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Motor Mouth: U.S. sharpening the axe for ‘zombie-car apocalypse’

Self-driving cars are decades away, but already, proposed law targets those circling blocks to avoid parking

Zombie cars? Seriously? Who in their right mind thinks this is a problem? I mean it’s bad enough that my kid’s little friends all talk about zombies as if they’re real, arguing about the undead — how to kill them, the ramifications of mating with the undead, and, perhaps more importantly, at least if I heard the conversation right, if the coming zombie apocalypse might curtail their fast food dining — as if this might be a situation they will actually face in real life. And, oh my good Lord, if you thought John Wayne playing Genghis Khan was a cinematic stretch too far, how about Abraham Lincoln versus Zombies, in which the 10-year-old future saviour of the American republic beheads his mother with a scythe because, well, he thinks she might be turning into the walking dead.

Now I get why a typical 10-year-old (though not an Abraham Lincoln, of course) might be afraid of what Merriam-Webster defines as the “will-less and speechless human,” but exactly how a car — an inanimate object, I’ll remind you — can be invaded by West Indian supernatural voodoo powers is just another part of the whole zombie thing I don’t understand. Nonetheless, “zombie” cars would appear to be a problem — a problem, in fact, stoking so much fear in the state of Massachusetts that it has been deemed worthy of a bill calling for, if not the extinction of said zombie cars, at least their taxing.

No, I am not making this up. And, yes, even by the Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test commedia dell’arte that now passes for governance south of the border, this one is weird. First of all, “zombie” cars, as defined by Massachusetts Democratic state senator Jason Lewis, are self-driving cars that drive around city streets — one presumes aimlessly and without mission — so their owners don’t have to pay parking fees. And, as with pretty much everything American, Lewis doesn’t seem so much worried about the consequences of zombie cars roaming our streets so much as ensuring that the “driving dead” pay their tithe of road taxes.

Ostensibly, this tax on self-driving is a result of the reduced gas tax self-driving cars will pay. Lewis’ bill, showing that Democrats are not much less idealistic than their Republican counterparts, also mandates that all future self-driving cars in the Bay State be electric. But, here’s the thing; the bill would increase the basic 2.5 cent-a-mile tariff specifically for autonomous “zombie” — yes, according to the Worcester Business Journal, the senator used that word — automobiles for “each mile driven without a passenger.”

Now with self-driving causing so much confusion lately (recent studies seem to suggest that while 40 per cent of consumers may want ’em and 40 per cent may not, 100 per cent of consumers don’t understand the first damned thing about them), it would be easy to assume that this infestation of aimlessly wandering Fords might be right around the corner. But, in fact, while the media hype surrounding autonomous automobiles might have you believe that the robots will be taking over our steering wheels in the next few months, the truth is that you probably won’t be able to buy a car that can drive around a city’s core all by its own self for at least a decade. And it will be probably be another 15 years after that before they become, well, a problem large enough to merit senator Lewis’ paranoia.

Currently, the most advanced autonomy commercially available is — as defined by the American National Highway Traffic Safety Administration — level II, cars which provide aid to the driver but whose automated functions must be constantly monitored by a human being. Even next-gen experimental cars, being tested in certain states under special permits, are what’s deemed Level III and IV, the best of which are “designed to perform all safety-critical driving functions and monitor roadway conditions for an entire trip” but are limited to a specific “operational design domain (ODD)” and are not designed for negotiating the trickiest of traffic situations. Even the most advanced of these experimental vehicles still require a driver behind the wheel and are hardly ready to drive autonomously in difficult circumstances.

Indeed, the specific conditions that Level IV “High Autonomy” autonomous vehicles will eventually be allowed to drive without human assistance will be, for the foreseeable future, limited. Divided highways will be under their purview (and won’t they be a boon in Canada’s ever worsening traffic jams?) as will certain, minimally traffic’ed routes (the much ballyhooed NuTonomy self-driving taxi service in Singapore is limited to the city’s little-travelled business district, and there will be drivers behind the wheel).

