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.
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.
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.
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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