Saturday, July 17, 2010

You can fuel some of the people all of the time...

The Gulf News recently published an article on how to save fuel, or more specifically, money, following the recent petrol price hike. For those readers who don’t keep pace with motor fuel prices in the UAE, petrol went up by 11% in April, and then a further 13% in July. Although, to be fair, the price of ‘Special’ did drop in January 2010 by 0.35% to my pleasant surprise.

A pity that the article seems to have been lifted word-for-word from Forbes. The only locally-produced word is the first one: ‘Dubai’.

Everything else relates to normal custom and practice in the States. Increased driving in the summer as suggested by the article does not match the Gulf tradition of emptying, with the remaining few priapic stallions limiting their travels to the bars of Sheikh Zayed Road.

And what of all these ‘miles’ and ‘gallons’ and ‘dollars’ and ‘ski racks’? ‘Ski racks’? Who in Dubai carries a ski rack? Is it too much to ask for some words, some practical fuel-saving tips, to be written for local consumption? Or maybe petrol at 30p, (or $1.72 per US gallon) is still regarded as ludicrously cheap. Given that with few exceptions (Antigua, Belize, Burma, Grenada, Guyana, Sierra Leone, E&OE), only the USA continues to dispense motor fuel in non-metric units, so some litres and kilometres might have been nice, as would have dirhams. Believe it or not, we don’t all mentally convert everything into dollars.

Even the metric-resistant UK now sells stuff by the kilogramme, litre and metre. Only on the roads do miles, yards and feet persist. Oh, and in pubs. Draught beer by the pint instead of the smaller half-litre. Huzzah!

Britain’s conversion from gallons to litres for motor fuel occurred back in the 1980s. Using the excuse that the old mechanical pump meters couldn’t handle more than one currency unit per volume unit, the oil companies switched to a smaller volume unit. How we laughed, way back then, at the prospect of unrealistically expensive £1 a litre. Oh, how Europe now yearns for the halcyon days of £1 a litre!

So Brits ended up buying petrol by the litre and burning it by the mile. Frankly, the ‘mile per litre’ unit of fuel consumption is an unholy hybrid; a spawn of two independent systems that will end in tears. As NASA found out in 1999.

Why did the UAE suddenly move from gallons to litres in January 2010? To align with most of the rest of planet Earth? Or to obfuscate the scale of impending price rises? The cynical might note that whacking 13% on the cost of a gallon of petrol (Dh6.91 for ‘Special’ becomes Dh7.82) looks like a gigantic increase, whereas sneaking 13% on to Dh1.52 to make it Dh1.72 is a mere 20 fils.

Precisely the same stunt was pulled in the UK, notwithstanding the mechanical metering excuse. Twenty pence on a gallon looks like a lot. Five pence on a litre looks less. Less is more. Freedom is slavery.

And I bet this is one reason for the public’s resistance to litres in the States: the suspicion that a change from customary units will inevitably be used as a means to rip off Joe Public.

Yet elsewhere in the automotive world, the metric system has been accepted with little or no fuss. Hardly anyone refers to engine capacities in cubic inches. There is a widespread understanding that a 50cc engine is for a moped, a 750cc motorbike will be acceptably rapid, 1800cc in a car is good for a family saloon and irresponsible when slung between two wheels (hee, hee, hee!). And a decent 4x4 wants around four litres.

But tyre pressures persist in pounds per square inch, even in metric-land. “Drop them to 15,” I’ll say, and everyone understands that I mean 15psi. Saying “one bar” or “100 kilopascals” or especially “10 newtons per square centimetre” will produce some strange looks in the desert; perhaps less so at the annual Mad Scientists’ Desert Campout. Newtons used to confuzzle me until someone told me that a 16 stone (i.e., well-built) bloke weighs about a kilonewton.

Brits over an uncertain age can’t do bodyweight in anything other than stones. To me, “245lb” is meaningless without doing mental arithmetic. It’s 17½ stone. That makes sense. Fourteen years of living in a metric environment means that to me, this “111kg bloke” also has meaning.

What should perhaps have happened in the UK was to go through the hell of instant metrication of everything. Instead of which, Brits have been drip-fed metric measures over nearly half a century, yet imperial measures persist on the roads and in pubs. Younglings get taught only metric in school, and then have to be bilingual in order to discuss quantities with their older relatives. Nanny Goat, for example, is keen to quote “a litre of water’s a pint and three quarters” and “two and a quarter pounds of jam weigh about a kilogramme” but she cannot apply these conversions while doing her grocery shopping. She converts petrol back into imperial gallons before being suitably outraged.

Boat fuel consumption continues to be expressed in gallons per hour when motor cruising at a particular speed. Perhaps ‘litres per hour’ produces scarily large numbers. Certainly ‘miles per gallon’ produces frighteningly low ones. Because knots – nautical miles per hour – are unavoidably associated with minutes of latitude, which is how distances are measured on nautical charts, there is a good and sensible reason for retaining nautical miles. I despair of those navigators who do their passage planning in nautical miles and then convert knots to kph because that’s what’s on the GPS.

Similarly in aviation. Logically, nautical miles make sense for the same reason that they do in the maritime world. I s’pose that’s why, “Ladies and gentlemen, we are cruising at 29,000 feet...” Perhaps “nine thousand metres” doesn’t sound high enough. A pilot friend of mine told me that the Russians use metres for altitude. Not enough metres: witness the elderly and possibly overloaded Antonovs desperately trying to gain altitude over the Crumbling Villa on those hot summer nights.

Everyone appears to prefer the term ‘mileage’ when discussing distances travelled by motor vehicles.
    “What mileage is your YARiS doing on your Abu Dhabi commute, Mr Goat?”

    “Oh, about 1800 kilometres a week.”
The trouble is, ‘kilometrage’ sounds less like a distance and more like an expression of truculent dissatisfaction with the metric system.

    Although the UK has officially adopted the metric system, there is no intention to replace the mile on road signs in the near future, owing to the British public’s attachment to traditional imperial units of distance, i.e., miles, yards and inches, and the cost of changing speed signs (which could not be replaced during general maintenance, like distance signs, for safety reasons). As of 11 September 2007, the EU has allowed Britain to continue using the imperial systems. EU commissioner Günter Verheugen said: “There is not now and never will be any requirement to drop imperial measurements.”

    In the US, the National Highway System Designation Act of 1995 prohibits the use of federal-aid highway funds to convert existing signs or purchase new signs with metric units. However, the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices since 2000 published in both metric and American Customary Units.

1 comment:

Keefieboy said...

The metric system makes so much sense: it's hard to understand why everybody wouldn't rush to adopt it. But the UK persists in a kind of hybrid limbo, and the US simply defies belief, especially since they've had decimal dosh since forever.


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