Indeed, before a car can drive around, to quote Merriam-Webster again, “will-less,” in downtown city cores, it will have to achieve the NHTSA’s Level V, a level of “Full Autonomy” that allows “the full-time performance by an automated driving system of all aspects of the dynamic driving task under all roadway and environmental conditions that can be managed by a human driver.” In other words, before a car will be allowed to roam our city streets completely unattended, the technology will have to increase three levels from the most advanced, high-tech Mercedes-Benz being sold today.

And that, folks, is something that just isn’t happening soon. Even Google is backing off the concept of autobots running around without steering wheels. Most large automakers — Ford may, or may not, prove to be an exception — are extremely limiting in how much autonomy they want to allow, fearful, as they have every right to be, as to who bears responsibility (both physically and fiscally) for these cars when they crash. And as we found out at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, while current experimental self-driving cars are extremely capable of navigating controlled traffic situations, they are easily flustered — step forward, Nissan and Hyundai — by circumstances that human drivers would find quite ordinary. For instance, the best of autonomous cars still have trouble passing a stationary work truck on a narrow street if it requires crossing over the verboten-for-a-computer-controlled-car median’s dual yellow line, and recognizing semi-trucks is still a problem for some autonomous systems.

And, even after such cars are introduced, it will be another decade or two before such fully autonomous automobiles will find widespread adoption. The typical lifespan of a new automobile is about 12 years, so it will require a generation or perhaps even two before there are a sufficient number of Level V driverless cars aimlessly circumnavigating Boston’s hoity-toity Back Bay district trying to avoid parking fees. Despite Mr. Lewis’ seemingly deep-rooted fear, the “zombie car” apocalypse is not upon us.

Self-driving cars are decades away, but proposed law targets those circling blocks to avoid parking

The 9 best vehicles for the Canadian zombie apocalypse

Effectively crush hordes of the undead who hunger for flesh and brains with these 9 rides

Speaking purely for myself, I’m really looking forward to the coming zombie apocalypse. Just think of it: no line ups at Starbucks, no more “Beliebers” on Twitter, a huge reduction in traffic, and if you see someone shuffling along slowly with a downcast gaze it’s perfectly socially acceptable to sneak up and smack them upside the head with a cricket bat. You can’t do that today to someone glued to their iPhone. More’s the pity.

Granted, there are a few teensy drawbacks – such as the collapse of civilized society. Civilized society – didn’t I already mention no more Justin Bieber concerts, ever? Totally worth risking having your leg bitten off by a half-rotted gym teacher if you ask me.

Now, when the zombocalypse comes to Canada, our transportation needs are going to change somewhat. There’ll be little use in popping down to your local convenience store to scan the Consumer Reports listings. Firstly, everybody at CR will probably be long zombiefied, and secondly we all know what happens when you go into a 7-11 after the undead rise from their graves. Face = gnawed.

Given the popularity of The Walking Dead, now in its fifth season, perhaps we can look to television for guidance on how to pick the best wheels for zombie-land. But no, they used to drive a 2011 Hyundai Tucson for some reason. Not that there’s anything wrong with the Tucson if you need a mid-sized crossover, but it’s not quite the thing for tackling hordes of shuffling monsters. I’ve read the brochure, and there’s not a single feature that even mentions zombies.

It seems that, once again, a little useful consumer advice is warranted. Stuck in Canada when the zombies arrive? Here are nine of the best vehicles for surviving a plague of the undead. Heck, you might even start downright enjoying it.

Terex 33-19 Titan

Seven metres high. Eight metres wide. Twenty metres long. Six wheels, ten tires, four General Motors electric traction motors, and a 169.1L 16-cylinder 3,300hp diesel engine. That oughta do it for the Canadian zombie apocalypse.

Right. No sense mucking about with lift kits for that Hyundai – here’s the one-time largest truck to ever exist. It is simply enormous, built to a scale that boggles the mind. Seven metres high. Eight metres wide. Twenty metres long. Six wheels, ten tires, four General Motors electric traction motors, and a 169.1L 16-cylinder 3,300hp diesel engine. That oughta do it.

Granted, there is just one of these behemoths, located as a display in the small mining town of Sparwood BC. It’s a prototype unit built in London, Ontario, as the first of an intended run that never really materialized.

