Photo: Steve Jurvetson
When Google’s self-driving Lexus cut off Delphi Automotive’s self-driving Audi, forcing it to take “appropriate action” by aborting a lane change, the near miss between them was reported in terms of the technology and liability. With the exception of Reid Hoffman’s thoughtful piece, Driving in the Networked Age, the brand and service experience of driving has been largely ignored in the public discourse.
Neville Anthony Stanton’s post on The Conversation led to a Twitter conversation between myself, Dan Hill and Tom Coates questioning Stanton’s rather dry account of man versus machine. Stanton raises the questions of responsibility and insurance and how human’s will never rival a machine’s ability to drive, but that seems to ignore the history of driving and, indeed, other forms of transport before that.
The automative industry has spent decades and a fortune on shaping the brand experience of driving and that’s not going to go away overnight, nor are those manufacturers going to want to lose control of it as we lose control of our cars.
Driving styles are algorithms
The Google-Delphi near-miss was really about a clash of algorithms.
That the Google car was a Lexus and the Delphi car an Audi might be superficially irrelevant, but people drive Audis, BMWs, Porsches, Volvos, Hondas, Toyota Camrys or (the poorly pluralised) Lexuses for a certain kind of driving experience and because they represent a certain kind of personality. As manufacturers evolve their own self-driving cars, can we expect these characteristics to form part of their algorithms? For example, might we expect a Camry to drive perfectly within the speed limit and never cut anyone up? Or a Porsche or Audi TT to have a sports mode, heavy on the acceleration and uncomfortably fast around the corners, since computers don’t lose their nerve and slow down? Might BMWs live up to their reputation and be programmed to tailgate the cars in front while flashing their lights and being sure to cut in at the front of filter lanes?
Clichés for sure, but long-standing brand experience clichés. Witness Toyota desperately trying to change their boring brand with their “bold new” 2015 Super Bowl ad and BMW trying to shed their petrolhead image with their i3 2015 #hellofuture Super Bowl ad, when the honest reality is of BMW is more like their “Adrenaline” ad.
If all self-driving cars are programmed to be the perfect, law-abiding driver, what is the point of owning one brand of car over another? Every car is, functionally, the same – it’s a box on wheels that gets you from A to B carrying more or less people or stuff over smooth or rough terrain depending on its class. The experience is, of course, a key differentiator. Is it sporty or sedate? Can you hear and feel the engine or is the ride smooth and silent? Is it leather luxury or can my kids eat chips in the back?
As we know from smartphones, tablets, computers and operating systems, all of which are functionally very similar, this is where UX, service design, product design and computer science blend together to make the difference for end users.
Navigation algorithms are brand experiences
The battle between in-car navigation systems and smartphones has largely been won by smartphones. The various integrations, such as CarPlay, are the supposed death knell of car manufacturers’ own systems, but self-driving cars might take back much some ground here, unless an open set of self-driving car protocols and APIs allows smartphone manufacturers and developers to hook into those systems.
Self-driving cars need their own navigation by default. Will we see traffic jams of one brand of car, as all their systems re-route to the same roads? Will we see certain brands make gains in the market because their navigation is superior to another?
Audi, BMW and Daimler are buying Nokia’s mapping service, Here, precisely because of this issue, writes William Boston in the WSJ:
The car makers feared that Nokia Here’s technology—the most advanced digital map of the world’s major road networks—could fall into the hands of Google Inc., Uber Technologies Inc. or Apple Inc. That would put auto makers at risk of losing control of information systems inside the car that are vital to self-driving cars and future automotive safety systems.
My experience with Audi’s, for example, has been one of decent cars with entertainment and information systems that are two decades behind. For the most part, in-car information systems are regularly disappointing, if not downright confusing. An argument for cars trailing behind current UX standards used to be that people don’t change their cars as often as their mobile phones. Your 15 year-old Camry is the driving equivalent of a Nokia 8250.
Many people lease cars in a three-year cycle, however, and whenever I rent a new car, it is always shocking how poor the UX of the dashboard is. It feels like the pre-iPhone days where the hardware was produced with zero integration with the shabby software (I’m looking at you, Sony Ericsson).
Self-driving cars even out many hardware differences of the car itself, leaving the service and user experience as the paramount reason for choosing one over another.
What will “choosing” a car mean in the future? Right now, manufacturers are still obsessed with selling millions of units. “Service” is something that might happen when you buy your car if you’re lucky and when you take it in to have the oil changed. But the future of cars will be about customers choosing a particular service experience, not owning a chunk of steel and plastic.
Customers will pay to have access to a particular fleet. Will this take the Uber model with limousines and everyday cars? Will I go with a Google car because their routing is better and it’s free, or will I pay extra for a Apple car because of the privacy? Or will this fall along the current brand lines – taking a Volvo for my family trip to be safe, but a Lexus to a business meeting?
If I do own my own self-driving car, can I loan it out to the fleet when I’m at work in return for credit for my own transport elsewhere? Or will owning a car cease to be a positive status symbol and take on a negative connotation, like owning an old mobile phone or a stack of CDs.
