Sunday, July 3, 2016

How "High Tech" is Too "High Tech"?

There was a story in the New York Times last week about how electronic gimmickry has made cars "too smart" for our own good. With the death of young actor Anton Yelcin, who was pinned by his 2015 Jeep Cherokee when he thought he had the vehicle in "Park," there has been a fair amount of attention on the issue. Then on Friday, a highly publicized death in a "self-driving" car forced people to take an even closer look at the rush to higher tech in cars.

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.
But on a lot of new vehicles, electronic technical gimmickry has taken away even that minor physical connection to the functions of shifting a car. The lever with its distinct ergonomic positions has been replaced by push buttons, or a lever that "bumps" up or down but always returns to the same position, or "paddles" on the steering wheel, or something else that seems futuristic and cool, but isn't particularly intuitive. Others have engine "Start/Stop" buttons that are virtually indistinguishable from the other dashboard controls (like the radio, or the climate controls) so that somebody could be driving on the highway, go to change the radio station, and end up shutting off the engine (certain models from Ford/Lincoln were recently recalled for that very reason). Many of these features take away functions that one could previously perform by "feel" and replace them with actions that require the user to look carefully, even if that means taking their eyes off the road.

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.

High-modulus carbon fiber frame. Yours for only $599 from Nashbar.
Made in the same Chinese or Taiwanese factories that make the
premium brands, but without the "status" of the name. The same
basic frame can be sold under a variety of brand names --
only the decals and paint would be different.
On the other hand, many of today's bikes use cheaper manufacturing processes and materials, lowering the true value even as the prices to the consumer rise. Sure, carbon fiber is supposedly high-tech and expensive, but the reality is that a lot of the expense is due to hype and marketing, not the cost of the material, and certainly not the cost of the labor, which is mostly done in China or Taiwan for a reason. Could I be wrong about that? Then why does an "open-source" or "open mould" carbon fiber frame -- like those that are sold by Nashbar, Performance, Chain Reaction, or others (and sold under a variety of labels, differing only by the decals) -- cost only a small fraction of the price of a premium-brand frame, even though they are typically made with the same materials, by the same workers, in the same factories?

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?


  1. "I've said this many times. Bicycles are at their best when they are simple, reliable, and beautiful . . . . " But it deserves repeating many times.

  2. In the accounts of Lael's victory, her partner pointed to the benefit gained of the electronic shifting, that she had thousands of miles of crisp, immediate shifting that allowed her to preserve energy and tension in the hands. He almost convinced me. But even if he did, it would make the system applicable to race and endurance applications, outside of the realm of normal use. And I am certain that when she is on her tours in the middle of nowhere, she is using mechanical. I would think you should wire such a system up to a generator hub, or you're not done designing.

    As for your thoughts on cars and materials, I could not agree more. It is the nature of business to continue to push price down, to find the line of "good enough," and yet to hype it as "better." We're so used to the onslaught, we doubt our own senses sometimes.

  3. The more I know about cars the more I love my bike. That statement has been my mantra these last few years. I really do hate that good manual transmissions are becoming like hens teeth but todays generation cant drive them anyway. I remember seeing a Youtube video of a car jacking caught on security camera. The thugs yank the owner out of his Honda then jump in. After a long pregnant pause they jump out and run away. Turns out the car was a manual and they didn't know how to drive it. It was funny and sad all at the same time.

  4. Yep, all seems about right to me...

    Just curious on the car. What year did you have, and I assume new means "new" so, 2016 or what have you?

    Thinking about a TDI SportWagen actually, and appreciate the solidity aspect a lot. So, hearing this makes me very curious....

    1. I'm not sure you can buy a TDI at this time - have they got the EPA problem sorted out yet? I don't know the answer on that. Previous was 2010 and the new one is 2016. I probably could have kept the old for a lot longer, and enjoyed not having a payment for a couple more years.

  5. They haven't announced a fix for the TDI yet. The'll buy 'em back, though, if you want to get rid of one.

    I looked hard at a SportWagen TDI, but then the cheating thing came up, so I stayed with Subaru.

    Subies are kind of the retrogrouch bicycle of the the automotive world. They aren't flashy or even always that modern. They can be pretty simple and reliable.

