Consumers Should Demand EVs Built Like PCs Even If Carmakers Don’t Want It

Consumers Should Demand EVs Built Like PCs Even If Carmakers Don’t Want It

By now, most of us realise that the automotive world is currently in transition. We’re moving from internal combustion cars to electric cars, and while the way EVs generally look and drive is quite similar to what we’re used to, the fundamental technology is different enough that now is the time we can really rethink how everything is done. And we, as car-owning consumers, should rethink things; we should have a say in developing an automotive world that is to our benefit, not just to the benefit of carmaking companies.

The model we should look to is the generic PC. Let me explain.

To be honest, I already explained this basic idea a few years back. Since then, EVs have developed a lot, but not necessarily in the ways I think would serve car buyers best. I think the concept is worth revisiting. So, let’s revisit.

The fundamental premise here is that electric cars should be built to a set of industry-wide standards, and crucial and major components should be compatible across manufacturers and models.

The closest analogy is to basic personal computer architecture from the 1990s and up: the basic PC template was adapted, initially from IBM’s original PC, and developed into a set of standards that continues in more advanced forms to this day.

There are standards for hard drives and fans and motherboards and CPUs and USB interfaces and displays and on and on. There are established sizes for bays for media-reading components and industry-wide standards for power delivery and data buses and so on.

That’s why you can order an empty chassis and build your own PC, to fit your own needs, quite easily.

There’s no good reason why electric cars can’t work much the same way.

Unlike combustion engine cars that rely on much more complex mechanical systems — the process of using a funny-smelling liquid to power a spinning shaft is not trivial — electric cars are much simpler mechanically. EVs can more readily work with plug-and-play components.

In fact, from carmakers’ perspectives, they already do; modular architectures are a thing for carmakers, even more so with EVs. Many of the components are sourced from specialised suppliers and have standardised power and input/output requirements.

I’m just suggesting we push further with these standards and make them known and accessible to consumers.

All of the major operating components of an EV can be designed to meet standards for size, mounting points, power connections, data connections, whatever. Just thinking about this for a bit reveals that nearly all significant parts can be built to universal standards.

Here, let me show you:

Illustration: Jason Torchinsky

There are a few differences here compared with how EVs are built now. Perhaps most significant are the batteries, which tend to be structural elements in most EVs, rigidly secured to the car’s chassis.

I understand that this is more efficient — and that further integration is being developed for even greater efficiency and weight savings. The downside is that this approach severely limits serviceability, makes battery replacement incredibly expensive since the batteries are proprietary and literally part of the car’s structure, and eliminates any possibility of battery swapping or upgrading, at least without major time and expense.

Standardised battery packs, with set sizes and output and connectors, are well within the scope of engineering. We’ve developed them for almost everything else that uses batteries, after all.

Illustration: Jason Torchinsky

Sure, there would be some weight penalties because they can’t be as tightly integrated. But I think that’s a worthwhile tradeoff for easy replacement, the possibility of battery swapping stations, the ability to upgrade as future technology becomes available, and the ability to just buy the amount of battery you actually need for your use.

Think about this: If there were standardised battery module sizes, you could own a car with two battery units, which is fine for most of your daily needs. But the few times a year when you want to take a long trip, you could rent two more batteries to fill your normally open bays for the duration of the road trip.

We have standardised radio head unit sizes, so why not just expand that for whole centre-stack/infotainment systems? Nobody ever seems entirely happy with their car’s infotainment and main control UI, so what if you had a lot of choice?

Illustration: Jason Torchinsky

Also, nothing makes a car feel more dated than the UI of its controls, so what if you were able to easily swap all that out, by just ordering a new unit online, and it fits right into the bay your old one was in, same connectors, same size, same everything?

What if you could do this with your HVAC system, too? What if you saved money by buying your car with no air-conditioning, but could easily swap to a new unit with a/c whenever you wanted?

This could work for drivetrains, too — electric motor units can be highly modular and as long as your other systems provide what the unit needs in terms of power and cooling, you could upgrade to a more powerful motor with relative ease.

The same can go for semiautonomous systems — and, when they eventually come, autonomous systems, with standard locations and interfaces for sensors and cameras and control computers.

All of this is just an engineering challenge — there’s nothing impossible here by a long shot.

Major carmakers would essentially be selling rolling bodies with suspension and safety equipment, but with bays ready to take all of the components needed to build a working car.

Carmakers could sell you a fully outfitted car, ready to drive, just like today. Or they can sell you a rolling body with almost nothing in it — or really any state in between.

Eventually, there would grow a whole thriving supplier market for all of the components you’d want — some could be easily installed by the owner, like control units or infotainment systems, and some would take more skill or equipment, like batteries or drive units. But fundamentally all of these things would work across manufacturers, based on industry agreed-upon standards.

Lots of carmakers likely wouldn’t agree to this idea, as it takes a lot of control out of their hands and inherently makes the dealer-only service model obsolete.

Those carmakers could still sell fully proprietary and integrated cars if they wanted, much like how Apple made computers that didn’t fit the baseline PC standards. As such, they could be sleeker or more design-focused, but at the cost of, well, cost, and a more limited market share.

For some companies, though, this could be an opportunity. Consider a company like Mitsubishi, which in America is sort of just hanging on and has no real clear electrification plan.

If they dived into this standardised car-bus idea, they’d have both a way to stand out and to easily rely on the expertise of outside companies for the complex components like battery tech and electric drivetrains — things they have not yet developed on their own.

Stellantis, too should consider this. Instead of Jeep throwing together clumsy concepts like the Wrangler BEV, they could make a Wrangler platform with points for front and rear drive units, three or four battery bays, and leverage all of the hopefully growing market of EV components.

This is not really the future carmakers want, I don’t think. It would take an awful lot of control out of individual manufacturer’s hands, and it would also extend the usable life of cars they sell significantly.

But for those of us who actually buy and use the cars, this could make owning and buying and using an EV dramatically better. The power you’d have to customise your car would be huge, and your freedom to repair and maintain your car would be so much better than it is now.

Your car wouldn’t be at the mercy of your batteries. You wouldn’t have to live with an annoying infotainment system. You could buy the base car you want, and upgrade it incrementally as you can afford it. You could buy used cars with the confidence of knowing that even if something major fails, you have many, easy replacement options.

We as motorists will be giving up some things in the move from ICE to EV, at least for those of us who love the character and sometimes questionable charm of noisy, smelly, rattling gas-engine cars. There should be something that compensates for what we’re giving up, and I think that a cross-manufacturer car bus and standards could be it.

If the car industry is changing, we don’t have to let the big companies decide the changes for us. At least I hope we don’t.

I want to see an EV future that is more flexible, usable and enjoyable for everyone, and I believe this is the path to it.

Carmakers that feel a little left behind by the big dogs’ moves into EVs? Mazda, Subaru, Mitsubishi, Chrysler/Fiat/Jeep etc. and any small-volume manufacturers? This is how you level that playing field.

You know how to find me if you want to talk.