My car is broken and so’s the car industry
Some thoughts on digital obsolescence, carmakers, and rent-taking
I drive a 2020 Subaru Outback. I’m not a car person, but it got me through a broken leg and a pandemic. I lend it to a lot of people who find it very useful, and it helps me get at least some modicum of greenery (at Rebecca and Doreen and Adam’s place, or on the occasional road trip.)
I like the car. I got it for a great price at a time when nobody was buying cars, and it’s very stable in the winter. Despite the all-wheel-drive and spacious chassis, it has roughly the same mileage as a Honda Civic. It will be the last internal combustion engine I buy, but for now, it satisfies.
Except in one very specific way.
Sometimes, for no reason, the touchscreens don’t come on. Or they stop responding. It goes away, usually in a few seconds. Sometimes, I need to stop and start the car. Multiple resets didn't help.
So in December 2020, during my first maintenance, I told them about this; they checked it, said they updated something, and wrote did not repeat customers’ complaint on the paperwork.
A year later, I brought it back in for servicing and reminded them that it was still happening. They once again mumbled something about an update. And an update had, in fact, happened. This time, they wrote found big update to do on the invoice.
It continued to misbehave in creative and inconsistent ways. When we brought it in for its 2022 maintenance, they wrote il fut replacer la radio car elle est défectueuse. (it is necessary to replace the radio because it is defective.) Acknowledgement of the problem, and a promise to make an estimate.
Fast-forward another year to April 2023. Subaru’s telemarketing department called me to remind me to bring the car in for maintenance. “Sure,” I said, “but can you confirm that they will be repairing my radio?”
This time, you see, I had videos. Lots of them, of me poking and jamming an unresponsive screen in the hopes of, you know, turning on my defroster so I can see while driving or warming my butt in minus forty.
Not really “radio issues.” More like car issues. But on the 2020 Outback, the car controls and the radio controls are both on an integrated touchscreen.
After explaining the situation, she assured me she would let the department know, and someone would call me back to coordinate.
Nobody called back.
We started to worry that if we missed the maintenance, we’d void our warranty. So my partner, Meg, called the dealership directly. The person who answered said they had no record of my recent conversation, or any of the previous ones, for that matter. Or any history of us having mentioned this problem ever. Meg went ahead and scheduled the maintenance, which happened yesterday.
Shortly after arriving at the dealership—along with copies of the past service records where they had very clearly heard about the radio—Meg texted me.
“Do you have that video?”
After some clumsy swipes through image folders, trying to find his contact information, and a slow upload from my phone, he had hard proof—the kind that’s easily shared with an online audience. “Head home and we’ll look into it,” he said. I am assured he was a very nice, very helpful person.
She went back to pick the car up a bit later in the day. This time, he informed her that, lo and behold, there actually is a factory recall for the screen component, which can detach electronically and cause errors. They just hadn’t noticed.
They “hadn’t noticed” the recall.
Ignore it and it’ll go away
If there’s a recall for my car, then presumably the car company should mail me about it. They definitely have my email. And my phone number. But even if they just want to fix it when I bring the car in next, they need to notice recalls in the first place. So why didn’t they?
First: Was there actually a recall? I went and looked online; while there was a ton of complaints about this, and there was a law firm considering a class action lawsuit about this that had been dropped in 2022. The official Subaru website lists no recalls for my VIN.
When there’s a problem that doesn’t justify an entire recall, the manufacturer publishes something called a service bulletin that describes the problem, and tells dealerships to fix it at no charge. And such a service bulletin exists for the mid- and high-end control screens, but not mine. Nevertheless, now that they had clear video evidence, they agreed to fix it, roughly three years after the initial complaint.
The service manager reminded my partner that they were going to order the part, but “you only have 30 days to bring the car in and get it replaced, or you have to pay for it.” (Apparently Subaru’s maintenance window urgency is much higher than its “let our customer know their car is broken” urgency.)
This is unsurprising. There’s no good financial incentive for dealerships to repair cars that are in warranty. For the consumer, the car is working until proven broken. Proving physical flaws like a broken muffler or a leaky door is fairly easy, but the harder it is to diagnose a problem, the more likely the dealership can just let the clock run out, waiting for the warranty to expire. And digital problems are hard to diagnose.
Anyone who’s owned a car has seen all this before. Dealers and manufacturers want to increase their revenues and lower their costs, and that’s just capitalism at work, right?
Or maybe it’s about something more.
