Advances Reconsidered

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The high-speed dental drill (and Novocaine) are a huge improvement over holding the patient down while applying a pair of pliers. It is an example of technology that has greatly improved life, especially for those with bad teeth. It would be silly – as well as painful – to revert to the pliers and holding-them-down.

How about power-adjusting outside rearview mirrors?

I got to thinking about them yesterday while I was out driving my 46-year-old classic car, taking advantage of an early spring day to give it an Italian Tune Up. One of the first things I always do once I’m straightened out on the flight line is adjust the view to the rear. Which in my car is done manually rather than electronically via an ingenious cable-actuated mechanism. There is a small toggle on the inside door panel. Left or right, up or down. It is very easy to make very fine adjustments of the mirror’s angle, so as to get the view just-right. 

I got to thinking about the brilliant simplicity of this “low-tech” way of adjusting the mirrors. Not only are there no wires or contacts of motors or sensors (let alone body control modules) to ever stop working, the cable-actuated system works better than the electronic-adjusting systems that do have the wires, contacts, motors and body control modules.

I speak from experience that very few people have – because very few people drive a different new car every week (to test drive and review) which is what I have been doing – among other doings – for going on 30 years now. So I have driven a lot of cars with power-remote mirrors. Which is practically all of them. Manual-adjust mirrors went out of vogue probably 20 years ago. It may be farther back in time; I can’t pin down the date exactly. But I can tell you I’ve not driven a new car – or truck – that didn’t have electric-adjust side mirrors in at least the past ten years-plus. 

None of them work as precisely as the cable-actuated mirror-adjusters in my pushing-50-years-old muscle car from the era of Saturday Night Fever and wide-collared leisure suits. Some are arthritically slow; others jump the gun, overshooting the adjustment point you were shooting for.

Forcing you to adjust, again.

I ask: What has been gained? Beyond, of course, the additional money made by selling people a “technology” that does the same job not as well as the system it replaced, at much-increased cost when new – with a much-increased likelihood of an expensive failure when older. 

If you’ve lost an outside rearview mirror lately, you already know all about it. Because it’s not just a mirror housed in a metal case – as is the case in the case of my 1976 Trans-Am (and practically every car of its era). It is a mirror – plus electronics – usually housed, these days, in a plastic case – which is cheaper to manufacture but costs more to replace than the metal case that houses my Trans-Am’s door-mounted mirror.

Cheap plastic plus electronics equals that, invariably. Which would be ok if they worked better. But the only thing they do better is make adjusting the passenger side mirror a little easier to do on the fly, when the vehicle is moving. Or if the driver’s arms aren’t long enough to easily reach the manual adjuster on the passenger’s side.

How often do you need to do that, though? Once adjusted, the passenger’s side mirror is adjusted. Why would you need to adjust it again? Maybe every now and then. Is it worth it – as in what you pay for it – to do it via buttons connected to wires and motors, body control modules rather than just reach over and make the adjustment? 

It’s just one example of many. Replacing insert-here door lock and ignition keys with wirelessly transmitting fobs and buttons you push (connected to . . . well, you know) being another one. What has been gained – at what cost? My almost-50-year-old Pontiac is unlocked and started using the same metal keys that it came with, almost 50 years ago. These can be run through the wash – and won’t be harmed. In fact, they’ll be cleaned. And they can be replaced for less than $10. 

Not so much the keyless fobs – and push-button ignitions.

Which aren’t so much “technology” – though of course they use it – as they are gimmicks. A way to make a new car seem “new” and thus to justify the new car price. The necessity there being a function, primarily, of the fact that new cars are mature cars.

They are a mature “technology” that’s been improved to the point that few truly epochal improvements are probably possible or at least, likely. All new cars are reliable and easy to drive. They all come standard with amenities which, for most of the history of the car, were limited to higher-end cars such as air conditioning. It gets harder to justify the MSRP of a $30,000 car when a $15,000 car comes standard with pretty much everything that the $30k car has – in terms of amenities.

So you give them gimmicks.

Use electronics to operate previously simple systems – without any meaningful improvement in terms of ease of use. A knob or button that sends a signal to the computer to shift the transmission from Park to Drive – rather than a lever connected to a cable that does the same thing, mechanically, when you move the gear selector from Park to Drive. A screen you have to tap and swipe (while you drive) rather than a knob you turn, to raise or lower the stereo’s volume or change the station.

There’s a fun irony here, too.

