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EV Bells & Whistles & Chargers

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I don’t do much of the driving in our family these days. After I sold my Mitsubishi Eclipse (with manual transmission) a decade ago, driving wasn’t as fun anymore. I appreciate the 40-ish miles per gallon we squeeze out of our Ford C-Max, even if Consumer Reports outed the early generation of our hybrid back in the day for coming in about 10 mpg below its marketed claims of 47 mpg. Our fuel efficiency was especially welcome last weekend when we pumped in half a tank of regular to the tune of $27.

Ford shut the lights on the C-Max after the 2018 model year. MotorTrend attributed the decision partially to the overstated gas mileage claims, and partially due to growing consumer preference for gas-guzzling SUVs. Give me a sports car anyday, or at least a Mini Cooper. The future, I know, points in a different direction.

Max-C, 2018 model year (Source: Ford Motor)

I was reminded of my outdated vehicle preferences on our weekend jaunt out of Manhattan when I volunteered to take the wheel for part of the drive. When my partner, Liz, and I pulled into a parking lot, I reached to the steering column for the keys, then remembered to press the Start button. Liz just shook her head, having bought the C-Max in 2014. She hasn’t turned a car key since; I’m still operating on muscle memory.

We’re only in the very early stages of beginning to think about considering the possibility of buying a new car. That’s ok, with pandemic-era automotive chip shortages ruining the car buying process for drivers around the world, by the time we’re ready to visit or the equivalent, availability may have improved — and prices may have come down enough — that we can actually afford to buy one.

But you can still map out a plan for your future wheels, which I sometimes do for fun, playing with Monopoly money while trimming out my imaginary car. Everything is so different from when I bought my 5-speed Eclipse. Would we go electric? That’s the trend, for sure, and I’m all for the reduced carbon footprint — along with the promised fuel savings.

Getting an EV would require a whole new approach to driving. It would be especially challenging living in a city where we can’t set up a charger in the garage. Commercial garages are adapting to address the need, though. The garage we use when we can’t find a street spot just added EV charging, according to a sign showing an $8.45 add-on fee — on top of the $32.10 day rate — so your car can juice up while it’s captive all day. Smart.

Range anxiety could be a dealbreaker between me and an EV. Sure, running out of fuel is an issue with a hybrid, too. When we eased into a Mobil station on fumes last fall, I wondered at the time how we would have dealt with that issue if we needed to find a battery charger, which that station wasn’t equipped with. I was humming along to Jackson Browne, commenting breezily on the irony of Running on Empty coming up on my playlist, reassuring a nervous Liz we had nothing to worry about since the fuel gauge sensor told us we had 22 miles to spare. Liz, a few shades paler than she had been, pointed out that the car’s sensor system also showed we needed an oil change, which we didn’t.

There are other things we’d have to consider if we bought an EV. My hair stylist’s street flooded during an extreme storm in New York last year. His family and house made it through fine, but his son’s Tesla, which had been parked at street level, flooded, destroying the battery and rendering the car useless. Though insurance picked up the tab for a new one, having to junk a car because its power source shorted out isn’t very ecologically sound. That opened up more questions for me. Can you drive through deep puddles in an EV, or charge your car in the rain? Google directs you to a wide spectrum of answers to those questions. Who to believe?

Meantime, I hope our next car, whether it’s an EV or not, has some of the bells and whistles automotive tech companies keep dangling in front of us tech writers. DTS is pitching car makers on its in-cabin camera as an occupancy device for drivers and passengers so if you’re dozing off at the wheel, the camera can trigger an alert. The tech senses a lot more than the sleepies: Emotion detection can drive media recommendations for a vehicle’s occupants. That could be annoying. If I’m grouchy due to traffic, will I be fed “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” to change my mood?

Last month, Harman announced customizable sound experiences for the car. Premium automotive sound experiences are nothing new for the Samsung subsidiary, but the new approach is different. In a demo, Harman Automotive president Christian Sobottka said today’s car should be like a “smarter smartphone” that’s upgradeable and customizable. After all, Gen Z wouldn’t have it any other way.

In Harman’s vision of the future, you can upgrade your sound even after you’ve bought the car. He gave the example of a budget-strapped EV buyer having to choose between a backup battery or an upgraded audio system at purchase. Range anxiety is going to make that choice for most people, but Harman’s Software Enabled Branded Audio feature would make it possible for an audio admirer like me to upgrade to better sound after I bought the car. It could be as simple as tapping a button on the entertainment display to upgrade to Infinity sound and have the software downloaded to the connected car.

The “Ready Together” concept from Harman (source Harman Automotive) (Click on the image for a larger view.)

Harman also announced Ready Together, which allows families on the road to listen to shared or individual entertainment. Each occupant can listen to their own music, video or gaming content without infringing on anyone else’s. That’s great for the family road trip. A communication feature allows for overrides if the driver has to convey important information that everyone needs to know. These are the kinds of next-gen car features that I can get jazzed about. Harman says this one will be available to car OEMs this year.

Long design cycles have always made future car tech seem very far away. I can’t remember when I first started getting pitched on autonomous vehicle technology. It’s been a while now, but when I Googled yesterday, “When will driverless vehicles be available?” I got such a spectrum of results that I know I don’t have to worry about it anytime soon: “We’re Still Years Away from Having Self-Driving Cars”; “You Will Not Be Traveling in a Self-Driving Car Anytime Soon”; “Human Driving Will Be Outlawed by 2050”; “Self-Driving Cars Could Be Decades Away”; and the self-serving “How Google’s Self-Driving Car Will Change Everything.”

For someone who enjoys driving, that’s welcome news. Even the EV revolution will likely take longer than Detroit wants to admit. A New York Times article last March said a quarter of all cars sold will be electric by 2035 but that 13% of those on the road will be. Then again, BBC News said three months later that EVs will take over “sooner than you think.”

Sometimes things seem to be happening faster than they really are. I stopped at the parking garage yesterday to ask how the EV charging works. “Oh, we don’t have that yet,” the attendant told me: “It hasn’t been installed.”

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