Jan 23, 2013

A Technological Dead End?

All Rights Reserved © 2008 (revised 2012) Thomas W. Day
I have a theory, born from personal experience and lightweight observation of history.  My theory is that as a technology approaches terminal, it gets really good.  Then it dies.  When a new technology is just finding its legs, the technology being replaced makes a wonderful collection of giant leaps; which will fail to stave off obsolescence, even for a moment.  But examining those last moments of declining technological health can be really enlightening.  

I'm not saying this as someone who has been on the leading edge of a technology shift.  In fact, as a mid-tech transient I've been trailing edge for most of my life.  In the mid-1980's, professional analog audio recording gear began to be displaced by digital recording systems.  The last generation of analog recorders were a huge improvement over anything previous technology.  But it was too late: the convenience, cost advantage, signal-to-noise improvement, and trendy-ness of digital wiped out those last moments of glory and hardly anyone even noticed that most of the problems usually associated with recording on analog tape had been minimized.  Today, professional analog recording systems are practically relics and even the simplest personal computer has more editing and playback horsepower than a multi-million-dollar studio from twenty years ago. In my lifetime, I've seen (or am seeing) electronic tubes, analog computers, magnetic data storage, photographic film, visual artist's tools, payphones, cathode ray tubes, analog television, vinyl records and turntables, carburetors, and dual-shock motorcycle suspensions quickly peak and begin the rapid transition from regular use to museums' shelves [2]

I was first turned on to this realization when I was a very young man.  When my kids were toddlers, one of our favorite weekend trips was to Minden, Nebraska to visit the Harold Warp Pioneer Village Museum.  The place is stuffed with all kinds of historic tools and toys, from Pony Express relics to railroad history to farm equipment to early internal combustion vehicles. The thing that tripped my trigger was getting a close look at horse-drawn carriages, especially the high-end, luxury models from the turn of the last century.  Just as the first internal combustion vehicles were making horse-drawn transportation obsolete, the last carriages were becoming efficient, comfortable, and sophisticated.  I studied suspension systems that we wouldn't see on cars until fifty years later.  Some of these vehicles had heating systems, evaporation interior cooling, clever convertible tops, interior and exterior lighting, safety equipment, and finish work that made the next half-century of car design look primitive.  Unfortunately, they also had horses providing the horsepower. 

The other sign of impending obsolescence is nostalgia.  This country is currently being decorated with monuments to the Golden Days of Oil.  To anyone with a sense of history, that ought to be a big, red, flashing sign that something is on the downhill slide.  Folks are paying idiotic prices for Gulf, Esso, Kerr-McGee, and Standard Oil memorabilia.  Oil Century Museums are popping up everywhere from California to Tex-ahoma to Florida to New Jersey.  Ohio is home to the "Society for Commercial Archaeology."  And, of course, we have wads of motorcycle museums littering the country side.  On my last long Midwestern bike trip, I counted ads for half-dozen Harley/Indian museums before they began to fade into the fast food, antique store, and hotel signs. The last couple of decades witnessed a giant blast of the past as Boomers tried to revive their youth with muscle cars and 1950s-styled big twins.  That fad won't last much longer, because Boomers are soon going to be looking for their next hipster thing in prosthetic hips (like mine) and electric wheelchairs. 

Watching what's going on in our culture makes me suspect that we're about to see our beloved internal combustion engine technology vanish.  I don't know if you've noticed, but internal combustion engines have become trailing-edge technology, almost overnight.  There are alternative transportation systems on our highways and all over the rest of the world.  At the same time the technology designed into internal combustion-powered cars and, especially, motorcycles has become absolutely incredible.  The performance, reliability, and even the sound of modern motorcycles has been tweaked to the nth degree.  The only thing that's been stubbornly ignored is energy efficiency and that's probably the only characteristic that really matters in the twenty-first century.

In end-or-year issue, the relatively conservative Motorcycle Consumer News published their "Performance Index" for the current generation of motorcycles. In a summary, they listed the following most important performance categories: ten best 1/4 mile times, ten best rear-wheel HP, ten best power-to-weight rations, ten best top speeds, ten best rear-wheel torque, and ten best 60-0 stops. All but one of those measurements are, essentially, the same sort of 1950's information; power.

Most likely, the only modern statistic included in the data provided would be "average fuel mileage." By this standard, the 2006 Kawasaki Ninja 650R was the winner at 65.3mpg (the 2007 version was 10mpg less fuel efficient), followed by the Ninja 500 (64mpg), and Honda's Rebel 250 (62.6mpg). The Victory 8-Ball at 29.8mpg was the fuel guzzling loser. My daughter's 1991 Geo got better mileage than more than half of the motorcycles MCN rated. From occasional long ride experiences with folks on liter sportbikes, my own calculations estimate that MCN was optimistic about the efficiency of most of the bikes they rated. I wouldn't be surprised at less than 20mpg performance from many of those street legal race bikes. (The new Honda NC700X has upped the game a bit, but I think it's too little, too late.)

