Earlier this week, the Wall Street Journal issued a report on what may be the central contradiction of the modern auto industry. While Sport Utility Vehicles and crossovers (aka SUVs that offer no Utility when it comes to the Sport of driving offroad) have classically been the best-selling vehicles across all car brands, their sales have stagnated in the first half of 2019, growing only about 1.5 percent in a sector that’s used to seeing sales growth rates of 10 percent or higher. But instead of looking at the market and concluding that they should maybe try to sell people some sedans or station wagons or hatchbacks, car companies have decided to pump out… more SUVs and crossovers? Per WSJ:
Auto executives say they aren’t too worried because even as the sales rate slows, there is still healthy demand among consumers for these types of vehicles and their models will continue to stand out.
“Our crystal ball has this continuing,” said Bill Fay, senior vice president for Toyota North America.
Though Bill Fay, senior vice president for Toyota North America, is clearly back on his bullshit, his quote also speaks to the sort of Business Logic that every large company subscribes to. Bigger vehicles, the WSJ points out, offer car companies and dealers larger profit margins, so that is what they are going to make. I have no idea whether or not Bill Fay, senior vice president for Toyota North America, actually believes in astrology or not, but you know who fuckin’ loves astrology? Millennials. And you know what millennials drive on roads? Cars. And you know what cars cost? Money.
Right now, millennials don’t really buy cars at the same rate that older people do. This is mainly because one, young people have largely gotten screwed by the economy in the past decade; and two, because modern cars are fairly reliable, as evidenced by the fact that the average car on the road is now 11.8 years old. Despite being a 30-year-old millennial who hangs out with other 30-year-old millennials, I can count the number of people I know driving new cars on one hand. Buying a new car, or for that matter any car that isn’t some beater off Craigslist, is an abstraction for most of us.
But! Things will not always be this way. Many older millennials have reached a point where they have vaguely career-type jobs and make enough money to hypothetically buy an actual new car, and Toyota and its fellow auto companies are chomping at the bit to foist a profit-margin-friendly SUV onto them. “Nearly half” of millennials, according to a white paper from the car industry consulting firm CDK Global, “would be willing to pay more for products that are consistent with their image.” While that is not true to my lived experience as both a millennial and a cheapskate, I am willing to accept that it is a thing that car companies want to believe about millennials. Along similar lines, CDK insists that, “Millennials want advanced technology features in their cars,” and they’ll be down to buy something really expensive as long as dealers create, “longer [auto loan] payment terms that lower the monthly cost,” which would hypothetically allow car companies to garnish millennial wages for years. Millennials want super-pricey, tech-laden vehicles that somehow express their personal brands. Cool, got it.
The hour of new-car-buying millennials is nigh, evidently, and car manufacturers are crafting and tinkering and R&D-ing and market-testing in the hope of creating just-expensive-enough vehicles crammed with a shitload of doodads, bleepbloops and scoobywhatsits, which will surely, they hope, be like catnip for the generation raised exclusively on a diet of Gak.
This future, I believe, is the one that Bill Fay, senior vice president for Toyota North America was alluding to when he told The Wall Street Journal about the crystal ball that Toyota apparently has on hand for market research purposes. Why do I think this? Because the WSJ’s article also mentions that Lexus, Toyota’s luxury brand, has created an SUV-ish type vehicle called the “Lexus UX.” It looks like this:
It is a proven fact that old people believe that young people will buy literally anything if you cram enough technology into it. This is the only possible explanation for things like Nikes with self-tying laces, toilets that hook up to the internet, and the Lexus UX, a car that screams “luxury car for millennials.” You may be aware that in addition to being part of the word “luxury,” “UX” is also a tech industry term that stands for “User Experience.” And a luxury user experience is what the Lexus UX promises to offer. “The UX delivers connectivity that anticipates your every need,” Lexus’s website boasts, big-upping the “provocative details and cutting-edge artistry” of a vehicle that has been “aggressively designed inside and out.” To understand how ridiculous this is on the face of it, please refer to the above image of the Lexus UX, which, to be clear, looks like a half-smushed egg.
Starting at $32,150 (fully loaded, the UX maxes out at over $45,000), the Lexus User Experience is basically a giant laptop with a car wrapped around it. It features wireless phone charging, onboard WiFi, a dashboard map/iPad thingy, integration with Alexa and Google Assistant, a little touchpad next to the shifter, a “Head-Up Display” that shows your car’s speed/RPMs etc. on the windshield, seats that recognize your butt and automatically adjust to your preferred driving position, plus the unfathomable ability to turn the car on with a smartwatch. There is also a hybrid model of the UX with something called “Predictive Efficient Drive,” which “uses data from your Navigation System and real-time traffic information to optimize battery regeneration at multiple points along your commute.” For a car that’s ugly as shit, Lexus nevertheless goes out of its way to position the car as a maverick on the design front, tapping the minimalist streetwear doof John Elliott to whip up a concept version of the UX with tires that look like the bottom of an Air Jordan while also claiming that the UX you can actually buy “is an embodiment of the city itself.”
All in all, the Lexus UX feels like a car beamed in from a crappy version of the not-too-distant future, which now that I think about it might be the point — after all, having money is in bad taste, and if you have bad taste, you will want to envision a future in which you own a Lexus UX. For most of us, however, the optimal “user experience” a car can offer is driving without breaking down, keeping its passengers from being seriously injured in the event of a crash, plus be able to hold a dog or a kid or something. Those cars are called “old used cars,” and even the worst one is better and cheaper than a Lexus UX. But car companies have decided there isn’t an incentive to make new cars that are simple and affordable, because they’re convinced the only way to get young people to buy cars at all is to turn them into coveted status symbols they’ll hypothetically post about on Instagram.
There will be a day when all the good old used cars have bitten the dust, though, and that day is going to suck. Will we be forced to roll around in ten-year-old Lexus UXes, struggling to figure out what speed we’re actually going as our Head-Up Display screen glitches every two seconds? Will our by-then-outdated UX WiFi systems render our cars open to hacking? Will my Lexus Alexa (Alexus) give me real-time updates on much my gas-powered UX is degrading the environment and deliver a personalized shaming for not being able to afford a Tesla? I don’t want to buy a computer car. Hell, I barely even want to buy a computer.