When it comes to technology and its ability to solve the world's problems, I remain pretty damn optimistic. Hey, I'm an engineer, so it's basically my religion. However, I have to take issue with Tuesday's Detroit News article that proclaims "High-tech will win the car wars".
The premise is that the nearly unbridled application of technology to gadgets and safety equipment is somehow going to allow some manufacturers to beat out the competition in coming years. Yet, it's important to remember that during the last couple of decades, the winners in the marketplace haven't been those that have raced the most technology to the market faster - it's been those companies that have placed basic driving tasks above all else.

If we take an honest look at what happened during the eighties, there was no lack of innovation on the behalf of certain OEMS that are failing miserably right now - fuel injection, turbocharging, supercharging, aerodynamics, AWD, automatic climate control, ABS, and airbags were all brought to the mainstream car market in a timely fashion by the manufacturers that many customers currently hold in low esteem. Where those companies failed were in very basic areas - poor outward visibility, terrible ergonomics, mushy brakes, low quality interior trim, and so on. And what of all the recalls recently - notice how they almost always involve something basic, such as wheel studs, ball joints, or some other piece of technology that's been around longer than I have? Some may proclaim that all those "little" problems have now been fixed and it's time to go on to stuffing Bluetooth and DVD players in every car, but there still remains a myriad of issues to be addressed in affordable transportation. A good windshield wiper arrangement seems rare. The vast majority of climate control systems drive me nuts with their inability to keep me comfortable. Tires still go flat. Windshields have trouble lasting through a winter, here in the Midwest. Automatic transmissions that last as long as the engine attached to them are somewhat rare. Rust-through remains a problem, though it's ridiculous that losing a few pounds of ferrous material should mean a trip to the junkyard for a two-ton durable good. The ability to properly calibrate a power-steering system seems to be a task capable of being performed only by an elite group of ninjas. Properly-sized brakes are all too uncommon, given the weight and speed potential of modern vehicles. Why am I still squinting while driving into the sun? Blown brake lines are a fact of life for drivers of otherwise fine older vehicles, despite the fact that a few dollars of stainless steel could cure the problem once and for all.

Then there's the problem of wetware - you know, the idiots that actually drive cars. Mercedes is said to be working on something they call the Driver Fitness Safety Program, with the "underlying idea [that] relaxed and alert drivers are safer drivers." Yea, no kidding. And what's the cuase of my tension on the road? It usually isn't so much the fact that my cell phone is ringing or that my iTrip's sound quality sucks, but rather that I'm usually surround by a bunch of people who aren't qualify to operate Radio Flyer wagons, much less a 3500lb barely-guided missile. Frankly, I remain unconvinved that stability control, active cruise control, and "pre-safety" systems are more economical than proper driver training and an attitude change for the American public about the seriousness of operating an automobile. On the other hand, I also see the future of aircraft, and silicon will likely replace neurons as the hardware of choice for vehicle operation sometime in the next couple of decades (if not sooner).

Please don't get me wrong - I want a decent OEM iPod interface as badly as the next technogeek (better yet, figure out how to give me a way to plug in whatever piece of electronics happens to turn the iPod into a paperweight sometime during the next model cycle, because it's downright silly to think that the little white box is going to rule forever). Software-configurable instrument panels, consisting of low-cost LCD or OLED displays, could finally spell the end of the idiot light and give drivers the information we need. Smart junction boxes will make fuses, and the huge number of failures that can be triggered by a minor electrical fault, an annoying memory. Fluid monitoring technology will allow us to detect engine or gearbox problems before they occur. New transmissions such as dual-clutch/twin-shaft arrangements will obsolete the concept of "autos" and "manuals". And drive-by-wire systems could drastically improve our interface with cars, if designed properly.

Yes indeed, there are plenty of bright spots out there, but I remain concerned that automakers will simply look at the next decade's electronics technology, figure out a way to dump it on today's mechanical platforms, and call it a day. That doesn't appeal to this electrical engineer who's still unsatisfied with the ability of a vehicle to get from Point A to Point B, but I'm curious to hear how our readers feel about this topic.


Share This Photo X