Thinking about the Chris Bangle interview has led me around some corners that I really hadn’t planned on exploring. But, here goes nothing . . .
There’s a snippet of dialogue in the film, “The Great Race”, where Tony Curtiss’ character, the Great Leslie, discusses the need for an
‘auto-MO-bile’ to run in a race. The movie was loosely adapted from the New York to Paris race held in 1908 (it was, after all, a Blake Edward’s comedy). But that quaint intonation of ‘auto-MO-bile’stuck – and defined the rich man’s clubbiness of the driver’s art.
Not long before the 1908 New York to Paris race, in 1891, a three wheeled Peugeot traveled from Valentigney to Paris to Brest and back, ostensibly to run with a bicycle race that ran from Paris to Brest and back. The fastest bike ran the 1200 km race distance at an average speed of 10.5 MPH, the Peugeot trike averaged 9.14 mph for it’s 2400+ km trip. Not a compelling demonstration for auto-MO-biling when pedaling was faster. But less than a generation later, in 1906, the Stanley Rocket topped 127 mph on Ormond Beach, FL.
In 1908, as the Great Race was underway, Henry Ford was monitoring the progress of his design team as they concocted the Model T in an upper, closed-off, back room in the Piquette Avenue plant. The Model T was a game changer, technologically superior and capable of handling the crude road conditions. The Model T took driving from a rich man’s hobby to a middle-class necessity.
The period from the appearance of the Model T to the advent of World War II, another generation, saw pretty static design idioms. Yes there were some radical shapes, including some ‘under-slungs’ which pointed to the future (made possible because the roads improved – and bicyclists were at the heart of the good roads movement). The Chrysler Airflow, a design esthetic panned widely, was a harbinger of things to come – and maybe its empyreal expression was the Cord 812 of the late 1930s.
After World War II, cars became more accessible (and after the Wirstschaftswunder, the Germans – in the west – had access to
automobiles other than bubble cars). With relative peace came an explosion of new cars fueled by advances in metallurgy and, eventually, software. With stable octane qualities for gasoline, brake mean effective pressures in engines rose and the HP wars were on. In the late ’60s and early ’70s more ‘monocoque’, or uni-body, chassis came into being, freeing designers from the constraints of a ladder frame (or in some cases an easier-to-deal-with tubular frame – and we won’t talk about Superleggara construction techniques) – and even with the slight dip in hp during the transition to pollution controls, the power race continued.
It would have been impossible to find a car as good as a BMW 335i in 1920, it would have been too costly to buy a car as good as the 335i in 1960. And yet a 335i is affordable and a pretty good imitation of an E39 M5 (an exotic sedan of half a generation earlier – if a sedan can be exotic). All new cars on sale in the United States today will handily outperform a Model T. In fact, you would find it exceptionally difficult to drive a Model T safely given the T’s limited power and insubstantial braking capabilities.
But mixed in with all of the decent driver’s machines on the current unintelligent roads are Goggle’s self-driving Priuses.
And that is a big deal – Goggle has managed to deploy a self-driving car without resorting to an intelligent highway (something that many thought would be necessary before auto-automobiles could be done). And as the road becomes more intelligent and near field communications becomes ubiquitous, the car as we know it will fade into the past. (IPV6 anyone?)
Given that the current buzz is that cars are no longer hip, the transition to driverless cars may not be hard. To emphasize that, during
a recent visit to the dealership to have my 135i serviced I asked the SA whether there were any manual transmissions on the lot and he said no, the dealer will not order a stick for inventory, only as a customer order. Some would say this is a sad commentary as the ‘adherents of the art of driving’ fade back into a quaint, clubby atmosphere.
But what do you make of a car you don’t drive. Isn’t it essentially, at that point, a taxi without a driver? Then connectivity, comfort, and convenience are the keys to consumer happiness.
Thinking this through, even further, if the car is essentially a taxi, why keep it in your garage? Why not ‘rent’ it as needed, or purchase one and place it into a fleet pool – get some return on your asset. Then the car isn’t sitting idle for 20 plus hours every day.
That isn’t so far-fetched, since your car has GPS capabilities, and you’ve dealt with its scheduling calendar – to reserve the time you’ll
need it, what’s to keep it from earning some cash on the side by handling driving chores for others, not unlike the short term rentals
that are available in Europe.
A dystopian future? Well, to some of us yes, but I would hazard to guess that for most people in the United States it won’t be a difficult
transition. For example, most of us haven’t ridden a horse frequently and finding someone who could drive a ‘four-in-hand’ would be difficult. Maybe it’s appropriate that we should look back at the transition from horse to automobile to see how our future will play out.