What would Steve Jobs drive?

In the wake of Steve Jobs’ passing, I think I have heard everything, from heartfelt eulogies to bewildered questions about why he was deserving of so much public emotion.

At the same time, we are having a serious conversation about money and power in American life, mostly framed as the rich getting richer while the rest of us stand still or fall behind. It’s clear that many have benefited mightily from tax codes changes and emerging markets for goods and labor. Work that used to be done here in the US are now performed for far less in places many American consumers have never heard of. There are the usual cries of “class warfare” and accusations that those who protest the way things are going are un-American, even anti-American. And one of the defenses I hear is that the CEOs who make the huge multi-million dollar pay checks deserve them, for their meritorious service, their acumen, their wisdom. Of course, this depends on what you think of business plans that include offshoring jobs and turning your tax law department into a profit center.

So what do they do, these tycoons? What innovative products and services would we be without if they decided they were being unfairly treated and left to follow their bliss, as baristas or surfing instructors?

Steve Jobs we have heard a lot about and most people have seen or heard of the products he had a hand in bringing to market. What people may not realize is how single-minded and focused his plans were, from 1996 or even earlier until 2011. This hourlong keynote address from 1997 describes the Macbook Air, the iGadgets, and his implementation of the cloud, released the week following his death. And this was before he had rejoined Apple as an employee. That was all part of his vision and a clear illustration of Allan Kay’s axiom, that “the best way to predict the future is to invent it.”

So what have other industries brought us since the mid 90s? Or to put it another way, if the automakers allowed their Steve Jobs-like visionaries free rein, what would we see on the road? Seriously, when a car that can read your Twitter feed is considered a bold idea, what the hell are they thinking about?

So what would a vision of empowering personal transportation look like? Well, as Jobs noted, moving parts are a problem in personal computers, so minimizing their use makes for a better experience. In his case, that meant storing data centrally and allowing the personal computer to access and operate on the user’s data with the risk of losing it to a disk crash or other mishap. In the auto world, I would argue that the power source, the necessity of acquiring fuel regularly along with the varying prices (funny how gas prices always rise before the “summer driving season” and fall when schools re-open) is something a visionary would address.

For starters, who needs 200-400 miles of cruising range? Most people drive a lot less than that in a week, generally no more than 20 miles a day. So why are cars designed around the idea that we might take off cross-country at any moment? The Chevy Volt is the first inkling that someone has considered that people don’t drive more than a few miles a day. This, of course, is more than ten years after hybrid-powered cars from Japan hit the market.

So we have one entrant in that race. Will the other carmakers wait and see how it sells before offering their own take on that idea? Or will they see it as a challenge and try to better it?

What other ideas would a visionary want us to have? I liked the idea of Fiat’s Eco Drive, a built-in data logger, like the industry standard ODBII port but actually, you know, usable. How about if your car logged all that performance data — speed, braking force, elapsed time, fuel economy — as well as your various routes, using GPS, and could help you plan and remember details for better travel times? Anecdotally, we know when rush hour is a problem, but what if we could time it even better, maybe by comparing it to publicly collected data, as with in-car navigation systems or Google Maps?

The logical extension of that is to allow the automakers and municipalities to use that data, suitably anonymized, for planning and product and service research. And though there are arguments against it on privacy grounds, I would like to see transponders that record the location of all licensed vehicles in realtime, for public safety reasons (identifying hit and runs as well as multi-car accidents) and for traffic planning. Imagine if all speed limits were dynamic, if an empty stretch of road mean it was your call but when traffic gets heavy, posted speeds can also be cut to lower risk.

But back to the car itself. What else would someone who cared more about drivers than cupholders want to see in our cars? Maybe variable driving profiles, based on the driver? We already have cars that can be started without a key, so long as the control fob is in range. Why not have a different set of capabilities tied to a driver’s fob? Yep, that means teens can’t speed, no way, no how. Or the car won’t start before or after a certain hour.

What about the sizes and configurations of cars? We see crazy concept cars all the time but by the time they are on the lot, this year’s model is not all that much different from last year’s. Sure, they will likely all have four wheels and be unmistakably a car, but how big do they have to be? There’s a big difference between the old Mini Cooper and an Escalade but not in how many people are usually seen in one. Maybe that’s a side-effect of cars as status objects where the personal computer is a tool. Not that there isn’t some status involved in which kind you have, how new, how often replaced, just as with cars.

What other improvements would a visionary demand? 30 years ago, I recall reading about efforts to replace the need for lubricating oil and some components with precision-cast ceramics, using closer tolerances than were possible with metal. Since the ceramics would not expand as they heated up, the new materials might spur new designs, just as we see in the personal computer market. Remember that computer makers are getting rid of moving parts wherever they can, with solid state drives, innovative fanless cooling. Consider a car engine without the need to design lubrication or oil cooling, as well as filtering and replacement. It might mean new ideas in engine cooling, many new configurations, layouts, and use of materials.

But we never saw those innovations. They were intended for military use first, as a way to improve reliability and reduce the need for supplies in the field. Do I need to wonder if the oil producers exerted some pressure here?

It’s not fashion that drives the use of metal components in modern personal computers but durability and reliability. Plastics are fine for desktop units that are stationary but portable systems see a lot of stress and often fall apart before they wear out. Someone saw the arrival of new metalworking technology that we now see used in making Apple’s MacBook line and realized the possibilities. So in a very few years, we have seen a big change in the materials used and new designs that those materials made possible. What similarly big changes have we seen in the auto industry? It’s not necessarily a good thing that Henry Ford would recognize today’s cars as descendants of his old Model T.

So why cars? What other personal device has had a democratizing, empowering effect like the personal computer? Both industries have companies led by powerful visionaries and mass marketeers alike. Maybe it’s the relative maturity of each industry that allows one to innovate while the other stagnates. But recall that when the US Army asked for proposals to build its Jeep, there were more than 140 car makers invited to the dance. Now we have two US automakers. As with the breakup of the Bell System, with the 7 Baby Bells and the Ma Bell, we have only 5 big carriers, two of which were created when Verizon sold off the assets they use. The three largest have divided all but four states between them. This is competition? When the rest of the developed world has better broadband service at lower prices through what in many cases is the government telco, I wonder how we justify the opposing view?

There is some disturbing truth to the idea that 20th/21st century capitalism doesn’t really like competition so much as consolidation, and monopoly even better. We could use more iconoclastic visionaries, not more interchangeable business school drones, as variable in their thinking as the mass-produced goods they sell. In the automotive market, look at the variation in design thinking visible at Bring a Trailer and then look at the homogenized offerings we have to choose from.

What could change that is a more activist public purchasing system, where the GSA or other large government (or corporate) purchasers could require vendors to meet higher standards than the current market supports, as a way to drive innovation. Why higher standards? As Henry Ford said, if he had asked people what they wanted, they would have asked for a faster horse. And consider the iPhone and iPad: did anyone ask for or describe them, besides the person most associated with them? And even when they were introduced, they were ridiculed and considered to be of limited utility. That seems to be a minority view now.

Consider the US Army Jeep or the London Taxi Cab, the ubiquitous Black Cab, both vehicles that were designed to a spec, not purchased off the lot. The Conditions of Fitness for the design and for each licensed cab are here: see Part 2 for details on safety and passenger comfort requirements. And then ask yourself why every cab and police cruiser in the US seems to be a Ford Crown Victoria, versus a vehicle designed around the very different requirements of those functions?

It’s time we expected more than reactionary design or focus-group driven “innovation.”

Oct 17, 2011

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