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Grappling with Tech

It is sometimes said that we don’t choose technology, it chooses us. It is certainly possible to live in today’s world without a cell phone, a computer, or a car but it would require individuality and resolve. Whether you are an early adopter, a late-comer, or a total Luddite, sooner or later technology will hunt you down.

Technology and culture have a difficult relationship. The latter, comprised as it is of large numbers of human beings, is fundamentally resistant to change. Technology, on the other hand, is initially driven by a much smaller subset of entrepreneurial folks who embrace change as a way of life.

Consider the automobile. Fred Flintstone notwithstanding, Carl Benz’s 1886 US Patent 37435 for a gas-engine-powered vehicle is often referred to as the birth certificate of the car. Early autos were noisy, unreliable, fume-spewing contraptions that threatened the existing equine transportation system more by scaring the animals than by providing a superior alternative. By 1913, Henry Ford’s mass-produced Model T was affordable, reliable, and easy to operate. Before long the roads were paved, and hitching posts were becoming scarce.

In the beginning, it was more than enough that you had four wheels and an engine. Once auto-tech had asserted itself into the culture, it began to differentiate. Somewhat ironically, horsepower was the motivating factor for some, while others preferred fuel economy. More recently, environmental impact and safety have taken the driver’s seat. Although growling engines and gas mileage would appear to be at odds, technology was ready with a solution.

Premium sound systems had long been a thing in cars, but soon the output switched from Rock and Roll on the inside to a throaty growl out the tailpipe. Stomping on the gas pedal of your F-150 would once again summon the mating call of power and performance. Propulsion systems continued to get quieter – almost eerily so with electric vehicles - but in the interests of safety even those have been mandated to produce some sort of warning sound.

There are many pros and cons for buying a new versus a used car, but one irrefutable advantage of newness is that unmistakable new car smell. While automobile manufacturers have sought ways to prolong the original aroma, third-party vendors have come forward with various imitation fragrances. You could add new car smell to your 10-year-old Honda, but it would be wrong.

But new car smell isn’t the only aromatic issue surrounding automobile technology. Fearing that some gearheads would pass up electric vehicles due to the absence of gasoline smell, Ford is now offering Mach-Eau. You might think that avoiding odoriferous gas stations would be a driving force behind electric vehicle adoption, but for 1 in 5 drivers it’s just the opposite. While no one expected the very first cars to smell like a horse, some contemporary buyers see Mach-Eau as a game changer.

Wrestling with the sensory issues of sounds and smells is one part of taming automobile technology, but what about the changes we can’t distinguish? Expanding driver awareness with proximity sensors and backup cameras was straightforward enough, but now we have progressed to Traffic Aware Cruise Control and Automatic Lane Centering. These additions seem innocent, until you realize that the car’s speed and direction are being controlled, albeit to a limited degree, by the onboard computer. It only seems logical that if the car can see what human drivers see, it should be able to make decisions like, or perhaps better than, humans do.

Now in the early stages of development, full self-driving computer algorithms will eventually control our cars and obsolete human driving skills altogether. Only a select few will understand how these proprietary AI systems work – the rest of us will be trusting our lives to an anonymous software development team. The auto technology of the future may console us with whatever sound and smell we choose, but how it will transport us is anyone’s guess.

Let the grappling begin.

Author Profile - Paul W. Smith - leader, educator, technologist, writer - has a lifelong interest in the countless ways that technology changes the course of our journey through life. In addition to being a regular contributor to NetworkDataPedia, he maintains the website Technology for the Journey and occasionally writes for Blogcritics. Paul has over 40 years of experience in research and advanced development for companies ranging from small startups to industry leaders. His other passion is teaching - he is a former Adjunct Professor of Mechanical Engineering at the Colorado School of Mines. Paul holds a doctorate in Applied Mechanics from the California Institute of Technology, as well as Bachelor’s and Master’s Degrees in Mechanical Engineering from the University of California, Santa Barbara.

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