As a species, we humans are spectacularly good at taking progress for granted. Particularly in the age of the Internet and the ever-shrinking and more powerful microchip, the euphoria and wonder at the latest and greatest invention is often curtailed by the release of something newer and better. We’ve become entirely reliant on it, and expect rapid and unending progress without giving it a second thought.
Another consequence of this dramatic progress is that quite often, ‘things’ are going in several directions at once, and cars are a classic example. Right now all the car manufacturers are either hedging their bets about future power sources or a few, like Nissan, are trying to gain an advantage over the opposition by ploughing ahead with their electric Leaf. No-one really knows what the future holds for the internal combustion engine apart from two simple facts: carbon emissions must come down, and one day the petrol is going to run out.
So there are parallel hybrids and plug-in hybrids, electric cars and range-extended electric cars, hydrogen fuel cells – even the turbine is threatening a comeback despite not having been seriously considered for decades. But what the average man in street must think of all this is hard to fathom. It’s hard to imagine aircraft manufacturers suddenly bringing out six different measures of propulsion, all of which are a bit of a mystery to a package holiday tourist and all of which have various advantages and disadvantages. Simple it is not.
The same thing is happening on a micro scale too. Car interiors now have more electronic kit in them than in your front room. You can have AM/MW/FM, DAB, CD, MP3, USB, DVD, SD cards, a hard drive and Bluetooth just in your audio system. Automatic lights that come on when it’s dark and will also stay on after you lock up and leave, some even allowing you to determine how long you want them to stay on for.
In theory all this extra technology is great and it’s designed to make your driving life easier and more comfortable, but aren’t we sufficiently flabby and sedentary already? If there’s one thing we need to do less of behind the wheel it’s switch off – or maybe switching off a few gadgets is actually the right thing to do.
Some things are just better the way they were; petrol gauges are the perfect example. A digital petrol gauge is made up of segments that gradually disappear as you chew your way through the tank’s contents. Trouble is, you’ve no idea what a segment is worth. And don’t think that watching the segments disappear while keeping an eye on the mileage will help either. I recently drove a car that did nearly 100 miles from full without a segment disappearing, only for the remaining segments to disappear in another hundred miles. A £10 fill up then failed to increase the existing tally of one segment, only for another £10 to take it up to four of five segments.
It’s all very well sitting at the top of the evolutionary tree and crowing about our achievements, but there’s not much point if we don’t gain from it. Inventing something new and clever is the less important half of the job: the hard part is making good use of it rather than being at its mercy.