As cars matured – as a “technology” – they reached an apogee of durability unparalleled in the prior history of cars. For most of that history – from the dawn of the car age some 120 years ago through the 1980s, about 40 years ago, most cars were good for about ten years of regular use before they began to fall apart and became not-worth-fixing. By the mid-late 1990s, car “technology” had matured so much that cars routinely lasted twice that long, without needing too-expensive-to-be-worth-it fixes.

But that is changing. Has changed. History is repeating. Cars are regressing. They are becoming less reliable and more prone to major problems, sooner, than the cars of the not-so-distant past. And this is a function of adding gimmicks – electronics – that don’t offer any meaningful functional improvement over the mechanical systems they replaced but which by their nature are more failure-prone, over time.

It’s doubtful many cars of today will be around come 46 years from now. But it is probable the outside rearview mirror on my ’76 rans-Am will still be working then.

Along with the door lock and ignition keys, too.

. . .

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  1. Car tech is like the rest of the tech world. Sometimes they have some really good, maybe even great ideas for things. Unfortunately, most come with some pretty crappy execution.

  2. Replaced the side mirrors on my 4Runner last weekend. They are polarized to reduce glare and a bit convex to allow more blind spot viewing. Two additional features that came with I didn’t actually need were LED arrows embedded in mirror itself that are sequential when turned on and a replacement for front blinker light on mirror housing itself. They are brighter and resemble the Cylon’s (Old Battlestar Galactica) One thing I noted was that there will be no excuse if someone says they did not see my turn indicators that’s for sure.

  3. There is an important difference between changing something to make it better, and changing something to be “new”/trendy.

    Tailfins and the like are one thing, because they are purely decorative. I’m talking about the functional stuff, here.

  4. Eric, the only advantage I see in the digital mirror adjustment is if it’s included with the electric seats, heater/AC settings, internal lighting,and other driver-specific “adjustments”, which, if you have a “Driver No 1, No 2, No 3…” quick button, would be useful. Especially for you, a “tall guy” (how tall, but likely taller than me, at 5’9″), as youse guys that enjoy “the Stratosphere” tend to date those really TINY gals…ya know, like the “its bitsy spider that crawled up my ‘spout’ “. Sorry, had to throw one from the fictional late Charles Harper of “Two and a Half Men”.

    • Hey Cuz’
      Oh yea! Kelly “Melissa” Stables. She is one hot “itsy bitsy” spider!

  5. How about the beeping? Every car beeps at you for everything. My suburban beeps every time I turn it on. And the tire pressure sensors froze to death so now my car warns me about that every time I drive it. I’m not waisting time and money to fix it. Then there is “stability control” that I have to switch off for off road driving. And it beeps at me and flips on a warning and I have to cycle through warnings to get back to useful information.

    And the idiotic O2 sensor system in every car that makes the engine run extra rich and smoggy if there is a miss fire or an exhaust leak. They could actually use spark sensors to instantly and precisely determine which cylinder missfired and if it was lean or rich and then adjust the very next cycle to the offending cylinders. It’s a more simple and effective emissions solution that won’t smog you to death while you save up for repairs. Or waiting for parts.

    My 86 oldsmobuick had keyless entry and ignition. It was More roomy than my current suburban, 10 friends could jump in in a few seconds. I Could jump in turn it on and drive in 3 seconds I Could shift out of park without touching the brake. The AC was cold as ice and the radio picked up sanfrancisco stations from north pooregon and filtered them through a 5 band analog equalizer and cracked dry rotted speakers. or I could play the forigner cassette that was stuck in the player. The Iron duck engine produced barely enough power to get through the 3 speed slushbox and the body roll was so bad and the power steering so boosted I could barely exceed recommended cornering speeds, somehow it could handle gravel & potholes better than pavement. In many ways it was the best car.

  6. I absolutely hate the “virtual cockpit” that Audi is so proud of forcing on anything better than an A5 (i.e., A6 and up). Heck, they’re likely to move that technology down the line as well but I have little interest in their smaller cars. My A4 Allroad is the smallest Audi that I’ve owned and I like it the least. I truly like my older ’02 A6 Avant… with nearly zero technology… better than the A4 Allroad in numerous ways.

    I like physical gauges with a dial that moves, i.e., not a cartoon of one. I don’t care what’s on the back end TBH. But Audi quit providing that on most models way back in about 2017 – 2018.

    And then the newer (A6 and better) dash which is just a continuous flat screen is just awful. I hate it. The cars (before they started putting stupid little engines in them) were otherwise wonderful and I loved everything (else) about them.

    In the older MY cars, I can feel, find and adjust just about everything without looking. On the fancier interface, with a stupid touch screen, I absolutely HAVE to look at the screen and navigate multiple menus for almost anything!

