Saturday, August 20, 2016

A James Bond-like Car for the Common Man to Save the World

Last month Al Futtaim Motors lent me one of their hybrid car, Toyota Prius and our family of sustainability professionals and an Eco-kid was thrilled to go around in town in this green car! While mommy enjoyed the driving experience, daddy (who's passionate about automobiles) explained all technicalities and curious kid in back seat was totally engrossed watching energy monitor on dashboard.
This time, I requested our in house sustainability as well as automobile expert, my husband, Nandan Tavkar to write about this car for my readers and first time ever in last 8 years of this blog somebody was all ready to contribute!

Initial Reaction

Being an avid car enthusiast, and a sustainability enthusiast, I was delighted when I was offered to review the Prius. There are two trim levels available for the car, Dynamic and Iconic; we were given the Iconic model for review. 

In the first glimpse we had of the vehicle, it was captivating. That night, Ruhaan (our son) and I went down for a pre-review and, a sneak quick drive. Subsequently over the weekend we did several test drives of the car.
Stands out easily – no problems locating it in the Parking Lot
On the inside, the interiors were clearly intriguing. The seats and the consoles were rendered in a classy two tone finish of ivory-white and black. The ergonomics are excellent and everything is where you would expect it … well almost (check the Quirks section if intrigued). The car includes numerous smart (electronic or otherwise) features for making the in-car experience better.

The Prius has two screens, ergonomically placed such that you can be aware of the important information such as speed and fuel efficiency while concentrating on the road.

Regulars such as the Phone charging slot, USB slot and headphone slots are easily accessible and where you would expect them. Interestingly, there is a wireless phone charger pad where you can place your phone and charge it – we couldn’t get that to work with the phones that we have.

Two cup holders are placed between the driver and passenger seats. The cup holders are provided with a spring which adapts to the size of the cup.

Touch Screen Sound Adjustments
The JBL entertainment system sounds good; what appealed to us most, was the choice of Bass, Mid, and Treble sound setting adjustment. You get the center touchscreen for the adjustments, while it’s possible to browse through the radio channels and volume via the steering mounted controls. The set-ups are simple and intuitive. 
The first observation I had about the seats, was that they were so well balanced and comfortable. These seats were definitely designed with significant consideration to science and art of ergonomics. 

The rear seats were comfortable too with ample leg space. However with my minuscule size, I would not be a good yardstick for leg space. With the baby seat fixed on the rear seat, it appeared to be a bit crammed for my son as his legs would touch the back of the front passenger seat. The boot seemed to have practical space in terms of depth, height as well as width. It would easily accommodate the regular weekend supermarket runs as well as the occasional baggage storage for airport runs.
Space wise – there was ample space as much as would be expected from a family sedan. The interior space is similar to that of Toyota’s own Corolla, or Honda’s Civic, but smaller than the Camry, Accord, Altima bunch.

Driving it

The driver’s seat had the right supports in the right places seemed to wrap around me such that I was a part of the car. 
Having driven on UAE’s roads, one feeling I get is that it is necessary for the car to be interesting enough, such that you can drive on the long highway stretches without falling asleep, and without relying on the adrenaline rush from speed to keep you engaged. 

The Prius excels at this. The drive is engaging yet easy. As with the seats, the car seems to wrap around the driver and offers a great driving experience.

As I mentioned before, there are numerous smart features to enhance the drive. One of the features that stood out, in true-blue, diligent, Japanese style is the ‘Rear Crossing Traffic’ warning that flashes when a car is passing by while reversing. 

Our first drive was on an internal colony road, so we had to drive at a limited speed. Interestingly, in this situation, the car runs on the battery (not the engine) and is EXTREMELY quiet.
On a side note it’s useful to sneak up on someone … making it apt as a spy car (hence the title). We had some startled stares from pedestrians (walking on the road) to suddenly notice a car driving next to them.

Theoretically the electric motor is capable of insane acceleration, as seen in the Tesla. In the Prius, the acceleration is sufficient, well adequate to get you out of trouble situations, but not sufficient to scare you. Although we did not drive to the car’s maximum speed of 180 km/h, it got to the highway speed of 140 km/h comfortably and felt very stable.

Coming to the topic of speed, another one of the intelligent touches is that the speed is projected on the windscreen such that driving is not impeded. In fact it makes us pay more attention to the drive.

Safety and Handling:

I have had a love for cars that handle well (and loathe for those that don’t), and I absolutely loved the Prius. The handling is excellent, very predictable. In fact, behind the scenes, the car has several features (including the Electronic Stability Control, and other accident avoidance features) which makes it extremely safe. The car bagged the maximum 5 stars for safety on Euro NCAP on account of its accident avoidance features as well of its structural rigidity and air bags. 

