Less of a Machine, More of a Pal

Imagine the value of a car that, thanks to an exclusive multi-year partnership, autonomously drives past Dunkin’ Donuts and heads straight for Starbucks when you say, “Leaf, get me a coffee.” Or, a car in which Nissan Pay replaces Samsung Pay or Apple Pay and takes a piece of the action.

The car of the future will be needy and unnerving, and will lack comic timing.

The Volkswagen I.D. Buzz concept.

January is not kind to cars in southeastern Michigan. The state’s well-funded highway department throws so much salt onto the roads that even a short commute can lead to hypertension. Michigan encourages the heaviest trucks to pass through, and they blow holes in the concrete. The state is cold and damp, and not kind to people, either. Beginning in November, the light goes as flat as the landscape, blurry as in a nightmare. Things just can’t seem to come into focus until you blink awake in April. So winter seems like an odd time and Michigan an odd place to show off new cars. Yet every January, Detroit hosts the North American International Auto Show. It is the premier show, the first of the calendar year.

When multi-hyphenate CEO Carlos Ghosn (rhymes with “phone”) took the stage for his keynote speech at the NAIAS, he discounted the “tough weather conditions” (low of sixteen, high of twenty-nine), which was gracious and generous of him. The venue was the show’s aut˙öMobili-D section, a name that bears some attention, in part because I find it impossible to type.1 Vaguely pan-European, aut˙öMobili-D is a form of overcompensation: Detroit wants to prove that it is no longer cut off from the world, like Kane’s Xanadu mansion, and is, instead, a cosmopolitan home of the global car business. There’s a whiff of Marinetti’s futurism to the umlaut’s extra dot, too, perhaps because the bounds of language can no longer contain the violently disruptive dynamism of the new age. The auto industry needed a whole new word to convey its excitement about the future.

Ghosn himself is global without even trying—he’s a human aut˙öMobili-D. He runs not one but three allied automakers: Nissan, Renault, and Mitsubishi. Together they build more than 10 percent of the ninety million vehicles sold annually worldwide. He is Lebanese by birth, was raised in Brazil, and spent his salad days in Europe. He speaks several languages. Yet on this occasion he was dressed less like a globetrotting CEO and more like a Wayne State University sociology professor. He stood at a Plexiglas podium, his backdrop a purple Windows desktop, minus the Recycling Bin icon. The future, Ghosn said, would be electric, connected, and autonomous. He described how automakers generally and Nissan in particular were ready for that future, though he didn’t really get into specifics in the parsimoniously allotted seven minutes. During the brief Q&A that followed, Ghosn was asked the same questions he gets all the time, so he gave the same answers he gives all the time. Whatever wacky regulations the Republicans come up with, we will adapt. No matter what the future holds, we will have to keep the customer engaged. It was, on the whole, a good speech and a good Q&A, though it was a bit like seeing a show off-off-Broadway after having just seen it in on the Great White Way.

A week earlier, when Ghosn took the stage for the keynote presentation at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, there was little need to comment on the weather. It was sixty and clear, perfect for a man dressed in the tieless suit uniform of a world-conquering industry leader. In any case, the 2.5 million square feet of exhibition space at CES has its own weather. Ghosn jumped right in. The CES, he said, had in recent years begun to resemble a motor show, and more and more, motor shows were starting to resemble the tech show. Two cars flanked the billboard-sized video display behind him; the one at stage right could talk. For three quarters of an hour, Ghosn and his colleagues put on a performance. It wasn’t quite Broadway, but there was a bit of vaudevillian shtick to the production. Ghosn turned the stage over to Ogi Redzik, the company’s head of Connected Vehicles and Mobility Services, who had to play straight man to the talking car. The car tried to seduce him by throwing open her doors, sucking in her steering wheel, and popping out her big beautiful display screen. She wanted him inside her so she could whisk him away. This was weird, and when this approach failed, the car changed tacks. She publicly shamed poor Redzik. She revealed that he had skipped his speech rehearsal to binge-watch Game of Thrones. When he finally figured out that all she wanted was for him to take her in to get serviced, the spell was broken. The car of the future, it was suggested, will be needy and unnerving, and will lack comic timing.

