Although I find very little interesting about the new rash of car-related TV shows on the air in the U.S. (hey, no one can afford one anymore so let's watch other people drive them!) I did love this clip of a 2010 Toyota Camry beating a 1980 Ferrari 308 in a drag race:

Oh, and a Toyota minivan beats a DeLorean down the track as well, but a kid on a bike could beat a DeLorean.

Sometimes it's amazing how quickly technology moves in such a (relatively) short period of time. What was world-class technology in 1980, unaffordable to all but the wealthiest few, is now the level of performance offered in a car that is the definition of bland, basic transportation. And of course a new Toyota is far safer, more reliable, and easier on gas. The truth is that just about any car you buy today, even a cheap compact, will outdo even the most expensive, advanced cars of the 1970s and 1980s (or earlier) in nearly every way.

On the other hand, how far has the technology really progressed if we're barely beginning to move beyond oil-burning propulsion in cars? It would be as if computers today were still using vacuum tubes, but really advanced vacuum tubes. Of course in reality the field has done away with things like tubes and transistors altogether. I'm sure some of the more tech-oriented readers will find a bone to pick here, but the point is that a computer in 2011 looks and works nothing like a computer from 1950. But even though a modern car is far better than an older one, the basic components are all essentially the same. Just improved.

Back when Intel released the Core 2 processor line, a friend told me that a laptop equipped with that processor would have, for all intents and practical purposes, the computing power of the world's most powerful supercomputer in 1992. Not sure if that's accurate, but it's plausible given how fast that field moves. We've all seen the quips about how the Apollo Guidance Computer, with its dizzying 1.024 mHz clock speed and 2 kb memory, has only a tiny fraction of the capabilities of a cheap home PC today. It's pretty sad, given how quickly some other fields have progressed, that the technology of moving ourselves from point A to point B has accomplished so much but progressed so little in the last 100 years.

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34 thoughts on “NPF: VINTAGE”

  • Ed: Love your blog. But since you waved the bait: modern computers are still completely reliant on, and implemented with, transistors. Vacuum tubes and transistors are different physical manifestations of the same thing: an electric switch. It's just that transistors can be scaled to be way, way smaller than vacuum tubes. And the computers of today at their core look different, but not that different, from the computers of the early 1960s, mostly the difference is in the level of integration and raw speed, not the underlying design (which is called von Neumann computing, and has persisted despite a number of ambitious attempts to change it). How they are used, given the reductions in size, energy, and cost is of course completely different. The computer in your phone today would outperform a building-sized computer from four decades ago, on that count you are right.

  • it was built before the catalytic converter so it'll run good on regular gas…

    i cant think of an industry more resistant to change than the (american) automotive industry. hand in hand with big oil, auto makers have to be forced to improve their technology, other than putting in more cup holders. one day in the not-too distant future, the internal combustion engine will be looked at as an old-timey relic of another age, but with all the money to be made on the burning of ancient flora and fauna, big oil and the big three are in no hurry to change. plus, americans dont give a damn about the environment, and while gas has nearly tripled in price over the last ten years, we pay far, far less in the states for gasoline than anywhere else in the world. a) car manufacturers and big oil make too much money to improve their products, plus b) americans dont give a shit about fuel efficiency or any of that, so there is no demand to improve, equals c) the situation isnt changing any time soon, even though it eventually will be forced to when we run out of oil in 25 years.

  • @ johnsmith is exactly correct. The only thing I'd add is the distorting effect lobbying has on this front – big oil lobbies the federal government to heavily subsidize oil and gas development and to do exactly dick about alternative fuel sources other than corn ethanol which – whaddaya know! – has its own huge lobby AND can be blended with gasoline. It's like a K street twofer.

    Imagine a different past, where Big Vacuum Tubes had lobbied the government to spend paltry research dollars (remember when the government spent research dollars?? I don't, I'm 28) on transistors, gave huge tax breaks to vacuum tube producers and none to transistor companies, and had a captive political party which denigrated transistors as a socialist. Guess what – we'd still be using vacuum tubes, but they'd be totally better than they were in 1980!!!

    Side note: I've never understood why the oil companies don't invest their largess in alternative energy in order to corner an emerging market. IBM didn't throw in the towel when the integrated circuit was created – hell, they created it. Although it occurs to me in writing this that all BPs executives give a fuck about is maximizing stock price next quarter, in which case it makes perfect sense to fuck the future of the planet and their own company, cuz "I got mine — fuck ya'llz!!1!"

