The trade publication Automotive News reports that new car buyers are “losing patience” with the dearth of new car inventory caused by the dearth of new “chips” needed to run the systems all new cars are afflicted with.
This problem could be solved at a stroke – by building cars again, rather than very pricey (and very disposable) mobile phones.
Cars don’t need “chips” – to be cars. They have them. This is an important distinction. They have “chips” – the Lego Blocks of computer-controlled cars – so as to control the car’s systems with computers, which now spider-web the entirety of the car’s systems.
The very first “chips” were simple – and local. They were transistorized modules that began to replace mechanical ignition contact points within the distributor that timed and transmitted the spark that fired the air-fuel mixture within the engine’s cylinders.
This made ignition systems more reliable and greatly reduced the need for regular maintenance, since it was no longer necessary to regularly check and adjust the clearance between the contact points – or replace the points when they wore beyond specification. Some people lamented the passing of points into the history books (along with road draft tubes) but, on balance, the changeover was a clear boon for most people.
The next step was computer-controlled fuel delivery, first of carburetors – this was in the late 1970s and early 1980s – and then by getting rid of carburetors altogether in the late ’80s and replacing them with electronic fuel injection. This entailed electronic control of the fuel injection and ignition system, which had to work together to work effectively.
At first, this was also – overall – a boon. On the one hand, real-time fine-tuning of the engine without having to actually work on the engine was now possible, which (once again) also greatly reduced the need for regular maintenance. The annual spring and fall tune-ups that car owners had become accustomed to since the days of the Model T disappeared.
In favor of the 100,000 mile tune-up.
Oil change intervals roughly doubled, because engine oil was no longer turned into engine solvent after as little as 3,000 miles – via the gasoline that seeped into the crankcase from the carburetor up top, which was no longer up top.
Engine longevity increased, several-fold.
Computer-controlled electronic fuel injection is among the main explanatory reasons for the doubled – the tripled – useful service life of the average late-model car engine, which now routinely runs like new at 75,000 miles and can usually be counted on to run for another 150,000 before it reaches the end of the road.
This has saved the average car buyer many thousands of dollars – assuming he is savvy enough not to needlessly buy another new car every 75,000 miles.
It has also helped the car manufacturers cope with the government, which has been trying to kill cars via regulations for the past 50-plus years. It would have been impossible to “comply” – say it like the Borg, from Star Trek – with the government’s ukases and fatwas, especially those regarding mandatory-minimum MPGs as well as emissions – without computer-controlled electronic fuel injection and ignition systems.
So far, so good. Because so far, win-win. The government got what it demanded (i.e., new cars that “complied” with the various ukases and fatwas) while the car buyer got more than he wanted (i.e., a new car that was more reliable, lower-maintenance and longer-lived but which was still fundamentally a car and not yet a computer that moved).
But kinetic energy has a force all its own and once it was realized that computers could control engines, it became inevitable they would be used to control everything.
Transmissions received Borg-like electronic implants and became part of the . . . collective. Then the car’s air conditioning and heat, which became computer-controlled climate control. Mechanical interfaces such as between the gear selector and the transmission and the gas pedal and the engine’s throttle were replaced with sensors and modules, feeding data through a multiplexed network of wiring to hive-mind computers, which needed chips to make them sentient. This extends today to the extent of controlling things such as power windows and locks, via what are styled body control modules.
There are also LCD gauge and “infotainment” clusters and tap and swipe “inputs” in lieu of just as functional mechanical gauges and knobs and buttons, the latter not needing chips to work.
But the former do.
The problem, now, is that chips are embedded in the very fabric of all new cars. It is no longer just the engine – or even just the drivetrain. It is everything. The entirety of a modern car is an interconnected system, the parts a part of a whole and inseparable from it.
They have been assimilated.
The Borgification of cars has become so complete that many parts have to be “flashed” or otherwise hive-minded to the collective (at the dealer) before they will even work. Including even headlights, which are also now controlled by modules and “chips.”
This is no longer a win-win. The functional improvements are trivial. Can you tell the difference in cold-start performance and throttle response between an early ’90s-era car with a throttle body fuel injection system and a new car with a direct-injection system?
Does a ten speed automatic with three overdrives confer a functional advantage over a four-speed automatic with one overdrive?
Is it easier to adjust your car’s heater or air conditioner by sliding a lever and turning knobs – or by tapping and swiping a flat screen display?
The point of diminishing returns hasn’t just been reached – we passed it, about fifteen years ago.
This is what you might call the Curse of Apotheosis. Cars reached a point of perfection, as cars, in the early-mid-2000s or at least as close to perfection as anything crafted by the hand of man can become. Almost maintenance-free. Almost glitch-free. Longer-lived (and by far) than any cars made before. Yet still affordable and – to a great extent- fixable.
But what then?
How do you market and sell new cars, post-Apotheosis? Why, you add more “technology.” Especially electronic technology. Enter the flatscreen, the wirelessly disconnected everything – and the need for all those chips to make it work.
And so, here we are. With new vehicles that have become mobile phones that are even more dependent on chips, made in (cue Orange Man voice) China, which doesn’t like America much.
All for the sake of having a computer control the operation of your power windows and screen to tap and swipe rather than a button to push or a knob to turn.
. . .
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