Car Drivers vs Mechanics and Free Software

In a comment on my post about Designing Unsafe Cars [1] Noel said “If you don’t know how to make a surgery, you don’t do it. If you don’t know how to drive, don’t drive. And if you don’t know how to use a computer, don’t expect anybody fix your disasters, trojans and viruses.” Later he advocates using a taxi.

Now I agree about surgery – apart from corner cases such as medical emergencies in remote places and large-scale disasters. I also agree that it’s good to avoid driving if you aren’t very good at it (that would be much better than the current fad of sub-standard drivers buying large 4WD vehicles).

But I don’t think that people who lack computer skills should avoid using computers.

When cars were first invented everyone who owned one was either a mechanic or employed one. Driving a car often involved being well out of range of anyone else who might know how to fix it, so either the car owner or their chauffeur had to be able to fix almost any problem. As the car industry evolved the level of mechanical knowledge required to own and operate a car has steadily decreased. I expect that a significant portion of drivers don’t know how to top up the oil or radiator water in their car and probably don’t know what is the correct pressure for air in their tires. To a large extent I don’t think this is a problem, owning a car involves regularly taking it to be serviced where professionals will (or at least should) check every aspect of the car that is likely to fail. If I used my windscreen-washer less frequently I could probably avoid opening the bonnet of the car between scheduled services!

When budgeting for car ownership you just have to include regularly spending a few hundred dollars to pay for an expert to find problems and fix them – with of course the occasional large expense for when something big breaks.

When the computer industry matures I expect that the same practice will occur. Most people will buy computers and plan to spend small amounts of money regularly to pay people to maintain it. Currently most older people seem to plan to have a young relative take care of their PC for them – essentially free mechanic services. The quality of such work will vary of course, and poorly designed OSs that are vulnerable to attack may require more support than can be provided for free.

Due to deficiencies in city design it is almost essential to drive a car in most parts of the US and Australia – as opposed to countries such as the Netherlands where you can survive quite well without ever driving. When a service is essential it has to be usable by people who have little skill in that area. It would be good if driving wasn’t necessary, I would be happy if I never drove a car again.

The need to use computers however will continue to increase. So we need to make them more available to users and to support users who can’t disinfect computers etc. The only skill requirements for using a computer should be the ability to use a keyboard and a mouse!

This requires a new industry in supporting PCs. Geek Squad in the US [2] seems to be the organisation that is most known for this. I expect that there will be multiple companies competing for such work in every region in the near future, just as there are currently many companies competing for the business of servicing cars.

We need support for free software from such companies. Maybe existing free software companies such as Red Hat and Canonical can get into this business. One advantage of having such companies supporting software is that they would have a strong commercial incentive to avoid having it break – unlike proprietary software vendors who have little incentive to do things right.

The next issue is the taxi analogy. Will software as a service with Google subsidising our use of their systems [3] take over any significant part of the market?

Of course the car analogy breaks down when it comes to privacy, no-one does anything remotely private in a taxi while lots of secret data is stored on a typical home computer. Google is already doing some impressive security development work which will lead towards low maintenance systems [4] as well as protecting the privacy of the users – to the extent that you can trust whoever runs the servers.

My parents use their computer for reading email, browsing the web, and some basic wordprocessing and spreadsheet work. The mail is on my IMAP server so all I need is to have some way to store their office documents on a server and they will pretty much have a dataless workstation. Moving their collection of photos and videos of their friends and relatives to a server will be a problem, transferring multiple gigabytes of data on a cheap Australian Internet access plan is a problem.

7 comments to Car Drivers vs Mechanics and Free Software

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  • I agree with you much more on this post that on the previous one.

    I read you (usually) through the Planet Debian, and I myself are a Debian Package Maintainer, Debian-es translator and so on, so it is normal that I agree more or less with you on computer-related thoughts (specially freedom and privacy).

    But the problem is that the computer industry IS mature, and it chose (when dominated by a single actor) to fool people convincing them that “Computers are Easy”. Thus, people almost don’t think on paying for servicing the computer.

    With cars, people always has been said that they are complicated machines that need a regular servicing. It is even compulsory (at least in Spain) to have a card in the front cristal showing that the car has passed a revision.

    With computers, on the other hand, this does not happen at all. It is not only that nobody can even imagine that computers can not connect to Internet without a valid certificate expended by a local civil authority saying that it has been serviced (patches applied, viruses removed if virus-sensible OS, etc). It is that people does not even think that the computer needs regular service and that that costs money.

    And an unserviced car can cost lives, the same way an unserviced server can cost thousands of millions to whoever relies in it.

  • Felipe Sateler

    > (that would be much better than the current fad of sub-standard drivers buying large 4WD vehicles)

    The irony (probably implicit in your statement) is that usually these are bought precisely for that reason. It is apparently a common feature of human nature: we prefer damaging others than ourselves.

