Wednesday, May 18, 2016

The Cars of the Future?

In the future, cars may be all the same under the sheetmetal, but people will still personalize them for status reasons.

In C.M. Kornbluth's science fiction short story, The Marching Morons, he describes a future America dominated by incredibly stupid people.   The few smart folks remaining try to hold everything together by operating a secret shadow government and appearing as "assistants" to the nominally elected or promoted heads of State or companies. Given how the Bush administration (and the Trump administration) worked, he was very prescient.

He also describes how cars in the future will look and work. No doubt influenced by the gaudy be-finned and be-chromed monsters of the late 1950s, he describes cars that are flashy and showy and have a dashboard that looks like a jukebox.  And while they make an enormous amount of engine noise and while the speedometer shows the car going 150 miles an hour, in reality, it is barely going over 40 - for the protection of the idiotic occupants.

Again, Kornbluth is prescient.  People today have the worst sort of driving habits.  People text and drive, eat and drive, drink and drive and do everything, it seems, other than actually driving. And when they do actually drive their cars - watch out!  Something as simple as merging onto an expressway is a lost art today - people have no idea what "Yield" means and expect four lanes of heavy high-speed traffic to slow down, move over and "make room" for cars entering the highway - as if they had the right of way!

And sadly, if you talk to most people, they say this is how you are supposed to merge - just pull onto the Interstate doing 45 or so, and a big truck doing 70 is obligated to lock up his brakes to "let you in."  Once you are settled in, have your coffee opened, eat your hamburger, set the radio station, and catch up on your texts, you can then accelerate to highway speed - but of course, you never, ever use cruise control, right?   That's for driving in the desert or something.

Because of all of this, we have six, eight, or ten airbags in our cars. We have retractable seatbelts and lane drifting indicators.  We have blind spot monitors, adaptive cruise control, automatic braking, and a host of features designed to drive the car for you, so all you have to do is point and shoot. And of course, this technology is combining with other technologies to create the self-driving car, which may be a reality in 10 years or so - maybe sooner.

Electric cars are rapidly advancing. New battery technologies, hybrid drivetrains and whatnot mean that electric cars are no longer pie-in-the-sky ideas, but real products for sale in showrooms across the country. You can decry electric cars as a fad or whatever, but it is highly likely they will supplant or supplement most internal combustion engines within a decade or so as well.

Carmakers, of course, are faced with making the most complicated cars ever built. People decry modern cars as "too electronic" and pine for the days of their '65 Chevy and four-barrel Rochester carburetor and points ignition.  But those days are gone for good, and if you think cars today are complicated, wait until these self-driving cars come out. The number of sensors will be multiplied by a factor of five - not to mention the number of computer modules. And without expensive diagnostic equipment, the local shade-tree mechanic will be hard-pressed to do little more than change a tire - if he can even do that without mucking up the tire pressure sensors.

Since the cost of developing a new car "platform" is so high, carmakers are increasingly looking to share platform development costs.  Companies buy parts and engines and even complete cars from one another and have been doing so for a long time.  Fiat is selling Miatas now - and their 500 is based on the same platform as the Ford Ka.   BMW is doing a joint venture for the new Z5 with Toyota, who will built a new Supra on the same platform.  But the car will be made by neither company, instead being assembled by Magna Steyr in Austria.

And so on down the line.  Toyota and Subaru combine forces on a new sports car.    Particularly for low volume cars (like sports cars) it makes sense to join forces and reduce overhead costs.   Of course, this raises issues - aren't you competing with yourself?  Or if you agree not to compete, is there some sort of anti-trust issue here?  

The CEO of Fiat-Chrysler is still shopping the company around, after being turned down by both GM and Ford (Hint:  Honda has little or no presence in the SUV and big truck market, they might be willing to go in on a deal.   Everyone else already has trucks and SUVs - why would they want to merge?).   His  logic is compelling - the cost of platform development is staggering and there is far too much build capacity worldwide.   As cars continually improve, they become more and more standardized.

(UPDATE: Fiat-Chrysler merged with PSA who also bought all of GM's European assets.  Quality of Chrysler products has shot up from last place among American automakers, to first.  A quality Dodge - imagine that!  So it must have been a good merger!)

GM started this trend in the late 1960's.  Each division had its own engines - usually around the same size and horsepower. It made little sense.   They decided to standardize to three engines - the small block Chevy, offered in 305 and 350 CID displacements (and 400 sometimes) expanded with different carburation to a number of horsepower offerings, as well as the old 250 CID inline six.  By the 1980's, these offerings were narrowed further to the 305 and 350 small blocks, the 3.8 "corporate" V-6 and a smaller V-6 as well, as well as a couple of four-cylinders.

People got upset and sued GM, claiming they expected an "Oldsmobile" engine in an Oldsmobile.  But we know how that worked out - Oldsmobile is no more. The idea that you needed to many different lines of the same car was ludicrous With increased emissions, crash safety, and fuel economy requirements, certifying different engines and different cars became staggeringly expensive.

And with self-driving cars, these costs will become even more staggering.  No doubt such cars would have to be certified to a number of Federal safety requirements, and such certification will not be cheap.  So it will make sense to share platforms among a number of different car models and types.  And such platform sharing will make sense from a functional standpoint - in self-driving car traffic, it will be helpful if each car had similar driving characteristics - similar acceleration rates, similar braking abilities, similar handling. Particularly in automated highways - where blocks of self-driving cars might travel at 80 mph with only inches apart.

(UPDATE:  GM and Ford, once bitter rivals, have cooperated in the development of new 9- and 10-speed transmissions.  If you own a Chevy pickup, it has a Ford transmission in it.  If you own a Ford SUV, it has a Chevy transaxle.  The staggering cost of developing these complex transmissions was too much for either company, on its own.  Fascinating.)

So it goes without saying that the trend in recent years toward sharing of cars, engines, platforms, electronics will only accelerate over time  As more car companies combine or engage in platform sharing, cars will become more and more alike.   Self-driving cars may become as standardized as the transportation pods Woody Allen envisioned in "Sleeper".

Not only did Woody Allen predict self-driving pod cars, he also got the sound right.

Of course, electric cars are eerily silent, which annoys a lot of people for two reasons.  First, they can sneak up on you, which is disturbing if you are a pedestrian, doubly so if you are blind.  So many carmakers, such as Nissan, have artificial "sounds" piped through external speakers so people are aware of the car's presence.

Second, people want a car to sound like, well, a car.  They want a throaty roar of an engine that screams of dying hydrocarbons.  And as in Kornbluth's story, today many carmakers are resorting to fake sounds to enhance the driving (and riding) experience.  Volkswagen, Audi, Porsch, and BMW have been caught adding sound-making devices to their cars or piping engine sounds through the stereo system, as the sounds made by cars today are often disappointing.  EPA noise requirements mean that cars often sound like "a UPS truck" as one wag noted.   Even on my old BMW E36 cabrio, there was a sound valve in the muffler, so that engine noise would be attenuated at low speeds.

Cars of the future will be electronic and probably electrically driven.  And many folks may forego car ownership entirely and instead just call up an Uber self-driving taxi and take that where they want to go.  But a lot of folks will probably still own cars, for practical reasons as well as status reasons.  If you live 20 miles from town, waiting for a self-driving car to come to your home may be time consuming and costly (no doubt you would be expected to pay for the car having to travel far out of the mainstream).  It would be more convenient to have your own car so you could travel when you want to.

Other folks would prefer to have "their" car with a custom leather interior and all the appointments (no doubt including a refrigerator and bar, so they can snack and drink will cruising down the road.  And of course, what is the point in having a car of your own if it just looks like everyone else's?  You'd want styling that says "I spend money on this, you plebe in your self-driving Uber taxi!" and car makers would supply the market with unique and different styles - all on the same chassis or "platform" of course.

I could envision that folks would even want to have "vintage" or "retro" styled cars - much as they do today.   However, the Camaro of 2040 probably won't even have a steering wheel, much less a gas pedal or a shifter.  You'd just sit in it and enjoy the view, while turning up the "engine noise" knob so you could enjoy the "muscle car experience".

Oh brave new world....

Is this a good thing or a bad thing? It depends on your point of view.  If you enjoy downshifting through a corner and feeling the response of a car, it is a dystopian nightmare, of course.  If you are one of the tens of thousands of people who are potentially maimed, injured, or killed in auto accidents every year, it sounds like paradise.

I suspect there will still be "auto enthusiasts" in the future, but actual driving of a car will be limited to very rural roads or perhaps to track events.  The few die-hards who want to burn hydrocarbons will find it to be an expensive hobby.  Once demand for gasoline tapers off, the supply will be very short and prices will be sky-high - on the order of $20 a gallon or more (in today's dollars) if not more.  

Some would decry this as automotive heresy.   But it is the future, and while we can grumble about it, it isn't going to change just to suit our whims and tastes.  And it is a future that future generations will embrace. Already, it appears that the current generation of young folks are less enthusiastic about owning cars or owning performance cars.  And perhaps the somnambulistic feedback and handling of today's cars (which are faster and handle better than cars of the past, but feel more isolated than ever before) is part of the problem.

When cars are all basically the same, it will be hard to get excited over a car.