Delight Factors – Hybrid Drive and Smart Features

Sustainability is implemented in two key areas – systems and behaviors. You may have all the systems but if not accompanied by behaviors, the effect will not be as pronounced.
The Prius excels in both departments, excellent systems as well as setting the culture of good driving with scores and motivational messages.
In terms of the systems, the car’s drivetrain has an extremely efficient 1.8 lit Atkinson Cycle petrol engine, and a hybrid system, which includes hybrid batteries, electric motors and a power unit. The car decides smartly when to use the hybrid battery operated mode and so this car can be used in existing fueling infrastructure.  
During the initial idling and low speeds, when the petrol engine is inefficient, the car runs on the electric motor powered by the hybrid batteries. The petrol engine is most efficient around cruising speeds, and this is when the car automatically switches to the petrol engine. While on the petrol engine the battery gets recharged. The battery gets recharged even during braking with a system which converts the kinetic energy in the wheels to electric energy. 
This is demonstrated in real time by the Prius’s Multi Information Display system which shows exactly when the car is using power from the battery, the battery getting charged from braking, and the moment when the petrol engine kicks in.
The Prius’s engineers have not stopped at the Multi Information Display. The smart bit which introduces the ‘culture’ is the drive score, and the motivational messages at the end of the drive. The motivational messages show the score and provide recommendations for better (more efficient) driving. In fact we saw our driving getting better after we started keeping track of the scores.
As a result of the Hybrid Drive system, the Atkinson engine, and the Motivational Messages, the particular Prius we drove was at around an average fuel consumption of 5.4 lit/100km (43.55 mpg / 18 km per lit), while one of my hour long drives in the Prius returned around 4.8 lit/100km (49 mpg / 20 km per lit).
In comparison, the average fuel consumption for the non-hybrid compact sedans (Corolla, Civic, Elantra) bunch can generally hover around 8 lit/100km (29 mpg / 12 km per lit), while that for the non-hybrid mid-size sedans (Camry, Accord, Altima) bunch can generally hover around 10 lit/100km (23 mpg / 10 km per lit). These figures suggest that the Prius can be generally 36% more fuel efficient than compact sedans and 46% more fuel efficient than mid-size sedans.

Quirks - Things that are not as they seem

Parking - We could not find the Parking Gear on the gear lever. Evidently there isn’t one on the gear. It’s on a button.  
EV Mode – Initially we thought it is a fully electric mode, where we use the car as an electric vehicle. However the Toyota engineers at Al Futtaim clarified that this wasn’t the case. The EV mode lets the car run for longer on the battery/electric motor until the battery drains, after which the petrol engine automatically kicks in.
B – Drive – There is a mysterious B-Drive gear option on the gear lever. This option introduces engine braking, such as is useful when descending a hill, but reduces the fuel economy. This option is generally not selected in normal driving in the UAE unless you are handling the steep Jebel roads in the North.


Our experience with the Prius could be summed up as fun, exciting, brimming with technology and with even more awareness of fuel efficiency. Our toddler son, Ruhaan, was so excited, he did not want to let go of the car. Ruhaan was excited and was narrating the whole battery – electric motor – engine switch-over routine. He now recognizes the Prius hybrid in car magazines, and inquires if there is a similar system in other cars (which, I think, is good benchmark to compare cars). I think all new cars should be at least hybrids, if not all electric.

If we were looking to buy a car, I would definitely go for it. It makes great sense with the things that are important to us as a family – safety, practicality, ease of driving, availability of maintenance, and of course – sustainable culture, and fuel economy.

With the new Prius, Toyota have done a great job at making hybrids normal yet, not boring. The car comes with a great thought, environmentally savvy, comfortable, fun, yet with serious technology, and well executed in a way that engages the user. The car, with its smart focused thought and technology, wraps around the needs of the driver, much like The Tuxedo … or even more appropriately, like James Bond. The car, very much so, belongs is a sci-fi movie, one about saving the world from global warming. 

Saturday, August 6, 2016

How to Survive UAE’s Summer with Kids? Here are 11 Easy Eco-Activities

Can't imagine we almost survived this summer without flying anywhere. Only little more than 3 weeks are remaining before schools are opening and I am already feeling like a brave warrior! I am sure, all mums in UAE can understand my feelings.
First when we decided to stay in UAE this summer, when almost everyone left for better weather, the thought of surviving summer with my preschooler at home was terrifying. But this Eco-minded mama took the risk and result is lot of fun (won't mention few meltdowns and screaming part here, we are focusing on only positive side!) And you can see, this is one big reason why I couldn't find time for writing on the blog.

I am particularly glad to share our story of 4 weeks of NO SUMMER CAMP and 'NO SCREEN TIME'! Yes, you heard that right! To be frank, before end of last term I observed my son started liking screens a lot, he learnt a lot from educational material he sees on screen. In the nursery he goes to, they also show them videos on big projector on certain days and even during meal time. But when I decided to keep him with me for 4 weeks after school was finished, I made clear rule at home; No Screen Time, not even for grown ups! It was so peaceful!

