For decades, most cars -- particularly those with automatic transmissions -- either had a gear selector lever on the steering column, or on the center console with typically 5 distinct positions: Park, Reverse, Neutral, Drive, and Low. In fact, the name of that selector came to be known generally as the PRNDL (you'd pronounce it like Prindle). And even though the actual gear shifting was done automatically without any input from the driver, the simple action of selecting one of the 5 options involved a very physical movement with very distinct detents or positions. Most people could know their selection by "feel" without even looking.
|Somebody at Honda probably thought "What could be simpler|
than pushing a button?" -- Great -- but try pushing the right
button without looking closely. Now imagine doing it in the dark.
And this is cars I'm talking about (at least for the moment). Cars which, more than ever, keep drivers insulated, pampered, bathed in concert-level sound, distracted with smartphone convenience and multimedia entertainment, and lulled into thinking that they are in their own living room or a lounge that just happens to be able to take them to and from work, or across the country, swiftly and comfortably. And the drivers are completely flummoxed by the fact that the simplest physical driving functions of their car have been taken away and replaced by more buttons and digital foolery.
I for one still prefer a manual-shifting transmission, as selecting a gear -- any gear -- still has to be very deliberate, and takes several coordinated physical movements. Unfortunately, it's harder and harder these days to find a car equipped with a manual-shift.
Here's another thing on a related note. A few months ago I purchased a new car -- a VW Sportwagen. Interestingly, my previous car was also a VW Sportwagen, which gives me a unique opportunity to compare and contrast two generations of the same basic vehicle. (The old one was labeled "Jetta" and the new one is a "Golf" -- but it's not much more than a name change, since the two models have long shared most of the same underpinnings). Of course, VW (like any car company) has gone to great efforts to highlight all the improvements that have been made in the newest generation. After a few months of living with the new car, I've come to notice some differences, but in many ways, the differences actually lean in favor of the older generation -- at least by my priorities.
What are some of the highlighted "improvements"? The new car certainly has a lot more electronic "goodies" than the old one had. The new car has a tremendous sound system with touch screen controls, USB ports for connecting iPod or iPhone, complete smartphone interface, Bluetooth, satellite radio, premium speakers, and even a trunk-mounted sub-woofer. However, I've found that it's almost impossible to use it when driving -- easily as dangerous as texting and driving. Changing stations or media input is best done when stopped. It has the push button "Start/Stop," which is more of a gimmick than an improvement, and the gear shift paddles on the steering wheel, which I've found myself accidentally pushing on several occasions (HOLY CRAP, WHY IS THE ENGINE SUDDENLY REDLINING?!!??). It also has back-up camera, which I have to admit is a nice safety feature.
All great stuff (?) to be sure. Electronic gimmicks, feature-packed sound systems, and lots of push buttons seem to appeal to a wide cross-section of the car-buying public today, and they are super easy to sell. But what the car companies know, and many in the buying public don't, is that these "high tech" electronic do-dads are low-cost/high-value. That is, they cost the manufacturer next to nothing, but buyers place a premium value on them. Car manufacturers have found that they can load a car up with these high-tech goodies without increasing their own cost much, but people will be willing to pay more, and perceive the car as a better value. And that means big profits.
But what are some of the ways the older model was better? Not in the glamorous ways, or in the ways that today's typical buyer would notice. One thing I've noticed is materials. The older car felt more solid and much more substantial than one would expect from a sub-compact car. The newer one feels less so. Sure, all cars today use a ton of plastic in the interior surfaces. But there are all kinds of plastics out there. Some feel soft, thick and leather-like, and others feel hard and cheap. The new car uses lots more cheap-feeling plastic (some panels even have visible molding seams). Here's another thing I noticed. The older car came with a full-size spare tire. YES - a full-size spare - not one of those temporary-use-only donuts. You can guess what the new car comes with. There are other things along the same lines, but I'm not going to bore my readers with them. Suffice it to say, many buyers probably wouldn't give these things a second thought, but to me, the real quality is in a car that feels substantial and won't develop squeaks and rattles over time. Sure, the new car is nice, but it seems to have lost something compared to the old.
