanks to a new smartphone application, you can check on yourself and on that policeman who wrote you up. It’s like having “Big Brother” in your pocket.

My Max Speed logs your rates of speed every five seconds you are in motion, so you can easily review them and confirm you’re driving within the safe legal limits. Currently available for Android phones, the app features a large-format display that shows you your highest rate of speed in the past five minutes of driving. The data is stored in a spreadsheet and can be exported to Microsoft Excel, Word, PowerPoint and other software. You can even send your reports to others through email and share them on Facebook. Inside the app’s spreadsheet display, each speed recording can be tapped to display its exact physical location in a map format.

Users of the application who are pulled over for driving over the speed limit can confirm in an instant that their rate of speed matches what the law enforcement officer reports. In some cases, this may point out that the officer’s method of capturing the rate of speed was flawed, thus potentially saving the driver hundreds of dollars in fines. In other cases, it might be used as evidence to contest secondary offenses, like failure to wear a seatbelt, that are not grounds for a traffic stop but can be charged after a traffic stop for alleged speeding. If the speeding charge is disproved, courts might be inclined to dismiss the secondary charges as well. On the flipside, the app also helps drivers become more aware of their own driving speeds, possibly reducing the risk of accidents caused by speeding.

“There are hundreds of reasons to run My Max Speed on your smartphone,” says Wayne Irving, CEO of Iconosys, the maker of the application. “We expect many will help protect drivers’ rights, while others will make the roads safer. For example, our children are more apt to drive slower and safer if they know there is a chance that I will be checking their speed reports.”

My Max Speed is available for free in an ad-supported version; the ad-free version can be downloaded for $4.99 from the Android Market or its developer.

Photo Credit: @iStockphoto.com/LeggNet

2012 Mercedes-Benz SLK350

Car models that hit it big often have a “hook.” It might be gull-wing doors, a spare tire grafted to the rear end, or a two-piece rear window. For the original Mercedes-Benz SLK, the hook was its retractable hardtop roof -- something the auto industry hadn’t seen since the Ford Skyliner of the 1950s. But while the Skyliner was as much a publicity stunt as a real car, the first-edition SLK was a solid performer that could be transformed from a roadster to a coupe with the push of a button. For 2012, the SLK is all-new -- and this time around, a new V-6 engine and more muscular styling make this the most aggressive SLK ever.

One of the reasons for the first SLK’s success was that it wasn’t as hard-edged as most competitors’ performance cars, which include the BMW Z4 and the Porsche Boxster. But each edition of the SLK has become more performance-oriented than the last. The 2012 offers outstanding acceleration, confident road-holding and responsive steering, and the new 3.5-liter V-6 engine features direct injection and multispark ignition to generate 302 horsepower and 273 pound-feet of torque. The sprint from 0 to 60 miles per hour takes just 5.4 seconds. Thanks to its well-tuned suspension and beefy tires on 18-inch wheels, the cornering and stability are right there with those of the car’s competitors. On top of that, the retractable hardtop roof (which comes in three flavors) allows you to transform the car from a roadster to a coupe in 22 seconds -- a pretty cool trick.

While the typical company might be taxed to engineer one power-operated top and style the car so it doesn’t look awkward, Mercedes-Benz has engineered three. You can opt for the standard body-colored polycarbonate roof, the panorama roof of see-through polycarbonate, or the Magic Sky Control roof that can be translucent or opaque according to your whim. The roof doesn’t really use magic, but it sure seems like it. When an electric current is applied to nanoparticles sandwiched between layers of polycarbonate, light will pass through. When the current is turned off, the particles block light from the interior.

The overall exterior design lacks the individuality of the Boxster or Audi TT, but it is an attractive blend of classic Mercedes-Benz lines and contemporary touches, like the optional Bi-Xenon headlights and LED taillights. It looks good with the top up or down, which is something many retractable hardtops can’t claim. Some are downright hideous.

