The 2011 Volkswagen GTI uses a loudspeaker (“Soundaktor” in VW’s parlance) mounted to the engine firewall to play pre-recorded engine noise and make the car sound better to the vehicle’s occupants. The new BMW M5 plays recorded samples of engine noise over the stereo system to enhance the auditory experience of driving. (For further reading see: http://bit.ly/Q8Gp8v) Some owners are distracted, disenchanted, disappointed, disgruntled, disgusted and disambiguated about this. Well, maybe not the last one, but they’re not happy. Why? If one examines the history of automobiles, it’s obvious that ever since the first prehistoric teenager got his first Flintstone-mobile there have only been two objectives: 1) make it go faster and 2) make it sound cooler. (OK, three objectives: use it to attract the attention of prehistoric teenage girls). The cars mentioned above sound better with the technology than without, and the car owners were blissfully ignorant until they discovered it. So what’s the problem?
First, I’d like to clarify something. This issue is, to me, fertile ground for a philosophical inquiry into product design. I don’t think that the manufacturers have done anything morally wrong, and at the same time I acknowledge and respect the owner’s objections. I am simply fascinated by the emotional undercurrents and what they might teach us about how people respond to design. I’m curious about where the rubber meets the road.
Now, we might guess that the owners’ opposition comes from any kind of technological trickery, but there are some interesting counter-examples to consider, like anti-lock brakes, traction control and active suspensions. We like that cars stop quickly on slippery roads and we don’t really care how or why. We like that we can drive blindingly fast, taking turns at impossible angles and we don’t care how the car manages to do it. We don’t seem to care that the suspension or brakes depend on electronics and actuators to augment the “normal” mechanisms. We like driving as fast as possible at every moment, and if that means that we need to use retro-thrusters and NASA-developed robotic arms to stop us before we careen through the back wall of our garage, then, by the moons of Jupiter, they better be an option! (N.B.: Many high-performance drivers dislike active suspensions because they can’t “feel the road” as well as with a passive suspension.) But brakes and suspensions are about Objective #1: driving performance. It’s possible that performance doesn’t play by the same rules as aesthetics.
The continuum of available sound enhancements provides an illuminating context. Engines are frequently tuned to sound better, and many aftermarket intake and exhaust systems are specifically designed to make engines sound better. Passive resonators (a shower for your engine to sing into) can be used to change the sound quality of the engine, and even mounted to the firewall, which in turn acts to amplify the engine noise further. Porsche’s new “Sound Symposer” allows the driver to route more engine noise into the cabin at the touch of a button, by virtue of a mechanical valve placed between the engine air intake and the cabin. The approach of interest, however, is a little different in that it plays back pre-recorded sound in response to how hard the driver is stepping on the gas.
So how do we know when we’ve gone too far? A cleverly designed pipe or other resonator seems not to offend, because it’s still physically working with the noise the engine is generating under the hood as we’re driving. And indeed, these passive devices are what most drivers advocate using. I think the new playback technique crosses a philosophical line in the sand by dramatically weakening the physical, acoustic connection between the engine that’s actually under the hood and the sounds we hear when we drive it. Instead, we hear sound that came from some other engine, somewhere else.
I think authenticity is the key to seeing this issue from the perspective of the people who object. There isn’t anything intrinsically wrong with simulation. We’re willing to tolerate simulation in some cases and even embrace it when other needs outweigh the experience of the genuine article. How many apartment-dwelling pianists have a nine-foot grand piano? How many have an electronic keyboard that sounds almost as good as a nine-foot grand piano? But this arrangement is one of necessity (cost + space) and the tradeoff is manifestly obvious. Nobody says upon delivery of their new electronic keyboard, “Whoa! How come this thing doesn’t have strings and hammers? And where’s the big, weird-shaped top thingy?”
But we are emotional creatures. Our rationality has limits and sometimes we gladly sprint past them in pursuit of beauty and authenticity. A quote from the film Must Love Dogs gives an example of a willing trade of performance for authenticity. The protagonist, Jake, is lovingly, painstakingly building a wooden racing boat even though he can’t find anyone to buy it and race it. His friend thinks the whole endeavor is pointless:
Jake: Wood boats can win, trust me on that.
Friend: They can’t win. That’s why people don’t want them.
Jake (grudgingly conceding the point): They can’t win, but they lose beautifully. And the whole experience is just better.
Performance is not everything. Performance and aesthetics is not everything. Sometimes performance and aesthetics and cost is not even everything. Sometimes the thing underneath the performance, aesthetics and cost is everything, or at least something. But it’s not nothing. Authenticity increases the depth of an experience. It creates the opportunity for not just a pleasant user experience, but a romantic experience. In this case, the auditory experience is an indication of engine performance, but it’s also an intimate, real-time connection between car and driver. Knowing that you’re listening to a simulation changes that connection.
