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So Obvious
Written September 19, 2006


Somewhere in this world, we've moved into the computer age.  Somewhere, the following ideas have been adopted.  But not where I live . . . .

I drive a car with an automatic transmission.  I'm lazy; I don't like to go through all the trouble of shifting gears.  But convenience comes with a cost.  A car with a manual transmission gets better gas mileage, by several miles per gallon, than the same car with an automatic.

Why is this?  Instead of a mechanical clutch, an automatic transmission uses a hydraulic "torque converter," which is less efficient in transmitting energy.  Apparently a significant amount of power slips away in the sloshing around of the fluid.

But why do we have to use this technology?

It was a clever invention when Oldsmobile introduced it in 1939, but we've moved beyond the era of Hydra-Matic Drive.

Nowadays cars have computers on board.  For example, mine has one called a cruise control, which senses the car's speed.  If it's slower than the speed I've requested, the cruise control gently depresses the accelerator for me.  If it's faster, the cruise control lets up on the accelerator.

It shouldn't be difficult to design a similar computer to control a manual transmission.  It would sense speed, engine RPM, and the position of the accelerator and brake pedals.  It would take into account whether I prefer economy, performance, or smoothness, and whether I'd requested a lower gear (as in going down a steep hill).  It would decide when to shift gears.  And it would actually shift the gears, by activating a servo to operate the clutch and another servo to move the gearshift lever.

The computer would be more skillful than I, so it wouldn't miss a shift or grind the gears.  The car wouldn't need a torque converter, and the servos wouldn't use much electrical power, so there'd be a net savings of energy.

It seems like a simple idea.  All cars would be equipped with an economical manual transmission, but most would have the option of letting a computer operate the transmission if the driver doesn't want to.

My doctor, like all doctors so far as I know, still uses a prescription pad.

He scribbles a note on it for me to give to the pharmacist, who's supposed to be able to read it.  So far this method has worked.  But I worry that the scribbles could be easily misinterpreted, as apparently has occasionally happened elsewhere.

With all the advances in medical technology, wouldn't it be possible to have a computer terminal in the examining room?  The doctor could enter his instructions on the screen.  In my case, those instructions usually consist of renewing my medication for another few months; he could indicate that with one click of the mouse.

The computer would quickly confirm whether the doctor's instructions were appropriate for this patient (for example, cross-checking other medications the patient was taking).  It would then print out a legible prescription.  Or if the patient desired, the prescription could be electronically transmitted to his pharmacy, and his medications would be waiting for him when he arrived.  Also, the patient's records would be automatically updated; no one would have to make a separate entry there.

This system might seem slightly more complicated at first, but it should reduce the possibility of errors and the cost of malpractice insurance.

And why doesn't the timekeeper at a boxing match use a scoreboard clock to keep the time, so that everybody can see it?




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