After Forty Years, Why Do Cars Still Basically Suck? — 20 Comments

  1. So, then, that’s to say you’d like to see improvement in personal transport, not the car. The car, or “automobile” in it’s current incarnation is perfect for millions of us who adore it.

    I see things like the new “twheel” and cringe. Then there are the concept cars like the Nissan creepmobile with the “Hello Kitty” driver. (

    People still buy old cars. Why? Because they’re still loved. And that’s really all this comes down to. Supply and demand. People love their cars, and until they begin to demand something else, they’ll continue to get them.

  2. Interesting list, but I dispute the following items:

    # You have to have a key to start it.

    -Some cars don’t require that the key be inserted, and furthermore, using a key is hardly a hardship, even in the modern era.

    # The internal combustion engine has had no significant design improvements.

    -One could argue that by remaining essentially unchanged, modern IC engines have been allowed to evolve into something much more sophisticated than when they were new. The engine in my car is incredibly smooth and strong, and could not have been produced in 1968. It is, however, an internal combustion engine.

    # Choice of paint colors has declined markedly.

    -Have you seen a modern BMW M3? Some modern cars are available in a vivid array of colors.

    # The doors open the same way they always have.

    -There was never anything wrong with the way they open.

    # Pushing pedals is part of driving.

    -Yes it is, and in fact, it is one of the most fun aspects of driving. Long live the pedal!

    # They don’t last longer.

    -I think they might.

    Again, it’s a good list. Thanks for the opportunity to comment.

  3. @Adam: I don’t think cars are bad. I love “classics.” But I just wish that there was more innovation in the car design or engineering. ie: the Tucker – streamline design, headlights that turned with wheel was built in 1947! I’m not a designer or engineer – and then there is the marketing aspect. (demand as you point out.)
    If you love the automobile, don’t you wish there was more innovation?

    @Josh: the exceptions you point out are valid. It’s not a hardship to insert a key, but why can’t I just have an RFID in my wallet that recognizes me and adjusts my seats?

    The engine has not evolved, just gotten more complicated. That’s not progress. Progress would make it possible for me to hook up my laptop and download analysis of my driving habits and how it is impacting the engine.

    I remember having to order a car because you could choose from a book of paint and interior colors. Now it’s white, silver, black or red.

    Suicide doors were popular on Studebakers and custom cars use them today. Have you seen the door that slides under the car?

    Unless you drive a stick, you push one pedal to go, another to stop. Not very exciting IMHO.

    As far as engines lasting longer, they might. You can’t go on a used car lot and find a car with less than 80,000 miles. “Back in the day” 100K was pretty unusual.

    Thanks for writing.

  4. Also, with regard to the bit about “lot’s of metal”, nowadays, that depends on the car. Most high end exotics now use a monocoque carbon fiber chassis for weight reduction…

  5. @Adam: exactly! High end cars have seen innovation. I just can’t figure out why there isn’t more in everyday cars. The most innovative car today is the Smart. It’s tiny, but will withstand a 70 mph concrete barrier head on collision. The video I saw, the passenger door still worked. Here’s a car with no front end to speak of, no rear end to speak of, but because of design has a very safe interior.

  6. Just my 2 cents:
    * They still take gasoline to run.
    Agreed. This sucks
    * They require lubricants and fluids to operate…
    But they require less frequent changing of said lubricants. All mechanical devices these days either need maintenance or just get thrown out after a few years.
    * The internal combustion engine has had no significant design improvements.
    Totally wrong. What comes out of the tailpipe these days is sooo much improved than in the past. Just look at ever-tightening emissions laws. Sure, it’s still 4 stroke spark + compression = fire, but damn they do it so much better than before. Read “Bosch Fuel Injection” by Robert Probst and be impressed by the smartness of EFI systems today.
    * The doors open the same way they always have.
    …unless you buy a Lambourghini. Mercs have door openers and RX-8s have backwards doors just like in the old days except these ones don’t ‘automatically’ open on the highway.
    * A lot of metal is used to construct a car.
    Agreed. I think cars are too heavy, but when you want to put more good stuff in, stuff is rarely weightless
    * Batteries are still used to store starting power.
    Yes, and they are still made of nasty chemicals. Regenerative starting, anyone?
    * Engines still belch junk into the air.
    Maybe still too much, but a hell of a lot less than before so there is progress
    * Windshield defrosting, passenger heating and air-con are basically unchanged.
    Defrosting works, heating uses free energy so why wouldn’t you, and air-con is no worse than fridges, stationary air-con etc
    * They don’t last longer.
    Good ones do. Fatigue is a pretty established science and good manufacturers don’t want to get a reputation for short lived cars

    Yeah, it would be awesome if cars had USB download ports for driving analysis and fault diagnosis. But car companies seem to think knowledge is dangerous in the hands of the consumer. Engines more complex? Surely a cheap microprocessor that controls a throttle actuator is a neater solution than thousands of bypass valves and mechanical actuators??

    I reckon you can argue that i) we need a technology step change to save us (hello teleporters!) ii) personal transport is doomed and public transport is the only future or iii) cars shouldn’t be fossil fuel powered. But to discount all of the advances made in the past 60 years is a bit harsh I reckon.

