The Time Has Come for an Upgradable Car

Car Design Research’s Drew Meehan looks at how Phonebloks and the modular movement could help carmakers stay relevant in a fast-changing technology world.

Just over a year ago, an unknown Dutch designer named Dave Hakkens posted a video on YouTube that set the internet abuzz. His idea was Phonebloks, and the modular smartphone he proposed was a response to the throw-away culture in the electronics industry. It firmly hit the mark with consumers who have grown tired of the designed obsolescence model that currently dominates smartphones and other personal electronics. With the auto industry now spending so much time, effort, and money designing and promoting smartphone-like infotainment systems, there’s nowhere that would be a more appropriate implementation of modular or upgradable components.

The expense of a modern automobile means that it must be designed to last for years or even decades. Costing closer to a new home than the latest smartphone, a new car simply can’t be thrown away when the sat-nav stops being useful or when in-car technology takes a big leap (think CD players, GPS, or even touchscreens). Big brands rely on this obsolescence to sell many consumers a new car after just a few years, but the car industry is more than just about the latest model in showrooms.

Since cars will last an entire generation, often moving from one owner to the next multiple times, time has come to put more effort into improving the ownership experience after three, five, or even 10 years. Aftermarket brands such Alpine, Kenwood and Pioneer provide replacements for those situations, but they rarely match the car’s original design language, quality, or user experience, and usually require expensive professional installation. They are rarely a first choice of the consumer, but rather a necessary evil in order to have ‘expected functionality’ in a pre-owned car. But modular design would fix that.

It would also potentially allow quicker and more affordable customisation and maintenance of in-car systems, as well as an additional revenue stream for dealerships. Under the bonnet, every component is replaceable, upgradable, and serviceable. Inside the car though, the difficulty and expense of upgrading or replacing components is often extraordinary, and is not something any but the most hardcore home mechanic would attempt—most likely voiding the warranty in the process. But maybe it’s not necessary.

Phonebloks, or Google’s Project Ara (formerly Motorola) which is a functioning prototype of a modular phone, may seem simplistic, ‘basic’, or unrealistic for the needs of the automotive market. But in a world where consumer electronic technology moves ahead by leaps ever year and cars lasting a decade, it’s actually a perfect fit. Low-end cars would be the ideal starting point, as a modular system would work on the same principal of Renault’s Twingo, which offers an integrated smartphone mount instead of a touchscreen on some models. Modular elements (whether true ‘bloks’ or otherwise shaped) could easily be added after the car is already built. A consumer could literally spec anything they wanted in the dealership, with no wait, no ordering, and no lengthy installation process.

Consumers would be happy and upgrades would likely be more frequent, which may even please dealers. Control (and cash flow) would remain with the manufacturers initially, but if the systems were made open source (or, better yet, standardized), the possibility of a truly extensible infotainment system could be a reality. Standardised ‘bloks’ would mean that owners could literally take their personal setup from vehicle to vehicle (or even from a smartphone to a car!), reducing the heavy learning curve and associated distractions of new car ownership. Online blok exchanges could reduce waste and carbon footprints, not to mention radically reshape future swap meets.

If it all sounds a bit radical, well, that’s the point. There is a general acknowledgement that the automotive industry is lagging behind the consumer electronics industry with in-car technology, largely due to the long development process and lifecycles. Embracing the Phonebloks ethos and creating a modular in-car infotainment system that is truly upgradable and extensible would be a huge step forward in creating an in-car experience that is both more affordable and more personal for the owner, but also will ensure relevance for cars throughout their long life spans.

This article originally appeared on Car Design Research and was republished with permission. Read more of their insights here


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