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David Bouchier: Prisoners Of The Microchip

David Bouchier's old car, sometime in the 1970s.
Courtesy of David Bouchier
David Bouchier's old car, sometime in the 1970s.

The manufacture of cars is apparently in danger of grinding to a halt, not because of a lack of steel, or rubber, or even plastic, but because there is a shortage of microchips. For drivers of my generation this sounds ridiculous. We suspect that our cars have microchips in them, because everything more complicated than a can opener does. Even my own ancient Honda may have a computer hidden somewhere inside it, because the car does the kind of inexplicable things that can only be blamed on a computer. The windows go up and down, lights and screen wipers go on and off without any human intervention and odd warning lights appear on the dashboard. The warning lights are easily defeated by a piece of duct tape, but the other jokes played by the hidden computer are annoying, and unnecessary.

Chips are considered be essential in new cars for many reasons. They run the so-called “infotainment system” which we could very well do without, and for cruise control which is never ever used, at least here on Long Island where we mostly cruise in bottom gear from one traffic jam to the next. Simple mechanical things like tire pressure gauges and speedometers have been made a hundred times more complicated, less reliable and more expensive by the use of computer technology.

Until the 1970s we could and did drive cars that were entirely computer-free, with scarcely any problems at all, or nothing that couldn’t be solved with the right toolkit. The simplest car I ever had was an open-top 1933 Austin Seven that I drove to work every day. (Pictured). It came with a small toolkit that, the manufacturers claimed, would allow the owner to dismantle and reassemble the entire car — and it was true. There was nothing wrong with that vehicle except that it wouldn’t start in the rain, but who wants to go to work in the rain in an open-top car? Aside from a few trivial and cosmetic refinements, cars now are essentially the same as they were in 1933, or for that matter in 1903 when the Ford Model T came out — four wheels and an engine. What more do you need?

History played a sad trick on us when computers came crashing into our lives in the 1980s. We tend to forget how easy life was without passwords, viruses and email. We already imagine that we can’t live or drive without the aid of computers, but we did. In less than half a century these aggravating devices have infiltrated everything from medicine to grocery shopping to personal privacy, without planning and without resistance, like a science fiction nightmare come to life. We have so thoroughly surrendered to the microchip that a shortage of them can upset our entire economy, and our lives.

I don’t know exactly where or how they conjure these billions of microchips into existence, but it seems that most of them come from the Far East. Whoever controls the supply controls just about everything, including the disobedient windows on my car. What an opportunity for economic blackmail! I’m sure the manufacturers wouldn’t do it, but they could, and we should be prepared. I’d be willing to make some lifestyle changes — to wind my own car windows by hand, live without cruise control and even navigate with paper maps. It would be hard at first, especially for the younger generation, but it would be a kind of freedom.

Copyright: David Bouchier