Thursday, May 9, 2019

Some Innovators Should Be Hanged

     …perhaps with a noose made from their “innovations,” if that can be managed.

     We’ve known for centuries that “newer” isn’t always “better.” When Robert Owen first proposed socialism in the early 19th Century, it was newer than the free market, at least as an abstract conception. It certainly wasn’t better, as the endless attempts at it have demonstrated. Neither is the “smart home,” a clever scheme for implementing universal surveillance, better than the “un-smart home,” even if you have to open the refrigerator door to compose a shopping list, program the microwave from the touch pad, and laboriously turn the thermostats up and down by hand.

     Yes, I have a tale of woe for you today. Most ironically, it centers on Joy, my 2009 Corvette convertible that I love dearly.

     At some point in the 2000s, the folks who run the Corvette subdivision of Chevrolet decided to embrace a curiously seductive idea: the “drive by wire” automobile. Microprocessors and the actuators they can control had become very inexpensive, the notion of a central command and control system for all of a car’s functions seemed worthy for diagnostic purposes, and wasn’t everything on Earth going digital anyway? Perhaps it also simplified a lot of the design decisions to have the whole car, instead of merely part of it, controlled and monitored through a single master computer. I have no insight into that set of considerations. So they designed the 2009 Corvette, and possibly other cars, along those lines.

     And lo! The 2009 Corvette was made entirely “drive by wire,” just like the Space Shuttle. You remember the Space Shuttle, don’t you? Before NASA retired that design and all its instantiations, it managed to kill fourteen astronauts. Couldn’t keep the heat-ablation tiles attached to the fuselage, but there were computers everywhere. Great design.

     Not to go too far afield….I was on my way back from Mass yesterday morning when I stopped at a local convenience store for a half-gallon of milk. You remember milk, don’t you? The perfect food! Makes ice cream possible and cold breakfast cereals scrumptious! It’s also arguably responsible for the radical reduction in infant mortality in the early decades of the Twentieth Century. Never mind about your “lactose intolerance.” Ignore the cows lowing about how we should “eat mor chikin;” they’re always cranky at this hour of the morning.

     Whoops, there I go again….To return to the main drama, I paid for my milk, got into Joy, closed the driver’s side door snugly behind me, fastened my seat belt – always fasten your seat belt before burning rubber out of a convenience store parking lot – and pressed the Start button. Nothing happened. Not even a click to indicate the engagement of the starter motor. I tried again. Same result.

     I muttered an oath, released myself from the embrace of the seat belt, and let myself out of the car. That is, I tried to let myself out of the car by pressing the button that releases the door latch. Nothing happened. I tried again, and again, and again. No dice.

     The doors are “drive by wire” too. Whatever had failed had operated just long enough to let me into the car before it crapped out. My Corvette had imprisoned me.

     No, the convertible roof wouldn’t retract. It’s as “drive by wire” as the rest of Joy. I could release the interior latch – that, at least, is a manual operation – and push the roof back about eight inches. That was all.

     A relevant digression: I hate cell phones. I absolutely loathe and despise them. But I have one: an old flip-phone my wife insists I carry. It can take and make calls and nothing else. I just about never turn it on. Who would want to communicate with me through an antediluvian device that can’t even receive a text message?

     I fished that old flip-phone out of my pocket and called my preferred mechanic. I described my plight to him and pleaded for rescue. Fortunately, he likes me. When he got there he diagnosed a complete electrical failure. But he was as defeated by the problem as I. What could he do? The hood release seemed not to function, though that later proved to be because of an error on my part. He went back to his shop for a 12-volt adapter, in the hope that by pumping current in through a convenience outlet he could get Joy’s systems to respond.

     There are many motivators in a man’s life. Some are more immediate than others. In that time and place the one that loomed largest in my priority scale was an ever more urgent need to pee.

