Technology is proliferating through the automotive industry at an astonishing rate — almost as we have never seen before. Not only is new tech making our cars more entertaining, but also they are making them safer while ushering in a new automotive era of propulsion.
While today’s cars may not be the George-Jetson future the 1950s and 1960s imagined them to be; we are on the cusp of something equally as awesome. Well, as awesome as it can be when compared to flying cars — the self-driving and electric car.
If you look back through the history of automotive innovations, General Motors toyed with the idea of self-driving cars all the way back in the 1960s. Instead of computer-controlled vehicles, however, the system needed a complete overhaul of road infrastructure to work. It was simply cost prohibitive.
But over the years, computer technology has gotten smaller, cheaper and far more capable, the self-driving technology being able to fit right into today’s cars themselves without so much as a driver noticing a few new sensors in the grille or above the rear-view mirror.
While self-driving technology may be on the way, with many automakers saying the first truly self-driving cars hitting the market by the end of the decade, there is another change percolating in the industry, one that is likely to be more disruptive than self-driving cars if that can be believed.
The gasoline engine, surprisingly, was not been the staple of powering the horseless carriages at the turn of the 20th century. During a time when there were hundreds of automotive manufacturers, there was a litany of different power sources trudging down dirt-lane country roads and clogging the streets of New York.
Early in the automotive era, gasoline engines were seen as dirty, smelly and all-around inefficient to another technology of the time — electricity. We like to imagine the world where the gasoline engine cut its teeth in infancy in the Ford Model T, but electric cars were common in the early 1900s — so much so, they were the luxury cars of the time. Even New York City got in on the action with a small fleet of electric taxis.
However, the march of gasoline engine technology could not be stopped. What started as smelly and inefficient turned into a technology that soon offered the ease of operation and clean commuting electric cars offered at the time along with the ability to go great distances without the need of plugging in. Sound familiar?
While New York electric taxis had a range of about 25 miles and an 8-9 hour recharging time, they could not compete with the distance offered by gasoline engines and the ease of refueling them.
Fast forward a century and electric vehicles are making a hard comeback thanks to the march of technological advancement gasoline vehicles had seen 100 years ago.
These new technologies offer great advantages in safety, efficiency and technical wonder, but they also offer something more — savings. There is a push across state legislatures and the U.S. government to wean consumers off expensive and environmentally damaging fossil fuels.
To do this, there are numerous government rebates available to lower the cost of the otherwise expensive hybrid and electric vehicles, when compared to similar gasoline-powered vehicles of course. A $35,000 electric car can often be reduced up to $10,000. That is a significant amount of savings and could be enough to entice a consumer into electric mobility.
Not only is there savings on the cost of the car, but hybrids and electric vehicles are designed to be cheaper to operate than conventional petrol-powered cars and trucks. Many electric cars can be charged from your standard electrical outlet for just a few nickels and dimes a day. Very different from the $20 fill-up every few days many of us have to make.
Electric cars are just now becoming a true market, even if it is still a relatively small market. There is the Nissan Leaf and Tesla Model S. Other automakers have dabbled in electric cars, but often only to meet government standards. Chevrolet, which mainstreamed hybrids with its Volt, will soon be unveiling a production version of its Bolt, an all-electric compact hatchback.
These electric cars do offer a cost savings, but with most new technology, there are many, many unknowns. There are cost savings when purchasing the vehicle, and then money is saved when powering it, but what about long-term maintenance costs?
Electric cars, by design, have far fewer moving parts than their gasoline-powered counterparts do. There are no pistons, no valves and no camshafts. Battery packs, while struggling to offer the range a gasoline engine and fuel tank can provide, they are commonly used for a laundry list of electronic products ranging from cellphones to laptops.
As people who use electronics know, charging and depleting batteries actually makes them less efficient over time. Batteries often lose their capacity over time, meaning they cannot offer the battery life and distance when they were new. Laptops plugged in too long see a big hit when unplugged, lasting only a fraction of what they should.
It is thought that because batteries for vehicles are significantly larger than their corresponded mobile brethren, they should be able to hold their capacity for far longer. How long is unknown. Buying and replacing a new laptop is cheap and easy. But how will it work in an electric car where there are numerous moving parts?
