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Looking Out #27
Including: the costs of car ownership, letting the train take the strain, the ethics of AI creativity, and the art of just being.
23 August, 2022
Welcome to Looking Out, a newsletter about the auto industry, mobility, design, and the cultures that surround us. Looking Out is brought to you by Joe Simpson and Drew Smith of The Automobility Group. If you like what you see, tell your friends!
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The real costs of car ownership | DS
Why it’s interesting: As inflation continues to rise, the threat of a recession looms, and the climate crisis deepens, it’s time to take a look at just how much we spend to own our cars.
In trying to keep an old Mercedes on the road, I thought I knew something about the direct costs of owning a car.
And having attended the Mobility | Society conference at TU Delft, I've started to become aware of the externalised costs of owning a car. These are the costs that society pays on my behalf for things like infrastructure investment and maintenance, land degradation, and the transport inequality that others experience as a result of my choice.
But it took this excellent video by a Berlin-based YouTuber called Marton to really ram home just how insane the lifetime cost of owning a car really is.
I'll leave you to watch the video and peruse his data for yourselves, but I never imagined that owning new VW Golfs for 50 years would cost around €400,000. Depending on my salary, this would represent between 15% and 41% of my lifetime income.
Yet the numbers get crazier still.
Say I lived in Germany, over that same 50 year period the German tax payer would contribute another €250,000 — just for me — to offset my accidents and emissions, pay for my parking space, and build and maintain the roads that I use.
So: €650,000 to own and drive a Golf, huh?
As governments try to address the climate crisis, it's inevitable that these external costs will be increasingly transferred to manufacturers and car owners.
And thanks to the transition to electric drivetrains and the increasing use of sensor suites intended to support autonomous driving, cars themselves are already becoming much more expensive (this is also making small, affordable models increasingly unviable for manufacturers, something I’ve written about this here).
Factor these increases in to the total cost of ownership and a Golf could reasonably consume over a million Euros, or between 24% and 66% of my lifetime earnings.
Since the Great Recession of 2008, millennials in wealthy countries (of which I am one) have experienced decreased job security, stagnant wages and rising living costs, particularly when it comes to housing. In the U.S., our kin have also had to deal with exploding student debt. We are, infamously, the first generation to be worse off than our parents.
In response, we've come to exhibit a more frugal set of financial behaviours. Epitomised by the financial independence movement, many of us now strive to increase our levels of long-term saving and avoid debt. We're also more likely to live in locations were we can use public or active transit, rather than depend solely on the car. Gen Z have only doubled down on the parsimony with which we millennials have dabbled.
Looking forward, the pandemic and the war in Ukraine, along with their economic aftershocks, to say nothing of the increasingly evident impact of the climate crisis, are likely to further entrench financial conservatism among these prime car-buying populations.
According to a recent report from BloombergNEF, peak car is still 14 years away so the industry has a couple more model cycles of growth in it. But against the economic and environmental backdrop, the question for car makers has to be: who'll be able to afford — or even want — to own a new car?
Why it’s interesting: It’s no longer the density of fast chargers that’s the real problem. It’s how many are off-line.
The headline above smacks of sensationalism, but outlines a risk, that several recent US stories suggest, is hidden in plain sight for the automotive OEMs.
The automotive industry is throwing itself headlong into transformation. By 2030, much of Europe’s vehicle fleet will be electric, and in some markets sales of internal combustion engine vehicles will be prohibited.
Today, together with price, range anxiety remains the major perceived hurdle for persuading customers to go electric. How to fix that? Well it’s simple really: there are three levers. You can build cars with greater range (bigger batteries/more efficiency is coming), give them faster charging speeds (800V systems on the market already hint of the future possibilities) and/or create a public charging network that is extensive, dense and offers many more roadside fast-chargers than today.
For now, the perceived problem is a lack of chargers. But, so the theory goes, the commitment of governments, car brands, power companies and the like will mean that, by 2025 or so, electric fast chargers will be so numerous that this will cease to be a worry.
But what if many of these chargers are off-line, are difficult to make work, or deliver only a fraction of the charging speed they’re supposed to?
A recent piece on Ars Technica — along with pieces in the Wall Street Journal and Autoweek — highlighted that this is a major problem now facing EV owners. In each case, big road trips across America were fouled up by chargers that were off-line, or refused to charge the car.
