Since 9-11? Way longer than that

The output for this blog has yet to be as regular as I’d like, but it seems as summer approaches, it get even less regular. If you guessed it was because of the many distractions of summer, you’d be half right. Every year as Memorial Day approaches, I think of commenting on the annual slave-belt campaign, a campaign that’s been going on as long as I remember, and that goes back even before the laws. It’s why I mark Memorial Day not as a memorial to veterans, but as a memorial to freedoms, fought and died and paid with blood for, only to be traded away by politicians with ears bent by special-interest groups.

But it’s so painful to write about that I procrastinate. I procrastinate until it’s late July, and I begin to think about fair entries, due the first Monday of August (for open class, anyway). Late July and August are consumed with preparations for Labor Day weekend, which, for me, is nothing more nor less than my county fair.

The county fair is all-consuming for me. I spend Wednesday and Thursday alternately finishing and tagging entries with trotting them over to the fairgrounds. Then there’s the Thursday and Friday judging of general exhibits (which once upon a time was all on Saturday). Thursday night I’m off to the wine judging, and the rest of the fair I’m all over the place, but the midway in particular, snapping away and having over 1,000 pictures by the fair’s close Monday night. It’s a lot more time on my feet than I usually spend. After lugging all my exhibits home again (93 this year), I don’t want to do much of anything, least of all create.

While I’m still catching my breath (this year, anyway, since Labor Day wasn’t until the seventh), 9-11 rolls around.

A common theme among many of the columns is how many freedoms we’ve lost to the Patriot Act and similar legislations since the Towers fell. How the Government is increasing its surveillance, how we’re becoming a police state. We’ve been losing freedoms left and right for decades, and it’s only since 9-11 that you’ve noticed?

Just look at cars: in 1960, Wisconsin became the first state to require belts in cars. Not long after that, they designed a system that performs an unauthorized search (I supposed the alphabet-soup feds justified that you “consented” by buying the car and/or getting in it) to see which belts are buckled when you start the engine. Originally that was either the driver’s seat or the driver/passenger, where either one buckled would satisfy the dinger (I’ve seen both, but I’m not sure which is older). Now, it’s expanded to all seats and checks at intervals well after engine start.

And this information is now recorded on a “black box” which was introduced into cars without comment and mandated after only a handful of privacy advocates woke up enough to make token protest.

Of course, the “black box” would have a hard time recording everything Big Brother wants to know if the systems were good, reliable, mechanical systems. But it’s cheaper, easier, and more Big Brother-friendly to use electronic systems, so the car can be programmed to second-guess every input the driver makes. Anti-lock braking systems have been the poster child of “better in theory than practice,” getting blamed for as many collisions as they avoid. Does that give us the right to decide we don’t want them in our private property? Of course not! Even if ABS  isn’t mandated, per se, new regulations that ASSuME  we’re all to stupid to monitor our tires ourselves–and so our cars must look after us about it–require automatic tire pressure monitoring, and the easiest way to do that it with a minor modification of the ABS.

And like I said, systems–brakes, acceleration, steering–that used to be mechanical have, over the last fifteen years or so, been quietly replaced with electronic systems. I have an article or two from 2003 or so written when the “early birds” started using drive-by-wire; they commented about “consumer acceptance.” I had to laugh at that, even back then. “Consumer acceptance”? I’ll wager most people on the road don’t even know how a car actually turns, much less whether there’s a rack-and-pinion arrangement between their wheels. It’d have to take a major, multi-car failure in the technology for anyone to even notice.

Or not. The runaway Toyotas are a perfect argument for why you don’t build things with centralized control with a single point of failure. “Point of failure” is a count of how many things have to fail in order for the system to not work anymore. In the case of electronic pedals, from the computer’s point of view the whole pedal assembly is one keyboard. “Unplug” it, and the driver now has no control over the speed of the car. Both Toyota and the Government claimed the accelerations were caused by people that

  1.  Got a floor mat over the pedal, causing it to not come up when the foot came off it
  2.  Pressed the accelerator at the same time they were trying to step on the brake
  3.  Had a mechanical failure in the accelerator pedal (not the pedals as a whole)

Despite an engineer demonstrating (i.e. inducing) uncontrolled acceleration without anything that could possibly be attributed to driver error, and ignoring accounts where the brake pedal was also affected, they concluded that mandating even more electronics in the form of a “brake override” (pressing the brake pedal would automatically cut throttle to the the gas) would solve the problem.

That solution rests on the incorrect assumption that whatever caused the accelerator to not work right left the brake pedal unaffected. Didn’t hear about the brake pedal being affected? I wouldn’t have, either, except I make a habit of reading the comments on most articles. One poster related a Toyota acceleration experience where the front seat passenger (driver’s son) visually confirmed that the floor mat was not fouling the accelerator, the driver’s foot was not on the gas when it was on the brake pedal, and the brake pedal would not depress.  Now how is a brake override supposed to work if the brake pedal itself doesn’t? The electronic pedals, as a unit failed. That’s a single point of failure. For a mechanical car to have an equivalent failure, the mounting that the pedals were on would have to have collapsed, and what are the odds of that failing so quickly that you wouldn’t notice the pedals starting to feel funny? Otherwise, the brake system and the acceleration system would have to fail seperately. That’s two points of failure. Three points if it’s a manual transmission, where the clutch can take the engine out of the equation, allowing the e-brake to help or take over from the service (foot) brakes. (And taking out of gear? That’s arguable. While the poster did mention that they got control of the car by taking it out of gear, Mythbusters demonstrated that a “safety” feature prevents automatic transmissions from shifting out of drive at speed, even if the gear select is moved to “park” or “reverse.”)

But, despite this perfect example of the weakness of electronic controls, I have heard just tonight (Sunday, Sept. 13, 2015) that for at least eight automakers, any hope of the freedom to choose a proper mechanical system in your car has been slaughtered, gutted, field-dressed, and offered up as a sacrifice to Big Brother, in the form of an agreement to have active braking systems (in which cars will apply the brakes automatically if they decide their inattentive drivers haven’t noticed their lane has been blocked by something) standard on all their cars. Too bad if you decide that ramming the car in front of you out of the way is a lesser evil than getting buried by a tipping semi trailer load of gravel, or you gallantly wish to bump a stalled car out of the path of an oncoming train.  Given how little the Toyota acceleration debacle affected the industry-wide roll-out of drive-by-wire in general, we can expect that several hundred thousand inappropriate braking events will have about as much effect on the enforcement of such systems as Hillary’s time in the State Department had on her run for President. At least Hillary has a chance of getting jailed for her complete disregard of the “little people.”

Hackers have already demonstrated they can open doors, cut the engine, apply the brakes, even tension the seatbelts (yes, since the mid-1990’s, they’ve become electronic, too) by remote. In fact, it doesn’t even have to be hackers: the proverbial “ghost in the machine” can cause electronics to randomly malfunction, and then return to normal functioning with no evidence of the transgression. Or “random reprogramming” when a given area of memory fails; electronics work until they don’t, often with little or no sign of impending failure. The only sure way to avoid this is to avoid electronics altogether. Which the Government doesn’t see you having a right to do. You should have the right to modify your car to protect you from the dangers most significant to you, not have the threat of your greatest dangers maximized by some unelected, alphabet-soup agent in pursuit of protecting you from Big Government’s Scare of the Month.

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