The other night, I had a fleeting thought that, because I’d had a few beers, I allowed myself to park on and think about for a minute. The thought was that if a product connects to the internet, it’s probably junk, designed and built to end up in the trash. The more I thought about it, the more I realized it’s pretty much true. Connecting to the internet in and of itself doesn’t cause a thing to be junk, but it’s true that most things that connect are in fact, designed to be junk.
As cars become increasingly dependent on the internet and battery powered, it’s worth considering the ways in which consumer electronics are designed to fail consumers, damage the planet and rocket to obsolescence over an absurdly short time frame.
I had the above revelation while trying to reconnect a Sonos system to the internet after I reset the router—not my router—that one is still working perfectly—a different one. I realized I had maybe a few thousand dollars in stereo equipment that could, and likely will at some point, stop working. Not because I broke it, or left it out in the rain or whatever, but because Sonos decided to stop supporting it, or a change in some other system that I do not own or have any control over it rendered it obsolete.
I then started thinking of the dozen or so Apple products I had laying around the house. A handful of iPhones, at least two dead/broken iPads, two old laptops. Even if they’d run today’s software well enough to be useful, the natural life cycle of their irremovable batteries doomed them. (Yes, I can and have gone to the trouble of cracking some of this stuff open and replacing batteries, but given Apple’s fondness for software updates that make their stuff stop working, it’s usually not worth it.)
All this stuff was born to die, no other future but obsolescence was ever possible for any of it. I spent money on these devices knowing with absolute certainty that they would become entirely or almost entirely useless over the course of a handful of years. All of the world-killing effort poured into designing, manufacturing and shipping these things results in me tossing them off to, ideally, be recycled at additional environmental cost, or more likely their sitting in a landfill leaking poison for eternity.
It’s infuriating, but what am I going to do? I’d love to live the rest of my life without buying another shitty iPhone or Pixel. But while it’s technically possible for me to do that, a phone is enough a part of modern life that it would be a pain in the ass to give it up. I live in a society, etc.
But it’s not something I like. Every little buzz and chime is another drop in my big bucket of dread. I see my phone as a tool designed to steal my money and my attention. It’s making me dumber every day and I hate it completely.
I like my car. Even if I have to wrench on it every now and again, we have a lot of fun together. And if I take care of it, it’ll last. That’s something I try to think about every time I buy something. There is no ethical consumption, yada yada, but I do try to keep myself from buying things that I know are going to end up in the trash.
With consumer electronics, I make a different bargain. No matter how well I care for my “devices,” what case I buy for them, the clock is ticking. My iPhone is my phone for a few years, then it’s junk for the rest of time.
Over the last decade, auto industry rhetoric has revealed a reverence for hugely profitable companies like Apple. It’s misplaced. Apple makes products that are designed to become trash and it’s impossible to argue otherwise. The idea that cars—3,000-8,000 pound, complex amalgamations of exotic materials—should be at all like the trash pouring out of Foxconn’s suicide factories is distressing.
But here we are, getting ready adding features and systems that will become obsolete over relatively short time spans and shifting the whole industry to cars where the most expensive component has a short service life, is hard to recycle, and hard-to-remove/replace by design.
It is clearly necessary to remove the majority of gas-powered cars from the majority of roads, but switching to EVs is not a solution in and of itself. Aside from the numerous, well-documented environmental costs of manufacturing electric cars, the question of what happens to them after they leave the factory remains open. EV batteries have a much shorter service life than gas engines. And, most commercially available EVs aren’t designed so that batteries can be easily removed and replaced. Where modern gas cars are designed to be durable and serviceable for a very long time, EVs are all heading for a massively costly battery replacement at best, and the junkyard at worst. Really, just like an iPhone on wheels.
They share that in common with laptops and cell phones, and probably the majority of consumer electronic devices. While I’m sure swapping EV batteries will become more common, automakers have a role to play in ensuring that cars are not designed to be junk, that their batteries are easy to replace. If we’re going to give up the serviceability and longevity of the gas engine for cleaner EV systems, we need to make sure we’re not creating a fleet of disposable cars.
Hucking a $1000 cell phone with a battery the size of a few playing cards into a landfill is very bad, but scrapping whole cars with batteries bigger than a half-dozen sheets of plywood is unconscionable.
I’m operating on the assumption that we’ll figure out a better way to deal with old EV batteries. We kind of have to. But carmakers who spent much of the last century progressing toward longterm dependability should not look to companies who exist only to churn out soul crushing, disposable, brain mining tools for inspiration.
The people who run car companies may be awed by the technology business, and they’re certainly awed by the valuations of some of these companies, but they should understand that there is no model worth emulating there. These are bad companies that, if they make a product at all, make bad products.
When car companies say they want OTA updates, and cars that grow and evolve with you, like your phone, what they mean is they want more of your money.
I understand that we are about three quarters of the way over the Rubicon here, but tying more basic driving functions to the internet, to software and to little payment ecosystems is going to shorten the useful life of a car. If the most expensive component of the car is so expensive and difficult to replace that it’s not worth it, then you’re making the decision to shorten the useful lifespan of that car. If you’re a major automaker, that’s good. If you’re a consumer, or a person, plant or animal who lives on earth that’s bad.
If you buy something that connects to an ever-changing internet, it will eventually be incompatible with that internet. If navigation stops working, that’s a pain, but the car doesn’t become worthless. If accessing the basic functions of a car requires a connection, that’s another matter.
Even if that wasn’t the case, it’s true that whether or not it operates isn’t up to you, it’s up to the company that you bought it from. If Apple starts slowing down my iPhone and reducing its battery life when they launch a new product, that’s massively annoying, but I’m usually getting close to having to buy another $1000 phone anyway by the time that dreaded update comes. If the company that sold me a $40,000 car starts pulling similar shit, they’re going to find me hanging out in their parking lot.
When we take the obsolescence of little products like phones, computers and routers for granted, it comes at a cost. When this assumed obsolescence model is applied to something big and difficult to recycle like a car, let alone an electrified car, we are making a deal that we cannot afford to make.