ISIE Leiden 2023 - presenting the ethnographic research on TREASURE

Updating to report that I submitted the article @alberto and I worked on to Journal of Industrial Ecology.



I’m coming sort of late to this party but it is a topic that fascinates me personally, not just for reasons of sustainability, but because of my lifelong involvement with cars and trucks. In the 1970s I was an interstate truck driver, a partner in a car recycling scrap business, and in the 1980s a mechanic at an automobile dealer where I was factory-trained by Peugeot.

One point in Nica’s report caught my eye - the question of gender. I learned a long time ago that the sea-change in the reliability of automobiles pioneered, and to this day practiced, by the Japanese was mainly due to their recognition of the huge numbers of women entering the workplace in the 1970s. They saw clearly a number of things that the US and European automakers did not. Or at least they did not place anywhere near enough priority on them. It was this that made Japanese care so successful.

Some improvements were cosmetic such as lighted mirrors on the back of sun visors on the driver’s side as well as the passenger side, interior heaters and defrosters that warm up quickly and well-placed cup holders for morning coffee.

But the most important was that women do not want their cars breaking down and do not want to go to the repair shop. Nobody wants a breakdown, but Toyota, Honda and the others knew that women wanted to avoid the repair shop so much that they would make purchasing decisions based mainly on reliability.

I’m not sure about European cultures on this matter, but this is a huge point that Detroit missed - for decades. They have only in the past few years made cars that are reliable enough that they are competitive in that way.

A big reason is cultural. The fact is, or was, guys kind of like to go down to the shop and “jawbone” with other guys about cars. Men tend to like cars better and I think the attendance of this ISIE event bears that out.

And I saw it with my own experience at Peugeot. At the dealer where I worked, my repair bay was right next to a big open door. It was easy for anyone bringing their car in for repair to chat with me, and they often did. In the three years I was there I saw repeatedly that the men fell quickly into a sort of comfort zone in this male-dominated environment and the women were always apprehensive about being there and often assumed that they were going to be taken advantage of, if not cheated, somewhere in the process. Some men felt that way too, but it was rare.

Fast forward to the present. Reliability is much more pervasive. I still wouldn’t buy some brands, but that list has shrunk.

And all cars have good cup holders now.

I have two grown daughters, both of whom have good professional careers for which they have had to own a number of cars. What is now a determining factor for them, and I am certain for most of their peers, is the quality and length of the warranty. Indeed, I believe that this is not such a gender-unbalanced priority as reliability and conveniences were in the previous decades.

Todays cars are incredibly complex electronic machines and increasingly because of it, the amount of repairs an independent repair shop can make on recently-made cars shrinks every year. You have to take it to the dealer. Dealers charge the most to repair vehicles. As every year goes by, the importance of the warranty grows, and will continue to grow. I am someone who has always maintained my own cars but anything made after about 2010 is not something I would consider diving into other than changing a tire or a lightbulb.

So, in forming policy, as the repair work continues to shift away from DIY and independent shops, the pressure to create cars built for a true circular economy must be placed on the car makers themselves and their dealerships since it is they who remove, replace and then toss out the old parts.

I guess it’s an obvious point, but I didn’t see it quite made elsewhere, although it may well have been.

So, to summarize, I made two points:
Men still like cars better than women, and they - we - tend to be more comfortable around the guys at the repair facility, but they are now so complex and impossible to fix beyond the simplest things, that all genders are wary of repair. Thus the greater focus on a car’s warranty.

Second, and related, is that because more and more repair work has to happen at the dealer, it is necessary to put the most pressure on the manufacturers and their networks of dealerships for meaningful sustainability to be achieved.

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Update: I have received a decision of “Revise and Resubmit” from the Journal of Industrial Ecology. Tagging @alberto to make sure you see it. I am pasting the reviews below. If we want to resubmit (which I assume we do), this is what we will need to address. I think we would have to work through this feedback together at some point, although I can write the bulk of the revisions.

Reviewer(s)’ Comments to Author:

Comments to the Author

This manuscript addresses the timely topic of circular economy and automotive electronics. The application of social science methods in an industrial ecology context is viewed as a strength.

With that said, there are a number of issues with the manuscript in its current form that would limit its ability to be published in this journal.

The manuscript does not seem to contain a true introduction. The introduction rehashes much of the abstract and focuses on selection of methods; it does not situate this contribution in the existing landscape of knowledge about automotive electronics or clarify the knowledge gap that is being filled. A much more extensive topical literature review must be included, and authors must clearly show what gap in that literature this paper is meant to fill.

