The gift of the gadgets and other complexities

The gift of the gadgets and other complexities


NO-ONE loves a toy or a gadget more than The Companion. I mean loves one. The houses are full of them. We’ve left family reunions overseas to attend toy shows and consumer electronics fairs in Germany and the US. If there isn’t a medical term for his obsession (beyond simple arrested development), there should be.

One of The Companion’s present-day heroes is Elon Musk, not for the work he did creating PayPal, and not even for the work he’s doing refining and popularising the concept of electric vehicles. Considering how much I love my cars I often wonder why I spend so much time with an individual who can’t easily differentiate between a spark plug and a wheel nut (never ask him to change a wheel), and who suffers the vehicular equivalent of prosopagnosia. 

He does have strong opinions about the highly variable user-friendliness of in-car entertainment and navigation systems, though, and considers most of them to be absolute rubbish.

No, The Companion admires Musk almost exclusively for SpaceX. He ranks rockets highly on the list of desirable toys; in fact, it’s all I can do to dissuade him from buying rocket kits and firing them into the sky himself. It’s impractical from the penthouses (perhaps more obviously to me than to him; the first and last time he tried that, the living room stank for days) and it’s an unacceptable bushfire risk on the farms.

But we found some common ground recently as we sat together on the balcony overlooking the bay and watched on the outdoor entertainment system he’s rigged up and connected via satellite as SpaceX undertook its Falcon Heavy test flight. The Companion watched because … rockets! I watched wondering, I am ashamed to admit, how Musk would spin it if the thing exploded on or shortly after take-off; and also I wanted to see what I thought would be a surreal sight of putting a Tesla Roadster into orbit. I wasn’t disappointed on that front, and as we know, there are some magnificent images of the car and its “driver” with the Earth as a mesmerising backdrop. It was a mightily impressive display of design, engineering and execution. Also: rockets!

But you know how they say your smartphone has more computing power than the Apollo craft  that landed people on the moon? I take that as meaning that you don’t really need a lot of computing power to put someone on the moon. And I suppose that it requires even less to send an unmanned rocket on a test flight.

A recent report by out nation’s consumer watchdog, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC), contains some fascinating information about the complexity of modern cars and what makes them tick. The ACCC makes the point that repairing or servicing a car is “no longer just about a car’s mechanical components”. Ain’t that the truth (and I’ll have more to say about new-car warranties another day). The report quotes a 2010 Harvard Business Review article in which its authors estimated that the average Ford sold in the US back then ran on about 10 million lines of computer code, and your “average luxury auto” required no fewer than 100 million lines - yes, that’s one hundred million lines - to run its various systems and components, including those entertainment and sat-nav systems that so exercise The Companion.

Clearly, within those lines there is massive scope for things to go wrong, or simply to not function 100 per cent as intended, and part of the ACCC’s point is that pinpointing precisely why something has gone wrong, let alone fixing it, can be a devilishly difficult job. 

To put these figures in context, the 2010 HBR article said that just one year earlier, in 2009, an S-Class Merc contained about 20 million lines of code. Goodness knows just how many lines are required to run the cars sitting in showrooms today. 

Boeing’s Dreamliner requires 6.5 million lines of code. The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter requires 5.7 million lines. That was in 2010 - the JSF probably has some multiple of that number now, mostly to address the things that the original lines did that were unexpected, or couldn’t do that were expected (you know, like flying actual combat missions).

In the long tradition of expressing things in terms that actual humans are able to comprehend (eg Olympic-sized swimming pools and the land area of Wales), the ACCC quotes the Victorian Automobile Chamber of Commerce (VACC), which last year pointed out that in the year 2000 your average mechanic had to wade through three workshop manuals to know everything there was to know about how to keep a Toyota Tarago on the road. Let’s leave to one side the question of why you’d want to keep a Tarago on the road at all. But by 2010, it required 31 workshop manuals to fully get to grips with a Tarago. (Again, why?).

A bit like how accountants like to say there’s no single person alive who has read all of the  Income Tax Assessment Act, I would bet that there is no single individual who has read all volumes of the workshop manuals, in their entirety, and can fully explain how a Tarago works, let alone why it exists.

So the SpaceX Heavy Falcon leaving the launchpad was a truly impressive sight, with lots of noise and flames and smoke. It did not blow up; The Companion was transfixed, naturally; and who knows, maybe we’re witnessing the start of a new era of space exploration and human colonisation of the universe, as Musk intends. But be that as it may, the fact remains that the most impressive technological aspect of the test might have been the on-board computer nestled behind the dashboard of the Roadster.