Simanaitis Says

On cars, old, new and future; science & technology; vintage airplanes, computer flight simulation of them; Sherlockiana; our English language; travel; and other stuff

CHANGING TIMES

HOW TIMES have changed. Sometimes for the better, sometimes….

Here’s a collection of trends that I certainly wouldn’t have expected at the beginning of my (40!) years of monitoring the enthusiast automobile.

High performance is redefined. Ferrari says the efficiency of its 488 GTB sets a record for a street-legal Maranello product: The 488 GTB gets 21 mpg, while emitting 260 grams per kilometer of CO2.

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Ferrari 488 GTB.

In the 1980s, Europeans (with exception of the Scandinavians) scoffed at U.S. clean-air regulations as overkill. Yet today, plenty of European kids think catalytic converters were invented there. Maybe it’s because the first supplier of catalytic converters has a German name. (Engelhard is a New Jersey company founded in 1902; Germany’s BASF chemical giant bought it in 2006.)

Buttons are passé. These days, designers prefer just about anything other than a button for controlling an automotive function. For instance, Continental AG is exploring controls that depend on motorist’s fingers making swipes, zooms and pinches, à la cellphone actions. Complex touch screens are the norm.

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Continental AG proposes to bring cellphone gesturing to automotive touch screens.

I suppose this could have been expected, given the proliferation of automotive things requiring control, from navigation, communication and entertainment to the more traditional features of occupant comfort.

However, I confess to being a fuddy-duddy about touch screens. The car isn’t a stationary object. Try fooling with your cell phone while walking. (Then again, don’t. Remember, kids, we’re professionals.)

Connected cars are in. The idea of having cars linked to each other and to the traffic infrastructure was incomprehensible in the early days of computing. Today, though, we already have things like radar braking, the car independently sensing when a collision in imminent.

There’s a potential for significant safety benefits, albeit combined with non-trivial matters of privacy, such as to the location and operation of one’s car.

Personal computers are in cars. There’s an adage: Combine a car and an airplane, and you get something that doesn’t perform very well in either environment. Ditto a car and a personal computer.

To me, it goes back to a fundamental flaw in multi-tasking. Research has shown that, despite thinking otherwise, multi-taskers end up doing none of the tasks particularly well. And driving is a full-time task.

Autonomous cars are coming. DARPA (the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) fostered self-driving vehicles in its Grand Challenges, 2004 and 2005, and Urban Challenge, 2006. Google has had a heavy commitment in a driverless car, its project headed by Sebastian Thrun, whose team at Stanford won the DARPA 2005 competition.

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The prototype of Google’s latest driverless car, shown in May, 2014, has neither steering wheel nor pedals. Image from Fox17online.com.

Google says such cars could be in production by 2020.

Recently, mysterious vans traced to Apple and bristling with equipment have been seen, one in Silicon Valley, another in New York. Anticipating an iCar? It’s known that Steve Jobs wanted one.

According to The Wall Street Journal, February 13, 2015, Apple “has several hundred employees working secretly toward creating an Apple-branded electric vehicle…code-name ‘Project Titan.’ ” Apple isn’t talking, and it’s also possible the company’s mysterious vans are just fine-tuning its street-mapping capability.

I admire the technicalities of cars that drive themselves. However, I fear a quagmire of legalities while questions are resolved of responsibilities for inevitable accidents. And it’s technologically overconfident to think accidents aren’t going to happen.

The future happens. The concept of Future Shock is now 45 years old, Alvin Toffler describing it in his 1970 book of the same name. Not to argue with this eminent futurist, but I’ve always felt that 1893 to 1933, for instance, was 40 years of more profound change than, say, 1975 to today. Think about cars, airplanes, widespread electrification, radio, films, any other technology of that era compared with ours.

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Charles F. Kettering, 1876 – 1958, American automotive engineer extraordinaire. Image from Time magazine, January 9, 1933.

Charles F. Kettering, automotive engineer extraordinaire, was head of research at GM from 1920 to 1947. I like his futurist view: “My interest is in the future because I am going to spend the rest of my life there.” ds

© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2015

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