• May 27, 2023

How can you tell when progress is no longer being made? That’s easy. It is when something simple and inexpensive that works really well – and lasts essentially forever – is replaced by something that is complex and expensive, that doesn’t last very long and provides no meaningful functional improvement over what it replaced.

Keyless/push-button ignition, for instance.

This system began – as most such things do – as a gadget rather than improvement. Instead of a key made of metal one inserted into a lock and then turned to start the car’s engine, a button you pushed – and a fob you held. At first, it seemed very “cool” and also “futuristic,” while putting a key into a lock seemed so old fashioned.

But what has been gained? And what has it cost?

The “gains” can be measured in the second or two one doesn’t spend inserting a key into a lock. And in the not having to find the key, in order to insert it into the lock.

And the costs?

First, the big one – of the fob itself vs. the key. A key is a piece of metal, cut to fit the lock. It costs less than $10 to cut one – or replace one. A fob can cost more than $100 to replace. Even the “inexpensive” replacements costs many times as much as it costs to get a new key cut.

And it is more likely you will have to get (and pay for) a new fob, sooner. They just stop working, being electronic things. And they do not like being run through the wash – also because they are electronic things. The can also be crushed under foot or otherwise physically damaged. It is much harder to hurt a physical key.

Replacement costs are the second cost of keyless/push-button systems  – one that metal keys rarely impose because they are not electronic things and so can be run through the wash. Which doesn’t hurt them. In fact, it helps them – by making them cleaner and shinier than they were. Being simple pieces of metal, keys never stop working. Eventually, you might wear one out. But this typically happens only after decades of use. (I have the original keys that came with my 1976 Trans-Am almost 50 years ago and they work as well in 2023 as they did back in 1976.)

The key – and the lock it fits into – are also discrete (as opposed to discreet) devices, meaning they are not interconnected with/dependent upon anything else. If the key breaks or wears out, you can easily and inexpensively get a replacement cut – and at any hardware store. As opposed to going to the dealer to get the code/have the new fob paired with your device.

If the lock the key fits into breaks – and they do, eventually – all that needs replacing is the lock. A simple – discrete – mechanical cylinder that’s also easily and inexpensively replaced.

A fob wirelessly connects to the sensor that enables the button you push to send the signal to the computer to start the engine. While electronic components themselves are inexpensive to manufacture, proprietary electronics you’re forced to buy – when you need a replacement – often are not. And you may need computers/diagnostic equipment you don’t own and don’t have the knowledge/training to use, in which case it’s a trip to the dealer – and we all know how much that costs.

So, what has been gained for all this cost?

You save a couple of seconds and you have the minor convenience of not having to insert a key into a lock and turn it, in order to start the car. This is not progress. It is regression, in the name of “progress.”

To understand what progress was, one must go back about four decades to the decade (the 1980s) when mechanical carburetors were superseded by electronic fuel injectors. The benefits were vast, the chief ones being almost no routine maintenance needed, much easier starting (with little-to-no “warming up”needed), greatly improved drivability and much lower fuel consumption as well as much more efficient combustion (and lower emissions of actual pollutants that fouled the environment, as opposed to the “emissions” of inert, non-reactive gasses that hurt the feelings of neurotics).

It was during this same era – some 40 years ago – that transmissions (both manuals and automatics) got overdrive gears, another example of meaningful progress in that much was improved at very little cost. It was no longer necessary to choose between a car with snappy acceleration – that had a more aggressive final drive ratio – and one that got better gas mileage – because it had a “highway” final drive ratio – but was sluggish when accelerating.

Performance cars now got gas mileage comparable to economy cars when they didn’t have transmissions with overdrive gearing – and economy cars got even more economical.

But such progress has largely been arrested because gadgets have replaced innovation – chiefly because it is easier, cheaper and more profitable for the manufacturers to bedazzle people with electronica than it is to R&D meaningful improvements into cars. And also because government regulations serve to stifle meaningful innovation for the sake of complying with whatever the regs are. It’s less work and since everyone else is doing the same, there’s less incentive to do anything differently.

And that’s one reason why things are regressing rather than progressing.

. . .

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