I hate engines-a rant

Warning: The following is a bitter, rambling, disjointed rant. I really can’t suggest that you read it.

I hate engines. I hate ’em. They’re loud, obnoxious, cantankerous, smelly, foul, smoke belching little assholes. They eat fossilized hydrocarbons and they spit out greenhouse gasses and carcinogenic particulate matter. They’re literally killing us. I look forward to the near future, when we’ve switched over to electric cars, and the thought of a gasoline powered car is looked at with mild disgust and horror. How did people ever live like that? our children will say, as they step out of their self-driving electric car to go to the museum of motor vehicles, where they’ll probably stand inside some kind of special pollution chamber in order to smell what the early twenty-first century smelled like.

All of this occurred to me as I was trying to drink a cup of coffee and read a book (a trashy paperback) at a table outside a coffee shop. A shop that was right next to a minor side street. There I was, trying to settle into my book, when a diesel truck drove by, brrrrruuuuuummmmmmmm….. kachunk! clank! kch-bruuuuuuuuummmmmm…. spitting out a great, filthy cloud of black smoke as it went. I looked around, as this cancer cloud wafted over me, and saw that I was apparently the only one bothered by this. We’ve become so used to this that we don’t even notice how awful it is.

And then, a Tesla drove by. Absolutely silent. Zero emissions. I breathed a sigh of relief, knowing that this is the future. Soon, the internal combustion engine will be a barbaric relic of the past, and we’ll wonder how we ever put up with it.

Another thing I hate about engines: They break. They break a lot. It’s amazing they don’t break more often. It’s basically a little bomb going off six times per second inside of a little tube, and the explosion lifts a piston that powers your car. That, in and of itself, is pretty simple. But then everything else about an engine, probably two thirds of the mechanisms in the engine compartment, are simply designed to prevent the engine from ripping itself apart, which is what it really wants to do.

It’s a giant, insanely complicated Rube-Goldberg contraption to manage the craziness going on, from the split-second choreography of valves and cams that prevent the cylinder from turning into a pipe-bomb, to the coolant system constantly shunting away excess heat to prevent the whole mess from melting down, to the lubrication system that keeps it all from fusing solid…and then it’s all strapped to a big tank full of the explosive liquid it needs in order to live…well, you get the point. The point is, I hate engines.

Now let’s compare this insanely complicated contraption (an amazing feat of engineering, don’t get me wrong) to an electric motor. Even the most simple gas engine is a miniaturized version of the above-mentioned shit-show. A chainsaw, for example. It’s a bitch to start. It needs coaxing and tweaking and constant maintenance. It’s loud and cranky and smelly. It breaks down a lot. And then let’s look at, say, an electric blender. When was the last time you had to change the oil on your blender, or adjust the valve clearance or change your spark plug wires? How many moving parts does a blender motor have? One. There’s a stator (it’s static) and a rotor. (it rotates.) That’s about it. I’ve had the same blender for ten years.  I bought it at a thrift shop, and it’s never given me any trouble at all.

This is really what excites me most about the prospect of an electric car. I mean, sure, saving the planet is cool. Paying a fraction of what gas costs to charge your battery is pretty sweet. But I’m mostly excited about cars that are simpler, quieter, and cleaner. Granted, a Tesla is a bit more complicated than a blender, but still.

With an electric engine you don’t need a coolant system. You don’t need a lubrication system. You don’t need a transmission or an exhaust system or a catalytic converter or a muffler. You don’t need to rattle the fillings out of somebody’s damned head with your engine braking and choke them with your fumes while they’re trying to enjoy a nice goddamned cup of coffee al fresco. An electric car, more or less, is just a big battery hooked to a big electric motor. Just a bunch of electrons silently shuffling around.

Of course, what would excite me even more is not needing a car at all. I love the freedom, I do. It’s great being able to go wherever, whenever, in my private motor-driven coach. It’s the god-damned American Dream. But I hate, I bitterly resent the fact that I need one.

In most places in America, it’s almost impossible to live without a car. And that sucks. Cars are ridiculously expensive. The maintenance is a pain in the ass. Insurance is a drag. They’re dangerous. They get stolen. They crash. They break at the worst possible time. And yet, living as I do in a country designed for cars, with pedestrians as a distant afterthought, in most places they are an absolute necessity of life. They’re such an absolute given, that most people never even consider that there might be a better way. I swear to god, it’s like we’re all in abusive relationships with our cars.

Growing up in a rural area, (where it was a thirty minute drive to the nearest grocery store) I’ve always had a bit of a city-phobia. It hasn’t been until very recently that I’ve spent enough time in a real city to appreciate the advantages (besides the advantage of actually having something to do). Being able to walk places. Available, affordable public transportation. Sidewalks. Taxi cabs. The possibility of being able to do without a car entirely.

Someday, that will be the case everywhere in America. Someday we’ll have actual public transportation. Someday we’ll stop designing new cities like cars are the primary residents. Someday our passenger rail system won’t be an overpriced joke. Someday we’ll be able to use our smartphones to summon a self-driving Uber to take us where we want to go. Someday there will be no reason to spend six months pay on a giant, overcomplicated money-pit of a contraption just so we can haul our groceries home.

But until then, oops, I’m about due for a new set of tires.

I, for one, welcome our robot overlords

A short essay that got out of hand and became a long essay

Automation is coming. It’s coming sooner than you think. Self-driving cars are getting better every day. Artificial intelligence is getting better every day. Dozens of companies are throwing money at the problem; dozens of different technological innovations are converging. Within my lifetime, and probably much sooner than that, we’re going to see the Apple II of general purpose robotics, and then it’s game over.

It’s no secret that middle class, blue-collar jobs have been bleeding away for decades. For the average Joe, a large percentage of the jobs remaining are either retail, manual labor, or driving. And we’ve already got self driving vehicles. It’s only a matter of time before these are widely implemented, and then you can kiss driving jobs (the most popular jobs in 29 states, the trucking industry accounting for 8.7 million jobs) goodbye.

And what’s left? Yes, there are still actual grown-up career jobs out there. But cashiers and retail salespeople alone make up six percent of the workforce. Throw in janitorial, food service,and warehousing, and you’re up to something like twenty percent.

Keeping that in mind, watch the following two videos and ask yourself how much longer it’s going to be Continue reading