Electric Vehicles Aren't Nearly Revolutionary Enough
To really make us move EVs need more than flash features and cool gadgets; they need to rethink cars right from the ground up
Sometimes the words we have to name objects aren't quite suited to the job we give them. The earliest motorcars of the late 1800s were limited to 4 miles per hour by law and needed a willing human to walk ahead of the moving vehicle waving a flag. To imagine these steam powered machines somehow sharing a category with today's McLaren supercars or Tesla's electric vehicles is madness. Even if we're somehow rationing words in the English language, lumping both types of machine under the term 'car' renders the word near meaningless.
In truth, even relatively modern cars of the mid-20th century are barely the same machines as those rolling off the production lines today.
Since 1959, when seatbelts began to become standard vehicle equipment, safety improvements been made by introducing an ever-evolving series of electronic and mechanical devices. Often, in the past, these devices have been designed to slow, steer, or protect the car in the midst of an active emergency. Now, cars themselves are actively trying to avoid one too.
By now, vehicle brains have been evolving and growing over decades of use. The market's best vehicles are now marginally more capable than some of the road's worst drivers.
Photo by sebastiaan stam on Unsplash
Mid-range hatchbacks are already deciding when to brake and how hard to avoid a slow-speed crash. They know how to keep up with the car ahead without stamping on the brakes during motorway stints and can maintain lane position during extended road trips. Spend even an hour on the road today and you'll find a human far less capable.
Even base models are capable of observing the world around them and reacting to external forces. The car of the future has some rather creepy inbuilt self-preservation.
In the world of luxury cars, capabilities are growing to match pace with their price tag too. Auto-pilot, remote control, self-parking, and being able to summon your vehicle from its parking spot are paradigm changing, futuristic features already on the market today.
These features, impressive though they are, come with costs which go well-beyond just adding 12 months extra finance.
The Cost Of Changing The Automotive World
Having more features, better vehicles, efficient cars, and finer gadgetry isn't a one way street of improvements. Each comes with hidden costs of increasing complexity, maintenance, and breakable items capable of rendering your vehicle off the road for good.
The heavyweight, fuel-thirsty vehicles of the 50s and 60s really were a breed apart. A car bought from the showroom floor fifty or sixty years ago could be taken home and serviced, repaired, patched, stripped, and rebuilt out on the driveway if need be. It was, in essence, yours to own.
Even if you didn't have the skills, tools, or space to dig into its many frequent issues yourself, any mechanic worth his salt would have a reasonable chance of diagnosing your problems and offering up options for essential repair.
The modern vehicle has more in common, in that respect, with a 2008 iPod than a 1950s car. Almost every component is virtually vacuum-sealed behind security screws, plastic tabs, stickers, and warranty tape. Even if you knew the magical incantation of parts to unscrew, bits to unclip and the specific unique order to unclip and unscrew them, the odds of knowing precisely what parts to pull, solder, or replace once you get in there are slim-to-none. All this presumes, of course, you have the correct proprietary tools, software and equipment to do so.
'Right to repair' campaigns have helped to bring the technical details and schematics of modern cars to light. Manufacturers are now forced to release detailed internal information to sell vehicles within the EU.
There are however, no laws or guidelines to prevent manufacturers obscuring parts or equipment to force customers into returning to approved mechanics and vendors. Neither are there directives to prevent a manufacturer's unique patented tools, software, and equipment being used to ensure the amateur hobbyist doesn't dig deeper than they'd like.
Step one in the manuals of most hobbiests today is to jump online and secure a bespoke screwdriver, wrench, or key to begin any work at all.
An Older Mode
In fairness to car manufacturers and their networks, whose to say their particular brand of specialist tools and patented equipment aren't the secret sauce which makes their vehicle inherently magic? If you want increased safety, better economy, improved performance, lighter cars, and more reliability you have to pay a price somewhere down the line. Whether their techniques are a cynical ploy, necessary evil, or somewhere in between is largely irrelevant.
The real problem of modern cars isn't the model of vehicle, it's the way they're sold.
Traditional models of car ownership don't work for these new 'iCar' devices. They come from an era when you owned the car you purchased. Today the same concept of car ownership doesn't quite hold true.
Modern carmakers employ proprietary tools, specialist hardware, and copyright law to keep owners firmly locked out of their purchased vehicles. Even if you have no intent of setting eyes on the underside of your engine bay, this is a problem for more than just car modders, mechanics, and those looking to do a little tinkering.