While those performance-based qualities are being fine-tuned, the world's oil consumption has rapidly passed world oil production.  Sometime in the last five years, oil demand whipped around oil production capacity and the world's economies will either shift away from burning petroleum or suffer the consequences.  Some experts claim that 2005 was the whipping point; the last year of "cheap oil" and that we're on the downhill slide where production will get further from meeting demand every year.[1]  In 1999, the uber-conservative, alternative-technology-spurning oilman Dick Cheney was one of those "experts" warning that the age of oil is about done.  Cheney told other oil execs, back then, that the reason oil companies weren't building new refining plants was that investment would be putting good money after bad.  We have more than enough oil processing equipment, we don't have much oil left to process.  Some folks estimate that in as little as two or three years, it may cost $100 to fill a compact car's tank.  Filling a bike's tank will be pretty close to half that and it's going to be more expensive every year afterwards.

Let's get real.  A 250hp, liter bike that burns 15-20 mpg is going to be a pretty worthless piece of history when gas costs four to ten times what it costs today.  Everything we use, do, and consume, will be incredibly more expensive when oil bumps against the predicted 2025 $400 per barrel.  If we humans are lucky and put some planning and a lot of resources into the next few years, we might be converting to hydrogen cell vehicles or some other petroleum-less fuel about the time the old technology becomes impractical.  I like to imagine that motorcycles, with their inherent energy efficiency and other advantages will be part of that change.  I'm sure horse lovers hoped horses would find a place in the modern transportation scheme, back in 1906.  Who knows, maybe horses will make a comeback?

Personally, I'm feeling a little nostalgic today, while the majority of Americans appear to be clueless about the future of our energy-dependent systems.  As an example, the dim-bulbs in St. Paul are widening freeways, planning communities that are further than ever from necessary services and employment, and designing government buildings that depend on energy systems that will be disappearing about the time those facilities are put into service.  My sentiments, inspired by that irresponsible bureaucratic inattention to reality, is considerably less upbeat.  Their behavior is more evidence that we always get the government we deserve, just like every other country in the world. 

While there appears to be a fair amount of thought going into replacing the power plant under the hoods of our cars, for a while it looked like that wouldn't be happening for two-wheeled vehicles.  Zero Motorcycles and Brammo have changed all that.  Zero Motorcycle's new Z-Forcetm power pack is pushing electric motorcycle technology fast into the new Green Age. With a 100 mile range, an 88mph top speed, and 3,000 charge cycles (a 300,000 mile battery life), Zero's bikes are beginning to warrant their price premium. Hayes' diesel-powered bike is another cool thing.  A hydrogen-powered turbo sportbike would be beyond hip.

Knowing that this oil barrel is more than half-empty with a rust hole in the bottom has forced me to suspect that the world I lived in is vanishing.  I'm trying not to sound like a reformed whore, but it's hard for me to pretend to any other pose.  I am from a generation that burned gas for almost nothing but recreational uses.  I can "brag" that I sometimes rode my Kawasaki Bighorn, Rickman 125 ISDT, or even the Harley Sprint to the racetrack, took off the street hardware, raced the bike, and, after reinstalling lights and crap, rode back home.  I guess that's something.  But I also trailered, trucked, and station-wagoned bikes to races, took long mind-altering rides in the country, and practiced racing on all sorts of surfaces.  Today, those leisurely rides through the country side feel a bit like immature, excessive exercises in selfishness; and I'm missing them before I've given up doing them.  I know that every drop of oil that I waste is coming out of my children and grandchildren's heritage and I'm becoming more than a little ashamed of the oil I wasted before I knew better.  The days of getting together with a few dozen friends to explore backroads and hang out in the twisties are fading.  I think sports like motocross, road racing, and all of the fun we have had aimlessly and recreationally burning fuel are also coming to a sooner-than-you-think end.  Between declining resources and world-wide pollution and global heating catastrophes, it appears that we have hung on to these carbon-burning handlebars a little too long.

I'm not celebrating this.  I'm not gloating or saying "I told you so" while I write this.  I lived in a gloriously ignorant, greedy, selfish time and it was an incredibly fun period in human history.  I wish I could pass it on to my children and, especially, my grandson.  If we're truly a civilization worth saving, we'll find a way to make a world our kids can enjoy.  If we don't, we deserve any misery we receive. 

[1] A depressing, but complete site for all sorts of links to information about the coming energy crisis is http://www.lifeaftertheoilcrash.net/.
[2] Paul Young added this note to my list of vanishing technologies from my own lifetime: "One of the guys I work with had his 11 year old son come up to him and ask 'Have you ever heard of something called a landline?' Something else to add to your list of disappearing technology. "


RichardM said...

Why don't we get it? This is an excellent essay. What will it take for folks to understand the real impact of their current lifestyle?

T.W. Day said...

Most likely, a complete and total crash of the oil-based economic system, would be my guess.

joda76 said...

So true, and resonant.
And thanks for not including banjos and bagpipes.

T.W. Day said...

Really awful things like "banjos and bagpipes" never seem to go away.

theUg said...

If that counts, I average 86 MPG on the motor technology from the 80s with recent EFI addition.

T.W. Day said...

I'd like to hear more about that.

theUg said...

It’s the bike you had featured on your blog: http://www.fuelly.com/driver/theug/tu250x Basically, 80s bike (GN series) with newer, and simpler, top end (two valves instead of four) and EFI in place of carburettor. I do drive it smoothly, avoiding rapid acceleration, unless necessary, less brakes and other hypermiling techniques. Obviously, in winter it drops off, but average is pretty reliable. I missed only one fuel up in the above log in year and a half.

T.W. Day said...

No surprise at all. I've loved the TU since we first started using it for the MSF classes in Minnesota. Now I want one. Maybe it will replace my V-Strom.