According to Ghosn’s speech—a fuller treatment of his talk at NAIAS—the triumvirate of autonomy, ultra-high-speed internet access, and electrification will create a new business to supplement or even supplant the business of selling cars. Ghosn drew on analysts’ predictions that by 2030, 15 percent of new cars sold would be fully autonomous and 25 percent of new cars sold in urban areas would be electric. That combination of electric vehicles, autonomous driving capabilities, and a fat data pipe that runs both to and through the car itself, will erase the very idea of the car as a space distinct from the office or the home. The car of the future will be both. For now, though, Americans still have the freedom to choose a third way. We remain a nation of drivers.

To drive a car is to be neither at work nor at leisure (assuming that time spent playing Mobile Strike or checking Facebook notifications can be considered leisure). Consider a trip to the grocery store. You shut down your computer to climb into the car. You pilot it to the store. You do your shopping. You then get back into the car and drive home for a dinner of freshly bought groceries that you eat while playing Mobile Strike. In the aut˙öMobili-D years ahead you will continue working while being transported to the store, and you’ll begin playing Mobile Strike VIII on the ride home. You will become, in Ghosn’s telling, “a person in space.” That space will be undifferentiated, the middle ground of driving having been fully colonized by production and consumption.

Electrification may seem unrelated to connectivity and autonomy, but Ghosn doesn’t think so. That’s why he talked not about Nissan’s popular models, but a car that has accounted for less than .04 percent of the company’s global volume since its debut. Nissan has sold just 250,000 all-electric Leafs since the model was introduced seven years ago, yet that seemingly paltry figure makes it the bestselling highway-capable electric car in the world. Electric cars are far more environmentally friendly than their gas-guzzling cousins, and they have plenty of other benefits that make them appealing. But one thing they may need—rather urgently—is a new business model. For over 100 years, carmakers have made money by selling cars to people who own them for a few years and then sell them on until they end up as scrap. That model does not seem to be working for electrics. Surprisingly, given the current reign of climate denialists, the US has been pushing hard for electric vehicles. Ten states, led by California and accounting for 28 percent of all new car sales in the country, require large-volume manufacturers to sell Zero Emission Vehicles (ZEVs). The rules are set to get tougher in 2018, requiring more sales from more manufacturers, among other changes.

Yet climate change warriors may have met their match in the gasoline car culture. The website Leasehackr (sic) calculates that California buyers earning less than $35,000 a year can lease an electric Ford Focus or a Chevrolet Spark EV essentially for free (higher-income buyers only pay a bit more). Those leases exist because the automakers need to move the battery-powered metal if they want to keep selling high-profit trucks and SUVs. Ford earns over $13,000 on the average F1-50 it sells. Fiat Chrysler chairman Sergio Marchionne begged people not to buy the Fiat 500e “because every time I sell one it costs me $14,000.” Tesla, the most famous electric carmaker, is now valued higher than General Motors. It does not turn a profit. Even the California Air Resources Board admits that it has been a struggle, and things are much better there than anywhere else. Gas prices may spike, EV prices might plummet, but until then, carmakers are desperate to find a way to sell ZEVs for profit. They need a new business model: Mobility as a Service (MaaS).

MaaS depends upon autonomy and connectivity. If people can be convinced to buy mobility rather than automobiles—to pay by the mile, rather by the vehicle—the company locks in an enormous revenue stream on that vehicle throughout its useful life. The time freed up from driving will be spent working and playing through that fat data pipe. It’s time that can be monetized.

Imagine the value of a car that, thanks to an exclusive multi-year partnership, autonomously drives past Dunkin’ Donuts and heads straight for Starbucks when you say, “Leaf, get me a coffee.” Or, a car in which Nissan Pay replaces Samsung Pay or Apple Pay and takes a piece of the action. Imagine what Apple Pay would . . . well, pay to have its platform seamlessly integrated into a vehicle. Whether Nissan will be the supplicant and Apple the almsgiver, or vice versa, remains to be seen. Thus the car’s transition from low margin hunk of metal to consumer electronic gizmo with margins in the stratosphere. Nissan, Renault, and all the rest hope they can realize the stock multiples enjoyed by Apple, Google, and Microsoft. They too want to feel Wall Street’s love.