Digital and physical restrictions designed to ensure only the pre-approved and pre-screened work on, look at, and sit in a manufactures vehicles means everything the company says goes from here on out. The price they decide your service and maintenance costs are going to be will be the price you're going to pay. Or else.
Features they decide to axe, alter, or add in later will be the final word as far as your purchased vehicle goes. If they decide certain features, services, or even speeds should go behind a paywall then, without firm boundaries, that's the way it's going to be.
Not everyone is willing to accept new restrictions without some fight. The Electronic Frontier Foundation has been working with hobbyists and hackers to challenge carmakers overbearing restriction's on newly produced vehicles.
The foundation has even gone to court simply to challenge carmakers copyright claims and clarify the definition of what hobbyists are allowed to do. A challenge which carmakers are fighting hard to maintain control of their modern machines.
A 'Sale' In No Sense Of The Word
With so many technical tricks, legal avenues, and obscure tactics to keep you out of your own vehicle, the question which remains is: who truly owns the car you buy? As the customer who paid the astronomical price tag, you certainly have a claim, but you're also gently dissuaded and/or expressly forbidden from doing with it exactly as you please.
To pay good money but not transfer ownership and still call the process a 'sale' is a strange trick of linguistics as much as anything else. When you truly buy a car, or anything else for that matter, the seller can't still have a claim many years after the sale.
Oddly, we're not stuck in this way of doing things because there's a shortage of leasing, lending, rental, or sharing model for cars. This model suits because transferring the finance and liability to the customer without the freedoms to maintain and repair fits very nicely on one side of the deal.
If 'groundbreaking', 'paradigms-changing', 'disruptive-tech' companies want to truly change the automotive world then they have to change the way in which they distribute vehicles too.
Two decades ago this would have been, almost certainly, impossible. But today, it's far easier to see people being less fussy about owning the physical machine. Attitudes are changing just barely slower than the tech which supports them.
Ownership of music, films, and media has already melted away, almost unnoticed, as we move further and further into the 21st century. We used to buy films to own and just keep them on a shelf until we wanted to view them again. Something we used to do for music and box sets too. Now, such practices are the reserved for the niche enthusiasts and audiophiles more often than not.
As people move to less personal ownership and more subscription service models, with net long term benefits, it wouldn't be the worst thing if vehicle's began to shift in the same direction too.
People, car-enthusiasts in particular, get a little tetchy about exactly these ideas. The concept of giving up ownership of your pride and joy is uncomfortable to imagine at best. There are still those too who maintain a protective bubble around a vast CD collection, despite not buying an album for years.
Photo by Łukasz Nieścioruk on Unsplash
It's not however, an impossible shift. If the price is right and the model suits, a monthly subscription for an up-to-date, well maintained vehicle is a dream come true for many looking for simple personal transport, a smooth automotive experience, or to sample as many varieties and models as manufacturers have to offer.
Fitting The Tech To The Finance
It's far from being an untried or untested way of working either. Car sharing apps are already a big-hit worldwide.
Clever tech already gives drivers access to nearby vehicles at the swipe of an app providing effective car rental from vehicles parked in the middle of major cities. Renting a car now is as easy as picking it out from the side of the road. For many drivers these apps provide the convenience and accessibility of having a vehicle on tap without the ever-spiralling costs, legal, and maintenance hassle of vehicle ownership.
It's simply a case of moving the responsibility balance back into the driver's favour.
Perhaps, in time, your car subscription will automatically drive a vehicle to you like a robot-chauffeur. When you're done travelling or commuting it can drive-off again to a destination only known to the in-car brain.
While this vision may be some time away yet, simpler versions of could easily start tomorrow. Why is so much of our cars value locked up inside the machine to be traded or sold at the end of its life? Couldn't that value be better served with a model which shifts the time, maintenance, and value of ownership into a fixed and adaptable monthly cost?
If I can't truly own a vehicle because of its inbuilt and unavoidable 'complexity' why are you selling it to me as if I can?
Either I can own the thing and it's mine, or I can't and it's not. Each of these are, in their own way, great options. I'd be honestly thrilled to take many cars on either basis. What I can't stand is straddling both worlds and getting neither. Pick one, name it and I'll choose from there.