Technology's double-edged sword

It was Back in the dark ages of computers. DOS was in its death throes, about to be replaced by a new computer operating system called Windows.

Software was becoming more powerful, but file sizes had grown so large that they could no longer fit on a single floppy disk — not even on those fancy new 3½-inch disks that were enclosed in rigid plastic and didn't really flop like the 5¼ -inch disks did.

Installing these big programs required putting a series of disks into the computer's floppy drive — 13 or more for some of the memory hogs from Microsoft. Some applications were not even offered on floppies.

It was time to take the plunge and buy a CD drive. A trip to the neighborhood computer shop was in order.

“What can I do for you?” the owner asked.

“I would like to buy a CD drive for my computer.”

“Sure. How do you plan to use it?”

“I want to be able to install software that comes on a CD. I'm tired of putting in all these floppy disks whenever I want to add a program.”

“Would you also like to use the CD drive to play music on your computer?”

“Will a computer do that?”

“Sure. You like music, don't you?”

“Yeah, it's just that I don't own any CDs. But if I did, I guess it would be good to be able to play them on the computer. That way, I wouldn't have to buy a CD player when my eight-track eventually gives out.”

“Good point. Of course, you will need speakers. We have this pair on sale today.”

“Okay.”

“And you will need a sound card.”

“I have to buy a CD drive? And speakers? And a sound card? It just never quits, does it?”

The storeowner smiled and said, “That's why I love this business.”

Technology almost always is more expensive than budgeted and more complex than we envision. And we can almost always expect to encounter the unexpected. Truck technology is no exception. Take the “Access to information” issue, the subject of the story that begins on Page 64.

Truck manufacturers and their suppliers have invested millions to develop today's sophisticated truck electrical systems and the devices they power. These new systems improve performance and reliability, help make diagnostics easier, and enable trucks to comply with ever-tightening emissions regulations.

But not without some complications.

Producing today's sophisticated commercial trucks is a team effort involving the chassis manufacturer and component suppliers, the truck equipment manufacturer, the truck dealer, and the truck equipment distributor. All parties must work together to make all the pieces that go into the truck work together.

Information is the driving force. Digital data make it possible for the components of disparate manufacturers — engines, transmissions, and other equipment — to function smoothly in a single vehicle.

But for these components to share information, the humans that build them must do the same thing.

A dilemma facing truck manufacturers is “How much of this system — which I have spent countless dollars to develop — do I need to share?”

Bill Gates did not become the world's richest man by giving away the store (although he has moved down the list recently by giving away money). But one of the key decisions he made early in Microsoft's history was to encourage third-party developers to write software for his operating system. Rival Apple Computer chose the opposite course — to protect its software from outsiders. The result: independent companies developed a wide range of custom applications around the Microsoft operating system, and 90% of personal computers today use Microsoft.

Even so, Microsoft cannot meet all the custom needs of computer users — it needs independent software developers. In much the same way, truck manufacturers need our industry. A chassis without equipment is about as valuable as a computer operating system without programs.

We can't blame manufacturers for wanting to guard their intellectual property. But we wonder if there isn't an opportunity for them to protect their products while providing our industry with the information required to move chassis more smoothly through our shops. This seems especially achievable in view of the fact that many of the concerns expressed in the “Access to information” story involve relatively routine issues such as a lack of wiring diagrams.

We recall that until recently, chassis manufacturers also were reluctant to share CAD drawings. CAD drawings are now readily available, reducing the time required for distributors to produce engineering drawings of custom commercial trucks.

Unexpected complications tend to get worked out, and we move on. It's a little bit like the computer business. Now that we have CD players, speakers, and sound cards, who wants to listen to Engelbert Humperdinck on eight track?

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