Cars

McDonald's Two-Lane Drive Thru - TTAKS by Erin Wade

Drive-Thru Hell

We’ve all had experience with the two-lane drive-thru setup at McDonalds.

(No, not all of us. Certainly not you. I know you don’t ever go to McDonalds. I don’t either.)

I remember back when there was just one lane, and one window. And then, they came out with the two window system, with the promise that it was better, stronger, faster. And it was.

And then, for a little while, there were three windows, because after all, if two is better than one, then three must be better than two. This experiment was relatively short lived, so much so that I cannot recall exactly what happened at each window. I think they took your money at the first one, and you got your food at the last one, but that middle window... random conversation with a teenage employee? (Yes, I could google it, but where’s the fun in that?)

Short lived, but still having required major remodeling efforts at each store that had it. Many still have that middle window, always closed, locked up, vacant, unloved. They sit on the side of the building, an architectural appendix, useless, waiting to burst...

But I digress. Two-Lane drive thrus...

The goal of each of these changes appears to be to move us through the thru more quickly and efficiently; to get us our food and back on the road before we really have an opportunity to think about what we’ve done. Two windows did this, and two windows remain. Three presumably did not, and so the third window is abandoned like a dirty shirt. And now two lanes are here, and they’ve been around for a little while, suggesting they are here to stay. This would suggest that the crack research team at Hamburger University has found the design to be effective. And maybe it is, from a statistical perspective.

But as you sit there on approach, waiting for your turn at the speaker, the two-lane drive-thru demonstrates its true reason for existence: As a litmus test for the average person’s ability to manage their vehicle in tight spaces.

Yes, each and every one of us has learned how to navigate successfully enough to line up the driver’s side window with the speaker and monitor. Check off that particular skill development as done and done. The great tragedy is in what happens next.

The person in front of you then completes his or her order, and of course pulls forward. And then you think "great! Now it’s my turn." And it should be, of course. But it’s not. Because when they pull forward, they only pull forward three feet, afraid of coming into contact with the vehicles in front of them. This leaves you in a position in which you can clearly see the speaker and monitor - maybe it’s lined up with your front bumper or, worse, with your front fender - but you are not close enough to hear it, or for your voice to be heard by the staticky worker on the other end.

Sometimes you are close enough to trip the sensor, and you can hear that disembodied voice speaking, welcoming you to the establishment, like a mirage in the desert, ever present, yet ever distant.

You are also close enough to see something that the driver of the Escalade in front of you cannot see over the massive expanse of unnecessary sheet metal that serves as a hood: they can easily pull forward another three feet.

Three feet! And you know that three feet is all you need, all you’ll ever need, to get up to that speaker, to relay the manifesto that is your value meal order, and get you on your way up to that window. You sit there and will them to pull up, to take that three feet. Mentally you offer them your mind’s eye, psychically providing the opportunity for them to see what you see, to see the huge chasm of space that remains between their front bumper and the car beyond. You become Elaine Benes on the subway, mentally pushing for events, events that will never occur.

And, to be fair and balanced, while an Escalade is a motor vehicle crime against humanity, this same sequence of events happens when the person in front of you is sitting in a Prius.

Often then the line will edge forward slightly, and you can see the opening for the car that impedes your path. Sadly, however, the etiquette on how to merge and who goes first remains, after all of this time, a thing left to chaos. The vehicle in front of you moves forward three inches, only to be cut off by the vehicle in front of them. You fill that gap, putting you closer, ever closer, and still not yet there.

Then there is a break, a shift in the traffic, Janie Escalade/Johnny Prius pulls forward, giving you your opening, your opportunity at that monitor and microphone, and you pull up to order. You hear those magic words "welcome to..." and you start to speak, rattling out your now heavily practiced order, only to realize that you are hearing the speaker on the other lane.

But then it finally happens and you have your order in, confident that all is now right with the world, your trial now complete. Until you realize that you do not have enough room to pull forward, and that it is now unclear whether the next turn belongs to you, or the person in the other lane. You are now the impediment for the poor souls trapped behind you. The great winter of your discontent is now past, but theirs is just beginning.


As I’ve said, I assume that this change must make the line more efficient and decrease the vital time between the taking of the order and it’s delivery; If you have worked in fast food you know that these statistics are of prime importance. Unfortunately, it seems to take absolutely no consideration for the subjective experience of the customer. It misses the fact that, while this process may be faster, the experience feels longer.

Previous changes to the system did not do this. Adding the second window to the original one window, one lane system meant that you were given steps along the way that made you feel like you were making progress. Originally there were just two steps:

  1. Place order and wait
  2. Get to window, pay, get food

Adding the second window gave you the opportunity to do something - paying - on the way to getting to your final prize. It made the process seem like it was underway, in motion, and that you were an active part of it. You may have actually sat in line just as long, but something interrupted the monotony and anticipation along the way. This is the same reason that the big name amusement parks have entertainment options all along the winding, twisting lines for the roller coasters - taking the monotony and anticipation out of waiting.

