Air bag design

General Motors is selling a new line of cars now, ones aimed at introductory or first-time car buyers. They’re fairly easy to maintain, with things like the oil dipstick painted fluorescent orange so it’s easy to find, and the radiator cap bright blue, and so forth. They’re marketed as low-cost, low-maintenance vehicles for people who’ve never owned a new car before, or just want something simpler and less complicated.

They have all the same safety features as most new cars, including seat belts, anti-lock brakes and both passenger- and driver-side air bags. The bags are triggered by an impact anywhere from the front left quarter-panel around the front all the way to the front right quarter-panel. They’re the typical gas-bubble-type air bags you see in movies or commercials — nothing new or innovative, and in fact quite ordinary.

The odd thing about the air bags is, they’re actually disabled when you buy the car. You can activate them manually, if you see you’re going to be in an accident, by reaching across to the passenger’s side of the car, opening the glove box and holding down the “air bag enable” button inside there. Keep that button pressed throughout the crash, and the air bags will deploy as soon as the sensors in the frame are triggered.

Of course, you can hard-wire the air bags to an activated state too, although that’s a little bit advanced, and requires a little know-how.

It might strike you as odd that someone would have to manually enable the air bags. It’s a safety feature, true. But the car was designed by a team of engineers who have had experience driving, building and designing cars for decades. The original Model T, built by Henry Ford himself, didn’t have air bags, and the design team decided that while they’re a useful and interesting safety feature, the car really shouldn’t deviate from the plan set up by Ford decades ago. It’s a mix of tradition and function.

And since air bags only protect you in a crash that originates from the front end of the car, air bags aren’t going to save you in every situation. If you’re broadsided in an accident, you’ll probably still be killed, so the air bags didn’t do anything to help anyway. Disabling them just makes more sense. Or would you prefer the entire car was lined with air bags, to protect you from any impact, from any direction? Effectively insulating you from any possible bad thing that might happen? That’s impractical, and only shows how little you understand about car design.

And really, driving a car is a dangerous thing to be doing in the first place. You shouldn’t get behind the wheel of a car unless you know exactly where you’re going, how to get there, traffic patterns, rules of the road, etc. So in general, you’d do better to leave driving to experts, like the design team, or perhaps just take the bus. Eventually you’ll be experienced enough to know good driving from bad driving, and then you won’t need to worry about crashing. None of the design team ever worries about crashing, unless it’s on purpose.

But overall — and this is the most important point — the design team feels if none of those options works, then perhaps motorized transportation isn’t really for you. You should really consider alternative ways of getting to work.

Ironically, or perhaps not ironically, a number of Japanese and Korean car manufacturers have matched the General Motors designs with cars of their own. They’re stylish, shiny and clean, a little more petite and a little less expensive, but with all the same features, bells and whistles as the GM versions. For all practical purposes, the two cars work the same and do the same thing. In fact, looking at one, you might not be able to tell it from its Detroit counterpart.

The foreign models, however, reverse the logic when it comes to air bags. The air bags are enabled for a crash through the same region — from quarter-panel to quarter-panel — and there’s a manual override on the dashboard. It’s two buttons this time: one you press to activate the air bag kill switch, and a second that confirms it. Holding both of those buttons down during a crash prevents the air bags from deploying.

The logic here is that, as a first-time car buyer, you’re probably more interested in safety and security than you are about traditional car design. Henry Ford’s original car is important, but not necessarily the only way to do business. Enabling that safety feature by default is a boon and a selling point to a first-time car buyer. But if you happen to be suicidal, or an adrenaline junkie, or just one of those people genetically predisposed toward risk-taking behavior, you can still override the air bags and end your life in complete control — one hand on the steering wheel, and two fingers on those buttons.

And the foreign car makers know that you’re the owner of the car, and you’re going to do with it whatever you will. Chances are you just want to commute in an orderly and slow fashion twice a day, then park your car in the garage and go back to your life. For most first-time car owners, it’s a tool and not so much a toy. So those air bags might never need to be deployed at all. But for the one or two times when something goes wrong, either through error or through someone else’s misbehavior, it’s good to have them.

The foreign car companies acknowledge that air bags won’t save you in every crash. They also acknowledge that there’s no point in going overboard and lining every square centimeter of the car with air bags, coating the door, the handles, the steering wheel and the windshield with bubble wrap so you don’t hit your head. But they do like the idea that, in a situation where you’re driving and someone collides with you (perhaps on purpose, like those risk-takers), you have that small added feature of protection.


So that’s where I am with the default behavior of rm. Reversing the Ubuntu default wouldn’t change the function at all. It wouldn’t prevent rm from doing its job, it doesn’t involve rewriting rm at all, nothing would change and there would still be ways circumvent it.

It might offend some UNIX purists, but preserve-root is already the default in a lot of other distros — including, as Luke mentioned, Solaris 10, Arch Linux and even the dead Lowarch distro — and there doesn’t seem to be any uproar over that.

The only thing it would do is insulate one random Ubuntu newcomer from deleting their entire system. It’s not perfect and there are lots of ways around it, but doesn’t one small safety feature enabled at the start make more sense?

4 thoughts on “Air bag design

  1. Wolf Vorkian

    Mandla said:

    “The only thing it would do is insulate one random Ubuntu newcomer from deleting their entire system. Itโ€™s not perfect and there are lots of ways around it, but doesnโ€™t one small safety feature enabled at the start make more sense”.

    Think of it this way Mandla, this whole thingie is a red-herring,….a big stink over nothing.

    If your airbags don’t go off, you might die, right? What happens if “one random Ubuntu newcomer” deletes his OS, though? His looses the time it took him to download and install a CD. That is about it. Maybe a couple three pirated songs if he can get his resource hungry torrent client to work, which is doubtful and probably not much more.

    By the time he has any thing invested in his setup that is substantial, he almost certainly has enough moxie not to fall for some punk’s bs. How could he not have? Be almost impossible not to.

    The time wasted on this so-called problem could be much better spent by the computer literate helping the developers code updates that don’t rat my network, like the recent samba ones did, instead of worrying about a problem that has no existence in reality.

    So there.;-)

    rm * whatever = WMD

  2. bapoumba

    K.Mandla, is there any documentation as to why these distros changed the rm defaults ?

    I looked around a little:

    The ch* commands can also lead to reinstalls when run on / or /usr for ex (we see that quite often on UF).

    I am not sure what to make and think of these. Should it be user based and somehow offered during or after the install procedure?

  3. K.Mandla Post author

    @bapoumba: To be honest, I have no idea. I really never even thought about it until a few days ago, when I did the first kill attempt. And aside from Luke’s link to the 2004 Solaris blog entry, I don’t even know if many other distros set rm to protect root or not. It is interesting that has special rules for root though. ๐Ÿ˜

    @Wolf: You’re absolutely right — this is much ado about nothing. And I apologize if I’m coming across as some kind of evangelist. Until two days ago, when everyone came stomping through my blog and made it into a big deal, I couldn’t’ve cared less.

    The only reason it’s an issue at all is because someone else thinks it’s funny to serve that command as a solution to a video card problem, or a sound issue, or a misbehaving game. And since it happened in my “back yard” (which is to say the forums), then it became an issue for me, and then I tried it, and then realized it really shouldn’t work that way, and that’s all I’ve done with it.

    So again, you’re right, this much energy should be expended on real bugs with real repercussions on usability and function. And perhaps if no more juveniles spam the beginner’s area with that command, then we can all go back to what we were doing, fixing or playing, a month ago. ๐Ÿ˜‰


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