Broken, battered and bruised

Automobile crossing rope bridge

Automobile crossing rope bridge (Photo credit: The Field Museum Library)

Buying your first car is a rite of passage so it seemed fitting that Dad came with me to help me make a sensible choice. I don’t know why this made so much sense at the time because all of Dad’s cars came from that twilight zone between bangerdom and the crusher. Every crap car from British Leyland and Ford had broken down with us in it, usually during the journey to or from our holiday destination. Nevertheless, armed with a thousand of my own hard borrowed pounds, we made the pilgrimage round the classifieds in search of the perfect vehicle.

Car after car didn’t make the grade as Dad carefully looked over them. A superb looking Mini Clubman with sporty spotlights was dismissed as too sporty. Another car went because there was more rust than car. Some cars were too big. None were too small. At the end of our trail, we found the Goldilocks car, a white Renault 5. It was the rock bottom, bargain basement, base model. It didn’t even have the most essential item of equipment in it, a stereo. It had an 850cc engine which had just about enough power to make the thing move and it cornered on its wing mirrors (or it would if it had any wing mirrors).

An awful lot happened in that car. A few weeks after I bought it, I drove along a residential street. I wasn’t going very fast because the Renault didn’t do fast. From in between two parked cars out came a football bouncing into the road. In the time it took my brain to make the connection that it might be followed by a child, a terrified boy appeared spread-eagled on my bonnet before he bounced off. I think it’s the only time I’ve ever hurt anyone. After the police disappeared and the boy went off in an ambulance, I got back in my car, shaking like a leaf. Before I drove off, I noted with sadness that the child’s mates were still playing football in the road despite the earlier accident and the fact that a football field lay on the other side of the road.

Various bits fell off the car and just about everything failed. The brakes failed when I came down Midland Hill once. The car in front of me braked and came to a stop, indicating to turn off. I braked and my car didn’t stop at all. In the end, I had to drive up the bank at the side of the road. The clutch failed when I went to college. I dropped it over at the clutch garage one September morning and made my way to college. That was the day that the hurricane hit the UK. Late afternoon, I gave them a call to see if it would be ready to take me home.

“Errr… we’ve been having a few problems today mate. Was it the Renault?”

His use of the past tense alarmed me.

“You see, the roof’s fallen on it and we’re still digging it out.”

I really appreciated all the time my Dad took to help me choose the right car, but when I bought my second car, I went alone.


The mobile supercomputer

Automobile crossing rope bridge

Automobile crossing rope bridge (Photo credit: The Field Museum Library)

Maybe it’s my fading memory, but I seem to remember that winters were much colder during my school years. It could be that I spent a lot more time standing around in the snow waiting for buses, but the cold used to seep up through my shoes and into my bones. You didn’t need to look out of the window to see whether it was a cold and frosty morning. The starter motors of the reluctant cars made a characteristic whining noise in a gradually slowing rhythm as the last dying remnants of the battery was eaten away.

In the early 1980s, the ignition systems in cars were mechanical in nature. This meant they had the annoying habit of wearing out at the most inconvenient moments. Not only that, but there wasn’t much adjustment available. It didn’t matter whether it was 30 degrees and sunny or -20 degrees with inches of snow on the ground, the components in the ignition system worked (or rather didn’t) in exactly the same way.

The only tool available to the driver was a little knob called a choke which pulled out of the dashboard and controlled the strength of the fuel mixture. On a cold and frosty morning a richer mixture was required. As the engine heated up, the choke could be pushed gradually back in returning the mixture to normal.

Ford assembly line, 1913.

Ford assembly line, 1913. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Electronics were not the only reason cars were unreliable. The assembly lines on which they were produced had not advanced significantly since Henry Ford came up with the idea. Although many parts were pressed out of steel using a massive die, almost everything was assembled by hand which meant that fit and finish were inconsistent. Some cars were more reliable than others and there was a suspicion that quality of assembly went significantly downhill towards the end of the working week. If you were unlucky enough to have bought an unreliable car, people would refer to it as a “Friday afternoon car”. The metals used in car construction were nowhere near the quality of those used today. In addition, galvanisation had yet to take off and few car manufacturers used sufficient rust protection. Even if your pride and joy was in fine fettle, the dreaded tinworm could have nibbled its way through crucial parts of your car’s anatomy.

Construction techniques have advanced and cars have undoubtedly made massive leaps forward in terms of comfort, reliability, efficiency and safety but the basic form factor has remained the same for about a hundred years. The biggest leap forward has been in terms of the sophistication of the electronic control systems watching over the engine, brakes and suspension. It is not uncommon for a premium car to have 20 – 30 micro controllers and 100 million lines of code buried under the considerable bonnet (or hood if you’re American).

Just to put those numbers in perspective,  according to the Mythical Man Month (required reading for anyone in software) it is estimated that developers on average produce 10 lines of code per working day. I’m assuming that car manufacturers must find more productive programmers otherwise writing the software for a car would take approximately 50,000 man years. Of course not everything is written from scratch and the same code must get reused between different components and different cars. Still, it’s an incredible amount of software and not only that, the quality seems very high which is a comfort when you stamp your feet on the brake pedal in the rain.

I’m just glad I don’t have to listen to that infernal racket on a cold and frosty morning.

Who are they?

Clockwise from top left: Marge, Homer, Bart, S...

Clockwise from top left: Marge, Homer, Bart, Santa’s Little Helper (dog), Snowball II (cat), Lisa, and Maggie. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One of my favourite episodes of the Simpsons is where Homer discovers he has a long-lost brother called Herb. Of course Herb is the complete antithesis of Homer. He is successful, slim with a full head of hair. He runs a successful car (or automobile in the native American) manufacturing company called Powell Motors in Detroit. Herb is overjoyed to learn of his brother and they start to spend a lot of time together.

