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Monday, December 01, 2008

The Car "Format Wars"

Everyone who owns DVDs or lived through Beta versus VHS knows all about Format Wars in the electronics industry. A similar problem is "related tech" wars, such as Plasma versus LCD in flat-screen TVs, etc. And, as a consumer - at least if you're a cheapscate like me who expect that things that cost $hundreds or $thousands will be useful for several years at least - is to wait until there's one or two clear technology winners that are well-understood and will be around awhile.

And one thing I often wonder about is whether we're seeing the beginnings of "format wars" reactions by consumers in the car industry? I suspect so - who wants to buy a Chevy sedan today if they can wait for the Volt (assuming GM lasts that long)? The credit crunch and the recent gas-price crunch are bad enough, but I suspect looming format wars aren't helping either.

Personally, I'm a techie who likes to buy "cool" stuff, but not enough to qualify as an early adopter. I want something that costs $20K+ to last for about fifteen years and 175K miles, as have my first three cars. I buy new, over-maintain, and drive it until the wheels fall off.

Where the format war issue comes in is I'm not interested in buying a "gas-only" car, and would like to "vote" for a good hybrid tech vehicle, but am hesitant about the various hybrid techs out there. I'd like a plug-in serial hybrid - at least - and would love to be able to buy a hydrogen car if one were available. The problem is there's way too many technology moving parts in hybrids for me to be interested in paying a premium for a vehicle which may need to be basically dumped if one element or another in the powertrain proves to need expensive replacement.

Also, will we have neighborhood mechanics who can fix these babies? Or do we have to the dealer, where everything beyond an oil change costs $1K?

And, ironically, most cars with ICE powertrains are so reliable nowadays that if they're decently maintained, they'll run nearly forever. (Note that this includes GM cars, as my 1993 Saturn demonstrated after running up 175K miles with little unscheduled maintenance before it was stolen (!) three years ago.)

Our eight year old Toyota and our three year old Honda should last awhile longer, but I'm hoping they'll last another half-decade or so while the powertrain format war plays out, and we'll start to understand what happens when hybrids and new-style powertrain cars get old.

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