Technology in our cars: Transformation or ticking time bombs to obsolescence?

After the last few weeks discussing masculinity, this week I am returning to something more comfortable and familiar. In other words, I'm back to cars. 

So, there I was on Saturday night, screaming at the television screen trying in vain to beat Thunderblight Ganon in Zelda: Breathe of the Wild. (Seriously Nintendo that difficulty spike caught me totally off guard.) Rather than get more frustrated, I made a cup of tea and began to surf YouTube.

I randomly found a video blog channel called "Road and Race". The blogger, Neil, was describing how he bought a ten-year old BMW E92 M3. The car itself was beautiful. The coupe shape has aged gracefully, with bulges and vents all in the right places. The E92 was the only M3 equipped with the S65 V8 engine and watching Neil buy the car had me salivating in my seat. When it came to the interior, however, the car looked much less impressive. The standard specification iDrive looked dated and slow. The screen, which was nestled deep within a second binnacle in the centre of the dash, was low-resolution and dull. It had no iPod connectivity, no Apple CarPlay, and certainly no gesture controls. Most people quiver in fear when buying this model M3 with stories of catastrophic engine failure due to rod bearing failure or very poor MPG range. I was more worried about the in-car technology. What will happen when the iDrive fails? Will the owner spend a fortune replacing it or do they sell/scrape the car? This is an issue most automotive manufacturers are staying silent about and it will be us, the consumers, who will have to deal with legacy technologies in our daily transport. 

This technology issue really got me thinking. Last week was a big week in the automotive world. First up we had the official launch of the latest generation Renault Megan RS. This car has a legacy of being one of THE best sport hatchbacks on the planet. More hardcore and track focused than the Golf GTI or even the bonkers Ford Focus ST. The Civic Type R is the closest rival and this new model is bringing the latest chassis technology to the fight. The Megane is well equipped out of the box, with a trick limited slip differential and four-wheel steering. What I noticed however, was the car's suspension set up. Renault has fitted it with hydraulic suspension bump stops. Essentially, this is a damper within a damper. It is rally car derived and gives the Megane amazing comfort and handling both on the road and the track. 

But what will happen ten years down the line? Or fifteen years? When the car has depreciated and suddenly these fancy dampers are more expensive than the car itself? I always remember the E34 M5 with EDC rear-suspension. Even today, these parts are furiously expensive and many owners are forced to pay through the nose or scrap their car when they fail.  I get it and with limited options, these cars are disappearing fast as a result. 

A more alarming development is the degree of integration of technology into our cars. Consumers expect their car to sync with their phones, guide them, read their text messages and update their Facebook page as they drive. Hell, most cars now can even manage to drive themselves. What happens to the car when this technology breaks down or becomes obsolete? 

The other big launch last week was the unveiling of the Mercedes A-class. This is a huge car for Daimler. The previous car actually saw sales increase as it aged. BMW and Audi have similar "premium" hatchbacks on the market and they are vital to encourage younger buyers into the brand and also capture those buyers downsizing from compact executive cars and SUVs.

On the outside, the new A-class is a gentle evolution of the old model. A little sharper at the front and more resolved at the rear. Cheaper models get a torsion bar rear-suspension set up while pricier models go multi-link. There are a raft of petrol and diesel engines on offer, with whispers of a hybrid or electric model to follow. The car sits on an all-new platform after all. 

The big news is the interior. It looks amazing, well built and is a total game changer. You can see the image at the top of this blog. This new interior is Mercedes beating Audi and VW at their own game with both build quality and digital integration. I love it. Let me be clear on this. The geek inside me is overwhelmed with joy and excitement. This kind of interior beats KITT hands down and looks more starship than car to me. But, and there is a HUGE but, what will this interior be like in ten to fifteen years' time? Can you update the software and to what extent? What if the dash cracks or has a few dead pixels? Will this be covered after the car is out of warranty and the dealer network? Will it be like having an older iPhone that gradually slows down? Of course, Mercedes will promise that it will be supported throughout the "lifetime" of the car, however long that is. Ultimately though it will be dictated by Mercedes. I am putting all manufacturers on the spot here. BMW, VW, Audi, Jaguar to name but a few who are embracing this "glass cockpit" philosophy. 

I can live with the Megane's expensive components. It is a consideration you must make when buying that particular model. But the in-car technology has me worried. As an enthusiast, I want to drive my car, rather than the car driving me. I don't want to be reading messages or being warned about lane departures by the car. I want to drive the car. I can see a future where this becomes the exception rather than the rule. Most drivers will be passengers, lacking even basic driving skills. Cars will have a lifecycle of under ten years as technology becomes more and more advanced. We will upgrade them in an iPhone manner every few years and be wowed by the latest evolution. Our grandchildren will never use a manual gearstick or know what a naturally aspirated engine sounds like. They will be too busy on social media waiting for the car to update itself as the power train scavenges energy from the braking system.

I'll be an old fart by then but I will be happy to have lived in an age where cars were cars and we were driving the technology. Not the other way around. 

 

Megane Image sourced from www.autocar.co.uk

Mercedes A-Class interior image sourced from www.autocar.co.uk