Friday, November 21, 2008

Solutions in Search of Problems

written Friday, November 21, 2008
Maumelle COE Park near Little Rock, AR.

The rental car I used the other day had a "feature" I hadn't come across before. There is no ignition key. There is no place to even put an ignition key. So how does one start a car without a key? Well, what you have is a fob, a "clicker"-thing similar to the ubiquitous keyless entry do-dads we've all been carrying around for years. I'm guessing that this is another example of the use of technology that finds it's way into our lives only after it becomes the low-cost alternative to the old way of doing something. In this case, all the electronics are probably less expensive than the mechanical keyed switches. I'm only guessing.

So, how does one start a car with one of these marvels installed? Apparently, the little key fob you carry around is somehow "sensed" when it's within a few feet of the car. Once it's sensed, it's possible to just push the "start/stop" button on the dashboard and the car is supposed to start on it's own.

When I picked up the rental car, someone drove it around to the front and delivered it to me -- with the engine already running. I drove off. The first time I went to start the engine myself, at the repair shop where the Blazer was being fixed, I was stumped. The car seemed to recognize the fob, I'd push the start/stop button, some dash lights would flash, but the car wouldn't start. Hmmm.

Feeling like the old geezer I've probably become, I had to swallow my pride and ask the mechanic for help. (Well, back in MY day, we had a simple key, you see, and you'd put this key in the switch and turn it and the motor would spin to life, By-Crackee!) It was probably the same way someone felt when confronted with a key and switch back when going around to the front of the car and hand-cranking the engine to life was the normal way to start a car. (These old-timers sure are good for laughs!)

So, what was this rube doing wrong? Very simple... I wasn't stepping on the brake. With this new system, it's necessary to step on the brake in order for the engine to spin to life -- probably a safety "feature" to keep kids from pushing the button and driving off while Mom is in the convenience store picking up milk. My recent cars, this ten-year-old Blazer included, will start without stepping on anything. I can reach in and start it without even being in the seat if I'd want to. I'm sure the mechanic rolled his eyes and shared the story with everyone at coffee the next morning.

So, was there a problem with the old keyed switch? Does anyone see an advantage to this new system? What happens when the fob-thingy's battery dies? Certainly the car ain't gonna start!  In the old key-switch days people would hide a spare key in a wheel-well or under the bumper so if the primary key is lost when someone steals your coat at the bar, it's possible to retrieve the spare key and still get home without having to call your spouse and having her find out you're NOT working late at the office. In the old days, if I lost a key I could go the hardware store where they'd make a new key for $3.25 -- I'll bet a replacement fob-thingy is a LOT more than $3.25. Why was it necessary to go down this electronic route?

Like so many other applications of technology in our life these days, many of them are solutions in search of a problem... answers to questions not being asked... complications of the simple. Just because it's possible to do something doesn't mean it should be done. I have a suspicion one of the reasons these things happen is driven by marketing and is done to sell cars. When your neighbor drives up with a new car and shows off this amazing thing that doesn't need those old fashioned keys anymore -- well, you'll be fighting an image war (you Luddite... you rube!) with yourself, your pride, and your family, until you, too, have one of the latest and most coveted automotive technology gizmos. It's only us old-timers who don't care about the latest fashion and fads.

Alright, I'm done with the rant now. I think it's time for my nap.