I learned exactly how passionate people are for their cars when I worked in comms for the Met Police, says Nick Booth. Some drivers would issue death threats over the phone just because plod moved their Mini when it was blocking Piccadilly Circus. Mind you, the male callers could be just as bad.
Back then, we were passionate about our motors because they were the great emancipators. They gave millions greater choices over their work, purchasing and childcare. We’d hand wash them, nurse them through ill health and take them for a spin in the country.
The magic is gone
Then, not long ago, the car industry got into computers. And the magic went out of our relationship. If you wanted to help your car with its slipping clutch plate or choking carburettor, you could no longer tend to it yourself. It was like some horrible busybodies had staged one of those relationship interventions.
All components of the car would be housed in 100 or so ‘embedded’ systems. We were still granted access to its body but custody is too expensive. It got even worse when the law makers got involved and found endless ways to fleece you over parking ‘enforcement’. The intimacy has gone now anyway.
Having disrupted our relationship with the car, the IT industry could make amends, according to Ferdinand Arndt, director of the connected cars team for software developer Luxoft.
Whether by accident or design it is unclear, but by redesigning the manufacture of the connected car, they have created the potential for a more open relationship with our car and its components. Now, instead of 100 or so embedded (and incredibly inflexible and wasteful) units, the intelligent car can have thousands of tiny discrete and independent components.
With a high-performance computer (HPC) brain controlling a complex nervous systems of sensors in every vital area of the car, it knows everything. It might even share the information with us, if we know how to read its log files. Now, if the mechanism for winding the window fails, there are detailed explanations and far more options for fixing it, from rebooting the software to swapping out the motor. It’s no longer an embedded replacement that only an expensive garage can do. “You can solve most things by software now,” says Arndt.
Falling in love again?
Which could be wonderful for car owners. We could fall in love with our motors all over again.
But it won’t be the same now. Too much water has gone under the bridge. You can’t enjoy driving any more. Diamonds are less precious than parking space. National and local governments target car owners like cash cows, with all kinds of speed traps and box junction scams.
Still, the love affair with the car could be re-ignited. But demographic trends suggest car ownership will be concentrated in the hands of fleet managers in future. The good news for them is that car makers could develop updates in the cloud and deliver them much more flexibly to the vehicle, says Arndt.
Not sure I like his conclusion though: “Companies like BMW can re-invent themselves as mobility services providers,” Arndt says.
Mobility services? Targeted content? Big browser constantly watching you?
Is it just me, or is this the most depressing view of the future of car ownership?
That’s a very valid point but fear not, says a spokeswoman for JaguarLandRover.
What software developers could do and what they will do are very often polar opposites, she says. “In theory you could programme your laptop to bark at you every time you send an email, but it doesn’t mean you will. Rest assured, the industry is shifting to give drivers the interaction with technology that they want.”
JaguarLandRover wants to give people a holistic view, rather than narrow your options with targeted content.
Let’s hope she’s right. I wish the data people would turn down their full beam though. It’s blinding people to the good stuff.
The author of this blog is Nick Booth, freelance IT and communications writer