  6. Talk about "progress in the new model", I bought an 'ancient' 1998 Subaru station wagon, the Outback model with a little more all wheel drive capability. The previous owner, original, had received his brand new Subaru, the current version of the same model. The two vehicles were standing side-by-side and we both immediately noticed the same thing; the new version is several inches taller. Frequently I am putting either a bicycle or a canoe on those roof racks. Every inch counts, especially in my eighth decade, but for anyone who regularly uses a roof rack. The reason for the new car's height? Style - to make it look more "sport utility"-like. I'm glad to have the old unpretentious "station wagon".

    1. funny thing about Subaru is I've owned a couple and really liked them. My favorite car out of all the cars I've owned in 30+ years was a Subaru Legacy wagon. Then they quit making them. Yes, they had the Outback, but exactly as you pointed out, those have gotten considerably larger and taller to be more SUV-like than the sporty little station wagon. That's how I ended up getting a VW.

  7. Thanks, yeah, the TDI issue is on my radar, you can buy them, it's just a matter of what's being done about them all, sounds like they are close to nailing that down.

    I don't want new anyway, was looking at 5 or fewer years old, thinking I may bump up another year or two in that range.

    Not very bikecentric, but I appreciate the info none the less!

  8. I've been following Nick and Lael's blogs for quite a while now, and was very interested in following Lael's Trans Am race. She is such an impressive athlete, and it seems practically effortless for her. (I was quite amused to note that she not only won, but downright smashed most of the field on a bike that was fairly new to her, and wearing plain shorts and a cotton t-shirt. After riding to the start from Alaska...)

    To the point, though: When I read of her woes with the electronic shifting, I knew us retro-folks were all thinking "told you so!". Didn't another racer have an issue with his battery, as well? I thought I read that in passing on another account of the race.
    Not that I'm going to be racing cross-country, or anything, I still don't even want the hassle of needing to recharge my shifting system. Being at the wrong end of a long ride with only one gear would make me pretty furious.


    1. I still recall the time the ratchet mechanism broke in my Regina freewheel (6 speed). It was the only time in my life I rode a twelve-speed fixed-gear bike!

      Fortunately, when it broke, I had only about a dozen miles to go on a century ride.

      I can only imagine how much worse things could have been if I'd had an electronic shifting system that didn't work.

  9. Having toured in places that were at least a few days' ride from a real bike shop, I appreciate simplicity and functionality in a bicycle.

    I know: When I wrote about Lael Wilcox's victory on my blog, I didn't mention the issue with her electronic shifter. Perhaps I should have. (Hmm...Would it have made the victory even sweeter? "Lael Wilcox overcomes her competition, the weather and her malfunctioning shifter system." Some headline, huh?)

    The bike industry, like the auto industry, panders to the "wannabe" in many consumers.

    1. I read your post about Lael. That was some accomplishment on her part -- and there's been so little news about it. That's really too bad.

  10. Cycling was doomed when the "new model year" arrived. A 1961 Bianchi looked like a 1969 Bianchi.
    Not anymore. The marketing guys have taken over.

    1. components were that way for a long time, too. A Campagnolo, or Huret, or Simplex derailleur in 1970 didn't look or work much differently than one in 1980. In fact, a Campagnolo Record derailleur in 1985 didn't work much differently than one from 1955. The Record crank was pretty much the same from the 60s through the early 80s, too.

  11. Love my old simple bikes but as technology improved from 5 to 6, 7, 8 cogs in the back I was always quick to jump on board as it really made a difference - that is for fast riding. I long thought 9 cogs was as much as one could EVER want or need, but I'd never give up the 11 speed Campy gearing I have on my latest bike. If you want simple minimalistic gear, then definitely stick with friction and 7 or 8 speeds but for going fast and/or having close gears with a wide range I'll take the new 50/34 compact cranks and 11-30 11-speed cassette. That said, and in keeping with the retrogrouch theme, no you'll never see me on a road bike with disk brakes nor electronic shifters. Press fit bottom brackets, while they may be lighter and stiffer, are a PITA to keep running quiet! It is nice to see road bikes are moving back to wider 25c tires, though I prefer 28's and wider for all but my race bike... Cheers!