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Magic headlights

technofile  by al fasoldt

Columns and commentaries in a life-long dance with technology

Simple gray rule

Magic headlights and a longing for Preston T.

By Al Fasoldt

Copyright © 1991, The Syracuse Newspapers

A few weeks ago I drove for three hours through thick fog and wished Preston Tucker were still around.

Tucker, you may recall if you saw the Hollywood movie named after him a few years back, was the automotive visionary who created an unusual car after World War II. Bad management on his part and bad press fed by the established auto companies killed off the Tucker car shortly after it was introduced, and Preston Tucker died a failure.

Tucker was one of the few real innovators in the American automobile industry. He dared to do things differently.

One of his innovations was a third headlight, right in the center of the car's nose, that swiveled with the front wheels. It lit up the area you were headed for any time you were going around a turn. It was especially great when you were driving through rain or fog.

The Citroen car company of France adopted the same idea-using the two regular swiveling headlights instead of a middle one. It put them on its DS model two decades after Tucker's car showed how to do it. But that's as far as the intelligent headlamp ever got on production cars.

Stupidity killed it off. The governing bodies that set the requirements for how safety items on cars can be designed in the United States and Canada ruled out movable headlights a long time ago. And no one has come forward, as Preston Tucker did more than 40 years ago, to challenge the rules these days with the same kind of daring.

It's a shame. Automobile design is far behind consumer electronics in its use of technology, and it is not going to catch up soon.

Except for anti-lock brakes and engine computers, we don't have much to show for progress. Now and then we will see feeble efforts to add a high-tech gadget or two to new cars. They will probably be little more than frills, like the CD-ROM-based electronic position sensors that are already sold in other countries. Folding road maps still can't be beat when you want to sit down at Wendy's with a cup of coffee and scout out your trip during a break.

What's really needed is something that makes driving safer without forcing you to adopt any new habits.

One example is the variable-pulse brake light, invented many years ago but rejected by the governing bodies (and apparently by the automobile industry, too). It's a nifty idea: Instead of simply turning on and off with your brake pedal, the variable-pulse light blinks slowly when you are slowing down gently and blinks quickly when you are stopping fast.

The faster you are stopping, in other words, the faster your brake lights flash on and off.

The idea is so compelling—so intuitive, in fact, given the way we react to rapidly flashing lights—that it seems illogical that it would not be in use on all cars today. It probably would cost only $5 to $10 extra.

A similar idea, just as cheap to implement, is a variable-pulse turn signal. The sharper you are turning, the faster your left or right blinkers are blinking. It makes sense.

A lot of other automotive inventions make sense, too. But what we are likely to find in the new models instead are fancier radios like the ones from Toyota, which can be adjusted for a ``jazz'' sound, a ``classical'' sound and an ``MOR'' sound.

That MOR is for ``middle of the road,'' referring to the kind of rock-pop that offends no one. Automobile electronics are likely to stay MOR, too, unless those of us who enjoy driving start complaining more.

Or perhaps until another Preston Tucker comes along.

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