Today, we’re getting used to anything and everything arriving at our door with a click of a mouse or trackpad. Hungry? You’ll have tacos in less than an hour. Out of toothpaste? On your porch tomorrow, if not sooner. What if you’re tired of calling rideshares to get to drum lessons and friend’s kid’s bar mitzvahs, and you want your own mode of personal transportation? That’ll be a bit more difficult to do, but we’ll see how it could happen.
Yes, I know that online car sellers like Carvana already exist and expanded during the touchless COVID era. These obviously allow you to purchase a car online and have it brought to your driveway theoretically without talking to anyone, but that’s a large transaction usually involving financing, trade-ins, and lots of choices that will be far more than a two minute click-a-few-tabs event. I’m talking about a commodity vehicle for primarily local driving that would be cheap to buy and easy to obtain from an online retailer like Amazon.
…And This Was Without Internet
There’s actually a precedent for this which is over a hundred years old. Before the internet (back “in the last century when you were born” as my kids tell me) if you didn’t shop a retail store you would buy items through a printed catalog, placing your order through the mail or telephone. Up through the nineties, one of the biggest catalog retailers was Sears.
This several-inches-thick book contained everything from women’s clothing (we ogled the lingerie section as kids since we were desperate and pathetic) to televisions and furniture, and twice in their history they actually offered cars for purchase on the pages of this book.
The Sears Motor Buggy appeared in the 1909 catalog with a whopping ten horsepower motor to allow it to run at “any speed up to 25 miles an hour” according to period ads. That’s actually significantly lower than the introduced-at-the-same-time Ford Model T, but the Sears Buggy cost half as much as that ‘real’ car. The Buggy was for getting around town for short distances. According to Sears, “(We) don’t believe that the average person wants to go whizzing along at 40 to 50 miles an hour.” Yeah, what kind of bougie suckers did that?
You had a choice of several colors, and options like fenders, a top, running boards, and pneumatic tires. You could pick up your Buggy in Chicago or have it delivered by rail to your closest train station. Bust open the crate, do some minor assembly, add fuel and oil and you drive home in your new whip. Oh, and do you think Carmax and Carvana invented the idea of a ten day trial of your new car, where you could return it if it wasn’t to your liking? Think again- Sears offered the same deal to customers with the Buggy over a century ago.
Sears lost money on this venture and gave up in 1912, but it didn’t stop them from trying again when car demand was high after World War II. In 1952, Sears advertised a car they called the Allstate on the last page of the catalog. Essentially a rebadged Kaiser Henry J, it was equipped with Sears tires, shocks, and any other automotive items the retailer offered.
From what I understand, you didn’t place the order through the catalog; you had to buy and pick up your car at a select Sears store while you were getting your kid’s clothes and lawn fertilizer in other departments. Even Allstate insurance for your new car was available right at the store (Sears hadn’t spun off that business yet). Again, the idea didn’t succeed; 2,363 cars were sold in the two years it was offered, a failure attributed to people’s reluctance to buy a car at a department store that would not take trade-ins.
Nearly Instant Transportation Gratification?
Why would I ever think that this idea could work again? Well, today’s technologies could make it much easier for such a concept to succeed, and we’re living in surprisingly similar times right now. The dawn of the viable EV now is akin to the early days of the motorcar itself where few people could afford a new one. Also, despite it not being 1910 anymore, the situation is the same as Sears described back then: most people don’t need to go fifty miles an hour to do the vast majority of their travel. This fact has been driven home over the last few years when we see how Jason Torchinsky has used his Changi Li electric car. Despite being ultra-small and with a top speed similar to the Sears Buggy, he employed it as an almost exclusive daily driver in his small town until the batteries shot craps.
If a slightly better developed version of the Changi Li were available to the masses, could there be takers? Jason famously had to privately import his and drive it from the port to his house in the back of some dude’s forty-year-old pickup truck, but what if buyers could just click ‘place order’ and have it show up outside their home?
Elon Musk is talking about offer a Tesla Model 1 that will cost in the $10-15,000 range and be made with simple production techniques, but how long will it take for him to accomplish that? Even if he does, how will he distribute such a commodity car? If anyone could beat the world’s richest man in the affordable car race, I’d put my money on another one of the planet’s wealthiest: Jeff Bezos. Typing ‘car’ into Amazon today will get you Alteeza-style taillights and fuzzy steering wheel covers, but no actual automobile. We’re about to change that.
The Amazon Bee (for Jeff’s last name) would take the Chang Li runabout idea and push it a bit further so that it was still inexpensive but now a bit more than a glorified golf cart. A little wider than the Chinese car to accommodate a side-by-side driver and passenger, it’s also a bit longer to allow for a tiny rear seat. The design would be more modern and cohesive, with larger tires and an adorable face with round headlights (I’m imagining LEDs with glowing rings but I think Jason would likely DEMAND to be old school sealed beams for economy’s sake). A far more advanced battery and drive system than the Chang Li would provide at least a 100 mile range and a top speed limited to around 50-55 miles per hour; I’d want you to be able to get onto the highway for at least a short run between exits in the right lane (though in many urban areas daytime speeds on the freeway won’t be anywhere close to that).
