Friday, November 11, 2011

Reflections on unfamiliarity

So, on Halloween, many things happened. Some of them happened to me; for instance, I went into the City and attended an interview with US Customs and Immigration, and (assuming the cross-checking officer approves) I'm in the run-up to becoming a US citizen. Unfortunately, when I got back to my car afterwards, in the time it had been parked, the speedometer had given up the ghost. There was no obvious smell of magic smoke, but it must have leaked out somehow; the needle sat stubbornly on the pin, the odometer tumblers rolled not at all, and I was forced to use guesswork and the tachometer to judge my speed. I didn't get pulled over, so it was OK, but that was mildly harrowing. I'd forgotten that my smartphone has GPS and the ability to install useful applications, so it wasn't until the next day that I had a GPS-based substitute running. However, that was only going to be a temporary fix, since I'd been using the trip odometer as a proxy for the broken fuel gauge (which I really will pull and fix one of these days) and so I now had an indeterminate amount of fuel. So, into the repair shop my car went, and they had to send the parts out to be fixed. For over a week, I didn't have my car; but I did have the ability to borrow the LA's car.

Now, the LA's car is quite nice, and most definitely more modern than mine (roughly 50% more power from a very similar engine capacity, thanks to more efficient burning and better breathing from 4 valves per cylinder to my two; various fancy aids for monitoring things like tyre pressure; everything run by computers) but I was finding it tricky. For a start, I've got a couple of orders of magnitude more time and distance at the wheel of my car than I have at the wheel of anything else, and it shows. Among the things I was finding tricky on the LA's car were achieving a comfortable seating position (I've been spoiled by Volvo), knowing where the ends of the car were (the bonnet line is quite high and drops sharply; I don't have visual reference, and while the back of my car is invisible from the driver's seat I can still tell where it is from familiarity; the LA's car is a couple of feet shorter, so I don't have that dialled in), getting it in gear (going from a straight track and a button to a zigzag track), speed control (her car is equipped with an electronic throttle module; there's a Hall sensor which determines pedal position, and sends appropriate signals to a stepper motor controlling the throttle plate; meanwhile, my car has a Bowden cable, which makes for FAR more feedback through the pedal), gentle starts (between the extra power, the electronic throttle, and the front-wheel-drive, I was repeatedly spinning wheels or getting torque steer), interior control placement (just about everything is slightly different, which puts me on edge; having to remember that the two most-used wiper settings are reversed, for example, that the headlamps are turned on by twisting the stalk rather than a dash switch I've not touched in months, that the doors are locked by something akin to a window switch, and so on for approximately everything on the car) and the big one: visibility. Her car is a sporty, low-slung little number, which means a low H-point, a heavily raked windscreen, and a high beltline. Add in the enormously thick pillars to accommodate rollover protection and side curtain airbags, and I was struggling to see anything. The A-pillars gave me blind spots which could hide a bus, the doors came up to shoulder height, the C-pillars were horrific, and I felt as though I was trying to drive a postbox.

Fortunately for my nerves, yesterday I was able to collect my car and return to driving comfortably. It may be the last iteration of a design which began in the early 1980s, with engine technology which was conservative in the 1970s when it was new, but it's my car, and I know how large it is in much the same way as I know how broad my shoulders are.

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