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Opinion: Finagle's Law and car technology

By Tim Keen, 20 Nov 2018 Features

Opinion Anything which can go wrong will go wrong unless you want it to go wrong feature

Lexus' new side cameras has got Keen pondering on the paradox of Finagle's Law

Stop me when this sounds familiar. You go to wash your hands in an airport bathroom. You squirt the soap from the dispenser, and then go to start the water and... nothing. The high-tech sensor taps don’t see you, and you’re left with hands dripping in pungent goo, like the collector at a bull-stud farm.

It’s Finagle’s Law – a refinement of Murphy’s Law, that anything which can go wrong, will go wrong... at the worst possible moment.

Your credit card will only be declined when you’re on a first date. Your transmission will only crap itself when the house down-payment is due. The porn star you had an affair with will only sell her story to the papers when you’re being investigated for being a sleeper agent for a Russian spy agency. Better hope Dr Finagle doesn’t drive a Lexus.

You’ve surely read that next year’s Lexus ES is getting side cameras instead of wing mirrors. They should have called that model the ER instead, because that’s the noise you’ll make if the cameras fail – “Eeeeyaaaarrrrgh” – and where you might end up when they do.

By all accounts, Audi is not far behind – only Lexus can’t see how far behind the Audi is, because they have no wing mirrors.

The cameras are better in low light or in the rain, says Lexus. Huh. Okay. So why not go the whole hog, then, and do away with the windscreen as well, and replace it with a high-res monitor showing a feed from an exterior camera array – low-light, infra-red, glare-immune, automatic, systematic, hydramatic, greased-lightning cameras?

It would be the perfect use for enhanced vision. Every view out of the car could be computer augmented, like being a Lexus-driving Terminator: pedestrians glowing orange, GPS directions lighting up the street you need to turn down, no more glare at sun-up or sundown, no need for windscreen wipers even in the rain... plus no-one could look in and see you scratching your balls. I can see the commercial now: “Wearing pants is the past. The new ES is the future.”

MOTOR opinion: Modern convenience doesn't solve everything

So why not do it? Because it would be awful, that’s why.

Because no-one would want to drive such a thing. It would be 10 per cent awesome, in a James Bond sort of way, and 90 per cent horrifying, knowing that if anything went wrong you’d be left driving blind.
“Ridiculous analogy,” scoffs the Lexus defender.

But really – if the tech is failproof, why not replace the windscreen? And if it’s not failproof, what does that say about Lexus’s opinion of wing mirrors? Maybe Lexus is comfortable introducing mirror-less cars because it knows its customers rarely check their mirrors anyway.

Ouch. Apologies, Sawa-san.

The flip side of Finagle’s Law, of course, is that when you want something to go wrong, it won’t. Such as when I took our household car to an alarm specialist because it was convinced, despite evidence to the contrary, that the rear passenger door wasn’t really closed, and that it should scream blue murder whenever you locked the car. Every time. Without fail. Until, of course, it’s at the alarm specialist... and then, the bloody thing worked perfectly. Bastard.

MOTOR opinion: Car features that are bad in practice

So, somehow the trick has to be wanting something to fail all the time, so that it works perfectly. But you have to actually want it to fail – if you try to trick the universe by pretending to want it to fail only to make it work, then it will fail. You need to actually and actively want them to not work.

Perhaps the only way to achieve that is to be an old curmudgeon, a sour-faced Luddite who snarls at every innovation, muttering “What’s wrong with mirrors anyway... these cameras are stupid... wouldn’t happen back in my day.”

And then wait expectantly for the moment you can bask in the smug satisfaction of watching them fail... only to have them work perfectly every time.

Which is exactly what I’ve done.