Why the car is the ultimate consumer product

Our love of cars is too irrational for us to hand over driving to a computer - even if it's made by Apple.

by Stephen Bayley
Last Updated: 03 Dec 2015

No other product flatters and then betrays us as thoroughly as the motorcar. Its historic promise of freedom was a lie. So far from liberating, the car daily strangulates cities and threatens users with criminalisation at every turn. Car ownership is just as Lord Chesterfield said of sex: 'the pleasure is momentary, the position ridiculous and the expense damnable'. For many years now, owning a car has, for city-dwellers, been utterly irrational. Who wants a costly instrument of pollution, inconvenience and offence?

And yet a longing for automobile nirvana continues. The car is the ultimate consumer product, even as it becomes ridiculous. For many, a brand-new car with its gloss and novelty smell is as close as we'll ever get to perfection. Thus the quest for new interpretations goes on.

The often promised flying-car never took off, but the driverless one may soon be a reality. Confidence in the motor industry is not high. Car makers no longer feature in those whimsical surveys you see about 'cool brands', usually organised by agencies on behalf of their clients.

Recent research showed that in one group of 30 year-olds, people who would have once have been yearning and keening for an Audi said they would prefer to give up their car than their smartphone. Concepts of mobility today are not defined by or limited to road journeys.

So here's one of the regular crises that afflicts the motor industry. Is it caused by the deadly conservatism of automobile culture? Although acquisition of a new car of a certain marque remains a reliable indicator of social or professional progress, the motor industry is as structurally incapable of innovation as customers are unwilling to change their expectations. They are locked in a death spiral. The last great innovation on wheels was not a car, but Robert Plath's 1991 patent for a wheeled suitcase.

There are simple reasons for their conservatism. The costs of entry into mass-market car manufacturing are imponderably huge: we will never again see a start-up (at least, not in Europe). Fixed costs are daunting, supply chains complex, distribution is expensive and you are locked into long product cycles while dealing with global markets with deeply conventional tastes. Those fixed costs mean better margins for big cars, but history shows that the great innovations all happened at the small end of the product range. The excellent Smart, a joint-venture between Swatch and Daimler, is the outstanding car design of the past 25 years, but it has never made money.

Conservatism is revealed in the formats. Most cars have at least five seats, but usually just carry a lone driver. Many still have ashtrays, but only 19% of the UK population smoke. Redundancy is another aspect of the industry's absurdity: cars have reserves of motive power and intelligent systems that will never, ever be used. When (and where) was the last time you did 155mph? How often do you use your 60:40 split rear seats?

This sort of extravagance never encourages interesting design. On the contrary, constraints are more likely to be inspirational. Hitler's brief to Dr Porsche was to produce a People's Car for a mere 1,000 Reichsmarks; with great technical ingenuity, he did so. It was called Volkswagen. A degree of anti-corporate cussedness also stimulates innovation. Andre Citroen insisted that 'from the moment an idea is worth having, no one cares what it costs'. That philosophy produced innovations of genius, but also bankrupted the company: Citroen was sold to Michelin, its biggest creditor. Alec Issigonis's Mini was the most innovative car ever, but it was a full 17 years before the British Motor Corporation established that it could not be made at a profit.

Innovation is often costly and unorthodox, hence management resists it. In 1940 Henry Ford said: 'Mark my words: a combination airplane and motorcar is coming. You may smile, but it will come.' We are still smiling. Yet the vision persists. Right now, a company called Terrafugia has a proposal for a flying-car, but doubts it will get to market before 2025, by which point travel itself will have become redundant.

Meanwhile, we have the prospect of the driverless car. Although Audi has an impressive driverless demonstrator based on its A7, the impetus for autonomy is coming not from the established motor industry, but from California. Google and Apple have interests here. Indeed, Apple will not permit its fabled designer, Jonathan Ive, to discuss any car in public, powering speculation that an iCar is in planning. But even a trillion-dollar company cannot afford to build a car plant. No one is certain, but some guess that Apple, and Google, are in discussions with a motor industry giant.

Now, an iCar designed by Jonathan Ive would have all the beauty and utility of his other marvellous iProducts, but the essential problem of the driverless car is that it ignores the psychological reality of the automobile. Cars are popular for reasons sunk very deep in the unventilated pools of the psyche: they are about property, social competition, sexual display, aggression, danger and rampant ego. The clean, intelligent, safe and innovative autonomous vehicle will drain all the risky enchantment from car ownership.

True innovation may be a chimaera. In the 1950s General Motors introduced the 'annual model change'. In reality, this meant the addition every 12 months of starbursts, fake chrome jet nozzles, new Naugahyde colourways and melodramatic rebranding of crude and slushy three-speed automatics. Of course, these were delusory innovations. It was a gaudy carnival of kitsch that camouflaged the cynicism of the US auto industry. And do you know what? The public loved it.

Stephen Bayley is the author of Cars: Freedom, Style, Sex, Power, Motion, Colour, Everything (2008, Conran Octopus) and is a contributing editor to MT.

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