Motorheads start young. Sure, someone over 30 or even 40 can develop an interest in cars and high performance and begin working on engines for fun, but based on past experience, it’s more likely teenagers who first get the bug, maybe developing a passion for a hobby or career that lasts the rest of their lives. As Baby Boomers, many of us lived through the heyday of hot rodding right up through the 60s, but then smog equipment, low compression engines, unleaded gasoline and a whole host of EPA regulations just about killed it. It somehow managed to survive, car manufacturers slowly got a handle on the issue and began figuring out how to make engines run again and as the dark days of the 70s passed and we moved through the 80s, there was a glimmer of hope that cars could once again be fast and fun. Boomers rejoiced, but we had a lot of relearning to do, we began seeing onboard computers controlling many engine functions and before long it was apparent the old ways from the old days were no longer enough. Working on cars became far more than just mechanics, it was getting really complex.
Kids and their computers
During this time, in the early 80s, personal computers and software appeared. While driving, drag racing and hot rodding used to see legions of the young jumping in as soon as they came of age, computers and programming were like drugs tailor made for the young mind. Once exposed they were often addicted and interest among teens in all things automotive started to fall, … quickly. No need for a garage, no need to find a drag strip, no need for a toolbox filled with tools, any time of the day, impervious to the weather, computers kidnapped young minds by the millions and for those that resisted, an even stronger attractant came along in the form of dial up modems, AOL and CompuServe, it was the Internet. Working on cars didn’t stand a chance. The kids went high tech, a lot of the older motorheads working in their garages found interest in their hobby slipping away, they still loved it, but teenagers were off somewhere else. An entire generation of the young turned up their noses at motorheads. Who wants to get dirty and greasy when you can write code or just play video games? Cars, motorcycles, who needs ‘em?
Living in a virtual world
For those of you who have ever learned even a little programming, you know the first and simplest exercise is to write a line or two of code that results in “Hello world!” appearing on the screen. It’s a way of showing you how what you write makes something happen. Ah, the possibilities! Just master the code and you can change everything, Marc Andreessen even wrote a famous essay about how software is eating the world as companies were getting out of the hardware business and focusing on the code. Young people dreamed of making their mark sitting at a keyboard, riches, power, fame, it was all theirs or soon would be. Hmm, … so what about all the rest of the stuff? You know, the stuff we all use every day, the things that sometimes break and need to be fixed, the products that might do better with a little modification, who will put their hands on things in the real world, who’s going to make it in the first place. Oh, never mind, there’s code to write.
How did they do that?
Now, remember those computers I mentioned above showing up in cars controlling the engine? Well, since they first appeared, they’ve expanded their tentacles within the vehicle to the point where they now control almost everything, there’s more computer code in the average new car than in some of our front line jet fighters, pretty cool and more than a little scary if the wrong person takes notice. A now infamous story in Wired Magazine tells the experience of the writer driving a Jeep Cherokee down the highway as two hackers he knew took over the functions of the Jeep. Beginning with the climate control, they progressed until eventually disengaging the transmission and disabling the brakes, all from a remote location and resulting in a Chrysler recall of Jeep Cherokees and inspiring new legislation for automotive security so manufacturers guard against this sort of thing in the future.
Software, meet hardware
By now you’re familiar with the maker movement, the new found desire among young people to make things again or at least play around with something tangible beyond their computer keyboards. A big part of that is the world of microcontrollers and microcomputers like the Arduino and Raspberry Pi. These little microprocessors on a circuit board take commands from a little bit of computer code, then do whatever they’re told. Just like “Hello World!” as a first exercise in programming, there’s a similar first exercise with an Arduino where a bit of code causes a small LED on the circuit board to blink. What will they do next? Actually, that’s an important question.
So, you can program, now what?
Here’s where it gets interesting. Whether you just started programming and did your Hello World exercise or you hooked up your Arduino and blinked the LED, what IS next? You’re literally staring at the entire universe of possibilities, what will you do with your new found super powers?
