Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Changes in Cars Over Time

I decided to write a short bit about cars for a change.  This is a bit of a divergence, but not too far from my normal theme -- cars are technology and we use them every day!  They are a great example of change, often subtle but extreme when viewed over a long period of time....

Of course cars have progressed a lot over the 100 years years, but surprisingly even the oldest cars in a museum like the Luray Car and Carriage Caravan Museum usually have gas-powered motors, steering wheels, windshields, and gas/break peddles.  Most of the oldest could be driven by a kid today once they figured out the clutch and shifter.  The changes have been internal, for the most part, especially recently with computers controlling everything (and sometimes failing).

My first car (age 16) was a 10 year old, 1966 Ford 4-door LTD (third hand, my Dad's old company car, then my Sister's car from college). (It was white like the image above from http://www.classicfords.us/.  I have some pics of it somewhere in a box.) This car had seat belts, power windows, A/C, AM radio, and even a small box below the radio with power door locks (vacuum-powered) and emergency flashers. The door locks, flashers and some idiot lights were an add-on (non-standard, extra $$$).  Because we lived in Florida, we had A/C, but some of my friends here in the DC area grew up driving cars without A/C and only got A/C the last 20 years or so.  This old car's engine had a carburetor, points, and no pollution controls (just a muffler, optional for a 16-year old).  BTW, I wish I still had that upscale beast -- we had lots of fun in it and for 2 1/2 years I drove the carpool about 7 miles each way to our high school with 4 girls and my brother (no, they NEVER ganged up on me).

My wife has a 1967 Chevy Caprice named Bessie in honor of the Dr Who car Bessie. We bought it from a little old lady, the original owner and had it painted red before we moved up here (it is now primer gray --  long, sad story).  Bessie is more representative of the cars of the era, having power windows, AM radio, A/C, and seat belts.  It is basically very spartan when you drive it, but it still is in good shape and it has A LOT OF POWER!

When we grew up, no one wore seat belts and infant car seats were optional.  Cars did not have crumple zones and were designed to be repairable.  There was a joke about cars in the 1950s being involved in an accident -- hose out the inside, bang out the dents, and sell them to the next sucker.

By contrast, today my daughter (a HS senior) drives a 10 year old Ford Explorer (aka Exploder).  This car has button-controlled 4 wheel drive, cruise control, key-less entry, power windows, A/C, AM/FM/CD stereo, anti-lock brakes, computer controls for the engine, and a lot of pollution controls on the engine plus exhaust.  It is much more efficient due to the engine design and controller.  It is also much safer due to physical design (crumple zones), air bags, shoulder harness seat belts, and many other features.

Since the Exploder was built, cars today are even more computer controlled and have nice additions like GPS navigation and computers that secretly log your driving (black boxes are very useful for lawyers). Many have a digital gas pedal, so the speed is controlled by the computer, not by a cable to a carburetor. Many have servos that provide the steering. Even the brakes are mostly computer controlled.  This is much like a fly-by-wire airplane.

Our Toyota Camry is one such vehicle with dozens of computers controlling everything.  However, unlike an airplane, the computers don't have to meet the same level of standards. I am not sure we are ready for computer control of all the systems in our cars.  The computers and software are not as well designed and tested as that for aircraft and spacecraft.  Also, according to analysis of the Camry acceleration issue, they may have already killed people:  Single Bit Flip That Kills

Many cars contain infotainment systems that integrate navigation and other controls, like the My Ford Touch which has had so many issues that there may be a class action suit versus Ford, as a result Ford is dumping Microsoft!

Some advances in automotive technology since I grew up in the 1960s:
  • new tire materials, designs, standards
  • exterior design changes, better window materials, better paints, clear coat
  • major changes to engine control systems and fuel systems (digital controls)
  • support for alternate fuel vehicles (alcohol-gas mix, hydrogen, bio-diesel)
  • crumple zones to protect the passengers (not the car body)
  • interior safety features including air bags, side air bags, interior padding, seat design
  • seat belts and shoulder harnesses
  • child safety seats, harnesses, attach points, etc.
  • anti-lock brakes, anti-skid systems, traction control systems
  • digital control of the gas pedal and even steering (not always a good idea)0
  • integrated infotainment systems (beyond the AM radio that we grew up with)
  • navigation systems (we used maps from the Gulf filling station around the corner)
  • avoidance detection systems (radar)
  • electric and hybrid cars
  • self-parking cars
  • self-driving cars (just starting to be useful for some use cases)
  • flying cars (in the 1960's they promised we would have them by now)

What car technology would you most like to see?

In 10 years, what will your car have in it?

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