From a cigarette lighter to an audio cassette player, from front bench seats to long radio antennas, a lot of features that were earlier found in many Indian cars have disappeared. We talked to CV Raman, the chief technical officer at Maruti Suzuki India, to understand which all features have disappeared from cars and why, and which all features are likely to remain in the foreseeable future.
“Car features are for the ease and comfort of usage for occupants,” Raman said. “These keep changing due to regulations, customer demand, fluctuating technology costs, and buying power of customers.”
Value & hygiene
For example, about 20 years ago, air conditioning was an optional feature in Indian cars, as was power steering, but today these are the so-called ‘hygiene factors’. Most modern buyers expect their cars to have an AC and power steering at least. Similarly, 20-odd years ago, an audio system was an optional feature. Not anymore.
“What a customer perceives as ‘value’, she pays for that,” reasoned Raman. “About 20 years ago there were a lot of customers who didn’t perceive an audio system or an AC as a value, but that’s not the case today.”
Health & regulation
Then there are environment and health concerns also. Raman said that about 20 years ago there used to be a cigarette lighter and ashtray inside a car. “But the lifestyle of the public at large started changing and a majority of people didn’t see smoking as a cool thing, so the cigarette lighter gave way to a charging port and the ashtray turned into a small storage area.”
On the other hand, airbags and ABS, which were earlier optional features, are now mandated by regulation.
Over the years, customers’ disposable incomes started rising, and so they started paying not only for features they merely saw value in, but also what they aspired for and felt comfortable with. “A lot of people started buying car variants with power steering because they realised it makes driving so much simpler,” Raman said.
Why globally hand-rolled windows have all but disappeared from cars, in entry-level cars in India these are expected to continue. “Many customers still don’t see value in power windows,” Raman said. “So in entry-level variants of entry-level cars hand-rolled windows will remain for some years.”
At the same time, technology costs also started reducing, and along with rising disposable incomes when customers realised that so and so feature costs only 1-2% of the total cost of the car, they pay. “You see, a car is an aspirational buy,” Raman said.
Car features, he added, reflect what happens inside customers’ homes. “Inside your home the radio cassette player gave way to a CD player, and the same thing happened in a car. When that CD player gave way to smart audio systems at home, the same thing happened in your car,” Raman said.
Some features are design-related. For example, at least in high-end cars people want a clean fender, and they don’t want side turn indicators on the fender, so the indicators are getting merged with the headlamps and outside rear-view mirrors.
A major change from 30-odd years ago is the front bench seat. In early 1990s cars such as Hindustan Motors Ambassador and Premier Padmini used to have front bench seats. But then these suddenly disappeared (as did those two models). Raman added that a key reason bench seats disappeared was because these was not ‘structurally okay’ for meeting future regulations of seat-belt anchorage that came some time in 2003.
Globally, cars are doing away with spare tyres, but Raman said in Indian cars spare tyres will continue to be offered. “The Indian customer has still not started accepting a car without a spare tyre, even though the tyre technology has advanced a lot and tyre punctures nowadays are rare,” he said. Today, there is a regulation that says if you give a tyre puncture kit you can do away with the spare tyre, but a customer will still demand the spare tyre. “Although the form of that spare tyre is changing,” Raman said. “Earlier the standard tyre was offered as the spare tyre, but today many cars have an emergency-use-only spare tyre.”
While keyless entry is getting popular, in Indian cars key will remain an important part for quite some time. Also, while a lot of physical button controls are disappearing from the dashboard with the arrival of bigger touchscreens, in entry-level cars button controls will continue to be offered in the foreseeable future.
There’s a reason for that.
The price gap between a two-wheeler and an entry-level four-wheeler is still substantial in India; in fact, with new safety regulations, it has only increased. “If you add more features to an entry-level car, that price gap will increase further, and so moving that person from a two-wheeler to a four-wheeler will become even more difficult,” Raman said. “At least in entry-level cars in India, we will continue to get features that have disappeared in the developed markets.”
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