A while back, I sat in the newish electric car that was the pride and joy of a friend of mine, and had what was at the time an odd experience. Instead of getting in, turning the key, and driving off, the car instead had to boot up.
The feeling was of a piece of software rather than a piece of hardware, and there was a tangible wait before the start button could be pressed. It was a miracle of technology that could travel smoothly and quietly for all but the longest journeys I could possibly throw at it on relative pennies-worth of electricity, but I hated it. As a technologist and car enthusiast, I should be all over these types of motor vehicles. I live for new technology and I lust after its latest incarnations in many fields including automobiles.
I want my next car to have an electric motor, I want it to push the boundaries of what is capable with a battery and I want it to be an automotive tour de force. The switch to electric cars represents an opportunity like no other to deliver a new type of car that doesn’t carry the baggage of what has gone before, but in that car I saw a future in which they were going badly astray.
I don’t want my next vehicle to be a car like my friend’s one, and to understand why that is the case it’s worth going back a few decades to the cars my parents drove back when when jumpers were goalposts, and the home computer was just a gleam in the eye of a few long-haired outsiders in California.
When Rust Buckets Ruled the Open Road
By the 1970s, the basic design and layout of a car had begun to reach its zenith. Lift the hood on a VW Golf Mk1 from 1974 or a FIAT 127 from 1971 and you’ll find the same transverse engine with a front-wheel-drive transmission stuck on the end (Pay attention, in-sump-gearbox Mini enthusiasts!) of it that most of you will see in the car on your driveway today. In the rest of their construction you’ll see earlier iterations of the safety and comfort innovations you’re used to.
Throughout the world, the vast majority of cars on the road today use this configuration, with rear-wheel-drive, longitudinal engines, and rear engines having become something of an oddity. While the designers had nailed the basic format though, the materials hadn’t quite caught up with the demands of the product. The better 1970s cars were on the whole pretty reliable and easy to fix when they went wrong, but as any older car enthusiast will tell you today, the quality of their metallurgy and paintwork left something to be desired.
They rusted, and they did so with frightening rapidity. Scrapyards were full of rusted-out models less than ten years old that were otherwise fine mechanically, and running a car over that age meant becoming familiar with the art of using the welder and plenty of fibreglass body filler. These were the vehicles my generation had as our first proper transport, and some of them were good cars, but at the same time truly awful good cars.
Making cars that didn’t last a decade was good business for the automakers who hoped to sell more cars, but ultimately damaging for their reputations and their bottom lines. Thus one of the biggest selling points for a car in the 1980s was its rust resistance, as can be seen in Audi’s commercial for their new Audi 80 near the end of that decade in which they dropped the car in the sea to highlight its galvanised body. By the 1990s most cars simply didn’t rust, or at least if they did it was relatively minor and cosmetic compared to the serial disingtegration of their 1970s stablemates.
Outside my window I see a descendant of those Golf Mk1s made in 1998 that has just received its first piece of structural welding, a patch on a perforation the size of a nickel. That would have been unheard of in a 22-year-old car that had spent its life driving through British winters when it was made, yet now it is quite normal. Cars still end up in scrapyards, but by and large they no longer do so due to bodywork rust.
From Rust Rot to Bit Rot
So why do cars get scrapped in 2020, if modern rust proofing has made their bodies near-immortal and a combination of good metallurgy and synthetic oil has left their engines bulletproof? Aside from legislatory changes such as for example those surrounding diesel emissions, a modern car is significantly more complex than its equivalent of a few decades ago. It has a whole variety of subsystems devoted to achieving lower emissions, better safety, and increased fuel economy, and its interior is festooned with gadgets unknown in times past.
Headlights no longer turn on with a switch and a wire, instead the car’s computer sends a CAN bus instruction to a microcontroller behind its bulb which turns it on. All this extra complexity has made modern cars significantly more reliable than their predecessors, but at a price. When those headlights fail the replacement part is no longer a $5 switch but a $1000 electronic module behind the dashboard, probably more than the car is worth so it heads for the crusher. I’ve more than once been offered just such rather nice cars for pennies; sensing money pits I have so far wisely declined. There is no motivation yet for the manufacturers to improve this situation because the shortcomings of their cars are not as obvious to the owners as the bubbling rust was in the 1970s, but they’ve achieved the same feat of making cars that only last ten years or so.
Complexity is the Enemy of Longevity
Electric cars offer a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to do something about all this. Instead of an engine with hundreds of moving parts and a brace of computers to keep it running within its emission and fuel economy parameters, you have an electric motor with one moving part. There are still electronics, but a motor controller is now a simple enough unit to have become genericised.
As a demonstration of that versatility New Electric Ireland for example put a Lexus electric drivetrain with a Nissan Leaf motor controller in a BMW estate car. It would be difficult to imagine a corresponding situation in which the brains of a Nissan internal combustion engine drove the lump from a Lexus. An electric car can at its very minimum have electronics only in its motor controller, battery charger, and safety systems such as anti-lock brakes, making it at a stroke infinitely simpler than the internal combustion vehicle it replaces.
Unfortunately though, the manufacturers seem intent on taking electric cars in the opposite direction, bringing me back to the car I sat in at the start of this article. Right now electric cars are technology showcases in which complexity and unnecessary features are viewed as desirable, and the very environmental benefit of having the electric car is negated by their inevitable demise after a few years when the feature overload starts to bite the dust. Instead we need to see longevity become a selling point, and unnecessary complexity merely for the purpose of limiting vehicle life come to be regarded as environmentally detrimental as rolling coal from a big diesel V8. There should be no greenwash afforded to a manufacturer whose so-called environmentally sound offering doesn’t have a likely service life almost into its third decade even if that requires a replacement battery, because if we are serious about CO2 emissions our aim should be to make fewer, better cars rather than simply make more cars. Anything else is mere hypocrisy.
Header image: A 1914 experimental electric car. Unknown author / Public domain