No one really complains that the interior of the Z4 or TT are too spare, but the SLK drenches you in luxury -- despite the fact that the cockpit is reasonably small and there is no behind-the-seats interior storage. We loved the heft of the thick-section, three-spoke steering wheel that is flat-bottomed, and the SLK seats are power-adjustable, comfortable and covered in sun-reflecting leather that dramatically reduces the rate at which they heat up in bright sunlight. Each seat hides a side air bag in the back and sports a NECK-PRO active head restraint that moves forward in serious rear-end collisions.

Also on the list of safety equipment is the innovative Attention Assist system that couples a steering movement sensor with software that can identify the erratic steering corrections drivers make as they begin to get drowsy. The warning message about your questionable behavior is a steaming cup of coffee icon that appears on the instrument panel. To supplement the pretensioner-equipped seatbelts, the SLK has eight airbags, including two knee airbags.

All of this and more is available to you right now from your local Mercedes-Benz dealer for about $55,000. A less expensive and more fuel-efficient four-cylinder model is expected after the first of the year.

Photo: http://www.mbusa.com

Set up Your Car for Fuel Savings

Gasoline prices have taken their toll recently. As they went up this spring, the economy slowed down, housing prices continued on a downward trend and auto sales had a hiccup. People generally think they can’t do anything to improve fuel economy except buy a smaller, more fuel-efficient car. But that’s simply not true. You can improve your fuel economy by taking some very simple steps to make certain your car is ready to turn in the best fuel economy possible. None of them take much effort, and all of them will offer you big returns -- even if gasoline isn’t at the $4 mark it was earlier in the year.

Here is a list of things that contribute to poor fuel economy -- and what you can do about them:

1. Low Tire Pressure
The air we breathe is free, and generally the air we put into our tires is free as well, so it is difficult to imagine why so many people are driving around with underinflated tires -- but they are. If your tires are underinflated by 5 pounds of pressure, you probably won’t notice that the handling of your car is impaired, but your fuel economy will definitely suffer. If you let your tires’ pressure drop to 10 pounds per square inch (psi) it can cut your fuel efficiency by more than 3 percent. Your engine will have to work harder to get you the same distance, and even more important, your vehicle will not be as maneuverable as it otherwise would be.

2.Window Flags, Placards and Roof Racks
Some people like to attach flags to their windows, proclaiming their support for a special sports team or the fact that they have a baby on board. Others use roof racks to tote bikes or other sports equipment. We’re all for supporting sports teams and having babies, and we think recreational activities like bicycling are great. But even small changes to your vehicle’s aerodynamics will have a big impact in fuel economy. At highway speeds, up to one-third of your fuel is used to overcome wind resistance. So, anything that creates wind resistance will cost you at the fuel pump. Having a bike on your roof might look cool, but don’t keep it up there.

3. Carrying Extra Junk in the Trunk
Stuff you keep in your trunk doesn’t create wind resistance, but it does add weight, and weight is another enemy of good fuel economy. If you haul around your golf clubs, bowling ball or a big set of tools, you are going to pay for it every time you step on the gas. According to EPA estimates, every 100 pounds of weight can reduce fuel economy by 2 percent.

4. Ignoring the “Check Engine” Light
Current cars often warn you if there is a mechanical problem brewing by illuminating a warning light. Interestingly, many people routinely ignore these lights if the car seems to be operating normally. But this is a poor decision for two reasons: First, even minor issues can negatively affect fuel economy. Second, serious engine problems can result, which will likely cost you big money to fix.

Is The Car Industry in for a Double Dip?

The aftereffects of the earthquake and tsunami in Japan are still a major cause for concern as the auto industry tries to pull itself up from recession, but that isn’t the only thing that is giving industry experts pause these days. Now the car business has been confronted with new data that is causing yet more concern: Home values are continuing to fall, and they hit new lows in March, tumbling even below the level we experienced in the depth of the Great Recession in 2008. While the recession is over by conventional definitions, the continuing slide in home values is a red flag for the auto industry, which would like to believe recovery will actually gain momentum in the second half of the year.

Here is what’s behind the industry’s latest crop of fears: The 2011 Standard & Poor’s/Case-Shiller index of housing prices in 20 metropolitan areas has declined for the sixth consecutive month. Worse yet, the most recent drop put the index at a mark below the previous recent low-water mark that came in April 2009. While the economy as a whole has not experienced a so-called “double-dip” recession, there is no doubt that home values have. The question is: Will the drop in values have a negative effect on new-car sales?

