Low Marks for Hi Tech

Robert Farago
by Robert Farago
low marks for hi tech

Our main man Daniel Howes of the Detroit News recently asked 'what the Hell happened to mass customization"? Mass customization means building a product to a customer's exact specifications, then delivering it before they get pissed off. As the choice of three trim levels seems to satisfy most sheep– I mean people, I don't thing the Big Three's lack of a Dell-style manufacturing system is a major problem. But the wider point is well taken. When will the auto industry wake up and realize that it's the 21st century?

The continued existence of The North American International Auto Show is the best example of carmakers' inability to accept and accommodate the enormous technological changes that have swept society. Let's face it: it's a dead show walking. Why would anyone other than industry-types on expense accounts fight the crowds, eat horrendous food and PAY to look at a parked car when they can see the same machine driving on their desktop? Besides, by the time Detroit's Cobo Center opens its doors to the frozen throngs, more than 75% of the new cars on display have already debuted in electronic/photographic form.

As well they should. With over 60 new models appearing each year, unveiling dozens of new cars in a single three-day window makes no sense whatsoever. It's like Ben & Jerry's, Hagen Daz, and Baskin & Robbins all announcing their new flavors on the fourth of July weekend. In the multi-media millennium, an actual physical auto show is an expensive, inefficient anachronism. Enthusiasts are sated; civilians are jaded.

The car industry's inability to utilize the web effectively as a sales tool is another example of their lack of contemporary thinking. All the carmakers' websites present a staggering array of product and let the customer have at it. Surfers can research a potential purchase, but the information is devoid of context, warmth or individualization. There's no interactive element recognizing the customer's particular needs and guiding them through the options. No wonder the majority of surfer-buyers peel off to edmunds.com for a better idea of a car's suitability and actual price.

Electronic after-sales contact is just as old fashioned– in the sense that there isn't any. Study after study shows that car buyers want MORE dealer contact, not less. Yet there's no email follow-up to see if drivers know how to operate their car's toys, or to advise them when retrofitted options become available. There's no customer-specific information timed to coincide with usage patterns: winter driving tips, summer vacation planning assistance, trade-in time depreciation updates, etc. There's only… silence.

Computers can keep track of a huge number of buying preferences and behaviors. There's an ever-increasing number of ways to interact with customers: telephone, websites, email, direct mail, text messaging, CD-ROMs and more. But carmakers can't seem to put all these elements together to increase customer satisfaction and loyalty. They act as if the new media is the old media, and put on lingerie competitions at sporting events.

Service departments have also neglected the possibilities inherent in the new technology. With the advent of GPS and on-board telemetries, it's amazing that the dealers' most profitable division still waits for their customers' cars to break down, or for their patrons to remember when it's time for service. Even discounting remote interrogation, surely there's an algorithm that can predict what will go wrong with a customer's car before it occurs, taking into account the customer's probable (or actual) driving habits and nationwide, model-specific service patterns.

And finally, the cars themselves show an inexplicable reluctance to evolve towards modern sensibilities. Computer interfaces like BMW's iDrive and Audi's MMI controllers seem to reflect a cutting edge hi-tech ethos. In fact, these awkward devices betray a stunning ignorance of simple ergonomics, requiring unacceptable physical, visual and mental diversion from the mission critical task of driving. What happened to the kind of thinking that led to the gentle red light glowing over a BMW's dash or GM's heads-up display? We don't need more technology, we need BETTER technology.

The obvious way to conclude this rant is to talk about supertanker turning circles, dinosaur brains and the possibility of smaller, faster car companies taking over from the large, unwieldy ones. But I won't go there. Instead, I refer you to America's gigantic after-market tuning industry. These guys build to suit, party with their customers and innovate on a daily basis. If Danny wants to know where to find mass customization, he could do worse than to watch Pimp My Ride.

Join the conversation
  • Brett Woods My 4-Runner had a manual with the 4-cylinder. It was acceptable but not really fun. I have thought before that auto with a six cylinder would have been smoother, more comfortable, and need less maintenance. Ditto my 4 banger manual Japanese pick-up. Nowhere near as nice as a GM with auto and six cylinders that I tried a bit later. Drove with a U.S. buddy who got one of the first C8s. He said he didn't even consider a manual. There was an article about how fewer than ten percent of buyers optioned a manual in the U.S. when they were available. Visited my English cousin who lived in a hilly suburb and she had a manual Range Rover and said she never even considered an automatic. That's culture for you.  Miata, Boxster, Mustang, Corvette and Camaro; I only want manual but I can see both sides of the argument for a Mustang, Camaro or Challenger. Once you get past a certain size and weight, cruising with automatic is a better dynamic. A dual clutch automatic is smoother, faster, probably more reliable, and still allows you to select and hold a gear. When you get these vehicles with a high performance envelope, dual-clutch automatic is what brings home the numbers. 
  • ToolGuy 2019 had better comments than 2023 😉
  • Inside Looking Out In June 1973, Leonid Brezhnev arrived in Washington for his second summit meeting with President Richard Nixon. Knowing of the Soviet leader’s fondness for luxury automobiles, Nixon gave him a shiny Lincoln Continental. Brezhnev was delighted with the present and insisted on taking a spin around Camp David, speeding through turns while the president nervously asked him to slow down. https://academic.oup.com/dh/article-abstract/42/4/548/5063004
  • Bobby D'Oppo Great sound and smooth power delivery in a heavier RWD or AWD vehicle is a nice blend, but current V8 pickup trucks deliver an unsophisticated driving experience. I think a modern full-size pickup could be very well suited to a manual transmission.In reality, old school, revvy atmo engines pair best with manual transmissions because it's so rewarding to keep them in the power band on a winding road. Modern turbo engines have flattened the torque curve and often make changing gears feel more like a chore.
  • Chuck Norton For those worried about a complex power train-What vehicle doesn't have one? I drive a twin turbo F-150 (3.5) Talk about complexity.. It seems reliability based on the number of F-150s sold is a non-issue. As with many other makes/models. I mean how many operations are handle by micro processors...in today's vehicles?