• Taylor Keller

Unsustainable Complexity

Over the last few months, many auto manufacturers have had to shut down production due to a global shortage of computer chips. The latest manufacturer to be caught in this issue is Tesla, who manufactures some of the most digitally complex cars in the world. This has a significant impact on the rare metal and mineral resources of our planet, and is not sustainable.

Auto makers have played a surprisingly large role in the recent chip shortage. Cars have become some of the most digitally complex products on the market, and this complexity is creating more problems than it solves. In fact, the vast majority are used for conveniences and novelties, like automatic liftgates and unnecessarily complex infotainment.

Modern cars now feature over-the-air software updates, autonomous driving, overly complex infotainment systems, and more, all of which require a large amount of computing power. They go to great lengths to automate everything possible, with no regard for the resources consumed. Some of the most wasteful amenities in modern cars are complex systems like power lift gates, electronic parking brakes, electric steering, electric suspension, and advanced vehicle dynamics controls. It’s surprisingly easy to overlook all the computers hiding under the surface, but these systems make up as much as 40% of the price of a new car.

One of the more unsavory motives behind this tech explosion is data. Carmakers make huge amounts of money selling the data that your car collects. This also opens the door to cybersecurity threats. In another article, we’ll get into how vulnerable autonomous cars really are.

This entirely avoidable problem is the result of the relentless push to add new features with each new model and mid-life update. Implementing new tech with every model or updated vehicle creates a problem where the usefulness of the new features declines over time. Eventually the automaker runs out of actually useful and beneficial ideas to implement, and must start adding features that serve no real purpose and solve no actual problem. Adding new technology purely for the sake of adding new technology is wasteful and unsustainable.

It’s a tough bind, but one the automakers have put themselves in by relying too heavily on electronics. Throughout history we see examples of their irresponsible resource consumption. A few decades ago, it was petroleum they were overusing. OEMs got carried away with big powerful SUVs and fuel economy went down the drain. Modern innovation has been able to produce efficient yet powerful engines, but electronics are the new over-used commodity.

Further down the supply chain, microchip manufacturers like TSMC and Samsung as well as numerous smaller companies in Japan and China have faced a range of misfortunes in 2019 and 2020. Manufacturers globally are facing spikes in air and ocean freight prices due to high demand during the pandemic. COVID has greatly hurt supply chain capacity across the board, from materials to manufacturing and distribution. Geopolitical issues have cut US firms off from contracting with Chinese chip makers. Several Japanese manufacturers have even faced fires at their factories. In short, being a chip manufacturer has been rough recently. Automakers need to start being more conservative with our resource consumption. If we do not stop now, mobile devices and critical computing infrastructure will suffer the consequences.

Consumers do not need all these unnecessary electronic toys. We hope carmakers figure that out soon, for their own sakes. The chip crisis is here, and it’ll be a tough one to figure out. Until then, we will be charging along, unencumbered by unobtainable computer chips.

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