Instead, the two-lane drive thru adds anticipation where there wasn’t any before - before you have your order taken. It makes it seem longer because you are right there, but you cannot proceed. This may not factor in to the time between order and delivery, but it certainly factors in to the experience. Maddening.

I have no hope that it will change - it appears to be ubiquitous at this point, simply a part of the landscape, a thing to endure.

But not for you, of course. You don’t have this problem, because you never go to McDonalds.

And neither do I.

Pessimist Archive Podcast by Erin Wade

The Pessimist’s Archive Podcast is a treasure trove of historical information about people’s reactions to new technology as it emerges. Before I go into detail on it, here’s a little spoiler: they typically don’t like it.

The podcast has been out for about a year, and it has a... casual release schedule (there are 9 episodes so far), but what it lacks in quantity it more than makes up in quality. The episodes are well researched and tightly produced. The host is Jason Feifer, who is also the Editor-in-Chief of Entrepreneur magazine. Each episode also features a variety other voices from people related to the topic on one way or another, and the delivery is done in a delightful tongue-in-cheek fashion. Episodes run around 30 minutes, give or take.

They also run a wonderful twitter feed that provides details supporting both the podcast and the general concept, like this one:

4 MPH?

Overall, the podcast and twitter feed bring a new perspective to the very common complaints we hear nowadays about how screens, or social media, or fill-in-your-own-example-here are a menace and/or are destroying our society.

Perhaps my favorite episode thus far, unsurprisingly, is Episode 6: Bicycle, which reviews and reveals the severe dangers to society, the economy, and women’s morals, represented by the demon two-wheeler. All from the perspective of the 1800’s mindset, of course.

As is always the case, each episode is also accompanied by a list of links to the articles and references discussed, giving an opportunity for a deep dive into the topic in question (How the Bicycle paved the way for Women’s Rights, might help explain that concern about the impact on women’s "morals", for example).

If the general sky-is-falling perspective on our ever-changing times makes you a little crazy (as it does for me), or if you are just a fan of the bicycle and all of its iterations, I highly recommend checking this out.

Comedians in Cars... by Erin Wade

For most of the past decade we've been a streaming family. This started with a Netflix subscription, where we cancelled the cable subscription and relied upon the DVD's that came in from Netflix for our video entertainment. As technology has evolved over time it's grown to include streaming video services like Netflix, Hulu, HBO Now, or Crackle.

Crackle? Yes. It's right there in your Apple TV Menu.

Crackle is the home for Sony Video offerings, both old and new. If you want to see Barney Miller, you go to Crackle.

It's also where you go to see Jerry Seinfeld doing Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. And this is delightful. Jerry picks up a Comedian in - that's right - a car, to go get coffee.

There's a period of brief focus on the car itself - be it a Ferrari, a Country Squire, or an ancient two-stroke Saab - all selected based upon it's likely relationship to the comic in question. The rest of the show focuses upon the comic his or her-self, and the questions Jerry Seinfeld can think of. Guests include Robert Klein, Sarah Jessica Parker, and Howard Stern, among many, many others.

It's delightful - check it out!

2016 Chevrolet Volt by Erin Wade

As anyone who comes by this spot with any type of regularity will already know, transportation issues - whether it be roads, cars, bikes, trains, etc - fascinate me. In part this is because I believe that our approaches to transportation have a significant impact on the lives we lead; and, in part, it's because I'm a person who lives in a rural area and must travel considerable distances both for work and personal activities.

To the latter end, automobile efficiency has a significant impact on my life, and I've often tried to select my cars accordingly. When the original Chevrolet Volt came out back in 2011 I spent some time trying to understand how to figure out whether it would be a good choice for me. This turned out to be more complicated than I thought it would be:

The Chevy Volt has a problem.

Confusion.

This past February I had the good fortune to attend the Chicago Auto Show with the inimitable Ted E. Dunphy. We go to the auto show every year or two, but this year I was particularly interested in seeing and having the opportunity to ride in the Chevy Volt. The ride was fun - around a short track inside McCormick Place, the cars running entirely on electricity.

What was more interesting - and perplexing - was trying to figure out what kind of mileage I would get with the car. Usually this is a relatively straight-forward thing, published clearly on the window sticker of each new car. But if the Volt were treated the same way, it's sticker would just say "it depends".

In a nutshell, because the car has an electric only range, how much gas a person would use would depend upon how far they drive - the more driving done outside the range of the electric motor, the less attractive the Volt becomes.

