Solipsism Gradient

Rainer Brockerhoff’s blog

Browsing Posts published in July, 2003

Remember the recent story when Thailand’s Finance minister got trapped inside his BMW?

A high-ranking Thai official was forced to crawl out of the shattered windows of his luxury car following an onboard glitch that sealed all exits.

BMW has told CNETAsia that an electronic fault caused the problem, rather than a system crash of the car’s Windows-based central computer, as other reports have speculated.

In Prague, another Brazilian couple was staying at the same hotel we were in. They did one of those fly&lease plans and, as a part of that, had leased a brand-new Renault Mégane:

This is one of those computer-controlled new cars; a complicated dashboard display, no car keys or ignition, everything’s done by a keychain remote control. Very nice while it works…

It seems they drove into the parking lot with headlights on, got out, and turned the car off with the remote. One of them put the remote into a pocket where it presumably pressed again by mistake while they were going away. The result: the car was completely unlocked (including the trunk) and the headlights were turned on again.

In the morning, after checking out of the hotel, the car was completely dead. Nothing worked, all doors and the trunk were open. A helpful camper owner offered to help jump-start the car with the usual jumper cables; after connecting them and running the camper’s motor for several minutes, the Renault worked again, or at least partly; the lights could be turned on and off. However, the doors wouldn’t lock and the car wouldn’t start either; the dashboard kept displaying a message to “Call Service”.

We helped them look through the lease papers and located a service number in France. When we left, they’d already been on hold for over half an hour (at 2 Euros per minute!). Today, they called us and told the rest of the story…

It seems that once they succeeded to get a real live person on the phone in France, things happened very quickly. They said where they were in Prague and in about 45 minutes the local Renault dealer sent a repairman. He installed a new battery and reset the computer. They immediately got into the car and drove all the way into Austria, where they have relatives; they were afraid to turn the car off, so they left it running while tanking or eating. 😆

This turned out to be a wise precaution; after they’d parked the car in their relatives’ garage, the next day it was dead as a doornail again. After yet another visit from the local Renault repairman, everything was finally fixed… but guess if they’ll want another “smart” car again!

This is a very serious issue. Leaving aside the obvious jokes about cars, airplanes and even aircraft carriers running Windows CE, I think that onboard “smart” electronics must be smarter than that. Why didn’t the computer detect that the headlights were on, and turn them off before allowing the battery to run down past the point where the car couldn’t function?

One thing I noticed about the many Smart cars I saw in Europe: nearly all of them had company logos. I suppose they’re the ideal company car; small, easy to park and with excellent mileage. By the way, they’re also the least expensive to rent. Here’s one I shot in Vienna:

Notice the company motorbike behind it? That’s a BMW C1, it has a rollbar and seatbelt. Here’s a better picture:

Those two were for rent in the small alpine town of Füssen.

Now, I’ve never learned to handle a motorbike (or even a normal bycicle, to the amazement of my German relatives), but this one looks like the right bike for me:

this is a “velotaxi”, you see them quite a lot in Berlin – two passengers fit in the back. At least I wouldn’t fall off this one… then again, Belo Horizonte, where I live, is hillier than San Francisco, so it really wouldn’t be useful.

More than any other countries I’ve visited, Germany and Austria reflected my own predilection for small cars. Though you see quite a number of vans and mid-sized luxury sedans, small is definitely in, mostly (I suppose) for practical reasons. In a small town at Lake Constance, the owner of this small delivery vehicle was quite puzzled why I wanted to take a picture of it:

while in München, we saw this lovingly maintained Morris Mini:

The absolute king of the small-car universe, however, seems to be the Mercedes/Swatch-built Smart two-seater. Here’s a nice one:

and of course, the XRay plates are very cool – wish I had one!

While the basic Smart can be found in Europe for 8500 Euros and up (US$9400), here in Brazil prices start at R$75000 (US$25000), because of taxes and import duties. Supposedly the Mercedes factory in Brazil will start to build Smarts in a couple of years; unfortunately, they’ll probably be the larger four-seat model. A pity, the two-seater is just 2.5m long and the ideal car for congested large cities…

Stopping and parking is not as easy as it sounds, at least in Europe. Forget about stopping on the Autobahn; you’ll either get rear-ended or a rescue car will appear sooner than you wish (unless, of course, you really need to be rescued). Every 20 Km or so you’ll find clearly designated rest stops, some with restaurants. Expect to pay to use the restroom in most roadside restaurants, 0.30 to 0.50 Euros is usual. Most secondary highways have no shoulder for stopping, so you’ll need to look either for a designated view point or rest area, or for an agricultural (dirt) road leading off into a field. If the latter, watch out for farmer’s rigs and don’t stop for long.

