By on February 15, 2018


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 [transport] system, but on the other side you’re going to see a pure race car,” he explained.

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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22 Comments on “Please Stop: Toyota Design Head Envisions Future Without Mass-market Automobiles...”

  • avatar

    They don’t want to be Sears to Tesla’s Amazon.

  • avatar

    “But why does that automatically mean everyone will want to stop driving”

    When people have the choice to surf the internet, sleep, catch up on Game of Thrones, etc. you think they are going to opt to drive?

    • 0 avatar

      No they won’t, but consumer sovereignty has limitations. Banks won’t approve loans people can’t pay back. Government won’t allow people to operate or purchase items for which they are not authorized or licensed.

      In this instance, we have a question of agency. Should humanity be allowed to cede all motorized forms of transportation to machines, simply because someone tells them they can watch game of thrones?

      Some people see auto travel as a critical check on the power of public sector transportation unions. What will be the check on corporate/government control over human transportation? How do you ensure national security in a transportation paradigm where hackers could drive government officials or corporate leaders into oncoming traffic? How do you secure the satellites and software necessary for the systems to work? Will automated cars have backdoors for intelligence agencies like everything else on earth?

      There are many questions. People are taught to regurgitate instead.

    • 0 avatar

      Agreed. Evidence of this is the frequency of slob driving. Not aggressive or reckless. Just lazy, careless and inept. People yap on the phone or text so that their time isn’t entirely “wasted” during the trip.

  • avatar

    “the new general manager of Toyota’s advanced R&D”

    Seriously, what do you expect this guy to talk about, MPGs, or 0 to 60 times? He’s paid to look far out into the future and to get ready for it.

    “There’s nothing liberating about autonomous pods”

    Ask the people on the bus and subway. Ask the elderly unable to drive anymore. Ask the 2 working adult families trying to get multiple kids to multiple activities on opposite sides of town.

    • 0 avatar
      Matt Posky

      I ride the subway and take city busses during rush hour. It’s crowded, smells bad, runs infrequently during prime drinking hours, and often skips the stops I need. The only upshot is I don’t have to spend time finding parking or deal with traffic jams.

      My mother has lost the ability to drive. I asked what she thought about autonomous cars. She described them as scary in concept and unhelpful — as she doubted she’d be able to navigate the technology if her life depended upon it. “It’s too new,” she said. “I think it will probably be more useful for young lazy people who grew up using computers.”

      I asked a family with three children if they would ever use autonomous cars to take their children to various sporting events. Their response: “Leave my children alone? Maybe if they were teenagers but I’d never even consider doing something like that when they were under twelve. It’s also nice to be a family. It’s hard to organize everyone’s schedule but it’s possible. We just wouldn’t be comfortable with it, even if it seemed safe.”

      Okay. I asked for you.

      • 0 avatar

        Funny, but my fellow train riders think that a self driving pod to get them from the station to their office 10 blocks away when it’s snowing sounds good.

        And my father-in-law who can’t drive anymore thinks that it would be a lot easier getting to his doctors appointments with a pod than always having to make his kids schedule their time around his appointments.

        And the couple next door agree that they would never put 12 year old Billy in a pod to his soccer game (they want to watch him play anyway), but it would be nice to have the pod option for 15 year old Kirsten who needs to be at band practice at the same time but can’t drive yet so Mom has to drive her and miss the start of the soccer game.

        Pods aren’t sexy like sports cars but they would get the job done when it’s not the journey that counts, it’s the destination.

  • avatar

    The auto industry is a semi-corrupt oligopoly operating in a capital-intensive environment that has been fighting against commodification for decades. If not for industry collusion, evolving regulatory mandates, and economic signaling games, the automobile would have reverted to the Model T paradigm or VW Beetle paradigm of affordable mobility. We don’t shop in that kind of auto industry, and despite occasional saber-rattling by Nissan, no one actually wants to start a price war. Instead, we buy cars in an industry desperate to convince investors and creditors that consumers are willing to spend billions and billions of dollars on stuff they already have on their cellphone. They also want to convince regulators will keep spending money; therefore, jobs will be plentiful; therefore, give all the taxpayer dollars to Company X.

