Never Stop Driving #10: One dollar parking and blown engines

Would you pay 99 cents to have a computer park your car in a crowded city? Stellantis CTO Ned Curic said that customers might pay that amount for a single autonomous parking job, especially if it was an added fee to an existing parking charge. Volkswagen also envisions a future where autonomous driving is available as a kind of in-app purchase where you pay a dollar to have your car drive itself for your 50-mile journey to the grandparents’ place. Those are just two of the micro transactions currently being talked about.

Perhaps you heard that BMW recently started selling heated seat subscriptions in the UK for $18 per month. BMW USA next took pains to note that subscription heated seats, at least, weren’t coming to the U.S.

Buying digital features in cars is nothing new. Tesla offered a “pay-to-unlock” function in certain Model S vehicles more than six years ago, where cars sold with a claimed 70 kWh battery actually had 75 kWh batteries installed. Buyers could pay $3250 to “unlock” access to the extra battery capacity. It also offered free month-long trials of Autopilot, a technology that, at the time, cost $2500 to unlock at purchase or $3000 after purchase.

Free-to-play video games with in-app purchases, generally of the cosmetic variety, are hugely popular. Fortnite, Apex Legends, Warzone, and Rocket League are all free to download and play, and you only need to pay if you want to change the visuals of the game. Want to play Fortnite as Spider-Man or Robocop or Obi-Wan Kenobi? You can do that … for a price. My kids have already trained me to accept this.

Will drivers, however, accept in-app purchases and subscription fees and cosmetic upgrades for their cars? Opinionated automotive commentator Peter DeLorenzo calls these subscription services poison for the car industry. I am torn. According to Edmunds, the length of the average car loan is now 70 months. By the time a 70-month note is paid off, the now-six-year-old car enters the stage of potential major upkeep costs like shocks, tires, brakes, etc. So, there is rarely a point in our driving lives when we’re not paying for a car. I’m sure many of you have stories of driving beaters for free, but that’s the exception. If we’re always paying anyway, would an a la carte monthly fee be so bad? While the Tesla battery arrangement feels wrong to me, I’m okay with only paying for heated seats for the cold months.

One subscription I’d strongly consider is an engine lease program for micro sprints. My son and I are racing them this summer. They’re glorified go karts with 600cc motorcycle engines. I bought us two aged examples—for about five grand each— to slide around nearby Jackson Speedway.

My son is 13 and during a practice session last week, his first time in the car, the engine blew in catastrophic fashion. The internal parts were so unhappy that they punched a hole in the side of the engine.

That’s a connecting rod peeking out from a newly established hole in the side of the engine.
That’s a connecting rod peeking out from a newly established hole in the side of the engine. Cameron Neveu

What happened? Hard to say, but I’m pretty sure the previous owner, who told me the car was ready for the track, had not properly bled the cooling system. Whatever. I tried to make the best of the situation and also elicit help finding a replacement by displaying the engine at our paddock stall.

Engine With Sign
Cameron Neveu

Last weekend was my first time competing at a Saturday night dirt track. The scene was everything I love about motorsports: A mix of families and people all gathered for the love of driving and competition. These small-town tracks are often fixtures of the community. I’ve come across so many in my travels that I wondered if the tracks served as de facto town halls. I posed the question during an editorial meeting and Cameron Neveu not only agreed but also knew which track would best illustrate the point. His dispatch from Iowa’s Knoxville raceway reveals that the tracks are vital to many folks beyond the gearheads.

Our blown motor on display seemed to scare off more folks than invite them to introduce themselves. I watched people walk by and give it wide berth, as if it was radioactive. Bad luck, after all, might be contagious. I did find a new engine and will install it this weekend.

I hope my son enjoys the driving as much as I do. I have a lot to learn. The dirt track driving is vastly unpredictable compared to the road-course racing I’m used to. I lack the experience to know what fast feels like. I was so overwhelmed that even if I had a lap timer in the car, I wouldn’t have had the spare attention to check it. I gauged my speed off of the cars around me.  I qualified 11th out of 13 cars. I did not care because charging up to the corner, aggressively pitching the car sideways, and then floating sideways through the turn was ridiculously fun. I’m hooked.

Sliding around this small dirt track is my latest driving obsession.
Sliding around this small dirt track is my latest driving obsession. Cameron Neveu

In other news, a 909-hp Dodge Challenger is rumored to be in the works, which would further cement the Challenger as the car that does not age (I’m searching for its secrets and will share if I find them).

Citing concerns from the blind and those with impaired vision, NHTSA recently rejected a 2019 proposal that would have allowed automakers to install “any number of compliant sounds” on their EVs and hybrids. This means we won’t be allowed to make Teslas sound like five-oh Mustangs. Sigh.

Get out and drive this weekend!

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