Of Laptops and Luddites

Take Me Back – But Not All The Way!

There’s a scene in Star Trek – Generations (The one with both Captains Kirk and Picard) set on a computer-generated 19th-century sailing “Enterprise.” At one point Picard comments on how great it must have been to be free from the tethers of instant communication, and to be totally dependent on just the winds and your own skills, rejoicing in the freedom of the seas. His First Officer is not so sure, and reminds him of the brutal discipline, terrible food – and no women.

We have a lot of romantic notions about “the good old days.” There are certainly some memories that would be worthwhile replicating, but what would we be giving up to return to a simpler life? We have a reminder of the contrasts in two recent passings.

Can We Have It Both Ways?

We’ve just lost two people whose work has enriched us in such wholly different ways that it’s almost as though they were of different species. It’s hard to imagine two more different souls than Steve Jobs and Andy Rooney, without resorting to biblical references. In a way, though, they represent two human tendencies at war with each other in many of us today.

On the one hand we have someone whose life and work were defined by the new. Some might even say he defined the new itself. He opened up whole new fields of endeavor, introducing stuff that has made things so much easier and convenient that they border on necessities for some.

On the other hand you have Andy Rooney, who often played on our mistrust of the new. In my mind there was always the indercurrent of nostalgia for a simpler time in his essays. There was a tone of distrust, as if to ask “what have we gotten ourselves into now?”

Nostagia – A Gated Community?

Of course if you are too young to remember a simpler time, that comparison has little meaning for you. Resorting to my usual automotive reference, it’s now almost thirty years since you could buy a car without fuel injection, so talking to anyone about carburetor nostalgia who wasn’t an adult by the early ’70s is probably futile.

Those people are the ones who stand in line waiting to be among the first to get the latest iGizmo. For them it’s difficult to get wistful over three-pound cell phones and computers with less memory than a greeting card has now.

So the segment of my readership who don’t identify with Mr. Rooney’s longings for stuff like five cent postage stamps and a movie stunt done by real humans without the safety wires digitally removed, may not appreciate a rant about cars you can’t fix with a screwdriver and a pair of Vise-Grips – assuming they know what Vise-Grips are.

Mechanical Transparency

These are the “User Generations” – people who know everything there is to know about how to get their hand-held devices to sync with their tablet and which application helps them find the best thin crust pizza, but don’t care how a memory chip is designed or made, or how it does what it does, as long as it does it – the faster the better.

Those of us who appreciate simplicity prefer something whose principles of operation are obvious at a glance. A perfect example is a classic racing bicycle. No advanced degree in mechanical engineering is required to understand how it works. All the mechanical systems can be understood by operating them and watching what happens.

You pull a lever on the handlebar and that pulls the cable that pulls a lever on the brake caliper which grabs the wheel rim.

Ditto the gear mechanism – a lever pulls a cable that pulls another lever that moves the little wheel that carries the chain and moves it to a different sprocket on the rear wheel hub.

Cars used to be like that. You pushed the accelerator pedal that pulls a cable that pulls a lever that opens a carburetor throat to let air get sucked past the jets to feed fuel to the engine. If it’s not working right, you turned a couple of little nuts to adjust the tension, or if it was way off, you shortened the cable.

Open a car’s hood today and you can’t even see the engine. Nowadays the throttle is an electronic device that sends a signal to an electronic control unit telling it what instructions to send to a metering pump.

None of these devices is serviceable. You can’t open one to repair or adjust it. If it fails, you replace it. On BMWs even the dipstick is electronic!

As a result, any wrench jockey can keep a 60 year-old Chevy Stove-Bolt Six running by adapting parts he can find in a junk yard, while 60 years from now if one of those little plastic-encased whatzises fails on your vintage 2011 BMW, who ya gonna call?

Golden Age of the Automobile?

Before you label me a Luddite, remember that I have previously called this “The Last Golden Age of the Automobile.” New cars today, precisely because of those “little plastic-encased computer chips” are the best cars ever made, by any quantifiable measure.

I certainly don’t long for the days of cable-operated brakes, or even bias-ply tires. ABS has saved my butt a few times. So has stability control, and I embraced steel-belted radials when there were only two manufacturers who made them. The smell of a roasting clutch as you sit in an uphill queue of cars creeping toward a busy intersection can make the most passionate manual transmission devotee question his commitment.

Regardless of their complexity and the inscrutability of their innards, there’s no doubt that cars today are able to protect their occupants in an accident and avoid an accident better than any cars in the past.

