Cars keep getting smarter. Do they have to look so boring?
By Farhad Manjoo
A product manager at Mercedes once told me that he expected to see more changes in cars and the car business in the next 20 years than we’ve seen in the past 75. That was 6 1/2 years ago, and so far, his prediction has been spot on; I struggle to think of a consumer business now undergoing a more total transformation than what’s happening in automobiles.
The first revolution is electrification. Encouraged by environmental regulations and accelerated by competition from Elon Musk’s electric car juggernaut, Tesla, much of the industry plans to abandon its defining technology, the gas-powered engine, in favor of electric motors and batteries.
Then there’s autonomous driving. While the fully self-driving car remains far off, many cars are beginning to pick up the routine drudgeries and avoid the sudden catastrophes of your daily commute. Cars can brake for pedestrians, change lanes and keep pace with other cars on the road, even in stop-and-go traffic. Some, like models bearing General Motors’ Super Cruise system, don’t even require you to keep a hand on the wheel.
And finally, in another trend shaped by Tesla, cars are turning into smartphones on wheels. They come packed with gigantic touch-screens and loads of cameras and can gain features through updates over the internet. The electric car startup Fisker recently unveiled a model, the Ocean SUV, that carries a monstrous 17.1-inch screen on its dash that can be rotated into “Hollywood mode” — horizontal orientation for watching movies and playing video games while the car is parked.
With so much change going on in the car business, I’d been looking forward to visiting the Los Angeles Auto Show, one of the world’s largest. But it wasn’t long after arriving on the show floor late last year that I began to feel — how to put this delicately? — bored out of my mind.
Cars may be undergoing huge changes on the inside, but you wouldn’t know it to look at them. Everywhere I turned at the show, I saw the same basic vehicle, a selection as bland and monotonous as a supermarket’s TV dinner aisle.
Car enthusiasts have been complaining about homogeneity for decades, but the problem seems to have grown dire. Most cars at the show looked like most others in their categories, and because Americans have converged on a very narrow range of auto categories, the sameness felt oppressive and, ultimately, quite sad. Cars were once a playground for aesthetic experimentation, a showcase for the world’s most inventive and daring industrial designers. Now they really are like smartphones; every new iPhone is only a slight evolution from the last one, and so is every new car.
“Compared to how crazy the stuff is that’s happening in the tech world of cars, it’s bizarre how much they all look the same,” said Doug DeMuro, who hosts an excellent car review YouTube channel.
The sameness may be a product of a trend that has roiled the industry since the 1990s: the steady sales growth in SUVs and crossovers, the smaller cousins of SUVs that are built more like cars than trucks, and the decline of passenger vehicles, including sedans, hatchbacks and wagons.
Today the majority of vehicles sold in America are crossovers or SUVs, and pickups have also long been popular. Aesthetically, the pickups are nearly indistinguishable from one another. Even Ford’s new F-150 Lightning, the electric version of the longtime best-selling vehicle in America, looks pretty much like every other pickup on the road.
The SUVs, and crossovers, meanwhile, come in two basic shapes: boxes and bubbles. The boxes are the SUVs, which range from huge (Jeep Grand Cherokee, Ford Explorer) to really huge (Chevy Tahoe, Ford Expedition). The bubbles are the crossovers, whose sales have shot up over the past couple of decades.
Until a few years ago, the Toyota Camry sedan was the best-selling passenger car in the United States, a position it had held for nearly two decades. The Camry has since been dethroned by a bubble.
As of October, Toyota’s RAV-4 crossover was the nation’s best-selling nontruck passenger vehicle of the year. Honda’s similar-looking CR-V is just behind it. Automakers have been backing away from sedans. In 2018, Ford said it would stop making sedans for the U.S. market.
Collectively, SUVs and crossovers will account for nearly 55% of vehicles sold in America in 2021, according to Stephanie Brinley, an automotive analyst at the market research firm IHS Markit. Pickups are projected to make up an additional 18.4% of the market. In other words, almost 3 out of every 4 passenger vehicles sold this year were trucks, crossovers or SUVs.
There are many forces pushing for sameness. Constraints imposed by safety regulations and aerodynamics have left car companies little room for experimental designs. The bigger constraint is what customers want — vehicles with roomy interiors that ride high, with the feel of a living room, or perhaps a throne.
Brinley and others in the car industry expect consumer preferences to stick even as everything else about cars changes. A very popular Tesla vehicle is the Model Y, a pretty traditional-looking crossover. When Ford decided to put up a strong rival to Tesla, it, too, went with a crossover: the new Mustang Mach-E, which looks much like the Model Y and nothing like any Mustang that Ford ever made before. By 2025, Brinley predicts, SUVs and crossovers will account for 59% of sales, and pickups almost 20% — meaning that 4 out of every 5 cars sold will be pickups, bubbles or boxes.
I have written often of my love-hate relationship with cars. I love cars as products; I hate them as infrastructure. I love watching the car industry for its dynamism, its technological innovation and the way it has anticipated and altered the public’s aesthetic preferences; I hate the industry for the way it has dominated politics and urban planning, for the way it has billed its products as a necessary part of modern life.
But every year the product side of cars offers less to love. The industry’s biggest innovations are now driven by Silicon Valley — by advances in batteries, cameras, networks and artificial intelligence. Cars are growing brains, and I’m glad for it. I just wish they weren’t also losing heart, soul and personality.