Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Cash for Clunkers – An Uncertain Future

If you haven’t yet heard about the government’s Car Allowance Rebate System (CARS) program – more commonly known as “cash for clunkers” – it’s a program designed to help get the gas guzzling cars off the road, helping the environment and stimulating the economy at the same time. Basically, the program offers people who drive cars with a low MPG rating the chance to trade in their vehicles for a $4,500 rebate when they agree to buy a new car with a higher MPG rating.

However, the cash for clunkers program has run into some problems and it’s currently unclear as to how long it will be able to continue. For one thing, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) retracted some of its earlier car ratings, causing many of the car deals that were already pre-approved on the standards of the cash for clunkers program to lose their eligibility. No one is sure why the EPA changed these ratings at the last minute and disqualified so many car models, but it has caused a lot of confusion in the system.

Another problem is that the cash for clunkers program only began with an allotment of $1 billion, an amount that it’s already run through. In fact, in the five days between July 24th and July 29th, the program was quickly drained of money, as more than eight hundred million of the one billion dollars was claimed through trade ins. This left many people upset, as they had planned on using the rebate incentives to purchase a new car, but it didn’t appear that the money was going to be there for them. Even people who had made eligible trade ins weren’t sure if they’d be able to claim the credit or not – a situation that could have been disastrous if the government hadn’t stepped in.

Seeing that this was a very popular program that was doing its part to stimulate the economy, the House recently approved another two billion dollars in the cash for clunkers program. The bill is now waiting on the Senate, and if they pass it there will be a new infusion of money to keep the program going. Even though the rebate program was designed to help with the environment and to provide people with an incentive to buy greener vehicles, one side effect is that it has also helped to give the economy an extra boost as more people are purchasing cars in this slow market.

However, the program does have its critics. Some argue that such a large allocation of tax money should not be used to fund individual car purchases. After all, it is tax money that is being used for this program – the government simply doesn’t have billions of unaccounted for billions lying around. In addition, environmentalists argue that the rules are not stringent enough to effect significant environmental change, as the minimum new car miles per gallon is only 22 mph – which even some new SUVs achieve.

While it remains unclear if the cash for clunkers rebate program will be funded with the additional two billion dollars from the government, it is clear that the program has helped a lot of Americans make the decision to purchase a new, greener vehicle and provided a boost to the sagging auto industry. With this clear benefit, it’s probably only a matter of time until the program is funded once again to help more people buy vehicles that will work better for them.

Monday, July 13, 2009

An Inside Look at Formula D Racing

In much the same way that stock car racing grew out of moonshiners who needed to elude the law, so too has Formula D racing grown out of less than auspicious beginnings. Formula D racing is the honorable son of illegal street drifting, a style of automobile racing sometimes also called power sliding. It’s easily recognizable by the distinctive way that cars slide through curves and the amount of tire rubber that gets burned.

To drift, you need two things – the right car and a skilled driver. The right car will be a rear wheel drive car, with good suspension and a split differential. You also need the right tires for sliding – in fact, some drivers go through up to three sets of tires a day. For these sets, many Formula D racers use overly large rims to stabilize the sidewalls and increase the track. In addition, the driver has to be skilled at controlling the car’s slide and feeling the shift of the weight of the car as it slides. Formula D drivers must be extremely skilled so that they can enter a curve at speed, allow the car to slide and know exactly when to apply additional acceleration to come out of the curve heading in the right direction and with minimal loss of momentum.

Modern drifting started in the 1970s and is often attributed to Kunimitsu Takahashi, a driver in the All Japan Touring Car Championship who was known for hitting the apex of curves at high speeds then drifting through the remainder of the curve. This allowed him to exit the curves at high speeds and allowed him to earn several championships. As professional drivers adopted this technique, so too did illegal street racers. In 1987, popular car enthusiasts began to take notice of the “drift king“ Keiichi Tsuchiya and a year later, he helped organize one of the first drifting specific events, the D1 Grand Prix.

American interest in drifting began in Southern California, where drivers discovered it through Japanese bookstores and the Internet. By 1996, drifting was nearly as popular in America as it was in Japan. In fact, one of the earliest recorded drifting events outside of Japan was held in California that year. By 2002, fully fledged championship events were held in Europe, giving legitimacy to a sport with questionable roots.

