The concept of built-in obsolescence should be familiar to anyone that has ever bought a piece of advanced consumer electronics. Back in the early 2000s, a brand new gaming PC would be out of date faster than its owner could notify all his or her friends of the acquisition. Over the past decade, smartphones have taken over as the devices that keep tempting us to buy new hardware with ever-escalating specs and capabilities. And as we look forward to the next few years, it looks like self-driving car technology will be one of the fastest-moving areas of innovation. Only one problem with that: people don’t buy cars anywhere near as often as the oncoming cascade of upgrades will arrive, and if each of those requires us to buy a new car, there’ll be a great deal of discontent.
Audi launched its new flagship sedan last week, the A8, which might be the smartest car ever put on sale. It can park and unpark itself without a driver inside, and it can be completely autonomous when driven on a highway at moderate speed and with plenty of other cars around to help it orient itself. I was at Audi’s launch event and asked the carmaker’s executives what happens when the company moves on to more sophisticated forms of autonomous driving. The new A8 is rated for Level 3 autonomy, but what should an A8 owner expect when Audi reaches Level 4 and, the ultimate, Level 5? Would they be able to retrofit the new tech into their car? Nope. Alejandro Vukotich, head of Audi’s autonomous driving initiatives, told me that the A8’s smart systems will get software updates, but no hardware upgrades will be made available. Peter Mertens, Audi’s chief of technical development, stood by Vukotich and also seemed unperturbed by this future scenario.
Even conservative companies like Honda are planning to have Level 4 self-driving cars out on the road by 2025, which means Audi is expecting its $100,000 flagship 2018 car to be obviated in seven years or fewer. That’s just two-thirds of the average age of cars on American roads. The car that’s sold on the strength of being the most technologically advanced today will also be the car that’s superseded fastest — because this is Audi we’re talking about, and as Vukotich has previously said, Audi’s mission with autonomous driving is to “be first.”
The big difference with cars, versus other forms of rapidly evolving technology, is in how much they cost and how often we buy them. If a new game makes your gaming rig stutter, you can spend $300 on a new graphics card and you’d be back in action. If a new smartphone has a feature you desire and can’t get on your existing phone, you spend $600 on a new handset and you’re riding the appropriate bandwagon. None of that is applicable in the realm of car buying. When you buy a prestigious car that can drive itself, you spend a lot of money and expect a lot in return. A shrug of the shoulders, as I received from Audi, is not a valid answer to anyone concerned about exactly how long their self-driving car will support the latest and greatest forms of self-driving.
Carmakers have always sought to incentivize new purchases with the addition of new tech, better hardware, and automated features between generations. It’s just that, frankly, up until now most of that incremental stuff hasn’t really mattered. Autonomous driving, however, will make a massive difference, and the distinctions between its various tiers are meaningful. Imagine all the angst you might experience when finding out your Android phone will no longer be updated to the latest version, and then multiply that by the cost of a shiny new car.
My impression, from talking to Audi and other carmakers, is that they’re narrowly focused on making the technology work, paying little heed to its broader effects. Externalities like pissing off existing customers by rapidly obsoleting the car they just bought don’t seem to have been taken into account. Tesla has set a fine example with its regular software updates, and Audi promises to emulate it, but that’s unlikely to go far enough. Software patches are okay for a phone that costs a few hundred dollars, but pricey luxury cars like the Audi A8 should come with greater assurances of longevity.
Maybe that will be the thing that differentiates the premium cars of the future: longer periods of enjoying the latest tech without having to buy a new car.