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Evolution of Cars

Do cars really evolve?

To start, let's stipulate that a car is a four wheeled vehicle specialized for carrying passengers that is driven on roads and are mechanically driven. The technology is about 150 years old. Initially cars were driven by fossil fuels and increasingly they are powered by electricity.

A thing about cars is that on one level of abstraction, they are all much alike. Compartment and seats for passengers, steering wheel, gas pedal, brake pedal, windshield, headlights, etc

Cars depend on infrastructure like roads to be most useful but were by no means the cheapest means of transportation. Animals had been powering the transportation of people and goods for thousands of years and animals reproduce themselves at low cost and often their food was free. But also though, animals required a lot of time and effort spent on care and that was both an expense and a hassle.

When dealing with animals you need to consider the animal. You can't just park it and turn it off and walk away. You can't just turn it on and drive off. And driving itself gives this wonderful experience of freedom. I used to love it. It's a strange sort of freedom. You are highly constrained by the road and the capabilities of the car itself and yet you feel you can go anywhere you want. But then, thinking about it - maybe all freedom is like that.

But if you can afford it, a car is a very satisfying sort of possession. And people who could afford cars could push society to improve the infrastructure of roads to make the cars more effective.

Cars have improved a lot over the years. Once you needed to turn over the engine manually with a crank in order to start it. This lead to the invention of electric starters. People who weren't rich wanted cars too which set up a pressure to build cars more cheaply.

Henry Ford responded by studying broken down cars. When he found a part that never broke he figured it was overbuilt and looked for ways to cut corners. That sort of thing ended up with planned obsolescence 50 years down the road when cars were pretty to buy but were falling apart in 4 or 5 years (just as it was paid off as it happened).

But there was a lot of positive development too. Engines got more powerful and reliable. Suspension and braking systems improved to cope with the increased speed the engines enabled.

When I was driving cars I was my own mechanic. After a couple of bad experiences with professional mechanics I went out and bought a fixit manual and a set of tools and got into the innards of my cars.

While cars are made in editions of millions that are all the same, each one I had was unique to me. I found that a lot of the internal variation was associated with the country that made the car. I remember particularly that carburetors varied greatly from country to country.

Carburetors are maybe the most finicky part of a gasoline engine. Building engines is not a trivial enterprise. A lot of time and money must be spent to build and equip the factories needed. The products of the factory have to work. Each factory has teams of engineers looking for a way to make (say) a carburetor better and more reliable. Finding a new design that works takes a big investment and once a working design is found then that is improved upon over time.

My experience was that France, Germany, England and the USA all had distinct national tech under the hood. Japan seemed to have adopted the USA tech and improved on it.

When I was driving and working on cars you could fix them with wrenches and screw-drivers and feeler gauges but they weren't very reliable and you had to carry your tools with you. Twenty years later cars were more reliable and safer and durable. When I was young many of the cars on the road had some sort of visible damage like dents and corrosion. Now I walk past hundreds of cars each day and they all look to be the same age to me.

There clearly has been progressive development in car technology. Is that an example of the Evolutionary Algorithm at work? The EA is a loop that has a replicator, variation among the replicants, and a selection pressure that populates the future with descendants of the replicants best able to meet the selection pressure. As Dennett has pointed out, the EA is substrate neutral - like arithmetic or a word processing program. To check whether the EA is at work we have to first identify the replicator. So with cars; what is the replicator? Perhaps in this case the replicator is the need to produce a new car every year that can make a profit in the market. So you have an older model, and then a younger variant that is recognizably a descendent of the older model. The selection pressure is how well the car sells in general. So - I'd say that cars do evolve according to the EA.

To say that something evolves like that does so because it can without anybody wanting or even if it's bad. But the evolution of cars is shot through with people wanting things for all sorts of reasons.

I'd say that all those reasons for wanting improvements in cars provide the substrate upon which the evolution of cars plays out. And cars have serious social side effects from pollution and suburban sprawl that are particularly hard on poor people. I don't think anybody saw the implications of all that - it just happened. Seemed like a good idea at the time. And I'm aware of the way that capitalists manipulated the transport system in favor of cars by consciously destroying alternative means like busses and trains. It's inherent in capitalism that capitalists would do that - they are part of the substrate too

What do you think?

Star I present regular philosophy discussions in a virtual reality called Second Life. I set a topic and people come as avatars and sit around a virtual table to discuss it. Each week I write a short essay to set the topic. I show a selection of them here.

I've been thinking and reading about philosophy for a long time but I'm mostly self taught. That is I've had the good fortune to read what interests me rather than follow a course of study. That has it's limits of course but advantages. It doesn't cost as much and is fun too.

My interests are things like evolution and cognition and social issues and economics and science in general.