Sink your teeth into this: a car-themed orthodontist office!

Car themes

Photo credit: DJM Orthodontics.

When orthodontist Dr. David J. Myers from Conway, Arkansas was looking for new office space, he was tempted to locate in a building that had served as a gas station since the 1940s and was being revamped. Although that didn’t work out, he and his staff did decide to go with the car motif in his new office, with:

  • the front desk built out of the front end and fenders of a wood-grained 1947 Mercury
  • the doctor’s desk crafted from a 1959 Cadillac
  • couches formed out of the back ends of vehicles
  • a vintage gas station theme with awnings and restored gas pumps
Photo credit: DJM Orthodontics.

Photo credit: DJM Orthodontics.

“Parents love the office,” Dr. Myers says, “and there is no other office like this in the area. At first, when we were planning the décor, my wife and worried at night that maybe the office was too much ‘boy.’” Fortunately, for those who want something different, there’s always the pink Cadillac couch!

Photo credit: DJM Orthodontics.

Photo credit: DJM Orthodontics.

Dr. Myers lists his hobbies as “rebuilding old cars, and an avid collector of ‘junk.’” When it was time to decorate his new office, he already owned a couple of cars that could be dismantled for parts, although he needed to buy more vehicles to complete the look.

Another patient favorite is the area that looks like an old movie theater with a light up sign. “On the day of someone’s first appointment,” he explains, “his or her name is on the sign as being part of the featured movie. This also happens on the day someone gets his or her braces off. When that happens, the patient takes photos and usually posts them to Instagram for friends.”

Photo credit: DJM Orthodontics.

Photo credit: DJM Orthodontics.

So, he’s done decorating, right? Wrong! “I now have a seven-foot sailfish,” the doctor explains, “and I’m looking for the right place to hang it. A local toy store went out of business so I bought a great big train to hang from the ceiling and I’m trying to figure out its location, too.” Oh, and he also has his toys from his childhood and his father’s model airplanes, both of which graced his first office, and he still needs to find a home for them in his new office. “I want,” he says, “to make the patients’ experiences more fun.”

Find even more photos of this incredible work in progress here.

Editor’s note: As you’re salivating over the cool vintage looks at Dr. Meyers’ pad, check out a full line of automotive accessories to keep your ride looking right at Advance Auto Parts.

The Cost of Car Ownership Declines, says AAA

Car ownershipIt’s music to our ears over here at Advance HQ.

But is it true that owning and operating your car has gotten cheaper? So says a new AAA study.

 AAA released the results of its annual Your Driving Costs study today, revealing a 2.7 percent decrease in the cost to own and operate a sedan in the U.S. The average cost fell 1.64 cents to 59.2 cents per mile, or $8,876 per year, based upon 15,000 miles of annual driving.

“Despite increases in maintenance and registration fees, American motorists are experiencing an overall decrease in the cost to own and operate a vehicle,” said John Nielsen, AAA Managing Director of Automotive Engineering and Repair. “A large decrease in fuel costs, [plus] lower tire, insurance and depreciation expenses are saving owners more than one and a half cents on every mile they drive.”

Here at AAP HQ, we wondered about the fuel costs part of it…do they really seem lower? It turns out that while gas prices haven’t actually tanked, overall they are less than they were in last year’s study, says AAA. Per that, we’ll take what we can get.

The study covers aspects such as fuel, maintenance, tires, insurance and more. You can read more about the study and download the 2014 Your Driving Costs brochure, courtesy of AAA.

And, don’t miss out on great tips for saving gas that you can easily put in place before hitting the road this summer.

 

Oh, the horror…the story of monster trucks!

Shotgun Harry. Photo credit: International Monster Truck Museum.

Shotgun Harry. Photo credit: International Monster Truck Museum.

“A monster truck is fascinating because it can go anywhere—and over anything in its path. Here are trucks that typically weigh 10,000 pounds or more, jumping 25 to 30 feet in the air and performing long jumps upwards of 200 feet. This defies expectations, gravity, and the laws of physics.” (Jeff Cook, President and Founder of the International Monster Truck Museum & Hall of Fame)

If you’re a diehard fan, then names Allen Pezo, Dan Patrick, Scott Stephens, Gary Porter and Army Armstrong may ring a bell, especially as each was inducted into the International Monster Truck Museum’s Hall of Fame on November 9, 2013–during its third annual induction ceremony. Pezo had the most votes, while Stephens and Porter tied for second.

The International Monster Truck Museum (IMTM) & Hall of Fame was created in 2010 with the “mission of collecting and archiving the history of the monster truck sport and related aspects of the high performance aftermarket, focusing upon capturing history from the surviving pioneers and legends.” Each year, the IMTM will also honor accomplished people who contribute significantly to monster trucks by inducting them into the hall of fame.

This museum is different from many others in that, although it does house early versions of monster trucks, it is also recording “history” as it happens, archiving photos and data of modern trucks – rather than waiting 25 years and then seeking out the information. Here’s the breakdown:

Typically, there are three to four classic monster trucks on display at any given time in the museum, along with memorabilia and other historical items. Meanwhile, the website contains excellent resources, including a monster database of vehicles and relevant info surrounding each vehicle; here are three examples:

• Aaron’s All-American Dream Machine, a vehicle that set a world speed record of 96.80 mph in March 2012

• King Kong, belonging to Jeff Dane, one of the sport’s early celebrities

• Bob Chandler’s Bigfoot, the original car crusher

The site also includes driver profiles and loads of photos.

How it all got started

“Really,” Jeff Cook says, “one thing just led to another. There is a large museum complex in Auburn, including the National Military History Center, and the founder is a friend of mine. I was visiting him one day when he asked me if there was a museum yet for monster trucks and I said ‘no.’ We weren’t sure if we could pull one off but we got together with others in the industry and we were successful.”

“We have some early trucks in the museum,” Jeff adds, “which are now the dinosaurs of the racing world. They started out big and heavy, with real pickup bodies, as people competed to have the biggest truck on the block.”

Bigfoot. Photo credit: International Monster Truck Museum.

Bigfoot. Photo credit: International Monster Truck Museum.

And, just as “one thing led to another” in the creation of the IMTM, one thing led to another in the development of monster trucking itself. Here’s what happened.

Early days of monster trucking

No one sat up one day and decided to invent a monster truck. Instead, people gradually began modifying their pickup trucks and competing in truck pulling and mud bogging events. This then evolved into competitions (informal and then more formalized) to create the biggest truck.

People and trucks (with 48-inch-in-diameter wheels) that rose to attention included:

•          Bob Chandler: Bigfoot

•          Everett Jasmer: USA-1

•          Fred Shafer and Jack Willman, Sr.: Bear Foot

•          Jeff Dane: King Kong

Not surprisingly, all of these men – along with Dan Degrasso – were in the first group to be placed in the IMTM’s hall of fame.

In April 1981, Chandler used Bigfoot to drive over and crush cars, planning to use the results as a promotional tool for his business. He then repeated the performance in the Pontiac Silverdome in 1982; this time, the vehicle had tires of 66 inches in diameter. Around this time, the phrase “monster truck” was born. As other people began using 66-inch tires on their vehicles, the vehicles themselves became heavier, ranging from 13,000 to 20,000 pounds each, with super-sized suspension.