Maybe it’s about replacement time
The average age of cars is soaring. The average age of US passenger vehicles is 12.5 years, with sedans staying on the road for 13.6 years. That’s up significantly from 11.8 years in 2019 and 12.2 years in 2021. Some of this can be blamed on supply chain shortages and in part because of the pandemic., but that’s just the the average: Many people still drive cars built last century.
Compare that to our smartphones. We replace our phones far more quickly than our cars.
Phones get replaced for a number of reasons:
New features come out that require them (such as AI tools on Apple's chips, or better resolution photos and night shots.)
Social pressures mean we start self-shaming ourselves into new tech.
The operating systems on the phones expire—so you’re no longer getting updates, leaving your phone vulnerable to malware and hacks. Google guarantees security updates for new Pixel phones for at least 5 years. The Pixel 3a, released May 2019, is no longer supported.
Phone hardware expires because it can no longer support phone software. And as cars get more digital, car hardware will also expire more quickly. Our cars are digital platforms. Our music and podcasts, our mapping, and our conversations, all happen across apps that are, at least in part, running not only on our phones but on our cars.
Your car is a small room in which you’ll spend 4.3 years of your life. No wonder you care a lot about whether you can call your friends from it, listen to books and news, and hear your favourite songs. A 2017 Autotrader survey showed that 48% of car buyers prioritized in-vehicle tech over car brand or physical style.
Interfaces like Apple CarPlay and Android Auto let drivers control phone apps from their car’s interfaces. But things aren’t that simple:
Getting these to work can be tricky: I’ve twice gone to pick up a rental car, found that I need to download the manufacturer’s app to connect it to my phone, given up, and switched to a car that supports CarPlay directly. In fact, BMW tried charging $80 a year for drivers to access CarPlay, then abandoned that strategy.
Some high-end cars have custom operating systems, where the powertrain and battery system and sensors are indistinguishable from the Spotify controls.
Carmakers keep foisting their proprietary interfaces on consumers, according to Consumer Reports, even though Carplay and Android Auto work far better.
Carmakers don’t want phones to own the in-car experience. In March 2023, GM stated that it plans to phase out Apple CarPlay and Android Auto in favor of a GM-specific “infotainment” system developed in partnership with Google for future electric vehicles.
It is, to paraphrase Cory Doctorow, the enshittification of infotainment systems.
It’s hard to turn Big Car
If I put on my conspiracy hat, there’s something else at work here.
Car companies are huge monopolies. And they’re a massive, necessary industry, a job creator and a source of geopolitical power. Its impossible to bring small, electric vehicles such as The Huang Guang MINI EV into America. This car is perfect for cities, home-chargeable, and costs around $4,000. It’s made by GM, but while you can buy one in China, it’s banned in the land of the free.
Big Car has reason to worry. We’re giving car ownership up in significant numbers. Ridesharing means, well, we're sharing rides. We don't commute. And the number of people with drivers’ licenses is plummeting, and has been for nearly a decade.
So how can these companies keep delivering shareholder returns? One way is to switch revenues to subscription, and indeed, GM’s CEO said the company expects up to $25B in subscription revenue by 2030. But charging people $18 a month to turn on their seat warmers (no, that really happened) seems so Martin-Shkreli-level nefarious it’s almost indefensible.
Planned digital obsolescence, on the other hand, is easy.
One way to make cars obsolete faster is to just make the systems break. It’s relatively easy to code some obsolescence into the software parts of a car. If you think that’s unlikely to happen, remember that Volkswagen intentionally made its cars reduce their performance during emissions tests, then boosted performance (and exhaust) while driving.
It’s not a big leap from there to a carmaker programming the car’s AV system to stop working, in unpredictable ways, in around 4 years time. So that when you take it into the dealer and say, “hey, this thing’s not working properly,” they can plug some impressive-looking diagnostic tool, look at a screen, rub their chin knowingly, and say, “yeah, that’s a major system upgrade and you’re out of warranty.”
Even without intentionally putting time bombs in the infotainment system, carmakers can simply “not be able to keep up with the phones.” My Subaru warranty specifically says that anything to do with ApplePlay is Not Their Problem. Like, they won't troubleshoot it. I was informed of this the first time I reported the problem with my car. Software changes faster than hardware; when the two are linked, we replace the hardware more often.
