Rat race

Posted on February 3rd, 2010 by george.
Categories: automotive, epiphany, society.

Photo by Roger Smith

Let’s say you’re looking for a job.  You find an announcement for one that matches your skill set, apply, and get an interview.  You show up, the interview goes well, the boss is nice, and the job sounds great.  You agree on a fair salary, and discuss benefits.  You’re just about to sign on the dotted line when the boss jumps in.

“Oh, I almost forgot.  There’s one more task we require for this position.”

“What’s that?”

“It’s nothing, really.  Most people don’t even think about it.”


“After you work here for a while, it just becomes part of the routine.”


“In fact, most of the time we don’t even talk about it.”

“What is it?”

“Well, you may have noticed the track outside.”

“Yeah, I thought that was kinda odd for this company.”

“Sure.  It may seem that way.  But it’s just something we do.  It’s just the way it is.”

“What’s the way it is?”

“Look, I don’t make the rules.  It was like this when I got here.”

“Fine.  Just tell me what I have to do.”

The boss sighs.  “Ok.  Well.  Every morning before you get to work, you have to drive a few laps around the track.”


“Yes, really.  And in the evening before you go home.  Same number of laps.”

“Well that’s…interesting.”

“Oh, it’s fun.  A lot of people enjoy it.  You can listen to music.”

“Sure.  Ok.  So this will be part of my normal eight hour workday?”

“Actually, no.  We’re gonna need you to make these laps before and after your normal shift.”

“Oh really?  We didn’t discuss this when we spoke about salary.  And what about the extra time spent away from home?”

“It’s no big deal.”

“Are you going to pay me for my time on the track?”

The boss laughs.  “Oh no.  We consider it part of the job.”

“Huh.  Well, I really like the position.  I guess I can make a little sacrifice with my time.”

“It’s no sacrifice, really.  Everybody does it.  It’s normal.”

“So you said.  Will you at least provide me with the car?”

“No, that’s not our responsibility.”

“Really!  So you’re making me buy a car.”

“I’m not making you do anything.  But you need one if you want this job.”

“How do you propose I pay for it?”

“Out of your paycheck, of course!”

“Ok, what about fuel?”

“Your responsibility.  Oh, and it’ll need to be insured.”


“Yeah.  We don’t want you to have to pay for damage to the other cars.  It’s optional if you want to insure your own, so you don’t pay for damage out of pocket.”

“Other cars?”

“Yeah, we all start work at the same time in the morning and leave around the same time in the afternoon, so we all hit the track together.  Plus, not everybody’s going the same direction.  Gets kinda crazy out there.”

“That sounds dangerous!”

“Well, maybe for a new hire like you.  But the more experience you get, the less dangerous it is.  You’ll learn how to go with the flow.  Just pay attention.  We only lose about three out of every 20,000 people.”


“Yeah, they die in crashes.”

“Die?!  How many are injured in crashes?”

“Hard to say.  But we have emergency response crews, and a hospital nearby, so you won’t need a helmet or roll cage.  Or a fire extinguisher.  You’ll be fine.  Of course, you’ll have to pay for any ambulance rides.  But there are bonuses:  you can use the car and the track 24 hours a day, even if it’s not before or after work.”

“What for?”

“You know, to get around.”

“Let me get this straight.  Every day…”

“Rain or shine.”

“Every day, rain or shine, you want me to give you laps on the track outside, for free, in a car that I purchase, fuel, and insure…”

“By law.”


“It’s a law.  You have to insure it.”

“Okay, by law.  So I have to drive, without pay, my own car…”

“You can get a nice one.”


“A nice one.  That way you’ll stand out from the rest of the field.  And there’s less maintenance with a newer one.  Maintenance can cost you a month’s pay.”

“Don’t I just need to make the laps?  Can’t I get something cheap?”

“Sure, but you don’t want to look trashy while doing it.  It could affect your promotion potential.  You want to feel good about yourself, don’t you?”

“I guess.”

“Oh yeah.  And not everybody has to drive the same number of laps.”

“Why not?”

“Well, it depends on how far you live from the office.  The further you live, the more laps you have to drive.”

“Well I didn’t really get to choose my house based on its distance from here.  There weren’t many places I could afford…”

“Not our problem.  You can move.”

“Listen buddy, I don’t like your tone…”

“Buddy?  You’re the one being interviewed here.  I really don’t see what the big deal is; this is how we do business.  I mean, I even take my kids out on the track.”


“Yeah.  If you drive your kids to school, they have to spend time on the track too.”

“With all the other people out there, all of different skill levels?”

