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In the past few weeks, conventional cars have been put on the endangered list.
The electric carmaker Tesla turned its first full-year profit in its history. News broke that Hyundai has been negotiating with Apple to manufacture a driverless car. Start-ups like Rivian and Lucid are racing ahead with entirely novel ways to make vehicles. And General Motors said that by 2035, it would stop selling gasoline-powered cars.
“I’ve been writing about the auto industry for 19 years, and I’ve really never seen anything like this,” my colleague Neal E. Boudette told me. We discussed the future of cars and whether traditional automakers or tech-focused companies, like Tesla and Apple, would rule the next generation of the roads.
Shira: Are traditional automakers, like G.M., serious about electric vehicles?
Neal: G.M. wouldn’t have said that it will stop making internal combustion engines by 2035 unless it were dead serious. Ford and Volkswagen haven’t committed to a deadline, but they’re spending tens of billions of dollars to develop electric vehicles. These companies are convinced that there will be a tipping point that spells the death of conventional cars.
Electric vehicles, especially in the United States, are a fraction of car sales. Maybe this isn’t a tipping point?
The movement toward electric cars could slow down, especially if there are economic downturns or shortages of raw materials. But I don’t think that there’s any going back now because of climate change and governments’ determination to fight it — including in China, some European countries and the United States.
Put these developments into context for us.
When I saw the G.M. news, I sat back in my chair and reflected on how revolutionary this was. G.M., for more than a century, has been producing internal combustion engine vehicles, and soon it won’t be.
We’re on the cusp of one of those big industrial transformations in which we shift from an old way of doing things to a completely new one, and everything will be turned upside down.
OK, wow. So who will lead this new car world? Auto companies or tech companies?
It’s not either-or. The companies that succeed will need to think like the other side. Auto companies need to adapt the mind-set and expertise of tech firms, and vice versa.
The marvel of Tesla is that it completely changed the concept of a car from a mechanical product to software. Instead of a car being something that was made once and didn’t change much, Tesla made it like an iPhone. The braking system or transmission can be upgraded and adapted after the car is on the road.
The traditional automakers were slow to catch on, but they may turn out to be very strong competitors to this new mode. And they’re good at something that Tesla still isn’t: conducting the orchestra of tens of thousands of parts, and assembling them to exacting standards at a rate of 100,000 or 300,000 cars a year.
It shows that Apple doesn’t want to do what Tesla did and build its own car factories and machinery. If it happens, it would be an interesting melding of Apple’s expertise and Hyundai’s manufacturing skills.
(Unrelated but weird: Tesla disclosed on Monday that it bought $1.5 billion worth of Bitcoin and wants to accept the cryptocurrency as payment for its cars.)
Tip of the Week
Making your car smarter — for cheap
While we imagine the cars of the future, The Times’s consumer technology columnist Brian X. Chen suggested ways to make our vehicles of today a little more tech-savvy.
Many people, including me, still have “dumb” cars — vehicles without internet connections and touch-screens. What a novelty! I prefer a dumb car, though. Without a jumbo touch-screen in front of me while driving, I have fewer distractions. Plus, I can customize my setup to be as smart as I want it to be.
Here’s what you need to add some smarts to your car for not much money:
A sturdy phone mount: Who needs an infotainment system when your phone is perfectly capable of displaying maps? You just need a place to mount your phone where you can see it without having to fumble with it. I use an iOttie mount recommended by Wirecutter, The Times’s product recommendation site. It inserts into my car’s never-used CD player.
A Bluetooth adapter: To wirelessly stream your playlists and podcasts from your phone to your car stereo, you need a Bluetooth connection. There are plenty of cheap Bluetooth kits that act as a wireless bridge between your phone and your stereo. The kit I use is now discontinued, but Wirecutter has plenty of newer options.
A phone charger: Beware of all of the crummy phone chargers out there, especially the ones sold at gas stations. You want a durable one that replenishes your phone battery quickly. Wirecutter recommends chargers from brands like Nekteck and Anker. If your car stereo has a USB port, you could instead plug a normal phone charging cable into that and skip buying a separate charging port for the car.
Before we go …
A brief glimpse at a looser Chinese internet: For a few days, an audio chatroom app called Clubhouse provided Chinese people a relatively civil and unfettered forum to discuss hot button topics including the Tiananmen Square crackdown and the country’s treatment of its Uighur minority. Then the government censors came in, reported my colleagues Amy Chang Chien and Amy Qin.
50 states and a tangle of vaccine priority algorithms: Formulas intended to sensibly allocate coronavirus vaccine doses throughout the United States have at times complicated delivery plans. “If these artificial allotments were scrapped,” one state health official told my colleague Natasha Singer, “it would help us tremendously.”
Not all screen time is bad: The education publication Chalkbeat writes about how teens at two Bronx homeless shelters are finding a creative outlet through playing, discussing and writing about video games.
Hugs to this
A shot-by-shot remake of an Usher music video — but at home with brooms and a dog in a wig.
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