Automotive Democratization

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Every new car (even the Nissan Versa sedan, the least expensive new car you can buy) comes standard with air conditioning – and most come standard with power windows and locks, too. Push-button keyless ignitions and cheerily glowing LCD touchscreens are becoming common and will likely soon be as expected (and standard) as AC and power windows/locks already are.

No one sells a car without a full set of gauges and a decent stereo. Some may remember the not-so-long-gone world of cars that came with a speedometer (85 MPH!) a fuel gauge – and an AM/FM radio.

Maybe not even FM.

This has democratized new cars – leveled meaningful creature-comfort distinctions between inexpensive and expensive cars. If you were to teleport a 2017 Corolla back to 1997, it would be a nicer car, in terms of amenities and gadgets, than anything Lexus was selling back in ’97.

This is great news for the not-rich. Who no longer have to suffer going without basic features that have become the automotive equivalents of hot and cold running water (and electricity) in a house.

But this leveling has put Lexus – and other luxury brands – in something of a bind. How to justify the price of the luxury car when formerly “luxury” amenities are just like hot and cold running water in a house?

You up the ante.

It’s no longer AC (climate control AC) that’s for-the-rich-only. It’s massaging seats. Night vision. Reclining rear seats. And uber-gadgets like the “gesture control” BMW puts in its top-of-the-line 7 Series sedan, which allows the driver to adjust the stereo’s volume up or down by twirling his finger. The Mercedes S-Class I test drove last week had a gas door that sensed my presence and popped open obligingly as I approached to fill ‘er up.

Some of these are basically baubles that are no hardship to do without. But massaging seats? Once you’ve experienced them, it is a hardship to go back to standard chairs; as rough as driving to work in summertime heat in a ’79 Chevette… without AC.

Almost.

It’s not surprising that massaging seats are unavailable in any car without a six-figure price tag (or very close to that). But that firewall is pretty fragile. Competition in the middle of the market (the Camry-Accord part of the market) is so fierce that it is probably only a matter of a couple of years, at most, before someone decides to offer massaging seats in a . . . Camry.

Wait and see.

Would you have thought a Corolla would come with an LCD touchscreen (and heated seats)?

The same forces that made that happen are just as applicable to things like massaging seats (and heated and cooled cupholders, something else that – for the moment – is hard to find in cars that aren’t “luxury” branded… and priced accordingly).

The infrastructure is already there. New cars no longer have marginal electrical systems, for example – just barely enough amperage to fire the spark plugs and light the (sealed beam) headlights. The juice necessary to run the array of electrical stuff that all new cars have lays the groundwork for juice-hungry amenities such as seat massagers. And almost all new cars already come standard with or offer LCD touchscreens, the means by which things like massaging seats are controlled. It’d probably be no bigger a deal than bolting them in – and plugging them in.

The massagers themselves are only expensive because exclusive. Once economies of scale factor in and “everyone” offers them, it won’t cost much to offer them. And they may (and almost certainly will) come standard in mid-tier models like the Camry and Accord.

Wait and see.

It’s as inevitable as the mass-marketing of cruise control – another used-to-be-exclusive feature that pretty much every new car now comes standard with. Probably half the new cars currently available have adaptive cruise control – an upgraded type of cruise control that automatically adjusts the car’s speed in relation to traffic, without the driver having to touch the brakes or the accelerator pedal.

Another amenity that will likely become available – if not standard – in most new cars within a couple of years: Those heated and cooled cupholders mentioned above. These keep your coffee hot – and your Coke cold. Heating and cooling elements are built into the cupholders; push the button once to heat – a second time to cool.

It’s almost as nice as massaging seats.

At the moment, you will find them in higher-end cars only. However, it would be even easier to add these to any car than seat massagers – because the basic technology (the heater coils and the cooling mechanism) aren’t in and of themselves expensive and the electrical infrastructure (high-output alternators) is already in place. The only reason heated/cooled cupholders haven’t yet filtered down to bread-and-butter family cars is because – so far – no one has decided to offer them.

Wait and see.

The market pressure to do so is growing because even things like paint quality, the durability/quality of the car itself – have achieved a new (very high) standard across the board. Take a look at the paint job on a new Corolla – and compare it with the paint job of a new Lexus. See whether you can tell a difference. Both will probably still look great 15 years from now, too.

No new car leaks. They all have fantastic headlights (LED, HID). Excepting the occasional lemon, they’ll go 150,000 miles and more without requiring much, if anything, in the way of major service.  It is no longer a miserable experience to drive an “entry level” car – and the experience of driving a high-end car is no longer as spectacular as it once was.

Except, of course, for those massaging seats.

But wait and see . . .

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13 COMMENTS

  1. A lot of times the difference between “ordinary” and “luxury” is in the software. Once you have the actuator and the switches (the hardware), the feature can be enabled by hooking them up inside the computer.

    Like memory seats. Once you have the motors and limit switches inside the seat, and a multi-controller on the steering wheel or dash, then remembering how you like the seat positioned is just a matter of programming. If you have the wireless key fob, you don’t even need to push the button – the car will move the seat as you open the door.

    The same with safety features like Brake Assist. The brake fluid pump is already there from the ABS system. All that’s needed is to swap out the simple “low fluid” switch in the brake line for one that can report variable pressure levels (to detect the driver’s braking pattern), and the rest is in the software.

