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The Wiki Man

The Wiki Man: My other car is an iPad

A fortnight ago, I wrote about the arbitrary metrics applied to train travel — and how a trivial reduction in journey time, a measure with little relationship to human pleasure or productivity, has been used to justify the insane cost of a new rail link to Birmingham

13 August 2011

12:00 AM

13 August 2011

12:00 AM

A fortnight ago, I wrote about the arbitrary metrics applied to train travel — and how a trivial reduction in journey time, a measure with little relationship to human pleasure or productivity, has been used to justify the insane cost of a new rail link to Birmingham

A fortnight ago, I wrote about the arbitrary metrics applied to train travel — and how a trivial reduction in journey time, a measure with little relationship to human pleasure or productivity, has been used to justify the insane cost of a new rail link to Birmingham. In the interests of balance, I should point out that our decision-making involving cars may be little better than with rail.

Professor Paul Dolan at the LSE has extensively catalogued this ‘attention bias’, a distorting effect whereby the factors influencing, say, our choice of car may have little to do with the consequences of owning that car for the next five years. We may, for example, compare only the purchase price of prospective vehicles while ignoring their wildly different rates of depreciation; or, less logically still, neglect the cost of ownership altogether because our attention is seduced by the opening action of the rear cup-holders.

And that’s only considering the thought processes of car buyers. Many cars are designed with at least one eye on motoring journalists — a bizarre caste whose preoccupations may coincide in no way at all with the concerns of the real people who buy a car. What percentage of the readership of The Spectator has ever used the word ‘oversteer’, I wonder?


Of course it is difficult to fill column inches without reference to torque, turbo-lag or low-profile tyres — since simply being comfortable when driven at constant speed in a straight line (the leading requirement for motorway driving) doesn’t generate much interesting prose. (One of my favourite cars is the Lincoln Towncar, but I could no more easily write 100 words praising it than write a 1,000-word review of a sofa). All the same this narrow journalistic preoccupation with performance measures can be limiting. In particular it threatens the adoption of electric and hybrid cars. Because most families will buy their first electric car not as a replacement for their first car but as a second car, or even a third. And the performance requirements for a second or third car have nothing to do with the things journalists obsess about.

Hence Top Gear’s silly experiment with the Nissan Leaf, in which they contrived to make the car run out of power, was irrelevant as well as dishonest. How many people regularly take their second car on a journey of over 100 miles? (I’m not sure my family’s second car has been more than 50 miles from home in the last eight years.) Patently there can exist a potential market for some kind of vehicle that can cover 50 miles a day or so at trivial cost — because millions of journeys of this kind take place every day.

Similarly, the thousands of people like me who drive three miles every day in a full-size car only to leave it all day in a station car-park could be tempted by a Renault Twizy or by Gordon Murray’s T.27 (Google them). In fact all that is required is for the government to allow drink-driving in these small vehicles and they would become cool overnight. You just have to stop judging it as you would a conventional car.

The perfect analogy here is the iPad. Is it a substitute for a laptop? Not remotely. Can it replace your mobile phone? Only if you are a weird person with enormous pockets. But assuming a) you already own a good mobile phone and laptop and b) that you have the money to spare for a third device, then a large tablet such as the iPad will complement the other two devices very effectively indeed.

As a main device, it’s appalling. As a third device, it’s excellent. In its early days, the electric car needs to be considered the same way.

Rory Sutherland is vice-chairman of Ogilvy Group UK.


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