Saturday, February 26, 2011

The Joys of Technology

I spent 30 years with computer systems and watched generation after generation of "enhancements" that added functions you didn't need and included failure modes and traps that we so predictable that people joked about them as "features" and not bugs. Here's the latest from Detroit courtesy of a NY Times op-ed by Maureen Dowd:
Ford executives invited me to Detroit to experience their snazzy new technology firsthand.

They are on the cusp of a system featuring the futuristic avatar Eva, the vaguely creepy face and voice of a woman on your dashboard who can read you your e-mail, update your schedule, recite articles from newspapers, guide you to the restaurant where you’re having lunch and recommend a selection from your iPod. Ford’s working on a Web browser, which would be locked while driving.

Remember when your car used to be a haven of peace from the world? Now it’s just a bigger, noisier and much more dangerously distracting smartphone.
Call me fuddy-duddy, but I never had a car radio for 30 years. I've got one now but the only time I listen to it is when I'm on the highway. I've just never felt the need for the "extras" that the car dealers ply you with. It is all just crap from my perspective. When I buy a car I'm looking for reliability, good gas mileage, comfortable ride, and safety. I'm not interested in "features" that are only good to get your attention off the job at hand and end up killing you.

I'm an old duffer now, but even as a kid I never wanted a car to "wow a girl". So I didn't get one until I was nearly 30. I'm amazed at how Detroit can sell a car by having a sexy model drape herself over the car. Funny. I've never seen a sexy woman drape herself over any car that I've owned. I guess they are an unadvertised "extra" that the dealer never took the time to sell me.

Maureen Dowd is on a crusade. I'm behind her... in my barcalounger urging on in the great battle to reshape humanity:
Over lunch at Ford, Sue Cischke, a dynamic company executive, argued that even before cellphones and iPods, drivers were in danger of distraction from reaching for a briefcase or shooing away a bee.

“Telling younger people not to use a cellphone is almost like saying, ‘Don’t breathe,’ ” she said.

Given that Americans are addicted to Web access and tech toys, she said, it will never work to simply ban them. “So we’ve got to figure out how we make people safer,” she said, “and the more people can just talk to their car like they’re talking to a passenger, the more useful it would be.”

Given that, however, we’re talking about human beings who live in an A.D.D. world, wouldn’t it be safer to try to curb the addiction, rather than indulging it? Nobody thought you could get young people to pay for music after downloading it for free, either, but they do.
Here's the fundamental engineering problem:
He says he doesn’t expect car companies — which are trying to make cars more seductive — to be arbiters of safety. “They were slow to move toward seat belts and airbags until we, the customer, said we want it,” he said. He sees the overwrought dashboards as trouble. “We can chew gum and walk, but we can’t do two cognitively demanding tasks simultaneously.”
The solution? Customers have to demand safety. Demand cars that are functionally clean, simple, and unencumbered by the seductive "goodies".

And how will the Obama administration respond to this existential threat?
Ray LaHood, the secretary of transportation, is livid about the dashboard bells and whistles. When he saw a Ford ad with a bubbly young woman named Kelly using the new souped-up system to gab on the phone hands-free and not paying attention to the road, he called Alan Mulally, the president and C.E.O of Ford.

“I said to him, ‘That girl looks so distracted, it belies belief that this is what you want in terms of safety,’ ” LaHood told me. “Putting entertainment centers in automobiles does not contribute to safe driving. When you’re trying to update your Facebook or put out a tweet, it’s a distraction.”

He said he would compile his own statistics, meet with car executives and use the bully pulpit. “We’ll see what the auto companies can do voluntarily and what we need to do otherwise,” he said. “I don’t think drivers should be doing any of that.”
Yep... you read that right. The Democrats are going to do just what the Republicans did... leave it to the manufacturers to "voluntarily" do the right thing. That's like watching the Wild Bunch arrive in town and have the sheriff walk over to tell them "now boys, we expect you to be on your best behaviour in own town, we are all decent folk here and expect you to respect that fact". Yep. The Wild Bunch was just full of "respect".

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