Let’s go online, grab our credit card, and order a Bee for ourselves.
You can have a choice of range possibilities and also choose the color of the plastic body panels you want attached to the steel or aluminum frame. Options like audio speakers and an air conditioning system can be clicked off. Pay with your credit card as a lump sum or Amazon can offer you payments; then hit “place order”.
Within a day or two, an Amazon truck with a piggyback forklift appears outside your door.
The vinyl side cover on the side of the truck lifts up to reveal a stack of boxes, one of which the forklift removes and drops on your driveway.
Uh, this box looks pretty low, doesn’t it?
Opening the package, you see the trick to how they get so many Amazon Bees fit on that truck. The roof and windshield sections are stored upside down in the body; these are taken out and attach with one-way snaps to the front and back of the body ‘tub’. By the way, this assembly would likely be done by the person dropping off your Bee, but it’s possible that you could build it yourself for a discount on the price. Honestly, putting it together wouldn’t be that difficult.
The glass panels meet the body with an obvious seam that we turn into a design element that also hides lights such as the turn signals and taillamps, plus the slot for the door handles. This whole upper half/lower half thing has been done before; Lotus cars in particular were made from upper and lower fiberglass molds joined together with a rub strip hiding the seam as seen on Grimace’s Esprit below (yeah, I know Grimace just turned 52 and is likely having a mid-life crisis but I don’t get his choice of car either).
Attach the steering wheel and the dashboard ‘crossbar’. A flat ‘targa’ panel then snaps in place over the seats, while the side windows roll up to seal off the cabin. Well, unless the weather is nice and you throw the roof panel in the cargo area and enjoy open air motoring.
Fold up the seat backs, add the headrests, and hop in; if it’s charged you’re ready to hit the road.
So Austere Even Jason Will Like It
Clean and basic, the interior is little more than seats and a screen. At least you get reclining seats and tinted glass, which most cheap cars never got in the eighties. I’ve mentioned optional air conditioning, but I think heated front seats and a hair-dryer style heater would also be offered but not necessarily standard (the only reason I’d offer seat heaters is because of the lower current draw). The window winders pick up on the Amazon logo shape.
The dashboard is just a crossbar that installs during the assembly process in your driveway. This one features optional storage bins under the windshield and the air conditioning system that fits into a recess in that crossbar. Behind the steering wheel, you’ll see adjustable ‘pods’ for operating the signals, lights, wipers, and ‘transmission’ (really just ‘forwards’ or ‘backwards’). You put your smartphone sideways in the (charging) binnacle in front of the steering wheel to get the car going, and it changes to a display with speed and battery life. You’ll need to pop your Amazon tablet into the holder in the center of the dash for navigating and entertainment.
The Bee Hive Mentality
You can sell a car online, but it’s certainly not a typical product. You’re never going to have to drag your refrigerator or television into a physical location for maintenance or repairs but you certainly will with a car, even an EV. Amazon will offer several different types of physical locations for the Bee infrastructure (as well as a distribution centers where the delivery trucks will load up).
The Bee Hive would be the equivalent of a dealership, but much smaller than a typical establishment you see today. Three or four new ones would sit in a ‘candy box’ illuminated display on the roof, with a parking deck behind it for stock that you could buy from right at the Hive instead of home shipment (an elevator could be used in locations where there isn’t room for a ramp). Behind the indoor showroom is a service center. Remember, with a machine like this “service” really just amounts to dropping in replacement parts, or just giving the consumer a brand new Bee if the old one proves unfixable so you don’t need much space. The Bee Hive offers loaners for when your car is serviced because it’s also a BeeShare location; even if you don’t own a Bee you can rent one like a Zipcar.
For every Bee Hive there would also be smaller Bee Nest. Because of the small size requirements, you can get three or four service bays in a structure the size of just half a dozen parking spaces, so that’s what Amazon will do in parking lots of selected Amazon Fresh parking lots. You could even have mobile centers that come to you, with a winch to bring a non-functional Bee into the truck for service in poor weather.
Is This The Next Sliced Bread Or The Next New Coke?
Could something like this really coexist with three ton SUVs on the road? I mean, would you drive it with the same fear that motorcycle riders have now? The danger is certainly there, but people need more options than public transportation, ridesharing, or biking. With the average age of cars on the road currently at 12.5 years, the average price of a new EV hovering around $64,000, and $4.00 a gallon gas everywhere I think that a drastic change in transportation will have to happen soon. How long can this madness go on?
All illustrations by The Bishop