Our relationship to technology is an interesting one. To say that it is love/hate is an oversimplification. I think it’s more of a love/co-dependence/hate/addiction/take-it-for-granted/why-won’t-you-just-@!?*-work kind of a thing. Y’know, kind of like your favorite sports team.
What a piece of work is iPad, how sleek in form, how generous in resolution. In speed, how like a velociraptor. In simplicity how like a wooden spoon! Except nobody gets Hamlet-sized pangs of delight or yearning when thinking about the technology and design of wooden spoons. Well, somebody does, just not anybody I know. Sporks are totally different: fascinating things – especially the titanium ones. Anyway, a similar low regard is given to microwave ovens. They once held a prominent place in the pantheon of important technological developments, yet now they are casually summoned to perform such pedestrian tasks as re-heating that stuff I found in the fridge that wasn’t even that good to begin with. How long ‘til we feel the same way about the iPad?
We have an Edison phonograph player at home. Occasionally we crank it up (literally) and play some John Philip Sousa, standing before it in reverent silence, marveling at the fact that it’s possible to get music from irregular grooves on a slowly turning, defective Frisbee. Meanwhile, the DVD player in the living room is pouting and sniffling because we never take any note of it at all. Poor little DVD player; let me wipe off your tiny digital tears…
And so it seems part of the human condition is to seek novelty and consume new technologies. After we acquire them, their benefits become familiar, but more importantly as time goes on, we linger on their shortcomings. Our general lack of understanding about how they work accelerates our disappointment. Paradoxically in the case of the phonograph player above, a simpler device inspires awe in an unexpected way: We collectively believe (at least a little) that it isn’t possible to play music without elaborate electronic equipment and that a crude mechanism – completely visible to the naked eye! – is manifestly unsuited to the task.
I’m not scolding, but I never, ever want to hear you complain again about your GPS/MP3/internet/video/app smartphone just because it doesn’t understand you when you mumble! (Sorry, that slipped out.) My point is that we simply run certain risks if we take technology for granted or mistake it for magic with unlimited power.
• We invite both misfortune and embarrassment when we don’t understand how technology works: No, you really cannot open your locked car with your cell phone by having your wife hold the car remote next to her phone and push the “unlock door” button.
• If we always presuppose hi-tech solutions, we might miss the chance to solve problems in creative ways with “low-tech” devices – something that could benefit cost, schedule, the environment and even effectiveness. Yes, you can level two points on opposite walls of a room by using a GPS or a laser level. You know what else works? About 20 feet of clear plastic tubing mostly filled with water. (Thanks, Archimedes!)
• Finally, if we don’t stop to consider our tools once in a while, we might miss out on a decidedly human experience: a sense of wonder and appreciation for some truly amazing things. (Seriously: sporks)
By now most people have completely forgotten Toyota’s unfortunate encounter with an angry public demanding to know why certain vehicles accelerated spontaneously and uncontrollably. The findings? Most of the accidents studied by National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) were apparently caused by “pedal misapplication,” and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) could not find proof that there were electronic design flaws that caused the accelerations. Fine. But what else might we learn from the findings?
A fascinating statement is made in the NASA report: “The Toyota Electronic Throttle Control (ETC) was far more complex than expected involving hundreds of thousands of lines of software code,” which meant that they couldn’t spend as much time carefully reviewing all of the software as they had planned to.
Let that soak in: NASA is surprised at how complicated the software is for a Toyota gas pedal.
Now NASA might be a little old-fashioned, being run by old men wearing suspenders and pulling at their beards, fretting about the weather for the next launch. But let’s remember that they managed to send not one, but two rovers to Mars that operated many lifetimes longer (four years) than their original mission (three months). NASA knows software. The Autonomous Space Exploration Robotics Illustrator (IARES) software platform that the rovers used has about 300,000 lines of code.
Well, but those are just little robots that drive around like my kids’ remote controlled car.
Ahem. On another planet that’s 100 million miles away?
OK, here’s another interesting comparison from http://www.vectorsite.net/avf35.html “The processing power of the F-35 has presented the electronics system developers with a formidable software challenge. The F-22 Raptor uses about 2.5 million lines of software, but the F-35 will use 5.6 million lines of code.” OK! That’s a lot of code and it makes sense because those things are wicked cool pieces of high-tech military hardware, right?
Well, apparently someone else appreciates the prestige that comes with being able to post big numbers: Chevrolet. “I thought of fighter aircraft as complex software projects at four to six million lines of code,” says Meg Selfe, IBM’s Vice President for Embedded and Complex Systems. “But the [Chevy] Volt has ten million lines.” (IBM developed a model-driven methodology for the Volt project.)
Let that soak in: a little electric car, whose four little wheels are pretty much always in contact with the ground and has a top speed of 100mph is running more software than the most advanced fighter aircraft in history, which has a top speed of Mach 1.6+.
I will grant that there are certain problems with using the number of lines of code as a metric, the details of which make drying paint seem exciting by comparison, but let’s assume that the numbers are adequate for making a rough comparison of complexity. (No offense to the people who develop paints, by the way: I love paint. I promise I’ll pick on grass growing next time.)