  2. Doesn’t this run a bit counter to your concept of affordable cars? How much would it cost WITHOUT all that stuff? Maybe we’d see a sticker under 9k. Mind you, I have an ’06 Corolla that only has a/c and a stereo…crank windows, 5-speed, no cruise, no power locks, etc.

    However, I can only imagine what my dating life would have been like had my dad’s Buick had those massaging seats…

    • Hi Mark,

      The main price driver at this point is the cost of complying with the multitude of government fatwas. Things like a good stereo and power windows are pretty cheap to add for a number of reasons but mainly economies of scale.

      But, the cost difference between a TBI system and a direct injection system is huge. And the only reason for DI rather than TBI is to meet federal emissions and fuel efficiency fatwas.

      Which might be ok if the result of these fatwas was dramatically lower emissions and dramatically higher gas mileage. But we get fractional reductions in exhaust emissions and negligible upticks in MPGs, obviated by the higher cost of the car.

  3. I know Ford already offers massaging seats in the top-of-the-line Taurus, Explorer, and F-150 models. They’re called multicontour seats.

  4. I I don’t ever even use the vast majority of options that my used 17 and 18 year-old vehicles have. I don’t even know if their cruise control works…never tried it. Ditto the heated seats which one has; the aftermarket bluetooth the previous owner installed (I think it has something to do with cell phones?). I use the A/C and power locks and windows (And the locks only because the vehicles are too big to reach across and do manually- if they were little cars, I wouldn’t even use that!).

    And I will NOT ever have a vehicle with a touchscreen! I keep my eyes on the road when I drive. I know where my tactile controls are, and can just reach for them without looking. No wonder they need automatic braking and all of this other garbage!

    I like my A/C, but quite frankly, I’d rather feel “real” in that ’79 Chevette, and feel the breeze on my arm, and smell the atmosphere, and be able to actually see out, and be able to control my machine by good old mechanical means, than to be isolated in one of these sensory-deprevation caves on wheels.

    We are likely seeing the last generation of used cars right now, because these new abominations are over-laden with electrical/electronic junk, that they will be utterly useless after a few years when the circuit boards and servos and sensors start to fail. There are just too many to keep up with as the cars age, and the often in hard to get at locations…and the parts are very expensive….and who knows if they will even be available down the road? (The junk yard won’t be much good for electronic parts, because they will already be old, and being out in the weather and dirt, will just go bad that much faster)

    Just heard of a guy last night, who got rid of his Tesla Model X after barely having it for a month!

    Who are they making these cars for? NOT the average member of the driving public, that’s for sure! (Including stupid aluminum pick-ups with small turbo-charged gas engines!)

    • I rarely drive anywhere less than 30 miles and with my cruise not working, I have to constantly look at the speedo since it can vary 20 mph with the same throttle setting. It sucks and when I need to go 60 or 120 miles to the next town, it really sucks.

      People will walk up to my pickup looking at Cholley Jack and I have to be on my toes to close the window so they won’t freak him out and get bit and it’s always the fault of a pit bull, never stupid people. I like cell phone bluetooth since I don’t have to be distracted to talk on the phone, something I have to do for work.

      As far as a/c goes, this spring and early summer(all summer to November)it was over 100 up to 110 every day and a rain every 2-4 days kept the humidity so high you boil in that heat without a/c. It another reason to have as dark as tint as allowed on your two front windows and limo(black)tint on the rest. If vehicles still had kick panel vents and vent windows then no a/c would be bearable most of the time although not in that Peterbilt that became a hotter heat sink as the day went on.

      It depends on where you drive I suppose and what you need to do when you drive. I’m constantly on the phone and the last thing I need is to have to look at it.

      I’ll go along with aluminum bed pickups(cabs are fine)but those tiny engines trying to do the work of big V-8’s and diesels are simply idiotic. But hey, selling pickups now for most people is just a variation on a car and nothing more.

      • Heh, I liked pick-ups better when they came with rubber mats instead of carpet, and a big vinyl bench seat. It’s like they don’t even make real work trucks anymore; or even just plain-old run-to-Home-DeePott pick’ups….now everything’s a technologically advanced delicate luxury vehicle…with a bed (and usually only 6′ at that- being dragged around by 20′ of cab!)

        I do have to have my A/C though- and I don’t even live as far south as you. I’ve just become soft and wek. Never had A/C in the house till I got this place 15 years ago…now I can’t do without that either. It’s sad when you think about it.

  5. But is a new econobox even economical? A new Corolla is $20,000, does it even make sense to go into hock for a car that’s supposed to save you money?

  6. Technology isn’t for the rich people. It’s for the middle class and poor. Rich people have piss boys and other servants. Middle class people have machines. Poor people have crappy machines.

    • If I were to sell out and compensated appropriately, it’d be soley in order to be able to afford a surplus MiG 25… or at least an airworthy F8 Crusader….

      • Head narc last raid accused me of having a bunker. I told him flat out if I had one we wouldn’t be having that conversation. I’d like a little place inside the side of a hill, well-camo’d with a trail under a tree canopy with a long trail to the lake and no address. Maybe I’d find you some armament for that F86 or Mig for an emergency. Maybe a trail bike and a couple horses. Get me another anonymous cellphone I’d only use somewhere away from the property.

  7. Eric, check out what optional equipment Renault has. My car has cruise control, heated seats, climate control, parking assist, all for $15k

    • Hi Wildhog,

      Yup!

      I test drive new cars each week; so this is no surprise to me. But it probably will be to people who’ve not test driven a new car in about five years or so. 🙂

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