Amit Paranjape’s Blog

Driving In Europe – How It’s Different From U.S.

Posted in Cars, Travel by Amit Paranjape on September 26, 2009
Autobahn

Autobahn

 There are many more differences than just seeing cars cruise-by at 250 km/hr!

On continental Europe, they drive on the same side of the road as the United States. But the similarities really taper off from there! Recently, I had my first opportunity to drive in Europe, and it was a great experience. In this blog, I will highlight the contrasts between the two systems that are separated by much more than the Atlantic Ocean.

Readers who have extensive driving experience on both sides of the pond are welcome to add their own insights. For readers who haven’t driven in Europe, this article will be (hopefully!) an interesting guide, and an invitation to checkout this experience on your next trip. Note – my experiences are based on driving in the Netherlands, Germany and Belgium.

Unless you are lucky enough to get a ‘company car’ in Europe – renting a car might be your best (and only) option. Car renting in Europe is quite expensive. But you can always look for bargains. Like in the U.S., renting a car in a suburb or a small town is significantly cheaper than renting at an Airport or in city center (‘zentrum’ or ‘centrum’ – as they call ‘downtown’). A manual transmission car is much cheaper than an automatic. A US driving license and a credit-card is typically all you need to rent, but many rental companies will also ask for your Passport as an ID Proof.

1. Where are the Pickup Trucks and SUVs?

The first thing you might notice is the near complete absence of pickup trucks! The SUVs are also significantly fewer in number. You will find a lot of station wagons. Clearly, the ‘drive’ towards reducing demand for oil, starts with vehicle ‘size’!

2. Better Driving Discipline – Fewer crazy drivers!

At first impression, the driving discipline definitely feels like it’s a notch higher than that in the U.S. Drivers seem to be more considerate when allowing lane changes, merge-ins, etc. Similarly, the fast lane is strictly used only for passing.

 3. Smaller cars

You feel like the entire class of automobiles got shrunk down by 1 or 2 sizes. The American compact car is a standard in Europe, an American medium sized car is a large car, and so on. Some of the cars are outright tiny – and smaller in size than the recently launched ‘Tata Nano’. On a related note (and quite interestingly, I may add..) – Toyota Prius was more common on European Roads than other iconic Toyota cars.

4. Better maintained cars

In general the cars seemed better maintained than in the US. Not sure if this is driven by necessity (wintery weather conditions, etc.) or by stricter enforcement (regular certification requirements).

5. Manual Transmission & Diesel Engines

These are again novelties to most American drivers. Both are quite popular given that they deliver better efficiencies (ultimately expressed as a lower cost per km) than the automatic transmission and gasoline counterparts.

6. Sheer variety of cars

My belief of U.S. being the global leader in variety of cars got corrected. The sheer variety of cars in Europe is huge! And the number of configurations available for a given model is also extensive. E.g. – Manual/Automatic, Gasoline (Benzin) / Diesel, etc. In addition to all the major global brands you commonly see in the U.S., there are quite a few other brands as well.

7. Speed limits

Contrary to prevailing belief amongst many – they do have strict speed limits on European highways. Even in Germany – 120 kmph (roughly equal-to 75 mph) is common on most highways, but they change to 100 kmph, 80 kmph, etc. based on road/traffic conditions. Many speed limits are ‘dynamic’ – they are indicated by electronic signs and change depending on the external conditions and time of the day. The adherence to the speed limits is fairly decent. There are only certain sections of Autobahns (away from urban centers) in Germany that have no speed limits.

8. Where are the cops?

In my 4 days of extensive driving, I swear I just saw one police car on the highway! That too was at a site of an accident. And yet, the speed limits enforcement and compliance is quite high. I guess they use cameras and technology a lot more in Europe, for traffic rules enforcement. If you are caught speeding, the ticket is mailed to you – complete with your picture driving the car, as proof.

9. 18 Wheelers

The 18 Wheelers are similar to what you would see in the US. Though, you see significantly fewer on the road. I guess there could be two primary reasons: 1. Europeans consume less stuff. Less stuff = Less Volume & Weight to ship! 2. They use a lot of rail transportation.

10. ‘Seamless Borders’

Crossing from one country to the other in the Schengen Region  is as seamless as crossing state boundaries in the U.S. or in India. Typically, there are just 1 or 2 signs welcoming you to that country and some changes in speed limits. That’s pretty much it – Plus the roads signs change from one language you cannot understand to a different one that you cannot understand either :) But the graphical signs are self-explanatory.

