The failure of Aptera and similar designs reveals the real-world functional differences between stated preferences i.e. what people tell themselves and others they want, and revealed preferences i.e. the things people actually end up choosing. People tell car designers and manufactures they want and will buy an inexpensive, efficient, two-seater commuter car but when it comes to putting money down for one they don’t follow through.
The conflict between stated and revealed preferences has significant political ramifications.
Looking back over my previous post on Aptera and the subsequent comments, it’s clear that Aptera specifically failed for three major reason:
- It was uni-dimensional design that sacrificed every other functionality for fuel efficiency.
- Cars are general tools. Every if people spend 80% of their milage commenting, they still have other task the car needs to perform to some degree. A car that cannot fulfill these secondary task necessitates that the car owner spend time and money finding other solutions. That additional expense usually destroys any economic advantage the unidimensional design purports to offers.
- The Aptera specifically represented nothing knew. Everything in the design had been repeatedly tried before and always failed. Specifically, highly efficient, two-seater commuter cars using a wide array of technologies have been repeatedly offered since at least the 1920s in all parts of the world. They all failed to catch on.
The last reason brings me to the “Smart” car. Marketed as “unboring”, “uncluttered” and the “uncar”, they should have added “unusable” and “unsellable”. The Smart car is another in a long, long, long list of attempts at a highly efficient, two seater, urban car. Arguably, it could be the best attempt ever made. It’s failure should, but won’t, drive a stake into the two-seater commuter car concept.
The Smart car’s design and technology are impressive.
Safety is a concern in small cars so the Smart car is basically an overbuilt roll cage with wheels on the conners. It is physically impossible for the momentum of the car to supply enough energy to breach the passenger compartment i.e. you can run the car into anything at any speed, even something large enough to bring it to a dead stop, and still not breach the passenger compartment. Of course, this doesn’t protect against driving off a height, having a tree-limb or rebar punch through or getting punted by a larger vehicle but this is still a really good design given the limitations of size. It’s probably pretty safe for most dense urban environments.
The interior is roomier than many larger cars even for tall people. There is easily accessible cargo space. Acceleration is okay and fuel economy is great. The car is highly customizable which people like these days. Plus, it has the image of being economically friendly which is a big selling point for the urban hipsters.
Despite this technical excellence and marketing edge, after an initial flurry of interest, Smart car sales plummeted and have remained anemic.
People keep trying to sell this type of design because it feels intuitively like it should work. Having a jaunty little car that can let one or two people zip around town seems very reasonable. I think everyone has at one time has thought, “I wish I could have a car without the hassles.” People believe they want an inexpensive to buy, inexpensive to operate, clean, quite, zippy and easy to park vehicle .We also believe that we will tolerate the tradeoffs of capacity and functionality that will require. We honestly tell market researchers we will buy such a car. That is why dozens of manufactures over the last 90 years have tried to make this two-seater commuter car design work: Everyone tells them to.
The two seater commuter doesn’t work because while it meets most transportation needs in terms of overall milage and reason for miles driven, it doesn’t meet enough. Seemingly minor lapses in functionality cripple its overall utility and doom the design.
By analogy, imagine two road systems, one a pristine, modern four-lane highway and the other an old, crumbling two-lane. Now imagine that both roads run in parallel for a hundred miles/kilometers to the same destination. The four-lane would seem clearly superior but what if in that hundred mile/kilometer run, there is a 10-foot/3-meter gap that the old two-lane bridges but the four-lane does not? Suddenly, the four-lane is nearly useless for making the whole trip and people will prefer the teeth rattling journey down the two-lane instead. People might use the four-lane for the 50 mile/kilometer trip on either side but if they don’t know for sure how far they will be going that day, they will pick the old road. In the end, the majority of the traffic will end up on the old road because all things considered, it performs the function of a road better.
The two-seater has several of these seeming insignificant functional gaps that it does not “bridge”. The real deal killer seems to be the lack of any possibility of squeezing in four people. Even for childless, 20-something, urban hipsters, cars have a social function. Want to go out once a week with three friends? Someone else is driving. Need to go to lunch with coworkers? Someone else is driving. Want to buy a bookshelf at Ikea? Hit up a friend with a four-door. And so on.
The original Volkswagen (People’s Car) design of the 1950s was about as minimalistic a design as one can get but it succeeded because you could at least theoretically cram four people inside (5 or 6 if they were friendly). Most people who drove a Volkswagen usually drove alone but when they needed to haul more people or stuff they could. If a two-seater commuter car would succeed anywhere it would be crowded Japan in the 70s but even the tiny original Honda-Civic, could hold squeeze in four people. The Indian Neo seats four as well and looks to succeed.
The Smart company seems to have come to the same conclusion and will replace the two-seater design with a four-seater. Most likely, it will be “two” little, to late . The stigma of a failed design will have attached to the brand. A four-seater versions won’t stand out as so “smart” and will look like just another of the many small, cheap, boxy cars made for first time buyers.
In the end, stated preferences are really hypothesis i.e. guesses about what we think we want or what we think will work. Revealed preferences are really the experimental results we get after we test the stated preference hypothesis in the real world.
The free-market eventually always works on revealed preferences. People who supply goods and services usually start with their customer’s stated preferences but very quickly the customers reveal what they will actually put down money for.
Politics works on stated preferences. It’s starts with stated preferences and pretty much stays there. Individuals rarely have to expend their own resources to reveal how they really evaluate a political idea. Even if they do, they have to bundle that revealed preferences together with hundreds of stated preferences when they vote for candidate A or candidate B.
Experimentation trumps educated and uneducated guessing. It’s no mystery why the experimental free-market performs better at actually solving problems and making people content than the babbled of guess-work that drives government.
Leftism basically boils down to running almost all of society based on stated preferences. Leftists pseudo-intellectuals create persuasive rationales, people decide that sounds good and then the entire polity hand and hand jumps off a cliff because everyone states that is what they desire. By the time impact with ground reveals everyone’s true preferences, it’s to late.
Aptera closed its doors after it failed to secure $150 million dollar loan from government. Given different circumstances, the ever green stated presences for an efficient two-seater commuter could have easily convinced government officials to put us all on the hook for hundreds of millions of dollars of squandered money.
The amount of error possible from untested stated preferences is functionally infinite. The scale of error on the part of government is likewise infinite. The scale of error for the free-market is always much, much smaller and much easier to correct. Better to have the freedom to buy a two-seater commuter and learn by personal error than to be forced to drive one because everyone believes that is the correct thing to do.