If the March values represented the bottom of the trough, experts might be relatively sanguine about the industry’s prospects going forward, but many analysts project continued erosion in home values, largely because falling prices scare some homebuyers from the market and prompt others to delay home purchases. Further, in a traditional recovery, home construction most often is one of the biggest engines of growth, but now residential construction is lagging manufacturing growth by a large margin. That begs the question: Can manufacturing continue to surge while home-building lags and home prices are in decline? The quick answer is likely “No,” since unemployment in May rose back over the 9-percent mark, another indicator of a weakening economy.

One important effect of declining home values is it makes consumers feel poorer, and when they feel poorer they are reluctant to puchase big-ticket items, like automobiles. Declining property values also affect car dealers, because the lessened value of their real estate holdings can make it more difficult and more expensive to borrow money. Even government is affected: State and local governments face lower property tax revenues as property values fall. This, in turn, could prompt state agencies to acquire fewer vehicles. While some analysts feel we have essentially reached the bottom for home values, others are not nearly as optimistic. That’s an important cause for concern through the balance of this year, because the fragile recovery of the auto industry and the economy as a whole can’t take much more bad news.

Toyota Attempts Reinvention

Toyota is utterly serious about changing the way it does business in the wake of the vehicle recalls of the past 14 months that have tarnished its once-sterling reputation. If you need evidence that the giant Japanese car builder is ready to change its ways, all you have to do is look at the changing of the guard in the company’s global board of directors. In a bold move, the board has been slashed from 27 members to just 11, and in a Japanese company like Toyota, this is not a ceremonial move. The board is typically a working group that makes both broad policy and day-to-day decisions, so a sweeping ouster of 16 board members is a huge step. Further, one of the ousted board members is Katsuaki Watanabe, who was president in those heady days before Toyota stubbed its toe on recalls. This signals major change.

So how will the broad changes affect consumers? Toyota CEO Akio Toyoda has plans for significant growth, despite the fact that industry analysts and Toyota executives have suggested that the headlong pursuit of additional sales is a factor that led to Toyota’s recent quality problems, including the devastating recalls. In a press conference introducing the Toyota Global Vision, Toyoda suggested that his company could sell 10 million vehicles globally each year by mid-decade. Last year, Toyota sold about 8.2 million cars worldwide, so the growth objective is substantial, but Toyoda claims it can be done -- while still maintaining product quality and improving customer satisfaction.

One key change in product philosophy is to move decisions from corporate headquarters in Japan to regional markets, implying different vehicles for different parts of the world, all bearing the Toyota insignia. This could have special benefits by enabling Toyota to regain its momentum with American customers -- while also catering to Asian car-buyers in giant emerging markets like China, who have far less to spend than their North American counterparts.  Interestingly, the regionalization strategy is the complete opposite of the globalization strategy that Ford Motor Company has been pursuing over the last several years. Ford has tried to rationalize its vehicle development costs by spreading them over more units with the thinking that a good small car, for example, will sell equally well in Europe, the United States and China. The Toyota plan would look toward vehicle models individualized for separate markets, and the company would like to see half of its sales coming from emerging markets by 2015.

One thing Toyota is not going to do is turn its back on hybrid vehicles, although some industry experts feel that hybrids will continue to struggle to become mainstream vehicles that are purchased by the masses, largely because of their high costs. Toyota will introduce 10 more hybrid models by 2015, but all of those models were in development before the announcement of the new Global Vision. In light of changes on the board, Toyota may very well back away from its hybrid-heavy future product strategy in order to put more emphasis on conventional gasoline- and diesel-powered cars -- though we are unlikely to see a diesel-powered Toyota in the United States in the foreseeable future.

What Toyota’s new plan makes clear is that the company has been humbled. It has admitted its fallibility, and it has now taken steps to change course and deal with a market that is constantly changing but, at the same time, still craves conventional gasoline-powered vehicles. Will its new plan bring it to 10 million sales a year? We’ll just have to see.

Photo: Getty Images