Thursday, February 2, 2023

The Nature of Complexity

Early auto engines were primitive to say the least.  This didn't mean they were more dependable!

I mentioned in an older posting that eventually, even the most recalcitrant redneck embraces technology and change - in fact, they sometimes seem to be on the leading edge of it.  Recall back in the 1970's and 1980's, the big, 8-foot "C-band" satellite dishes became a fixture in the countryside - usually mounted next to a trailer home. Satellite signals were un-encrypted, and you could get "free" cable television, even the pay channels, with only a few thousand dollars worth of electronics.

So perhaps all this nonsense talk about hating electric cars will also go away - once people realize they can generate monster horsepower - and scalding acceleration.  If only they would make vroom-vroom noises!  And black smoke!  That would seal the deal!'

But decrying advances in technology is nothing new - it has been going on for ages.  People have decried "newfangled" things since newfangled things were invented.  And just as quickly, they jumped on the bandwagon, too - usually plowing their meager savings into some ill-conceived investment scheme that latches onto the latest technology as a selling point.  Railroad stocks in the 1800's or "tech" stocks in the 2000's - it is pretty much the same thing.  A few are real deals, many more are "me too!" cons.  There is Tesla, and then again, there is Nikolai.  One actually makes cars.  Both may end up broke in the long run - first to market is last in the marketplace.

During the dawn of the automotive era, cars were pretty simple but difficult to use.  You had to crank them by hand, just to start them, and if the engine backfired, it could break your arm.  Driving wasn't just a matter of steering and changing gears, but you had to set the spark advance as you accelerated, using a lever on the steering wheel.   Fancy new advances such as the foot throttle, were years away.  Brakes were simple bands attached to drums on the rear wheels, activated by a cable - that you hoped wouldn't break.

Cooling?  Early cars were air-cooled, but later models with water cooling relied on "thermo-siphon" cooling instead of a water pump.  Overheating was the norm, and a frozen cracked block the norm, if you didn't change your antifreeze every fall.   Most engines were flat-heads - valve-in-block - and the valves needed to be reground every 20,000 miles or so.  And maybe during the second valve job, you'd have the rings replaced and the cylinders honed - because you were losing compression by that point.

Over time, things like overhead valves became common - by the early 1960's nearly ever car had them.  The electric starter meant that anyone could drive a car.  And the automatic transmission - which had a tortured history of its own (google "Roto-Hydromatic" and "slim jim" sometime) meant that you didn't even have to know how to shift gears and clutch.   Centrifugal and vacuum advance distributors meant you didn't have to adjust your car's timing while you drove.  And sealed-for-life ball joints and wheel bearings put an end to the "annual chassis lube".  Sounds like a trivial thing, until you realize that well into the 1950's, car makers offered built-in lubricators, that, with the pump of a handle or the push of a button, would send "Alemite" grease to all the "zerk" fittings on your car.

Cars got more and more complex over time, and at each stage, some folks would decry each level of improvement.  Automatic transmissions?  That's for sissies who don't know how to clutch! Air conditioning?  Who the heck needs that?  Power windows?  Power locks?  Expensive junk that is just going to break!   People actually said these things, in my lifetime.

Today, you can't buy a car in America without air conditioning, and most have power locks and power windows.  Manual transmissions are harder and harder to come by.  And every car has a plethora of air bags in it as well.  When I was a kid, seat belts were optional - dealer installed!  And no, we didn't have shoulder harnesses.

But a funny thing happened at the same time.  In Engineering, usually the more complicated you make a system, the less reliable it is - the more failure modes it presents.  But with cars, well, as they got more and more complex, they got more reliable as well.  New technologies and new materials meant that valves could last the life of the car.  Electronic fuel injection made cars run cleaner and last longer - the idea of doing a "ring job" fell by the wayside.  Gas stations across the country converted their service bays into convenience stores - that is, the ones that stayed in business.  Cars of the bygone era would hardly go 80,000 miles before going to the junkyard.  Today, it is expected they will go twice that far, if not more.  Pontiac, in the 1950's advertised its cars as "tested to 100,000 miles!" as if that was some sort of moon-shot kind of aspiration. 100,000 miles!  Who were they kidding!  Today, that is the recommended service interval for many automatic transmissions and cooling systems.

