Environment Opinion

Fall of the Machine: Cars and Computers

On Earth Day last week, I celebrated the holiday by drenching myself in gasoline. My recent inheritance of a 1977 Volkswagen Dasher (nicknamed Rudy) has been keeping my hands dirty. On the day that environmentalists champion their cause and accomplishments, and highlight all the work on curbing climate change forthcoming, I found myself pulling fuel lines, saving the planet from a constant quiet drip of liquid petrol. I’m trying to tune this treasure so that it gets its factory promised 28 Miles Per Gallon average (city and freeway combined). Every aspect of a car’s health contributes to its fuel economy; a well-tuned motor is an efficient one.

As a driver, there is virtually no better way to save carbon emissions than to maintain your car and drive it a long time. It has been widely disputed that electric hybrids are more carbon intensive than traditional cars because of the manufacturing process. The Toyota Prius has a gasoline-burning carbon-emitting motor combined with a secondary electric motor. Sifting through  industry-paid studies and corporate media articles to find the truth will come in a future story. This one is to express why old cars were the perfect gasoline cars and why computers were a bad idea for them.

In 40 years, fuel economy is only now progressing. In 1996, all new cars were required to run computers, to save on carbon emissions. But fuel economy, on the average was down, way down. Actual carbon emissions have been reduced by 1-2%, thanks to Federal standards since 1976, when catalytic converters were introduced. But this is no win. This is only bureaucracy. Those Jimmy Carter era regulations kept in place a gasoline industry unfettered. A perfectly tuned motor will always have emissions around 2% carbon, even if it uses 10 miles per gallon on the freeway. So while American society continued guzzling gasoline and oh yes, diesel fuel, there was a notable reduction of carbon output.

President Obama in 2009 executively ordered the doubling of fuel efficiency standards compared to the previous twenty years of SUV mania, under Clinton and all through Bush’s eight years. Most cars in the 90’s gobbled up 10-25 MPG, whereas a brand new gasoline powered VW Jetta will get 40 MPG on the freeway, which is great, but Rudy still gets 30 MPG, no problem. Even GM’s Geo Metro in 1989 enjoyed 52 MPG! I like Obama’s mandate however because it got to the teeth of the matter: gasoline. Counting carbon isn’t enough: use less gas. These computers are pumping in more fuel than mechanical systems while catalytic converters are merely burning off “excess fuel” because the motors themselves are not designed efficiently.

Advertisement  from 1912 Issue of Horseless Age Magazine
Advertisement from 1912 Issue of Horseless Age Magazine

Whether you’re driving a new hybrid, electric, or efficient gas vehicle, its manufacturing process produced a lot of carbon. Hybrids and electric autos especially have this problem because of the mining of rare Earth metals used for their batteries. The raping of natural landscapes in China has especially produced more carbon than Prius owners want to admit, while consequently displacing farmers all over the countryside. This combined with the employment of industrial machinery to do the job, plus transportation of those rare Earth metals to manufacturing facilities makes the low-emissions vehicles a mere gas-huffing induced hallucination.

Electric cars should be on the market, only they should be far more advanced by now. We’ve been farting on that technology for more than 100 years. New York City residents enjoyed fleets of electric taxis (and less noise pollution) while Los Angeles touted the largest electric railway system in the world; there was a time that L.A. wasn’t known for its traffic jams, rather, it was known for how quickly you could ride a train to Venice Beach.

How General Motors and others replaced all of that with the great promise of gasoline and killed our memory of an electric past is magical; that we are now being sold electric cars marketed as “the future” makes me sad for this massive misunderstanding of history.

Emblem of Porsche 924 in Junkyard
Emblem of Porsche 924 in Junkyard

Rudy was manufactured so long ago, it is basically moot that it ever was built at all. Now, it is being reused. I have been swapping out and recycling old parts, some of which I extracted from this 1977 Porsche 924, at the self-service junkyard. Germany had the manufacturing down on their brand-name cars. I didn’t realize that the primary difference between a Porsche and a Volkswagen was the frame, body, motor, and interior decor. Same goes for Audi. They have the same Bosch fuel systems, the same electrical wiring and components, suspension, and more. Audi and Porsche have stronger motors, are more attractive and perform better than the VW, but now, in 2015, Rudy still feels awesome to drive. It feels so much sturdier than, for example, my friend’s brand new Honda Fit.