In cities, watch out for signs regulating stopping and standing:

Two stripes, as pictured, mean that you shouldn’t stop (for any reason); one stripe means you can stop briefly for looking at a map or loading/unloading. Arrows may indicate that the sign applies to one side of the road only, and times/dates may indicate that the restriction applies only during certain periods.

Parking is even harder than in the US or Canada. Parking meters are common in some cities, but not all. In Germany, you’ll find that many streets require you to put a “Parkscheibe” on the dash; this is a cardboard disk which you must turn to the hour when you parked, and you’re not allowed to stay longer than a certain number of hours. (Rental cars should come with one of these.) It’s also common to find that, during certain hours, parking is restricted to residents who must display special permits or stickers.

Even small cities usually have public parking lots or buildings, which unfortunately can be quite expensive; count on paying between 1.50 and 3 Euros per hour. If you’re staying longer than a few hours in a larger city, look for parking lots with the “P+R” (park & ride) logo; they usually charge a fixed rate of a couple of Euros for the whole day and are located near a subway or tram station. Some don’t allow leaving the car overnight, though. Most hotels have a garage for guests but charge extra for it; 6 to 15 Euros per night is usual.

Inside medium or larger cities, getting around by subway or tram is much better than using a car. Every city we visited had some form of day card; you pay a fixed fee and for that day (or for the next 24 hours) can take unlimited rides on any public transportation. In a few cities, such as Düsseldorf, there are day cards for groups of up to 5 persons; in others, there are family cards for 3 or more people. Usually, unless you just go to a certain point and back, the cards are better deals than single tickets. There are even better deals for longer stays.

Be aware that public transportation in Europe usually works on the honor system; you must have a valid ticket in your pocket before entering the subway station (or boarding the tram). Tickets are never sold inside a tram or subway. Most tickets must be validated at a stamping machine which can be located either inside the station or in the tram or subway, but never in both; be careful not to get confused. Plain-clothes policemen make spot checks for tickets, and fees for not carrying a valid ticket usually range from 50 to 100 Euros.

Traffic laws are generally uniform in all countries we visited; if you’re used to driving in the US or Canada, be sure to look up details, as there are some differences. Turning right on a red light is never allowed, and overtaking another car on the right is generally forbidden. There are complex precedence rules; unless specifically signed, the car coming from your right has precedence if all else is equal. Expect people to know and respect these rules; especially German drivers have a habit of not even looking to the left when crossing an intersection. Things are a little more relaxed in Eastern Europe, though, except for drinking and driving, where there’s absolutely zero tolerance for alcohol.

Unless otherwise indicated and depending on the country, speed limits are 50 Km/hour in urban areas, 90 or 100 Km/hour on secondary (single-lane) highways, and 120 or 130 Km/hour on divided (multi-lane) highways. The German Autobahn is an exception; there’s a minimum speed of 60 Km/hour, a recommend speed of 130 Km/hour, and no speed limit at all in the leftmost lane. Avoid that lane unless you have a high-powered car and practice driving at high speed; as I had neither, I usually puttered along at a glacial 120 Km/hour.

In contrast, Brazilian highways have a speed limit of 80 Km/hour for single-lane and 110 Km/hour for multi-lane; one is usually advised to drive slower because of the frequent pot-holes. In Europe I didn’t see a single pothole outside of the quite frequent and very well signed road work areas.

Keep an eye on what other drivers do in regard to speed limits. In most areas everybody drove at or at most 10 Km/hour over the limit. Pedestrians are usually respected, except for Hungary, where they drive more like they do in Brazil – meaning, don’t expect a driver to stop just because you stepped on the road. German and Austrian drivers are the most mild-mannered ones, except on the Autobahn, where most suddenly turn into raving maniacs.

Generally there are no multi-language highway and traffic signs, so it pays to look up and memorize some common words like “exit”, “attention” and so forth in the various languages. Here’s a good site further detailing the various signs and traffic laws. Here’s another one. Signs vary considerably from American conventions in some respects, most rental car companies will give you a chart if you ask for one.