Was Chandler the first to perform the car crushing feat? It depends upon whom you ask. Some cite Dane as the first, late in the 1970s, while others believe someone else entirely was the first. What is true is that Chandler has the earliest video and that the Monster Truck Racing Association recognizes him as the first to perform this stunt.

In 1985, monster truck racing began, typically single-elimination races on obstacle courses. As people began to race, the heaviness of early monster trucks worked against them, so they began strategizing over how to lighten their loads and to boost their power, using fiberglass for truck bodies. In 1989, Jack Willman created a vehicle that only weighed 9,000 pounds, a significant reduction.

Monster Truck Racing Association

Goliath. Photo credit: International Monster Truck Museum.

Goliath. Photo credit: International Monster Truck Museum.

The Monster Truck Racing Association (MTRA) formed in 1988, setting safety standards. “We pride ourselves on being the safest motor sport, considering the number of events, for both participants and spectators,” says Marty Garza, director of communications for MTRA. “I credit that to the foresight of people in the association who proactively brainstorm for solutions for potential problems, rather than being reactive after an issue has happened. We risk being called alarmists, but we have a safety record that is unmatched.”

Five years later, in 1993, freestyle exhibitions began to appear at racing events for drivers to show off their fancy moves; in 2000 freestyling became a competition event.

“Part of the appeal of monster trucks,” says Marty, “is the unpredictability of the sport. Freestyling, for example, brings with it an X Games type of excitement. The height of the trucks, the amount of noise that monster trucking creates – well, it just appeals to the senses as it’s shockingly loud and highly energizing.”

Who are the fans?

Monster Truck Racing Association Online stated in 2010 that more than a million people attend monster truck events annually, with demographics matching those of people who buy pickup trucks. That makes perfect sense.

Then, according to Media Life Magazine in 2010: “Motorsports do bring in some moms and kids, but the majority of attendees are young male gearheads. The crowds are roughly two-thirds male, and more than 75 percent are age 44 or younger.”

Later in the article, though, a statistic shows greater female enjoyment of the events; according to Scarborough Research, when looking at adults who have attended a monster truck event within the past 12 months:

•          57% are males

•          43% are females

Wondering about ages?

•          22%: ages 18-24

•          28%: 25-34

•          27%: 35-44

•          15%: 45-54

•          6%: 55-64

•          2%: 65+

Income?

•          15%: below $25,000

•          22%: $25,000-$39,000

•          11%: $40,000-$49,000

•          17%: $50,000-$74,999

•          15%: $75,000-$99,999

•          12%: $100,000-$149,000

•          8%: $150,000 and up

Jeff Cook brings up another point about demographics: that children also attend monster truck events. “You see grandparents, parents and kids,” he says. “Events tend to be family oriented in that you see all ages and everyone seems to get something out of it.”

Predator. Photo credit: International Monster Truck Museum.

Predator. Photo credit: International Monster Truck Museum.

In fact, Jeff himself was one of those kids who was fascinated by big vehicles. “I was always wanting to put bigger tires on my toys,” he says, “and then I saw Bigfoot. I told my father that I wanted a truck like that someday and that I thought we should build one. Videos just don’t do monster trucks justice. You need to see them in action, in person, to see these massive vehicles going 60 to 80 mph as they do their stunts.”

The future of the sport

“All of this attention to monster trucks has boggled our minds. Ten to fifteen years ago, it seemed like nobody even knew what a monster truck was. We thought attention to events would slow down and top out, but people continue to get more and more performance out of their vehicles, with better technology and bigger stunts.

In other racing sports, vehicles are fragile, but monsters are durable. They can roll over, crash – and then keep going. So the drivers keep pushing the envelope, running it to the edge, especially since fiberglass truck bodies of today can be fixed much more easily. Monster truck racing, though, is still more of a bragging rights race. I think it will someday turn into racing for money, with more racing series and more corporate sponsors.” (Jeff Cook)

 

The Ford Mustang turns 50!

Ford MustangWe wanted to tip our hats to the Ford Motor Company and its fleet-wheeled filly, the Ford Mustang.

It was 50 years ago this week that the iconic muscle car made it’s debut, turning legions of casual drivers into die-hard fans.

Over the years, the Mustang has changed–for better and for worse–but has remained a beloved staple in automotive form and function, and a symbol of Americana.

Wired Magazine states:

Fifty years ago today, Ford unveiled the Mustang. It was a sleek and sporty car, named for a fighter plane and slightly European in flavor. Company brass hoped it might be something of a hit and expected to sell 100,000 of them in the first year.

They sold 22,000 on the first day.

Those are excellent stats, even by today’s standards.

Here’s more on the history of the Ford Mustang, courtesy of Wired:

Work on the Mustang began in 1960, when Ford’s marketing Mad Man Lee Iacocca realized the company needed to attract young buyers. He wanted something new, something unique, something to tap into the era’s sense of national optimism. Most importantly, he wanted “something that would be sporty but not a sports car,” said Bob Casey, an automotive historian and former curator of the The Henry Ford Museum.

 

You can read more from this informative piece at Wired Magazine.

And, check out our own resident Gearhead’s comprehensive blog on the 2014 Mustang GT.

Kudos to Ford on the 50th Anniversary of the Ford Mustang!

 

Writing off your car for business use

1040_tax_formWith tax time upon us, we thought we’d try to spread some positive news, especially as it relates to your car.

If you use your car for business, did you know you can write some of its costs off?

According to Tax Topic 510 – Business Use of Car on IRS.gov:

If you use your car in your job or business and you use it only for that purpose, you may deduct its entire cost of operation.

That’s a pretty good deal in our book. But we aware, if you use your car for personal use, you can only deduct the operation costs (gas, maintenance, etc.) for the portion dedicated to actual business use. Sorry, taking the kids to soccer games doesn’t count and neither does competing on the drag strip – unless of course, you own the team!

On another note, if you find yourself in the enviable position of getting a tax refund this year, you can maximize it by taking advantage of the great deals at Advance Auto Parts–to get all those projects done in 2014.

Cheers!

 

Michael Paul Smith: Behind the Scenes of Elgin Park

All it takes is one look at Michael Paul Smith’s renderings of cars, created with colored pencils, to know that he has an artistic touch. Impressive as they are, though, Michael is known for something quite different: using his building-and-car-diorama-making and photography skills to create “Elgin Park,” a Midwest town that exists only in his mind. Yes. Elgin Park is an incredibly detailed historical rendering of a place that has never existed.

Yet, it’s so real that it has:

  • Triggered long-buried memories in Alzheimer patients that they shared with their doctors
  • Soothed and calmed two children with autism so that they could sleep
  • Caused people to cry in a cathartic and uplifting manner
  • Allowed small children to connect with their grandparents in a brand new way

What is Elgin Park? It is comprised of a series of photos, uploaded to Flickr, that appear to be genuine photographs from the 1920s to 1960s. In reality, though, Michael has used forced perspective to allow the eye to perceive small die cast cars and models of buildings as full-sized ones.