It especially pains me to think that good cars end up in the junkyard because they don’t pass Federal emissions standards. This means a new car must be manufactured in its wake, putting out far more harmful emissions. This happened to me with my work van, a 1994 Chevrolet G20. Its emissions were up to double the standard, still not spewing smoke or anything, still getting the factory 8-12 MPG standard, but just a little above Federal requirements. I should have totally tuned up the motor, but I was frustrated by its computer system, among other things. I gave up, I sold it, and released my contract with a local magazine (I was a delivery guy). This is the third time the government put me out of business for extraneous expenses I didn’t want to meet.

Even if I rebuild the motor, suspension, and fuel system with all new parts, it would still take the rest of my life driving that thing to match the carbon footprint of one brand-new Prius.

By the way, my insurance is extremely low and I own Rudy outright. My maintenance costs are less than or equal to a new VW owner’s monthly payments, not including a higher insurance rate. So if I had $10,000 to spend on a 2011 Jetta, I’d spend $2K to customize my Dasher, then open a brokerage account and invest $8K in Tesla Motors stock — something I would have done a month a go if I could have. When their $36K electric model goes public in 2016, I think their stocks will soar after this very recent  low.

There Are No Sexy Cars Anymore

I took a visit to the Portland Swap Meet (for classic cars). I found only one VW and it was a hot rod Beetle, but I got to enjoy the hey-day of great – I mean PERFECT – American Cars. That is how they were advertised, right? Perfect. The only way to make a smooth ride back then was to engineer a perfect mechanism. It required humans with pencils and calculators, determining what materials at what dimensions would be unbreakable. The result was a sexy design that drove smooth and lasted decades. Then the car owner could keep it stocked, or as retro-fitters do now, customized, making the perfect car even better than it was.

And those cars were beautiful. They had these sexy curves, aerodynamic steel bodies and iron frames, beautiful and simple interiors, and enough room under the hood to stick your arms in to repair any part on or around the motor. Many of the parts were standard, not proprietary, and could be replaced. You can take a 1966 Ford Mustang (such a sexy ride) and replace its carburetor with something high-efficiency, reducing its performance while bumping it above 20 MPG on the freeway. If you engineered a pure hydrogen fuel delivery system, you could run it in that Mustang. What prevents all of this today? The computer.

Before computers held up cars with parameters out of the owner’s control, dudes hung out with greased hair at main street diners unconcerned if they smelled like sweat and gasoline – Fonzie man, Fonzie! Now with gender neutrality, women are respected and admired for picking up the wrench and getting stinky. With a home or community auto shop, we could fashion our own parts to alter the performance or repair worn out parts. In a free capitalist market, it’s a crime that this hobby is all but gone.

Today’s car owner is strictly controlled by the computer and its complicated electronic systems. Even the key is a computer. The contemporary greaser guy knows more about fancy rims and suspension than he does fuel injection or performance. He puts on loud exhaust systems to pretend it’s a hot rod, even though it’s just a Honda with an aftermarket plastic spoiler. Most auto-parts stores today are operated by people who don’t know anything about cars. They aren’t salesmen, they’re cashiers!

Mechanical perfection is underrated today; computers are overvalued. Computers crap out and disable the entire machine; the replacement computer price could be more than a new Mac Mini. The cost of a perfectly tuned classic with brand new components, sure to drive wonderfully and reliably: about the same as a brand new Kia. I would bet that nobody would really choose a 2011 Kia sedan getting 30 MPG when faced with a 1966 Ford Mustang beauty getting 20 MPG.

Apple Computers are comparable. Once the bastion of hackers and the bane of corporate computer makers, now their line of computers are nearly impossible to upgrade while touting a Cloud system that puts all your data at risk. The hard drives and RAM are built into the motherboard. Cars have been almost impossible to work on at home for twenty years now. My five-year old Macbook Pro can be upgraded to last a couple more years, but unlike a car, it will always become obsolete. I can’t use the 1977 Apple 1 for anything, but Rudy will proudly fly up I-5 at 70 MPH, all the way to and from Los Angeles, like a cakewalk. Cars are built like new computers are; to be discarded.

The fall of the machine came with the rise of the computer. Your fate should not be set up so easily according to corporate neediness and the billionaires who profit from your incapacity. I’m different, I guess, I could live happily in a 1960’s reality without Apple or built-in GPS. Ultimately, I would rather have mastery over the products I own than allow them to own me.

Sean Ongley

By Sean Ongley

Co-Founder of THRU Media. A background in non-profit, music, and radio preceded my ambitions here. Now, I aspire to produce new media and publish independent journalism at this site and beyond.

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