If, as Ars’ piece argues, every EV driver has a charger fail horror story (which they’ll communicate to their friends) and if - as is already happening - journalists are bemoaning the difficulty they have charging loan cars, this could slow the adoption of EVs. Or - worse - deliver a dreadful ownership experience for new EV owners and lead to buyer’s remorse.
The challenge is that, having largely left building out the charging network to third parties, automotive OEMs face the harsh reality of their customers having a dreadful experience which is almost entirely outside of their control. Some are trying to alleviate the issue. Ford, for example, is gathering and sharing data from all its electrified vehicles, to rate individual charger reliability in its cars.
But the hotch-potch nature of the charging networks, varying quality of customer service and a lack of mobile repair experts (and parts) to quickly fix chargers that are off-line is creating a real problem.
Experience suggests these articles aren’t unrepresentative, either.
Travelling through the UK and Sweden, my experience is that Ionity (who have the fastest chargers on the market) are typically operating with at least 2 out of 4 or 6 chargers off-line at each location. Hanging on the phone to an Ionity customer services rep, who is ‘certain’ he’s going to bring the charger back on-line (he didn’t) while you watch a Tesla driver jump in front of you in the queue onto one that’s become free, while your family grows increasingly fractious in the car, is perhaps one of the most deeply frustrating automotive experiences I’ve had recently.
My prediction is that we will ultimately see more automotive brands develop charging networks they either own, or can control, as Rivian is doing. The risk to customer experience and brand is simply too great not to – and the advantages for those who get it right, too high. Although as Drew has written about in the past, how many legacy auto executives understand this problem today, is a moot point.
Strangely, redemption may be at hand from an unlikely source - leader of the one brand that clearly has understood this issue. Dear Mr Musk is gradually opening up Tesla’s (extremely reliable, easy to use) Supercharger network, first in Europe and, soon, in the US.
Having realised that much of the supercharger network was now available for me to use in Sweden, I eschewed Ionity on my late summer trip back from Southern Sweden. I found I could hop between Tesla’s more numerous and better placed Superchargers, with ease, and — for now, at least — no queueing.
Pair with: Why Herbert Diess (former VW CEO, and someone who was acutely aware of this issue) lost his job due to software issues.
Why it’s interesting: A new map showing just how far you can travel by train in Europe within 5 hours, arrives at the perfect moment.
In the aftermath of a European summer of air travel disruption, many may have uttered, as I did, “next year, we should take the train”.
In this light, the rather wonderful Chronotrains is a place I’ve spent many minutes over the past month. It uses data pulled from Deutsch Bahn to map how far you can travel in 1, 2, 3 or 5 hours from different European cities.
It’s startling how much of France is within 5 hours of another part of France, something the government knows, meaning it’s in the process of effectively banning regional links by air. Air France has already been removing many regional flights. Or just how well connected much of Central Europe seems.
With the re-birth of sleeper services, including the ones we previously wrote about and a new link connecting Stockholm with London in 24 hours, next time, when you consider those extended check-in and security times, and the distance airports generally sit from the city centre, it really could be worth letting the train take the strain.
Cars in the cloud | DS
Why it’s interesting: Drew’s been searching for an analogy to describe asset-light access to automobility. Has he found it?
Once upon a time, especially when I was travelling, I headed to internet cafes to access the web.
Having handed over a coin or two of foreign currency, I’d squeeze myself onto a soiled seat between someone struggling with a Skype call, and someone else updating their CV, and check my email, or make a hostel booking.
Then, all of a sudden, I had the internet in the palm of my hand, first in my phone, then on my tablet, and then on my wrist in my watch. It doesn't matter where I go now, I'm always connected. The internet's always with me, and now I can't remember the last time I saw an internet cafe.
It's Oliver Bruce, over on the Micromobility blog, that likens the advent of shared micromobility to the advent of the internet cafe.
Like the internet used to be, micromobility is a curious new technology. Also, like the early days of the internet, the cost of entry has been not inconsequential. Socially, it's been a bit of a weird, geeky thing to do, and financially, it's been expensive.
But as home and then mobile internet connections became cheaper, more reliable, and more ubiquitous, so we're seeing increasing adoption of personal, rather than shared, micromobility. People are increasingly buying their eBikes, eScooters and other devices, rather than sharing them.
