This coming weekend I will become 36 years old, distressingly sweeping me into the ‘late’ thirties bracket – an age that I remember my parents being just five minutes or so ago. While I know that many of you have a good few years on me, and that I still fall into the ‘what does a young buck like him know about anything’ category for some, I still know how it feels to watch far younger folk snapping at my heels and stealing a march on me when it comes to progress.
Progress. Moving on. Developing. I love to do it, I love to see it. But in so, so many ways, I hate to experience it. I’ve just bought a new DSLR – after eleven years and 28,597 shutter actuations I felt it was time to upgrade from a 6.1 megapixel Nikon D50 to something only a few years out of date, and as soon as it came out of its crisp new box I was already finding things I don’t like about my new D5300. Buyer’s remorse immediately hit me, and I was starkly reminded of the sacrifices I’ll be forced to make if I ever have to buy a new car.
I’m lucky enough that I get to write about cars for a living. My paid duty is to read and learn, to experience and report on developments at the bleeding edge of vehicle technology, and I enjoy it immensely. The car industry is bursting with ideas right now – not all of them terribly good, of course, but every single one is interesting in its own small way. And, although many of the advances made every day are buried beneath the surface – involving processes that the driver really doesn’t need to get involved with up to and including how the thing is fuelled in the first place – the changes that we all notice on cars involve how we interact with them.
Before we go any further it’s interesting to first consider the Boeing 737. Boeing’s first short-range twin-engined jet airliner first flew 50 years ago this month, and was soon found to be so fit for purpose that its appearance has barely changed today. Of course, todays product of the same name has virtually no parts commonality with the original, and has been aerodynamically tweaked in the intervening years, but the 737 of ’67 is every bit as much of a 737 as today’s version is today. It’s just that today’s version has evolved to suit our present requirements.
I reckon cars are doing a similar thing today. Although fashions are fickle things and retro-charm is hungrily bought and devoured by millions, it’s still a remarkable coincidence that today’s Mustang and Camaro have reverted to forms so close to their progenitors of half a century ago. Of course, nostalgia has to play a big part in things, and a 50 year anniversary is well worth celebrating, too. But the appearance of today’s Mustang and Camaro, and the Beetle and Fiat 500 all go to show that the shape of the car was pretty well optimised as far back as 50 years ago.
So, it could be argued that the fundamental concept of the car was firmly established by ’67, and all we’ve been doing since is optimising it. We’ve made it safer, reduced its fuel consumption, experimented with and adopted different ways to power it, and now we’re exploring new ways to make it more functional. Pretty soon, we’re promised,while travelling we’ll be able to concentrate on far more worthwhile things now we can dismiss the chore of having to drive (end of autonomy discussion for this week). Right now, more than anything, it’s the way we interact with our cars that seems to be occupying the world’s designers 24/7.
Side by side, my new Nikon D5300 bears an obvious resemblance to my old D50. They’re both cameras, after all, and the SLR’s visual form has been firmly established since, well, about 1967. Naturally, beneath the surface the specification of the new is wildly more advanced than the old, but it’s when you come to interact with it that you notice where the details are – and many of them are remarkably reflective of the differences between an eleven year old car and one you’ll buy from the same brand today. To whit – more complicated systems dressed up as offering ‘greater sophistication’.
The old camera had a monochrome LCD adjacent to the shutter release, bearing simply presented detail on flash status, exposures remaining, white balance and autofocus mode in such a way as it was easily read while the camera dangled around your neck. On the new camera, the same information is displayed in glorious colour, on a crisp, high-resolution screen that can fold out from the back – but which saps battery, isn’t permanently visible and can’t be seen as it dangles from your neck.
As with the D5300, today’s cars are ever more feature packed, and this in itself isn’t a bad thing, but development is happening at a pace far beyond that which drivers are actually demanding. As with mobile phones, in order to keep the market buoyant, the R&D divisions are endlessly trotting out new and exciting features the likes of which consumers had never dreamt of, to ensure that the latest and greatest model is worth buying. I fell for it, too.
In 2015 I decided that the unreliable battery life of my then two-year old Samsung Galaxy Note made it worth my while upgrading to something new. Not feeling the gaudy design of the Galaxy Note two, I plumped for the HTC M8 and almost immediately found things about it that I didn’t like. There were certain features I had gotten used to with the Note that the M8, a flagship at the time, didn’t have. There were also new features on the M8 that I didn’t, and still don’t, see the point of. In April this year, my 24-month EE cell contract having expired in January, after a protracted search of the current state of the art, I decided that there isn’t a single phone out there better at being a phone than my HTC, so I enlisted for a further 12 months on a SIM-only deal.
You can beat the system with phones. When it’s time to upgrade, you can drop down to a cheaper SIM-only contract and sit the next round of product developments out until it’s time to get back into the game. Unlike cars, after the £35 monthly charge for 24 months, you actually own your phone outright. At the end of the contract, to keep using your phone, all you have to pay is line rental and call charges. If you buy a car for £450 a month on a PCP, 36 months later you face Hobson’s choice – either you roll into another round of similarly steep monthlies on a car with all manner of new eccentricities just for the sake of change – or you hand it back in and have no car at all. Come the end of your PCP and you have to make a sharp decision on what to drive for the next three years – and if the perfect car for you hasn’t been introduced, you’re panic driven to choose a car to fill the void.
If you want to stay up to date, the user has to evolve as fast as the car. In three years time, you may need to learn an entirely new user interface, come to terms with a whole new raft of driver ‘aids’, and many of these will be things that just ‘come with the car’, rather than features you have deliberately sought out. To stay current, you’ve got to accept and embrace whatever fickle trends are in vogue when the car you choose is signed off.
As far as I’m concerned, the only gainful way to fight obsolescence is to embrace it. I continue to be fascinated and entertained by the speed of automotive development, but I’m more than happy to cover it from the perspective of a travel journalist – wonderful to visit but not quite home. Meanwhile, my old Rover, with its circa 8-second 0-60mph time is still at least on nodding terms with popular cars of today, and is immune from the ravages of depreciation and finance. You’ll have to prize the keys from my cold, dead fingers.
(All images Chris Haining / Hooniverse)