Sunday, June 7, 2015

Engineers Are Often Too Smart for Our Own Good

Google's venture into what are now called "autonomous cars" seems yet another example of engineers being, in their own minds, smarter than everyone else.  What problem are these really smart, Googly folks addressing?

There are so many ways to make driving safer for everyone on the road, using technologies about which so much is already known.  A meaningful example would be the issue of glare from the headlights of oncoming cars on two-way, high speed turnpikes without medians.  Tall crossover sport utility vehicles with lights hitting the corneas of most drivers in low-profile sedans is a problem I struggle with, and I see lots of drivers experiencing hesitation, momentary loss of perspective, and just plain visual fatigue.  Semi headlights on trucks are just as bad.

In earlier times, headlights used to be aimed, and annual inspections used to check that lights were aimed at the road a fixed distance ahead.  With the advent of sealed beams, there is no such thing as alignment of the lights; if the car has a certain profile, the light unit is installed and the beam goes Hera knows only where.

How about a form of smarter glass, either in windshields or in optical glass that consumers could buy at their optical store?  This isn't a multi-billion dollar fix, and its an innovation from which many kinds of innovative companies might profit.

Instead, we have a solution in search of a problem.  Lowering highway fatalities?  Lowering insurance rates?  The easier solution would be to get the 25% of motorists who are uninsured off the road, thereby reducing rates for everybody who is insured.  No research and development expense required.

Google's CEO responded to questions about this giant boondoggle by saying that companies had to invest in technologies for the "next generation."  Why not work on food replicators to end hunger?  It works on "Star Trek: Next Generation," after all.

Corporate entities are not particularly adept at making huge investments out of their main areas of expertise and developing next generation products.  Engineers are even worse than marketers and futurologists at predicting cross-generational technology, particularly in the consumer area, like cars.

Look at the Edsel.  One of the great innovative features of that car, which I saw in our neighbor's vehicle was the push button transmission, a series of large buttons with definitive clicks in a panel that resembled what one might see unlocking a bank vault.  Great concept, and seemingly much easier than a stick and even a steering wheel mounted shifter.  There were a few problems, the first being that it didn't work.  Fast forward to today, and the desire to have automatics with a feel of a stick is what people want: push buttons were something that auto engineers wanted, but the public never have.

Google should start paying dividends with their monumental free cash flow, instead of indulging their founders in corporate whimsy.

No comments: