A Thought on Obsolescence
In the Beginning
Let’s be clear from the outset, this is not a moan about electric cars, etc.
Whilst we are by nature ‘Petrolheads’, we love driving and exploring by road, regardless of the vehicle’s power source.
Instead, this is an idea, perhaps even a postulation, that has been floating around in my head and needed expressing on this virtual paper.
Let’s start with a brief journey into history.
The dawn of the motoring age around the turn of the 20th Century was a time of great innovation. It was perhaps the culmination of the Victorian fascination with machinery and engines. Vehicles with petrol, diesel, electric and hybrid power sources were all tried. Yes indeed, a late Victorian/Edwardian petrol/electric hybrid, just imagine!
For the next hundred years the pace of development was fairly steady. Open, coach-built bodies were replaced by mass market closed cars. Ford’s production line technology was a major step forward. Advances were made in metallurgy to improve engine wear and reliability. Oil refining improved to create cleaner-burning fuels as tyre technology advanced to enable faster, safer driving in all weathers. Electronics began to replace large parts of electrical systems and create driver aids undreamt of by the Victorian pioneers. The intermittent wiper now taken for granted was a novelty only for high-end cars in the 1970s.
Yes indeed, the pace of change, aided by a couple of world wars, has been steady and well documented.
The Electric Revolution
Humanity is now in the grip of change that is likely to be faster and more wide-reaching than anything the Victorians could have dreamt of… and there were some good dreamers in those days (Jules Verne, H.G. Wells anyone?).
The current rate of change is driven not by war between peoples, but the ‘war’ against climate change.
Regardless of your view on that particular subject, the fact remains that governments are increasingly committing to an ‘electric future’. We are now seeing major car companies committing to changing all of their products from ICE (internal combustion engine) power to electricity. In parallel, power for homes, industry and much besides is being converted to electricity. The power industry has for some years been moving away from fossil fuels, primarily to wind and solar generation. Power storage is another huge growth area, yet another that’s being led by Elon Musk. Love him or hate him, he is perhaps the Jules Verne of our day, albeit he doesn’t just write about his ideas!
But what’s driving the rate of change?
The Revolution Within the Revolution
The simple answer is electronics.
Man’s ability to control functions through computerisation, robotics, artificial intelligence and other things that I either haven’t thought of or haven’t heard of, is enabled through electronics. Those tiny bits of sand connected by tiny wires has inspired a new generation of inventors to automate everything that the Victorians would have had to forge a piece of iron or polish a piece of brass to achieve.
Consequently, inventors are now counted in the millions in every developed country, rather than in the hallowed halls of the Royal Society and other venerable institutions.
Another consequence is that improvements to the basic design come thick and very fast indeed.
When Apple launched their first iPhone back in 2007 – yes, it was only 14 years ago – there was a new version every year until 2011, after when new model releases became more frequent. That said, their seemingly ‘revolutionary’ approach in those days, appears normal now, thanks to the attention of Samsung and others.
So what’s all this got to do with cars?
We started by thinking about the Victorians. It’s probable that ‘obsolescence’ didn’t feature in the thinking of Isambard Kingdom Brunel et al. Clearly, time and new invention made old inventions obsolete… we call that progress.
The introduction of electronics into the automotive industry has brought us intermittent wipers, seatbelt pre-tensioners, auto-dipping headlights, adaptive cruise control, engine management systems, etc. etc. In fact, there is very little in a modern car that doesn’t rely on the car’s ‘brain’ to control its function. Gone are the days when, if your car broke down at the side of the road, you could wait a while for it to cool down, perhaps hit the engine with a hammer and be on your way without even having to call out the AA or RAC. The chances are that your modern car will know it’s about to break down, will alert you, put you in ‘safe mode’ to drive home and even call the dealership to book you an appointment for its repair.
This means that, if you now buy a second-hand car, you are by definition buying the ‘previous generation’ with fewer background electronic features, rather than simply buying the ‘previous model’.
The pace of change is being exacerbated by the drive towards ICE-free vehicles.
Here’s the Rub
A new fully electric car is using yesterday’s electronic wizardry. Batteries and power storage system used within the car and in the burgeoning charging station networks will be out-of-date in no time, especially when governments agree standardisation of systems. Think USB versus Apple Lightening connectors, Tesla versus Porsche charging, etc.
