You can reasonably expect a new car to last 150,000 miles. If you live close to work, we can say you drive about 10,000 miles a year, and the car life is 15 years. During that time, you will have to replace wear items such as tires, filters, brake pads, and spark plugs/cables. You might be unlucky and have to replace a transmission once. Still, that seems like a pretty average car.
But what about the new electronics in the car? Is the integrated touch screen that acts as a navigation aid and entertainment control panel expected to last 15 years? Or should it be considered a wear item as well?
I recently had to replace an industrial touch screen for a customer. This new one was the third screen in five years. They seem to be lasting consistently two and a half years. The customer is not too happy about that life, and I agree. The manufacturer said (quietly) that the expected life is four years. This blog is not a rail against any particular manufacturer. Instead, I'd like to explore the lifecycles of regular "capital" equipment versus the electronics that support and run them.
Fifteen years for a car. Thirty-five years for an "old style" clothes washer and dryer. (See any of numerous "Made By Monkeys" entries at this Website.) Can modern electronics meet that level of life expectancy? Not really. I know of industrial equipment with electronics lasting that long, but that brings up other problems, such as software life expectancy. (I'll cover that in a different article.) The average consumer electronic device doesn't last nearly that long. So is a touch screen considered a wear item? Will you be expected to replace that navigation/entertainment display two or three times during the life of the car? That's an unsavory feature for me.
Charles Murray's article, Automotive Electronics: Do We Really Need All This Stuff?, prompted my line of thinking. His article asked whether we really needed all this stuff. The market will show how we decide, but I think we all know the trend will be "Yes, we want this stuff". Fine, we do. But that "stuff" will not last as long as the car. Computer manufacturers want you to upgrade computers every three years, but a more realistic consumer cycle is six to seven years. The computer may last longer, but it will be left behind by technology advances. So not only is it likely that the device will fail and require replacing several times, but we also might want to replace it with a newer version during the life of the car.
Charles Murray's article described Cadillac's rollout of a new head unit that will permit user interaction similar to personal electronic devices. Cadillac's reasons for doing this are obvious. It wishes to differentiate itself from other car manufacturers. My question is not why, but why bother? Cadillac is not a consumer electronics manufacturer. Auto manufacturers make cars, not user interfaces. The likes of Samsung and Apple are so far ahead in the realm of user interface that I have to wonder why Cadillac is making the attempt.
To me, it would make more sense for carmakers not to go for the "totally integrated" dashboard of the past. Instead, I'd like to see them provide a 5VDC USB bus and ports, and possibly a sort of universal support, so that any personal device can be used for navigation and entertainment. This approach accepts and adapts to the reality that electronics simply do not have the same lifecycle that the automobile does. It also gives the consumer the ability to change the entertainment system at will. I wrote about too much choice in my soda fountain article. Car companies offer too little choice or make the choice for us. Providing the USB bus would give us the freedom to make our own selection, change it at will, upgrade when it makes sense, and replace electronics that fail or wear out.