A scene from the fictional Elgin Park. Photo credit: Michael Paul Smith.

A scene from the fictional Elgin Park.
Photo credit: Michael Paul Smith.

 

A photo that reveals the "secret" behind the scene. Photo credit: Michael Paul Smith.

The “secret” behind the scene.
Photo credit: Michael Paul Smith.

This Yahoo video does a great job of providing a visual overview of Elgin Park – and it’s been appreciated, Michael points out, by an incredible number of people, as the 55-million-plus view mark indicates. “The photos,” he says, “clearly touch a very deep chord from all walks of life and cultures.”

Although Elgin Park is based on Michael’s hometown of Sewickley, Pennsylvania, it isn’t a replica of the town. Confusing? In an interview with the Internet Craftsmanship Museum, he defines the crux, scope and the appeal of Elgin Park: “For me, it conjures up the essence of ‘Small Town.’ It also says stability; a bit isolated but not desolate. Family. Unlocked doors. Home. Sewickley itself is only one square mile and touches the Ohio River. Granted, every town has its secrets and skeletons, but when you walk down those tree-lined streets and hear the train whistles echoing off the hills along the river, everything seems OK. It’s that Ok-ness I try to capture in my models and photographs.”

Although the pictures are amazing, what’s even more amazing is that Michael is not a professional photographer (although he clearly is a skilled photographer). Nor does he use Photoshop or any other computer software to add anything to his compelling illusions (more about Photoshop later).

Thanks to an interview with Michael, (along with a written document of his life’s journey that he graciously provided to Advance Auto Parks), we can share how Elgin Park came to be.

A look back in time

Michael Paul Smith was born in Sewickley, a small town about seven miles north of Pittsburgh, in 1950 and he grew up with four siblings. “My childhood,” Michael shares, “was pleasant and loving but, due to my extreme shyness, I kept to myself using my imagination to draw and build things.” By the time he was in grade school, he collected cigar boxes to “create interiors out of found objects. Miniatures, dollhouses, dioramas, train layouts and the like had and still have a mesmerizing effect on me.” To feed this hobby, he started going to flea markets and yard sales (and he also picked trash!) at the age of ten.

By the time Michael was that age, he also began noticing his father’s curiosity about the houses they passed – and that trait was clearly passed on to Michael. At the age of twelve, he assembled his first model car: a 1963 Chevy Impala, with working headlights, no less! He entered this model in the annual Fisher Body Craftsman Guild car design competition, held by General Motors for boys ages 11 to 19. Now, if this were a movie, Michael would win the competition at the very last second – or the contest would otherwise be a life-altering event. In reality, he never heard back from the contest organizers about his first entry – or about any of the other entries that he sent over the next few years. C’est la vie.

When he was sixteen, the family moved to Worcester, Massachusetts. Ironically enough, his high school counselor told Michael that he had “no apparent creative talent that could be used for employment” and recommended that he skip college and work in the steel mills that formed the heart of Pittsburgh’s economy. (This is an especially odd response from the counselor given that Michael had won more than one art contest in high school and, one year, someone apparently loved his painting so much that he stole it.)

Fortunately, Michael ignored his counselor’s advice. He completed The School of Worcester Art Museum’s three-year program, a “well known school” where he learned how to “stretch canvas, make pigments” and more.

He went on to become an advertising art director (that “produced a heart attack at 33. Clearly this was a sign to get out of that profession”). Afterwards, he applied to be a model maker. At the time, this was a good field to enter; a model maker would take a 2-D drawing created by an architect and craft a 3-D version so that the architect could see how it would look. Sometimes, a model maker fleshed out only one section of a building; other times, the entire building.

The first place where he applied for a model maker’s job wasn’t too impressed with his lack of experience. Undeterred, Michael kept applying until one shop that operated out a basement let him work on a one-week trial basis – and then hired him full time. “The owner,” Michael remembers, “didn’t even know my last name when he wrote me my first paycheck.

Later, Michael worked at an international firm as a model maker, working there for 18 years. However, this industry has taken some “serious economic hits over the years. What used to be a thriving business has now been reduced to freelance nomads. The age of computer generated graphics, overseas production and automated 3D model making machines has all but eliminated the field.”

But . . . you know what? Michael is definitely not a one-note song! He has many other talents as his employment history demonstrates.

Other jobs have included:

• Wallpaper hanger (which he “really enjoyed”)
• Interior house painting (“another interesting job especially when I got to work with the client in choosing color and detail”)
• Editorial artist
• Illustrator for a textbook publisher
• House renovator
• Mailman

“And,” he concludes, “the list goes on. The best job was being part of a team that designed displays for museums such as the Smithsonian Institute and the Museum of Natural History at Harvard. All of these occupations have given me a solid foundation for my dioramas.”

Here’s what else gave Michael an advantage when it came time to create his first car diorama. From his jaunts to flea markets and yard sales, he “literally had thousands of pieces of the past.” He also collected die cast models of cars. “It dawned on me,” he says, “that I could build miniature versions of American life by creating scaled down buildings that would incorporate my die cast vehicles. Plus utilize all of the knowledge I had acquired by collecting and studying the 20th century. These scenes could be authentic down to the last detail. It was an Ah-Ha! moment.”

Behind the scenes

Michael initially sketches out the structure that will appear in a diorama. “If the building is too unusual,” he says, “it will overwhelm the photograph; therefore a prototypical style of a certain era is chosen.”

A glimpse at materials used.  Photo credit: Michael Paul Smith.

A glimpse at materials used.
Photo credit: Michael Paul Smith.

 

He uses gatorboard for the walls; this material is a piece of thin film surrounded by two sheets of resin-coated paper. He likes this material because it’s lightweight and durable, simple to cut with a knife and easily sanded and painted. He then refines the buildings to add clapboard, brick, stucco and trim. He uses the following tools: an X-acto knife, a sanding block, a ruler and a “few other assorted hand held tools.”

“Improving,” Michael continues, “is the name of the game for me. A model maker I used to work for gave me some sage advice: If you can’t make it convincingly, then don’t make it at all, because it will stick out like a sore thumb.”

So, he takes his time choosing just the right materials and uses snow as an example to demonstrate his process. Michael had experimented with numerous products until he found exactly the right one: baking soda. “It was the correct scale,” he says, “it drifted convincingly and had a bit of sparkle to it. Baby powder, flour, salt, sugar . . . they just didn’t pass the test.”

Here are other strategies that he uses to recreate a sense of realism:

• He rolls car tires in the baking soda for a snowy effect.
• To add dirt to roads, he vacuums his rugs and then filters what’s been collected until it’s just right.
• He can also make something dirtier in appearance by adding powered chalk.
• He includes water in his scenes with milk trucks, as the early ones carried blocks of ice and left puddles of water wherever they
traveled.

