This is where we’re headed if we don’t come up with a plan pretty quickly. WARNING: This might really piss you off. Automakers build products they know the masses will buy. The masses, unfortunately, aren’t gearheads. They don’t want to drive, and here’s why that’s a problem for you as a gearhead.
WHERE WE ARE RIGHT NOW
Camry. Prius. H2. Volt. Take it a step further. Aztek. PT Cruiser. HHR. Every year, automakers churn out further refinement of bland, cookie-cutter models we gearheads love to hate. They get more powerful, but heavier – and only come with FWD and a CVT. And every other year, it seems, we learn of yet another relatively performance-oriented driver’s machine being taken around back and shot in the face.
As the machines get more technologically advanced, we find more vehicle operators than drivers. It’s an important distinction to make. These are people coddled into a false sense of ability by
digital nannies modern features. They don’t have to tap the brakes when the cruise control is on. They don’t have to check their blind spots. They don’t even have to know how to parallel park. So long as their iPhones are connected and they have something to listen to when they race to the end of the merge lane to take that tiny gap and hit the brakes (without signalling), they really don’t care. To them, cars are merely fashion accessories.
The masses aren’t interested in driving. To them, merely operating vehicles is a chore. When Acme offers fully automated motoring, they’ll line up en masse, gleefully handing over the last remnants of motoring freedom in exchange for more time in front of the marketing iTube. Mass transit – which would be a better fit for these people – is often neglected, dirty, and takes twice as long. There will be plenty of time to bitch about traffic and fuel prices (and politics) when we’re all riding to work in our private pods.
WHERE WE’RE HEADED
Self-driving vehicles will be safer, cleaner, and easier. That, itself, will not spell the end of driving, but absolving the disinterested and indifferent of the need to think for themselves on the road will leave just two groups behind the wheel – gearhead enthusiasts and largely uneducated, technological laggards. Between a general lack of environmental concern by the former and the poor habits of the latter, it’s probably a safe bet we won’t see our vehicles banned outright so much as we will the rules for owning and operating them get more austere. Ever-tightening emissions standards will strangle pre-OBD machines, while increasing insurance requirements will price many out of their daily drivers.
This is kinda scary, but I can see it. What was once a means of personal freedom has become an appliance; a thoughtless bauble bought on credit, because buying things now somehow equates to freedom. Each iteration brings with it reduced autonomy in the name of convenience. As a gearhead still rowing my own gears in a 25 year old, 100hp truck with neither AC nor cup holders, I know a lot of people who equate modern automotive convenience with irresponsibility and a double time march toward automotive Cuisinarts – and we’re all terrified. That fear shows in our collective antipathy toward modern commuter appliances. We’ve become a society of vehicle operators disinterested in driving, averse to mass transit, and coddled into a false sense of confidence by gadget-peddling technologists.
WHAT THIS MEANS FOR GEARHEADS
If it were just about internal combustion power versus electric, that would be one thing, but it’s not. It goes way beyond that. If everything is computer controlled, everything can be modified, giving enthusiasts control beyond our wildest imaginations. This is a good thing. Problem is, those operators with no interest in driving are the ones buying the vast majority of new vehicles, and they’re cluelessly headed toward government or corporate control of all vehicles. Think about it.
Will the cars of the future be like iThings, where you can only install parts/programs/apps approved by and sold through Apple’s iTunes store? Will it be like music and movies, where your vehicle’s operating system will be considered intellectual property and subject to DRM (digital rights management), meaning OEMs will be able lock us out of all vehicle systems, preventing modification in the name of safety or security? Who will handle all the data required to keep automated vehicles communicating with each other and the network – one of the ISPs currently looking for ways to charge you more for your Netflix and streaming services?
We’ve already got municipalities looking at taxing us per mile due to reduced fuel tax revenues (see The Truth About Cars, 2013) – improved fuel efficiency means less fuel purchased, translating into less fuel taxes collected. We’ve got insurance carriers offering optional OBD/GPS monitoring of driving to “save” us money – a door which swings both ways. And the NSA is always listening.