“You bet.  And some people knock a few back before hitting the track.  Takes the edge off.  So we wrote the laws, and now all the cars for sale have seat belts.  If your kids are young, they’ll need a car seat.”

“Let me guess:  by law.”


“Are there any alternatives?”

“Oh sure.  You can ride a bike.”

“In the rain?”

“Yeah, some people do it.  Claim it’s good for exercise, whatever that is.”

“They ride bikes.  On the track.  With cars.  Some of which are piloted by alcoholics?”

“Yeah, crazy, right?  You can’t ride on the shoulder, either.  You have to take the same path the car does.  Make ‘em slow down, that’s the law.  Of course, drivers don’t like it.  Plus, it takes a helluvah lot longer to finish those laps when you’re doing fifteen miles an hour.”

“You’re telling me.  So if I get a car, I can go faster than a bike?”

“Up to a point.  We can’t have people going too fast.  We commissioned a study a while back.  The faster you go, the higher the risk.  So there’s a speed limit.  Plus, we’re trying to help you out, keep your fuel costs down.  Oh, and part of your paycheck will be withheld.  Taxes, you know the drill.  To pay for maintenance.”

“What happens if I just wanna get my laps over with, and go a little faster?”

“You can try, but there are fines.  Bigger fines the faster you go.  Go too fast, and we’ll put you in jail.”


“You don’t wanna drive?  Fine.  There’s also a bus that makes laps around the track.”

“Oh!  That sounds good.”

“It runs once an hour.”

“I knew there had to be something.”

“Yeah, that’s why we all drive.  Those bus riders spend a couple extra hours at the track, waiting for the bus.  And the buses are slower.  Aren’t too clean, either.  I mean, all those people sharing the same uncomfortable seats?  No control over the temperature?  Honestly, who would want to ride one?  That’s why there’s only one bus:  not enough demand.  And not all tracks have buses.  It just depends on the office.”

“This is insane.”

“Look, I don’t make the rules.  In fact, I didn’t even have to mention this to you.  I just thought I’d do you a favor.  You look like a good kid.”

“Thanks.  But this is all a little hard to swallow.  I don’t have the money to buy a car right now.  They cost a significant percentage of the yearly salary we spoke about.”

“Don’t worry!  There’s plenty of financing out there.  You can just make payments.  In fact, you can have them taken right out of your paycheck.”

“For something that has nothing to do with this job.”

“Sure it does.  We all do it.  We just don’t get paid for it.  Don’t think about it too hard, champ.  You’ll get used to it.”



“Well what?”

“What are you waiting for?  Sign right here!”

If you commute to work by car, you are an unpaid racecar driver who finances the race team, pays for the car, and underwrites the fuel and maintenance.  You race on a track with speed limits that requires insurance.  Everyone on this track is going a different direction, and has a different finish line.  There is no prize for crossing the finish line when you’re supposed to; it’s just expected.  You pay taxes to maintain the track.  You risk your life every day on this track for your job.  They don’t compensate you for your time, and they make you pay for it.  All of it.

Emily Haines says it far more succinctly than I can.

“Buy this car to drive to work.  Drive to work to pay for this car.”

1 comment.

Driving smart

Posted on September 18th, 2009 by george.
Categories: automotive, coincidence, environment, friends, fun, society, technology, travel.

Five months ago I posted a photo on flickr of a SMART car.


I remember seeing these little jewels on a trip to Europe as a teen, where they left a lasting impression on a young American.  Would you look at that!  Cars don’t have to weigh two tons!  And these suckers can “parallel park” with their nose to the curb!  I posted this shot because I’m very excited that they finally made it to America.  I didn’t expect anything from the comments, but the first one, from my friend Atoosa, caught me off guard.

“My cousin Neda is a paramedic and she calls these ‘smartcoffins’ because she’s pulled so many dead people out of them. Basically she says in a collision, this is a little plastic deathpod.”

“That’s unfortunate. But understandable, considering how overweight American cars are. If everyone drove a SMART, I’m sure the story would be different,” I replied.  While the SMART car is perfect for the tiny streets and low speeds of European city driving, I now see what a frightening proposition it is to take these things out onto the highway to slice and dice with SUVs and pickups at 70mph.  I went on to post links to crash test videos of the little Mercedes/SWATCH “deathpod,” and an article on SMART safety, that indicates this city car wasn’t really intended for highway driving.  On the other hand, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety praises the car’s low-speed (40mph or so) crash safety in the official crash test video with commentary.  I finished my flickr comment by saying, “It’s much safer than a motorcycle,” to which Atoosa replied, “My dear G, ‘safer than a motorcycle’ is hardly a reassuring recommendation.”