    Also, as this publication is aware, most of the media is an infomercial. Someone has a narrative, and the pay media outlets and media personalities to push it. This goes for virtually all media. Therefore, the problem for free-thinkers is that they must genuflect to whatever falsehoods are pushed in the media, otherwise they will be relentlessly attacked by the media contractors hired to seed the narrative. Their company will be inundated with emails from disgruntled bots. Picketers will show up at HQ. Business media will start questioning the efficacy of their stock and business plan. Eventually, whoever is doing the disagreeing will be dismissed for rocking the boat. Naturally, people regurgitate the inane BS that permeates throughout the media and the industry.

    Finally, someone will benefit monetarily and/or politically from the paradigm shift. These are likely the same people seeding the narrative. Switching to automated cars will require new suppliers, new regulations, and it will give certain organizations unimaginable power to control the who, when, where, what, etc. of travel. Government wants this power. Corporations want this power. Businesses want people to pay usage fees or regular monthly access fees rather than unpredictable periodic purchases. Everybody is on board, except that one renegade who’s about to lose his corner office for good.

    This is the world we live in sadly.

    • 0 avatar
      Matt Posky

      This is an incredibly bleak but wildly comprehensive comment. Good show.

    • 0 avatar
      Menar Fromarz

      Oh, but I for one am REALLY getting tired of the dystopian future for the auto, and quite frankly I just wish they would just STF up about it. I like cars, trucks, bikes etc just fine, I like driving, and I would rather hear from this “future guru” that Toyota is going to design fun vehicles that DONT look like the back end of my dog as she is trying to pinch a loaf. I mean, useful “future speak”. Everything isn’t about rational practicality or some other such metric that is smeared as some form gospel all over the toast of life.

    • 0 avatar
      Bill Wade

      “Businesses want people to pay usage fees or regular monthly access fees rather than unpredictable periodic purchases.”

      It’s already happening in the business telephone system market. You own the hardware but you’re forever beholden to license fees just so it will work.

  • avatar

    If thre are no mass-market vehicles in the future, then Toyota won’t be selling any cars with mismatched wheels, tire tread w ere the window should be, a gaping hole instead of a roof, and a white floor that will look dingy as soon as the first occupant gets in the vehicle.

  • avatar

    Government control is easily subverted by riding an electric bike on a sidewalk at low speed, higher in a bike lane.

    • 0 avatar

      We have two vacation trips planned for this summer. The short one is 300 miles and the long one 1,200. Unless the government installs license plate readers along the way, they won’t know where we are. Try covering that kind of distance on your electric bicycle.

      • 0 avatar
        el scotto

        Be sure to bring a fist full of dollars and leave your cell phone at your house. Yep, your cell phone location and debit/credit card usage can be tracked. Until your cell phone debit/credit card data becomes marketable, no one will care.

  • avatar
    DC Bruce

    Amen to that!

    I wonder if the Toyota visionary can see into a future where not every vehicle is a visually undistinguishable “SUV”? I was fortunate to grow up in the late 1950s and 1960s. The cars of that era exhibited an incredible diversity; and when the Europeans came in, it was even more diverse.

    Now, they’re boring as white toilet paper. Commodification has come to the auto industry; the overwhelming consumer preference for SUVs (admittedly, they are the most practical at transporting people and stuff) is evidence of that.

    Obviously, at the margin, there are a handful of sports cars and exotics — but those are, for the most part, playthings of the rich.

    I’m as guilty as the next guy: the family vehicle is a Honda Pilot. Although owning a pickup (purchased for towing a travel trailer) has been great fun and slots me into an entirely different demographic. I need a bumper sticker for the truck that says “My Previous Car was a BMW.” That would really shake ’em up.

  • avatar

    At present, SAAR is what? 16.5 million? Of which electric vehicles are a rounding error? So let’s say 16 million vehicles a year, 48 working weeks a year, 6 working days a week, 20 working hours a day…. about 2,800 new vehicles per hour, or around 46 a minute.

    All of them combustion, all of them manually driven.

    I’m not saying he’s wrong in the very long term, but there’s a little time yet in the old ways.

  • avatar

    If people want to use the AV pods then I hope they get them and it makes all their dreams come true.

    My only fear is that when the pods do come, I will no longer be legally allowed to manually operating a car or motorcycle outside of a race track or the city’s “Olden Days” parade.

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