I think the take home message is this: less code is more. More reliability, more safety, maybe more performance. Maybe even a little more profit. Or maybe not. But here’s the thing: if you can’t examine, compare and reason about your design because of its complexity or sheer size, how are you ever going to know if it works, much less if it’s safe? Testing is important, but it can’t be conducted in such a way that every defect is discovered. I suspect that there is a “right” amount of code, of complexity, of cleverness necessary to get the job done; any less is unacceptable, and any more is an encumbrance.
Most of us probably wouldn’t notice if all of a sudden the GPS in our car didn’t work – what with texting and changing songs on our iPods and eating breakfast, there’s barely time to look out the window anymore. “Besides,” you say, “I’m pretty good with a map and compass from my days in the Boy/Girl Scouts. And if that fails, I’ve got an old sextant my Grandpa had in the Navy…” All true. But GPS isn’t just for finding your way to the Kwiky Mart, anymore. It’s used extensively for time and timing applications.
“But I don’t look at my GPS for the time; I look at my cell phone.” Exactly: how does your cell phone know what time it is? “There’s a little clock inside, like everything else.” Well, almost: have you ever noticed you don’t have to ever set the time on your cell phone? Cell phones get the time from cell phone towers, which also happen to handle all of the data that flies back and forth between you and your spouse when you’re trying to find out which kind of toothpaste you’re supposed to buy: the cool mint, tartar control gel or the extra whitening, vitamin-D enriched gel with flavor crystals. The digital packets carrying your highly-important oral dentifrice data must be carefully timed, lest your voice be garbled or your call be dropped. You musn’t return with the wrong toothpaste.
The reason we get such spot-on navigation from GPS, enabling us to get within several feet of our favorite accident sites, is because it measures the difference in time it takes for the highly-ordered signals from each of the GPS satellites to reach us at our current location. Each GPS satellite has a cesium clock, which is even more accurate and expensive than that nice Swatch you got last Christmas. In fact, it’s so expensive that the fine folks who build cell phone towers and networks noticed that it would be much, much, much cheaper to use a GPS receiver and the totally free GPS signals than to install a cesium clock into each cell tower to ensure that your voice sounds like what you say. (You get the time displayed on your cell phone ‘cause it’s a nice feature and it’s basically free. And because the cell phone manufacturers are out to steal the personal timepiece market from Swatch.)
“So…?” So cell phones are so completely dependent on GPS signals that they don’t work within a few minutes if GPS isn’t available. “Well, geez, nobody’s going to destroy all the GPS satellites. That would require a highly sophisticated, coordinated attack using advanced rocket technology and…” No, probably not. But consider this: the GPS satellites are 12,000 miles up and they’re not very powerful. In fact, the signal that reaches the Earth’s surface is incredibly weak and delicate, like one of those prize-winning, elaborate sugar centerpiece decorations you see on the Food Network. If it weren’t for some clever slight-of-hand that most GPS receivers perform, you’d notice that if you stand under a decent-sized tree with a lot of leaves on it you don’t get a GPS signal there. That’s how weak it is. It’s not the satellites themselves, it’s the signal. GPS signals are ridiculously easy to jam with a nine volt battery and off-the-shelf electronics; occasionally it even happens accidentally. What if someone wanted to really disrupt, say, the entire city of Chicago? Or Los Angeles? Or New York City? Unthinkable? Think again.
Cell phones are not the only things that depend so heavily on GPS for timing information: financial institutions, power utilities, and other communication networks do, too. In fact, it’s hard to list all of the things that rely on GPS, because they’re everywhere: it’s so simple and cheap to integrate GPS into other products and instruments that we don’t really even think about it anymore.
Which is why I was bummed to hear that the U.S. government shut down the only viable backup to GPS for both navigation and timing in February this year. It was called Loran-C (or just “loran” for short), and it worked quite well. It provided signals that were good enough to be a backup for pilots to get to the runway and all but the most precise timing applications. The signals were also high-powered and very difficult to jam. Loran suffered from a problem, though, because it wasn’t GPS: it wasn’t quite as accurate, and it didn’t have worldwide coverage. The government threatened to shut down loran for years under the pretense of saving money. As a result, there were no sexy, little, modern loran receivers, either. (Go figure: which company is going to design a receiver the size of an MP3 player for a signal that the government might shut down at any moment?) So loran was under the sword of Damocles for a long, long time. Until 2008, when the government committed to keeping the loran system operational for another 20 years. Until recently when the government decided: “Well, not so much”.
So, when we consider the actual cost savings (loran can be operated and maintained for a year at a fraction of the cost to simply launch a single GPS satellite), we have an interesting situation: GPS is very accurate, global and very delicate; loran is less accurate, localized and very robust. Loran could be used as a backup to navigation and timing applications in the entire continental United States in the event of intentional jamming. The two technologies complement and enhance each other very well even under normal conditions because their signals are diverse. What’s that worth?