Here is what Michael had to say about how he backlights his night-time projects:

• All of the lighting is done with 40 or 60 watts bulbs.
• Also, white or orange Christmas tree lights work well to illuminate the interiors of the models.
• LED lights add another level of interest to lighting the scenes.
• “I’m not a technical person, so having strobes, umbrella reflectors and light meters are lost on me. I can barely figure out my
camera.” (We at Advance Auto Parts are having a hard time believing the last statement but . . . that’s what he said, so we’re
sharing it with all of you.)

Here’s more about the camera: “What has become a joke is the fact that I have no special equipment at all. My first camera was a 3 mega pixel digital Sony. I’ve since upgraded to a 6 mega pixel and then to a 14 mega pixel Canon, because some of my work is being enlarged and printed. It’s a technical thing and not the desire to use something fancy. A dear friend of mine actually gave me an incredibly expensive camera which took extraordinary images. But they were too good for what I was trying to accomplish. To achieve a look and feel of the past, I’ve found that a camera with a lens that blurs is the way to go. Too much information in a photo defeats the retro look of Elgin Park.”

And, once, a French fashion photographer wanted more information about the lens used by Michael. When he described his simple set up, the Frenchman replied with only two words and never contacted Michael again. Those two words? “You lie.”

Eureka!

Inspiration for a photo, he shares, “usually comes out of the blue. An image in a book, a song or a random thought will trigger the urge to create something.”

He then digs through the model vehicles that he has stored away and envisions the rest of the scene to share the story that emerges in his creative mind. Sometimes, the correct era, day and/or season come to him within an hour; other times, it takes days and then he reviews books and catalogues to make sure that what he creates is accurate for the era.

“I can spend a few days or a week soaking up all of the information,” he says, ”studying wallpaper samples, paint chips, and fabric designs, listening to music of a particular era or going through old photo albums might seem like mindless activities but they lay a concrete foundation for my work.”

Other times, the more than 300 die cast car models inspire him, with features such as the tailfin, “bulbous fenders, swooping roof lines, two tone color combinations or running boards” setting his creativity into motion. For example, the running board directs his focus to the Victorian or Edwardian type of architecture, where streets may or may not have been paved, and where electricity may or may not have been available.

Another retro scene from Elgin Park. Photo credit: Michael Paul Smith.

Another retro scene from Elgin Park.
Photo credit: Michael Paul Smith.

However long it takes, once he can picture his scene, he plays around with vehicles and buildings (on his kitchen table!) to get the best setup. Again, all may come together quickly or it may need to “percolate” for a few days.

For daylight shots, he then searches for the correct outside site for the official setup and photos. This has become increasing more difficult as more and older buildings are torn down by his home.

But, once he spends about an hour to set up the scene, keeping the set as simple as possible to preserve his own energy and to allow viewers to fill in missing details – he then starts taking pictures. He typically takes 20 to 30 photographs and then chooses the best two or three to become part of Elgin Park.

Back to the subject of Photoshop

Michael will use this software tool to remove any signs that or people who get into the photo. In fact, he makes it a practice to never include people in any of his Elgin Park pictures to keep the work “universal” and to allow each viewer to insert himself or herself into a “painting, film, photography or story.” His car diorama then becomes, he explains, a “mirror for your own life.”

He’s also used Photoshop to:

• Eliminate dents and scrapes from his models
• To de-saturate the color or add a tint to create a final look

But, again, he never adds anything to the picture.

Tips to make models look “real”

Michael shares these strategies:

• Keep everything in scale. From the thickness of the shingles down to the wallpaper design and door knobs, everything must be in
the proper relationship to each other.
• Keep the camera at the eye level of the imaginary person walking around in the scene. This gives the viewer the sense that they
are in the picture.
• Movies have given us newer ways of seeing the world, such as the bird’s eye view or the low to the ground angle, so this can s
sometimes be used in diorama photography. But it must be used sparingly and for the right reason; otherwise the reality of the
shot will be compromised. Our eye is very sensitive to ‘things not looking quite right.’

He tells his stories in simple and subtle ways. For example, he might leave a car door open, or light one store while keeping the others dark. He finds inspiration for these “one frame stories” from his own experiences. “Yet,” he adds, “as personal as they might be to me, there is also room for other people to see their own meaning in the photographs.”

News of Elgin Park spreads

For years, Michael took these pictures without sharing his “odd” hobby with others. But, he eventually decided that, if he posted pictures on Flickr, he’d just be one of millions doing the same thing – so he took the plunge. For the first year or so, he got few visitors, but then British Sports Car magazine ran a short article about Michael’s work with some of his photographs in their February 2010 issue. After that, Michael says, “the viewing counter on the Flickr site started to spin. After the first million hits, I thought there might be something wrong with the counter but it still continued. Within a month, it had reached 10 million views with comments and e-mails flooding in from all over the world.”

When asked how it felt to get all of this attention, Michael says that he hadn’t expected to get recognition but, the first time someone tracked him down by phone to compliment him about his work, he “sobbed.”

“I was remembering,” Michael says, “how my counselor had said I had no talent and I had carried that around with me. Not as a ‘poor me; thing but, still. I had carried it with me.”

Here’s another experience, post-fame. “Two years ago,” he says, “a reporter called me and wanted an exclusive. He said that if I didn’t cooperate, I’d never get an interview again, that he’d make sure of that. As far as I was concerned, I was a nobody before and I would be again after my 15 minutes of fame ended, so I didn’t take what he said seriously.

“Once you get your name and work out there,” he continues, “people want a piece of you. Not in a malicious way, mind you; they just do. What really fills my heart, though, is when people write and say ‘I want to learn from you. What can you teach me?’ I answer every email and I love it when someone takes a photograph and sends it to me. That means that I clearly inspired someone to just go out there and do it.”

When asked if there are critics of his work, he replies that he occasionally gets criticism. “If someone says something derogatory, I don’t respond. I just let it hang there, hang around their own necks. Fortunately, if someone says something negative about my work online, my fans get all over them in a delightfully rabid way.”

One of his best experiences involved being asked to exhibit his work at a prestigious international show at the Museum of Arts and Design in New York City. “I asked, ’why me?’ and the director said, ‘Because nobody else does what you do.’”

For this show, Michael broke his standard rule about not using actual buildings from his hometown and he recreated his childhood home from photos that his brother had saved (the actual home had been torn down). In an interview with The Culture Trip, Michael says the following about his experience: “’building your childhood home is the best form of therapy one could hope for. The memories, both good and bad, just start to flow without any safety valves.’” The four month project was “an exhausting process both physically and mentally that helped assist with several ‘buried psychological issues by the time it was completed.’ Whilst Elgin Park has never physically existed, it has become a visual treasure chest of emotions and memories – a distillation of what has already passed.”

Although shy, Michael decided to attend the premiere of the exhibit. “I was surrounded by New York celebrities,” he remembers, “wondering if I was dressed well enough and how I’d ever work the crowd. But, then my ten-year-old self emerged and I thought, ‘I can do this!’” The show was so successful that his work also appeared in Lille, France at a month-long citywide carnival.

“The entire experience was thrilling,” he sums up. “A dream come true. Yet, it didn’t change who I am and didn’t cause me to think I was someone fabulous.”

