Why the car industry has a dark future – digitally

You’re in love with your car? Unless it’s not an oldtimer, that has all advantages of the pre-digital era, you’re dealing with a computer that drives. Well, not quite. Yes, your car is packed with digital gimmicks, with a „motronic“ that gets the last little bit of power out of your engine. The engine stops on traffic lights, it has presets for cold, hot and humid weather, for altitude and so on. You don’t even think about it, unless your air flow sensor is damaged and the fuel consumtion skyrockets and your car feels like it lost some 60% of its power.

So where is the problem? The problem is in the everyday use of everything else. Infotainment equipment, sound, display, music, entertainment, convenience and so on. It seems that the car industry hasn’t even noticed the changes the telecommunication industry was undergoing. Remember the times BEFORE iPhone. BEFORE touchscreen. BEFORE operating systems that are updated at least every year. And updating doesn’t mean, just ironing out some bugs. It means NEW features, new looks, new possibilites.

When I was buying my first car with iPod interface, the interface just lasted 6 months. Then Apple changed the specifications of their 30-pin cables. Result: My new ipod would play, but didn’t charge anymore. Which is some sort of big annoyance, isn’t it? I asked the guys, if they would change the cable, because that was the only problem (The pin configuration had changed because of the move from Firewire to USB! The cable was connected to the rear of the multimedia console, so it was impossible for me to change it by just plugging in another one). They just were lamenting, that evil Apple did change the connenctions without their knowledge (really?) and they wouldn’t change that for this model anymore (you guessed right – they also weren’t in the „works with iPod“ program … probably too expensive to pay the fees). So I bought an adaptor for 10 Bucks and the problem was solved. But it shows very clearly the problems of an aging industry that thinks in terms of horsepowers instead of (digital) convenience. And convenience will play the major role in the future. The kids don’t have petrol running through their veins anymore. They are in smartphones. And they want their devices to integrate seamlessly in their lives and – cars. They would even take a less potent model, if the digital integration is better.

Why the car industry has a dark future - digitallyI bought a Merc roadster some years ago, it came out when Apple changed the 30-pin connector to Lightning connections. Well, Mercedes uses it’s own connection. It looks like a USB port, but it doesn’t have the same specifications. So you’ll have to use a special Merc-cable (needless to say, this cable had a price that’s well above the expensive Apple connections). You guessed right: it was 30-pin. Enter the 30 Bucks Apple adaptor. Again it was some sort of inconvenience. But those are minor glitches. The usability of the multimedia system in that Merc was … well you don’t want to hear my curses. First above all the guys adapted the BMW illness with the single multifunctional knob in the middle console. Whoever invented this, has never been thinking further than the beginnings of the digital age (DOS …). OK, they are getting better with voice recognition, but voice recognition is nowhere near the abilities of SIRI or GOOGLE.

What? You’re fine with that? That is the the automobile distortion field. Let me explain: When CDs were common in cars I ordered my Merc with a mounted CD box. It cost 60 Bucks. No problem you’d say the car costs 50,000 Bucks. But if you’d bought the exact similar box from the original manufacturer, without mounting, it would have been 2 Bucks. See? And your multimedia systems costs more than 3,000 Bucks (with a satnav that is inferior to a accessory satnav for 120 bucks from say tomtom), an amount of money you’d never spend for your home surround if it provided that bad experience. And when you order the next car, you probably will pay another 3,000 Bucks. Every smartphone for 400 Bucks has more possibilities than a „high end“ device in any car today. Not to speak of weirdo interfaces and procedures in these cars. You have a hard disk system in your car? 30 or 40 gigs? For probably the price of a MacBook Air. And you thought Apple is expensive? Learn from the car industry.

And you know what’s the big joke behind all of this? This industry doesn’t even earn the same money like Google or Apple. Now that is bitter, isn’t it?

In the early 2000s, I had two appointments at the Frankfurt Auto Show. First was with Mercedes (Comand 1) second with BMW (the first iteration of the „knob“). The BMW technician asked me, what system I preferred (because he knew I came from the Mercedes stand). Well, I said, the best would be a touchsystem. He laughed and said this wasn’t a good idea because of the smudge that will render the display unusable. Remember the critics of the iPhone? Their concern about the smudge on the display? And that the touchscreen is a bad choice because of that?

Speaking of iPhone: the central (initial) idea behind the touch device was, that it could display … everything. There wouldn’t be limitations on interfaces, the location and amount of buttons and so on. It was the advent of a whole new industry – the app industry. The idea behind it: to enhance your smartphone. The smartphone just was a promise. The completion came through the numerous apps.

Which leads to a big question: why didn’t the car industry borrow from these ideas? Why are they so utterly slow in adopting these brilliant innovations? They need years to adopt a new interface for an Android or iOS device. And when the NEW iOS or Android model comes out, their interfaces and devices are already outdated.

Why the car industry has a dark future - digitalyThose guys just don’t think in the right timeframes. They are heirs of an industry, that was founded on the ground of machines, mechanics and engineering. The timeframe there? 5-8 years or even more. The iPhone was introduced in 2007. 8 years ago. In the meantime we have the iPhone 6 and now smartphones are indeed small supercomputers. Digital engineering has a different pace. Look into the dashboard and center console of modern cars. You look into the layout of buttons, controllers and displays that resembles a science fiction movie from the 60s. 90% of all cars have an interior design that is an insult to buyers. And they sell that crap, because everyone does it.

And when the auto industry goes into digital innovation (think of the new AUDI TT electronic display dashboard … „overachieving“ would be just flattering) it lacks everything what telecommunications engineers have cut their teeth in. Why?

Enter TESLA. Tesla has it right. It comes with a big touch display and those guys have understood, what the word „update“ means (because they come from the other (digital) side). They even provide enhancement updates for their existing cars. Nice for the owner! He gets the most of everything.

And the rest of the car industry? Nothing. No updates, not even when everything is display based. And when the car has digital problems it gets really expensive and embarrassing. My wive’s car didn’t display the right time anymore in the dashboard. The technicians just didn’t know, what the problem was but were guessing and guessing and guessing. In the end she paid 500 Bucks for … nothing. The clock didn’t synchronize with the satnav and from time to time you had to do a hard boot of the whole system – which meant unconnecting the battery. The 17 wrench was her most important friend at these times. The car manufacturer was Mercedes. Embarrassing, when you read the slogan: „The best or nothing“. This is the best proof, why the classic car industry is doomed. Their knowledge in the digital world is … let’s be fair: poor.

Wouldn’t it be terrific if you’d bought a car, and when you bring it to service, the technician asks you, if you want to upgrade your multimedia system’s OS, want to upgrade say the windshield wiper software, because the sensor you’ve not ordered in the beginning is already built in but not activated (by the way, a gimmick an iPhone or Android developer wouldn’t think about more than 3 minutes, because it would be so trivial)? The possibilities are nearly infinite. My Merc had a clock in the display. It wasn’t possible to set the display to just show that clock permanently. Every time I restarted the car, it reset to defaults. Annoying? You bet. What if your technician asked you, if you want a different clock display (9,99 Bucks), that looks gorgeous? App industry anyone?

I think you get the idea. The car industry hasn’t even begun to think about the digital revolution. And that is one aspect why it is doomed. The other aspects have to do with ending oil resources, CO2 footprint, pollution and so on.

And that’s why I think, alternative car companies like TESLA (or … Apple?) will have a bright future. It doesn’t look electric transprotation would boom today or in the near future. But I predict a total crash of the classic car industry in the next 15 years, when it doesn’t reinvent itself. And when the crash comes, it will happen pretty quick.

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