    The knobs on my A4 Allroad, to adjust audio volume or temperature, as simple, and intuitive! Pretty sure those knobs are gone from all MY that Audi makes now. You know, to make things more “convenient” and “safe”.

  7. Agree with everything you said Eric.
    However, I will give some positives of e-mirrors and maybe why they got popular.
    I drive my wifes car a lot and my kids drive my truck from time to time. One of my pet-peeves is them changing my mirrors. I am OCD about it and it used to take me days to get them right. I’ve always been a believer that if I need to trust them a pinch, I better know what they are showing me to be accurate. Just dumb engineering stuff in my head I know.
    Now, I set my mirrors, seat, and hit memory1, yahooo all back to where I like it. Same Same with my wife’s car, except I am memory2. Love it.
    Second nice thing is I live in a valley and get ice or haze a lot on the mirrors. by the time I get out the long driveway they are clear, heated mirrors, love them. helps a lot driving in a winter storm too.
    Just my 2 cents

    • forgot to add power fold. used every day for my wife’s car in a very tight garage. don’t think she would use the garage at all if she had to get out, in and out, if she had to fold them manually.

  8. I’ll keep driving my 1994 Honda Accord until it dies. It will most likely out live me. My 2018 Panamera 4 e-hybrid I will probably part with in a few years just before the extended warranties run out. Love the car, but the complexity,,,

  9. Those die cast mirror housings aren’t really all that strong. The plastic ones can probably take more abuse. With thin walls the right resins, most automotive ones certainly, produce a much more durable part than typical die cast materials. Of course the feel isn’t the same.

  10. Maybe the 1913 Bugatti Type 22 was the best car ever made and they have been regressing ever since.

    A 1913 bugatti type 22 had no cooling fan, no generator, no starter motor, no fuel pump, it had a magneto, the lights ran off dry cell batteries you had to replace, no charging system, very simple, far less things to maintain or that could break.

    All we have done is go backwards since then, today’s cars are the most complicated, vastly overweight, cheap plastic crap, very expensive, over computerized, defective, impossible to fix properly abortions, like someone said is there anything made in the last 20 years that will ever be collectible?

    This 1913 Bugatti is like a work of art all copper, brass and bronze, (modern cars are just cheap plastic crap filled with computers), it is 109 years old and is daily driven. Maybe this is the last good, real, beautifully made, properly engineered car, everything just got worse since then.

    The dollar in 1913 was worth 100 cents, today’s dollar is worth 4 cents, maybe there is a connection.

    Today’s EV’s last ten years and are scrapped because it costs a fortune to replace the fire bomb lithium batteries.

    • I’ll give ya one better. Many cars had headlamps…LITERAL “lamps”, fueled by gasoline/kerosene, around 1900 or so.

      • I don’t know about gasoline or kerosene, but they had Acetylene lamps. Like a miner’s lamp, old school. They are remarkably bright.

  11. Im concerned about climate control systems in the last 20 years or so. They are ever more dependent on actuators to open and close “blend doors” as opposed to running cables to doors and valves. All so you can have varying degrees of “automatic climate control.” As a result, drivers are forced to spend $60 on an actuator and $500 to take it apart. That is an advance that has been totally worthless.

    • How about the TPS ………throttle position sensor, it used to called a gas pedal. In the old days if a cable broke you could jury rig something to keep moving, in these modern cars if the TPS fails or if there is a bad connection, the engine just idles, it is undriveable and a replacement is expensive, in the old cars the gas pedal would last 50+ years and when the cable failed it was cheap and easy to fix.

      How about a manual steering rack, they lasted longer then the car, 50+ years, now the new cars have electric steering, same problem as the TPS, when it fails the car is undriveable and will cost a fortune to fix, plus after 10 years they might not stock the parts to fix it.

      How about the $130,000 tesla plaid, the abs locked/failed/screwed up after going over a bump, the wheels locked up and it crashed.

      tesla brakes

  12. “If you’ve lost an outside mirror lately….” My son’s 2017 Honda Civic lost the driver’s side mirror to some douchebag that sideswiped it and took off. Cost him $400 to get it replaced at the stealership since he wasn’t able to find a replacement elsewhere.
    My personal beef with newer cars is the impossibility of finding one without power windows. Yeah they’re great for putting all the windows down when taking off after being parked in the sun but tough to fine tune when I want to crack my window open just a bit to get some fresh air when it’s cold out.