Tesla highlighted its quick-swap technology where the battery in the Tesla could be replaced faster than fueling a conventional car, but the feature is not being used. Swapping batteries is not a new idea, with several automakers toying with the idea into the 1920s in hopes of helping electric maintain relevance then. Right now, batteries for many electric cars, especially Teslas are still fresh. And thanks to quick-charging technology, unnecessary.
Aside from what to do when the battery dies, there are questions about what happens when something goes wrong. Older gasoline vehicles often have mechanical problems as the miles roll by on the odometer. Most gasoline engine repairs are cheap and can be readily performed at a number of shops across the country. But many are not only unequipped to perform work on electric vehicles but often have limited knowledge of the new technology.
If electric vehicles stay on the market as long as gasoline vehicles, the discussion on long-term maintenance and labor costs must be had. What do you do when your electric car does not start? No longer is it as simple as replacing a small battery or banging on the starter, but something that requires an expert.
There will be a cost to tow the vehicle to a certified shop, and if the shop is not close, that is a cost the owner has to pay for. Tesla dealers are far from common. They are not your Chevy shop with one every 10 miles. Most electric cars come with an extensive warranty, but those warranties will not last forever.
Electric vehicles are pioneering a new technology and adopting that technology has its risks. While automakers understand the limitations and problems with the new technology, problems down the road with electric vehicles will arise. If you are looking at purchasing such a vehicle and are looking to keep the car until the wheels fall off, thinking about purchasing an aftermarket extended warranty is a smart idea.
The vehicle service contract can offer a peace of mind about not having to shell out untold amounts of money to repair an electric vehicle. The last thing you should want is to save money on the purchase of an electric car and to fuel it, but then spend the money you saved years down the road on repairs and maintenance costs. An vehicle service contract would help alleviate those high costs of labor, repair and maintenance.
The same thought process could be used for self-driving cars. The technology in those is not foolproof — no technology is. It is a wonder every time a key is turned and an engine fires up repeatedly. We expect our cars to do a lot and do it reliably every day, and they deliver. However, time and wear and tear are not friends to vehicles. Things naturally wear out and need to be replaced.
Technology can sometimes be one of those things. Parts fail, software gets sluggish and the last thing a self-driving car needs is the technology that keeps it on the road to no longer work.
Self-driving cars use sensors to see the road around them, make lightning-quick computations about the cars sharing the road, and adjust steering and speed instantaneously to keep itself from crashing into other cars and from going off the road. However, the technology only works if all the sensors are working properly and the software is computing all that data. When a sensor goes out, the system fails. Every piece is critical to a self-driving car.
The cost will be a big factor with self-driving cars. Not so much to the consumers, but the cost to repair. It is easy to hide the cost of a $5,000 array of sensors, but having to pay that five or ten years after the purchase of the vehicle, and that can be a hefty chunk of change coming out of your pocket.
This is where an aftermarket extended warranty can come in handy. Self-driving cars are new. And while it may be a few years before cars are truly self-driving on the road, the technology that powers these cars will need to be repaired, maintained and replaced. How much those services will cost is unknown.
When carriages went horseless, the new gasoline technology took several years to stabilize. It was new technology and manufacturers were still figuring out how it worked and how to utilize it in its cars. Electric vehicles and self-driving cars are new technology. It will take some time for automakers to begin hitting home runs with the tech.
Until they do, and they will figure it out, buying an electric or self-driving car will come with some caveats. The technologies’ longevity is being tested as I write this. Costs for repairs, maintenance and labor are unknowns, but something an aftermarket extended warranty can cover.
The last thing one would want is to be stuck with a repair bill they were not expecting, or worse, cannot afford. Cars are the vehicles by which our lives move. We have to get to work, take kids to soccer practice, haul groceries and haul butt to the hospital when our wife goes into labor. We have to guarantee these new technologies are in tip-top shape before we can trust our lives to them. We are getting there, but until we do, we have to do all we can to keep the technology running. And one can do that with an extended warranty.