All told, we drove about 4000 Km in three weeks, in Germany, Switzerland (just for a couple of hours), Austria, Hungary and the Czech Republic. The latter three countries require a “vignette”, or special sticker, for vehicles that wish to use the highways.

Here they are; Czech, Hungarian and Austrian stickers (from the left). They’re available for different periods from a few days to a year; the short-term ones we bought cost between 6 and 9 Euros each. Fines are supposed to be stiff, and they’re available at every border location, and most gas stations near the borders, so there’s no excuse not to have one.

Fuel prices were a surprise. In Germany we found prices ranging from 1.02 to 1.08 Euros/liter (around US$4/gallon at the current exchange rates)! Here in Brazil I’m paying around R$1.90/liter, which works out to about US$2.30 per gallon. In contrast, Austrian gasoline was a little less expensive at 0.85 Euros/liter (US$3.35/gallon); as we drove quite a bit in Austria and along the Austrian border, I made sure to never leave Austria with less than a full tank. Czech gasoline was slightly less expensive than in Austria; I didn’t need to fill up in Hungary, but seem to remember prices as being around the Austrian level.

Anyway, the fuel was of much higher quality than we get here – Brazilian gasoline has 10 to 20% of ethanol mixed in to keep the price down, but you get worse mileage. Both cars we drove averaged about 6.5 liters/100 Km – this works out to 15.4 Km/liter or 34.8 miles/gallon, so fuel costs were lower than I had expected. Nevertheless, it usually pays to ask the rental company for a diesel car; they get even better mileage, and diesel costs less than gasoline in most countries (Germany is an exception here). Not all brands offer diesel models, though.

To drive into Eastern Europe, you’ll need some extra equipment not usually necessary in Germany: a red warning triangle and a first-aid kit. Some countries also require a fire extinguisher and a set of replacement bulbs. So if you rent a car in Germany, be sure to ask for those items.

Usually, on a trip to the US or Canada, I prefer to choose a rental company and car right at the airport counter. The sole exception, a couple of years ago, resulted in quite a hassle. When we rented a car from Hertz Canada with a prepaid voucher, at the end it turned out that, contrary to all reassurances from our travel agency, taxes were not covered by the voucher. Had I known that previously, I would have chosen another company. To compound the problem, after my complaints, Hertz decided to charge my credit card with the complete amount – again! – completely disregarding the voucher! It took half a year of calls and e-mails to get a refund, and we ended up losing about US$50 because of credit card fees and fluctuation exchange rates.

This time we checked all major rental companies both from their German websites and through their local representatives, and it turned out that Hertz Deutschland had an unbeatable promotion for foreign renters; all things considered, it was less than half the price I would have paid at the airport counter. And taxes were included, so I closed the deal (with the precaution of getting a letter from Hertz Brasil stating that I had prepaid the full price).

There were a couple of minor snags, though. As we intended to drive into Eastern Europe, only small Ford and Opel (GM) cars were available; other brands supposedly run a high risk of being stolen. And none of these had air conditioning, something it turned out we should have had, as it was Europe’s hottest summer in a decade.

In Germany, you pay a 17% surcharge over the full rental price if you pick up or return the car at an airport or train station, so I carefully chose in-city locations for both. It turns out that such locations have a very small selection of cars to choose from; as I also had to pick the car up on a Saturday (and they close at noon!), there was only a single car available with my requirements: the brown Ford Ka shown below, on the right.

However, the previous owner had neglected to turn in the car’s registration papers – and as I said, no other cars were available. We had to drive by another Hertz location later in the week and tell the whole story; with some persuasion, they gave us an upgrade to the next larger car (the black Ford Fiesta shown above, on the left).

My advice, nevertheless, is to avoid Saturdays and pick up the car early in the morning, so you’ll have more options in case something goes wrong.

Ich habe ein neues forum nur für Brockerhoffs eröffnet. Ausserdem ist nun Deutsch als Benutzersprache freigegeben.

In den nächsten Tagen werde ich dort einen kurzen Bericht über das Familientreffen vom 28ten Juni veröffentlichen. Wer Fotos beitragen will, soll sie mir bitte per E-Mail zuschicken; meine eigenen Fotos sind leider nicht besonders gut geraten.

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