I recently read a book called „Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work”. The author is a philosopher and motorcycle mechanic.
In this book, he analyzes the conflicts between our need to be autonomous human beings through having “manual competence” and the fact that we are all becoming passive consumers living in an abstract world by overusing mobile and digital devices.
In one chapter, he described the following fact:
In the earlier stage, a motorbike driver needs to take care of his motorbike all the time, e. g. when and how to refill the lubricating oil of their bike. This kind of action is on the one side extra work for the users, but on the other side it gives users the feeling that they are now taking responsibility and control over the product/the external world, and thus take time to understand the product/the external world.
As technology develops, all machines are equipped with digital displays. The physical characteristics of a machine are being hidden, and how a system behind a digital display works is highly abstract.
Manufacturers try, with good intentions, to make all the system operations intuitive. This makes the user, however, heavily dependent on the “intention of the designer” without realizing it. The result: the users are transformed into “dummies”. When they see a single warning icon on the display, they have no other choice but to call the manufacturer's support. Passive consumers are losing their autonomy. The stakeholders of car companies take control over the consumer's decision-making process and action.
According to Immanuel Kant, autonomy means one has the right to make their own decisions excluding any interference from others.
I was recently driven by a friend in his BMW 5 series. We talked about how many knobs it has and compared it to digital displays. He said “I like knobs. You get punished for playing with your phone while driving, while all the new models have a touch display without any knobs. Who has this kind of idea? They are removing important things from the car while not giving the drivers real benefits. Drivers don’t have a say in the choice and are left to deal with it.”
We know from various international studies that when it comes to new products and new technologies, Chinese consumers are always open and happy to welcome them. Their willingness to accept new things, such as EVs and all the relevant new technologies stands out compared to other countries.
Recently, different news about the same topic were spread rapidly on social media: Two premium EVs, one from a US brand, and one from a German brand crashed and immediately caught fire. Both models have retractable (hidden) door handles. While the cars were burning, people around the car were not able to open the door. One driver suffered from severe burns, the other one lost his life.
The main messages of the news in the media were:
- The batteries catch fire easily and will set off a chain reaction of explosions in a short time, passengers only have little time to get out of the car
- The modern hidden door handles could get stuck and make it impossible for other people to open the car from outside
This combination has scared a lot of potential EV buyers.
We talked about the standard all-glass roof in the new EVs and its disadvantages especially in summer (https://www.spiegel-institut.de/en/whats-new/publications/driving-china). Now, however, it is about the explosion of the battery. People will ask themselves “How much do I trust the technology behind and the quality of the battery? Do I have a choice if I don’t want it?”
There are still enough cars with combustion engines and mechanical components like knobs on the market, meaning people do have other choices, but all the manufacturers are talking about “going all-digital and electric in a few years”. Do we still have a choice then?
Spiegel Institut conducts international consumer research studies, offering insights into cultural and social background information for a better understanding of the consumer mindset. Feel free to contact us: email@example.com
Author: Yue Liu, Spiegel Institut Mannheim