Oddly enough, young people who have spent years playing video games often decide they’re going to use their new programming skills to create a new, … video game. My advice to those budding programmers is don’t do it. Forget the games, join the adult world and make a better choice.
Then we have the Arduino crowd. Since we’re in the real world now with a microcontroller that can make real things move and respond to a series of commands, almost anything can be a learning experience, but some suggested projects are things like controlling lawn sprinklers and house lights. Those are fine projects, not too complex and the new builder can learn a lot about software and hardware interaction in the process, but would a teenager really find lawn sprinklers exciting? Let’s rethink this a bit.
Here's a challenging gadget to work on
Today, the tech oriented kids who want to do something cool and interesting are into high tech gadgets and computers, it’s cool and their techie friends are programming and building high tech stuff, too, not, for the most part, working on cars. That’s what we did when we were young, but wait a minute, think back to that Jeep on the highway getting taken over remotely. That’s not high tech? Think about millions of lines of computer code in that car, that’s not a challenge for a programmer?
If someone has just started learning about the Arduino and is wondering what to do with it, how about connecting it to something more exciting than lawn sprinklers, how about that big gadget out in the garage? How about a car? That’s what these guys did when they created Macchina with a Kickstarter project. It’s based on the Arduino Due and there’s already a big community of users forming around it. Car nerds, using their high tech and programming skills to modify their cars.
Think about that. Is this, possibly, Motorhead 2.0? Is this the dawn of a new age of auto hacking and modification, just like we used to do, but with a decidedly more high tech component? I think it is. This is where today’s young people can get the bug, developing their enthusiasm for motor vehicles by recognizing this huge, high tech computer driven gadget parked right under their noses is far more high tech than most of those video game consoles they’re playing with. A new generation of young people might start thinking cars are cool and the cool kids hang out in the garage. Huh, … imagine that!
Auto mechanics and rocket scientists
Some pretty interesting companies are already recognizing this. SpaceX is building rockets and planning on going to Mars and they're in constant need of young, bright and driven engineers. Do you know where they find them? In the SAE college race car competition. Students who design, build, modify and troubleshoot race cars and then compete on a track get exactly the kind of experience needed to join a team of rocket scientists. A young kid might still want to make a new game for his smartphone, but I have a hunch those kids will be getting less respect in the near future when their peers are working on going to Mars. Young, technically oriented students need to raise their sights and work on bigger things, they need to get out in the garage.
Garages are cool again
There’s been a sense in the community of motorheads that the glory days of working on cars, as we knew it, was now over for good. Kids are turning away from garage work and there is nothing we can do about it. Well, there’s another story developing and it’s the high tech version of what we used to do. Anyone starting out that wants to confine his learning to what we learned before the age of the ECU, embedded control systems and the CAN Bus will find few opportunities going forward, but if that same young guy starts out today looking at all of the possibilities of learning how complex control systems work in automotive applications, how performance can be upgraded with a change in the code, then there’s a bright future ahead. Motorhead 1.0 had a long run. Will Motorhead 2.0 last as long?
UPDATE: There's a story in the Washington Post just now that mentions a similar problem in the electric guitar industry. Baby boomers often had guitar heroes they were trying to emulate, Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix and many others, so they bought a lot of electric guitars. Boomers are at the age where they are selling their guitars, but teenagers are not as interested in the instrument because there are fewer well known and accomplished players to emulate so they're buying fewer guitars and the industry is shrinking, (though some young girls are buying them now because of Taylor Swift, not because she's such a great guitarist, but because they like how she looks when she plays). In the same way I noted above, if you can get teenagers to start working in the garage (or riding motorcycles) you might have them for a long time and it's the same way with guitars:
If there is a singular question in the guitar industry, it’s no different from what drives Apple. How do you get the product into a teenager’s hands? And once it’s there, how do you get them to fall in love with it?
Motorcycles, electric guitars, working in the garage, all fell out of favor with teens and as a result there's no new generation picking up where we left off. Sad from my perspective, but a real problem in the eyes of those businesses that depend on new customers to keep going. Will the teenagers of today ever find the same attraction we did in these now declining activities? Time will tell.