Monday, May 13, 2013

Subtle evolution of the car

I've been driving for oh, I don't know, 30 years. During that time, I've had the opportunity to witness many innovations and subtle improvements in the humble automobile. I'd like to share some of them with you, with a glance towards the future.

I can remember my first car, a 1973 Chevy Malibu sedan. I loved the way the colors of sunset would bounce off the hood. It was pretty ho-hum. No air conditioning, I had to install my own sound system and it could barely hold 80mph on the freeway (yes, I was a leadfoot).

It was easy to see what was going on under the dash. Wires, tubes and shafts everywhere. The interior was devoid of the creature comforts we have become accustomed to. In the back seat, there were only lap restraints for seat belts.

I have some fond memories in that car, but I can honestly say that I don't miss it.

I remember when anti-lock brakes came out. It would be a long time before I bought a car that had them, but I read Car and Driver magazine, so I knew of their benefits. I learned how to pump the brakes when I needed to stop in slick conditions or if I could hear the tires squeal in my older cars. Learning that skill was also a source of relief when I encountered the need to use it.

I have had the opportunity to use anti-lock brakes in my current car, a 2007 Honda Civic sedan. I am glad that they are there. They have saved me some serious coin and from personal injury. It is a curious sensation to feel the pedal pulsating as I applied all the pressure I could muster in the moment to keeping the brakes on.

Another feature I like about current cars is the automatic everything. I have a key fob that locks all the doors. If I have any doubt that I locked the doors, even when the car is on the third floor of the parking structure, I can just be near the car, press a button on the fob, and the car would honk to let me know it was locked. This could be science fiction 30 years ago. But it is our reality.

The stock sound system in my car is better than anything I might have bought in the 80s. Thanks to computer drafting and engineering systems for car design, the speakers can be designed to match the acoustic properties of the interior of the car. The sound system in my car is not even the top-end system and yet, it still sounds great.

I'm rather nostalgic about family road trips. I can recall what we used to do to keep the kids occupied. Dad would give $5 to the first kid to spot the highway patrol. We'd play that license plate game where we look for all the letters of the alphabet. We'd sing songs together. I guess those days are gone.

With the rise of the SUV, we see the "living room on wheels". LCD screens in the seatbacks to play movies for the kids. 5.1 surround systems for music, complete with on-board storage for all of our music. Some are even running Windows for a complete package. I would never buy a car with Windows running on it, anywhere. I know enough about Windows to know that it doesn't belong in a car.

Electric cars have been a dream for a long time, but now they are close to reality for many of us. Just plug in at home and at work and your commute is covered. You may not be seeing gas pumps for very long anymore.

The most interesting innovation to come is the self-driving car. Google got the ball rolling and has a car that has seen several hundred thousand miles. There are at least 20 known examples of cars that drive themselves. Will kids born in the last decade learn to drive like the current crop of drivers?

I can imagine a life where the trip to California is spent playing with the kids instead of driving the car. On the same trip, we could take a nap, listen to music, watch a movie or just watch the scenery fly by. I'm sure my instincts will be on fire for awhile, but after that, we can learn to trust the car.
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