Wednesday, April 07, 2010

What would Ford drive?

If you think of many of history's inventors and innovators, and imagine how they would react to see today's wonders, in many cases you have to assume they'd be amazed. Imagine Benjamin Franklin getting to see what we know about and do with electricity today, or the Wright Brothers looking at an F14 Tomcat doing a roll at five gees, or Robbert Goddard watching the space shuttle launch, or Thomas Edison watching the 3D version of Avatar.

But I can't help think that Henry Ford would be disappointed by what's going down the highway today. While the improvements between his cars and today's cars are many and important, I bet he would have expected there to be much bigger changes between then and now. He'd probably be more impressed by a tractor-trailer than by a Lambourghini or Camry or Prius; his reaction to those would probably be to say, sure, they're a big improvement over my Model T, but they're the same thing, just better. In a hundred years couldn't you make them different? (I wonder if he'd hang on the same "flying cars" idea that the 50s held up as a sign of the future, and we now use as a sign of the future that never came.)

I wonder if he would be amused to know how much of our world we have shaped to the particular proportions he chose for cars, which in turn were based on the proportions that worked for trains. Nowadays, entire cities are designed based on the wheel base and nose-to-tail length of cars that he picked mostly because of having parts in those sizes readily available (and the tools to shape and work on those parts).

I mentioned this to Siobhan, and she pointed out that while cars themselves might not wow Ford, the automation in factories would absolutely bowl him over. And really, that's as it should be. We think of Ford as a guy who helped make cars part of our world, but his real contribution wasn't the car, but the assembly line that makes them efficiently enough that we can all have one. Ford would be at once pleased at how many of the ideas he pioneered are still at the center of factory technology, and how widespread they are, in every industry from candy bars to tanker ships; and at how much they've advanced, with machines able to do some very complex things, and even some hazardous things, with little or no human intervention. While you or I might get a bit worried at the replacement of human workers, Ford would probably think that's just peachy-keen.

But if Ford were alive today, seems to me he'd be more likely to be driving a Camry than a Tesla Roadster.

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