Today, Formula D is the official name of drift racing in America. Cars racing in these events are judged on a point system that gives points for hitting the apex of a turn, for speed on entering the turn, for the exit speed and much more.

However, it’s important to note that illegal drifting remains a problem in some areas of Japan and in Saudi Arabia. And although street racing is illegal in the US, that illegality isn’t always enough to stop drifting aficionados. However, drifting is dangerous when performed outside of a proper setting. Not only do drivers run the risk of being fined and arrested, they also risk serious personal injury and considerable damage to their cars.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Installing a New Garage Door

Be honest – how handy are you? Not just hanging picture handy – really handy? Is your significant other planning copyright infringement against the show Tool Time? If you’re not on the ball – I mean really on the ball – consider hiring a professional garage door installer to do the job for you. Remember, those smiling faces on the television won’t be there to clean up, fix your mistakes or take you to the hospital.

And I’m really not really kidding on the hospital part. The garage door is the largest moving thing in the average house – and you plan to attach an exposed chain drive to the thing. So, be honest. Are you really up to this project?

You are? You’re going to take the plunge? Okay, the first thing you’re going to need to do is to measure the garage door. Keep these numbers in mind when you go buy the opener. Find one that has all the bells and whistles that you want. Once you get the monster home, do yourself a favor – read the instructions. But don’t just read them – check and see if you have all the parts. Be serious about this step – it will save you a lot of grief later on.

Is everything there? Good! Next, you’ll need to attach weather stripping to the bottom of the first panel. Put the panel in the door and put it in place by driving nails some of the way into each jamb. Do this at an angle. This will wedge the door in place. Put the hinges on the top edge of the door. Depending on the door you purchased, they may already be attached.

Now, follow the instructions to assemble the opener. Install the rollers and any brackets on the door section and on the wall- or jamb-brackets. Be sure to do this according to the manufacturer's directions – no improvisation here. On one side of the door, slip the track on the rollers of the first section and then repeat on the other side.

Next, it’s time to install the rollers into the second section. It’s best to have some help with this one. Lift the section, put it in place and slip its rollers into the vertical tracks. Fasten the first section to the second. Repeat this to install the third section and be sure that everything is level.

Once this is completed, attach the jamb brackets onto the tracks. Be careful not to make it too tight, as you’ll have to adjust them later. Install the curved and horizontal tracks along the roof, making sure that the alignment is true.

Finally, cut the rear track hanger to the necessary length. Attach the track hanger to a solid framing and loosely mount the track to the hanger. Repeat this process with the track on the other side. Put up the last door section, remove the temporary nails and tighten everything down. Install the driver as per the manufacturer directions and test the door. You may have to make some alignment adjustments, but go ahead and pat yourself on the back – for the most part, you’re done installing your new garage door.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

How Will GM's Bankruptcy Affect the Auto Industry?

You may be old enough to remember the heyday of American-made automobiles. Gas was plentiful and cheap, cars were big and powerful and the economy was booming. Then things – as they always do –changed. Gas became more expensive and even scarce. Cars needed to be more fuel efficient and handle our changing two-income lifestyles. Imports started rolling in to fill a need that the American car manufacturers hadn't quite yet realized.

And still things continue to change today, with the economy struggling, gas hitting more than $4 a gallon and American car companies rolling out cars that most Americans can't afford and don't want. Think about it – out of the last dozen or so car advertisements you saw trying to entice you to buy by offering large incentives, how many were for imports? You don't have to try to persuade people to buy what they're already buying.

In the midst of all this, GM has declared bankruptcy. The bailout attempt last fall didn't work – whether it was ill advised is water under the bridge. What we have to deal with now is the reality that one of the Big 3 – an American car manufacturer once though invincible – is in the hands of the federal bankruptcy court. What does this mean for consumers? And what does this mean for the auto industry?