The colossal size of the Titan makes it a virtual rolling fortress, and welding on all sorts of bits to keep zombies from clambering aboard should be no problem. What’s more, the carrying capacity of 317,515kg means the Titan can carry a small village on its back, complete with vegetable farm, a small herd of livestock, and maybe a badminton net. Hey, why not?

It’s admittedly not the fastest way to get around, but think of it as a prairie-crossing ship, always on the move to dodge roving bands of ravenous, brain-eating zombies. I imagine that enormous diesel engine’s pretty hard on fuel, but you could probably set up some kind of bio-fuel distillery as there’s so much space. Majestic.

Terra Bus

We’ll be renaming it of course. The “Terror Bus” is just too perfect a moniker not to use.

We’ve covered these rigs before and were immediately struck by just how amazing they’d be in the coming apocalyptic zombie infestation. Surefooted on any terrain, and capable of seating up to fifty-six, the Terror Bus is built in Calgary and used as a tour coach for viewing glaciers.

Last time I checked, the cast of the Walking Dead crew is now in Alexandria, Virginia, so everyone should have plenty of room to stretch out. Install a woodstove, armour-plate the windows, get Daryl a nice wall-rack for his crossbow, and it’d be a cozy home-away-from-home.

The Brewster travel company has twenty-two of these things, enough to travel in a convoy that would have any Mad Max types exiting stage left tout de suite. So there you have it: if hands start bursting forth from their graves, take a vacation in Banff and bring your slim-jim.

Mitsubishi Delica

If you live on Canada’s west coast, chances are you’ll have access to one of the most capable Mitsubishi vans ever built.

Of course, the zombie apocalypse may strike without warning, meaning you’re going to have to use what’s close at hand. If you’re on the West coast, odds are you’re going to have easy access to one of the most useful and capable vans ever built.

It’s narrow enough to squeeze through a gap in traffic, sure-footed with four-wheel-drive, and you can sleep in it. Sure, maneuvering a right-hand-drive vehicle is a little trickier in traffic, but when said traffic is all trying to eat your sweet, sweet, delicious brain, you just run them over anyway.

Thanks to Canada’s fifteen-year grey-market rules, the Mitsubishi Delica is readily available, and cannibalizing one for extra parts should be easy. Think of it as a slightly quicker and more reliable Volkswagen Vanagon Synchro, as well as your camperized escape from the city into the countryside.

Honda Civic Go-Bag

If you need a quick escape during the zombie apocalypse, the Honda Civic makes a fine stand-in. Especially the Si coupe.

Zombies won’t be the only danger out there on the road. With the breakdown of the social contract favouring those who are good at swinging a bat, you’ll have to keep your guard up on the road.

That means you’re going to need to be quick on the move, and if you don’t have the good luck to be living on a six-wheeled city or in a convoy of giant Terror busses, then some ubiquitous crafty quickness is needed. Enter the Honda Civic.

There’s a good reason the Civic is perennially the most-stolen car in Canada. It’s also the most common passenger car, taking top sales marks for well over a decade now. If you’re only going to rely on one machine to get you going, you should always be able to find some kind of Civic in whatever small town you’re passing through, and ditch it if you run into trouble.

But an ordinary Civic might not me quick enough to effect a getaway, and this is where the go-bag comes in. This is based on an thoroughly irresponsible article I read years ago that described how to make a portable nitrous system in a duffelbag that could be swapped into rental cars. Obvious disclaimer: do not do this. Additional disclaimer: until after the zombie apocalypse – once that happens, all bets are off.

With your temporary Civic hopped up on N2O, you should be able to leave any bad guys in your dust, and if the motor blows, just pick up the next Honda you come across.

Hägglunds BV206

If the zombie apocalypse strikes and you’re near a military base, there is only one suitable vehicle – the Hägglunds BV206.

“But what if the zombie apocalypse strikes while I’m stuck in some creepy military base?” you ask. Good question. In my experience, zombie apocalypses pretty much only happen when people go to the hospital, visit the mall, or get stuck in a creepy military base.