The actual topical focus of the paper should also be more clear as well in the introduction and literature review. I would understand automotive electronics to be those electronic components that are in every modern vehicle, but at one point authors note “transition to automotive electronics, or circular economy” and it is not clear why they consider a transition to having electronics as part of autos as part of circular economy. The results then went on to discuss transition to electric mobility, and also noted that subjects conflated electric car and electronic components, which seems as though this was a confusing points to interview subjects as well. Please clearly explain the study focus and provide sufficient background and explanation for this topic.

Secondarily, the intro and/or methods section should show how and why the selected methods are appropriate to fill this gap. The authors stated goal is to understand “how sustainable practices, including circular economy, are conceptualized in the automotive industry, with a particular focus on how car electronics mediate the uptake of those concepts in social actors.” But the manuscript itself seems to focus on general public. I could see general public being able to inform on consumer perceptions of automotive electronics, but not how sustainable practices are being deployed in the automotive industry. The fit of methods to purpose is not clear.

A major issue is the lack of detail, transparency, and reproducibility of the methods, with specific concerns noted below:

First and most important, authors need to include all information about ethical considerations surrounding research on human subjects, including informed consent, data management, institutional approvals, protection of privacy, etc. I am not familiar with the open source tool noted, and readers would benefit from additional information about protections for data analyzed with this tool and if that was consistent with data protections approved for the research and consented by subjects (for example, are interview data actually transferred to and retained on the software servers and does this follow protocols set forth for the human subjects data management?). I also noticed that one author had an affiliation with the organization hosting this tool, and it seemed like that may be a potential conflict of interest that should at minimum be disclosed.

The authors must provide more comprehensive information about the data collection methods, including at a minimum, a copy of the interview script/protocol, how that protocol was developed (was it structured, open, or semi-structured?), details about recruitment protocols (who was recruited, how were they selected, were any categories of subjects excluded, etc.), the duration and nature of the interview, recording and transcription methods, etc. At some point, authors must also provide some additional information about the nature of the subjects and why they were theoretically relevant for this question – for example, was coverage of gender, age, expertise, car ownership, etc. balanced/representative or structured to provide a certain theoretical lens? It seemed as though opportunistic sampling of individuals at car events would introduce selection bias toward a specific segment of the broader population for which the phenomenon of interest would be relevant.

More information should also be provided about the coding methods – were these deductive or inductive approaches? Some additional sense of the coding process and outcomes should be provided. Was any intercoder reliability check performed?

Authors go on to use reduction and visualization methods that are introduced in the results, but not fully explained in the methods section itself. It really was not clear how and why authors chose to convert rich qualitative data into a quantitative frame. The manuscript does not seem to include the data used to create these tables (as required by the journal).

The results section would benefit from additional organization and structure. It was difficult to glean overall themes that arose from the interviews. For example, the results section begins by discussing responses to a question about sustainable behaviors that seemed to be more tangential to the interview topic, and it was not clear how this insight related theoretically to social perceptions of automotive electronics. Also, many of the results were presented relative to interview questions, which readers do not have available for context. In general, the broader knowledge gained from the QDA was not clear.

As noted above, the actual topics on which subjects were asked to respond were very unclear. One section in the results combined responses about electric vehicles and electronic components. The authors noted this “slip” in the text, but it wasn’t clear how or why these were coded together, technology aside. I could not follow the theoretical rationale for grouping topics – as one relates to behavioral choice (whether or not to purchase an electric vehicle) and one relates to an experience with the default choice (most new vehicles have electronics in them, regardless of someone’s preferences for this matter). This gets explored in the section on agency, so the coverage then also felt somewhat redundant. This one example is simply meant to suggest that the authors zoom out a bit on their results and then think about how to organize and frame them relative to the research questions motivating the study.

The results rely heavily on the visualization of quantitative data derived from the qualitative data. I would suggest that author better balance the results to shorten the visualization section and not over-rely on quantification and/or better integrate the learnings. There is much meaning being made from co-occurrence of themes, and less is being drawn from the themes themselves. Consider also including figures that bring together the broader thematic issues or learnings from the paper as a whole (synthesis).

Please include greater discussion of limitations and uncertainty inherent to the study and of how these may influence the conclusions that are ultimately drawn from the work.

Hmm, this looks pretty tough.

This can still be mended with some background reading and presenting clearly the issue. I guess the elephant in the room is greenwashing: onboard electronics is really bad for any notion of circularity, so companies are putting in place handwavy policies, and intentionally causing confusion between “transition to computers on wheels” and “transition to the circular economy”.

Maybe just restate the goal? The data are the data at this point.

This stuff we have from previous studies, if you used the same approach…