I just wanted to have fun with Ruhaan before his big school starts at the end of August. Wanted to create beautiful memories, before my son enters long years of schooling and homework! It was tiring for me of course, but it was worth getting drained for 4 weeks!

1. Painting

Kids love colours and even getting messy. But as I have Eco friendly Natural Earth Paints made up of only natural ingredients, I was stress free to give him colours and let him get messy in that. Even cleaning up is easy with these paints. Apart from normal painting and colouring, we did few interesting activities with paints and my little man loved those new experiences.
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I am conveniently not going to talk much about an incidence of painting on trade mill with my lipstick! I was mad at the time and stopped talking to him for few minutes to control my emotions, but now I can just laugh remembering it.

a. Painting with motorcycle

Ruhaan loves cars and bikes a lot or rather any transport! So when ask him to select something to drive on paper with colours he picked this motorcycle and had painting session with lot of noise!
You need to try this with your kids, it's a big hit!
Painting with Bike

b. Stone, Twig, Shell Painting

My little man still continue to collect his favorite natural collectibles from landscape area down stairs like stones and twigs. It's extremely hot, but this guy manages to pick up things quickly on the way to main entrance from parking. He is a pro by now, he doesn't need to look around and search for things! He also like to show me small seedling and sprouts of Neem naturally growing in landscape area as since some time millions of neem seeds are scattered everywhere around.

So I decided to make use of our large collection of natural collectibles for painting. As Ruhaan gathered all these things by himself, he was quiet excited to paint them too! He is not yet patient and his motor skills are not developed enough to make designs on stones but great activity to keep him busy for few alternative days.

Stones, Twigs, Shells Painting

2. String, Beads and Buttons to Develop Fine Motor Skills

While I was looking for some activities to develop his fine motor skills, I could find nice wooden buttons and beads in Lulu hypermarket. I strictly didn't want plastic, those glittery beads and no plastic straw, as I went plastic free this July in support of #plasticfreejuly. More on that later, but these beautiful wooden beads and buttons provided my little guy very engaging activity.

He is actually a very active child, to make him sit at one place is difficult. But when I asked him if he could make a necklace for me, which I can wear, he was happily ready to do this activity. This activity was not as frequently favored as others, but definitely will help to increase concentration as I am going to keep asking him to do it once in a while.

Wooden beads and buttons stored in reused tin box

Here is behind the scene photo. He decided this activity can be little more boring while wearing regular clothes. So he opted to wear Halloween costume! If you saw a kid in any mall wearing Skeleton this summer, then it was none other than my kid!

Behind Scene photo

3. Dress up and Role Play

My son has picked up interest in role play these days, it's very entertaining to see how creative he gets. Apart from becoming a skeleton, he prefers becoming doctor, when I am a very sick patient by default. Sometime he's mommy and I am Ruhaan and suddenly tells me 'No No, you can do that'.

Police is one of his favorite profession, which he preferred after practicing as captain of a ship and then pilot for a while. But unfortunately he was a police on first few days of his summer camp after our 4 weeks of holidays. So now, he's allowed to be police only at home!
Tiger, The Vegetable Vendor

But out of all his role plays, my most favorite is little gardens who waters our window garden regularly and a shopkeeper who likes to sell vegetables! I actually give him all fresh vegetables to him to keep in his shop, the ones which can't be spoiled by handling like potato, garlic, onion, lemon and take my cotton bag for vegetable shopping as his customer. I think this is the time when we need to show them what are good habits, so that later on they don't have to switch from disposable plastic bags to reusable.

4. Reading

This is year of reading in UAE and now our book lover family started reading more than before. We love to read some book more than other like the one bed time story book Aunt Sonal gifted Ruhaan but my little man's the most favorite book is hungry caterpillar which he made himself in his nursery with help of his teachers. It's a really special book for me too, while my little caterpillar is still siting on my lap and reading it. I heard from many mothers you need to enjoy this cuddly phase while it lasts.

Ruhaan is reading hungry caterpillar some time back, he still continues to read it regularly

We read our books everywhere in bed, in our favorite tee-pee and even when we went on camping trip!

5. Writing in wipe clean book

I found out this Eco-friendly wipe clean book at Daiso and it's so amazing for repeated writing without wasting paper. We have used it any where and everywhere. For drawing, for writing in car, at restaurant, on road trip, on study table when mommy is working. It's one thing always found in my purse these days. I agree there is plastic coating, but the amount of paper it saves is really countable.

This book is savior on many occasions and I am totally in love with it. We also have few more wipe clean books, where kids need to trace lines, letters and number just like their school worksheet. And Ruhaan has used them again and again for almost like thousand times without using a single paper. You can even wipe them with wet cloth to clean them properly. I personally feel, these kind of wipe clean books are Eco-friendly!

