If you need a dose of mild irony to get you through the day, here it is: Remember that old sci-fi cartoon show The Jetsons? Remember how they all had flying cars? Don’t you feel shortchanged that you don’t have a flying car right now? But here’s the funny part: The writers at that show actually failed to anticipate one major aspect of modern automotive technology, and that aspect was… reliability. If you watch a few episodes of the show you’ll see that the flying cars are pretty much always breaking down for no reason.
To a present-day viewer, the various flying-car breakdowns look like a plot device. In 1962, however, it seemed entirely reasonable to assume that flying cars would have as many problems as the non-flying cars of the day did. Even new cars broke down with monotonous regularity. And the maintenance required! This was still an era where some cars required regular grease-gun service to both the upper and lower ball joints–and there were two different kinds of grease required for the job! The VW Beetle, considered at the time to be the very model of low service costs and no-hassle ownership, needed new ignition points every 12,000 miles and a wheel-bearing repack every 30,000.
Truth be told, I don’t think I would want a flying car with the temperamental nature of, say, a 1962 Lincoln Continental. That seems like a good way to cash in your life insurance while the premiums are still nice and low. Today’s cars might seem pretty humdrum by the Jetsons’ standards, but the improvements in quality over the past fifty-five years have been, if you’ll pardon the pun, astronomical.
That doesn’t mean we couldn’t do better when it comes to building long-lasting, trouble-free cars–and I think we can do better without spending a red cent. The following five changes would cut our costs, improve our enjoyment, and enhance the long-term value of modern cars for their future second and third owners.
1: Goodbye to Leather, Hello to Cloth
Be honest: When was the last time you were actually impressed by the quality of the leather in any car you drove, rented, or caught a ride in? For me, it was when I bought my 1986 Jaguar Vanden Plas way back in ‘95. My father had owned an ‘86 XJ6 when it was new but the standard-grade leather was merely okay. The Connolly “Autolux” in the Vanden Plas was heavenly. It was like the fine-grained hide that you get in a set of Edward Green shoes.
Everything since then? Plastic-coated junk. Modern leather seats are cold in the winter, hot in the summer, and crummy pretty much all the time. Let’s go back to cloth. Not the crappy mouse fur that you get when you buy a sub-$12,000 economy car, but the high-grade cloth fabrics that the Japanese and Europeans love and continue to use even today. They are durable, breathable, nicer to look at, and they last just as long.
2: The Big Single Touchscreen and/or Phone Interface
If you’ve driven a Tesla Model S, chances are that you’ve been very impressed by the massive touchscreen that replaces the “center stack.” Maybe you thought it was there because Teslas are expensive. Surprise! It’s actually cheaper to do it that way. Designing and molding and producing all the knobs and buttons of even an entry-level car costs millions of dollars. It could all go away. If the automakers were smart, they’d settle on some common interfaces for center-mounted touchscreens. That way, when your touchscreen dies at the 175,000-mile mark, you can buy a new one for $150 and swap it out in just a few minutes.
While we are at it: In a world where almost everybody carries a so-called smartphone, why do we still have fantastically complicated “infotainment” interfaces? Apple CarPlay and AndroidAuto are halting steps in the right direction but the eventual solution will have to be even simpler. Cars last much longer than phones do. Use the car for the display and the speakers and let the rest be accomplished by upgradeable tech.
3. No More of These Moronic Tiny Turbo Engines
Surely we all understand by now that the only reason small-displacement turbo-charged engines exist is to game the EPA and Euro fuel-economy tests. The rest of the time they’re nothing but a gas-guzzling, maintenance-intensive, overly-complicated hassle. It’s time to wave goodbye and return to sensibly-sized naturally-aspirated engines that conserve fuel in real-world driving situations and last longer while also saddling the second and third owners with lower servicing costs.
4. Get Rid of Rubber-Band Tires and Massive Wheels Surrounding Teeny-Tiny Brakes
Here’s the bad news: If you have a modern performance car with Veyron-sized ceramic rotors and six-piston brake calipers, you’re going to be stuck with a massive wheel and extremely low-profile tires. That’s just the way the engineering works. If, on the other hand, you own something like my Accord, you don’t need the 18 inch wheels that it came with–or, heaven forfend, the 19 inch wheels they tossed on in 2016 and 2017. It will fit 16 inch wheels and sensibly-sized tires that don’t ride like bricks, wear like Styrofoam, and cost like palladium.
There’s just no reason for the current big-wheel trend. It’s expensive, it slows the cars down by increasing the weight of the wheel/tire combination on all four corners, and most of the time it doesn’t even look good. If your engineering team can’t deliver your new sedan or SUV with at least a 50-series sidewall (or taller), they should be required to write a 100,000-word novel explaining why. In Latin.
5. If We Can’t Have Longer or Wider, We Should at Least Have Lower
With the exception of the Lamborghini Huracan, which finally allows both the use of the optional quilted headliner and a racing helmet, every car on the market today could benefit considerably from a one- or even two-inch reduction in the overall height of the body. Today’s cars are so unreasonably tall that they are starting to take on the proportions of the Model A Ford. This height and bulk isn’t just ugly; it’s expensive, it’s wasteful, and it’s heavy. If we took two inches of body out of everything from the HR-V to the Dodge Power Wagon we could save millions of pounds of steel, glass, and plastic while decreasing fuel consumption, improving rollover safety, and making life on the freeway a little easier for everybody who didn’t choose a Super Duty 4x4 as their daily commuter.
There you go. Five simple ways to improve cars and cut costs. Nothing radical about any of it. But we don’t always need changes to be radical. Small improvements, stacked over time, is how we build a better future. It’s not very gee-whiz, and it won’t lead to any flying cars, but it does lead to things that will eventually amaze all of us.