This path leads to a world where we own the machines, but are told what we can and cannot do with them, up to the point of being prevented from using them by others. Photoradar will go away, because you won’t be allowed to actually control the throttle while driving. And if you do, if they don’t immediately disable the vehicle, they’ll certainly mail you a ticket. Registration or insurance expire? They’ll just disable the vehicle until you pay up. Attempt to hack/modify the ECU? Expect a process server with a subpoena inviting you to a court date.
WHAT IT COULD BE
Having had my last three daily drivers totaled by inattentive vehicle operators, I’ve been an advocate of driving sub-$5000 beaters to work and putting your money into your track/race car. Sure, you might bend it up whilst racing, but at least your fellow racers are paying attention – they’re there to drive, not fiddle with gadgets or overpriced coffee. Even now, this idea makes a lot of sense and yet, it’s also a big part of our problem.
A couple years ago, I posted a poll on one of the Mitsubishi forums I frequent, asking how many people had bought a new Mitsubishi. This was the last time Mitsubishi suggested they might be retiring the Evo, and though I forget the exact figures, about 70% of respondents had never bought a new Mitsubishi. Since we tend to buy used or otherwise aren’t buying the latest beige compromise, we aren’t really the customer. This makes marketing-driven technologists and clueless debtors more powerful than us in driving such policy/practice.
So how do we, as those who hold automotive freedom most dear, make our voices heard? How do we go about arming ourselves with the facts and figures which add substance and value to our cries for personal responsibility and vehicles with character?
The last thing any of us wants is a self-driving car which “generously” lets us skip the 30 second commercial 5 seconds in before starting to move, or displays ads on the dashboard, or otherwise tricks us into thinking the product is something other than us. Or gives others power to dictate when and how we use our personal property. I have to think there are subjects we can study, concepts we can master, to help us help the OEMs continue their beloved existence in the center of our universes. And I’m willing to bend over backwards empowering passionate brand advocates with this information.
After two weeks of thinking about this, I’m discovering this is going to be quite a challenge. At the highest level, automakers are focused on two things: moving units, and profit. We gearheads aren’t about to just start buying new fleet fare, nor are we about to willingly pay dealerships for captive-brand parts we can find online at half the price. We need to get the automakers listening to us, but we also need to balance our gearhead desires with what the automakers priorities. Has there ever been a case of a predominantly used or secondary market in any way impacting a manufacturer or industry? If you know of one, please let me know because I want to learn more about how that happened.
As it stands, we’re not really their customers on any level, and yet, we really want to be. If we want our favorite brands to continue offering fun-to-drive, performance-oriented models in the future, we need to stop bitching about their actions and change our own. Any fool can say the Prius or Camry is indicative of a larger societal problem. It takes hard work (and brass balls) to develop a solution. There’s got to be a middle ground where everyone is happy – where the average “consumer” can buy an affordable automotive appliance pandering to his every whim, and where gearheads can strengthen their relationships with OEMs.
HOW WE’LL GET THERE
How would you feel if your favorite automaker asked for your feedback on a new model, feature, or service? Let’s say they discussed some new ideas with you and fellow gearheads and then implemented some of your advice. Wouldn’t that feel pretty good? Knowing you personally made an impact on the entire industry? Wouldn’t it be incredible to drive off the dealership lot in a brand new vehicle you were involved in creating?
It would be most epic, and it’s something I’m considering a priority as GBXM|united moves forward. Our first priority is helping gearheads build high performance lives through application of skills honed in building high performance machines. This means uniting the gearheads of the world in the sharing of information and ideas; achieving success through helping others be successful. Uniting gearheads and automakers in order to ensure the future is bright for both the people who sell the cars and who buy them is part of that mission.
I’ve got some plans in the work which require input from OEMs or individuals well-versed in the auto industry. If you or someone you know are among those ranks and can share input regarding ways gearheads and enthusiasts can provide more valuable feedback, please get in touch. Ironically, my offers of developing a help-you-get-more-free-and-intelligent-customer-feedback educational-program-designed-to-help-you-sell-more-cars seem to be falling on deaf ears through the usual OEM corporate and media contacts.
Let’s change the way we play the game. Let’s leave our mark on the industry. Let’s change the world.