More about Michael

Michael’s early work appears in a book, Elgin Park: An Ideal American Town (2010).

“It sold well,” Michael says. He was recently contacted by someone in Germany with an interest in a second volume – and he is definitely interested – so we may be learning even more about Michael and his work. Can’t wait!

Editor’s note: Building your own work of art on four wheels requires having the best parts and tools on hand. Count on Advance Auto Parts to help keep your dream machine running right all year long. Buy online, pick up in store.

 

 

 

 

Studebakers: from a $68 investment to the Studebaker National Museum

Photo credit: Studebaker National Museum.

Photo credit: Studebaker National Museum.

Although it’s been a long time since you could purchase a brand new Studebaker, this brand once dominated the country, even before “horseless carriages” were available.

The Studebaker National Museum, located in South Bend, Indiana, contains more than 120 of these vehicles–meaning both cars and wagons–some dating back to the late 1880s. Typically, there are 70 vehicles or so on display at any one time. Vehicles include four presidential carriages, the first and last cars built in South Bend, the last Studebaker ever built, anywhere, and many other iconic vehicles.

But, the history of Studebaker begins more than twenty years before 1880. Here’s more.

History of Studebaker Company

Imagine yourself as a blacksmith in 1852. You decide to partner with your brother to open up a blacksmith shop, say, at the corner of Michigan and Jefferson Streets in South Bend, Indiana of February 16th of that year. You might expect to spend your days in front of an immensely hot forge filled with burning coals, putting bars of metal into the heat and then shaping them into axes or nails, or pots and pans, or door hinges or plow blades.

If you were Henry and Clement Studebaker, though, your business would develop a niche specialty, much like businesses do today, and it didn’t fit the typical blacksmithing mold. By the time their company morphed from H & C Studebaker into the Studebaker Brothers Manufacturing Company, they were in fact the world’s largest manufacturer of farm wagons and horse-drawn buggies.

Henry and Clement began making metal parts for freight wagons in 1852, with start-up capital of only $68 (equal to slightly more than $2,000 of today’s dollars). Freight wagons were railway cars, non-powered, that transported cargo.

On their first day of business, they had exactly one customer–a man who needed a shoe changed on his horse. Later that year, though, they were able to charge a customer $175 (comparable to about $5,300 in 2014 dollars and more than twice as much as all of their startup funding) to build a farm wagon. They painted the wagon green and red and boldly added “Studebaker” in yellow lettering, the first time a vehicle boasted their name.

Photo credit: Studebaker National Museum.

Photo credit: Studebaker National Museum.

In 1853, Henry’s and Clement’s younger brother John Mohler decided to head out west to find gold, something countless men of his generation were doing. A wagon train would take him along without charging a fee as long as the brothers donated a wagon to the cause. The family agreed and, with $65 in his pocket, John sought out his fortune. Although he didn’t find the riches he desired, his talents as a wagon maker earned him regular work and allowed him to save up $8,000.

In Indiana, Henry and Clement continued their blacksmithing work, but also built about a dozen wagons per year. To get more into mass production, they needed more funds. Fortunately, John had those funds and, in 1858, he returned home, bought out Henry’s share in the business, and became part of the family business.

The previous year–1857–they’d also expanded their horizons by building and selling a carriage. According to A Century on Wheels: The Story of Studebaker, “Fancy, hand-worked iron trim, the kind of courting buggy any boy and girl would be proud to be seen in.” By 1860, their brother Peter Everst Studebaker was showing the family wares in Goshen, Indiana, the first of the Studebaker showrooms, albeit one that looked more like a shed. A fifth brother, Jacob Franklin, also ended up joining the company.

When the Civil War started, there was a huge need for wagons and so Clement, Peter and John shipped their wagons to the Union Army by train and steamship. In 1868, they formed the Studebaker Brothers Manufacturing Company, which ultimately became the “largest vehicle house in the world” despite two massive fires destroying their buildings. By 1877, annual sales exceeded $1 million and Clement traveled to Europe to find more markets for the company. The following year, their wagons won awards at the prestigious Paris Exposition.

They even sold a $20,000 version of their vehicle (figure $445,000 in today’s dollars, comparable to a Lamborghini Aventador), which could seat a dozen passengers. In the late 1880s, the family also bought out companies manufacturing the Lafayette and Lincoln carriages, further increasing their market share.

Era of the Horseless Carriage

Photo credit: Studebaker National Museum.

Photo credit: Studebaker National Museum.

In 1895, John’s son in law, Frederick Fish, began pushing for a horseless carriage to add to their product line. In 1897, Fred became the chairman of the executive committee and the company began actively working on an electric motor. Meanwhile, their wagon division continued to be strong as, in 1898, the company supplied wagons for the Spanish American War. Plus, the American Red Cross bought six yellow and blue ambulances and sent them to Cuba; each ambulance carried four stretchers, the bottom two hinged to be moved for sitting patients or medical personnel.

And, in 1902 the Studebakers debuted their first electric car. This was a year later than the Oldsmobile’s version and less complex than the Thomas B. Jeffrey Company’s 1902 entry of a gas-powered model, the Rambler. Thomas B. Jeffrey sold 1,500 Ramblers that years, compared to Studebaker’s 20 electric cars. More competition was right around the corner, too, thanks to Henry Ford, as well as the Overland, the precursor of the Jeep. Nevertheless, the purchaser of the second Studebaker electric car carried some real clout: a guy named Thomas Edison.

Although electric cars are certainly a 21st-century buzzword, there was a flaw in them in 1902: too many places simply didn’t have electricity, so where could you recharge your car? You certainly couldn’t lug along a can or two of emergency electricity like you could fuel, so electric car owners often saw their vehicles towed home by horses, which surely seemed a step back in technology.

The future, at least for the next century, was therefore a much smellier, less elegant option. Or as John “Wheelbarrow Johnny” Studebaker called gasoline-based cars, “clumsy, noisy, dangerous brutes [that] stink to high heaven, break down at the worst possible moment and are a public nuisance.”

Birth of the gas-powered Studebaker

Photo credit: Studebaker National Museum.

Photo credit: Studebaker National Museum.

The company began making gasoline-powered cars in 1904 in partnership with the Garford Company of Elyria, Ohio, located near Cleveland. What a confusing job it must have been to market Studebakers in this era, when they still sold horse-drawn carriages for the traditionalists, electric cars for drivers willing to stick close to home and max out at about 13 miles an hour, and gasoline vehicles “for wide-radius touring.”

By 1908, Studebaker had bought a majority interest in the Garford Company, but their cars were expensive–$2,500 to $4,500, and sometimes even more–and fewer than 2,500 were likely built during the entire 8-year partnership. Moreover, in 1908, Ford introduced Model Ts that sold for only $825-850, manufacturing more than 10,000 in just one year.

The year 1911 saw the end of Studebaker electric vehicle production as well as the demise of the partnership with Garford, although various other collaborations were tried for the gas-powered models. In 1914, Studebaker started supplying Britain, France and Russia with wagons for World War I, the last major war that relied heavily upon wagons. Later, they also supplied the United States in their war effort.

