Guest Post: The Limits Of Engineering

Tyler Durden's picture

Submitted by Charles Hugh Smith from Of Two Minds

The Limits Of Engineering

The notion that better engineering can solve all our problems is rooted in an ignorance of non-linear systems and selective/wishful thinking.

I recently received an email from a Chastizing Retired Engineer (CRE) that reflected both a ubiquitous spiritual disease and a profound ignorance of the limits of engineering. What fired the CRE's undimmed rage was my long analysis which explained why the economy isn't going to generate 20 million jobs, and that as a result, we need a Plan B, which I also outlined: Getting 20 Million Unemployed Back to Productive Work: Here's How (August 16, 2011).

The CRE began by criticising the length of the entry, and by expressing the heartfelt wish that I was poorly paid for my writing. What does it say about the state of the nation's spiritual and intellectual health when retired engineers start their critique by hoping those they disagreee with are subjected to poverty? The spiritual illness at the heart of this sentiment is a topic for another time.

We might also wonder what's to become of the nation if retired engineers only want to read analyses of 250 words or less--perhaps because that is enough for them to decide the writer should be banished to poverty for the sin of disagreeing with their views.

Though he obviously held his own intelligence and powers of observation in high regard, Mr. CRE apparently failed to notice that this blog is free, and thus I earn nothing directly from writing it. This further suggests a rush to judgment so spritely that the basic facts of the matter are skipped over as irrelevant.

Mr. CRE recommended that I turn my attention to telling General Motors how to engineer the Car of the Future (COTF) and similar projects, presumably as a way of generating employment.

In other words, the problem is a dearth of bloggers telling corporations how to design products of the future. That the solution to our collective problems is for bloggers to tell GM et al. how to design the Car of the Future is certainly a novel idea, but it overlooks several key points.

Is GM interested in the views of bloggers? Perhaps in terms of marketing their vehicles, but I doubt they are seeking engineering advice from bloggers. GM undoubtedly has many experienced, talented engineers, some of whom designed the Chevy Volt as The Car of the Future, or at least as a car aimed at the future.

The design parameters of the Volt were dictated by GM management, which is probably even less interested in the advice of bloggers than GM engineers.

There are a number of other assumptions of interest in Mr. CRE's recommendation. One is that the Car of the Future needs to be designed, and another is that the Car of the Future would go a long way toward solving our unemployment problems.

Some in GM reckoned they've already designed the Car of the Future with the Volt. Some at Nissan reckon the all-electric Leaf is the Car of the Future. (Both manufacturers sold about 2,200 of these models in the first 5 months of 2011.) Those working at Tesla clearly believe their next production car is the Car of the Future.

The engineers at Volkswagen have been working on their Car of the Future for years, the so-called 1-litre car that travels 100 kilometers on 1 litre of fuel --about 235 miles on a gallon of gasoline. The vehicle weighs about 1,600 pounds and is quite compact--severe trade-offs had to be made to reach this level of efficiency. (Side question: how many adult Americans could even get into the car?)

The latest model is the XL1 which achieves 260 miles per gallon and a top speed of 99 miles per hour with a two-cylinder turbo-diesel engine (47 horsepower) and electric-drive assist.

By comparison, my 1998 Honda Civic weighs about 2,400 pounds, has a 1.6 liter ICE (internal combustion engine) that generates 106 horsepower. On our recent camping trip, we drove 2,400 miles and despite climbing above 4,000 feet on five occasions and using the air conditioner, the car achieved 39.91 miles per gallon (total gasoline consumption 60.5 gallons). This is roughly comparable to the mileage of the far more costly and complex Toyota Prius, and about double the mileage of the U.S. fleet average of 19.8 MPG.

The point here is that behavior and common-sense engineering can double the efficiency of the existing fleet without any new fancy (and costly) technologies.

All of which is to say that there are already many competing designs for the Car of the Future, and it is the marketplace and external factors such as fuel cost and availability that will decide which wins, not retired engineers, executives at GM or bloggers. Clearly, the ICE (internal combustion engine) is intrinsically inefficient compared to an electric motor, as a huge percentage of the energy consumed by an ICE is lost to heat and friction of its many moving parts. Just as clearly, a Car of the Future that relies on composite materials and complex technologies will not be cheap to manufacture.

There are a few other assumptions implicit in Mr. CRE's view that are questionable. Will building the Car of the Future generate millions of jobs? If Mr. CRE has toured any advanced auto factories, he would note that most of the work is performed by software-controlled robotic machines. At some plants in Japan, the total workforce is about 500 people.

While there are certainly many jobs provided down the supply chain, the idea that building the Car of the Future will generate millions of jobs is simply fantasy. Software and robots are replacing human workers everywhere, even in low-wage nations like China.

