Accelerated Obsolescence

  • September 16, 2023

You have probably heard the term, planned obsolescence. You may not know that it did not mean building cars cheaply, in order to assure they fell apart quickly – so as to make it necessary to buy a new one, repeatedly.

That is the common, generally understood meaning.

But it isn’t what was actually planned.

Rather, the plan was to make people want to buy a new car – by regularly changing how the new cars looked, relative to prior model year cars. The idea being to leverage the desire many people have to have the latest thing and to keep up with the Joneses. If your next door neighbor – Jones – just parked a brand-new ’57 Chevy in his driveway, maybe you felt your ’55 was looking a little old and fogey. So you drove it to the dealer and bought yourself a brand-new ’57.

That was the idea.

The fact was that your ’55 was probably still a perfectly sound car in ’57 – and if you didn’t care about having the latest thing – such as bigger fins – and keeping up with the Joneses, you could keep on driving it for many years to come.

Today, there’s a new take on the idea.

Call it accelerated obsolescence.

It is a response – conscious or not – to the problem of vehicles lasting much too long, as they have been since the late ’90s, by which time the typical vehicle was so well-built that it would run reliably for 150,000 or more miles and at least ten years. It was – it is – common for vehicles built around that time to still be running reliably enough today to  continue driving them regularly, even after they have accrued more than 250,000 miles and are old enough to legally buy beer.

This longevity made it much less necessary to buy a new vehicle more than once every dozen or so years. You might want to, of course. But that is not the same thing. A large and growing cohort of people did not want to – in part because of the unprecedented increase in the cost of new vehicles since circa the mid-2010s, especially new trucks and SUVs, which are the kinds of vehicles many people want but can no longer afford to buy new. So they hold onto their old ones.

Because they can.

Also, the older ones do not come with features – including “advanced driver assistance technologies” – many people do not want but which everyone who buys a new vehicle has to buy because the vehicle manufacturers have made them standard rather than optional.

These features are more than just annoying to many people. They are also based on throw-away electronica that, when it fails, will make the car difficult if not impossible to continue driving without fixing. That is to say, without replacing the electronica – which may no longer be available when the fix is needed.

Most new vehicles, for instance, have smartphone-style tap/swipe LCD screens that serve as control interfaces for the vehicle’s air conditioning and heating system as well as the audio system and so on. More and more new vehicles have the same type of LCD displays in front of the driver, rather than the formerly typical set of analog (non-digital) gauges.

Like the smartphones they emulate, these systems are not built to last. Nor are they built to be repaired. One throws away a four or five year smartphone and buys a new one. It will be no different for the smartphones we’re driving now.

And it’s more than just the peripherals.

The mechanicals aren’t made for the long-term, either. You may have noticed that V8 and six cylinder engines have largely been replaced in new vehicles that typically used to come standard with them by four cylinder (and even three cylinder) engines that used to be used almost exclusively in very small, very light vehicles such as subcompact and compact-sized economy vehicles. They are now standard in mid-sized family vehicles and even some full-sized trucks (e.g., the Chevy Silverado 1500, which comes standard with a 2.7 liter four cylinder engine).

These little engines are heavily boosted – i.e., turbocharged – to make up for their small size. They are powerful but under a lot of pressure (literally) and for that reason are not likely to last long enough to be able to legally buy beer. These engines keep getting smaller – and are under more and more pressure, too. A good example here is the 1.2 liter three cylinder engine that’s the only available engine in the 2024 Buick Envista, which is a nearly 4,000 pound crossover SUV. An engine that small is sized right for an 800 pound motorcycle – in which application it would not be be necessary to pressurize it to the tune of nearly 20 psi of boost in order to get things moving.

This new crop of heavily boosted, undersized-for-the-application engines are not likely to still be running reliably 150,000 miles and a dozen years from now – and the same is probably true of the eight, nine and ten speed transmissions paired with them. When they fail – and need to be replaced – the cost is likely to not be worth the expense.

Related expenses include repair costs for otherwise fixable body damage in the wake of a relatively minor accident because of the cost of replacing all of the cheap plastic and almost-aluminum-foil-thin skin (sometimes, actually made of aluminum) that wraps the exteriors of new vehicles. Plus the cost of  gutting and replacing most of the interior and the air bags that destroyed most of the interior when they exploded.

All of this is accelerated by frequent full-redesigns of a given model after as little as four years – after which it gets harder and harder to the point of impossibility, eventually, to find necessary mechanical and electrical parts to keep the older model running. Just the same as it is hard-to-the-point-of-impossible to keep a smartphone for more than about four years before it either fails (and isn’t worth fixing or can’t be fixed) or is rendered obsolete and no longer functionally viable, via the latest “updates.”

That’s how you accelerate obsolescence – and solve the problem of things lasting too long and people not having to buy as often.

. . .

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