In May 1920, the company stopped production of horse-drawn carriages, liquidating their product line while they could still get reasonable prices for the vehicles. All told, they lost more than $700,000 in this move, but losses surely would have been greater had they waited. Ready to cringe, though? That figure translates into more than an $8 million loss today.

From this point on, the Studebaker company would flourish–or stumble–based on automobiles alone. Highlights of the next couple of decades include:

  • The company struggled during the Great Depression, as many others did, even going into receivership from 1933 through 1935.
  • The 1939 Champion is considered one of Studebaker’s most iconic cars.
  • In 1939, the company began building a small quantity of 6 x 6 military trucks for the French forces in World War II. Later, they provided B-17 Flying Fortress engines and the M29 and M29C amphibious Weasel personnel carrier.
  • After the war, Studebaker emerged with the first new design for a post-war car (production for personal cars halted in 1942 so that more efforts could be given to support the war).
  • The 1947 Starlight Coupe is another of Studebaker’s most well-known vehicles.
  • In 1948, production became multi-national once again with a production facility in Hamilton, Ontario in Canada. Studebaker had begun building cars in Canada in 1910, but stopped from 1936-1947.
  • In 1950, the bullet nose design was introduced.
  • The following year, the Studebaker V-8 was unveiled.
  • The 1963 Avanti is considered one of Studebaker’s most iconic cars.

Also in 1963: more than 110 years after Henry and Clement first set up shop, the US production of Studebaker vehicles stopped. On March 17, 1966, the final Studebaker produced anywhere in the world rolled out in Canada.

Studebaker National Museum

Fortunately, the Studebaker National Museum has preserved a significant amount of the company’s history. “The museum,” says archivist Andrew Beckman, “began with 37 vehicles. We are one of only three car museums with the American Alliance of Museum accreditation, which is sort of the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval for museums.” The other two, he says, are the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan and the Auburn Cord Duesenberg in Auburn, Indiana.

Photo credit: Studebaker National Museum.

Photo credit: Studebaker National Museum.

He points out that the 1950 and 1951 Bullet Nose vehicles are among the car museum’s most popular for visitors. Other vehicles of interest include the presidential ones, which include:

  • Ulysses S. Grant’s vehicle used during his presidential term from 1873 until 1877, which he continued to use until his death in 1885. Visitors who rode in this landau-style carriage included:
    • President Rutherford B. Hayes
    • President Chester A. Arthur
    • Civil War General William T. Sherman
    • Civil War General Phil Sheridan
    • King Kalakua of the Hawaiian Islands
    • Viceroy Li Hung Chang from the Chinese Empire
    • One of Benjamin Harrison’s five carriages used during his presidential term; altogether, these carriages cost $7,075 and were considered less pretentious than other choices (in keeping with Harrison’s personality) because they were “simple in design with silver and ebony trimmings rather than fancier gilt, and they bore no formal insignias.” Harrison continued to buy Studebaker carriages until his death in 1901.
    • Abraham Lincoln’s carriage that transported him (and his wife) to Ford Theater on the night of his assassination on April 15, 1865. This carriage has six springs, along with solid silver lamps, door handles and hubcaps. Because the steps connect to the doors, they lowered and rose as the doors opened and closed.
    • William McKinley’s carriage, one that boasted rubber tires for summer use and a removable extension top, along with springs and cushions in the seats. Like Lincoln, McKinley traveled in this carriage on the day of his assassination in September 1901.
Photo credit: Studebaker National Museum.

Photo credit: Studebaker National Museum.

When asked why there is still such interest in Studebakers, nearly 50 years after production stopped, Beckman points out the longevity of the company. “This was the only company,” he says, “that successfully transitioned from the wagon business to the car business.” And, as author Patrick Foster points out in his book, Studebaker: The Complete History, “For many years, Studebaker held the proud claim as the vehicle owned by more Americans than any other brand. No mere local or regional phenomenon, Studebaker vehicles were known and respected around the world. An argument could be made that Studebaker was the first truly global vehicle brand. Studebaker was the natural choice of princes, kings and presidents.”

As proof of the continuing fascination with the Studebaker, Beckman shares that, even on the date of this interview, the blizzard of March 12, 2014, people figured out a way to get to the museum to see a presentation about the vehicle. Overall, approximately 40,000 people visit the museum each year, although the number increases once every five years when the international Studebaker meet takes place in South Bend. The museum has also witnessed an increase in moms with strollers, ever since they added an interactive children’s exhibit area about one and a half years ago. People also actively participate in Studebaker car clubs. In fact, Beckman says, “it’s the largest single mark auto club in existence.”

Editor’s note: Have you been to this car museum? If so, what did you think? If not, which car museums would you like to visit? And, be sure to let us know what your favorite vintage cars are.

Rock Legends The Moody Blues to Raffle Custom “Moody Cooper”

Moody Cooper carOne of the hottest tickets in entertainment these days is the “Concert Cruise,” where bands and fans set sail for a few days of rock ‘n’ roll bliss on the high seas.

The Moody Blues Cruise II–-the second annual fan cruise from The Moody Blues (“Nights in White Satin”), sailing the Caribbean April 2-7, 2014 aboard the MSC Divina–-have collaborated with The Stand Up and Shout Cancer Fund (DioCancerFund.org), a non-profit charitable fund formed in honor of the legendary rock singer Ronnie James Dio, who lost his life to stomach cancer in 2010.

Moody Cooper 2In support of the charity, the cruise will raffle a 2013 Mini Cooper, featuring customized cruise graphics, plus a permanent plaque and certificate of authenticity signed by The Moody Blues. Hoisted aboard the MSC Divina with a 20-story crane, the Moody Cooper will be displayed on the pool deck throughout the cruise.

Readers of our blog will remember that the Mini Cooper’s close sibling, the Mini Cooper Coupe, made our list of top 5 cars with underrated styling in 2013.

To find out more about the cruise, the charity and this ultra-cool car, visit Moodies Cruise.

 

5 Automotive Oddballs

Future classics or manufacturing mishaps? You be the judge!

There have been several cars released in recent memory that many have looked at and thought … why?

They in this case could refer to either the manufacturer (for making such a thing) or the owner (for willingly forking over the cash to buy such a thing).

Oddballs of the automotive world often end up unloved and offered for sale cheap on used car lots and automotive forums. Their current owners sing their praises using descriptors such as “unique” and “rare” but to most prospective buyers they are “strange” and “quirky.”

Here are 5 “unique” examples of “quirky” autos that could turn out to be future classic cars.

Subaru XT (1985 – 1991)

subaru-xt6

At its time of release in 1985, the wedge-shaped Subaru XT was the most aerodynamic production car available for sale in the United States. With flat door handles, an air suspension that lowered at speed and a single windshield wiper that tucked beneath the hood when not in use, the XT made slicing through the air its top priority.

The combination of a 2 door coupe body style, available four wheel drive and a boxer-style turbocharged engine made it even more unusual, as this configuration was extremely uncommon in any car not hailing from Stuttgart or Modena. It wasn’t until a few years later that Japanese competitors caught up with Subaru when the Toyota Celica All-Trac Turbo and Mitsubishi Eclipse GSX made similar four wheel drive / turbo configurations available to U.S. buyers.