People adapted to these changes.  I recall a fellow technician at Carrier had his new Monte Carlo towed to the dealer once.  He got in the car one morning and the "check engine" light came on.  Frustrated, he opened the hood and "starting pulling wires" as he put it.  "I wanted to disconnect all those pollution controls!  That had to be the problem!"   But of course, he was doing things like disconnecting the fuel injection controller, or the vacuum advance for the distributor - or the cruise control wiring.   It was an expensive day for him and the boys at the Chevy dealer all had a good laugh at his expense.

Yes, early on, people resisted these changes.  Many decried - and still decry - "all those electronics" because they don't want to bother to learn about electricity.  But even the most stubborn redneck comes around, and while the "pollution controls" of the 1970s were indeed a nightmare (and easily removed as well), by the 1980's, electronic fuel injection and modern lambda feedback systems meant that not only do cars run as well as in "the good old days" they run better.  We never had 500, 600, or 700 HP cars available on the showroom floor back in the "glory days" of the late 1960's.   Not only do modern cars have more power, they handle better, stop faster, and are far more reliable. Oh, and they get double or triple the gas mileage and pollute one-tenth as much.

Maybe in 1950, things like overhead valves were esoteric features of expensive cars.  Today, dual overhead cams with variable valve timing, is pretty common even among the least expensive of automobiles.

Now granted maybe something was lost along the way.   Back in the "good old days" you could go to your Ford, Chevy, or MoPar dealer and buy a car with a V-8 engine, and by replacing the cam, the intake, the carburetor, and the exhaust system, increase the horsepower by 25-50%.   And you could do this with hand tools, in your garage at home.  Today?  Well, you can buy a fancy air filter or try to reprogram your ECU, but the results are not so dramatic - Engineers didn't leave horsepower on the drafting table this time around - it wasn't economical.  And today, well, you can get 300 HP out of a four-cylinder engine.  Think there is any headroom left in that?  Probably not.

So the home tinkerer finds that he can't tinker.  This doesn't mean all is lost - you can still do many repairs at home.  But increasingly, such repairs are unnecessary.  Changing spark plugs or engine fluids is something done so infrequently these days that is just isn't worth hassling over.

And that is the nature of complexity.  Early on, trying to make things "complex" was an exercise in frustration, as the more complex a machine can be made, the more failure modes are introduced.  In an era of 50,000-mile "ring jobs" and 20,000-mile "valve jobs" adding complexity to a car only insured more woes.  But once these sort of repairs became esoteric, due to increased reliability - we could pile on complexity without sacrificing reliability.  And indeed, as I noted, reliability is greater than ever, today.

Most other technology falls along the same lines.  Do you remember those old 40MB Seagate hard drives? Do you remember how we had to "run diagnostics" on our computers to test the memory and scan the hard drive for "bad sectors"?   Memory chips were removable back then, because sometimes they did go bad - and you had to replace them.  Computers today are 1,000 times (10,000? 100,000?) more complex than those old DOS machines - but oddly enough are far more reliable.

That being said, there is a "sweet spot" in technology between bleeding edge and "Dad-gum, they don't make 'em like they useta!"  Clinging to obsolete technology (as I am prone to do - typing this on one of my now three ancient Toshiba laptops!) can be more costly than upgrading, and eventually, technology becomes obsolete or unusable.  Sure, it would be romantic to drive around in a 1957 Chevy convertible, but the reality would be a very uncomfortable and unsafe ride, and oddly enough, less reliable that a more modern vehicle.  On the other hand, you don't want to be the first on the block with some weird esoteric technology that never worked right in the lab, much less in real life.

I noted before that I use the Walmart standard of technology - if some new tech has trickled down to the Walmart level, I assume they've worked the bugs out of it as it is now ready for the plebes to consume.   On the flip side, when parts are NLA and everybody stops making what you're using, well, the writing is on the wall - time to think about moving on in the world.

Too bad, too.  I just got used to Windows 7!