WHEN AUTOS WERE HARD WARE
Automotive transportation is one of the key pivotal innovations that connected mankind and permanently changed the world. There was not one complete instant technology to start, but rather arising from the amalgamation of a few disparate ones.
Coachbuilders had been making people-carrying carriages since Roman times; steam and electric motors existed almost a century prior to the first commercial automobile.
What took everyone so long to think to put motive power together with wheels? Henry Ford is often incorrectly credited with inventing the automobile. He did not – the Benz Patent-Motorcar was the first production automobile made in 1885.
In 1913, copying OPT (Other Peoples’ Technology) Ford instead developed the first automobile assembly line. The improvement in process was biggest catalyst for changing the world; not technology. Early cars were threadbare hardware – minimum viable products with no fat on the bones; creature comforts not yet invented. Yet the rest of mankind was now just a road and drive away.
GREEN ACHES & AM
Getting a driver’s learning permit certainly grew my world; bought my first car for $285 at age 15. The only communication technology aboard that very ugly mallard green 1967 Pontiac Strato Chief was a push-button AM radio and the horn for forward replies.
FM radio had its own option box on car dealer order forms, but few buyers checked it off in the heydays of AM radio. The one speaker in the back window shelf was scratchy and good for nothing, but if the ignition key was on, the radio was on. Aerial up and away: I was connected to the outside world. If I could go back and apologize to the neighbors for the volume, I would feel better yelling at all the loud music idiots driving around today.
Before a dime was considered on any vehicle safety repair, one had to first bolt on the next step in the auto-sound revolution: an under dash 8-Track tape player. You may have had to cut another hole on the other side of rear package tray for speaker #2. Better for you but worse for the car though, was cutting holes in those cherry front door or kick panels for speakers #3 & 4.
The playback head unit technology evolved to cassette tape and then to compact disc, but for generations any goofy teenager could handle this stereo upgrade in the driveway.
MONEY FOR NOTHING
Towards the 21st century, electronic and computer technology really changed in short order. Big-Auto had wised up to the fact that if they used the same dash hole template forever, customers would not order their factory premium priced radio products in favor of better stereo aftermarket goods. Integrating various components into more modern unique sculpted dashboards made it hard for customization after the factory.
Still, automotive electronic components are planned long in advance for model year assembly lines, and are generally outdated by the time the customer buys from the dealer. In spite of always behind the times, the entertainment systems in vehicles became a serious cash cow for the automakers. Charging big bucks for yesterday’s ghetto blaster equivalent system was great for the bottom line.
AUTOMOTIVE ELECTRONIC PROGRESSION
AM (Amplitude Modulated) FM (Frequency Modulated) CB (Citizens Band) XM (Satellite)
PHONOGRAPH 8-TRACK CASSETTE TAPE COMPACT DISC BLUETOOTH DASH CAMERA
MOBILE CAR PHONE ON-STAR (GM) NAVIGATION INFOTAINMENT SYSTEM AUTONOMOUS VEHICLE
We’ve never had or knew we needed so much information and entertainment while on the road. Now we must have “infotainment” as if a new term and skill set was needed to keep us progressing in synch. On one hand it seems ridiculous but to be truthful, the 2022 list of features for Tesla’s Infotainment Upgrade is admittedly astounding in technical depth:
TESLA INFOTAINMENT UPGRADE
AUDIO & MUSIC GAMING ENTERTAINMENT DRIVER ASSISTANCE SECURITY CELLULAR & WIFI
AM radio is not possible on this upgrade – but good riddance. FM radio is another story – one could expect it but you need to pay $500 to listen to free radio. Billionaires… they get you coming and going, then back up over you to make sure no more coin falls out.
Just because we can do something does not always mean it is a good idea, such as telephoning and driving. Studies have shown that the act of simply talking on a phone (even if hands-free) is a significant distraction for a driver. Multitaskers at heart, we think that while we can see and hear multiple subjects at a time – but realistically the brain can only focus on one thing.
Choose your focus carefully – even if only for self-defense. There are a sickening number of folks driving down the highway at full speed, but with head down looking at their phone. Distracted driving causes nearly one third as many deaths per year as drunk driving (~3,000 vs. 10,000). Off yourself away from my lane, thank you very much.
I can admit to one possible character flaw – I love music. I love modern cabin multi-speaker systems, and I love music loud (not on your street though). Can one fully concentrate on the road while singing and tapping to the loved music at any volume? Probably not. While chances are slim, one day a critical horn honk from a neighboring car, emergency siren or train whistle may not be heard instead of that last swan song.
GLITCH IN THE PAY-TRICKS
Another ominous trend is that what used to be free is no longer; over-the-air broadcast options are being supplanted with “Premiums”. Every product needs an account and a subscription, which really means YOU are the product, and maybe dumb enough to pay a privilege fee for the rest of your life. Forced monetization is a curse across the electronic communication spectrum, but you can just say no if you wish to remain in the last century.
CONNECTED TO THE ENDS
The hardware/software value ratio to the automobile has flipped - gone soft. No car this century was designed without software, got to the assembly line without programming, or was marketed to a customer without coding, or without computer bits guiding delivery.
Technology in the dash is among the top considerations in a modern day vehicle purchase. Volks want their Wagon connected and powered. Customer demand is surely what drives automakers to a new level of “stereo” wars.
SLEEPER CAR TECH
Buick is running a 2022 ad campaign featuring their new in-car voice-activated search, with the older lead actor mis-calling his own car’s brand by an Amazon brand: Alexa. The message is an insult trifecta – to Buick’s own brand, to their target customers, and to our intelligence.
"Alexa: Is this the best Buick can do?"" "ummm" "Buick: I mean Alexa: please change driving directions to the nearest Tesla dealer."
All joking while being serious aside, if I am ever homeless, I would make sure my last possession was a Tesla, not a Buick (except for a 1954 Skylark). That way, it would be comforting to live on the street with your fingers on the dash and pulse on the world.
Music just loud enough to not disturb the neighbors.
xyz digital inc.
The History of Car Radios (caranddriver.com)
History and development of early Car Radios - radiomuseum.org
1970-72 Oldsmobile Cutlass/442 Radio OE Replica with Bluetooth - classiccarstereos.com
5 Best Car Satellite Radios - BestReviews
Paying a deadly toll as technology turns a car into ‘a candy store of distraction’ - The Times