Volkswagen EOS (2006 – Present)

volkswagen-eos

Photo credit: Erik Baeumlisberger.

As Volkswagen’s first production non-Golf 2 door coupe since the already classic Corrado, the EOS had very big shoes to fill.

Like the outgoing Cabrio, the EOS is considered both outside and inside the United States to be a hairdresser’s car, but the addition of the 2.0L turbocharged engine and dual-clutch DSG transmission (both borrowed from hot hatch sibling GTI) make the EOS a fun car to drive quickly. The turbo power combined with a “unique” power-retracting 5 piece glass top convertible roof has put smiles on the faces on more than a few skeptical drivers and unsuspecting passengers.

 

 

BMW M Coupe (1998 – 2002)

bmw-m-coupe

The M division is well known throughout the enthusiast world as being the in-house tuning arm of Bayerische Motoren Werke (BMW). As such, its existence is dependent upon buyers’ continued willingness to shell out a premium for faster, lower and wider vehicles.

Occasionally, the M division diverts its attention away from performance and towards styling. The M Coupe’s shooting brake design takes cues from classic British and Italian cars, which sounds like a good thing. But in reality, this car has adopted the nickname clown shoe due to its resemblance of, well, a clown’s shoe.

Aside from the love-it-or-hate-it styling (which actually resulted from the engineering team’s attempt to make the car handle better) the BMW M Coupe is a competent sports car with massive rear tires and howling engine that draws crowds at local meets all over the world.

 

Merkur XR4Ti (1985-1989)

merkur-xr4ti

The XR4Ti was assembled by hand in Germany and sold domestically by Ford dealerships who agreed to operate a Merkur franchise. Essentially a reworked European Ford Sierra XR4i, the XR4Ti received a Brazilian built 2.3L four cylinder turbocharged engine instead of the V6 found in the XR4i. U.S. safety laws accounted for several slight visual differences, including the distinctive bi-plane spoiler, which was unique to the U.S. market.

The XR4Ti was both expensive (about $40k in today’s money) and quick, but failed to sell in significant numbers. Last year, Top Gear referred to a group of cars that included the XR4Ti as misunderestimated. We couldn’t agree more.

 

Shelby GLHS (1986-1987)

shelby_glhs

Ok, so you’ll probably be able to find an EOS without much trouble. An M Coupe or XR4Ti will take some doing, but far from impossible. Most XTs, though, have long since succumbed to rust. That brings us to the above–a Shelby GLHS. We doubt if you’ll ever find (much less ever see) one. Only 500 were ever made.

Fun was at the heart of this car. Based on the Dodge Omni GLH (GLH standing for Goes Like Hell) it’s easy to see why the Shelby GLHS (standing for Goes Like Hell S’more) made our list. Like the XR4Ti, even its name is “quirky.”

The GLHS was powered by a 2.2L turbocharged engine, which produced 175HP. This was a big number in those days, especially for a hatchback. By comparison, the turbocharged boxer in the XT managed only 112HP.

The Shelby tuned motor was enough to propel the car to 60mph in 6.5 seconds, which is roughly the equivalent of a modern day non-DSG Volkswagen GTI. For owners that wanted even more power, MOPAR offered a Performance Stage II computer upgrade that pushed engine output to 205HP. The Super 60 Kit was good for 300HP.

Editor’s note: What are some of your ideas for future classic cars? What used car lot rescues are parked in your driveway? Please share in the comments below.

 

Cars of the future: personalized ambulances

Approximately ninety-six years ago, on January 5, 1918, Scientific American made the following prediction about future car technology:

The car of the future won’t leave anything to be done by man power. In two or three years foot brakes will be things of the past except on cheap cars. Why should a man exert muscle to stop a car any more than to start it? What’s that great brute of an engine idling under the hood for? Now, jump three jumps more. If the engine starts and lights and pumps and stops itself, why shouldn’t it steer the car? Revolutionary? Nonsense!…The car of the future will have no such thing as a “driver’s seat.” All the seats in the car save the rear one will be moveable. Driving will be done from a small control board, which can be held in the lap. It will be connected to the mechanism by a flexible electric cable. A small finger lever, not a wheel, will guide the car.

Although the writer of this piece was a bit overenthusiastic about the timetable, he was not far off in his predictions about future car technology. But, here’s one feature that even he didn’t imagine: your car helping you to manage your health.

Why do I need that?

It may seem as though only older people worry about their health–or need to. But, year after year, health-related New Year’s resolutions top the list. You can look at virtually any article listing popular resolutions and find ones that read like this:

  • Lose weight
  • East a healthier diet
  • Get fit
  • Quit smoking
  • Drink less

What’s the common denominator in each of these? An underlying concern about health! Now that we’ve settled that matter . . . let’s move on to news about cars and health.

Technology available today

If you’re willing to pay $95,000 for a Mercedes-Benz, your car’s computer can note–via changes in your body and driving–if you’re getting tired. If that happens, a “big red coffee cup” appears on the dashboard; you’ll hear a chime and you’ll be asked to pull over to get some coffee to fight your drowsiness.

 

Cars Health MonitoringSome cars can act like personalized ambulances, monitoring changes in your body … but should they?

Nissan has the technology to stop you from driving if you’ve had too much alcohol to drink and technology already exists to take the driver’s temperature. But this is, as you’ve probably already guessed, just the tip of the iceberg.

Ford S-Max Concept Car and More

Cars and health are in the news right now largely because of the announcement of the S-Max, a concept car that can monitor the driver’s heart rate through an electrocardiogram (ECG) and detect unusual rates or acute problems. If a heart attack is being detected, the car can contact medical help and put into place safety systems to help prevent an accident. The S-Max can also monitor blood sugar (glucose), helpful for people with diabetes. There are approximately 26 million people with diabetes in the United States alone, of all ages, so this is a potential benefit for a significant segment of the population.

In 2012, David Melcher, a Ford research engineer, discussed how people can manage their allergies and chronic medical conditions through features in their car.

Other car manufacturers, according to TechRadar, are planning medical additions to their cars’ features. Examples include:

  • Pulse monitoring via the steering wheel
  • The car notifying the driver’s family if his/her vital signs look shaky
  • The car automatically driving you to a doctor or hospital, if necessary

So, what do you think? Sound good?

Not so fast

There are some down sides to this added technology, including the additional cost. Plus, what happens if there is a false alarm? If so, a non-drinker could miss an important meeting because of an incorrect breathalyzer reading, while a family may get a scary call about a loved one’s health for no good reason.

Then there is what Cheryl Dancey Balough and Richard C. Balough call “cyberterrorism on wheels.” Cheryl is the communications co-director of the American Bar Association’s Cyberspace Law Committee and adjunct professor at Chicago-Kent College of Law. Richard is the co-chair of the American Bar Association’s Mobile Commerce of the Cyberspace Law Committee–and both are founding members of Balough Law Offices, LLC. In short, these two are experts.

