Vintage driver

A little elegy for low-tech cars

From heat as a service to built-in snooping, car tech is getting out of hand, says Jason Walsh
Image: Jill Wellington via Pexels

14 September 2023

On a recent trip to Ireland, finding it was cheaper to hire a car to drive from Belfast to Dublin than to take the train, I legged it down to the nearest Hertz and took possession, albeit temporary, of a new MG. Sort of.

I say ‘sort of’ as the MG of old is long gone, the brand and now-shuttered Longbridge works now owned by China’s Shanghai Automotive Industry Corporation. 

You could tell this thing was not really an MG. For a start, it was an SUV, with a driving position approximately forty-two and a half metres above the ground. Secondly, it didn’t require continual topping up of the brake fluid master cylinder and, therefore, had functioning brakes. This is something that could not be said for the 1978 MG Midget I used to drive, as I discovered one day many years ago in Dun Laoghaire, luckily at very low speed. Never before had I been happy about those US-spec rubber bumpers…

Unsurprisingly, unlike my Midget, which required opening the bonnet and adjusting a tap if you wanted to change the blower from hot to cold air, this new MG was filled with technology. Some of it was even welcome. The momentary switch in lieu of a handbrake I could live without, but the built-in GPS and simple Bluetooth phone pairing were nice. 




The fact that both had to be controlled, as is increasingly common today, from some kind of iPad glued into the centre of the dash was an irritation, though. If I wanted to look at an LCD screen while I was driving I would just drive my car into a wall and put an end to things now before it got dangerous for everyone else.

God only knows what other techno gubbins this thing was festooned with. Cars today have more chips in them than the average McDonalds – much to the chagrin of those of us who liked to fix them using only a hammer.

Automakers just can’t help it, though. Once the very manifestation of the white heat of technology and the essence of individual freedom, today they are roadkill in the face of the Internet juggernaut that is reconfiguring society, and, with it, even our deepest desires.

Closed ecosystems for open roads

Kids don’t dream of getting their kicks on Route 66 anymore. Neither do musicians write about Little Red Corvettes, nor devote entire LPs to the art of driving (not even as ironic metaphors).  So, while cars remain a necessity for most of us, they are aspirational only at the very high end (have you noticed that, unlike in their glory days, Ferrari and Lamborghini are now profitable enterprises? Hell, even Aston Martin occasionally prints black ink). Imagine that.

Listen, I like cars. Of course I do: I’ve owned lots of stupid ones, from the aforementioned MG Midget to two almost five-metre long Jaguar grand touring barges. But facts are facts, and while in my opinion the electric vehicle revolution is not quite as sure a thing as many seem to think, the days of the internal combustion engine are drawing to an end. As the world has driven on, cars have been demoted from semiotic statements and precursors of eroticism to, well, transport.

Faced with this, car companies have been forced to digitally transform. Which, as we know, means: wreck the thing you once did at least half-competently, and then try and squeeze as much recurring revenue as possible from your victims.

It comes as interesting, if unsurprising, news, that car companies are beginning to behave as badly as technology companies. According to the Mozilla Foundation, and noticed by El Reg last week, car manufacturers are now hoovering-up data at a rate that would make Mark Zuckerberg blush. 

Some insurance companies already use telemetrics to judge driving habits, but how about Nissan allowing itself to use this data to develop customer profiles that describe drivers’ “preferences, characteristics, psychological trends, predispositions, behaviour, attitudes, intelligence, abilities, and aptitudes”?

Japan’s third-biggest car marque is not alone, either. The data orgy is a global phenomenon. Kia, apparently, wants to know about your sex life, while General Motors and Ford take an interest in characteristics including race and sexual orientation. Hyundai, meanwhile, is ready to dob you in to the cops, “based on formal or informal requests”. At least BMW no longer thinks heated seats can be sold as a subscription. Progress is progress, I suppose.

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