For many contemporary services experiences, such as banking, insurance, healthcare, communications and cloud services, trust is paramount to the the service offering. You need to know your insurance company isn’t going to let you down at the worst moment, your bank account isn’t going to get hacked, that your healthcare services will make you better, not kill you, and that your communications and cloud services providers will not sell your data or pass it on to government snoopers.
Now combine all that with the trust you have in your car not failing in some way with life threatening consequences. Trust is fragile. It takes a long time to build up and is easily broken. When a component fails on a car it is more visible and they can be recalled. A software glitch or hack while a whole fleet of cars are currently driving is an invisible horror about to unfold simultaneously.
Privacy, hacking and the social divide
Hoffman argues that self-driving cars have the ability to democratise driving even further:
[A]utonomous vehicles won’t curtail personal freedom – they’ll amplify it. Autonomous vehicles will extend the convenience of individualized driving to people who aren’t currently able to obtain driving licenses –senior citizens, people with various disabilities, young people. They will let everyone pursue a greater range of activities while they’re in transit. They’ll speed up transit times and help people forsake transit altogether. (I.E., your car will run errands for you while you stay at home.) They’ll reduce the need to actually own a car, and thus release people from the economic obligations of that.
This may be true, but they may well serve to create even deeper social divisions. If you’re stuck in a traffic jam in a Mercedes today, you’re in the same position as the person sitting in front of you in their beaten up old Ford. The prospect of paying extra for swifter transit – a kind of non net-neutrality for roads – could turn taking a car journey into one big airport experience. Those with the expensive tickets get to go first, go faster, have less hassle, while the rest of us sweat and swear.
Most likely the divide will be about who is prepared to give up their privacy for the sake of free or near-free travel. You can turn your phone off or enable airplane mode if you want to travel somewhere without being traced by your cellphone signal, but you can’t turn off a self-driving car’s navigation system, unless you can take over driving manually.
We can be sure that tech companies and government agencies are looking forward to the delicious combination of credit card data, realtime audio, camera and navigation data feeds that all of us will be transmitting every day. The wealthy might pay to take an anonymised journey, while the poor have to put up with being tracked and collated. The wealthy will have the evidence to counter a police offer’s version of events, while the poor will be dragged out of their cars and arrested.
Andy Greenberg’s video accompanying his article in WIRED showing the hacks in action
If it is already possible to remotely hack a car on the highway and send it off the road, imagine how much easier it will be once those cars are self-driving. Law enforcement officers can, literally, pull you over and detain you by locking you in your car. Hackers will no doubt come up with ways to own a Google car and tune it to their own tastes. Expect to see a side industry of third-party services and applications, such as car virus protection and journey history deletion or scrambling. What will be the equivalent of using a VPN and Tor browser for cars?
The intersections of different industries and regulations need careful consideration. Hoffman writes:
Even in cases of non-emergency, a high degree of transparency is necessary. Every time a passenger indicates a desired destination, an autonomous vehicle must make choices about the optimal route. Presumably, it will do so based on current traffic conditions, as Waze does now. But it’s also possible that the companies designing these cars could choose routes for other reasons. For example, advertisers might pay companies to route passengers past their businesses. Passengers with preferred status could receive access to faster streets while others are routed to slower, higher-volume streets.
In some cases, passengers may accept these decisions. You might pay less or receive some other perk if you agree to take the slow route home, or pay more to take the fast one. On a similar note, we will probably see the introduction of literal “marketing vehicles,” i.e., cars that take you to your destination for free as long as you complete a survey or watch a promotional video of some kind.
Because the various algorithms that govern car behavior will encompass issues of liability, risk, and morality, no one company should be allowed to simply make up their own rules. Instead, we’ll need to establish uniform rules and standards through public processes. In the same way that we currently have regulations involving emissions standards, safety equipment, and other aspects of car manufacture, we’ll also have regulations that establish the parameters for how the necessary algorithms operate.
Hoffman appears surprisingly optimistic about this, but I am less so. Politicians and manufacturers do not have a great track record of considering the nuances of complicated futures and agreeing on a unified plan of action. Witness everything from USB connectors to tackling climate change.
Six different USB connectors – Photo: Viljo Viitanen
Too focused on catching up with the present, car manufacturers seem rather complacent about the future. Andy Greenberg’s piece on hacking cars in WIRED this week demonstrated the bland corporate-speak response to Charlie Miller’s and Chris Valasek’s research into hacking and taking control of cars remotely:
When WIRED told Infiniti that at least one of Miller and Valasek’s warnings had been borne out, the company responded in a statement that its engineers “look forward to the findings of this [new] study” and will “continue to integrate security features into our vehicles to protect against cyberattacks.” Cadillac emphasized in a written statement that the company has released a new Escalade since Miller and Valasek’s last study, but that cybersecurity is “an emerging area in which we are devoting more resources and tools,” including the recent hire of a chief product cybersecurity officer.
To my ears, this sounds like the PR departments of car manufacturers who are absolutely behind the curve on this. The good news is that this all provides an opportunity for designers to move beyond car styling and engage in the entire experience of mobility and a service, of which the car is just one component. The opportunities for innovation and developing new and useful experiences and services are tremendous. Let’s hope the car manufacturers see the strategic benefits here and don’t just try and cling on to their current business models, which are sure to go the way of the horse and cart.