Ten things we need to fix before we work on self
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Ten things we need to fix before we work on self

Jun 24, 2023

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In San Francisco, they are having doubts about self-drive cars. A week or so ago, the city’s self-drive taxis came to a shuddering halt, due to a glitch in the communications system. Emergency vehicles couldn’t get through; a busy part of town was brought to a standstill.

My first thought: “Well, of course that was going to happen”. Our species still can’t design a toaster that works. Why do we think we can create a safe, efficient self-drive car?

Our species can’t design a toaster that works, and we think we can make a safe self-drive car?Credit: iStock

Humanity has a tendency to hubris. To keep that hubris in check, here’s a list of all the things we need to get right – before we move on to self-drive cars, landing people on Mars, and hypersonic flights to London.

The toaster. I understand the problem: the machine is cold when it cooks the first two slices, and already hot when it tackles the second two. That’s why, on the same setting, the first serve is undercooked, while the second is burnt. Couldn’t they fit a sensor or something?

Hand-drying machines. Yes, I know landing astronauts on Mars would be an amazing achievement, but could it be placed in a queue after “develop a way of drying human hands after using a public toilet”? The current method – “place hands under dryer, rotate for two minutes, then dry on back of pants or skirt” – may show a misalignment of priorities.

The electric jug. Why do they only last a year or two, five years tops? You can pay $7.50 or $99.75, and they will still go bung after an unfeasibly short period of time. How hard is it to electrocute water? As soon as I heard that the Fukushima reactor’s operation was “similar to that of an electric jug”, I thought, “There you go mate, no wonder it stopped working: it’s an electric jug.”

The ignition system on a gas cooktop. These never work. They just go chik-chik-chik. And so you buy yourself a gas lighter, with a long nozzle, designed for just this purpose. Alas, this also doesn’t work. So, you buy three more, which also don’t work. So you invest in a packet of matches, which allows you, just the once, to get the pasta water boiling. Alas, the pasta water then boils over, wetting the match box.

The battery-operated torch. These are kept in the cupboard at home, and only used every 11.5 months when there’s a power failure. Alas, the batteries are designed to last 11.4 months, meaning the torch is always flat at just the moment you reach for it. Could we either fix the power grid, or make the torch batteries last longer? You choose which one.

The type-size in museums and art galleries. It looks so elegant, doesn’t it? A discreet label, often at waist height, and printed in nine-point on grey card. To read it, you need the eyes of a 16-year-old. As well as a 16-year-old’s knees. Unfortunately, there are no 16-year-olds present – just a whole crowd of over-50s, desperately peering downwards, trying to pick out a word or two. This proves that, according to humanity, the main thing to get right is the stylish appearance.

The office printer. In our office, the printer doubles as the workplace gym. First press print, then run around to find your document has failed to print, then open the cover, remove the cartridge and perform the “billy tea manoeuvre”, spinning the cartridge in large circles, hoping to shake free some toner. Replace in machine, then run back to your computer, press print, before repeating steps 2 to 6 unto all eternity.

The supermarket trolley with wonky wheels. There are bulls easier to wrestle than a trolley with its own mind. Maybe Colesworth wants us to go in circles, thus spending more time in the store. Before we get onto other inventions, might we not perfect the wheel?

Grout. Humanity was really on a winner when it invented tiling. Those glazed surfaces, first introduced in Mesopotamia in the 9th century BC, are just terrific when it comes to repelling moisture. We then gave each tile a border of grout, a white material that attracts grime and mould much like a magnet attracts iron filings. There is no way to clean it, seal it or refresh it. It means every shower recess looks a like a science experiment charting the early years of evolution. It’s been this way for nearly 3,000 years. So, what’s going on humanity? Can’t something be done? Sorry, we’re too busy working on the self-drive car.

A hose fitting that doesn’t leak. “Tourists,” I read, “could fly from Britain to Australia in just four hours in an aircraft powered by a hypersonic engine”. Of course, passengers boarding the aircraft will need to trust that the engineers have done a good job. In the matter of building that necessary confidence, I wonder if the engineers might consider first developing a garden hose whose fittings don’t leak?

We’re an inventive and ambitious species. But what a shame we’re always so keen to solve distant problems, and never the ones closer to home.

Now, if I could just get this column to print...

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The toaster.Hand-drying machines. The electric jug.The ignition system on a gas cooktop.The battery-operated torch.The type-size in museums and art galleriesThe office printer.The supermarket trolley with wonky wheels. GroutA hose fitting that doesn’t leak.