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Smart Car? Dumb Car? Which Would YOU Prefer?

Would you buy a “dumb” car if it was cheaper?

Elon Musk is the father of the EV revolution, but he is also the father of the “smart car” — a vehicle that is as much a computer as a car. The interior of all Tesla vehicles has one central focus — a large touchscreen mounted in the center of the dashboard that controls most (in the case of the Model S and Model  X) or all of the car’s functions (in the case of the Model 3 and Model Y).

Every Tesla is connected to company headquarters by the internet, which allows Tesla to update each car’s control systems via over-the-air updates, or OTAs. When Consumer Reports complained about the brakes on the Model 3, Tesla didn’t require every car to visit a service center for repairs. It reprogrammed how the braking system worked. Problem solved.

A Tesla can entertain you by playing your favorite music on Spotify, showing movies while camping, or amusing passengers with computer-generated flatulence sounds. Woo-hoo! Could it get any better? Largely as a result of what Elon Musk started, Thomas Ulbrich, the head of R&D for Volkswagen Group, says the cars from his company will soon feature 300 million lines of computer code. “Software is the core and driver of our transformation.” he says. “The world used to be simple — a Beetle was just hardware. Our ID. models are more software than hardware.”

Which raises this question — if there was a “dumb” electric car that could get you to work and back economically with zero tailpipe emissions, would you buy it? Let’s alter that question slightly. What if that “dumb” car cost significantly less than a fully developed “car as computer” vehicle? Would you be willing to give up OTA updates, enormous touchscreens, and fart noises? This question occurred to me as I was reading this post by Atmosphere20 on the reddit EV forum this morning.

“Is there a market for ‘dumb’ EVs for people who don’t care that much about high-tech stuff? In a few years time when I’ll be looking for a new car, I’d like it to be an electric vehicle. I really dislike the idea of the company having a remote access to my car or its data and I have no interest whatsoever to link my smartphone or any other devices to my car (I spend most of my days in front of different screens, I don’t see the need for that in a car) . So essentially I’d like a ‘regular’ car with a regular key and the infotainment system is of no importance to me to be honest. I don’t mind functional features like parking sensors and stuff that is directly related to driving the car, but beyond that I don’t want anything that gathers user data. So I guess my question is whether the car companies are releasing any cars for people who don’t care about the high-tech stuff?”

The comments to that post suggest the Chevy Bolt, Fiat 500e, and Nissan LEAF are among the best options for those who don’t need their cars to be “connected” or “smart.” Careful readers will note those also tend to be among the least expensive EVs available in the North American market.

The downside of connectedness was driven home for me earlier today when my colleague Jo Borrás shared this tweet with us as we were all sitting around drinking Kombucha tea and noshing on gluten free baked pea pods. [Personally, I find this a little disconcerting. I spent a little time practicing law and repossessing a car in my state always required a court order. This tweet doesn’t mention anything about such legal niceties.]

smart car repo

Credit: Tesla Owners Utah via reddit.

Technology is amazing? Yeah, maybe for large corporations like Tesla. But is it amazing for someone who may have a pregnant wife or sick child that needs emergency medical attention? How many of you would come outside to find your car gone and think to yourself, “Wow, technology is so amazing?”

My Personal Viewpoint

Here’s what I think about this “cars as computers” stuff. I own a Tesla Model Y. I love the car, love the rapid acceleration, love the regenerative braking. I love the ride and the handling. I do not love the touchscreen or the computer geeks in Palo Alto messing with the location of the seat heater controls or preventing me from customizing the display to suit my needs and tastes.

I do not love the silly side camera video that blocks the traffic view and forces me to take eyes off the road to find it. I especially do not like it when the car tries to wrench the steering wheel out of my hands if I attempt to change lanes while Autopilot is engaged, something I could do with no drama in my “dumb” 2012 Honda Civic. Your view may be different. As the old expression goes, “Opinions are like noses. Everybody has one.”

From my perspective, I think there is a significant market for cars that are smarter than a Dodge Polara but dumber than the guidance system of a Falcon rocket, especially if they are substantially cheaper than cars with 300 million lines of computer code. I would very much like to hear your thoughts on this topic. Please share your view in the comments section below. Thanks!

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Written By

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new."


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