In that original post I compared the 2010 Volt to two of my own cars - a 2007 Mini Cooper S and a 2010 Honda Fit - as well as the Toyota Prius, which is probably its primary competitor. I also included the original Honda Insight, a car I have always been interested in, albeit one that is very different than the rest of the group.

For the original Volt it turned out to best all of the others in real-world mileage for people driving less than 25,000 miles per year, over which the two hybrids - the Prius and the Insight - caught up with it. Even then, though, the Volt was still competitive in terms of mileage.

Where it suffered, though, was overall cost of ownership:

But gasoline is not the only cost of owning a car. Most people buying a car will borrow, and that cost will always be a relevant factor. If one compares the same cars, including the monthly car payment assuming a five year loan with no down payment for each new car, and the blue book value and a two year loan for the Honda Insight, and my current car payment for the Mini, one gets a considerably different picture... Because of it's relatively high purchase price ($32,780 after government rebate), adding in the car payment ramps up the cost of Volt ownership considerably.

I found then that, ultimately, the cost of monthly payments completely reversed the situation, and the Volt moved from least to most expensive to operate. The price of entry was a more relevant component than the fuel costs.

Several important things have changed since 2011:

  • The electric range of the Volt has increased considerably - from about 35 miles to 53 miles.
  • The MPG rating of the gas generator - the mileage the car gets after it runs out of battery charge - is also much higher, rising from 37 mpg to 43 mpg.
  • The original Volt required premium fuel, while the new one gets by with less expensive, regular unleaded.
  • The price of the Volt has dropped. With the government rebate in place, the purchase price is now $26,495.00

So the question is, what kind of a difference do those changes make?

This time around I compared the 2016 Volt to the 2016 Prius and the 2016 Honda Fit. I also included my 2010 Fit as a comparator to evaluate against a fully paid-for, relatively efficient compact car as an option. Assumptions made were:

  • An average fuel price of $2.183 per gallon, based upon the Midwest price on 5/2/16 from the US Energy Information Administration website.
  • Mileage ratings of 34 mpg for the 2010 Fit (based upon my personal measurements), 37 for the 2016 Fit, 52 for the 2016 Prius, and 43 for the 2016 Volt.
  • To account for the Volt's all electric range, the number of miles it traveled was reduced by that range, assuming overnight charging only (e.g. no opportunity for additional charging during the day). For example, a yearly travel amount of 10,000 miles was averaged out to 200 miles per week, or 40 miles per day over five days (a work week) for the other cars. The 40 miles per each day was decreased by the electric range of the Volt - 53 miles - to calculate the remaining average miles traveled per day, and that remaining mileage was calculated against the Volt gas generator mpg of 43 miles per gallon.
  • The same price of $26,495.00 for the Volt and the Prius. This decision was made because there are so many option levels for the Prius that it's price ranges from about $24k up to well over $30k. This seemed simpler and more straightforward.
  • The 2016 Honda Fit model selected was an EX with a handful of options based upon my personal preferences (The EX is the highest end Honda Fit that is available with a manual transmission) for a purchase price of $19041.00.
  • Monthly payments were based upon a 5-year loan, with no down payment, a 6.25% sales tax (Illinois), and 3.26% interest, calculated on the car payment calculator on Cars.com.

With all of this done, what I found was this:

The Volt is still the hands-down winner in terms of fuel cost:

Low Fuel Cost

If you drive less than 10,000 miles per year, odds are good that you will pay virtually nothing for fuel over the course of that year, and the cost for folks at 15k/year is less than $100. Back in 2011 the Volt's advantage leveled off with the Prius's for people who traveled 25k or more miles per year. With the improvements in range and fuel efficiency the 2016 Volt maintains a considerable advantage in fuel economy all the way up to 30k per year. If you are a high mileage driver deciding between a Prius and a Volt, on average the Prius will use $1259.42 worth of gas per year, while the Volt comes in at $850.35.

As in 2011, things change when we add in the cost of purchase:

Economy cars are cheap to own

What we see here, unsurprisingly, is that your cheapest option is still to own your own economy car outright (the 2010 Fit), and that the amount of fuel savings of neither the Volt nor the Prius is sufficient to compensate for the difference made by buying a conventional economy car that is several thousand dollars cheaper. If you must buy a new car, and you are looking for the least expensive overall cost of ownership, something comparable to the Honda Fit is still your best option.

What is pleasantly surprising to learn, however, is that the improvements made for the 2016 Volt make it less expensive to own than a price-comparable 2016 Prius, even for very high-mileage drivers. If you must buy new, and you are comparing hybrid options, the Volt is your best bet. General Motors has come a long way down this road, and it's worth noting that this is only the second-generation of the Volt. Toyota is on it's fourth generation of Prius, and has been building them now for nearly 20 years (the first Prius came out in 1997).

