People of a certain generation, the venerable Class of Euro 4, may find it hard to adjust to the new wave of electric and hybrid cars. But as Geoff Meade explains, the shift to emission-free driving also means replacing beloved knobs with intimidating touchscreens.
There’s no easy way to put this: I have just panic-bought a whole car.
Panic-buying is usually limited to stockpiling petrol, pasta, loo-paper and other end-of-the-world necessities. Or rushing out, as I did after the new year break, to buy unnecessary supplies of socks because they’re 30% off in the sales and there may be a Brexit-induced shortage of wool any day now.
But the car thing is more serious. We drivers of dirty diesels, the Brussels ‘Class of Euro 4’, have known for at least two years that at the end of 2021 our vehicles would be forcibly retired, banished by regional government decree from the 19 Brussels municipalities, a victim of their own exhaust pollution.
Where will all these redundant diesels go? It looked at first glance like a monumental fly-tipping problem was looming on the capital’s borders.
But it turns out that there’s a healthy, if that’s the right word, market in these smelly old bangers, not just in the Belgian countryside where they can still roam free, but across the world. “Your car will probably end up somewhere in Asia or Africa,” said one car dealer as I began my search for a replacement.
Another dealer, more sensitive to the trauma of discarding a car which has reliably traversed Europe countless times for nearly a dozen years – and still would if it weren’t for the stain on its character lurking under its bonnet – told me not to think of it as exporting the pollution problem. “If your old car ends up halfway round the globe, it will probably replace a car that’s an even worse climate threat,” he said. It’s a comforting thought, sort of.
Still, I fully support the ban. So well done, Brussels Capital Region for taking action to end the diesel stink, which, speaking as a dog-walker now and not a driver, is so bad that I reckon the Euro 4 crackdown should be extended nationwide as it doesn’t go far enough.
In fact, the ban goes only as far as a hop and skip beyond the end of my street in Schaerbeek, so I seriously considered simply keeping my smelly beast a short distance from here, just outside the Euro 4 perimeter and never bringing it into the centre of Brussels.
But keeping it to pollute the rest of Belgium would not be playing the game, nor would coughing up (appropriately) for a day-pass to bring the car inside the city’s low-emission zone for up to eight days a year.
Besides, diesels are increasingly being outlawed in other cities, including Berlin, Barcelona, Paris, Madrid, Copenhagen, Rome, Stuttgart and Dusseldorf, which have all figured on our motoring itinerary in recent years and will continue to do so.
So, leaving it a little late, my wife and I began inquiries in car showrooms late last November.
We’d identified a new model and optimistically entered the premises of a respected car brand hoping to seal a deal on a petrol plug-in-hybrid model.
As we sniffed around the only one on display the salesman approached. “Can I help you, sir?” he asked, and then answered the question himself: due to a massive shortage of semiconductors, production of the company’s hybrid models had stopped and was unlikely to resume until 2024.
It was not the pushy sales pitch I was expecting. Somehow, I hadn’t related newspaper references to the semiconductor crisis with buying a car.
The no-sale salesman patiently explained that semiconductors are very important, and the company was using its current remaining supplies to build ordinary diesel and petrol cars instead of hybrid versions until the crisis was over.
No matter, I said, we’ll have this hybrid one sitting here, just waiting to be bought.
But alas, I couldn’t buy that one because it was the only one in stock and it was needed to show to other prospective customers – who would presumably also be told they couldn’t buy it either.
At another dealership, the message was the reverse: this particular carmaker was using all its remaining semiconductors to build hybrids, so people wanting diesel or petrol cars would have to wait. In any case there was nothing suitable for us on the showroom floor.
I still don’t know what a semiconductor does, but I found this unhelpful and sinister fact online: “A typical car (the Earth-killing type) uses between 50 and 150 semiconductors….”
Baby, you can drive my car
There were several more weeks of fruitless semiconductor-obsessed searches until we dropped the ‘plug-in hybrid’ requirement and I walked into a showroom just before Christmas pleading: “I’ll buy anything that’s not diesel.”
Even then I baulked at something with a dashboard that looked like a massive computer screen. “Where are all the knobs and buttons?” I cried as I sat inside this wheeled iPad, remembering that my daughter bought a new car a year or two ago and paid extra for two round knobs instead of a touchscreen to work the heater controls.
“I’m afraid everything’s touch and swipe today sir,” my car counsellor said. Seeing my dismay, he gently steered me towards a similar but older model with a more traditional layout: “Would sir like to note a range of old-fashioned knobs and switches to play with, and the rather elegant analogue clock adorning the facia board?”
He’d hooked me. “Sold!” I gasped.
I was anaesthetised during the subsequent one-hour de-brief while my tech-savvy wife sat through a series of computer science lessons and inputted passwords and heaven-knows what else to wake up the new car. It’s really nothing more than a great, big, upholstered App interfacing with every aspect of digital daily life. The thing even parks itself: the driver has become a barely tolerated accessory.
Later, after we got back home with this cleverer, healthier, and rather precocious new family member, my wife said, “Come and see this!”
I gazed over her shoulder at her phone. She had received a message from the new car in the form of a little blue throbbing blob hovering over a street map on the screen. “It’s telling me exactly where we’ve parked so we can find it tomorrow!” she declared.
It’s in our garage, I pointed out. “I know!” she replied. “This is going to be fun!”