I’m still trying to figure out how MaaS is different from, say, “trolley ticket,” but then I’m not as young as I used to be. In my day, getting a driver’s license was a nearly universal rite of passage, like body hair or acne. Today, only half of America’s 17-year-olds have a license, and many report that they don’t expect to acquire one. Like the mobs at the CES, they love gizmos more than wheels. Brandon Schoettle and his colleague Michael Sivak, psychologists and researchers at the University of Michigan’s Transportation Research Institute, have been trying to figure out why. Their conclusion? Schoettle says they’re still not sure. Asking kids directly has proved a bit unsatisfying. The top reason they give is that they are too busy to get a license. But, if you’ve ever tried to ask that lovely girl or nice boy in the next cubicle out on a date, you know that “too busy” is code for “I’m just not that into you.”

The kids also say, more plausibly, that they can just get someone else to drive them. If I find myself, in twenty years’ time, doing odd jobs on Mechanical Turk for cents an hour while being shuttled around in an autonomous Honda, I’ll blame these kids’ parents, which is to say myself. We chauffeur our children everywhere as those same children stare at their phones. Nothing is inevitable. Some of the kids told the researchers that they prefer to walk or use public transportation. Others worry about the environment. Each answer begs a question, but that’s beyond Schoettle and Sivak’s purview. Suffice it to say that with each new generation, the transition from driver to passenger takes another step forward.

But never mind: there are 90 million millennials—the biggest generation of customers ever! That’s why Toyota chose to debut its Concept-i at CES, rather than in Detroit. “Less of a machine,” its slogan runs. “More of a pal.” Your pal’s name is Yui, the Toyota artificial intelligence system that will “enhance the relationship between car and driver.” Faux-wood paneling, landau roofs, and leather upholstery used to be sufficient deal-sweeteners. Why does anyone need an even more enhanced relationship? Perhaps Toyota has noticed how enhanced—and profitable—the relationship is between people and their phones. The Concept-i looks futuristic, though not terribly interesting. Mostly it’s an elongated glass globe. The front half is light and airy, barely perceptible. The back half looks like a stormtrooper crawling around wearing a diaper. It’s just the kind of future one might expect from the builders of the unobjectionable Camry and Prius.

Fiat Chrysler had a minivan concept at CES. According to Ralph Gilles, head of FCA global design, the Chrysler Portal is “designed to accommodate millennials as they begin their transition into family mode.” I can’t tell whether Gilles is picturing thirtysomethings emerging from a cocoon with a kid in stinky diapers, or some sort of cybernetic metamorphosis. In any case, Fiat Chrysler isn’t trying to impress us with the vehicle itself. It’s electric, there are van-style sliding doors for both the front and the rear, and as in the talking Nissan, the steering wheel disappears into the dashboard. Again, the body is mostly glass, this time in a more rectilinear form. Fiat Chrysler thinks we’ll mostly be impressed by the tech: “Once at the destination, interior and exterior cameras can capture the moment with a selfie, which is then automatically downloaded to everyone’s personal device and can be shared via social media.” That sounds helpful, I guess, if the destination is the red carpet at the Oscars. In real life the cameras would mostly capture a toddler dripping with snot or asleep with its head lolling about as its exhausted parents pull up in front of Target. A sample “Chrysler Portal concept user experience” photo shows a “Midtown Cafe” menu that looks suspiciously like a McDonald’s menu, right down to the chicken nuggets. Ordering from the cafe fits the new business model precisely: “With e-commerce, there is no need for cash or a credit card as the payment can be securely transacted from the vehicle while in transit.” If FCA can capture even a tiny percentage on every McNugget transaction, the company just might survive.

Honda showed off its own enhanced relationship at CES, the NeuV concept. It is definitely a concept and definitely not a car. It looks like an enclosed golf cart. But the NeuV has artificial “emotional intelligence” and a giant display screen, all part of Honda’s “Cooperative Mobility Ecosystem,” which the automaker defines as, guess what, “artificial intelligence, robotics, and big data.” Honda has always prided itself as a motor company. It makes cars only because it makes motors. It makes weed eaters, snow blowers, outboard engines, chainsaws, motorcycles, ATVs, and many other products because they all have motors. Maybe Honda is still a motor maker and it’s just trying to keep up appearances at the CES, but it is a worrying sign to read its self-description as a “global mobility company.”

