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Sam Asano's Let's Invent: Successful inventors solve problems

Part I: Basic Principle A good invention is based on the conservative principle of developing a solution to a problem. And, ladies and gentlemen, problems are everywhere, believe me. I receive emails and phone calls from readers stating that they couldn’t find problems to solve. They seem to indicate that this world no longer offers a plethora of problems. All problems that should be solved have been solved.

I say “that’s farthest from truth.” There are currently, as well as in the future, so many problems, large and small, and all of them are shouting at you to solve them.

Our 99 percent inventors should stick with the principle to solve only painful and existing problems. Never mind those problems that seem vague and are products of one’s imagination or wishful thinking. In the history of inventions through modern times, successful ones are all solutions to existing problems.

However, I am beginning to notice inventions that are not necessarily tackling the existing painful problem, but are working on problems that would or might occur in the near future. Namely, these are predictable problems that may possibly explode in our face in the near future. That’s what we hear from the promoters of these inventions.

A case in point: Driverless automobiles.

Do you know what the problem the driverless automobile is trying to solve? If you ask me, I would say I don’t know. Just last week, this column discussed the problem of high-beam headlights and associated driving lights that blind oncoming drivers. One thing quite clear is the fact that there is plenty of readily available technology to solve the headlight-aiming problem, but for some reasons the automobile industry doesn’t seem interested in solving the issue.

In a coffeeshop discussion I had with at least 10 patrons, I found that all of them had been annoyed with the intense glare and wondered why the problem couldn’t get resolved. A woman said to me that she sometimes had a strong urge to ram her brake pedal to stop her car so the tailgating car would plow right into her.

Last week’s column was about “thinking outside of the box.” I often encounter inventors who seem unable to do so even though “thinking outside of the box” doesn’t cost them anything. Sandwiched between the high-beams of oncoming cars in front and intense glare of the high-beams from tailgating cars, I had trouble navigating down a narrow mountain road. At that time, after I get a bit accustomed with having to drive inside the bright beam of lights, I came up with an idea quite similar to the driverless auto concept. Namely, I’d eliminate all outside views, through which all the blinding lights come in. Then I’d watch the display monitor on the dashboard, which displays the frontal high-resolution radar view, whose epicenter is located on the front cowl. However, the image processing software would modify the rays to look as though the scene would look like viewed from my eyes.

The solution was certainly out-of-the-box thinking, but not that far-fetched. I believe all of the tools necessary to do this are easily available. A set of mechanical modifications has to be made for the car. Both rear view mirrors need to be dis-aimed, and the inside rear view mirror needs to be capped to shut off the spurious beams of lights. This solution is not the driverless auto system at all. The driver is very much in control. It is just aiding his/her vision.

I am also aware that proper technology is available to automatically reconfigure the high-beam headlights when nearing an object. This system would adopt a distance measuring radar (Yes, all radars measure the distance), and control beam angle. This is a relatively simple addition to the cars. I wonder why this hasn’t been adopted industry-wide as it is a significant safety measure.

By the way, I have this stupid question that I have been harboring for a long time. What are the driving lights for? What purpose do they serve? Back when the auto headlights were the old-fashioned sealed beam, it might have made sense to augment front near spot with the driving lights. Now that the main headlights have been so much brighter, I do not see any reason to have them mounted on the front bumper as decoration. The worse feature of the driving lights is that its broad beam cannot be focused, and they are usually aimed poorly. Another issue I see is that they could be separately turned off, but almost nobody does. So the confrontation with an oncoming car with high-beam and driving lights assaults the driver with a flood of glare. Perhaps someone from the auto trade could answer my question. Why driving lights? Now back to the driverless auto. My first question is: What problem is it trying to solve? I have to admit that I really don’t know for sure. I am an average suburban driver who drives about 20,000 miles a year in commuting to my office in Boston. I have been doing this for some four decades. In that long period spanning some 800,000 miles, I have never felt that driving is an unbearable chore that I would like to get rid of. In fact in many days in spring and fall, driving is a pleasant experience that cannot be easily replaced. In fact, today’s modern and well-designed highway systems provide an experience similar to automatic driving without a “driverless” system.

So, tell me why do we need the driverless auto?

To be continued.

Shintaro “Sam” Asano of New Castle, who speaks and writes English as a second language, was named by MIT in 2011 as one of the 10 most influential inventors of the 20th century who’s improved our life. He is a businessman and inventor in the field of electronics and mechanical systems and is credited as the inventor of the portable fax machine. He developed a data tablet used in the retail point of sale to capture customer signatures when credit cards are used. Write to him at 

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