No ships, not much history, but hear me out…

(It’s a how-we-think-about-technology sort of piece.)

One of my chief goals as a historian of technology is to help myself and my readers understand the tacit assumptions we make about technology without realizing it–what we take for granted about it as truth rather than what it actually is: our perspective, which, like any limited perspective, can do much to obscure, rather than reveal, the whole truth. That’s just a specific example of perhaps the chief goal of history as an intellectual discipline: the enterprise of getting beyond our own limited perspective far enough to realize that that is, exactly, what it is–a limited perspective, based on limited experience, and that the perspectives and experiences of people in the past were different. (Anthropology does the same thing, but for people removed from us spatially and not necessarily temporally, though anthropologists study them, too.)

The most common assumption we accept about technology is the assumption of “progress”–that overall, despite some bumps and hills and valleys, technology is improving. Of course there are many ways in which that’s true–at least partially, but it inevitably oversimplifies, at best, and greatly distorts, at worst, what’s really going on.

Perhaps the most helpful basic caveat we can apply to the general notion of “progress” is to acknowledge the reality of pros and cons–of advantages and costs. Every technological choice has a cost, whether or not it has benefits and regardless of what those benefits may be. When we remember to consider the costs of a technological choice, we ensure a fuller understanding of that technology, and our relationship to it. And by “cost” I do not simply mean a figure of currency. I mean the trade-offs that must be accepted when choosing one technological option over another.

I find today’s automotive technology, and the marketplace in which it’s bought and sold, an especially helpful example of how to think about technology accurately. At this point, the technology has been around long enough to have existed in more than one cultural milieu. It has been heralded and condemned, loved and loathed, credited for making “modern life” possible for most people and convicted as a glaring example of why “modern life” must change. I don’t have the time or space to write a short history of the automobile in cultural context, so I’ll stick to an assessment of it in my own society right now, and refer to its broader history in passing.

I write this at the moment when the internal-combustion-engine-powered automobile has peaked, and is now on its way out. If ever there were a perfected technology, we have experienced it in the cars of the early 21st century. A 2006 car, built toward the top of the quality scale, is as sound a rejoinder to “they don’t build ‘em like they used to” as we’ll find. Those of us with some years and miles on us remember the cars of our youth, and it’s only those who don’t know much about cars who think that the cars of any time before 2000 were “better” than those of our own day.

I might as well go ahead and use the word “better” so we can expose it for the intractable problem it poses to really understanding technological choice in human life. As noted, I think the example I just used is as strong a defense of the use of “better” as we’ll find. A 2006 car is likely to be safer, more reliable, more durable, more comfortable, faster, better-handling, more fuel-efficient, less polluting, and equipped with more convenience features, than its closest equivalent from any point in the past, while the cost of that car, new, remained within reach of the middle-class buyer, and the durability of that car meant that, used, it presented a more attractive option to the buyer on a stricter budget.

What I just wrote is a fact, because I did not use the word “better” in an overall, general sense. I can defend, with specific data if necessary, any of the specific comparisons I just made. But observe what happens when I write this: “Any 2006 car is better than a ‘67 Pontiac GTO.”

1967 GTO

Photo by Greg Gjerdingen, CC-BY-2.0,

Say that in certain circles and you will be more or less attacked, and not just because you have unwittingly stumbled into a group of crazy people. Without delving into the details of why this is so, we can safely lump all those under “aesthetics.” From the style of the body to the sound of the engine to the nostalgia and associative power of the older car, it has a combination of attributes that, to its devotees, make it “better” than what they could buy for the same money as an outstanding example of the old muscle car is now worth—say, a brand-new Mercedes-Benz E400 mid-size sedan, full of technology no one was even thinking about in 1967.

MB E class

Photo by Vauxford, CC-BY-SA-4.0,

Comparing more recent cars to each other requires distinguishing between differences more subtle, easier to overlook, but still important. Like any technology widely-used, the car is shaped not just by designers and engineers seeking aesthetic and physical performance attributes, but by cost constraints, materials availability, and a legal-regulatory environment. Right now, the legal-regulatory environment is driving automotive technological choice perhaps more than any other pressure. In 1967, few were concerned about fuel consumption or emissions. There were no laws requiring drivers and passengers to wear seat belts, though the technology did exist. But the car runs in a drastically different cultural milieu now, in which only the reactionary and oblivious are not acutely concerned with the reduction of consumption of fossil fuels and CO2 emissions. Seat belt laws are only one item in a long list of mandated safety features. Those safety features have saved so many human lives from what would otherwise have been fatal accidents. We are rapidly developing viable all-electric cars, and electric motors lend themselves quite well to that application, with their instant generous torque, quiet operation, simplicity, and longevity. Batteries are another matter, but enough resources are being thrown at battery technology that we have already seen substantial lengthening of range and shortening of charge times just in the past few years. Meanwhile, CAFE (Corporate Average Fuel Economy) regulations and their equivalents in other countries have driven automakers to make substantial changes to powertrains and pursue weight reductions to eke out 1 to 2 mpg more fuel economy per vehicle per model cycle. Weight reduction is an across-the-board win, except in cost; it is usually more expensive to make a vehicle with the same strength, rigidity, and longevity but lighter weight, as it requires more expensive materials, such as aluminum alloys developed for aircraft and high-strength steels. Power train changes for fuel economy is what I want to focus on, because that is where the valuable illustration lies of technological relativism, so to speak.