In November 2013, they published an article on the American Bar Association site titled, “Cyberterrorism on Wheels: Are Today’s Cars Vulnerable to Attack?” in which they succinctly sum up the problem at hand.

Modern cars, they point out, are controlled by “complex computer systems that include millions of lines of code connected by internal networks. Cars have become computers on wheels . . . Cars have dozens of electronic control units (ECUs) embedded in the body, doors, dash, roof, trunk, seats, wheels, navigation equipment, and entertainment centers. Common wired networks interconnect these ECUs, which also can connect to the Internet.” And, the reality is that any computer can be hacked.

Richard and Cheryl share more useful information, as summed up below:

If that isn’t scary enough, entertainment systems, hands-free cellphones and satellite radio also provide entry points for malware. So can tire pressure monitoring systems and those such as OnStar that provide instant access to emergency services.

 

PrintCars Health MalwareWhat if malware entered your car’s computer?

To add to the picture, in 2014, General Motors will offer wireless services in their vehicles for phone and laptop use. And, as Cheryl and Richard point out, all of a car’s ECUs are connected so, once malware finds its way into one entry point, it can flow throughout the vehicle. As self-driving features  and vehicle-to-vehicle communication (which allows vehicles to share information about location, speed, direction of travel and more with one another) become more common, the opportunities for hacking will become even more frequent.

By 2040 (just 26 years from now!), estimates suggest that 75% of cars will be self-driving. So, with that in mind, is it any surprise that your car can–and perhaps will someday–be hacked? To add to the problem, it’s estimated that the average auto maker is approximately 20 years behind software companies in fighting off cyber-attacks.

Mind your own business

What about privacy issues? The Wall Street Journal takes on the issue of privacy concerns with biometric cars–meaning cars that take in data (your heart rate, your breathing rate, and the sweatiness of your palms, for example) via sensors; these cars then respond in certain ways to certain data to help prevent accidents.

Joe Smith, a senior editor at the Wall Street Journal, acknowledges that people will want to be able to control the monitoring. He expects that manufacturers will honor that, building biometric cars that come complete with opt-in technologies; this should allow people to decide whether they want to be monitored and where the info does or doesn’t go. Joe notes that Ford says they won’t store any info without consent.

Brian Reimer, an MIT researcher, chimes in, sharing how people today need to juggle increasing amounts of information and make increasing amounts of strategic decisions just to drive–and so the biometric car would add automated features to help the driver when he or she needs the assistance. Brian does not foresee significant privacy issues with biometric driving, comparing monitored driving with online shopping with credit cards. The convenience, he points out, can override the risk.

Brainstorming with Attorney Richard Balough

Will your privacy really be well protected, though? Will the promises being made today–as people are being persuaded to accept the technology–really be kept when drivers become more blasé about increasing encroachments upon privacy?

Richard talked to Advance Auto Parts about the possibilities. “A car,” Richard says to set the context, “is nothing more than a giant computer on wheels. Therefore, any time that monitoring occurs with a car, so can hacking.” So, it would seem that any bulletproof promises of privacy should be looked upon with a jaded eye.

Features on a car that monitor health have, Richard continues, “good sounding purposes” so the main question to ask yourself is “What am I giving up in exchange?” He equates this tradeoff to using one of those plastic cards at grocery stores that, once scanned by the cashier, give you a few cents more off of certain items. “In exchange, they know exactly what I’m buying and how often I’m buying it,” Richard says. “So in effect, I’ve sold them that information very cheaply–for maybe $2 a week.”

He also warns about how much companies can learn about a person with seemingly small bits of data. To that end, he refers to when Target got so good at predictive behavior through the data they collected from shoppers that they could predict when some were in the early stages of pregnancy. Once these women were identified, Target would send those shoppers mailers with relevant coupons. About a year after this program started, a man angrily entered a Target near Minneapolis, wanting to know why the store would send his daughter, still in high school, coupons for baby clothes and cribs.

The store manager was apologetic but, a few days later, the man told the manager that he’d talked to his daughter and she was, indeed, pregnant. To prevent a similar scenario from happening again, Target now mixes maternity-type ads in with ads for unrelated products, such as lawn care products, and sends those mailers to women believed to be pregnant.

Back to brainstorming: clearly, data is already easily and painlessly collected from people in everyday situations. So, we started to speculate about what a store could, theoretically speaking, do with the information they have about a particular person. “Could they sell it to my health insurance provider?” Richard wonders. “What if it shows that I buy two cases of beer every single week–and yet, on my health insurance application, I say that I never drink alcohol?”

Here’s another way that health insurance companies might gather information about you, in a way related to the main topic of this post. Let’s say that your health insurance company will offer you a discount if you agree to health monitoring in your car (which is similar, really, to getting a discount for a good driving record, which is monitored, albeit in a different way). You want the discount, so you go along with the plan, whether willingly or reluctantly.

“The car is gathering and offloading data,” Richard says. “Let’s say that this process is compromised through hacking.  Is your health insurer in violation of HIPAA (which gives people certain rights to privacy as to their health conditions) because of the breach? And, what about the car manufacturers? If they create health monitoring systems that are breached, are they in violation of HIPAA?”

Or, let’s say that your car needs fixed and so the repair personnel hook up your car to a port. Will they have access to your health information? Are you okay with that? Does it seem reasonable that at least some of those workers might share what they learned?

Here’s another thought. Let’s say that you have a car accident and it appears to be the other driver’s fault. After all, he had the stop sign at the intersection and you did not. But then the police access your health data that was collected and stored by your car, and they notice that your sugar was pretty low (maybe you shouldn’t have been driving in the first place?) or that you didn’t seem to brake very quickly (maybe you could have prevented the accident?). Or breathalyzer technology shows that, even though your car started today, many times in the past it didn’t because of your alcohol consumption (maybe you’re pretty hung over right now). How will any of those facts change who gets cited?

On another subject: let’s say that a car automatically slows down because the driver appears sleepy or otherwise not in prime condition. What if that slowing down happens on a busy highway and that causes an accident? Who is liable?

Making your decision

No one has all of the answers right now, of course, and it’s likely that this debate will continue in the upcoming years. But, the bottom line is this: if you have the option of participating in health monitoring while you drive and you feel it might benefit you, think about these questions, offered up by Richard Balough, before making your decision:

  • What information is being gathered?
  • How is it stored?
  • How is it encrypted–if it even is?
  • Who has access to that data?
  • Will I know who reviews it and when?
  • What happens when there is a breach?
  • Will I be made aware of that?
  • Who is liable for that breach?
  • If I had already agreed to be monitoring, did I in effect sign a waiver?
  • Would that relieve the car manufacturer of any liability?
  • Or would the court system decide that a typical driver wouldn’t have enough information to legally relieve manufacturers of liability?

“There is always a trade off,” Richard says. “You can get good services and/or perhaps save money if you agree to health monitoring, but in exchange you might be giving up more of your privacy.”

Ah. The head spins.

Editor’s note: What do you think? We really need to you to weigh in on this controversial issue!

 

Original illustrations by John Sisler.