Which got me thinking: what's an analogy for a better future for the car?
Once upon a time, businesses used to own their own computer servers, housing them, maintaining them, and upgrading them when they wanted to improve their business capability.
In the technology industry, we call this an on-prem (short for on premises) solution and, as you might imagine, it's a pretty capital-intensive way to run corporate IT: server farms don’t come cheap.
But since the mid-2000s, there's been a shift away from businesses owning their own hardware, to sharing hardware that's owned, housed, maintained, and upgraded by companies like Microsoft, Amazon, and Google.
It's called cloud computing, because the hardware and software a business needs to run is located somewhere else, off in the clouds, and the business connects to it over the internet.
It means that a business can access the latest and most powerful computing technology, without having to invest the capital to install and maintain it themselves. They simply pay an access fee depending on the amount of computing services they require at any one time.
So maybe the future of the car is less about on-prem solutions -- buying, parking, and maintaining a huge piece of expensive machinery that you don't use most of the time -- and more about cars in the cloud: call on what you want, when you want, and pay only what you need to get the job done.
The ethics of artificially intelligent creativity | DS
Why it’s interesting: as the boundaries between human and computer creativity start to blur, it’s important to understand the trade-offs we might be making.
Everywhere you look these days, AI is carving out a presence in the creative industries.
It's been fascinating to follow Ken Kocienda refine his interactions with DALL-E to create a series of robotic artworks.
In a similar vein, Rob Curedale has been working with Midjourney AI to generate series of automotive concept sketches, which he's been publishing on LinkedIn.
And I've been having more than a few conversations with folk curious to know what I think about the technology, where I think it's headed, and what it means for the role of the designer.
As it's early days for the technology, so it's also early days to form any strong opinions on the topic, but here are a few pieces that I've read that are feeding my way of thinking:
The fight for “Instagram face” — a deep dive in to the world of Instagram filter makers and how their creations, along with Instagram's algorithmic recommendations, are narrowing our understanding of beauty. By Tate Ryan-Mosley.
How We Get Where We're Going Matters — Do we want to be told what to do? And what happens to our sense of responsibility, agency, creativity and context when we are? By Asha Sanaker.
I Went Viral In The Bad Way — a cautionary tale about what happens when a non-designer uses artificial intelligence to cut designers out of the loop. By Charlie Warzel.
Fashion Has Abandoned Human Taste — what happens when algorithms optimise the output of an industry? Everything starts to converge. By Amanda Mull.
Image: Ken Kocienda
Why it’s interesting: ever wondered why UX and UI designers tend to earn more than industrial designers? They’re better at articulating the value they deliver to the business.
Anson Cheung discusses the thorny issue of why UI/UX designers on average get paid 20-30% more than industrial designers. Beyond the obvious – of how UI/UX designers tend to work for software companies with higher profit margins – Anson hits on the very pertinent issue of how industrial designers (and, I suspect we could extend this to product and automotive designers) are poor at articulating the value they provide an organisation, and so the organisation views the the design team as “making it pretty”.
Experience tells me that anyone who says that to an industrial designer is going to make themselves pretty unpopular, pretty quickly - but Cheung points out that many designers drive this perception, with a focus on the fetishisation of the object, and beauty-shot renders.
By contrast, UI/UX designers, tend to talk much more about the experience, metrics that relate to business success and generally how they add value:
“Can we really blame people for thinking industrial design is about “making it pretty” when we ourselves present the most valuable output as shiny, pretty outcomes like juicy renderings, immaculate product photography and slick animations.”
So bad is the problem, that Cheung points out, now when you search for design value, or how design can add value - the reality is that most articles are actually talking about UX, not ID, anyway.
So what’s to do? It may feel hard to action in many business environments, but Cheung’s advice is sanguine. To raise the value of industrial design he says:
“We need to think, speak and write more clearly about how what we do adds value to all part of the development of products and services.
We need to draw obvious connections between our day-to-day work and positive business and social outcomes.
We need to stop objectifying our own work”
The cultural consequences of friend-shoring | DS
Why it’s interesting: Friend-shoring isn’t just about economics. It can also have far-reaching cultural implications.
Growing up in Australia, "Australian Made" tags were everywhere. Whether you were shopping for home appliances, home furnishings, or cars, pretty much everything a 1980s Australian needed to live a comfortable life could be bought from local manufacturers. That even included some things that might have, at first, appeared foreign.
