Thought Leadership

Out of gas?

By Colin Walls

Have you ever run out of fuel when driving in your car? It is really not much fun. I believe that I have only managed to make that mistake once. When I was a student, I lived in Bath in England. The city is surrounded by hills [seven apparently, which is why the Romans felt so at home] and the university is on top of one of them. I was driving up there for an end of term exam and ran out of fuel half way up. I was running a little late, so I abandoned the car and continued as fast as I could on foot, breathlessly arriving just in time. Later, with some help, I pushed the car to turn it around, with a view to coasting down the hill. Near the bottom, I tried the starter and the engine fired up. I figured that the tiny remaining bit of fuel had moved towards the front of the tank and the fuel pump.

These events were many years ago and, nowadays, I have technology to help me avoid this problem …

As is now commonplace on modern cars, I have a “computer” which gives me lots of information about my vehicle, including an estimate of how many miles I can travel with the remaining fuel. I find it very satisfying, when I have just filled up, to see that I can go another 650 miles or so before the tedium and expense of another “pit stop”. I guess that this is a good example of an embedded system that makes my life just a bit better.

Although I like this facility, it has, on at least one occasion, been a source of stress. I was in the middle of Cambridge [UK, not MA] and heading back to my office. The display said I had about 30 miles of fuel, so I thought I would fill up on my way out of town. However, I found myself on the freeway having not passed any filling stations. I muttered to myself about how people in Cambridge prefer to cycle and, hence, cars are discouraged. I knew that there would be some services in just a few miles, so I was calm. When I arrived there, the line of vehicles to enter the services was horrendous, so I pressed on. I underestimated how far my next refuelling opportunity would be. When I finally arrived at the services and nervously turned up the ramp, the display had shown “0 miles” for quite a while. So I breathed a sigh of relief as I pulled in alongside the pump. When I had filled up, the car refused to start – at least it did for quite a while. I guess I must have used every last drop of fuel and the pump needed priming. I promised myself that I would never make this mistake again.

I like the way this display lets me plan ahead. Maybe it says “100 miles” and I am about to drive 50 miles and know there is cheaper fuel at my destination, so I can set off with confidence. But I was interested to encounter another perspective. A friend told me that this facility annoyed them, as they felt “controlled” by the computer; they preferred the illusion of choice that a needle in the red provided.
We agreed to differ and I suggested that she adjust the display to show something else.


0 thoughts about “Out of gas?
  • Off topic, but I have to ask. Why did you succumb to the Newspeak singular “they” when you knew all along that your friend was female (see last paragraph for the confirmation)? I thought for a minute that I had strayed into an NHS leaflet, where “they” is routinely used, even when referring to an obstetrics patient.

  • You obviously share my interest in language/English Peter …

    I don’t think of that as “Newspeak”. I am sure that the use of they as an indefinite pronoun has been common all of my life. I do feel that the language is rather stressed by this part of speech, as I have written about before [“Indefinite” – Jan 2010]. I get most irritated by people being interviewed on the radio who say “you” when they mean “I”.

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This article first appeared on the Siemens Digital Industries Software blog at