  • To be fair, most advanced car technology starts in the luxury models because those companies can afford the R&D and can spread the cost over their buyers. Once the R&D is paid for, then the larger, cheaper producers adopt the technology for a song.

    So basically it's the same thing as always – rich, old farts are protected while the rest of us suffer and get their scraps.

  • It's almost certainly true that big oil lobbying has done a great deal to stifle alternative energy developments. And it's definitely true that the auto industry has been absurdly resistant to change, and had to be dragged by force into almost every product and safety improvement you can imagine.

    But it is not true that the two industries are hand in hand, or ever have been in recent decades. (In the distant past, it's possible, I suppose.) I worked for a car company for over 20 years. You know the contempt that big oil has for its customers? Well, to BIG OIL, a car company isn't even a customer worth thinking about. They seriously don't give jack shit about car companies. Factory fill fluid business is less than decimal dust to big oil.

    Further, big oil fucking OWNS (or is that PWNS?) government. OTOH, the govt. relationship (NHTSA, EPA) with car companies is close to hostile.

    But the basic premiss of this post is way off the mark. Doug Burger pointed out part of the basic flaw. The other part is that the comparison of a computer to an auto power plant is particularly inept. You need to move an item weighing a few thousand pounds with some sort of a motor. Making it electrical just kicks the can down the road to a nuclear or coal/oil fired power plant. A solar powered car might be great in California, but here in Michigan, you'd never know when you're going to get stranded by heavy overcast.

    Sure, someday the internal combustion engine will seem quaint. But you'll still need a mobile energy source capable of moving a heavy object. Good luck miniaturizing that.


  • One issue with cars is that the primary purpose is to move human beings and their stuff, so they have to be built to comfortably house and move people. A computer has no such size or speed limitations.

    Until we have technology that can move a 2 ton metal box as quickly and efficiently as an internal combustion engine, cars will change little in fundamental ways, and due to the function of moving people, their look and structure will never change much at all.

  • Like punkdavid said, it's the logistics aspect that resists change. Same reason that despite the huge advances in aircraft technology, the overwhelming majority of international trade uses the humble, old-fashioned merchant ship.

  • Peter Sahlstrom says:

    You've made an interesting analogy here. I'd like to flesh it out a little bit more.

    Gasoline engines still operate under the same principles as they always have, but the modern engine is a miracle of engineering that would have been unthinkable to the automobile pioneers of 100 years ago. A Toyota Corolla gets about the same fuel economy as a Model A Ford, but runs more reliably and much, much cleaner. The problem is simply that, no matter how you square it, there's only so much energy you can extract from a gallon of petroleum, and this will always produce a certain amount of carbon dioxide.

    The principles of computing haven't changed all that dramatically in the past 70 years, but just as with automobiles, we've seen tremendous improvements in how to improve speed and cut waste. ENIAC (1946) produced enough waste heat each hour to heat 100 homes for a year. Computers seem so much better now in part because of just how bad they used to be.

    The beauty of the electric vehicle movement is that it's such a natural progression from the way vehicles are currently used: even if the electricity to charge them comes from coal and petroleum, it's still reduces pollution, and increases efficiency – and the efficiency will continue to increase as the power grid becomes cleaner.

  • You are correct sir: we are still struggling with fire. What has changed is the way we move it and contain it… But rest assured, it just rubbing two sticks together.

  • There's a good reason that we are still using petroleum based technology, and it's not because of big business lobbying or international conspiracy.

    Quite simply, it's because of economics and efficiency. Nothing else in the world has the energy density per cubic centimeter of petroleum at such a cheap price. Anything cheaper is going to require a lot more refueling, and anything with more energy is going to be a lot more expensive.

    Whoever invents a rechargeable battery with the energy density of gasoline will change the world and become unbelievably rich. We haven't managed to invent such a thing yet, and it's not for lack of trying. Unless someone comes up with a huge, unforeseen breakthrough, the switch away from petrochemicals will come not because we have a better alternative (a comparable fuel with a competitive price) but because we have no choice (petroleum gets so expensive that the alternatives become competitive by default).

