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In Defense of Automotive Incremental Change

In Defense of Automotive Incremental Change
Posted 10/26/2016 by David Wang

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Amara’s law states that "We tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run.” This law seems particularly apt in the automotive space. In part, it’s a problem of marketing. Every year, automakers unveil “concept cars” at major events like the Detroit Auto Show. These one of a kind creations are meant to represent the future direction of the company, and never fail to provoke envy and comment. Aside from stylish vehicle bodies, a lot of the main attractions in concept cars come in the form of advanced electronics that promise to inform, entertain and protect you in new ways. From vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) communication to gesture-controlled consoles; these cars have us reaching for our wallets.

But when the actual next model vehicle is released to consumers, it is not even close to what was presented. Stripped of all of the fancy features and visual flair of the concept car, the actual car seems to hardly be different from the previous generation. This makes us wonder: What’s behind the incremental nature of “real” car development?

A lot of it comes down to the hard realities of the car industry, particularly around safety, manufacturability, and cost.

  • Safety is always the number one concern of the car manufacturer. Production car designs must meet stringent safety criteria, and leverage the hundred plus years of safety experience that car manufacturers have gained in.
  • Manufacturability is another factor. Translating one-of-a-kind concepts into mass production designs is extremely challenging. A drastic design change could require changes to the manufacturing process, new parts and possibly new machinery.
  • Finally, cost constraints matter. A car is the most expensive consumer product that is built for the mass market, and is generally the second most expensive purchase that a household makes after their home. This means that while there were nearly a billion cars on the road worldwide in 2014, only a few million are actually sold each year, and with more than 50 car manufacturers worldwide, even the biggest players only sell 8-10 million cars a year. With high capital costs and a relatively small market, car makers are reluctant to take risks with a design that may not resonate with a broad market.

These challenges result in production cars that include mostly incremental evolutions from their predecessors, rather than revolutionary leaps. While this may be frustrating for the consumer, this is actually a sign of a system that is working well. Car manufacturers have had over a hundred years to refine their processes and the result is a highly efficient system that creates amazingly safe and feature rich machines at a reasonable cost.

This incremental change is also evident in the infotainment space. Especially when compared to the fast moving smartphone space, changes in the infotainment space can seem painfully slow. But as with cars as a whole, this is actually a good thing. Infotainment systems are not the same as smartphones. They have to work under a broader variety of conditions, and minimize distraction to the driver. If they fail to do so, the liability falls to the car maker, whereas the smartphone company is not liable for an accident caused by distracted driving. So in the short term, infotainment systems are likely to remain very similar to how they look today. But remember the second half of Amara’s law. We tend to “underestimate the effect [of technology] in the long run”. 15 years ago a CD player was the standard for infotainment in a car. Today, many cars come with Carplay, or Android Auto, that allow you to directly interact with your phone apps from within the infotainment system. Others, even offer multiple in-vehicle displays to play movies and video for passengers in the back seat.

So don’t mistake slow change for stagnation. Tomorrow’s infotainment system will probably look much more like today’s than we would like. But in 15 years infotainment systems will almost certainly look very different than today.