Sunday, July 26, 2015

A momentary digression about roadcars (plus a tangent about racecars)

This blog is about the development of TIMN and STA:C — it is not meant for other purposes or interests I have. And I’ll return to posting new materials about TIMN and STA:C soon.

But since this blog is the only publishing outlet I have handy nowadays, I occasionally feel like taking liberties, if I find that something I draft has a loose association to TIMN or STA:C — for example, my posts about baseball in 2009, or about racecar draft lines in 2013. Lately, I’ve finished a draft that I outlined over a decade ago about skillful car driving — a topic loosely relatable to STA:C. So I’m posting it here, just to place it somewhere and hope a few people appreciate and benefit.

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The Five S's of Skillful Driving: Swift, Smooth, Spacious, Safe, and Strategic

I used to enjoy driving my late car — a 1998 Acura 3.2TL — so much that I began wondering whether driving could be reduced to a set of key principles. Thus, years ago, I came up with the following five S's for skillful driving: swift, smooth, spacious, safe, and strategic.

This set of principles made good sense for me. It organized lots of do’s and don’ts in a systematic way. Most important, these five S’s accommodated my penchant for driving fast while wanting to stay within limits. Indeed, what's laid out here was designed to help me continue driving fast sensibly. If I'd been a slow driver, I doubt I’d ever have thought the matter through.

You may find these five S's useful too. I hope so. They're excellent for monitoring yourself on the road. They can also help with teaching a learner to drive, or trying to correct a seasoned driver who habitually displays faulty ways behind the wheel.

Here are the five principles in the order I like — all beginning with the letter “S” for mnemonic appeal:
1. Drive at speeds you like: I’ve long liked swift. But as I aged, sedate became suitable too. The important point is to pick a speed that feels comfortable and appropriate — a speed that keeps you attentive to the car’s feel on the road, and that doesn't jeopardize any of the other S's.

2. Drive smoothly: Move at a steady pace, with little steering-wheel movement. Don't get on and off the gas much. Brake smoothly. Know when to brake and how to get back on the gas when turning corners and rounding curves — an artful skill. Don't swerve in and out of traffic or change lanes much. Also, rarely indulge in hard acceleration from a dead stop. From a smoothness standpoint, grunting full-throttle from 0 to 60 mph is less desirable (and harder on a car's drivetrain and tires) than, say, racing from 60 to 100 mph for a few joyful seconds. (And if you are going to do either one, it's good to know your car's full-throttle shift points, so you don't have to take your eyes off the road to check the speedometer. I knew that my car shifted from 3rd into 4th gear at exactly 100 mph — time to ease off.)

3. Drive spaciously: Spatial awareness is crucial to skillful driving. Keep a good distance from cars in front, behind, and to the sides. Don’t drive in somebody else’s blind-spot, or let anyone remain in your own. Don't parallel cars in adjacent lanes for long. And when slowing to stop, be able to see the bottom of the tires of a car in front — an old rule that arose when cars had stick shifts and clutch pedals, and thus might stall or slide back, such that you might need room to turn out and go around without backing up. It's still a good rule for today's world. Also try to apply it in traffic jams where cars are nearly bumper-to-bumper (but beware of anxious intruders from side lanes). And move away from a car traveling behind if you can't see the bottom of its front tires. Of course, know that the faster you are travelling, the more braking distance you should have to cars in front and behind.

Spatial awareness is about more than nearby gaps. It’s also about assaying what’s farther ahead — so try not to travel behind view-blocking vehicles (e.g., SUVs, trucks). And it’s about preserving maneuvering space — so try to drive in a middle lane, where there are options for switching to the right and the left in case a risk suddenly looms.

4. Drive safely: Safe driving is crucial; it has to be on any list of key principles. In part this means abiding by a long list of standard safe-driving practices — e.g., keep your eyes on the road, hands on the wheel. But it also means learning from experience to habituate yourself to practices that help avoid sudden risky surprises. For example, I learned from several close calls to count to three before getting going again when I’m stopped at an intersection and the light changes from red to green — lest someone be running the light to the side.

