Inertia: Enemy of progress


I was recently reminded about an experience I had as a teen: I went to an Earth Day show at the Mall in Washington, D.C. and, among many things I saw, I had a chance to examine no less than four fully electric automobiles, all endorsed by the U.S. Department of Energy, a few made by major auto manufacturers (GM was among them), and at least one of them expected to go to market within 5 years.

This was 1978 or so.

And I remember thinking how great that was, because it meant that by the year 2000—because, in 1978, 22 years into the future sounded serious enough to warrant the phrase “in the year 2000″—there would be multitudes of electric cars to choose from, and the country would be driving primarily electric vehicles by then.

Obviously, that didn’t happen.  And when you ask someone about why it didn’t, the answer is likely to involve some form of inertia.

The best definition of Inertia is the resistance of any physical object to a change in its state of motion or rest. This is a definition that applies to physical bodies and applications of classic physics; if it is moving, it wants to keep moving, if it is at rest, it wants to stay still, and additional physical effort must be applied to change that.

A favorite joke of mine—and one which happens to feature inertia—is the one in which a man slips and falls from a 100-story building.  At the 20th floor, a man sticks his head out of a window and shouts at the falling man, “How are you doing?”

The falling man shouts back: “So far, so good!”

Though inertia as stated is intended to apply to physical bodies, it has also come to be applied to concepts like institutions and individual thoughts; inertia is that which prevents institutions from changing internal practices, and which prevents individuals from changing personal habits.  It also affects concepts like The Future, to wit: Inertia is that which prevents the future from happening.

Take the example of electric cars: Although we had the germs of electric autos and battery technology in 1978, we largely didn’t follow through on developing them; the oil-based automobile had taken over the planet, rich industrialists had committed their lives and fortunes to the oil-based auto, and were less concerned about the environmental improvement of the planet than they were of seeing their bank accounts shrink.  Those industrialists took concrete steps to slow the progress of electric autos, to bring battery research and development to a crawl, to influence environmental regulation in favor of easing pollution laws and controls, and to market cheaper and even more polluting vehicles by appealing to the public’s desire for luxury over environmental concerns.

Their efforts to keep the oil-based auto plugging along amounts to inertia.

Here’s another example, involving the electricity in your home.  For years, Americans used standardized incandescent light bulbs to light their homes.  Recently, it has been revealed that the incandescents are very inefficient, costing Americans millions of dollars in lost and wasted heat; so, in order to make American homes more efficient, lights of differing technologies are being developed, using fluorescent technology, halogen, LED and other technologies.

However, all of these technologies must deal with the standardized screw-in bulb receptacle that has been built into every lamp and light fixture for the past century.  And many Americans have voiced a preference for the older bulbs, not because they are all that great, but because they already fit into their existing lamps and fixtures, and don’t require them to learn anything new in order to light their homes.  This is inertia at work.

Let’s go back to the car.  A number of years ago, anti-lock brakes were developed for autos: The computer-assisted brake systems proved very quickly to be able to stop a car in a shorter distance by avoiding the wheel-lock and skidding that extend braking distance.  The technology proved to be better at “pulsing” brakes than just about any human, thanks to its millisecond response times (not to mention lack of mental distractions to impact its performance).

Today, you would think anti-lock brakes would be on every car brought to American shores, given its proven ability to stop cars sooner and safer.  But it is not on every car, and is not even an option on many cars, because American drivers cling to the belief that they can stop their car as soon as a computer can (or that there’s not enough of a difference to merit spending the extra money for the option).  This has kept anti-lock brakes from becoming standard issue on all American cars… inertia at work.

Today, we are regularly introduced to technologies that can improve our world at the personal, local, regional and global level.  Yet, people resist those technologies, either because they will force us to adopt new habits or adjust our existing technology to suit; or because we are more concerned with our present comfort than making an effort to ensure a better future; or simply because we just don’t believe the new technology can do the job better than we can or better than the old technology could.  Many life-saving, energy-saving or just effort-saving technologies are constantly held up by needless inertia, a resistance to allowing that technology to assert itself, to progress, to take off.

As you may have guessed by now, I’ve been thinking about this in relation to automobiles lately.  As I speak, there are test automobiles using the latest computers, GPS systems and maps, radar and imaging systems, taking the first steps towards fully automating the process of driving the car.  I see this as a necessary next step in automobile evolution, taking the dangerous job of piloting the car out of the hands of flawed, careless, easily-distracted human beings.

As people continue to try to squeeze more everything into their time, they find themselves with less attention to give to driving duties.  Considering that the automobile is the single largest cause of death in the U.S., and that less devotion to driving clearly leads to more accidents and death, this clearly can’t stand.  But instead of the increasing laws designed to safeguard us by preventing us from doing more and more when behind the wheel, we could instead allow everything save one activity—driving itself—and accomplish the same goal.

Self-driving cars aren’t quite ready for prime time yet, but when they are, we can expect most drivers to show heavy resistance to them, for just about all of the reasons listed above: People will not want to give up the activity of driving that they are used to; they won’t trust the cars’ computers to do a better job at driving than they can do themselves; and they won’t believe self-driving cars will make for a safer future on our roads.  In short, many people will fight tooth-and-nail to resist the self-driving car.  And as it was with electric cars, resistance could delay their development and adoption for decades.

But eventually, the benefits of self-driving cars will become numerous and more desirable, and more people will adopt self-driving cars.  And when they do, we will see an example of how inertia can speed change as well as slow it: As more support goes to a new technology, it speeds up in developing new advances, and the public shows more willingness in adopting the changes; it changes from rest to motion, and inertia helps to keep the motion going.

This discussion of inertia does not only apply to autos, of course.  It can be evaluated against alternative energies, the internet and social media, cell phones and personal technology, eating habits, popular shows and media, and pretty much anything that undergoes change over time.  As in physics, inertia is a universal force; we cannot ignore it, and we must always consider its force upon us as we try to move into the future.

But we must also consider inertia’s ability to keep us heading down the wrong path.  Just as the man falling from the building will eventually discover, unchecked inertia can lead to disaster.

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