After a while, Herb realises that Homer is the epitomical average American guy and therefore the best person to design a car for ordinary Americans, so he lets Homer loose and gives him free rein to design the next car from Powell Automobiles. Of course, being the Simpsons, it is an unmitigated disaster. The car that Homer designs appeals to absolutely no-one and Powell Automobiles ends up going bust.

 So where did Homer go wrong. Quite simple really – he did not focus on who his customer were or what they might want. He simply kept adding features until he could think of nothing else to add. What this did was inflated the cost (because there were so many features) and reduced the appeal, because who wants something that is average at everything.

Every time we develop a product, we need to ask ourselves some basic questions. Who is going to use this product?  What are their needs?  What are they going to want to do? It’s a really good idea to define these things in an audience statement so that everyone involved in the product is left in no doubt as to the niche you are trying to fill. It’s also a good idea to express the requirements for the product in terms of use cases.

A really simple idea, a use case is almost a story that defines what the user will end up doing with the product. The benefit in doing this is that everyone can visualise exactly what the product will do. The use cases “As a racing driver I want to get around a lap in the quickest time possible” will yield a very different product to “As a commuter I want to complete long journeys comfortably without using too much fuel”.

The benefits don’t end with development of the product either. If we have the use cases, testers can immediately understand the natural paths through the system and can make sure their tests fully cover these paths (as well as looking for where the users might stray off the path. Because use cases are written in plain English, Sales & Marketing can immediately understand what the product is about and gear up their materials accordingly.

So if you want to end up with a Bugatti Veyron (and not a Homer special) – it’s a very good idea to think about who’s going to use your product.

Suck, squeeze, bang, blow…

Crankshaft (red), pistons (gray) in their cyli...

Crankshaft (red), pistons (gray) in their cylinders (blue), and flywheel (black) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If an alien landed on planet Earth today, I imagine that there are a number of things that we think of as being completely normal which would absolutely bamboozle them.

This was a concept that Cadbury’s used to sell their instant smash where they pictured a group of martians laughing at the ridiculous process of cooking mashed potato. Somehow, I think their laughing would have ground to a halt if they tried a taste test between traditional and instant.

One of the fields I think the aliens would struggle to get their heads around is that of the vehicles on our roads. They would obviously seize onto the importance that we place on the mobility that they give us and would want to know more. They would want to know exactly how they work.

We think nothing of filling our cars with petrol or diesel, jumping in, turning the key and speeding off. But petrol is one of the world’s most flammable substances. It has an extremely low flashpoint which means that it will spontaneously burst into flames if it gets a little bit warm.

It is also highly explosive when mixed with air which is a very scary thought because air is all around us. If your fuel tank is half full of petrol, it is also half full of air which means you are driving round with an awful lot of potential energy sat behind your rear seats. Those no-smoking signs in your local petrol station are there for a reason.

Our visiting aliens would probably have already raised their eyebrows (assuming their physiology actually has eyebrows). They would probably then ask how this flammable explosive fuel turns into motive power.

We would then explain that we pump it to the front of the car where we mix it with air, compress it so that the pressure and temperature rises and then ignite the mixture with a spark. They would probably ask where the spark comes from so we would have a little detour for an hour where we explain all about batteries.

So we have now explained that we get power from the petrol by exploding it in a confined space which pushes a piston up and down. How does that get changed into circular motion at the wheels? So we would then need to explain the how the funnily shaped crankshaft coupled with driveshafts do that. We would also need to explain about gearboxes, because the engine’s oomph all happens in a limited power band.

When we demonstrate the car’s controls, that will probably be the moment the aliens descend into cadbury’s smash style hysterics. The complex ballet of hand and foot movements required to operate the machine which we find so difficult when we are learning to drive, but are second nature to us now, would be the final straw.

The design of the automobile, although somewhat refined over the years, remains fundamentally unchanged after almost a hundred years. Morgans and Reliants aside, cars are predominately four wheeled. Apart from the odd deviation (like square steering wheels in Allegros and digital instruments in Lagondas) the controls and instrumentation have remained broadly the same.

Up until very recently, almost all cars have been powered by internal combustion engines. More recently, car manufacturers have been experimenting with powertrains of differing natures.

Firstly, we have seen hybrids, where we get batteries and an electric motor in addition to an engine. The idea being that at low speeds, you can rely on the supposedly green electric power. Only at speed, do the nasty polluting petrol engines take over. To me, the hybrid is a compromise of the worst sort. They are heavier, more expensive, harder to recycle and arguably have a higher carbon footprint than a normal car.

We have also seen cars powered solely by electric batteries. These ask too much of the driver. I don’t know about you, but I hate filling my car with fuel and I just know that I would also hate having to plug my car in to feed it with electricity. I want my automobile to offer me freedom and I don’t really want a constant reminder that if I will be stranded if i don’t give in to my attention seeking steed.

There is research going on into hydrogen powered cars, but these will require regular feeding too and you will still be driving round in a man made explosive device. There needs to be a fundamental paradigm shift in automobile design. Manufacturers, let me give you my requirements for a perfect car;

Firstly – I don’t want to hear any nonsense about ranges in the hundreds of miles. I want to hear that I don’t need to refuel – or if I do, I would like the refuelling to be done during the annual service by someone in a boiler suit. Secondly, I want the controls to be dodgem simple. There should be virtually no learning curve. Lastly – it must have bulbs that last forever or that repair themselves – I hate changing bulbs on cars.

We have to get this right – aliens are laughing at us.