11. Round-Abouts/Yield

When driving on city roads – a ’round-about’ circle is something that might confuse an American driver! It’s a different system of yielding – instead of a 4 way stop-sign.

12. Various kinds of ‘entities’ on the city roads

I can understand why Americans sometime dread driving in European cities!  In addition to the tiny roads – you have bicycles, pedestrians and trams to deal with! Amsterdam also has a few human powered bicycle taxis (And I thought Kolkatta was the only big city in the world to have them!).

For me personally (and others who regularly drive on Indian roads) I guess this ‘diverse traffic’ is not that bad :)

13. Bicycles lanes

Bicycles are omnipresent in Holland. They are also quite popular in other countries as well. On most city roads, bicycles have separate dedicated lanes. It’s quite interesting to see a few folks ‘bike’ from their home to a rail station – ‘fold’ their bikes (yes, some bikes literally fold in half – and can be stowed away easily..) board the train to the city, disembark and again ride to their office building!

Motorcycles are also more common, and they ‘optimize’ lane usage at traffic lights or in traffic jams by moving forward by the side of stuck 4 wheelers (the way they always do in India :)  ) . Initially I thought they were breaking the rules – but then it seemed like it was a ‘standard’ procedure.  

14. Gas Stations

The first time you pull into a Gas Station – be prepared for a sticker shock! Gasoline is currently priced around 1.40 Euros/liter. At the present exchange rate, that roughly translates to USD 7.60/Gallon. Diesel is a little cheaper at around 1.05 Euros/liter (USD 5.80/Gallon).  Add to this the price of a comparable car is approximately twice as much in the U.S. – and you will understand why driving is so expensive in Europe!

At Gas Stations in Europe you can literally fill ‘Gas’ ..LPG (Liquified Petroleum Gas), that is :) . Note in Germany and the Netherlands, they refer to Gasoline as ‘Benzin’. Instead of 3 varieties of gasoline and 1 variety of diesel – at European filling stations, you will typically find 2 varieties of gasoline, 2 varieties of diesel and LPG. Initially, I was confused to note the significantly higher octane rating numbers in Europe. However, that is apparently because of slightly different standards. (For more information, checkout: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Octane_rating )

Reliance on Diesel and LPG is part of the drive towards reducing cost / km. LPG is significantly cheaper than Gasoline. Diesel typically yields a much better fuel efficieny in terms of km / liter.

15. Use of GPS and other electronic gadgets

The use of GPS based navigation has increased significantly over the past few years (as it has, in the U.S.) and old fashioned ‘paper’ map based navigation is a dying art. I however had to use this ‘old’ and tried and tested art form – since my cheap rental didn’t have a GPS.

Similarly, I understand that hands-free mobiles are mandatory – hence most cars have an integrated Bluetooth mobile integration with the car’s sound system.

In general, I also observed that for a similar model – an European car would typically have many other smaller gizmos – tire pressure monitoring, range calculators, etc.

Helpful links

Description of Autobahns from Wikipedia  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Autobahns

A good site with lot of information (speed-limits, restrictions, etc.) about various Autobahns http://www.autobahnatlas-online.de/index_e.html

(Image credits: Wikipedia)

An Indian Road Trip in the 1980s – We sure have come a long way!

Posted in Cars, Travel by Amit Paranjape on May 24, 2009

I recently made a long road trip from Pune to Goa, a distance of nearly 500 km (320 miles) in around 7 hours. The scenic route has a combination of nice 4 laned highways and beautiful winding mountain roads that descend down to the sea coast. The average highway speeds were comparable with the US average 60mph. I was driving a nice car – with ABS, multiple airbags, climate control, powerful engine, and great suspension & handling.

So what’s so great and special about this? Young readers in India, as well as the readers in the US will not understand my sheer joy in driving in these conditions with these ‘basic’ features! You folks have been taking the roads and the car features for guaranteed, for way to long. To appreciate my experience, you will have to step back to India in the early 1980s. (A rough analogy might the pre-freeways US roads in the 1950s…).

To bring you upto speed, let me sketch a typical driving trip in India, a quarter century back.  Sit back and enjoy the ride…if you can :)

Our family’s car of choice (not that there was any choice during those days…only Fiats and Ambassadors were available. The new phenomenon ‘Maruti’ was just around the corner) was the Fiat 1100, sporting a ‘powerful’ 47 HP engine with a 4 speed (non-synchromesh) gearbox. It was made by Premier Automobiles; but was rarely referred to by its official name, ‘Premier Padmini’. Visitors might still see a few of these cars upon landing at Mumbai Airport – some of these vehicles still serve as the ‘yellow & black’ taxis.