Fast forward to present day.  I got an email from my brother-in-law (happy birthday, Dan!) about Volkswagen’s L1, a 170-mpg, tandem-seat-layout, carbon fiber monocoque concept that’s been around since 2002 and whose original prototype famously drove 100 kilometers on one liter of fuel.


They’ve updated the design of the new prototype with a diesel engine and a more production-ready design, hence the buzz.  VDUB claims it will bring this beauty to market in 2013, but I told Dan I was skeptical.  I love VW; Lorenia and I just purchased a Jetta and a GTI.  But I admit I’d be surprised to see the L1 make it through to production.  If it does, though, I’d buy a 2013 model.  In 2018.  In the meantime, there’s the glorious Aptera…if it ever makes it out of California.


And, if we’re lucky, the US will get the zippy new Fiat 500 in 2010 or 2011.


I cracked up when in the comments on WIRED’s article about the L1, someone said, “Who’s going to be the first to comment on how the vehicle will fare in a collison with a semi?  Somebody always does.”

Indeed, Atoosa made the semi comment five months ago.  “And yes, they do pass all crash tests or they wouldn’t be allowed on the road, if they hit an SUV — or even worse, an 18 wheeler, the tiny car goes bouncing like a skipping stone. Remember the video with the concrete wall only demonstrates the effects of the momentum of the SMART car itself. What would the impulse transfer be like if it hit an 18 wheeler going 70 mph?”

And that brings us to the purpose of this entry, which is to post my little flickr manifesto from April.  I made the following reply.

“True. It’s not as reassuring as, say, a new Volvo. I’d just like to point out that even SUVs are no match for 18 wheelers, so that argument against SMARTs is moot. Knowing that a big truck would pulverize your Celica doesn’t stop you from driving it. These are the choices that the individual driver has to make when we’re forced into car ownership by the societal status quo of a sprawled America devoid of intelligent urban design or the individual will to pay for such design through taxes that contribute to hard-to-measure quality of life benefits.

Bike vs. car is an even worse proposition than SMART vs. SUV, but that doesn’t stop me from riding my bike. Long story short, European-style, high density cities powered by renewable energy and with centers that exclude motorized traffic and emphasize pedestrians and bicycles are the way forward. Ultimately, the safety of a car is relative, and for most people cost, fuel efficiency, performance, utility and looks are all more important, since fatal crashes are relatively rare (42,000 vehicular deaths per year in the US versus 300 million inhabitants, or 0.00014% — 14 in 100,000).

Furthermore, almost no one considers the cost to the earth in terms of the materials and energy that go into producing a new car, which is why most don’t recognize that the greenest cars on the road will always be the pre-owned models: their environmental production cost has already been paid. No matter how efficient a 100% electric Tesla is, it can’t match the alternative: not gathering the materials and energy to build a new Tesla, and continuing to repair and drive what you have. Or better yet: selling your car and purchasing the nicest bike money can buy.

Fatal accidents in which you as the driver have no fault are exceedingly rare, on the order of acts of God. The majority of accidents can be avoided by paying closer attention to the task of driving and using defensive driving techniques, especially leaving enough distance between yourself and the car ahead. The unavoidable accidents, rare as they are, are not going to convince me to drive an SUV instead of a SMART, especially when the smaller, lighter car is more nimble and thus better at avoiding an accident. I’d rather die while trying to minimize my carbon footprint than survive crashes to burn another dinosaur another day. We can’t avoid it when it’s our time to go. What matters is how we treat others and our global life support system until we do.

Atoosa replied, “Very well put, my friend. That was like a blogpost unto itself. We keep fixing up our old Toyotas and riding our bikes when we can, but hopefully we won’t be pulverized, but will live to see the day when society around the world is built to minimize the human footprint on our planet.”

How strange, then, that both my 1992 Toyota Camry and her mid-nineties Toyota Celica would die last month.  After an extensive search and over twenty test drives, Atoosa finally purchased a Hyundai Genesis Coupe.  Notwithstanding the repair nightmares of being an early adopter, I’m very excited about her car.  But I’m equally excited that after my own protracted search for four-cylinder standard-shift cars, I found the fastest car I’ve ever owned:  a 2003 VW GTI 1.8T.


That’s right, GDUB has a VDUB.  One that goes to 70 in second gear and still gets 30mpg, thanks to the turbo.  Not as flashy as the L1, and I’m working on a few repairs to problems the dealer failed to mention, but I’m thrilled.  Living in a “city” where cyclists have glass bottles thrown at them and working at a job whose security gate is six miles from the office and bans bikes during rush hour may force me into car ownership, but if I must drive, at least I can have a car that’s responsible, affordable and faster than a scalded dog.