Saturday, October 1, 2011

Review of Ann Johnson's Hitting the Brakes -- A History of ABS

Ann Johnson. Hitting the Brakes: Engineering Design and the Production of Knowledge. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2009. xviii + 205 pp. ISBN 978-0-8223-4526-8 (cloth); 978-0-8223-4541-1 (paper).

Ann Johnson's Hitting the Brakes: Engineering Design and the Production of Knowledge concerns an important aspect of automotive history in which the focus is not on the automobile per se, but on an international group of engineers working largely at the periphery who produce and apply knowledge towards a necessary end. Johnson, an Associate Professor of History at the University of South Carolina, develops several important themes related to the modern practice of engineering design in the evolution of a commercial Antilock Brake System (ABS). It is a technology that ultimately has saved many lives, especially on those days when it rains or snows. Yet this is also a story in which Albert Einstein’s line is apt:” Not everything that can be counted counts, and not very thing that counts can be counted.” On one hand the effort to mathematically model a skidding vehicle can never be fully adequate, and on the other, driver reactions to a skid can never be accurately predicted.

In reconstructing this complicated story that spanned much of the second half of the twentieth century, the author includes the contributions of numerous engineering innovators, describes several institutional settings in Great Britain, France, the United States, and Germany, explains in words complex mechanisms ( a most difficult task, I might add), and provides additional context as well. In sum, this case study is about the generation of engineering knowledge, the organization of this knowledge and its practitioners, the dissemination of that knowledge, and addresses a number of themes integral to the history of science and technology. Another focal point instead of ABS could have been just as easily chosen with perhaps similar themes. Yet in choosing to write on the history of ABS, Johnson has given us a rare look at the emergence of a new technology largely created outside the R &D facilities of the leading manufacturers of motor cars. In an industry characterized as being technologically stagnant since the 1920s, this story at the edges is an important one if we are to fully understand the 20th century history of the automobile in a broad context.

Johnson’s history begins in Great Britain during the early 1950s at the Road Research laboratory (RRL). With more new drivers taking to the roads and accident rates soaring, the rather complex nature of skidding became a target for further investigation. W.H. Glanville, the laboratory’s director, organized a project under R.D. Lister to explore ways in which the skidding of an automobile might prevented. Drawing on aviation technology, RRL staff installed a Dunlop Maxaret device from an airplane to a 1950 Morris 6. An initial trial that proved disappointing, it was the starting point, however, for design variations that ultimately found their way into a small number of Rolls Royce and Jenson cars during the 1960s. More importantly, the Maxaret resulted in the initial coalescence of a community of researchers that began to move in new directions with advanced analytical methods, tools, and technological metrology. Subsequently, in Heidleberg, Germany, another organization with ties to the aviation industry, Teldix GmbH, employed electronics controls to the dreaded phenomenon of braking lockup, which incidentally also resulted in the steering loss. Work at Teldix led to a system that regulated rather than reacted to wheel lock up, and this forced other ventures to refine their own designs.

Such was the case in the United States, where both Kelsey Hayes partnering with Ford, and Bendix with Chrysler, developed commercial systems. These products were installed in a limited number of vehicles between 1966 and 1972, but with a resulting tepid consumer response. It was consequently left to the Germans, with Teldix now in a new partnership with Daimler and Robert Bosch, who designed an all-wheel ABS system that was first introduced in Mercedes S-class sedans in 1978. Johnson maintained that unlike engineers in the U.S., the Germans published and communicated far more than their counterparts, and perhaps this contributed to their ultimate success. And while broad adoption of the concept to everyday vehicles would take two decades, the superiority of ABS over conventional braking systems gradually won out, despite studies that tended to raise questions concerning drivers’ offsetting risky behavior (the so-called Peltzman effect).

There is much to be learned in reading Hitting the Brakes. That said, however, there are significant gaps to be filled. In a work focusing on the recent past, the elusive nature of personality is rarely, if ever present. Certainly, oral histories could have supplemented numerous technical papers and added much flesh and blood to this work. Indeed, one wonders what is left out in a story that overly relies on published papers and patents. Users of automobile technology are as important to this story as the producers of knowledge. Finally, more diagrams should have been inserted to illustrate the complexities of skidding and the various devices developed to prevent slipping. Yet, despite these shortcomings, Johnson's book is definitely worth reading as an example of a solid case study with a tight scholarly context.

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