In those days, a Fiat was the standard car…the Ambassador, a big ‘luxury’ car! Note – any ‘car’ in general was not for the masses, and there was no talk about a Nano. The real ‘people’s car’ was the bicycle! Even a 2 wheeler in those days was expensive and tough to buy. (Some people might remember those times when it took 10 years to get a Bajaj Scooter..).

A road trip was an ‘event’…an adventure. Someone has said ‘It is the journey that is more important than the destination’. How true! I will not bore with you all the details; rather let me just highlight the ‘high-points’ of a typical road trip from that ‘era’. In my preferred style, I will highlight 10 points:

1. Before  you set-off, there were a series of ‘checks’ that may have rivalled a ‘pre-flight’ checklist of an aircraft. There was the car radiator that needed constant filling up. Same with the car batteries water level. And the engine oil level check. Infact, opening the front hood was an extremely common occurence.

2. Talking about car batteries – they were as reliable as the cars in those days…needless to say ‘Dhakka Start’ (people pushing the car to get it started) was common.

3. Refueling in the city was a must – there were no guarantees about any highway side fuel stops.

Once you were off, the only positive thing compared to the present, was the traffic – It was orders of magnitude lower than you would encounter today.

4. 6 people would be comfortably seated in the car: 3 in the front, and 3 in the back. Yes, this car had ‘bench’ seats in the front. The carrier on the roof of the car was packed with all kinds of stuff. (I vividly remember a Kokan trip where we had sets of those ‘old style’ Mango Crates tied down on the top..!)

5. Flat tires were extremely common…cannot remember a single long trip where we didn’t have a tire ‘puncture’. We all were quite adept at changing the spare tire (‘stepney’ as it was called in those days..). This was followed by a stop at a small town ‘tire-walla’ to get the tire fixed. Oh..in those days, tires had tubes in them. (I am assuming that the reader knows that majority of the cars today have tubeless tires…if you are not one of them, then ignore this para all together :)  )

6. Frequent mechanical breakdowns were common as well…and these too for ‘new’ and ‘well maintained’ cars. You were lucky if it was a case of a simple over-heating … in this case you simply poured more water into the radiator, let it ‘blow some steam and cool down’, and then drive on. If it was more serious, then the only option in most cases was to hitch a ride with a passing-by truck/bus to the nearest town…find a mechanic, and bring him back to the car. The saving grace was that these cars were ‘easy’ to repair and after a few hours – you could move on! Oh..and the only ‘phone’ we knew those days was that big black box like device with a round dial on top of it, that made an irritating ringing sound (when it used to work). Today’s cellphone would have looked straight out of Star Trek in those days.

7. Ofcourse the cars were luxurious…well relatively speaking :) Airconditioning was unheard off. The standard cooling solution consisted of those innovative ‘triangular split’ windows that diverted wind into the passenger cabin. And there was no music-system either. Music (if any) was (as they say in the web 2.0 world today) ‘user-generated’. The background score was typically provided by the cacophony of the engine and suspension rattling.

Did I mention that the Fiat 1100 had no power steering, no power-brakes? But driving with all those aids is for wimps… right :)

8. The lack of airconditioning created interesting problems during rainy weather. The front wind shield glass used to get fogged rightaway, with the condensate. The only option to get rid of that moisture was to have the ‘co-pilot’ constantly and skillfully wipe-off the wind shield, without distracting the driver.

9. There were no highway side McDonalds or Food Malls in those days. There were some good restaurants or more appropriately ‘food shacks’ (Tapris) along the way. Some people will vividly remember that Khopoli favorite on the old Mumbai-Pune Highway, ‘Ramakant’ – famous for their ‘Batata Vadas’.

10. If you were driving off the highway on the country roads, the experience used to be even more interesting. A car was a rare sight in rural India in those days. We felt ‘important’ :) Like a VIP motorcade driving by! Proper tar roads were often times non-existent. The car used to leave a huge storm of dust..literally throwing it into the onlookers’ eyes. I am sure those villagers must have been cursing us ‘city folks’.

After all this adventure when you finally made it to your destination, there was this immense satisfaction about a ‘big achievement’. The driver used to really earn his ‘stripes’ those days…and so did the car… Since for all its short comings and problems it was a great way to travel!

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