Okay - so what does this have to do with bikes?
Well, the same trends that we're seeing with cars are also working their way into bicycles. Electronic (and even wireless) shifting. Hydraulic shifting and braking. Smartphone connectivity. Push button convenience. There's this move towards high-tech gimmickry that sells a false sense of value, at least to the buyer. And often, these "improvements" really don't improve anything, but they're super easy to market.
This cheapening of materials and manufacturing carries over to the metallic components as well. For example, compare a classic aluminum crank from early '80s to a typical aluminum crank today. The older crank will likely be cold-forged with the strongest aluminum alloys. Because of the strength of the alloys and the forging process, it will tend to have slimmer arms, narrower "Q-factor," and a nice polished or pearl anodized finish. Except for the very high-end of the market, many of today's aluminum cranks are hot-forged or melt-forged from lower strength alloys, then painted, or even given a dull "bead-blasted" finish. Other components, like derailleurs, stems, seat posts, and brakes, have fared similarly. Functionally, these things are fine, but they are much cheaper to make, and represent a step back from a quality standpoint. Many buyers today likely don't even notice these quality differences, though, because they're too dazzled by a high-end name, flashy graphics, "smart" technology, electronics, and push-button conveniences.
Another thing: the little paddles or buttons that shift most of today's bikes remind me a lot of those little paddles on the steering wheel, or those console levers that "bump" up or down but always return to the same position. They are definitely convenient, and they seem simple enough, but they have a hidden complexity that makes them difficult (if not impossible) to service, and they're less intuitive -- less "physical." Of course I'm not suggesting that a mistake on a bike with these features could have the same dire consequences as on a car or an SUV. Nobody's going to mistakenly shift their bike into Neutral, thinking it's in Park, and end up running themselves over. Not. Even. Possible. But it does take away some of that physical connection to a bike's function -- even more-so when those buttons or paddles are only activating electrons instead of a cable.
And now I've come back to electronic shifting again. By all accounts, the stuff works great. But it's terribly overpriced, and comes with certain downsides that the hypesters rarely acknowledge. Can the components be serviced - or only replaced? Will next year's "latest and greatest" be in any way compatible with last year's model - or will a full system upgrade be needed because of one fried component?
Here's something else that hasn't really gotten that much coverage. Last week I saw that a woman rider named Lael Wilcox had just won the 2016 Trans Am Bicycle Race -- over 4200 miles in 18 days, 10 minutes. Wilcox wasn't just the top-placed woman. She won the race outright. But something in the account of her victory caught my attention:
"As soon as she (Wilcox) pulled away from the former race leader, her Di2 battery died. The electronic shifting system enables fast, crisp shifting and minimal hand fatigue over thousands of miles. But it requires a battery, and Lael had struggled to keep it charged for more than 3 days at a time."
At that point, Wilcox had to limp along without being able to shift, her derailleurs having become little more than useless aluminum tumors, until she got to a place where she could try to salvage the situation. She had a spare battery, but her bike's proprietary design features made removing the old battery out on the road virtually impossible, and connecting the new one a "cram-it-in-there-and-hope-for-the-best" situation.
So, there in a nutshell, a dead battery could easily have cost her that victory. The regular Shimano STI has an awfully light touch, so I can't imagine how much hand fatigue was saved by going electronic -- but it all would have been for nothing if she hadn't been able to (with considerable trouble and effort) replace the battery with a spare.
Let me here remind readers of an earlier post, on Electronic vs. Mechanical Shifting. In it, I offered "Seven Retrogrouchy Reasons Why Traditional Shifting Is Better Than Electronic." Two of them were "no batteries." Including that twice was originally meant as tongue-in-cheek. Now I'm even more inclined to stand behind it.
I've said this many times. Bicycles are at their best when they are simple, reliable, and beautiful (not necessarily in any particular order). Adding high tech complexity doesn't necessarily improve them, regardless of what that technology might do for cars. And what we're seeing now with these highly-publicized deaths and recalls is that the rush to incorporate more and more "smart" technology may be a double-edged sword in cars too.
How much is too much?