As far as performance goes, a run-of-the-mill four-cylinder Honda Accord could leave a stock ’55 Chevy V8 in its dust. Most cars today could stop shorter and circle a skid pad faster than a racing car from that era.

Americans venerate the Muscle Cars of the late ’60s and early ’70s but there’s been a rash of comparison tests pitting cars from those days against the ones we can buy today, with the modern car winning every time. A really quick car now approaches the performance of a hot sport motorcycle – almost. On top of that the modern car gets better gas mileage.

So what’s not to like?

Levels of Reality

The problem is technology for technology’s sake. An innovation is good only if it solves a problem. If it makes things worse well, isn’t that the opposite of progress?

In Car Decisions – The 3rd Party Guides, I talked about Ford’s reliability rating plummeting in the latest consumer surveys. A lot of that has to do with their attempt to leapfrog their competition with fancy technology that wasn’t quite ready for prime time. It’s called Feature Creep.

Car and Driver’s John Phillips reported that Road Test Editor Mike Sutton found his Lincoln’s stereo suddenly on full blast, and because of the complicated interface there was no simple “off” button. He had to stop the car and disconnect the battery!

Now it seems electronics and cars have entered into a whole new realm of electronic gimmickry.

Is It Real or Is It . . ?

In the treeware version of Car-ma (See Car-ma, The Early Years) I complained about the exhaust note of Mazda’s rotary engine, and suggested that they add external speakers electronically synchronized with the engine speed and throttle position to create a sound more in keeping with the car’s sporting character. I speculated this could allow you to custom-tailor the sound to your automotive preference, expanding the idea ad ridiculum to imitating a Rolls-Royce Merlin like the one in a P-51 Mustang.

It appears that BMW has taken that idea and incorporated it into the new version of its flagship M5 performance sedan.

It was the solution to a problem of character. To address ever-rising Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards, BMW has abandoned its traditional approach to high-output engines in its highest performance cars. Whereas the last M5 had a 5-liter high-revving V10, the new one has a smaller V8, making up for the drop in displacement with two turbochargers. Trouble is, turbochargers mask engine exhaust sound.

Furthermore, a car with a base price approaching six figures shouldn’t subject its occupants to the rude noise emanating from adjacent traffic, or the intrusive sound of tires encountering imperfect surfaces or pavement flaws. So it’s sound-insulated up the yin-yang.

You can see the dilemma. A car with 560 horsepower should not sound like a vacuum cleaner, but neither should a luxury hot-rod be annoyingly noisy.

BMW’s solution was to record the sounds a sample engine makes throughout its rev and load range while on a test stand, filter out unwanted noise that would be inappropriate to hear inside the car, synchronize it as I suggested for the Mazda rotary, and play it back through the speakers in the car’s stereo.

So there you have it, folks! The world’s first car that lip-syncs!


About carmacarcounselor

I'm one of those people that friends call "that car guy," except I've made it into a profession. Since 1988 when a friend found my help in choosing, finding, and negotiating for a new car was worth a fee, I've helped countless people, listening to their car questions and challenges, and helping with their car purchases, insulating them from the adversarial process that is the new car retail model today. Their word of mouth is my only publicity. My newsletter CARMA won the description "The clear crystal ring of truth" from award-winning automotive journalist Denise McCluggage. Now I'm going global!
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3 Responses to Of Laptops and Luddites

  1. I’m no longer certain the place you are getting your information, but great topic. I needs to spend a while learning more or understanding more. Thanks for fantastic info I used to be on the lookout for this information for my mission. Sorry for bad English. Goodbye from Japan!

    • Hello and greetings from California. Thank you for reading my blog! Most of the information on which I base my blogs comes from te mainstream automotive press here. It was Automobile magazine, I think, that had the article on the BMW M5’s fake engine sound. I know about the lack of a dipstick in BMWs because I drive one.

  2. RW Firebird says:

    DICK, you have nailed a very squiggly topic: the nexus of Andy Rooney & S. Jobs. Although, of totally different generations and viewpoints they point to the edge of humanity. My question: how to reconcile the two? I resonate with Rooney’s curmudgeonliness (I am over 60) & Jobs’ cutting edge value (I remember being a wild youth in the 70s). Let the two dance in the new vehicles (I no longer call them cars, are you kidding SUV as a car?, a pick up with A/c and stereo blast? sedan’s with computer TV?). Big up to the Ommer!

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