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Modern Conveniences - Whale Watching

Can You Compute This?

G.R. Whale
Dec 25, 2013
Half a century ago, a family friend picked up his father at Los Angeles International Airport in his new Buick Riviera, extolling to Pops all the modern conveniences such as an eight-track stereo and air-conditioning. Pops labeled all of it useless complications sure to cause problems. Then, not knowing the A/C had been running the entire trip from the 65-degree airport, he got out in 100-degree Palm Springs in the afternoon and yelled, "What the hell happened?!"
Ever since the second car was built, there have been advances in the machine that many people argued were not an advance, and were perhaps even a step backward. Until new cars and people stop being produced, it will keep happening.
I like air-conditioning, but I don't need it. On the other hand, I don't need to wear a suit and tie on a sultry summer Chicago, New York, or Hong Kong day. I liked how electronic ignition made my car start easier, rev higher, and get better mileage, but I cursed when it failed and I was stuck. That never happened with breaker points because I could change them in less than five minutes with a flat-blade screwdriver and the spare set in my glove box. I never had a "spare" ignition unit, and the only people I know these days who carry a spare ECU are automotive engineers and racers.
Engine management code-writers are control freaks, so they love automatic transmissions. As one recently told me, "Why would I want to let the driver pick a gear when we can do it better?" And their reach is spreading to alternators, air-conditioning compressors, grille shutters, tailpipe valves, and anything else they can control to more easily keep the engine in optimal tune. Your engine and its manufacturer could know more about your driving habits than the NSA does about your communications. The newest vehicles monitor the approaching road surface and adjust suspension appropriately, and they use navigation mapping to reset the climate control system for tunnels.
Photo 2/2   |   Is technology getting better, or getting the better of us?
At this point, the computers are in charge of your truck. You still have some input, of course, but as more and more "safety systems" -- which are in reality cover-ups for bad driving -- move into trucks, the more your new truck will be connected to something other than you. I believe the majority of people would favor that over the bad drivers, but the majority of bad drivers don't know they are, or won't admit it.
"When the driverless car does something bad to you, where do you go? To the insurer of the car? Of the driver?"
A driverless truck can easily be made today, but it still needs a navigator, even if he's not sitting in the vehicle. Some airplanes can fly themselves, but they still have pilots. In many instances, airspace is more regulated than roadways, but airplane communications and operations are standardized around the world. Getting every car manufacturer from every country to agree on a single standard would make the 113th Congress appear the most productive in history. We still can't even agree on basic lighting, crashworthiness, and emissions requirements.
And when the driverless car does something bad to you, what's your recourse? Where do you go? To the insurer of the car? Of the driver? Of the software maker? The state that allowed it? The contractor who built the bad road? By the time the deep-pocket companies involved let a case reach a courtroom, you'll be too old to enjoy it, unable to get parts to rebuild your truck, or dead.
Of course, it isn't just happening to your truck. Phones and nav systems have no trouble learning your voice and making a decision or finding information based on it. Virtually every problem can be solved or every question answered by computer, assuming it has three things: a power supply, the correct algorithm, and the correct input. In early computing days, this was abbreviated as garbage in, garbage out.
Some of the publications I've written for use algorithms to put a numerical value on text. The computer, working off code that automotive engineers and evaluators might have helped develop, crunches the written words to spit out a number. Disregarding that the computer may have argued how the words were written in the first place, how does a machine or code-writer know better than the author what a rating should be? You'll note that Truck Trend has no such scores.
I've experimented with finding my own numerical value in advance and seeing how well the computer does generating its own; the results suggest I still have some job security. When I -- or anyone else at Truck Trend -- say something is really, really bad, and an algorithm elsewhere interprets all the "really" as enthusiasm and rates it highly, stick with the words.
The Truck Trend staff represents more than a century of experience, but the only numbers that algorithm really knows are 0 and 1. How smart can it be?
- OF



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