We have entered a time in which the car is no longer a car. It’s an extension of ourselves with the capabilities to think, park, drive, maintain a proper distance from surrounding vehicles, hold a set speed, and provide a climate controlled zone, with all the amenities of our home inside the passenger compartment. It’s truly a miracle of modern science and engineering.
These feats of extraordinary mechanical and electrical achievements are a result of years and years of research and development, along with a lot of good old fashion hard work. We are witnessing a technological explosion on today’s highway and byways, all because of some innovative thinkers from automotive history such as Harley Earl, Henry Ford, Lee Iacocca, Daimler Benz, Ferdinand Porsche, and many others.
These forward thinkers led the way to early concepts that are now part of our automotive culture. (Imagine what they could have done if they had today’s electronics incorporated into their ideas.) One way to experience the way things were back then, is to go where these early innovative ideas are found now… at a museum. If you get a chance to go through an automotive museum take a long look at the design features. If you start to compile a list from the early 20’s to today, you’ll find more than a few mechanical and electrical changes over the years. I like to focus on what brought on these improvements, or what the designers and engineers were thinking when they came up with these concepts. At the time, they were “state-of-the-art”; now we look at them as stepping stones of technology. Some innovations were accidental discoveries; some came about through testing and engineering, while others were a result of economical or governmental intervention. But, there are those engineering attempts and designs that failed miserably. They’re just as important to keep in mind when reviewing the history of the automobile.
Some of those “bad” ideas went into production, and who was the guinea pig for most of these flawed ideas???… hmmm… Oh, that’s right… you and me… the driving public. Maybe we should consider those failed attempts as a brief interruption into furthering the auto industry into the next decade, or perhaps a slight miscalculation on their part. They could say, “Oops… sorry about that.” It’s just a little late to hear that after you’ve figured out you bought a lemon. Some of these ideas you can’t blame on engineers though. A lot of them were brought on by those pencil pushers in the Ivory towers. After doing all their calculations, some things were deemed too expensive to put into production, while other “cash-saving” ideas went straight to the production line, regardless what the engineers said.
Do you remember in the 80’s when a cash strapped GM unloaded 350 V8 gas engines blocks with diesel heads on them? They were trying to keep production up, but somebody neglected to check if the standard gas engine, with its eight head bolts, was strong enough for the increased diesel engine compression. Oops, slight problem here. An engineering nightmare and a mechanic’s job security all wrapped into one.
If you were turning wrenches around the same time, you might remember the Variable Venturi carburetor that Ford came out with. This was their quick fix answer to the emission requirements, just before the CFI system (fuel injection) was out in full force. They slapped these gadgets on, and sent them down the assembly line. It didn’t take long before they failed. Now, some guys managed to make them work… me, nope…never had that kind of luck. I opted for the replacement Holley carburetor. The customer had to deal with the downtime and cost.
Seems every manufacturer has had their own poor designs or crazy ideas that didn’t make it. I just mentioned these because I worked on so many of them. Which leads me back to today’s cars… are we in for another “Oops”? Has someone thought through the possibilities of these drive by wire cars getting out of control? Gee, I hope so. I mean, I don’t want to sound like our forefathers when the horseless carriage first came out and you were required by law (in many states) to have a man holding a flag, while walking so many paces in front of the vehicle to give warning for horse and buggies that a car was coming. But, when I start to think about these cars flying down today’s highways and no one behind the wheel, a flashing light on the hood to let me know you’re not driving doesn’t sound half bad right now.
Granted, engineering has come a long way from the early days of experimentation. The difference in just the last ten years shows how much the engineering has improved. A decade ago I was changing alternators, starters, and wiper motors practically every day. Now, I rarely see a failure. We still have failures, but the rate of those failures has dropped off tremendously. Most engine failures I see are brought on more by lack of maintenance than poor design or engineering. Mileage on the engines has increased far beyond my expectations. But, that doesn’t mean new cars are foolproof, not hardly, there are still plenty of issues to deal with on the modern car, mechanically and electrically. (Anything mechanical can and will break down at some point in time.) Something else to think about is with all these innovations the way a mechanic tackles some of these problems has changed as well. For example: head gasket replacement on some trucks can only be accomplished by removing the entire passenger cab off of the chassis. (Yep, finally used up ALL the room under the hood.)
Recalls are still out there, warranty repair is still a concern, and cars still need maintenance and repairs… that will never change. Are they building them better? Of course they are. Is the engineering better? Absolutely it’s better. Can we expect cars to drive themselves and never forget where they are supposed go? Oops, can’t answer that one yet.
Will the future generations comprehend that someone actually drove those old cars found in the museums? What do you think they’ll say when they find out you had to use your hands and feet to operate them? And we used gasoline? How barbaric!
It seems to me, each newer generation has more faith in electronic assistance for everything. Just the other day I was at a store and the young gal behind the counter had a problem with her register… it wouldn’t show her what the cash back amount was… she had no clue how to make change by hand. The manager had to come over and reset her register. The whole time I’m thinking… “Is this another sign of the next generation putting too much trust into those electronics? Maybe the best innovation is to reinvent physical effort.”
Should I be worried? Should I be concerned? History has proven that not all things man made are without fault. That leaves me with one thought, “Will the driver of the future car know what to do if the systems fail?” Only time will tell.