Indeed, we can guess that Mr. CRE was not a software engineer, as he doesn't seem to grasp that software is munching through industry after industry, hollowing out entire swaths of advanced economies while creating far fewer jobs than it has eradicated. If this concept is new to you, I recommend reading Why Software Is Eating The World.

The larger question is how big a part the Car of the Future will play in the U.S. economy. Vehicle sales have plummeted from a record 17.4 million in 2000 to 11.5 million in 2010. Certainly the recession was a factor, but there are much deeper forces at work than recession: people are driving less, and more people are opting out of car ownership: The Road... Less Traveled: An Analysis of Vehicle Miles Traveled Trends in the U.S..

This is a global phenomenon. In Japan, the younger generation is not enamoured by auto ownership; rather, they view it as a costly burden.

In analytic terms, we can chart this topping out and decline of miles driven and vehicle sales on a S-curve, as described by Cesare Marchetti in his seminal paper, A Simple Model for Complex Systems.

Simply put, the entire vehicle industry is in decline for structural reasons beyond fuel costs. These include demographics, financial considerations, cultural values and other factors which cannot be adequately quantified by engineering methodologies.

If the structural dynamics I described in the entry which so annoyed Mr. CRE do in fact play out, then we can also ask who will be able to afford to buy the Car of the Future other than the top 10% of households.

If imported oil drops precipitously for a combination of non-linear and linear systemic reasons-- geoplitical upheavals, aging super-giant field production, rising domestic consumption in exporting states, etc.--then we might also profitably ask where the fuel will come from to power the 254 million passenger vehicles registered in the U.S.

In conclusion, we can conclude that Mr. CRE is remarkably ill-informed about the auto industry and the structural factors influencing employment, design, sales, fuel consumption and availability, etc. Mr. CRE's tirade reflects several other common afflictions:

1. A deep, pervasive nostalgia for 1965

2. Know-It-All Syndrome (KIAS), which is unfortunately endemic to a subset of the engineering community.

The nostalgia for the mid-1960s is understandable. Back in those heady days, all the government had to do was throw unlimited sums of money at big engineering projects like putting a human being on the moon, and the engineers went to work and fashioned miracles.

This same mindset spread throughout the government, including the Pentagon, where it led to the engineering analysis of how to win the war in Vietnam, which can be summarized thusly:

1. Calculate number of bombs needed to kill X number of bad guys

2. Estimate number of bad guys

3. Estimate number of U.S. troops needed to locate/corral bad guys

4. Station X number of U.S. troops in Vietnam and drop X tonnage of munitions on bad guys

5. War will be won when number of bad guys killed rises above replacement level

This is not an isolated example of engineering idiocy or KIAS. The entire premise of the engineering mindset is that problems can be broken down to a small set of quantifiable inputs, processes and outputs. This works fine when measuring and controlling water flow, flow of electrons, and other linear systems, but it is catastrophically mis-applied when Know-It-Alls besotted by their success in extremely limited linear systems attempt to "solve" non-linear problem-sets with linear "solutions."

Case in point: war is highly non-linear. The "Whiz Kids" at the Pentagon did not even understand the problem-set, or the nature of war; how could their simplistic, Know-It-All "solutions" possibly work in the real world?

Most of our problem-sets are non-linear, and are thus inaccessible to engineered solutions. Even something as straightforward as designing the Car of the Future turns out to be largely controlled by non-linear, impossible to quantify factors such as cultural values, future availablility of fuel, etc.

The very success of engineering in highly limited fields of endeavor feeds a hubris which is largely lacking in scientists schooled in life sciences. I wonder how much Mr. CRE knows about the human immune system, which is extremely complex, interactive, dynamic and non-linear in nature. I once pondered a chart of the basic immune system on the wall of a PhD immunologist friend; the number of "moving parts" and the interactions of those parts is mind-bogglingly large.

The human immune system cannot be usefully mapped as an engineering project. This may explain why life scientists and others who work in non-linear systems tend to be circumspect about the applicability of their expertise in other fields. Meanwhile, quants in economics brim with confidence in their cargo-cult models of non-linear human behavior.

No wonder the economists are so successful in "solving" our structural economic problem-sets.

If we consider the stock market a problem-set, then shouldn't it be possible to engineer 11 good trades in a row? After all, the data is all there for the taking. If a whiz kid could engineer 11 trades that doubled the capital invested--not that impossible when trading futures contracts or options--then in 11 iterations a mere $500 blossoms into $1 million.

So go ahead and engineer a "solution" to the stock market "problem" which yields 11 good trades in a row.

The problem is that the market--and most of life--is non-linear, and "solutions" cannot be conjured out of simplistic linear models and inputs which cannot be quantified except with a highly illusory accuracy.