  • As much as I love progress, gadgetry, efficiency, and futurism, I have to cop to dragging my feet when it comes to cars. Though a diehard bookworm, I grew up in the country, and that meant a lot of hot dates boring out carbs and helping swap out stock parts. There is no romance in hooking up a diagnostic computer to a car, or taking it to a performance shop to have a pro trick it out. Modern cars all look like melted plastic, too, but not in a "let's have lunch on Deimos" sort of way. Sucks.

    For that matter, I used to have dates that involved swapping out computer drives and fiddling with Red Hat, and no one I know does crap like that anymore, even here in Silicon Valley.

    But I wouldn't cry so much for the good ol' days if we actually had something better now. IC engine? Transistors? Really?

  • Jimcat nailed it. Cars (and transportation generally) are energy constrained technologies. Computing isn't. (At least not yet.) Look at energy constrained technologies (cars, passenger flight, space travel, heating and cooling, agriculture) you'll see more or less the same picture across the baord. Things are better than they were in the 80s, but not an order of magnitude better.

    Another way of looking at it is that technologies like transportation already operate much closer to the limit of what's possible according to physics. It might just barely be possible to make a automobile that's 10x more efficient than a prius. But a car that can drive from LA to New York on a thimbleful of gasoline (or an equivalent amount of energy in any form) is a physical impossibility, now and forever, no matter what sort of engine anyone invents.

    By contrast, computing is dozens of orders of magnitude removed from any fundamental physical limits. (Current design and manufacturing techniques may be starting to run into physical limits, but those are limits that are specific to our current technology, not limits on any conceivable technology.)

  • Check out battery technology if you want some depressing news in the advancement of technology. More or less, it hasn't changed in over 100 years, and no one really expects it to change in the next 100 years.

  • I dunno–I got to ride in a Tesla a few months ago, and I'd say the post-internal-combustion future looks promising. Once that tech gets cheaper, pistons may just go out of style for passenger vehicles (cargo is another story).

  • Ladiesbane's comments on car repairs prompted this reflection:

    My grandfather, born in 1915, taught himself everything there was to know about car engines when he was growing up. He could take apart a car engine and put it back together from memory. He taught the same skills to my father, born in 1942.

    As far back as 1980, I can recall conversations between my father and grandfather in which both lamented that automotive technology was changing beyond their ability to keep doing repairs by hand. By 1990 my grandfather had passed away and my father was leaving all but the simplest repairs to the professionals.

    Here's how yours truly, born in 1968, does car repairs: drive to dealership. Say "there's something wrong with my car". Leave it there for a few days. Dealership calls me and says "It's fixed now." Go back to dealership, swipe my credit card, drive away happy.

  • Andrew Schneider says:

    Can someone please come up with a replacement for the wheel? Talk about old tech, we've got to have something better and fast!

  • Doug is right, in terms of bone picking. We replaced thermionic valves with transistors. For next 70 years we've just found ways to make them smaller. Much like we replaced steam with oil and since then we've been making the engines more efficient. In both cases the problem is the same. There are plenty of technologies that have the potential to surpass these established technologies, but it is nearly impossible to make it happen when you have gigantic worldwide industries standardized on these technologies.

    Even if it would be better if everyone standardize on a new tech, any investor looking at it individually is faced with choosing between an established higher performance cheaper tech now or a possible much higher performance tech ten or twenty years from now. Without an organization with the resources to coordinate a transition we're stuck in these technological ruts.

  • Hello,

    A lot of people are right about the fact that transistors now are affectively the same as transistors then, it really does a diservice to all those people who helped to make the transistor what it is today. Shockley, Bardeen and the third guy…crap I forgot his name now won a Nobel prize for the transistor. However Jack Kilby won a Nobel for the development of the IC recognizing that both are important.

    Building today's IC process takes a lot of creative energy, that the outside world does not even want to understand and requires a lot of government support to make IC fabs of the future. Every single non-American semiconductor company in existence today wouldn't have existed without their government support (TSMC, Samsung etc.).

    And finally lets not forget how software helped today's hardware. Most people don't directly interface with the underlying hardware and it is usually through software they realize how cool something is. More complicated algorithms demanded bettter processors and better processors allowed for better hardware. So in effect there were two different industries that were feeding each other. I don't think the automobile industry has symbotic relationship like this.

