Now and then, when I find myself taking technology for granted, I try to step back for a few minutes and imagine what my grandfather would have thought about the technology advance over the last 17 years since he died. My grandfather always seemed surprised and delighted by advances in technology. He would marvel at what seemed minor things to me: coffee heated in microwave ovens, Walkman cassette players, and of course, computers. He was an auto mechanic and the technology he was most familiar with was the internal combustion engine and its associated parts, but I remember him wistfully talking about how cars were being controlled by computer more and more–and this was twenty years ago. What he would think of today’s cars, which he called automobiles?
Improvements in automobiles seem steady and constant. Every new year introduces new models that improves upon previous ones. A new car might have one or two features that your old car didn’t have. Your next new car will have one or two more new features. Since cars last longer than they used to, these incremental improvements can sometimes seem like great leaps between two or three successive cars.
I’m not sure my grandfather ever really “got” the Internet. He sent occasional emails through AOL, but I think the concept of a globally connected peer-to-peer network of computers was largely beyond him. It just wasn’t in his experience. Cars were in his wheelhouse. He could see, if not entirely understand, the technological advances cars were making from one year to the next: fuel-injected engines, air conditioning, improvements in the manufacture of motors that required less maintenance over longer periods of time.
Many of the improvements I see cars these days are in areas of comfort and safety, and I suspect it is these improvements that would delight my grandfather more than anything else. I’m not sure that he ever drove in a GPS-equipped car, but I think he would have been tickled by the car displaying a realtime map of his location, and telling him when to make a turn. (“Backseat driver,” he would have said.) Still, imagining him driving with me in our own GPS-equipped car, I can hear him saying “Technology is amazing! It’s incredible that a bunch of satellites in space are beaming precisely timed signals to the car. I couldn’t have dreamed of such a thing!”
When I think about it, many, of not most, of the tedious parts of driving can be handled automatically these days. GPS plots your course, accounts for traffic, and can even provide data to self-driving cars to get them where they need to go. Cruise control has been improved so that the car will automatically keep distance with the car in front of you. Safety systems tell you when someone is in your blind spot, or when your car begins to drift from a lane. If someone suddenly slows down in front of you, your car will automatically slow down to avoid a collision. Cars can even park themselves.
If there was one feature that would blow my grandfather’s mind if he could see it, it would be the car camera view. In our car, when putting the car into drive or reverse and staying below 10 MPH, the four cameras on the car work in concert to generated a bird’s eye view of the car in its current location. You can see if you are inside the lines of your parking spot. You can see if anyone is passing behind you, or one to one side. It’s an impressive bit of mathematical interpolation that would delight my grandfather. I sometimes imagine him sitting in the passenger seat when I put the car into reverse. Up pops a live video of the car from directly overhead.
“Where is that picture coming from?” my grandfather would ask, his mouth forming an O like surprised child.
I’d point up to the sky. “Satellite overhead,” I’d say. I’d wait for his stunned reaction, and then I’d confess the truth. I’d point out the cameras, and explain how the computer in the car can take those images and translate them into the overhead view.
He’d recite his mantra: “Technology is amazing!” Grinning, he’d add, “We never had anything like this.”
Well, it’s fairly common these days, and I tend to take it for granted. Every now and then, I try to remind myself just how amazing technology is by trying to imagine what my grandfather would make of it.
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