A Standard Deviation ....

I drove to New Orleans yesterday, and on the way, I had a funny thought. My girlfriend was with me and as we picked and cut our way through the traffic (apparently most New Orleaners do not believe in regulating their speed even moderately close to the posted limit), she mentioned that she had made a fundamental decision: her next car would be an automatic.

Now, I drive an automatic Jeep Grand Cherokee. She drives a standard Honda Civic (you know the little cars that get twice the gas mileage as mine and probably 10 times the mileage of those hulking Hummers you see go by?). She has often commented about how much she prefers driving her vehicle and having “the control.” I drove her vehicle once in an emergency, and it was quite an entertaining event for those in traffic behind me (they graciously expressed their appreciation for the entertainment by honking their horns as they approached me and passed me by. Some apparently were VERY amused and expressed a LOT of horn-mediated appreciation).

But back to the trip. I feigned shock at my girlfriend’s comment and made a quip about her yielding ground on her position. “Honey? But if you got an automatic, you would no longer be ‘standard.’ Is that what you really want?”

We joked and laughed about that for a while. Then our jokes got me thinking.

As I looked around at the vehicles around us, I started noticing that by a fairly large margin, most appeared to have automatic transmissions. After paying attention for about 10 minutes or so, I saw an Acura streak up at frightening speed (I myself was traveling at a velocity 15 miles over the speed limit and this little car passed me like I wasn’t moving at all). As the young man in his bluish-purple blur of a vehicle flew passed me, I chuckled at the thought that his car was the only standard transmission out of the dozens of cars I had been paying attention to.

But that’s the funny thing. From my personal observation (and I’m sure I can find motor vehicle statistics to back this up), there are far more automatic transmission vehicles on the road than there are standard transmission vehicles. So which transmission is the real “standard” here?

I’m sure at one point in the history of the automobile (and I’m sure both my parents will be rolling their eyes at my ignorance on this point), that it was quite unusual to own a vehicle with an automatic transmission. And I’m sure at that moment, the “standard transmission” really was standard. But that point in history seems to have passed us by. Now, automatic transmission seem much more standard than “standard transmissions.”

In today’s world, identifying a technology as a “standard” is a political and economic triumph for the firm that owns the rights to it. In fact, in the ever-changing information technology marketplace, some of the fiercest battles are waged over whose platforms or technologies are adopted as the official “standard.”

Standards are also more important to us. As our culture increasingly values homogenization (preferring Starbucks and McDonald’s to an unknown establishment where one could risk having to consume “substandard” products), common denominators and shared expectations have become increasingly integrated into our social consciousness.

However, in contrast to the automobile transmission, the designation of official standards is far more ephemeral. Is this because standards are displaced more quickly today than in times past or is it because for us the term “standard” is by definition less permanent?

I’m not quite sure (though I suspect it’s a bit of both). What I am sure of is that I see little reason to become familiar with a standard transmission. The likelihood of my having to drive a standard transmission vehicle is decreasing each year, and I have more pressing concerns before me. You know, the standard concerns … ;-)