For starters, GM is downsizing, with only the GMC, Buick, Cadillac and Chevrolet lines remaining. Pontiac, Hummer, Saturn and Saab will likely be sold to help boost the company’s flagging stock. GM says they’re committed to continuing to serve their customers and honoring their warranties, but already a number of dealerships have closed, making it harder for those who need service or who want to buy GM vehicles to find what they’re looking for.

It's too soon to tell whether or not the bankruptcy process will succeed in reducing the bloat that GM has been carrying and turn it into a lean, consumer-satisfaction driven entity. It’s also too soon to tell whether or not consumer confidence in GM will ever return.

But more importantly, this development has to shake the auto industry to its very core. GM was one of the Big 3 – unassailable, or so it seemed. The lesson for the auto industry is one that other industries have been learning for a while now. You can't tell the consumer what they want to buy – you have to listen to what they want and give them what they need. You’ve got to be nimble and able to respond to changing needs and demands.

In other words, you've got to give people the cars they need, rather than trying to create desire for the cars you want to make. And you've got to do it without so much industrial bloat – on both the corporate and manufacturing levels. And, perhaps above all, you’ve got to provide the quality and customer satisfaction people expect from today’s producers. If you can't do that, it seems likely that this bankruptcy won’t be the last we see in the auto industry.

Monday, June 1, 2009

What is Airbag Fraud?

When we get into our cars to drive, we trust our very lives to the safety of our vehicles. Most vehicles come with air bags as standard equipment for good reason – airbags can save lives. But if you’re buying a used car or are having your new car repaired, you have to be very, very careful to avoid becoming a victim of airbag fraud.

Airbags are expensive and difficult to replace. A new airbag can cost from $700 to $1,000 and they aren’t “one size fits all” – each vehicle requires a different airbag based on the make, model, and year of the car, as well as the location of the airbag inside the car. The airbag must be carefully installed by a skilled professional if it’s going to work properly, and all necessary electronic and computer circuitry must be checked to ensure that it will work properly in the event of another crash.

When the airbag isn’t properly replaced and installed as outlined above, the airbag won’t work. In fact, there have been cases reported where the old airbag was just stuffed into the cavity and the cover replaced, as well as cases where trash was used to fill the space where the airbag should have been. For less than $100, you can buy a replacement cover and a module that will reset the dash sensor light that shows if there’s a problem with the airbag, making it easy for unscrupulous shops to overcharge for work they don’t do. All of these situations represent airbag fraud – profitable for the person committing the fraud (at least until they’re caught) and potentially deadly for the buyer and passengers of such a used car.

The only way to make sure a used car has a properly installed and functioning airbag is to take the car to a certified airbag mechanic. Look for a shop that boasts the ASE Blue Seal Recognition Program in airbag repair. This is just as important as having a mechanic check the rest of the car for damage. You should never attempt to remove the airbag cover yourself; to do so could cause you serious injury and damage the airbag.

In addition, you shouldn’t rely on car vehicle reports to determine whether or not an airbag has deployed. Some insurance companies don’t provide this information to the vehicle report companies and not all accidents are reported. Further, there’s a lag between when an accident happens and when it shows up on the vehicle history report. Instead, look for telltale signs of the car having been in an accident and look for seams and cuts along the airbag cover.

If your car is involved in an accident, make sure that you use a collision repair shop with mechanics that are certified by the National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence, and make sure the mechanic who replaces the airbag is a certified airbag mechanic. Ask to see the new airbag before it’s installed. It should come from the manufacturer in a sealed container and the packaging information should match the make, model and year of your car. You can also ask for a copy of the invoice where the repair shop purchased the airbag from the manufacturer.

When you get your car back, your airbag light should function normally. For most cars, this means that the light will flash briefly when you crank your car, then go out. If the light doesn’t flash or comes on and stays on, the car needs further repairs.

Finally, if you suspect airbag fraud, you can call the National Insurance Crime Bureau hotline at 1-800-835-6422 for more advice on the action you need to take.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Helping A Senior To Give Up Driving

Giving up driving can be difficult for anyone, but especially for a senior citizen, who may see this as the first step in losing independence and autonomy. Whatever the reason for the change, there are several steps you can take to make the transition easier.