In Canada, getting trapped in a base is no problemo, not when you’ve got the keys to a BV206 hanging somewhere close-by. This articulated four-tracked machine is capable of crossing any terrain from sand to snow to muskeg (it’s amphibious too), and even if you’re only trapped in a crumbling abandoned farmhouse you still might be able to get your hands on one as several decommissioned versions have been pressed into use as transports, especially in the prairies.

The BV stands for Bandvagon, by the way – hmm, “Bandwagon”? I should buy one and paint it up in the Canucks colours. No jumping off now, or you’ll get squashed and/or chomped.

Mercedes-Benz Unimog

When you can’t get access to a Mercedes-Benz G63 AMG 6×6 (or a standard G-Wagen, for that matter), the Unimog makes a fine stand-in.

There’s simply no better off-road vehicle this side of a battle tank. When zombies roam the roads, you’re going to want to stay off the beaten track.

Mercedes-Benz recently brought the Unimog – in a way– back to Canada and there are plenty of imports running around to join those sold here in the past. Incidentally, most ‘Mogs we got were sold through heavy equipment dealers like Frieghtliner, which should give you some idea of their capability.

Fitted with enormous tires, the ‘Mog is so ultra-capable that several intended to operate as support vehicles have won the gruelling Dakar Rally simply by accident. They can climb a 70% grade fully laden, ford water a third of a meter deep, and are available in short and long wheelbase configurations.

Strap on a durable camper and off you go – the Unimog is basically like a lifted Wrangler that carries its home on its back. There’s even plenty of power takeoff options if you want to attach a bush-clearing lawnmower up front. For obvious reasons.

Ford Raptor / Dodge Ram Runner

In the zombie apocalypse, you can put the Ford F-150 SVT Raptor’s off-road abilities to (very) good use.

Wander on to a Ford or Dodge dealership lot and you’d assume the apocalypse was already here. Sure, there are shiny hatchbacks and sensible minivans to be found, but take a quick stroll over to where they keep trucks. Because that way madness lies.

Ford’s Raptor is very well publicized already, and no doubt you’ve seen footage of its flared-out, muscular shape jumping over sand-dunes, or bumped into a suspiciously pristine and unscratched version in your mall’s parking lot. Well, when the zombies show up, all those Baja Truck looks will get put to good use. Will your gang of wasteland warriors be called the Raptors? Hopefully not, unless you’re all good at basketball.

Dodge’s version is the Ram Runner, which super-helpfully tells you exactly what to do when encountering zombies, right in its name: ram, then run-over. It’s a mean-looking thing already, and just imagine if Mopar offered a handy zombie-removal attachment.

Hey, looks like there’s a snowblower available…

Kawaskaki KLR650

Bikes make perfect sense during the zombie apocalypse. Case in point: the Kawasaki KLR650. It can navigate through roads clogged with obstacles and it can climb a mountain while you scout for a spot for your new colony.

Okay, I’ll admit that I don’t know the first thing about motorcycles. Come the zombie apocalypse, I’ll be learning.

Bikes can weave through blocked traffic, outrun shuffling hordes, climb narrow paths and be tucked away inside safehouses at night. Plus, now that 90% of the world’s population are animated corpses, no more minivans changing lanes without signalling and turning you into roadkill.

The dual-sport bike is probably the best for this sort of thing, fitted with travel boxes to carry gear, and with tires that can pile on the miles while you head to the last outpost, or scramble up into the mountains to establish your own colony. I wonder if I can find training wheels somewhere.

Brodie Sasamat

Who says pedal power isn’t effective during the zombie apocalypse?

As with the dual-sport, this is just an example. But why is it that in every zombie movie, bicycles don’t seem to exist? I know there’s not much protection offered on a bike, but we’re talking about getting away from monsters that move with the speed of a shuffle.

And yet, here we are with frame after frame of downtrodden-looking folks strolling slowly along the road and then having to drop everything to fight or flee as soon as a zombie pops out. With a mountain bike, you’d just keep riding, maybe even with a cheeky *ding-ding* from your bell.

Grab a few of these and load them into the Titan as reccy vehicles. Say, is that the evil star Wormwood rising in the sky? Everybody meet me in Sparwood.

Effectively crush hordes of the undead who hunger for flesh and brains with these 9 rides ]]>