Monday, June 14, 2010

alexbogusky's posterous: Why are our cars so dumb?

My wife has a very nice car. The kind of car that has simulated walnut dash panels and leather seats. The kind of car with a carefully engineered driving experience. The kind of car that has a meticulously crafted brand that says something about who she is. The kind of car that uses tremendous amounts processing power to deliver hands-free dialing GPS maps and the ability to warn her when the tire pressure gets low. Yet she seems completely oblivious and immune to it all as she ignores the experience of driving, only attempting to end it all as quickly as possible so she can get herself home and on her personal computer.

And she is not alone. The American romance with the motorcar is slipping. Recently, when polled, Americans said their computer ranked several places ahead of their car on the list of things they could not live without. This probably isn’t accurate. Most of us would have a more difficult time getting by if somebody took our car than our computer. But it is clearly an indication of where our emotional connection is. So why is it that for millions and millions of us including my wife, who could not care less about technology, is it that the computer has subplanted this former relationship with her vehicle? It can’t be technology. Because the fact is her car probably has as much or more processing power as her laptop. But her car and her laptop aren’t processing the same things. Her computer has evolved to become all about her. While her car selfishly insists on being all about itself.

Sites like Facebook, twitter and others have allowed for the creation of what we call a Digital Super Me. A highly-sharable and incredibly robust digital version of our selves that only drinks the best wine, vacations in the finest locales and has the best and brightest children. We have created these alter egos and now we not only refuse to live without them but we have a new expectation for the contribution that other products and services should make to our lives. So for essentially an investment of zero it delivers the most powerful way to say who you are and share it with the entire world, if you like. And for 40,000 dollars the car is supposed to say something about who you are and share it with the people who see you drive it and park it. No wonder the love is slipping.

Now the car could actually be a powerful tool in this creation of the Digital Super Me and we’ll get to that but first, the car companies would have to realize what business they’re in. Henry Ford was famous for saying, "If I'd asked my customers what they wanted, they'd have said a faster horse." But he realized he wasn’t in the horse business or even mechanized horse business. He was in the personal transportation business and he was out to make the best solution to get lots of people personal transportation. I’m looking forward to the car companies making that same realization soon. Because even if my car gets 200mpg, chances are for many of us it will still mean we’re ultimately stuck in a hour-plus commute in gridlocked traffic. What has worked for a very long time is no longer the perfect and singular solution it once was.

So let’s have some fun with personal transportation and build the Digital Super Me and better more holistic solutions to getting around at the same time. There are incredible assets that are captured by the driving experience and they can offer both value and fun to the consumer. The rear-view camera that is in many cars, why can’t I take a picture with it? Technically there is no reason why not. So let’s start there. And then when I park let’s sync up and allow me to download this and other assets. Soon somebody will start a website called where we can post our pictures. Then why not add some other cameras? We all go interesting places and see interesting things. And often we’re taking pictures from the car. Let’s just put that feature in with front and side cameras. When we get home our vehicle syncs up and asks if we’d like to save or post our drive to our site or others like Facebook. The post would be a google map with photo assets and perhaps movies embedded. Simple stuff. Now my wife is interested again. Actually, she might like a camera that captures what’s going on inside the car with the kids. Something to share with the grandparents when they get home.

But what about the car itself? Many of us drive huge thirsty cars solo Monday-Friday because we hope to pile the whole family in on the weekend and do something fun. So we select a car based on 20 percent of the usage. The other 80 percent of the time it’s too big, too hard to park and thirstier than we’d like. What we need is a different model. Instead of buying your car from one of the car companies you could buy a package for your transportation. So in my case, I would get something small and economical during the week and swap it out for an SUV come the weekend. Somebody with a business that required the SUV during the week might want something small and sporty on the weekend. I’d happily pay more than a traditional lease for a package that included this kind of flexibility. This solution could come from places like Zipcar or the rental car companies but I’d like to see it come from Detroit. And while we’re creating more flexible options for the kind of car that’s most appropriate to the job, perhaps we can go further. I’ve been intimately involved in bike-sharing systems so I know a bit about the potential. 80% of the trips we make are less than 5 miles and 60% of the co2 cars produce is created in the first few minutes of operation. This is the sweet spot for bikes. Any of the big auto makers could actually install a major bike-sharing system into five US cites for about 10 million bucks. This is less money than GM spends on Howie Long commercials in a single weekend of football. No offense to Howie but imagine the impact they could make on their brand and on the customer relationship if every new GM also came with free bike-sharing? The same key that unlocks the car could unlock a bike. Just wave it over the kiosk and an RFID reader would know that GM owner John Smith has checked out a bike. Now bring all that potential data capture back into the picture and John can post his commute along with pictures and calories burned on his bike ride to his or Facebook page. This is something theoretical. Nothing needs to be invented. This could literally all be done in a couple of months.

The challenge in all of this isn’t a technical one. The challenge is in moving from a mission of making cars to a mission of moving people. And then to harness all the embedded intelligence and processing power already available in service of that mission. A mission that will move beyond hands-free dialing and voice-activated stereo controls and go to work to serve the basic human needs to move, connect and share.

Designing a car has become a job of designing systems. I’m sure the designers are ready and it’s obvious that the customers are ready. Now we just need the next Henry Ford to show us the way...alexbogusky's posterous

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