How computer chips trumped drill bits

Cars from the mechanical age decay in a Vermont junkyard. (Photo by Tamsen Todisco, Copy Desk Chief)
Cars from the mechanical age decay in a Vermont junkyard. (Photo by Tamsen Todisco, Copy Desk Chief)

By John Mallow, contributor

10/21/2015

Some people might say that a car is just a means of transportation, but there are plenty of people for whom a car embodies more than just that. Driving a vehicle can be an experience that someone looks forward to or feels indifference toward. Depending on how one interprets the task of driving, it is possible to infer the relationship an owner has with their car.

What knowledge do drivers possess? Do they understand how their vehicle operates? Can they perform any maintenance on it themselves? The interest in car culture seems to have waned tremendously in the past decade or so. It seems that driving has become just a chore to be done between activities of real interest. Even more out of favor is the process of working on and repairing one’s own car.

The design of automobiles has increased in complexity over the last 30 years, to the point where it has become nearly impossible for the average driver to repair even minor issues. Increased complexity plays a problematic role, but more so, reliance on technology brings about drivers with less mechanical-inclination.

Ask anyone this simple question: What is the difference between fuel injection and carburetion? It would be surprising if more than a few people could tell you. This example is but one of the changes in automobile technology since the 1980s, yet there are many more that have left the back yard mechanic scratching his head.

Consider the introduction of on-board diagnostics. This standard was introduced in the mid-to-late 1980s as a way to determine issues with a vehicle’s engine and various other components. This system illuminates dashboard-mounted lights that indicate issues that arise. It requires an expensive tool to connect to and diagnose.

No doubt, it has become infuriatingly difficult to fix even simple problems. This is a big contributor to the lack of propped-open hoods and guys on flattened cardboard boxes underneath their rides on Sunday afternoons.

While this may come as a disappointment to many, the real beneficiary is the professional mechanic charging a high dollar to work on an automobile.

Vocational and trade schools are a great option for those who are not seeking a master’s degree in existential philosophy, yet want to learn a practical skill in a field of high demand.

Institutions such as Universal Technical Institute and Motorcycle Mechanics Institute are such schools that allow someone to accomplish the aforementioned goal. The men and women who choose this occupational path take on the important, but under-appreciated jobs that keep things running the way they should.

Things like plumbing, HVAC, auto repair, carpentry and metalworking are among those skills that are overlooked until they are needed to fix a problem. There appears to be less emphasis placed on the necessity of workers in these areas as more importance is placed on becoming doctors, lawyers and engineers. Yes, these are also important fields, but not every student possesses the cognitive abilities to excel in these areas of study.

The next time your air conditioning goes on the fritz, give a hearty thank you to the guy or gal who comes over to take care of it for you.

Depending on how you look at it, we are unfortunately deep in the digital age as a society. Ones and zeroes have taken precedence over the venerable hammer and nail. Of course, there are benefits to the abundance and progression of technology. Consulting Google is arguably the easiest way to find a solution to most problems.

On the other side, reliance on digital aids has led to a generation incapable of solving the very problems they search for on the Internet. Also, this over-reaching influence has led to more people understanding the functions of a computer than the cars they drive. This circles back to the overwhelming complexity of automobile design, but also highlights how helpless we would be without modern conveniences.

It would be surprising if any 20-something could go a whole day without the use of a cell phone or computer. Instead of relying on the knowledge one has learned through experience, it is much easier to just Google a problem or get someone else to fix it instead. It is now more common to have a drawer full of earbuds, batteries and cell phone chargers than a drawer containing screwdrivers, electrical tape and a hammer.

While it is disconcerting to ponder the outcome of a society so obsessed with the devices in their pockets, it is more disappointing to think about what this says about a previously industrious nation. The automobile has changed society for the better, but the increasing complexity of the technology has taken us away from actively participating in the experience.

Along with this comes a whole generation of kids without any desire to understand the mechanical world around them. Instead of being interested in gears and bolts, they are infatuated with selfies and hashtags. This might seem benign, and at the moment it is, but far more detrimental effects will inevitably result from this problem.

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