While it is too early to know, I strongly suspect that the power trains of the internal-combustion-engine-powered car peaked in the first decade of the 2000s in terms of longevity, reliability, and aesthetics (sound and feel). While such advances as electronic fuel injection (widely-available since the 1980s), variable valve timing and lift (1990s), and the six-speed automatic transmission (early 2000s) eliminated waste and contributed to long-term reliability, power trains in this period could be over-built and under-stressed. Most engines were normally-aspirated, rather than turbo- or supercharged. Computer control kept everything running in tight spec, contributing to the smoothness, low maintenance, and efficiency of the power train, and allowing transmissions to respond immediately and smoothly to input, keeping the engine in its optimum power band. By 2010 or so, these power trains were proven to be good for virtually limitless service with only basic, and inexpensive, maintenance. Exhaust systems with catalytic converters and oxygen sensors put out quiet, minimal exhaust an order of magnitude cleaner than what was possible in 1967, without compromising the performance of the power train.

But the tightening of the regulations was relentless, as governments pursued more ambitious targets for the reduction in fuel consumption and CO2. Pushing past the old maxim that “there’s no replacement for displacement,” automakers began to substitute smaller engines for larger ones, adding turbocharging and direct injection to make up the power and torque losses. Six-speed transmissions quickly became yesterday’s news, replaced by seven, eight, nine, and even ten-speed boxes. As for the manual transmission, the joystick of real driving, it has become almost a unicorn. Computer-generated, synthesized “engine sounds” are now piped through the sound systems of “sporty” vehicles, as these new powerplants cannot deliver the sound of a normally-aspirated V8 or V6 (or, for that matter, a high-revving performance-built I4 or I6).

So far, these efforts have paid off; the manufacturers are meeting regulatory requirements and meeting demand. But what about the costs? It’s certainly true that new cars are seriously expensive relative to past markets. They have to be. And with cars just a few years old so excellent, buying new is nowhere near as compelling a choice as it was when I was young, when cars weren’t as durable and new ones were cheaper than they are now. Aside from purchasing costs, though, there are—or may well be—others. Aside from aesthetics, the new power trains may be decreasing reliability and durability across the board (it’s early yet). Adding turbocharging to a small engine adds stress and heat to that engine, and complexity to the power train. Direct injection has proven to introduce premature carbon build-up in some engines. Newer transmissions have had trouble finding and holding the right gear, and are programmed so aggressively for fuel economy that they tend to up-shift too early for  optimum engine performance, unless put in “sport” mode, and thus defeating the entire purpose for their complex and relatively-untried existence. For those of us who celebrated the development of the attainable car to near-perfection in almost every way, lending itself so well to long-term satisfying ownership, the latest developments raise concerns that we may be going back to an automotive marketplace more in line with the short-attention-span, disposable-goods culture that we so desperately need to get away from. I hope not. I don’t think the challenges posed by the new technologies are insurmountable for automotive engineers. But I do wonder whether they will be given the time necessary to work out the kinks in them before they are phased out to be replaced by something else. Some of that probably depends on how quickly electric cars become viable on the mass market.

Regardless, one cannot say that today’s cars are “better” than the cars of ten years ago. Once we are forced to define what we mean by “better,” it’s instantly clear that “better” in some ways means—or likely means—not as “good” in other ways. What are your priorities? What are you willing to sacrifice to have something else? That is how technological choice always works; it’s just that we so often don’t see that, because we live under the illusion of “general progress”; everything is basically getting better all the time.

No it isn’t. It is just getting different.

I know I’m getting to that age where it’s natural to become suspicious of the new and to cling, to some extent, to the familiar. But I also know what it’s like to own a well-built, satisfying car for many years and like it just as much as I did when I got it, or more. So, next time, I’ll be buying a used, over-built, normally-aspirated V8-powered modernized throwback with a sterling reputation and not-so-sterling fuel economy, and hoping gas stays “cheap” for a few more years.




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