Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Your car wears out on purpose

Toward the end of the 1920s new car sales were slowing. In fact, used car sales exceeded new car sales. Cars were made so well (and their styles didn't change much), so people just kept their cars that were still working fine. Cars never really wore out, but instead stayed in "circulation" being passing from diver to driver.

Along came the assembly line and the increased ability of building cars in a more uniform way. To make a long story short, automakers (most-notably Ford and GM) decided they would design their vehicles to "wear-out." This idea is called "planned obsolescence" or "designed deterioration."

Planned obsolescence takes two forms. The first is that products physically wear out and break down. In this way, companies can "force" consumers to buy new products (because the old model broke) so that we keep giving them our money.

Re-visiting the movie Objectified, one of the designers talked about a leather briefcase he had inherited from his father that improved with use. And while he was reminiscing, he gave us a glimpse into the fact that this is rare:
Sometimes I get that task, which is, 'design something that gets better with use.' Right, there's very few things if you think about it, they mostly degrade, but, um, some things like this briefcase gets [sic] better with use. 
It's sad that the idea of creating a product that gets better with use is novel. It's pretty clear that companies design products that purposely degrade.

I first encountered this concept in my sophomore U.S. History class at the Framingham State College. We talked for quite some time about how Henry Ford stopped designing cars well and began to design cars that would quit working in a decade or two.

But Planned Obsolescence has another, more overt form (if you've been reading the links you've probably already picked up on it). See, car companies introduce a "new" car every year (do you have a 2010 Prius or the 2011 model?). They don't do this because they've made some technological break-through (in fact substantive changes come far less often), rather, they do it because they've found consumers are more likely to buy a new car if a "new" model comes out.

Think about computers. I do basically the same thing on this computer that I did on my computer five years ago. But, because new operating systems come along and require better computers, most of us find ourselves upgrading to the newer "better" models.

This is a system designed to keep us buying "new" products even though we often don't need whatever is being called "new."

Another interviewee from Objectified had this to say:
If I had a billion dollars to fund a marketing campaign, I would launch a campaign on behalf of things you already own: 'Why not enjoy them today?'
Though companies benefit financially from planned obsolescence, our planet does not. All of the things we junk, have to go somewhere (usually landfills) and we just keep on creating more.

I'd like us to be more materialistic. Not in wild acquisition of consumer goods, but rather in cherishing the things we own and preserving them so that we get a lifetime of use out of the things we buy. Let us shift away from acquisition and towards preservation.


  1. Your youth is showing. Cars today last several times longer than the ones on sale when I first learned to drive. Of course, this comes at a price: new cars are more expensive and harder to repair when they do need to be repaired.

    Wear happens. A metal machine that sits out in the elements, has moving parts and high temperature differences is going to wear out. You can forstall the process by using less biodegradeable materials, but is this necessarily a good thing?

    Planned obsolescence is natural. Trees shed leaves every year. Is is better to make expensive cars that last longer or cheap cars that recycle easily?

    I don't know the answer offhand. I merely state that the latter option is not a priori evil.

    And if a car is going to wear out, it makes sense to try to design the car so that most of the expensive parts wear out at the same time. An engine that lasts longer than the body or a body that lasts longer than the engine is wasteful -- unless you make it easy to move engines between bodies.

    When we move to lightweight materials the equation becomes even more interesting. Aluminum fatigues worse than steel. And how do you repair a carbon fiber unibody?

  2. Carl,

    Frankly I'm flattered that you posted here. I refer to Holistic Politics frequently. I'm quite interested in why you chose to respond to this post. Of course I'll probably never know since I'm commenting back about four months after you posted here.

    Anyway, here's a response to what you said.

    @"Your youth is showing. Cars today last several times longer than the ones on sale when I first learned to drive."

    Unless you learned to drive during the first third of the twentieth century this isn't really a point against what I'm saying here. No doubt quality has fluctuated in the latter half of the last century (and now), the point is there was a major shift in the way cars were manufactured early in the twentieth century.

    However, you do raise an intriguing question (actually several): "Is is better to make expensive cars that last longer or cheap cars that recycle easily?"

    I'm not sure of the answer either, but modern car makers are NOT making cars that "recycle easily." If their motives were what you allude to throughout your comment, they might, but this is not the case.

    However, rest assured that your points about what planned obsolescence COULD be are very much appreciated.

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