If you’re lucky enough to drive a pre-war car like the 1928 Bentley above (and what a visceral joy that is) you have an obsolescent vehicle. It’s not obsolete. You can drive it pretty much anywhere and, if necessary, you can repair it at the side of the road. It will never be obsolete. Even when all the world’s oil wells run dry, there will be biofuels that can power its engine. The same is true of pretty much every car built up to the 1980s.
Obsolete cars will become a fact of modern life. Microchips that degrade and cannot be repaired without huge expense, will consign some vehicle to the scrap heap.
More worryingly, the latest electric cars, that cannot be attended to by a home mechanic beyond putting air in the tyres, will have to be traded-in for the next generation. Battery connectivity and all of the car’s systems will be controlled by ‘developers’ who are used to dumping their ‘iPhone 11 Pro’ for their ‘iPhone 11 Pro Max’. They won’t be paid for slowing down the rate of change. Ask Elon Musk.
Maybe air in tyres will one day be a ‘previous generation’ feature.
If my assumptions are correct, modern cars will have obsolescence in-built at their design (nothing wrong with that) but will become obsolete in a fairly short time. Certainly not in a 100 years or so.
Government-sponsored ‘scrappage schemes’ will encourage we consumers to trade-up to the latest generation cars. This consumer mindset will be exacerbated by renting, rather than buying, as seems necessary for the recycling of the (currently) huge batteries.
This in turn reduces the value of cars in the consumer’s mind to the equivalent of a TV or fridge, both of which are now routinely discarded and rarely repaired when faulty.
I fear that the cost of constantly recycling the materials used in building cars will offset some/much of the carbon-reduction benefits of changing to electric power.
As I said at the outset, this is not a rant against electric cars. Even if it were, it would be a waste of time.
This is simply to highlight a concern that I’m not aware is being debated in political circles.
As you perhaps ponder with me, please continue to enjoy your pre-electronic, obsolescent (but not obsolete) classic car. You should perhaps also ‘enjoy’ the time lying underneath it at the side of the road on a cold, wet day trying to get it going again.
There’s a fairly good chance that someone else could be doing that same thing with your old car in the next century.
Whilst I have limited scientific expertise upon which to base my postulation, I can guarantee that no one will be underneath your electric car trying to repair it at the side of the road in the next century!
Epilogue: The Winding Road of Research
In writing this piece, I tried to find out a little more about the real ‘whole life’ impact of vehicle ownership in terms of carbon footprint. Whilst there is plenty out there and freely available, it seems to me that the overriding assumption is that cars will be destroyed at their end of their useful life. Thus, the carbon cost includes manufacture, usage and disposal.
Consequently, and quite rightly, the argument in favour of the lifetime impact of electric vehicles outweighs that of ICE-powered ones. I, for one, won’t be lamenting the eventual replacement of the millions of commuter ‘euro-boxes’ of the last 15-20 years with their cleaner and quieter replacements. That’s just part of the normal life-cycle.
However, true classic vehicles are increasingly saved from destruction and their lives extended accordingly. The obsolescent Bentley in our story is nearing 100 years old and going strong. Not only that, it is providing employment to many and joy to many more. Have you ever stopped to watch a steam traction engine trundle by? It’s heart-warming.
The FBHVC’s National Historic Vehicle Survey 2020/21 provides some interesting statistics about classic motoring:
- Historic vehicles (cars, motorcycles, traction engines, etc.) represent 1.8% of all licensed vehicles in the UK
- They are driven for only 0.2% of the total annual road mileage (that’s 0.8 of 365 billion miles driven by cars, lorries, etc.)
- The historic vehicle industry is worth £7.2bn to the UK annual economy
- That’s nearly 4,000 businesses employing over 35,000 people
The historic vehicle movement is a living museum of heritage and history that is accessed by every bystander smiling as she sees a car like her grandad used to drive when she was a small girl, sweep by on a Sunday morning.
The carbon footprint of making classic vehicles has long since been washed away by the sands of time. We await the day that they become obsolete and scrapped (rather than stored in a museum) to calculate their true carbon impact.
In the meantime, we should all continue to soak up the warm feelings of nostalgia they generate.
Thanks for reading this blog.
Please comment, like, etc. as you see fit.
You can also read here what we thought after borrowing an electric Porsche.
You can see the ancient hybrid car and many other vehicular delicacies at the Louwman Museum in The Hague, Netherlands.
The Federation of British Historic Vehicle Clubs (FBHVC) National Historic Vehicle Survey 2020/21 can be viewed here.
Porsche Taycan Turbo S photo c/o Porsche Newsroom