  13. Unlike your car Eric my 70’s Chevy has a lot of slop in the cable so it’s usually easier to just roll the window down to adjust the mirror. I had to move a buddies 20222 Ram yesterday; I’ve seen seat cushions smaller than those headrests. Hard to do a shoulder check when backing up. I figure there’s no need to ever replace my vehicles as I’m sure we will be going to a re-education camp after the reset.

  14. I know a ‘basically a socialist’ guy that I’m forced to talk to on occasion. Really not a bad dude (when you forget his politics), but his $225k house and constant need for the newest gadget and leased Tesla really makes me laugh.

    And he’ll keep bringing up how that damn car is ‘something we should get’ with gas prices going up. I’ve directed him here many times, but I know he’ll tune it out immediately. It’s VERY frustrating knowing that his cognitive dissidence is impenetrable.

    He is spending thousands to have his basement updated and posh. If only he’d split half his and his wife’s income to those less fortunate, or even house some poor souls down there instead…

    • He likely measures his virtue by how generous he and wifey can be…with YOUR money, or at least the taxpayers’.

  15. This absurd total fascination with new gadgets appears to be a species wide mental disorder. Hence people standing in line overnight to get the latest and greatest iPhone. I once had a used 08 Miata with the proximity remote that let you dispense with actually using a key, ever. It was interesting for about a month. Until I decided to get a new spare key to replace the one I had that didn’t work. $300+. To replace a key that even chipped cost less than $50. Suddenly it was not quite so interesting. Especially since I could not get a simple chipped key to replace it. Like the key fobs that pushbutton unlock doors and trunks, they are quite bulky, which make them a pain in the ass to carry. More of a pain than actually having to use a key. Now if I have to replace a key that includes the fob, I replace it with a simple chip key. It fits on a key ring in my pocket without wearing a hole in my leg.
    A problem I had with an Impreza that I owned was the remote control mirror would simply not adjust wide enough to minimize my blind spot. I typically adjust the side mirrors so I have to move my head to see the side of my car, which virtually eliminates the blind spot. Not possible with this car. Had a couple of near misses over it. Sold it.

    • I don’t mind the remote and starter button, but there IS a hidden key in the remote, JUST IN CASE, for my 2020 Ford (con)Fusion.

      But I recall having a ’69 Dodge Dart with a Slant Six as my first car. A two-door “Swinger”, the previous owner had pulled the “3-on-the-tree” (it was sloppy) and put a cheap aftermarket floor shifter. ONE door lock on the driver’s side, that was all. I had to unlock the car from that side, so there was the ritual, when I had a date, to unlock MY door, reach in and unlock the passenger side, get out again, GO AROUND, and open the door for her and assist her onto her seat. It’s not as if a 16-year old female isn’t capable of opening the door after I unlock and letting herself in, but my Pop taught me to be…y’know…chivalrous.

      And that Dart, for being a “compact”, did have ENOUGH room in the back seat, which was only occupied when either (1) I gave my younger sisters a ride or (2) I took a date to the drive-in theater. Good thing that car already had air shocks!

  16. Dad’s ’76 Charger Daytona has the optional passenger side mirror. It is mechanically operated with a setup similar to your driver’s side mirror, with the adjustment knob near the radio. It is functional, but the length of the cables put a lot of slop in the adjuster. And someone had to snake it in around all the other dashboard stuff. That’s why the passenger side mirrors were rarely adjustable.

    Now it’s just another node on the CANBUS. A chip or two, a couple of universal motors, cheap nylon gears and the housing. The CANBUS is already over there for the airbags so why not just toss that on too? And you can put the mirror controls anywhere now, not just where the cables will fit. The first vehicle I owned with power mirrors was the old Subaru XT. They put the mirror buttons in one of the most inaccessable locations in the car, down at the bottom of the door card. It wasn’t a big deal for me since I was the only driver, but I could imagine how much of a PITA it would be for multiple drivers.

    Which brings up another question: What happened to driver settings memory and recall? That seems like it should be standard by now, and would be pretty useful too. The car detects your fob and moves everything into your last settings. Your wife’s fob signals to move everything to her settings. No screwing around with mirrors, seats etc, just get in and go. Since I’m the only driver of my vehicles I don’t give adjustments any thought whatsoever when I get in. There’s no reason why that can’t be the universal experience.

      • I’ll worry about adjusting the seat while driving an ABRAMS. Either for dealing with the Russkies should they start some shit, OR, for a more LOCAL enemy…

        I like this one old editorial cartoon that showed the White House surrounded by tanks, APCs, artillery pieces, and aircraft. A voice balloon comes from the Oval Office: “Mr. President, the ‘good’ news…they’re ours. The ‘bad’ news…they want to ‘discuss’ your proposal to deny a pay raise.”


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