     I became desperate. I released the roof latch, forced the convertible roof back as far as it would go, and forced myself through the opening. It was a near thing, but I made it. I clambered out onto the hood and breathed a sigh of partial relief. (Partial because the convenience store had no rest room.)

     The one remaining trick available was the “trunk bypass.” It’s possible to release Joy’s driver’s-side door latch from the trunk, if one can open the trunk. To do that, one must use the “emergency” key in the smart-fob to open the trunk, using the secret passage concealed in the license-plate indentation. Inside the trunk is a pull-tab that opens the driver’s-side door.

     Once released from durance vile I was able to crawl far enough under Joy’s dashboard to find the proper lever and open the hood. My mechanic arrived with reinforcements shortly thereafter.

     What had happened to my beloved Joy to cause it to imprison me? Why had it threatened to embed me in automotive history as the first man ever to starve to death inside his own Corvette? Quite simply, the positive-side battery cable had come loose. It seems a pair of minuscule nuts responsible for maintaining the cables’ grip on the battery terminals had been omitted at the factory. A UAW member went on break and forgot to install them when he returned, no doubt.

     Imagine the above scenario with either of two variations:

  • A fixed hardtop rather than a retractable roof;
  • No cell phone.

     As the title says, some innovators should be hanged. But not drop-hanged; strangle-hanged. With a rope long enough that their toes can brush the ground. In public. Complimentary lawn chairs and free refreshments to be provided to all attendees.

     And how was your Victory in Europe day?


Ragin' Dave said...

And crap like this is why I prefer the least amount of technology in any of my vehicles. All technology breaks. Super-duper electric-fantastic technology breaks catastrophically. I can tell if my manual transmission is having problems long before it refuses to go forward. But if everything is all electric? I won't find out about a problem until I'm sitting on the side of the road calling for help.

mobius said...

I was working as a mechanic back electronic ignition was new. That was an improvement. I still don't drive anything with more than that. Wiring, of any kind, has always been problematic in vehicles.

Putting computers in was just stupid.

pc-not said...

All of the sophisticated conveniences that surround the driver are a negative to me. maybe not having a millennial brain is a disadvantage, but I feel safer and more in control when instrumentation and dashboard displays reflect the KISS principal.

My work vehicle, a 1994 F-350 long bed was more like a mobile shop. When first purchased in 2001, I pulled the rear seat and designed space to carry almost ever part and tool needed for an average day. I was an active building contractor, and this rig, along with a state of the art ladder rack and rear crossover box served me well for over 14 years. The only factory accessories were A/C and a radio. Then some idiot T-boned me and my pickup/van was totaled.

Most others in my profession ride in luxury to the tune of a $75,000 office on wheels, not able to carry 20% of the tools I do. Their most important tools are a laptop and smartphone, as they never were capable of swinging a hammer. Their day is spent shopping for the cheapest illegal subcontractor and calling trying to find out why they didn't show up at the job.

I digress. When driving my wife's car, all of the nav system entertainment complexities are a large impediment to my sanity. I've had more than one close calls by being distracted by all of these 'conveniences". The powers that be bombard us with reminders of texting while driving, but these distractions in the operator's cabin are just as dangerous.

Good for you keeping your cool Fran. I know many that would have gone into panic mode and peed all over themselves and the nice leather seat!

RM said...

Fran, I recommend that every man over the age of sixty keep at least one of the "TravelJohn Disposable Urinals" stashed somewhere in the car. Since you're driving a potential prison on wheels you might need a six pack.

Brian E. said...

Ha! I go ‘ya one further - I prefer cable driven clutches in my manual transmissions. No worrying about loss of fluid or aging hoses or master or slave cylinders failing. Just a cable. And there’s nearly always an adjustment to accommodate the stretching that often occurs with age.... right before they snap. ;-)

All systems have potential points of failure. I just prefer ones with fewer such points - and more importantly - “safe” failure modes.

Andy Texan said...

Funny! I had to laugh out loud!