Hatchtopia Feature: Gadget Bloat
My employer has a Ford Escape Hybrid available to drive for various errands and trips that those in my office occasionally make. It’s a nice enough vehicle, fairly comfortable, but cheaply made and strangely noisy. Now, fair warning, I’m a Ford fanboy and shareholder and have been a Ford guy pretty much as long as I’ve been in to cars. My dad had a series of Ford trucks when I was young and an annoying kid in the neighborhood was a Chevy honk, so it was only natural.
That said, I really want to like the Escape, but I just can’t. It’s cheap on the inside and the CVT transmission of the Hybrid model makes the engine drone like a constipated buffalo. If I were a betting man, I’d say that Ford designed the Escape to meet a certain price point – and it shows. The interior plastics are of a lower grade than many children’s toys (I was going to say Lego, but that would be grave insult to the building blocks), the aforementioned engine drone grates on the nerves and the overall feeling is one of tinny cheapness.
But, it’s got so many gadgets! Neat stuff like power windows, locks, seats, automatic climate control, cruise control, power mirrors, power, power, POWER!
I will admit that I enjoyed hypermiling the Escape around town during a 20-mile urban trek to the tune of 43 miles per gallon. But here’s the thing: with certain efficiency modifications, a non-hybrid version should be able to achieve the same. You may remember my recent post about hybrids – my contention being that hybrids represent a significant step backwards in terms of efficiency. See, the hybrid drivetrain requires not only a gas engine, but electric motor(s) and massive battery packs. It is those packs and overall complexity that leads to massive curb weights – weight of course being the enemy of overall efficiency.
Worst of all, I think that the manufacturers of said hybrids are guilty of greenwashing – making it seem like they’ve solved the fuel economy issue with complex engineering fixes and new technological advances.
Technology is great, don’t get me wrong, but to me, research and development costs would be better spent finding ways to lighten cars in order to increase efficiency. Lightweight materials are one step, a second step being decontenting – eliminating superflous gadgets. Technological advances should be limited to making the internal combustion engine more efficient – including new systems to allow for shut off at stop lights and other fuel saving options.
Which brings us back to the Escape Hybrid. One of the gadgets that I mentioned above is the automatic climate control. You set the temperature that you’d like to be at and the car does the rest. To warm up on a cold day, set it for 80 degrees and bask in the warmth. In theory. In real life, the way it works is you get a blast of 90 degree heat followed by a 60 degree draft while the car tries to figure out what the perfect mix is. How exactly is this better than a simple slider that reads from blue to red? That’s what my first car had and that’s what people used for decades to “manually” control their climate. Fact is, the “automatic” version required as much, if not more adjustment to make the air temperature inside the Escape meet my expectations.
That’s one level of complexity that could easily be eliminated – weight reduced, price reduced, reliability increased.
To further follow up on that complexity issue – whatever happened to rods and cables? You know, the mechanical connectors that used to operate many of the functions on cars? They’ve been replaced by electric motors. More complexity, weight and cost. Are they more reliable? I can’t say for sure, but I can say with certainty that I myself could replace or fix many more mechanical components than electrical ones.
It used to be that you’d switch the manual climate control from the floor level outlets to the dash outlets with a lever controlling a rod. The switch between the two was achieved with a satisfying clunk. Is this clunk too much for today’s consumer? Is it really that annoying to hear a sound not unlike dropping your Chuck Taylor onto a carpeted floor from a foot up? Americans have become so obsessed with technology and inobtrusiveness in all actions that this is no longer acceptable from an automobile.
So we’ve now reached a point where we demand mutually exclusive traits from our vehicles: high efficiency and complete isolation from the outside environment. We want automatic climate control and 50 mpg. We want it cheap. And we want it safe.
And most of all:
Just look at a magazine rack sometime to find out how obsessed Americans are with appearances. Not just physical beauty, mind you, but the outward appearance of their gadgets. In the long run, people would rather be seen in a hybrid than a tiny economy car or an old beater that’s significantly “greener.” No one wants to be seen in a cheap car.
No doubt that cars have often been a reflection upon the driver. What better way to show what type of person you are than by what you use to transport yourself and your family around town?
But again, we’ve backed ourselves into a corner with regards to efficient cars. Small cars are cheap. Old beaters are cheap. Base model cars are cheap. But all of these can be signficiantly more efficient than a hybrid. What say you? If you’re looking to save money on gas, what do you get? A heavy hybrid or a lightweight econobox?