The connected car: mission irreconcilable? - TechCentral

The connected car: mission irreconcilable?

James-Francis-180“Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don’t know which half.” Those were the alleged words of John Wanamaker, a US merchant and notable type that lived at the turn of the 20th century. I say “allegedly” because if the Internet has revealed anything, it’s that we really can’t trust where quotes come from. Marie Antoinette never said anything about cake. And Einstein didn’t utter things of significance about bees, other than, perhaps, “Ouch!”

But it’s a nice quote and I use it a lot, mainly because it’s the only pithy thing I know to say about advertising. My experience in publishing has never been able to reconcile my amazement at what people pay for advertising. I can only surmise it’s because some larger companies have marketing budgets to burn. The Internet came along and threw all of that on its ear, because we finally had actual metrics. Prior to the Internet, most marketing statistics for advertising fell somewhere between educated guess and thumb-suck.

Click ads allowed for some sense of measure, plus they’re a lot cheaper. That, in a nutshell, is why print media is caving in. Its business model is outdated and based on a period when it basically held a monopoly on ad rates, diversified competition be damned. Put that in your free market economy pipe and smoke it.

But back to advertising and branding. And cars. This week’s press release that caught my attention is from BMW. It punts its involvement with the newly announced Mission Impossible movie, reaching for the aesthetic heights of copywriting with sentences like: “The M division’s philosophy and dynamic design leave no doubt about the M3’s motorsport genes while the BMW Motorrad S 1000 RR, which is also seen in the film trailer released yesterday, represents the ultimate performance on two wheels.”

I can’t write about this without a technology angle, but BMW comes to the rescue with: “BMW ConnectedDrive, which offers uniquely intelligent connectivity between driver, car and environment, was always on hand for the IMF team as they travelled around the globe.”

ConnectedDrive is BMW’s “connected car” system, one that it has been promoting recently in South African through a roadshow. It is somewhat unique in being proprietary — designed, built and operated by BMW and its partners. This is different from the various third-party ecosystems fighting for a share of the car market, which include ring-fencers such as Apple and Google, as well as agnostic platforms like MirrorLink.

Connecting cars is a big, big deal. Connected cars represent the next stage in consumer electronics after our phones: firstly, phones connect to cars; secondly, cars are also a well-embedded mainstream technology; and lastly, cars have their own existing tech ecosystems, such as sound and GPS systems.

There are also other immediate advantages, such as using data to predict behaviour, an idea insurance companies have a particular fondness for. Black boxes in cars are becoming a surer reality with every passing year and will one day be standard. Cars are also quite inefficient — both in terms of maintenance and road behaviour. If the idea of the Internet of things is to materialise in full meaning, it will likely happen through automobiles.

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That’s all great, except for a small problem: who gets to hold the car keys? On the surface, everyone is chirpy about this grand technology future where car meets smart. But the truth is that nobody wants to give ground. Car manufacturers in particular are not keen to allow Apple or Google to dictate terms to them. Nor do they want to risk losing sales because Car A is built for Android, but Customer B has an iOS device. Car industry fortunes wax and wane with the rhythm of a poker game, so nobody wants to rock the boat.

The second issue is that all of the above are largely cosmetic in terms of technology concerns. There are deeper problems inherent to a smart car system: cars were not designed to be computers and there are no standards to dictate basic security protocols. For years, some have called for a mandatory security hardware layer in vehicles, but that is yet to emerge. Cars will open a whole new dimension to security and privacy conversations — conversations that the button-up world of vehicle makers and the razzle-dazzle creators of consumer tech would prefer to avoid for as long as possible.

Then there is the third part that nobody but the consumer worries about: all of this extra technological whizz-bang is making it more expensive to maintain a car, not to mention limiting your service options. Like Wanamaker’s quote, you are never sure which half of money spent on “genuine parts” and at “official service centres” is wasted. Car brands can talk all about “the real thing” they want, yet that does not explain paying two to three times for a brake pad change than you would elsewhere. If anything, all this technology may be creating a new type of service monopoly for cars.

Well, at least we know what the Mission Impossible crew thinks of all this: “[The] dynamic performance and BMW ConnectedDrive make our BMW models the perfect cars for Ethan Hunt and his team, who use the vehicles’ ground-breaking functions and cutting-edge technology to make sure the good guys come out on top.”

So somebody is winning in all of this. But I’m not entirely sure the consumer is the real beneficiary.

  • James Francis is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in several local and international publications

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