  7. @Simon, thanks for thoughtful reply.
    Lubes: Still recommend 3000K for city driving – hasn’t changed much, engine oil is more expensive because of synthetics or additives.
    Engine: it’s cleaner – not because of innovation, but because of legislation.
    Doors: minor deal to be sure.
    Steel: “more good stuff in” what’s been added that needs more steel to support it?
    Heat and a/c: I guess I’m thinking of the distribution method. Still vents in the dash and console. Yet there are eight speakers providing surround sound.
    Last longer: That’s marketing. 100,000 Drive train warranty. How about 100,000 – ANYTHING warranty. Does anybody drive a car ’til the engine blows up? No, they like the new styles
    Engines more complex: chip is cheaper and that’s progress, but all that complexity has done nothing for the consumer.

    Past 40 years discounted: Yes, discounted is a good word – not dismissed, just discounted. Compared to other major industries, car makers have not been innovative: unless forced by legislation.

    The stuff around the house:
    Stove/oven – Microwave
    Coal/Oil Furnace – Heat Pump
    Television – HDTV
    Mattress – Craftmatic 🙂

    Here’s another obvious innovation: Why can’t I call my car and start it on these cold mornings?

  8. I think the automobile has progressed a heck of a lot in 40 years. Look at what preceeded it – the horse- that was used for what? At least 2,000 years before it was replaced?
    The microwave oven existed for almost 25 years before it became commonplace in the home. The only real changes since the 1970s are that they are a little smaller. A large percentage of homes are heated by oil/gas furnaces and not heat pumps, HDTV is only becoming commonplace because of government mandate, and honestly how much difference does it make?
    It sounds like you’re disappointed we don’t have flying cars like the Jetsons, but hell, the FAA has a hard enough time keeping the planes from running into each other.

    I’ll take the car as it has evolved thank you very much.

  9. @John: Cars are better than horses, you got me there.
    -Microwaves: at least they made it to the kitchen eventually.
    -Furnaces: true, but the point is alternatives to coal/oil exist. New homes aren’t heated with coal or oil.
    -HDTV: was not mandated. Digital was mandated. HDTV is innovation, and the difference is amazing, BTW.
    Here’s a couple more “everday” items that have improved markedly:
    -Stereo record player/iPod
    -Telephone/Cell phone

    Rather than me list a bunch of things that are more innovative that the car. Tell me why there has not been breakthrough innovation in the automobile industry!

    I have an answer in mind, but I don’t want to start a flame war.

  10. Reminder:
    For those of you who haven’t been here since this was orginally posted.
    I changed themes and screwed up the CSS for the commenting, so some are hard to read.
    I apologize, my tech support is working on it – as soon as he gets ahead on shoveling snow.

  11. Remote starting? Now we’re talking! Other stuff I reckon would be cool:
    – performance hybrid drivetrains, like the GT-R was rumoured to have at one stage. Electric motors in the front wheel hubs (no drivetrain losses) to get you around the city gridlock. Then they team up with a RWD petrol engine when you want fun!
    – HUD on the windscreen as a standard. To keep the eyes as close to the road as possible
    – Voice activation instead of thousands of buttons, complex iDrive systems etc
    – active aerodynamics on sports cars. Yes, the Maclaren SLR sucked, but it had a wing that went into full drag mode for braking. Sweeeeet!
    – if the world really is that fashion conscious, how about replacement panels to update the styling of the car?
    – audio supplied from the seats instead of trying to make a room full of glass at wierd angles sound good
    – dozing avoidance systems where the car checks the driver is still alert during long trips
    – active seats to provide comfort and support for a wide range of human shapes
    – get infrared night vision working properly and make it standard (easier if HUD is also used!)
    Then there would be no argument that the car is inferior to the microwave!

  12. @Simon: excellent! I wish I had your knowlege and imagination to suggest these things, but I don’t. You did a great job.

    @John Re: flying cars. I don’t wish for those. We have built a huge grid of highways that are of varying quality. We’re stuck with them.

  13. Why would they bother changing the main design aspects of cars when they work as is. Why are windshields still made out of glass when you got lexan? Simple, glass is a much cheaper solution..All about economics, why invest billions and billions to reinvent the wheel so to speak when the current design serves its purpose. There has been cheap fuel to run them for years so why would they have bothered changing that. With higher fuel prices, i believe you will see new technologies emerging over the next few decades..If they don’t then it will be back to horse and buggy..

  14. The internal combustion engine has had no significant design improvements.
    Totally wrong. What comes out of the tailpipe These days is sooo much improved than in the past. Just look at ever-tightening emissions laws. Sure, it’s still 4 stroke spark + compression = fire, but damn they do it so much better than before. Read “Bosch Fuel Injection” by Robert Probst and be impressed by the smartness of EFI systems today.thanks..
    .-= car paint colors´s last blog pithPaint your Wagon Yourself =-.

  15. Well, I think cars are made better today than years ago.
    my brand new 1976 AMC Hornet would not go if the wires got wet because it went over a big puddle.
    I’d have to flip a toggle switch to get the rear window de-icer to go on and it was something taped to the window.