January 3, 2008

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When technology attacks
Innovation and gadgetry gone wrong
By John “jaQ” Andrews  jandrews@hippopress.com

I’m one of those people who drives a hybrid car.

I don’t mention this to be gratuitously smug; in fact, though I generally love the car, it has of late been a pain in my proverbial posterior. While its geeky LCD display showing me fuel mileage and other stats delights me, the car has a dark side. A side that perfectly demonstrates how technology can be, rather than a savior, our downfall.

This car, like all hybrids, has an electric motor that assists the internal combustion engine. Apparently this motor is a little fragile, because the traction control system is designed to quickly put the kibosh on any excess wheelspin that might damage it. Say, when the two wheels are unable to get immediate traction on a slippery surface, like, I don’t know, a snowy road.

Yeah, I got the thing stuck in recent snowstorms. Three times, in fact, and never actually driving anywhere. Just going around the block so my landlord could plow the parking lot.

The first time, a snowplow driver kindly stopped and helped me out. Not that I wanted help, because that would be admitting my awesome car wasn’t perfect at everything, but it got me out of a snowbank. The second time — on the very same trip around the block — I had to drive on the unplowed side of the road because someone had parked a snowplow on the cleared side. The guy who helped me that time, a genuine senior citizen who should never have felt obligated to push a car for a strapping young twentysomething, led off with the comment, “Don’t you wish you had four-wheel drive now?”

The third time, no lie, I was simply backing out of my parking space, didn’t turn quite sharply enough and fwumped into the snowbank beside the driveway. Getting out of the snowbank would involve going uphill, which wasn’t gonna happen with the traction control saying, “Nope!” and giving up whenever my wheels spun.

Looking around to see what I had at my disposal, I grabbed a recent back issue of the Hippo that was laying on my passenger seat; ripping it in half, I placed it under my front wheels, figuring newsprint would provide at least marginally more traction than ice and snow. It did, but not much. And you wouldn’t want to while away the afternoon in a café with this copy either. What finally saved me, once again, was the kindness of my fellow man. Specifically, a neighbor with sand.

Now, I can’t blame the car’s hypersensitive technology completely. I did the first two times, but the third, on a different day and in a different snowstorm, I happened to notice that my tires were a bit bald. Using the old penny test, I could quite easily see the top of Abe Lincoln’s head, and — numismatists take note — this was a rare 1987 punk rock commemorative penny with Honest Abe sporting a wicked mohawk, so the tread was indeed quite thin. My grip wouldn’t have been great with any car, but the traction control did make a bad situation worse.

Have you had an experience when technology, working like it’s supposed to, decreased your quality of life? Let me know!