I had a problem with my car recently and it got me thinking about the way that technology is changing the nature of the motor car. As I mulled these changes I wondered what impact it was likely to have on the cost of motoring. Spoiler alert: I don’t think it’s going to be getting any cheaper.
So let me start with my car problem. About a year ago, we bought a new car. Now I know that this already puts this into the category of a First World Problem, but bear with me.
It’s not a flash car, it’s a Ford Fiesta – although I don’t for a minute think this is uniquely a Ford issue. So, a basic car, but we got the Titanium spec so it comes with a lot of bells and whistles. It’s these bells and whistles, which are becoming ever more ubiquitous, that cause me concern.
Like most modern cars our new car doesn’t just have a radio, it has an ‘infotainment’ system. To be honest, this almost put us off buying the car as it looks like someone’s nailed an iPad to the dashboard. We haven’t warmed to it as it’s job seems to be to constantly distract us with pop up warning messages and requests to connect to wifi.
But the really worrying thing is what’s going on under the bonnet. Many of the bells and whistles are baby steps on the road to fully automated cars, but like a teenager it’s too clever for its own good: it does things without really understanding the implications of what it’s doing.
Over the course of the year we’ve had occasional irritating warnings popping up on the dashboard telling us that the hill start assist function isn’t working. Why would anyone need such a thing? If you’ve passed your driving test surely you should be able to cope with hill starts on your own.
More worryingly, on odd random occasions the car suddenly appears to lose power and a message pops up saying something along the lines of: “reducing power and applying brakes – OK”. No, it’s not bloody OK, but there’s nothing you can do about it! This was especially alarming when it happened as I was overtaking a large lorry on one of those short stretches of dual-carriageway which revert quickly back to single lane. I decided my car was trying to kill me and it would have to go back to the dealer for a check over.
The problem: there’s an issue with the ABS system and there’s an upgrade available.
A known problem then. A potentially dangerous known problem, but not something that owners are warned about. It’s an easily fixed software update, but if our car wasn’t still under warranty it would cost around £100 for the dealer to do it.
This is sounding more familiar from my experience with computers than cars.
The software has been updated: you need an upgrade. There’s a bug: you need to install a patch. That software is obsolete: you need to buy a new version.
Only with a computer, if you don’t do the necessary upgrades, although you may leave yourself open to hackers and viruses, you’re unlikely to die.
So does the future of motoring look like the current state of computers: always shelling out for upgrades and new software versions? Technology becoming obsolete every few years? What will the second hand car market look like? Think about the value of a five-year-old computer.
And these motoring problems aren’t things that can be fixed by a half competent mechanic in an old fashioned back street garage. Oh no, you’re going to need some high tech specialist computer wizardry to fix even the simplest of problems. That almost certainly means using an official dealer. Luckily we know they are never expensive to deal with.
And then I started thinking about the implications of cars going electric – technology that is moving hand in glove with increased automation.
Surely that will bring the cost of motoring down. Electric cars are more expensive now, but their price will come down as they replace traditional cars and become the norm. Technology is always more expensive at the beginning. New battery technology should also drive down the price (as well as hopefully making them less catastrophic to the environment, but that’s a subject for a different blog).
The big saving is the cost of charging your car rather than putting petrol in it. But will this always be the case? There are already concerns about how we’re going to meet the energy demands of everyone going electric, and where something becomes scarce its price goes up.
But the main cost of putting petrol in your car is not the cost of the petrol itself – it’s the tax. When the government loses that massive tax revenue, what’s it going to do? Shrug its shoulders and say “c’est la vie”? I don’t think so.
That tax is going to have to come from somewhere.
Increased tax on Electric? That doesn’t seem fair. At least at the moment tax on fuel is generally correlated with miles travelled in the car – a tax on electric would hit everyone whether they use a car or not.
So what would they do? Tolls? Mileage tax? Whatever the answer I’m guessing it’s going to cost us.
In an – ahem – unrelated point: does anyone know where I can get an old Ford Cortina cheap…?