I sometimes think about the things we take for granted in automotive technology. Not very often; that’s the whole part of “taking for granted” that makes it so.
When I was driving a 1976 AMC Matador to university, I’d occasionally leave the lights on in the parking lot as I scrambled for a shuttle bus in the morning, and return to a dead battery, often after a night class. I wasn’t the only one. Many students were newish drivers, quickly learning the results of their carelessness. I locked my keys in more than once.
My kids have never driven a car that doesn’t tell the driver the lights are on nor has anyone ever locked the keys in the car. That annoying chime is closer to an angel’s whisper to some of us, and I’m grateful for it.
It’s been more than twenty years since I’ve driven a car that had difficulty starting in rainy weather. I don’t have to carry around a can of WD-40 to spray on the spark plug wires, often the only way to start our old Ramcharger.
It’s been about that long since I’ve had a call from any friend saying they’ve flooded their car. Fuel injection took away that pain, and it’s my mother I can remember most clearly pumping the gas pedal to start a car, not me.
It’s been more than ten years since I rolled down a window, an advance that I can actually take or leave most days. But I remember when power windows were only for the neighbours who knew someone in the business, and got a discount on the purchase of cars with all the bells and whistles. I also remember the ridiculous expense of replacing the power window assembly in the first car I owned that had it, and I can still see my father slowly shaking his head at a costly repair he’d predicted.
Parking used to be more of an art form, if only because it was more difficult. My sister’s VW Beetle had a short and snappy wheelbase, but she’d perfected the repeated pulls on the manual steering wheel to drop it into parallel parking spot. Too many drivers today have never even felt Armstrong steering, a decided negative if you have a power steering failure and are faced with wrestling your car to safety.
As a teenager, the initial days with our new car – the first with power brakes – made me grateful it was also the first car that had proper seatbelts. And those seatbelts have changed so much, as well. I still remember lap belts, much like those in an airplane, with no give. Then again, I remember never wearing seatbelts at all; today the seatbelts are as good as the instinct to put them on.
When I learned to drive, we were still taught how to pump the brakes. Now anti-lock braking systems (ABS) are such a fundamental part of our current cars, manufacturers can barely bother to consider it a bragging point. Of course their cars have ABS; now if we could just get every driver to know not to freak out at that weird pulsing feel if they really apply them, we could get the most safety use out of it.
I’ve bemoaned the loss of driver skill in the past, and I still do. The dampening of the driving experience that comes with the loss of standard transmissions, the settings that will park a car for you and systems that will spy on your teenaged drivers. But I’d be remiss if I didn’t note the fact that safety features like airbags, once the province of only the wealthy, are now the norm. Sure, everybody loved their families, but people who bought Volvos loved their families more. Airbags are now standard in virtually every car on the market, regardless of price. Same with traction control, and that ABS.
Reliability and fuel efficiency leaf frog ahead with each generation of new cars. You’d be hard pressed not to find a decent vehicle at each price point, and keep it that way with general maintenance. Oil changes at intervals twice as long, tune-ups even longer than that.
There have been some miscues. I remember the advent of car alarms that everyone promptly ignored. Annoying, overly sensitive and ultimately achieving very little, car alarms quickly became the Boy Who Cried Wolf.
Like that Club that people bought in droves to lock onto their steering wheel to prevent theft, it soon became evident to most that if somebody wants your car badly enough, they’ll get it. And random thieves looting your Christmas shopping or electronics are going to be in and out before most people will ever understand what they’re seeing, if at all. Professionals target specific cars; joyriders want the easiest prey.
We could bitch about a lot of things regarding cars, and we do, but I know people who have died without things I take for granted, which means I know people who are alive because of them, too.
Just thinking out loud.