Of course, one does not have to buy a price-comparable Prius. The Prius comes in at a lower base-price, and one could opt for that car, which costs $24,200.00, according to Toyota's website. But it turns out that the cheapest Prius comes out to mostly be comparable to the Volt:

Base Prius

So - if you are selecting between the Volt and the Prius, you aren't really saving much in terms of overall cost of operation by opting for the base Prius to get in at a lower initial purchase price. Given Toyota's head start on this I'd still call this advantage Volt.


And Now for Some Speculation

I noted above that the fuel savings of neither the Volt nor the Prius were enough to make them less expensive than a conventional economy car like the Honda Fit. This is the case, in part, because gasoline is relatively inexpensive in the US at the moment. Out of curiosity I adjusted amounts to see what gas prices would need to be in order for that savings to make the difference.

The Volt takes the advantage here as well. It starts to become cost-comparable with the Fit for low mileage drivers at a gas cost of about $4.75 per gallon:

$4.75 per gallon

And it's comparable or better for all drivers if gas rises twenty-five cents to about $5.00 per gallon:

$5.00 per gallon

As can also be seen here, the Prius is still more expensive to own than the Fit, though it's getting closer to comparable for super-high mileage drivers. The Prius reaches a comparable level for those at 40k miles per year if prices rise to $5.75 per gallon, but at that price the Fit is still the better deal for anyone driving 35k or fewer miles per year:

$5.75 per gallon

For the Prius to reach a point at which it was comparable or better for every mileage point on the graph I had to ramp the cost per gallon up to $20.00:

$20.00 per gallon

And, at this (hopefully) unbelievable cost level, buying a new Volt is actually a better deal than keeping your old economy car, regardless of how many miles you drive per year. Or it would be, except that it seems likely that, were gas to reach $20.00 per gallon, we'd be cruising the wastelands in Police Interceptors, heavily modified dune buggies, or gyrocopters searching for food and a bit of juice... But I digress...

The larger point to this last bit of fiddling with numbers, I suppose, is that the Volt becomes the most economical new car choice in this mix at a fuel price not that far above prices we've seen in the past decade. This suggests that, from an economical standpoint, General Motors appears to be, at this point, far ahead of Toyota in terms of having a realistic financial savings based upon fuel economy.

Perhaps the only remaining caveat here is that the Volt's purchase price continues to include a federal tax subsidy, and things would be somewhat different - the Volt loses its cost advantage over the Prius under those circumstances. But the current reality is that the tax break is in effect, so it remains a part of the calculation here. And, given the progress GM has made on all fronts with this car, and its ongoing work on the electric side with the upcoming Bolt as well, it doesn't seem too optimistic to believe that they will reach a point of unsubsidized price parity with Toyota in the not-too distant future. This all leaves me far more excited about American - and specifically GM - vehicles than I have been in a very long time.

Time to Re-Tire by Erin Wade

Last December I noted that I was running a bit behind on my tire-changing schedule, getting my snow tires onto my car later than I intended. This spring is no different.

We've had unusual weather here in Northern Illinois - our spring has seen multiple snowfalls late into the season, with the most recent just a few weeks ago, well into April. So - in this case, my delay is only partially due to procrastination. It seemed wise to wait a bit, to avoid having to contend with the white stuff in my all-weather tires.

As the weather gets warmer, though, one can start to see how the traits that make the tires so effective in the cold are a limitation during the rest of the year. As I understand it, the rubber in these tires is explicitly designed to stay softer in the cold than do other types of tires. This means that they become softer still when the temperature rises. Takin an off-ramp at speed becomes an interesting experience of feeling your car seem to roll to the side of its tires, bouncing and bobbling in a fashion that is, shall we say, not comforting.

And so, dear friends if you, like me, have been waiting for just the right time to get to this task, I say today is the day. For, although it's clear that this evening it will seem once again that winter is coming, it's actually done with us in the Midwest. For now.

VW Beetle Fifth Wheel by Erin Wade

For most of my life I've been a small car guy. I've had somewhat larger vehicles - my first car was a '77 Chevy Camaro, and I've had a couple of Toyota Pickups - but I've generally run toward the smaller, more economical and flexible arrangement of the compact hatchback. 

Flexible: Need more room for stuff? Fold the seats down. Got something long to carry?  Leave the hatch open. Got something that won't fit inside?  Put a roof rack on it. 

And: got something you don't want in it or on it? Get a trailer

This latter idea is not one that I think is universally shared surrounding small cars. They generally don't have a lot of torque for pulling, and usually don't have tow ratings provided by the manufacturer. So where does the idea come from?

I was considering this the other day and, unbidden, a memory arose of a segment I had seen years ago on the PBS car show Motorweek. The Internet, being a (sometimes) wonderful thing, found it after just a couple minutes of looking: