NASA recently celebrated the 45th anniversary of the first moon landing by “live-tweeting” the Apollo 11 mission.
Neat idea, but I found it a little depressing. In nearly a half-century we’ve progressed from sending humans to the moon to reliving it through 140-character missives.
I feel the same way when it comes to so-called “high tech” in cars. I’m talking about in-cabin infotainment: MyFord Touch, Cue, iDrive, MMI. The primary goal of all these systems is to attract people—namely younger people—to whom technology means personal computing and connectivity.
The first problem with this strategy is that, broadly speaking, few in-car systems work very well and practically none match the aesthetics and functionality of the best consumer electronics. Ever try to find a point of interest in a car’s navigation system and wind up finding it on your phone? Or jab angrily at an in-dash touchscreen all the while wondering why it’s not nearly as responsive as an iPad’s? These shortcomings only confirm the perception that automakers are unable to keep pace with “modern” technology.
The bigger problem, though, is that automakers play into this perception at all. For most consumers, the modern automobile is arguably the most complex—and most computerized—machine they will regularly use. For example, a 2015 Chrysler 200 consists of about 10,000 parts, 40 of which are computers with a combined power of 8,000,000,000,000 to 12,000,000,000,000 instructions per second. The car is engineered so that people of all sizes and varying levels of competence can pilot it at high speeds and survive horrific crashes. But yeah, it’s really cool that your iPhone can take slow-motion videos.
The irony is that all these complexities are so well integrated that people fail to notice them. Instead, they regard the automobile with misplaced familiarity. I attended a car show recently where the participants ranged from a 1922 REO fire truck to a 1953 Chevrolet Corvette with a Powerglide, to a Lamborghini Reventon and a 2014 Chevrolet Corvette Stingray seven-speed. Your average valet could have driven the vast majority of them (except for the valets who have trouble with the old-fashioned manuals) with little instruction—there’s the gas, there’s the brake pedal, there’s the steering wheel. Never mind that the gas, brakes, and steering on most modern cars are actually computer aided controls that work together to save fuel, corner faster, and keep you from killing yourself.
Automakers need to do a better job telling people about the cutting-edge technologies baked into every new car as opposed to trying and failing to emulate Silicon Valley. The car company that presently does this best? Tesla. Yes, the Tesla Model S features a gigantic touchscreen and runs on batteries, and yet, it is also unambiguously a fat-tired sports car. Tesla has hammered home the attributes of speed, power, style, and personal mobility—exactly the stuff that made people love cars in the first place. Auto industry insiders like to grumble that any “real” automaker can make a good electric car, but Tesla figured out how to package and market these technologies in a way that captures the imagination.
There are other, smaller successes. Ford has done a great job educating people on the benefits of direct injection, turbocharging, and variable valve timing with its EcoBoost brand. Audi has done the same with Quattro all-wheel drive. But no one has managed to explain to laypeople why they should be excited about other big advances. How many consumers know, for instance, that most new cars are designed to protect not just occupants but also pedestrians? Do they know what stability control does, and that it’s standard on every new car?
Surely, there’s a place for consumer electronics-style technology in our cars. The first thing I do after climbing into a test vehicle is to connect my phone via Bluetooth. But just as we don’t need Twitter to remind us that going to the moon is an amazing feat, automakers need not rely on gimmicky features to prove that cars are relevant in the 21st century.
P.S.: You can follow me on Twitter at @am_zenlea #hypocrite
Moon photo courtesy NASA.