  • Anonymous

    >> (that would be much better than the current fad of sub-standard drivers buying large 4WD vehicles)

    > The irony (probably implicit in your statement) is that usually these are bought precisely for that reason. It is apparently a common feature of human nature: we prefer damaging others than ourselves.

    Yes, that particular feature of most organisms goes by the name “self-preservation”. Ignoring the comment about “sub-standard” (many good drivers buy SUVs and similar as well), when choosing a vehicle, it seems quite reasonable to consider its safety features, and “how will this vehicle fare in a collision with other common vehicles on the road” seems like a perfectly reasonable question to ask.

    In any case, many other reasons exist to buy large vehicles, not least of which that they fit tall people. I have sufficiently long legs that many full-size non-SUVs still make me sit with my knees well above my waist.

    Interesting exercise: take your favorite computer chair, adjusted as you typically prefer it for your comfort, roll it out to your car, and compare the seat height, both in absolute terms and relative to the floor of the car. In absolute terms, it seems ridiculous to sit so much closer to the ground; in relative terms, it seems ridiculous to have so little leg room.

    Keep some of that in mind the next time you want to automatically characterize SUV drivers as inconsiderate idiots.

  • etbe

    Noel: Well for starters I would hope that people would agree with me more when I discuss a topic on which I have extensive experience (designing and implementing computer systems) than when I discuss a topic where I am merely an interested amateur (I’ve never designed a car).

    The compulsory service is simply because unserviced cars tend to kill random 3rd parties, I expect that if an unpatched computer could be shown to be a great risk of killing people then we would get legislation to deal with that.

    You note that an unserviced server can impose costs on people who use it. The libertarian take on this is that it’s an issue for the market and civil law suits to sort out. The customers will take their business elsewhere or sue the company if they do the wrong thing. While I generally disagree with libertarians I have to point out that in this case the libertarian angle makes sense.

    I would prefer to have some legislation about known infected machines that are left on the net. Instead of having a 3 strikes law about accusations of unauthorised copying it would make more sense to have 3 strikes for spreading malware.

    Felipe: The real irony is that 4WDs are less safe for the drivers and passengers. For example if you lose control of a regular car and veer off the road you can expect to bounce through any ditch or gutter without any problems (apart from maybe damaging the suspension). Do that with a 4WD and it’s almost inevitable that the vehicle will roll, and rolling tends to be fatal.

    Anon: I am taller than 95% of Australian men, I used to drive a VW Passat and I found that I didn’t need to have the drivers seat at the maximum distance from the front of the car. The Passat is designed to fit taller people than me with ease.

    If you look at the statistics on what happens in real-world crashes (not crash tests which only measure 90 degree angles and never test for rolling) then 4WD and SUV vehicles don’t perform that well, only the most expensive models compare with the standard passenger cars.

    If I had to use foot pedals when using my computer I would need a vastly different type of chair.

    One thing to note about SUVs is the significant incidence of children being driven over by such vehicles. Because of the poor visibility 4WD and SUV vehicles are over-represented in the “child gets squashed by parents in front of their own home” accidents.

  • Anonymous


    Note that not all SUVs have the design flaw of having too much height for their wheelbase, making them roll-prone. That particular insanity comes from people wanting an SUV but also wanting the wheelbase of a compact car. Ignoring that case, SUVs do quite well in real-world crashes, at least based on the research I’ve seen.

    I’ve never sat in a Passat. I can tell you that my experience with most cars I *have* sat in involves insufficient leg room as well as having to “fall” into the vehicle to get in. And, due to the latter as well as the lower roof, more than a few knocks on the head trying to get in and out.

    As for children getting run over by vehicles, that seems primarily an issue with negligence on the part of the driver for not checking or for going too fast.

  • etbe

    Anon: Which marques of SUV have a good ratio of height to width?

    The above URL has analysis of real crashes. Of the vehicles that were involved in enough crashes to be listed SUV/4WD vehicles don’t seem much different from the others, there are a few good models and a lot of fairly average ones.

    The one thing that is not included in that analysis is the effect of vehicle design on crash incidence – which is the real problem for anyone who drives a vehicle with a high center of gravity and poor handling. Also you can’t just compare distance driven with crash incidence, there is the issue of the types of road that are used, the speed, the time of the driving etc.

    If a child’s head extends above the bonnet of the car then they are unlikely to be driven over. A higher 4WD/SUV vehicle extends the danger age by a few years. Part of the problem is the design of the front, the sloping front of a Kia Carnival greatly reduces this problem. Incidentally the Carnival is higher and wider than most SUVs, so if you want to sit upright then a people-mover is probably the best option.