Yet the following week in Detroit, all of the monetized big data and metamorphosing millennials and innovative umlaut usage mattered less than two of the cars on display: the Kia Stinger and Volkswagen’s I.D. Buzz concept.

The Stinger is the first Grand Tourer out of Korea. A GT is a class of rear-wheel-drive car with handling sporty enough for a twisty road, but which is massive and comfortable enough for touring the European continent or crossing North America. It has neither millennials nor baby boomers in its sights; it’s gunning for BMW and Mercedes. Hyundai (Kia’s parent company) is literal-minded about its aspirations. The car’s design team is based in Frankfurt, and Hyundai even hired a real-life German to tune the new Hyundai Genesis and the Stinger. (Tuning ride and handling remains as much an art as a science in car building.)

BMW purists will beg to differ, but the Kia is more attractive than its Bavarian equivalent. The Beemer is too heavy up front, with a bulbous nose that bulges well above the belt line. The short front overhang only emphasizes the hood’s overinflated mass, and the iconic BMW grille looks too small on the big car. The Kia has a longer front overhang, giving the hood a flatter, wider, and altogether leaner look. Yet it is not as cartoonish as the Mercedes SLR. The Stinger’s longer front is balanced with sweeping headlamps, an air scoop for the brakes, and Kia’s standard grille, which looks . . . fine. While BMW glues its tail lamps onto the trunk like jelly beans on a gingerbread house, Kia opts for thin, rectilinear lamps that disappear into the body. It might be hard to see its signal lights, but Americans don’t signal much anyway.

At the opposite end of the motorcar spectrum stood the Buzz, or at least it should have. When Jerry Garcia died in 1995, VW ran an ad with the familiar face of a VW Microbus shedding a tear. It was a brave embrace by a global corporation of its place in the haze of the American counterculture. Why did VW name Jerry’s new bus the I.D. Buzz? Buzz, they say, is a play on “Bus,” as well as on the buzzing sound of the electric motors. Take it from a man who owned one: when your electric motor starts to buzz, bad things are happening.

Fans of the New Beetle have been waiting for a new bus for a long time. The New Beetle wowed at the NAIAS back in 1994 and immediately became a hot seller—as much a ’90s icon as its antecedent, an easy shorthand for the ’60s. The Germans followed up with a Microbus concept in 2001—but got cold feet. Instead, the company made the embarrassingly bad decision to sell the Chrysler minivan with a VW badge on the grille.

Some car critics discounted the new Beetle as an irrational exercise in nostalgia when it was first released. People buy a neo-Bug, they said, only because they have a sick attachment to the past. That assessment ignores the beauty of the original design, to which the New Beetle paid reasonably good homage. The Bug, officially called the Type 1, was designed in the 1930s. Look carefully at its curves and you will recognize it as art deco. The form follows function with German precision, but also with a remarkable sense of the style of its time.

The original Microbus was a Beetle chassis converted ad hoc into a flatbed truck at the VW factory. VW’s exporter, Ben Pon, saw the machine in 1947, drew a Bug with a box, and the Type 2 was born. It was sold as a cargo van, a camper van, a pickup truck, a family station wagon, and a city delivery vehicle. To drive a bus is to slow down, listen only to the music of the air-cooled motor, and live a life of meaning. The design is versatility, practicality, and self-sufficiency incarnate. The I.D. Buzz concept seems to hew as close to that shape—and the underlying ethos—as possible. As with the original, the front doors open wide at the very corners of the car, and the driver appears to sit over the front axle. The unintentionally animal-like flat front face is nearly there, although safety standards demand a bit of a slope to the windshield. It looks like a practical, versatile machine suitable for going back to the land and living a self-sufficient life of home-baked bread and live music in lieu of the television.2