    Also note that the Sofware industry itself has undergone massive change as well. Seventy years there was no such thing as a compiler. Everything had to hard coded in machine language. If you are interested google, or use whatever search engine you wish, and look for top 10 Algorithms of the 20th century.


  • Cars have undergone the revolution that computing is going through. It's just that that revolution happened between the 1880s and the 1940s- with the exclusion of electronic controls, cars aquired almost all the sorts of features we have now albeit only on high end products. The Model T Ford really was the Apple Mac of its day and had the sort of loyalty associated with Macs. I think in sixty years people will be sitting around wondering why computers are so backward compared to ???? as computers reach the limits all technologies eventuall hit!

  • That's the difference between mechanical, linear progressions and computational geometric progressions.

    The hope is the second starts helping out with the first.

  • This is such a dumb comparison.

    Transportation and computing technologies developed (and continue to develop) on significantly different time scales.

    The computer from the 1950s is to the computer in 2011 as the horse in 1AD is to a car in 2011.

    One of the technologies relies on infrastructure and is inherently "portable", while the other is, err, plugged into a wall and sits on your desk.

  • I drive a TDI and am really impressed on how the modern diesel has progressed. Performance wise and efficiency wise and emission wise, these thing are so different from the stinky old diesels of 20 years ago. Now throw in the use of biodiesel, and you've got yourself a good fuel cycle from production to usage that is carbon neutral and doesn't 'kick the can' down the line. An soon, if algaculture could advance and allow biodiesel production without using up aerable cropland, we really have reached complete sustainability with a fraction of the impact on the earth when converting sunlight to something that will power my car.

  • I just thought of something that hasn't progressed in about a hundred years, most likely because of the monopolistic nature of its underlying industry. Telephone system audio quality. The audio on the publicly switched telephone network has been in stasis for decades, and in some ways has gotten worse since the advent of cell phones. Now that most of us have been exposed recently to Skype and other wideband VoIP tech, we should be wondering why our desk phones don't put out quadraphonic audio. Everytime I am forced to spell my email address into a phone with a phonetic alphabet, I want to punch the nearest Baby Bell phone technician. Wiskey Tango Foxtrot!

  • Most Americans are like Tim Allen's old stand-up, "More Power"!! The cars companies have been mostly working on making cars more efficient in order to get more horsepower per cubic inch or cc with the side effect of better fuel economy. If they would concentrate on fuel economy, we could have cars getting 100 mpg. It is possible because various groups(schools, universities and others) have put together cars that will get 100mpg and more. Back in the 60s I read an article in a magazine(Popular Mechanics or Mechanix Illustrated) about how Texaco took a 1950 Plymouth flat head six, replaced the head with an overhead valve head with direct fuel injection and it got 50mpg on anything that would burn that you could pump through the injectors.

  • I have to point out a numeric error here. "1.024 mHz" is millihertz, which sounds pretty small to me. Don't you mean 1.024 MHz, as in megahertz?

  • Relevant book review:

    Of course, that didn't happen. Soon came a recession, an oil glut, and the election of Ronald Reagan, which ended a great deal of government funding for research into advanced energy projects. Exxon licensed Whittingham's battery technology and closed off the division.

    The fundamental problem with batteries is the existence of gasoline. Oil is cheap, abundant, and relatively easy to transport. Most importantly, it has a high "energy density"—meaning that it's phenomenally good at storing energy for its weight. Today's best lithium-ion batteries can hold about 200 watt-hours per kilogram—a measure of energy density—and they might theoretically be able to store about 400 watt-hours per kilogram. Gasoline has a density equivalent of around 13,000 watt-hours per kilogram.

  • How long before the computer effectively replaces the car as a vehicle for commuting? That's the real efficiency win.

  • Mark Says:

    "Jimcat nailed it. Cars (and transportation generally) are energy constrained technologies. Computing isn't. (At least not yet.) Look at energy constrained technologies (cars, passenger flight, space travel, heating and cooling, agriculture) you'll see more or less the same picture across the baord. Things are better than they were in the 80s, but not an order of magnitude better."

    The key is that the improvements in computers come from doing as little physical matter movement as possible, and then minimizing the energy. With vehicles, the matter has to be moved.

    This is a very old problem, and the methods worked the same way – for example, with writing a messenger could carry information from many people, making communication more efficient.

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