There’s little reason to trust carmakers. Once upon a time, the car companies could literally make money selling you a bad car, then make more money fixing that bad car each time it broke down because—you know—it was bad. Consumer advocate Ralph Nader’s 1966 bestseller Unsafe at any Speed made manufacturers’ shenanigans a national issue, forcing legislators to step in.
Today, legislation prevents the most egregious behaviour:
Most US states have Lemon Laws that require the manufacturer to repair or replace a broken component within a certain time.
The Magnuson Moss Act prevents a manufacturer or dealer from voiding a warranty simply because you get a repair done somewhere else.
Car dealerships are separate from car manufacturers, preventing them from colluding. Tesla faced legal trouble around its showrooms for exactly this reason.
Carmakers and dealerships are in a serious legal battle about direct sales, subscription revenue, and other issues. And plenty of lawyers and small plaintiffs’ side firms are eager to sue dealerships and car manufacturers for free as long as they get a share of the profits—something a lawyer friend calls a “private attorney general.”
What might we do?
Left alone, there’s no reason for carmakers and dealers to play nice. As our cars turn from vehicles into platforms on which our apps run, they can gouge us for subscription revenue, intentionally break the digital platforms, or simply piggyback on the obsolescence of our phones.
So what can lawmakers do?
1. Use existing agencies
Consumer protection agencies are ill-equipped to deal with this. Measuring a broken car was one thing; doing code inspections on software updates is vastly more complex. An axle is far easier to test than a software application, and it’s getting more complex all the time. Machine learning algorithms are notoriously black-box and hard to diagnose. This is decidedly not an AI post; my point is only that software today is way more complex than it was in a Volkswagen Microbus.
It’s unlikely that consumer protection agencies in their current form, with existing laws, can protect consumers from the machinations of carmakers.
2. Set and enforce laws
So maybe we make new laws. For example, we could standardize the size and shape of components, make them replaceable, and set laws against predatory pricing. The Car Connectivity Consortium (CCC) has a protocol called MirrorLink that defines how a phone communicates with the car. But we know car companies will furiously resist any attempts at regulation, throwing lobbying dollars into SuperPACs and shouting down any legislator who calls for reform as anti-capitalist, anti-free-market.
Innovation on electric dashboards is a huge differentiator. Ford’s Edge is decked out like a starship. Teslas run Polytopia. The digital system is the thing that clinches the deal on the test drive. It’s the part that tricks your brain into feeling like your commute is a video game. It’s your mobile office. It babysits your kids while you’re on the road. Carmakers do not want smartphone companies to own that.
Apple is widely rumoured to be introducing an AR/VR headset. If it’s as usable as their other products, how long will it be until someone wears it in a car? What will laws say about heads-up displays? What if they make you a better driver?
So no, we’re not going to legislate our way out of this.
3. Break them up again
A more draconian option would be to do what we did with dealerships: Break up car companies into a digital layer, and a physical layer. Make a clear dividing line between:
What is necessary for driving a car, like turning on my defroster, or switching to Off-terrain mode; and
What is necessary to support the other services we use when driving, like maps and shuffle and hang up.
In practice, this wouldn’t be easy. It would require that the relationship between the car and the entertainment and communication functions would be much more like a video game and a controller: The console (phone) runs the software, and doesn’t care what controller (car) you have. Play is play, call is call, and so on.
That’s how MirrorLink was intended, but carmakers have created proprietary software platforms beyond what it offers. Instead, millions of drivers have to install an app in order to connect to an app, a man-in-the-middle rent-taking attack on the consumer.
Splitting car companies in two would be weird for other reasons.
The physical layer car business is full of resource extraction and lawsuits and unions and deadly robots (actually, the robots sound kind of cool.) Eventually, this could become a differentiated brand, known for its engineering, but right now it’s mass-production and compliance. Brand is hard when you’re the physical, reliable parts people don't really see most of the time.
On the other hand, the digital layer car business is the one that plays our favorite songs, tells us we’ve arrived, and sounds like mom. The entertainment part of the car is quickly becoming the driving experience itself. That’s where the margins and dreams are. It’s the part that should be able to charge for subscriptions.
My bet is that we’re going to need to separate “the car” from “the stuff that needs to be controlled by the car, but shouldn’t really be running on the car.” And update the legislation, agencies, standards, and maybe even structure of the modern car industry.
I’m still not sure whether carmakers are making crappy systems on purpose as part of a conspiracy to make us buy new cars more often—or I just got a crappy Subaru.
But either way, this is how I write a complaint letter.