Unfortunately, VW forgot that they were building a vehicle. I would line up to buy “the most versatile . . . car ever”—VW’s caption for the Buzz at NAIAS, and a succinct description of the Microbus. But the ellipsis is a cruel beast: “The most versatile and emotional electric car ever” is how the caption read in full. Like all good advertising slogans, this one has no meaning at all. What good is a moody car? How emotionally involved can I get while piloting what is essentially an airport terminal shuttle? Driving the original was certainly an emotional experience, quite unlike driving conventional domestic cars. The steering wheel was horizontal, like in an old-fashioned truck. Turning was an arm over arm exercise, done carefully to avoid overturning the tall, tippy machine, often accomplished while simultaneously operating the shift lever and the clutch. The Buzz’s steering wheel, meanwhile, isn’t even a wheel. It’s a square that can only be held awkwardly and uncomfortably by the sides, and it slides neatly flush with the dash because, after all, you won’t be driving much. There is no shift lever to speak of. To put it in gear you touch an elevator-style touch button. There are a few more buttons on the “wheel,” but none on the dash. In fact, the entire dashboard and controls all seem like afterthoughts, a rush job done when someone at VW realized that every 2017 concept car needs to have the look and feel of a self-driving machine. I cannot remember the last emotionally charged elevator ride I had. What emotional appeal there is in this van lies thinly on the surface, harkening back to a time when an escape from our modern consumer society still seemed possible. But look deeper and you’ll uncover a consumptive future vision, from which there is no escape.

Thanks to Dieselgate, the I.D. Buzz is electric. As everyone knows by now, VWs have been spewing huge amounts of toxic gases into the atmosphere with profoundly damaging effects on human health. Ironically, these high-mileage diesels produce fewer CO2s than conventional gasoline engines, but VW is now on the electric bandwagon. The electrification, too, seems slapped on. There’s nothing particularly conceptual about it—no fuel cell or solar panels. It’s just the same flat, underfloor battery pack that has become standard, as well as the twin electric motors.

One of the things that killed electric cars at the beginning of the automobile age was the fact that they required planning. You had to know where your next charge was coming from. A battery electric doesn’t lend itself to the spirit of escape, because adventuring is about not having to plan. You follow your whims, not the power grid. A VW Microbus Syncro with jerry cans of fuel strapped to the roof is an adventure machine. VW wants us to believe that the I.D. Buzz, too, is an adventure machine. I deduce this intent by the publicity shots, which feature a magazine entitled Adventure tossed casually around the interior. The Buzz sits far lower than the original, so there won’t be any tipping over at high speed—but also no ability to camp in the actual woods. You could try camping at the Kampgrounds of America, I suppose, or Wamping at Walmart, but good luck going off the beaten path. Perhaps some solar panels would have given me some Buzzy, adventurous vibes. The VW’s one charming interior feature is a little cross-legged yogi that floats atop the dash. It’s no hula girl, or St. Christopher, or Jesus, but hey, it levitates. Jerry would be proud.

Aut˙öMobili-D may have been a dull echo of CES, and Las Vegas is warmer than Detroit (at least for now), but I’d rather keep driving. No one looks at the Buzz and starts salivating over the tech they might find inside. When they see a van that evokes the original Microbus—however tentatively, however modestly—they start making mental lists: states that have legalized marijuana, National Parks that haven’t yet been sold off to oil companies, public beaches where you can camp but can’t use a drone. If the spirit of the Dead still lingers, it makes itself felt in that moment. The open road still beckons, even if the daily commute tries to persuade you otherwise. The I.D. Buzz has a past more alluring than its future, but its imperfections are themselves alluring. The Kia Stinger, which is mostly free of imperfections, is an assertive tribute to that past. No two cars could be further apart than a quasi-hippie bus and a luxurious Grand Tourer. Yet both, in their way, defend the American automobile as an interstitial and radically offline space between work and monetized leisure. What these cars are about, above all, is going for a ride in a car. Sometimes that’s enough.

  1. Maybe it’ll take off, and Apple will add a triple umlaut key to its keyboards; for now, I refer you to this

  2. It should be said that the Microbus ethos was an unequal kind of utopianism. “Do you have the right kind of wife for [the Bus]?” reads an ad from the 1960s. “Will she name the cat ‘Rover’? Can she get a kid’s leg stitched and not phone you at the office until it’s all over? Live another year without furniture and take a trip to Europe instead?” 

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