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The New York Times had two columns worth reading over the weekend - about the same subject, cars - that struck me as illuminating in how they viewed the world and the implied impact on business.

The first, by Vatsal G. Thakkar, a psychiatrist, was about a subject broached in the past on MNB - the manual transmission.

The piece noted that “backup cameras, mandatory on all new cars as of last year, are intended to prevent accidents. Between 2008 and 2011, the percentage of new cars sold with backup cameras doubled, but the backup fatality rate declined by less than a third while backup injuries dropped only 8 percent.” One of the reasons, experts suspect, is that many drivers are not aware that this technology has limitations; in addition, 20 percent of drivers “had become so reliant on the backup aids that they had experienced a collision or near miss while driving other vehicles.”

Thakkar writes, “The fact that our brains so easily overdelegate this task to technology makes me worry about the tech industry’s aspirations — the fully autonomous everything. Could technology designed to save us from our lapses in attention actually make us even less attentive?”

His solution: the manual transmission. “A car with a stick shift and clutch pedal requires the use of all four limbs, making it difficult to use a cellphone or eat while driving,” he writes. “Lapses in attention are therefore rare, especially in city driving where a driver might shift gears a hundred times during a trip to the grocery store.”

You can read the column here.

Times technology columnist Kara Swisher also has some thoughts about cars:

“I will die before I buy another car.

I don’t say that because I am particularly old or sick, but because I am at the front end of one of the next major secular trends in tech. Owning a car will soon be like owning a horse — a quaint hobby, an interesting rarity and a cool thing to take out for a spin on the weekend.

“Before you object, let me be clear: I will drive in cars until I die. But the concept of actually purchasing, maintaining, insuring and garaging an automobile in the next few decades?


Swisher argues that this is the way of the future, and that “it will be easier than you’d think for a number of reasons that are increasing in speed and velocity, if you will excuse the pun.

“Consider how swiftly people moved from physical maps to map apps, from snail mail to email, from prime time TV to watching on demand. What had been long-held practices were quickly replaced by digital tools that made things easier, more convenient and simply better. Some of the shifts have been slower to develop, but then accelerated quickly, like what is now occurring in retail with online shopping and quick delivery pioneered by Amazon.

“Simply put, everything that can be digitized will be digitized … That is harder to envision with the heavy hunk of metal and fiberglass that is a car, but it is not hard to see the steps. You start using car-sharing services, you don’t use your car as often, you realize as these services proliferate that you actually don’t need to own a car at all.

You can read Swisher’s column here.
KC's View:
I just found the confluence of these stories fascinating, with one of them suggesting that technology doesn’t solve every problem, and the other positing that the shift away from individual car ownership is inevitable.

MNB readers know where I stand - I love my Mustang, and I love my Mustang’s manual transmission. I am one of those people who wants to love the car I drive, and am particular about the attributes I want it to have (manual transmission and cloth top being essential).

That said, I don’t question Kara Swisher’s argument. I think she’s right, and that this trend eventually will challenge the reality that so many retailers have built their businesses on the proposition that people are going to own minivans and SUVs and load them up on a regular basis. These same businesses many be depending on people to have basements in which they can keep all this stuff, while the next generation may live in smaller homes or in urban apartments. Businesses are going to have to adjust, and need to be planning that adjustment now.

While I agree that the manual transmission makes me a better, more attentive driver, I must confess that I wish it had a rear view camera. (It wasn’t standard equipment when I bought the car, and I didn’t realize how much I’d miss it.)