The Uneven Nature of Progress

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One of those quotes that floats around the internet, embellished and mis-attributed, is about the relative rate of progress for the car industry and the computing industry. It goes something like this:

“If GM had kept up with the technology like the computer industry has, we would all be driving $25.00 cars that got 1,000 miles to the gallon.”

There follows a witty response from General Motors in the form of a press release – also false.

The real quote comes from Bill Gates at COMDEX in 1997 and is much less crafted and less specifically directed (thank you Snopes):

“The PC industry is different than any other industry. The volume, the openness, the innovation, it’s really unequaled. In fact, comparisons are often done between this industry and others, and it’s just stunning when you look at it. The price of a mid-sized auto, it’s about double what it used to be. Cereal, I admit I don’t buy that much cereal, but research shows that, too, has doubled in price. And if you take that and say, what would those prices be if it were like the PC industry, the car would cost about $27, and the cereal would cost about one cent. So, I think there’s a lot to be learned by watching how this industry has done what it’s done.”

Now while this may be less of a zinger, it does make an interesting point about the relative rates of progress in the car industry – and other forms of technology – and computing. To illustrate this I have plotted the number of transistors available on a variety of silicon chips over time, against average US fuel economy over the same period. Yes, European fuel economy is marginally better but it doesn’t make much difference to the chart.

This post forms part of my Vectors series. For more posts on this subject, visit the Vectors page.

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Tom Cheesewright