6. Play dough

It is Ruhaan's all time favorite activity. Specially now that I have found natural play dough by

I don't have to worry about any chemical exposure to his tiny hands and plus point it he can still nibble on snacks while playing with this play dough.

But one of the most engaging play dough fun he had during our stay at home summer was, when wheat floor at my home got expired (I couldn't make chapatis regularly, cooking was hardest part when he was at home). So in attempt of following my #zerowasteUAE lifestyle, instead of just throwing it, I decided to reuse it to make play dough and let him have fun with it. So I gave him flour, water mixed with some oil and he had amazing time. We could even use this natural play dough few more days, I just had to store it in fridge. Our homemade play dough with no colour, nothing, just plain kneaded flour was proved a successful experiment!

7. Watching birds

I like to keep food for birds in our window year round, in summer I keep water too. Ruhaan is very much used to watching birds in our window since he's baby and great thing is he still loves to do that. So if he hears birds in window he would just run to window and watch them and sometimes even tells me, like a running commentary what the birds are doing. Funny part is those birds are used to Ruhaan too, they don't always fly away when Ruhaan approaches the closed window from inside.

Dove in our window
This summer a pair of common myna started making a nest in our window garden, which gave us lot of entertainment.

One of our blog reader commented on one such social media feed about birds, that there is saying 'Birds sing in the window where there is peace of mind, nothing happens by chance' I prefer to believe when you have faith in good deeds it's easier to keep peace of mind! Sometimes readers comments make your day, knowing your efforts are not going waste.

8. Road Trip to Jebel Shams 

Ruhaan helped me a lot with planning and preparing for our road trip. Like packing his bag with numerous toys for at least 4-5 times and making sure every time he would pick up few different toys! :D

But the most entertaining part of it was map reading. He even talked about few other countries which are not on middle east map but our relatives stay there. So now I am looking for an interactive map for our home. My dad used to play a game of finding city or mountain or even river on large world map. Used to favorite game of traveler father and daughter. I can't wait to play the same game with my son, but we still have long wait before he reads that well.
Map Reading

We didn't fly any where but our road trip to Jebel Shams was very refreshing and first long distance road trip with Ruhaan and first time successful camping as a small family after few failed attempts. Read our story of camping in summer in Oman and what fun outdoor things you can do on Jebel Shams with young kids.

9. Eco Crafts

We generally don't recycle card board boxes, glass jars or tin boxes without reusing them. I give some of these things to my little guy to make something out of it. Sometimes I help him in craft, sometimes I just let his creativity run wild. We made numerous things over summer, here are some of the interesting things we made.

Here is video of a sea world craft we made together out of waste box not exactly during summer holidays (it was really difficult to take photos and videos during our summer holidays, plus I wanted to keep all sort of screens out of sight.)

10. Donating Toys to Charity

Start of summer holidays was during Ramadan so we grabbed the opportunity to declutter our toys and kept some toys from Ruhaan's early years in a bag to share with some new friends via charity box! I told him, the charity box in mall was going to take his favorite old toys to those friends personally, so he couldn't meet them but could send his love to them! Thanks to Peppa Pig, he knows post man well and he related this charity concept to post man, which is in a way quiet appropriate.

Ruhaan was totally excited to send his love to those unknown friends, so at first he took aside lot of toys (quiet surprising as we were dealing with 'sharing toy with real friends' at that moment). But next 2-3 days he removed few toys, added few and I gave him some time to finally make a bag full of good toys which he is not going to play much later. I had a feeling that there might be little meltdown at the time of actually donating toys, but my 'big boy' donated his toys happily. It is never too early to teach our kids about sharing and donating isn't it?
Donating Toys to Charity

11. Joy of doing nothing (mommy and son version)

Yes this was most important part of our successful time together. I let things flow and let him do things which otherwise I wouldn't. Wake up, but lie down n bed and talk, take your time before brushing teeth. Talking about this, that and getting along on ride of his imagination. Listening to him, what he wants instead of rushing through routine. Letting him create mess instead of saying 'don't do this and don't do that'. Taking 'routine' lightly for a while. Let him explore things and activities on his own, instead of hovering over him with tips and guidance all the time. And most important asking his help to do little chores. He feels so proud when he drops his shirt in laundry bag all by himself or even keeps my empty tea cup in kitchen. Being a child of working mother, I automatically became independent early on like all kids of working women. So being stay at home mother myself; I need to take efforts to make him independent; else there is risk of he starts 'taking things granted'.

Going on his own for pee, removing and wearing his clothes and shoes and keeping his toys back are the things he does very proudly, it not just prepares him for big school but also a good time consuming chores for the days like these. 

How are you spending your summer with kids and how much success you had so far? Are you travelling or are you in UAE? Would love to know...