Because of high import tariffs, designed to protect local industry, everything from Nissan Skylines and Pintaras to Toyota Lexcens and Volvo 240s were either locally-assembled from kits of imported parts, or were rebadged versions of locally-manufactured cars.
But buying local wasn't just the shrewd financial choice, it was a cultural movement, too. It was positioned as an act of patriotism.
However as Australia began to join a global economy in the early 90s, it became increasingly difficult to justify local design and manufacture for a domestic market of 20-odd million people.
And the fact that we were located, as one former Prime Minister allegedly stated, at "the arse end of the world", meant that shipping finished product globally simply wasn't economically viable.
Over the course of the next 20-odd years, our domestic manufacturing capacity evaporated. Mainstream Australia's love affair with Holden Commodores and Ford Falcons was replaced with an appreciation for Hyundais, Kias, Toyotas, and Mazdas. Now, Chinese brands are starting to make inroads.
Thanks to globalisation, the variety and quality of product to which Australians have access has increased, and it's been a common story the world over. Successive waves of global competition has either forced domestic manufacturers to up their game (think of the impact of the Lexus LS 400 on Mercedes), or offshore their R&D and manufacturing, whether of batteries or entire cars, to lower-cost markets.
At first glance, globalisation and the offshoring on which it depends seemed like a good news story. Western consumers got more choice at cheaper prices, and industrialising nations got a leg-up in living standards by producing stuff for richer countries.
But there’s a sting in the tail that’s now being felt.
Whether it's component shortages brought about by COVID-induced shutdowns in China, boards and CEOs being held to account for human rights abuses in their supply chains, or the splintering of the internet — a previously global technology on which so many car makers pin their dreams of service delivery and data monetisation —, the global marketplace is starting to look a lot less conducive to running a business.
Reshoring entire supply chains is not the answer: so much capability has either been lost to, or developed by other nations. Look at the challenges Apple had producing the “dustbin” Mac Pro in the United States, for example.
Instead, economically-minded folk are now apt to talk about "friend-shoring", or shifting supply chains to countries with shared values and norms about how to do business, and we're already seeing evidence of this shift.
As nations and their manufacturers begin to unfriend China, regional blocks of capability and connectivity are starting to emerge. Investment is rolling in for EV battery gigafactories and chip plants in Europe and the United States, and Europe is attempting to sure up the security and sovereignty of its data through initiatives like GAIA-X and the automotive-focussed CATENA-X.
But so what?
Do people care where their cars come from, or where their data is stored, or how it's used while they're not looking?
Or, should the global shocks keep coming — China invades Taiwan, or India deepens its ties with Russia and China, for example — does buying local become a cultural imperative and an act of mainstream patriotism, just like it was in Australia in the 80s?
And if so, what does that mean for the design, branding and marketing of the cars we buy and, increasingly, the services that enable them?
Why it’s interesting: Finding it difficult to switch off on your summer vacation? It’s not a new phenomenon.
As Europe sits on the beach (hello to my fellow Northern Europeans already back at work!), restless souls like me question how to unplug and switch off from the pressures of work and the bustle of city life.
Drained by life in New York, Nin took a holiday to then under-developed Acapulco in Mexico, where she is immediately struck by the differences in way of life between the locals and those she was escaping in New York.
A prolific diarist, Nin records;
“I am lying in a hammock, on the terrace of my room… the diary open on my knees, the sun shining on the diary, and I have no desire to write. The sun, the leaves, the shade, the warmth, are so alive that they lull the senses, calm the imagination. This is perfection. There is no need to portray, to preserve it…”
As Papova points out, this was three decades before Susan Sontag lamented the aesthetic consumerism of vacation photography, and half a century before our more recent, compulsive need to catalogue every private moment for eternity, or share it on the web. Sometimes it can feel as though Instagram stories were invented so you simply gain holiday envy, and wish you were somewhere else.
Nin’s explorations of this subject are a pertinent reminder that the concept of just ‘being’ and being content with it, is not a new one. But it is one worth striving for. As Popova provokes;
“If leisure is the basis of culture, how can we harness its true rewards, given our pathological addition to productivity”
Next summer, I shall be trying my best to channel my inner Nin. And just be.
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