A couple of experiences recently have got me thinking somewhat more philosophically over the last few days and I wondered what others thought?
First, I was reading a certain car related website where there was an update from a long term test of the latest Audi A8. It featured thoughts on the latest headlamp technology which had been fitted as an option on that model. It struck me how ‘clever’ the technology actually was, and then also the scale of investment in R&D and production engineering which must have gone into bringing it to market. The cost of the option left me open mouthed, £4,900. I mean, not so long ago, one could buy a new, basic, small car for that amount.
Second, I was sitting at the front of the queue of a car wash (I know … I also own two diesels, how less socially aware and empathetic can I go?) when an 18 registration DB11 pulled onto the end of the queue. My immediate reaction was along the lines of ‘blimey, if I owned a car like that, I’d be washing it myself’ but then it quickly changed to ‘good on the bloke [for a bloke it was in the driving seat] for driving it that much that he clearly does not pamper it and uses it as a daily driver [for it was truly filthy]’.
Of course, I was also doing some kind of reverse-smug-thing reaction, thinking how excessively over-engineered and expensive his DB11 was for daily chores such as those I ask of the Octavia I was sat in at the time. Then I caught sight of a few of the features inside my Octavia and immediately thought about how few of its interior features I actually needed.
You may remember a little while ago I wrote about an enlightening taxi-ride through Barcelona in a Dacia Lodgy – maybe I am still carrying around that experience as some kind of psychological hair shirt? Whatever, these thoughts have got me focused on how much wasteful engineering there is in cars these days.
Now, we could get into a ‘missing the point’ debate about defining what I mean by waste. A pure-thinking economist will state that supply simply exists to meet demand. So, if people are buying stuff it must be in-demand, because if it wasn’t then no one would buy it and suppliers would stop supplying it and go off and develop new stuff that is in demand. Hence, if people are buying cars so laden with nice-to-haves, there must be demand, and so it’s not ‘waste’.
But I think you know what I’m driving at when I declare that I think it wasteful. Maybe not.
Think instead about the opportunity cost of all this R&D and production of non-essential stuff – or, should I say, stuff that does not improve the efficiency and productivity – that currently goes into modern cars. I know someone is bound to argue that those Audi headlamps are potential life-savers, but is the marginal improvement over more basic LED lamps (which I think are a real safety improvement) really worth the effort (let alone the ‘cool’ dancing rear light show when one merely wants to indicate left or right)? If all that effort and money (it must be billions of pounds/ dollars/ yen across all that gizmo technology) was instead directed at truly useful R&D, how much better off could we all be?
Imagine a car in terms of its essential elements – let’s say: motive force, suspension, comfort, safety – and then think about redirecting the wasted engineering and investment effort that gave us ‘gesture-control’ towards really improving those elements. Please, don’t try to suggest ‘gesture-control’ fits in any of those categories, I’m just not having it. How much better could those elements be? Or, how much cheaper could one make a car (not just to the end consumer, but to society in its broader context)?
I remember Car once describing the 2CV in terms of being as mechanically simple as a knife and fork and all the better for it. The last car I can remember being developed and then lauded (initially at least) for its ‘less is more’ approach was the Tata Nano.
Q. Whatever happened to that as a concept?
A. No one (in ‘the developed world’ at least) wants to buy one.
Of course, such a phenomenon isn’t just the sole preserve of the development of the motor car (mobile phone, anyone?), but the car has become a stand-out example of Wastefully Excessive Development.
I know I sound naïve and I have no idea about what, at a macro level, can be done about it, but I increasingly think that it could become a ‘thing’ that threatens the very existence of the car itself. It’s like arguing to convince people to un-invent technology, or abandon what are, or have been, considered as generations of ‘progress’. Then again, the current social trend towards veganism could be considered as a kind of parallel in terms of rolling back thousands of years of human evolution.
To borrow and fiddle with one car manufacturer’s strap-line; can simple become clever and desirable again?