A friend of mine was telling me about his new car. It’s a brand new small Renault Twingo. ‘Its just a cheap basic run-around’ he told me. Then he listed some of the technology that comes with his new car. Automatic headlights, Automatic wipers, Electronic Brake Assist, Park Assist, DAB, Electric Windows…. This list started to make me think about two things; Firstly, how reliable is this technology going to be in 10 yrs time (when I am likely to be driving a 2016 plate car). And secondly, do we really want all these extras?
I have had ‘modern’ cars in the past, a Golf 115 PD and a Ford Mondeo 130 TDCI . By the time I brought them they were about 9 years old with a high mileages. They both went like stink with good fuel economy, but they both went wrong alarmingly frequently. One had a habit of cutting out on the fast lane of the motorway, and the other used to go into ‘limp mode’ and use tons of water. I took both cars to a number of garages, but no one could get to the bottom of these issues. Even the water problem did not appear to be anything obvious like the head gasket. Sensors were thought to be the root cause of most the problems, but no one knew which sensors! This has left me with major suspicions regarding any car built after 2002. This is when cars appear start to become riddled with sensors and ‘fly by wire’ controls. If cars are full of computers and micro switches then there is the opportunity for manufactures to program in obsolesces into the their products. This makes me think that if manufactures cheat fuel emissions tests, who knows what ethics underlie any company’s drive for economic sustainable growth? Even components such as electric windows could have a built in shelf life.
The first car to have electric windows was a Packard 180 built in America in 1940. This soon became a popular addition to American cars but did not filter down to the ‘Top of the Range’ British Leyland cars until the late 70’s. Britain’s idea of luxury motoring was Walnut trim, leather seats and Axminster carpets. ‘If it wasn’t found an a Mayfair Gentlemen’s club, then it had no place in a car’. That was fine, whilst due to the lack of real competition, Britain was the largest producer of cars in the Common Wealth. But once we joined the common market in 1975 and trade restrictions were lifted from countries that only a few decades earlier were WW2 enemies, the new competition offered a fresh perspective on what a normal car could be. German cars had unrivaled build quality, Japanese cars had the audacity to start on cold mornings and all but the most basic models had electric windows and central locking as standard . Suddenly the novelty of gadgets seamed very appealing and a bit of wood stuck to the dash with an engine from a 1950’s Morris Minor didn’t seem enough!
My friends cheap Renault raises alarm bells for me. A company that once curated the Renault 4, the car for the people that provided everything required to transport people and goods around rural france, now has automatic headlights on its cheapest car!
I believe that there is now a new emerging market for a basic car that is designed to last. Now Britain is in danger of ostracising itself from the rest of the EU we now need a new market sector to utilize once more. We can’t do cheep (South Korea do that), we can’t do executive (the Germans do that) we can’t do flamboyant (the Americans have that one). But we could do basic and well engineered. We know what brakes, it doesn’t have to be cheap if it’s well conceived. Billionaire Jim Ratcliffe plans to start manufacturing a rugged off-road car in the style of Land Rover’s discontinued Defender. I hope that this could be the start if a new/old way of thinking. We should be planning make a rugged family car, with the minimum of electronics and gizmos. A car with a 30 year life expectancy. This is thought to be financially unsustainable, but the world is a big place and there is the scope to sell a lot of cars to a lot of emerging markets.
I’m not suggesting that we live in an totalitarian dictatorship, where we only have one choice of vehicle for the masses, but it would be good to have the option of a car that was designed to do 300,000 miles. A passive sensor system could also be used, one that just informs the driver of a problem with a pacific component and does not confuse the car’s ECU in the process. It is very environmentally damaging to produce a new car with only marginally better fuel economy, that only lasts ten years then scrap and reproduce a new car ! Dougal Cawley, owner of Longstone Tyres once jokingly said ‘we all know that a panda dies every time a new car is made’. Although this statement is not entirely true, the sentiment remains.