5. Drive strategically: After identifying those first four principles, I felt something was still missing, maybe quite a few somethings. For example, I learned from several near misses to slow down sharply if my lane is devoid of traffic, but a lane on either side is jamming up, for this could mean that something unexpected was about to occur ahead that may cross into my lane. Does that tactical point belong under the spacious or the safe principle? Maybe, but not in a way that would stick in my mind. Also, where do I fit the attention I’d devote at times to picking the best lane? That didn’t fit fully under any of the first four S’s, though I placed an aspect under the spacious rule above.
So I came up with strategic as my fifth “S” — partly as a sensible principle by itself, but also as a somewhat catch-all principle for leftover do’s and don’ts that didn’t fit exactly under the first four. Thinking strategically means having situational awareness, thinking in positional terms, for strategy is the art of positioning. I’ve never been sure what all do’s and don’ts I’d list under this principle, and your list may be different (a commenter on my first draft listed his techniques for avoiding the Highway Patrol). But no matter the list, what’s crucial as one drives along is to ask, Am I driving in a way that makes strategic and tactical sense?
So those are the key principles I’d recommend. I could add more specific do's and don’ts for each one. I could also note that some do’s and don’ts may pertain to two or more of the S’s. But that would distract from my main point: These five S’s provide an overall set of principles, a big-picture perspective, perhaps a philosophy, doctrine, or grand strategy, for skillful driving. If there’s a better set, I’ll have to rethink. But I’ve not seen one yet.

Some overlaps exist among the five — for example, between spacious and safe. Or maybe one or another — say, strategic — could be expanded to engulf others. But revising the set so as to lessen the overlaps, or shortening it to just three or four, has always seemed inadvisable to me. Some overlap is acceptable, even useful, for these principles are interrelated. The five I’ve identified also seem fairly comprehensive; something significant would have to be left out, or downplayed, if the list were made shorter. Together, the five amount to a pretty good quick-and-easy system of checks and balances for self-monitoring while motoring along.

The five principles don't have to be in the above order. It's the order that works best for me. However, you may prefer a different order, especially if you are not so speed-oriented as I used to be. Whatever the order, it’s seeing the links among the five and keeping them in balance that matters. This can be particularly advantageous for teaching others how to drive.

For example, if a teenage learner is driving too fast, a teacher’s usual reaction is to tell the kid to slow down for safety and legal reasons. Which often doesn't register well with teenagers, or leave much of an imprint for when the kids are on their own. But with this framework, the key point is not that the kid is driving too fast per se, but rather that he or she is not living up to one or more of the other key principles of skillful driving: say, smooth and spacious. Of course, the kid may well be just plain prone to driving too fast — but the five S’s are worth a try.

To end on a theoretical note, skillful driving is thus an exercise in space-time-action awareness and adjustment (apropos STA:C). It's a way to go OODA–Looping down the road, monitoring oneself and one's environment. As motorcycling blog-friend Sam Liles observed, after reading my first draft in light of his own knowledge about decision analysis, “The article may be about driving, but it is about way more than that.”


I thank a few thoughtful drivers I know — Sean Coffey, Helen Donovan, Donald Kieselhorst, Samuel Liles, Richard Yoder — for reading and commenting on my first draft. This second draft incorporates various do’s, don’ts, and other notions they raised.

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A tangent about the mesmerizing sonics of Ferrari Formula One V-12 racecars

While the above discussion about skillful driving is somewhat reflective of this blogs STA:C theme, here's something else about cars that barely pertains to my blog, but that I'm moved to add anyway: selected sights and sounds of Ferrari Formula One racecars, especially the ones with Ferrari’s epic V-12 engines. If pushed about its pertinence, however, I would hasten to claim a link to this blog’s TIMN theme — for the fanatical Ferrari fans called tifosi are the most enthusiastically tribal of all racecar fans.

Here’s a slick commercial that Shell Oil produced using Ferraris from the years when Shell sponsored Ferrari:
The cars and drivers in this commercial are said to be, in order of appearance,: a 1950s-era Ferrari 500 (2 ltr., 4 cyl.), driven by Alberto Ascari; a Ferrari 312 (3 ltr., V-12), from 1966-1970, driven by Chris Amon; a 1972 Ferrari 312 B2 (3 ltr. V-12), driven by Jacky Ickx; a late 1990s Ferrari F310 B (3 ltr., V-10), driven in the commercial by Eddie Irvine, but in its time raced by Michael Schumacher and known as the “Schubaka car”; and lastly a 2007 Ferrari F2007 (2.4 ltr., V-8), driven by Kimi Raikkonen.

The gripping sonics of the Ferrari 312 B2 at the 0:50 seconds mark in that video is why, if fans were allowed to choose, Formula One would still be racing 3.0 liter V-12s.

There are also great-sounding Ferraris from other years when the Scuderia was sponsored by the oil company AGIP instead of Shell. The following two amateur videos convey the sonics of what I and many others regard as the greatest-sounding Ferrari of all time, a 3.5 liter V-12: the 1994 Ferrari 412 T1 (however, to my inexpert confusion, some videos claim it’s the 1995 Ferrari 412 T2 model).
Ah, for mesmerized me, that’s the sound of angels raising hell. But I digress …