Are new cars merely appliances to keep phones charged?

Phil Berg
Car Culture

I’m enjoying all the stories coming from newly accessible Cuba, stories about the 60,000 or so 1950s American cars cruising the island nation.

When the trade embargo of 1960 ended the import of American cars to Cuba, its citizens were left with only the cars purchased earlier. They have made heroic attempts to keep them running ever since without a supply of new parts. What I like best is that the cars are all different, all of them have identities and stories of their own, and they show off the craft and creativity of keeping an old car running.

Think of Cuba as the Woodward Dream Cruise running every day.

I like old cars because they’re all different from each other and they appeal to the tinkerer in me. They represent a time when the manufacturing industry was making the good parts of the American Dream possible.

I can’t imagine, however, that 50 years from now anyone will feel that way about today’s commoditized cars. Recently I was standing behind a group of four younger folks at a rental car counter, and they were asking the clerk about what was available. The clerk began to explain special deals, but the customers cut him off and chimed in, “We don’t care at all what kind of car. We just want something, anything, as long as we can connect our phones to it.”

I don’t think I’m alone here saying a lot of new cars look the same, and don’t create an emotional connection (other than through Apple or Android). The three top compact crossovers — Toyota’s RAV4, Honda’s CR-V and Ford’s Escape — are really tough for me to tell apart. They all look to me like, well, appliances.

The rest of the top-selling cars and trucks don’t capture my emotions, and I wouldn’t spend a whole Saturday fabricating new exhaust clamps or suspension mounts for one (which I once did for a cute ancient 1996 RAV4). Today’s cars have plastic one-time-use fasteners intended wholly for rapid assembly, not restoration. Emission and fuel economy rules have dictated aerodynamic shapes that combine with sales-driven requirements of interior volume figures to make a single formula of styling, shape and size.

“A refrigerator is just a square box, and now they’ve standardized it because it’s gotta fit in your house,” said Tom Gebhardt, president of Panasonic Automotive Systems Co. of America, at a June connected car conference in Novi. “So now you’ve literally put yourself in a box. How much can you really differentiate? That’s why you have the consolidation of the appliance industry.”

Carmakers don’t want that to happen to vehicles, at least in the way they connect to the three major personal electronics connection platforms, Apple, Android and QNX, Gebhardt added. “The last thing Ford wants is somebody walking into a dealership saying ‘I want the one that’s got the Apple thing in it.’ And they don’t have Apple in the vehicle and the guy turns around and leaves. They have to be conscious of their own brand identity and how they do that so they don’t get commoditized.”

The recent University of Iowa/National Safety Council auto consumer survey reports that almost two-thirds of Americans already consider their car merely an appliance, but slightly more than one-third recognized at least some emotional connection to their wheels.

So, will cars follow this current path to being merely appliances to move us around and keep our phones charged? Again I’ll paraphrase some wisdom, this time from Ferry Porsche, late CEO of the company his grandfather started: “The last car ever to be built will be a sports car, not an appliance.”