Please Stop: Toyota Design Head Envisions Future Without Mass-market Automobiles
It’s starting to feel like people in the automotive industry simply cannot help but blurt out ludicrous claims involving a hypothetical future nobody on the outside seems to care about. These people, in charge of the the automobile’s ultimate form, appear to be so singularly obsessed with the vague concept of “mobility” that they can’t imagine any other alternative.
This week’s example came from Simon Humphries, the new general manager of Toyota’s advanced R&D, who mused about a tomorrow that didn’t need mass-market models. However, we’re not satisfied to condemn the design chief. Media outlets deserve a share of the blame for promoting these concepts without much logical backing.
Reuters, which quoted Humphries as saying “there will be an emotional solution, and a practical solution [for transport]. So maybe the story is that the middle ground is increasingly going to disappear,” also referenced an industry being transformed by the onslaught of electrification, automation, and other new technologies.
While new technologies, including semi-autonomous features and hybrid powertrains, are indeed being implemented in mainstream models, let’s not forget that true autonomy remains in its infancy, and is still years away — even in the most optimistic of circumstances. Also, the supposed “onslaught of electrification” Reuters described has not yet been eagerly adopted by the general populace.
Many have speculated that EV sales would wither and fall off like an umbilical cord separated from the mother were it not for federal subsidies. Last year, Edmunds cited a case study where Georgia stopped offering a $5,000 tax credit for zero-emission vehicles (in addition to the $7,500 U.S. federal subsidy) in July of 2015. Electric vehicle sales, which were previously the second-highest in the country, immediately plummeted, never rebounding to pre-2015 levels.
While EV sales were up by around 25 percent in the U.S. last year, all metrics used to tabulate that data lump battery-only EVs and plug-in hybrids together. But purely electric vehicle sales aren’t strong. Tesla remains the largest battery-electric car manufacturer in the United States by far, but the brand still only moves a couple thousand models per month. It hopes to improve that number once Model 3 production ramps up, but Ford will still average tens of thousands of F-Series truck sales in the same timeframe.
Meanwhile, back in fantasy land, Humphries is imagining a future where Toyota fields fleets of electric, self-driving shuttle bus-like vehicles that totally eliminate the need for people to drive themselves around on a daily basis. “On one side we’re going to see this optimized
Wouldn’t the complete elimination of mainstream automobile sales be bad for a company that is famous for providing exactly that? That’s not to suggest Toyota can’t make an exciting automobile, but the Corolla became the best-selling car in the world (by historical standards) in 2013. Likewise, the Corolla, Civic, and Accord still did pretty well in North America last year.
Maybe Humphries is talking way down the line, referencing a time when the autonomous revolution has fully taken hold and consumers are happy to putter around in shared nondescript boxes ( like Toyota’s e-Palette concept) or splurge on extravagant personal conveyances. At the very least, he seems to believe that self-driving electrics will be a game-changer for vehicle design — eliminating the need for steering wheels, large engines, fuel tanks and other traditional components.
“At the moment everything in a car from a design point of view is based on a 100-year old package — engine in the front, and a driver holding a steering wheel behind,” he said. “When you don’t have to hold a steering wheel, the world is your oyster.”
Perhaps in terms of design, but the world doesn’t feel like your oyster when you submit control over to a machine. There’s nothing liberating about about autonomous pods. Riding the bus isn’t an experience to be savored and neither will being slotted in traffic behind dozens of other shared vehicles that look and feel exactly the same as yours.
We know automakers are frantically looking for solutions for this hypothetical future where nobody buys cars anymore, a future which we should mention is almost entirely of their own design. But it’s not real, at least not yet. They’ve become so obsessed with additional revenue streams, side businesses, and totally changing the formula, they’ve forgotten that most regular people just want a dependable personal transport they can enjoy. A steering wheel, a radio, and maybe a couple of cool things the previous model didn’t have is all most people are asking for.
Sure, when someone does figure out how to deliver a truly autonomous vehicle, that company will have a distinct advantage over the competition. But why does that automatically mean everyone will want to stop driving or owning their own car? Keep working on building a better automobile. Slot in all the electrification you can manage if that makes you happy. Just, please, stop talking about this bullshit destiny the industry is forcing upon itself and the rest of us. If it happens, then it happens. But we’ll cross that bridge when we get to it.
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