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The Kids are Alright

George Bernard Shaw once observed that youth is wasted on the young.

George Bernard Shaw once observed that youth is wasted on the young. That, of course, is the sentiment of many of us for whom youth is not so much a fond memory as it is a physical understanding: the bones and joints are not as smooth operating as they once were and the muscles aren't as limber and forgiving of athletic indiscretions (or of even getting off the couch too quickly).

There are many people on the far side of youth who not only experience the physical effects of age, but the mental calcification that too-often accompanies the years. One argument that's sometimes raised about this subject is that just as gravity affects the body (think only of the tendency of one's physique to go south as the years proceed), responsibility (e.g., job, mortgage, family) tends to make one less free-thinking as time goes by. But it should be understood that experience doesn't equate with wisdom, and just because someone may have been around for a long time, that person isn't necessarily any more bright than a neophyte. Indeed, what the younger person lacks in experience she may more than make up for in imagination.

Often times, it seems as though there is a dichotomy between the young and aging, with the former having a willingness to experiment and the latter being inclined to defend the status quo. Generally, the people most vigorously defending the status quo are those who are in Authority (yes, capital A), and they do all that they can to assure that whatever experimentation occurs does so within some fairly narrow channels.

But what is most important to note is that innovation is the result of experimentation, of people trying new things, not doing the same thing over and over again. Innovation is the result of risk. Risk-taking, almost by definition, entails the possibility—perhaps even the probability—of failure. Failure is something that is generally anathema to those who are guided by a rigorous sense of responsibility.

This is not to argue that innovation can come only from those who are irresponsible, but to maintain that if innovation is important, then it is the responsibility of those who are in Authority to nurture both the sense and consequence of experimentation, not to squelch those things that challenge "the way it's always been done."

Change isn't always good. But the lack of change can be deadly.

The drive to think about things from a different perspective came to me by two recent experiences. One was a week in a bright blue—bordering on purple—1999 Civic Si. It's powered by a 160-hp, dual overhead cam VTEC (variable valve-timing and lift electronic control) engine. It's equipped with a stiffer suspension system than is found on, say, the Civic EX. This car is Honda's response to the young people who are modifying small cars including Civics, transforming them into hot rods (or "pocket rockets") in a way reminiscent of what happened to vehicles like '57 Chevys. Honda is recognizing the importance of the young to its market and is responding accordingly. Slamming the five-speed is a significantly different experience than moving a lever to "D" and proceeding along the highway. The Civic Si isn't wasted on the young, it is just something that can't be fully appreciated by the old(er).

More to the point was a day spent as a Design Review judge for the 1999 FutureCar Challenge. This is a competition among students at 13 engineering colleges in North America that's sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy and the United States Council for Automotive Research (USCAR). The students—from University of Wisconsin, Virginia Tech, University of California at Davis, Concordia University, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Lawrence Technological University, University of Maryland, University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, Michigan Technological University, Ohio State, University of Tennessee at Knoxville, Texas Technological University, and West Virginia University—were charged with transforming vehicles, not Civics into tricked out hot rods, but a Chevy Lumina, Dodge Intrepid, Ford Taurus, or Mercury Sable into vehicles that get on the order of 80 mpg yet have the amenities that Middle America expects from a midsize vehicle. This meant that the students worked with different powertrains (hybrids consisting of, mainly, small diesels combined with electric motors, and even fuel cells), different control strategies (the level of computing power that tends to be more characteristic of a university computing center than a garage), and different materials (aluminum, composites, high-strength steel). The levels of innovation and ingenuity exhibited by many of the students is nothing short of impressive. Any vehicle manufacturer would be well served by snapping up these students upon their graduation.

But even more striking than their technical chops was the zeal exhibited in many cases, whether it was the group from Concordia that built a fuel injection system for dimethyl ether (DME) fuel and were refreshingly matter-of-fact about this impressive engineering feat or the students from University of Wisconsin who dubbed their Mercury Sable Aluminum Intensive Vehicle the "Aluminum Cow."

Clearly, it is the creativity and the imagination of the young that many of us need to recapture.

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