Whenever possible, giving up driving should be approached as a gradual transition process – not as a sudden change. However, there are times when you may not have the leisure of transitioning gradually into not driving. For example, if the senior has been involved in an accident or has had a significant change in mental or physical status, this could necessitate that driving stop immediately. More often, however, it is the case that there are circumstances under which the senior can and cannot drive, and each should be addressed.

The senior should be involved in the decision making process to the extent that’s practical. Few of us relish the thought of having others make decisions for us, so it’s important to involve the senior whenever possible. Ideally, a dialogue about safe driving should begin far in advance of the need to make any decisions about giving up driving.

When it’s feasible, allow the senior to begin to give up driving while continuing to drive in ways that are safe. For example, maybe the senior can still drive safely on familiar, local roads, but is no longer capable of driving safely on major interstates or crowded city streets. Or perhaps the issue is driving at night. It’s not unusual for seniors to need to stop driving at night or when it’s rainy or foggy and visibility is limited before they stop driving completely. Avoid times when traffic is congested, such as just before and after business hours and during lunch. Avoiding areas where there is heavy pedestrian traffic may also be wise.

As the senior begins to transition to not driving, supplemental transportation will need to be available. In some instances, this may involve friends or family members who can drive when needed. It may also involve using public transportation. If public transportation is going to be used, take some time to familiarize yourself first with the system. Know the costs, the pick-up and drop-off locations, and which routes are most likely to be helpful. Armed with this information, spend some time with the senior riding public transportation to help them become more comfortable with it.

In addition, many retirement communities or areas with large and active seniors groups offer public transportation either for free or at discounted rates. Call around to see if any of these opportunities exist in your community.

When public transportation isn’t available or appropriate, there are other resources that may be useful. For example, most area hospitals offer medical transport for seniors to help them get to doctors offices and hospitals for appointments. In other areas, you can arrange for private transportation – a taxi, for example – to be available at a regular time and date. Some businesses, such as pharmacies and grocery stores, will also deliver to home-bound seniors.

The most important thing you can do when helping a senior give up driving is to stay involved with them. Don’t let them become completely homebound – spend time with them regularly, and take them places. Help them stay active, and everyone will be happier.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Don't Buy A Car With Flood Damage

Cars and water don’t mix well. When a car has been damaged by a flood, the extent of the damage can vary considerably, depending on how much of the car was submerged, how long the car was under water, and even the condition of the water. While you may think that only the upholstery and electrical system of a car would be affected, in reality, you’d be hard pressed to find any part of the car that wasn’t affected and potentially damaged by the water.

One of the biggest issues at hand is whether or not you’re told that a car was damaged in a flood. If you know a car was damaged in a flood, you can consider the car in that light and determine whether or not you want to go forward with the purchase. If you do so, you do so knowing the issue of repairs and reliability you may face in the future. If you want the car for parts, for example, a flooded car may be acceptable. If, however, you’re looking for reliable transportation, you’d probably be better served to keep looking.

The real problem arises when an unscrupulous sales person tries to sell you a car with flood damage without revealing that to you. Fortunately, there’s a fairly easy way to protect yourself from a car with flood damage these days – run a title search. A title search will tell you the status of a car, especially if it was purchased from an insurance company or a dealership that works with insurance companies in an area that has just experienced a major flood.

First, obtain the VIN of the car you’re considering and take that number to your local Department of Motor Vehicles office to request a title search. More conveniently, there are commercial services – most notably CarFax – that can provide you with information about the title of a car. Most of these services are available online and offer some information for free, while charging for other information.

If a car has a salvaged title, it means that the car has been totaled or determined to have damages in which the cost of potential repairs exceeds the value of the car. In most cases, like a fire or an accident, the damage is so self-evident that it can’t be hidden. A flood damaged car, on the other hand, can have damage not readily visible to the untrained eye. For example, a car that was flooded by fresh water can look undamaged after a careful cleaning. For example, the appearance of the car tells you nothing about the reliability of the electrical system of the car, which may be severely compromised after flood damage.

Flood damage can be hard to determine, even by a trained mechanic conducting a pre-sale inspection. The only absolutely reliable way to protect yourself from flood damage is to find out whether or not the car has a salvage title before you go ahead with the purchase.