Inefficiencies: On Cars

Today I took my ’98 Honda Accord in to the dealership to have it serviced before I drive back home to Dallas in a couple weeks. Some boot on the axle dry-rotted and I had to have it replaced but everything else was fine. Given that the car is now, what, around 9 years old, I think it’s aging quite well. The V6 is irreplaceable. I can see rust in the interior but that’s to be expected since I lived by the coast for a bit and I don’t wash the damn thing religiously.

Anyway, I started thinking about how the design and technology have improved in the years since my car was built. I read a little while back about how much computer technologies have improved, hard drive space being far and away the biggest leap. Hard drive space is a low-cost commodity now and it’s paved the way for unmanageable iPod music collections, unlimited video storage like on YouTube, and the massive NSA database of everything that’s ever been transmitted.

So I was at the dealership looking at the newest cars, and they really haven’t changed that much. The dash of my car is not much different than a damn 2007 model. There have been incremental upgrades, like XM/Sirius radios. My dad’s new Highlander has computerized traction control and wheel balancing. GPS systems are more common. Some cars have digital displays that track gas usage.

But a lot of these upgrades are merely third-party add-ons. Indeed, after-market options are huge right now as everyone wants to get their larger rims and tires, lifted kits, ground effects, racing skirts, pearlescent paint, spinner rims, reflective paneling, and halogen lights.

And hybrid cars are realistically not any more fuel-efficient than normal cars. One of the more memorable slides from Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth is the one that shows how the US stacks up against other countries in terms of fuel efficiency standards. The signing members wanted to strive for what, 50-80mpg? And the US is going for like 30mpg? The US won’t force its markets to expect upwards of 50mpg from cars, as that would hurt car sales. It basically refused to sign the Kyoto Treaty to protect businesses and consumption.

In terms of design, the motor industry is stagnant. What’s being done is adding more shit to the inside as people spend more time inside their vehicles driving to and from work. The primary concern for buyers is, “How much can I make my SUV’s interior seem more like a movie-viewing theater?” That FJ Cruiser from Toyota is disgusting. The boxy Scions and Elements are…eck. You know it’s bad when Porsche has an SUV, the Cayenne.

Now, having been in the military, I have pretty much been surrounded by SUVs and pickups, as no self-respecting soldier drives around in a regular car. And the pull of desire for a higher-up view of the road and so much fucking space is irresistable. My dad’s Highlander with its electric start is so quiet that I’m not sure if the car is on sometimes. But I find myself drawn more to the sleeker cars by my nature, and even there I’m disappointed.

The new 2009 Prius promises to be pretty hot. The rumor is over 80mpg and improved speed. But it’s still a hybrid.

What really blew me away is the Tesla Roadster.


This thing looks like a beauty. It was designed to be a fully-electric car that can do 0-60mph in 4 seconds. That is, it’s supposed to compete against sports cars. In Wired’s write-up, the car’s immediate electric reaction time to pedal input is like riding a roller coaster. Tesla claims it can go 230 miles on a single charge, which is a little less than double the mileage the Ford EV1 got. Now, the EV1 is interesting because if you watch Who Killed the Electric Car?, a documentary about Ford killing off its own fully electric car because of anti-electric interest groups, it seemed like the US auto industry had a chance to beat the Japanese to the way of the future but decided it would rather not.

That is the sort of backwaters mentality that is supposed to exemplify American ingenuity. Instead of real changes (in the above documentary, having the EV1 mechanic show an electric motor and then have to wipe off all the oil and grease after merely picking up some gasoline combustion engine parts is a visual metaphor for the state of the auto industry), they make a fancier grill for some car and then market it to whatever young, tasteless thirty-somethings are looking for that year.

As someone who will probably be looking to buy a car once I get another job, it’s discouraging to go to web sites and see still-expensive cars that barely hit 30mpg, not be able to customize just about anything on them (because adding different colors, fabrics, and accessories is so hard to do at the factory!), and just all-around in general not feel satisfied with making a purchase. After seeing all the glad-handing and fake niceties that the dealers spouted to the poor folks who walked in the door while I waited for my car to be ready, I wonder if those are the people who graduate to the higher-up offices and make key decisions for the next year of car models.

It’s just all so fucking stupid…and would be a great market opportunity to anyone with some balls and some common sense.