Showing all posts tagged cars:

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In discussing my last post about self-driving car technology, it was pointed out to me that I was being unduly pessimistic about the prospect of really smart people solving the problem of dealing with the dynamics nature of city traffic. Clarke’s First Law comes to mind:

When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.

I am neither distinguished, nor (yet) elderly, and nobody’s idea of a scientist, and I certainly do not mean to imply that self-driving car technology is impossible. What I am saying is that adoption of self-driving tech, and indeed of any new technological offering, is not just a technology problem, and perhaps not even primarily a technology problem. For this reason, even more than because of the technical difficulties involved in navigating busy and unpredictable city streets, I expect the initial uptake of self-driving cars to be in more controlled environments, whether dedicated roadways, or inside industrial plants, airports, and the like, where random unexpected foot or bicycle traffic is not a factor. Actual go-anywhere self-driving cars will still not show up on public streets even some time after the technology has been proved out in those environments.

That said, there are signs of movement. The US has chosen ten proving grounds where this technology can be tested in real-world conditions. Also, a possible contradiction to my expectation of initial uptake in controlled environments is unpredictable Indian road traffic - and yet, Tata have announced their intention to test in Bangalore.

Just in case I was overly pessimistic, therefore, I wanted to run a quick thought experiment taking the opposite position: assuming that true, go-anywhere self-driving functionality becomes available - what then?

Everything changes

The main factor to take into account is that everything will change. To think of this future state in terms of "driverless cars" is to miss the point by as much as those who described early automobiles as "horseless carriages". It is natural to think of radical new products in the context of existing categories, but truly significant innovations define their own categories, with wide-ranging consequences.

If personal flying cars will ever be possible, it is a foregone conclusion that the results will not be what was depicted on the cover of 50s pulps, with the nuclear family setting off in Dad's finned and chromed sportster for a day of wholesome fun. The sheer traffic control and public safety requirements of a world where anybody can afford a flying car would act to limit uptake and adoption. In fact, pretty much the only way that personal air vehicles could ever become widespread would be if they were autonomous pods, with no fallible humans in the control loop. Either a central traffic control, or peer-to-peer connections between the vehicles (or a combination of the two) would be required to make that situation even remotely practical. At that point, would anyone bother to own one of these air transit pods, or would we just summon one as needed?

Many of the same factors apply to autonomous road cars. Right now, privately owned cars are idle for most of their lives. They are parked overnight, then driven to work, parked there all day, and driven back home to be parked. If the car becomes autonomous, it does not need to park near its owner; it could drive itself to a distant parking structure, or even right back home, to wait until it is needed again. At that point, why not enable other people to share the use of the car while its owner is otherwise engaged? And the logical consequence of that situation is, why own the car in the first place? Just summon it to where you are, and dismiss it when you’re done.

Right away, there is no longer any need for parking lots near offices and retail centres, just much smaller pick-up and drop-off areas. What does this do to the fabric of cities? Imagine every parking lot replaced by a park - or a reduction in sprawl, as new, much denser residential and commercial development can take the place of redundant parking structures. Even where new greenfield builds are required, they can become more efficient, no longer requiring as much space for all of those parking spaces.

Share - but how?

Some of the analysis also assumes an increase in ride-sharing. In this scenario, each vehicle has multiple occupants, which reduces the overall number of vehicles on the road, in turn reducing the need for road infrastructure. I’m not sure that this is plausible. Rather than this sort of simultaneous ride-sharing, with many people in the car at the same time, I think that the plausible future involves sequential ride-sharing, where the vehicle is in near-constant use (at least at peak times), but only by one person at a time.

The move from a large number of inefficient, single-user assets to a much smaller number of highly efficient assets with high utilisation rates will also have a dramatic impact on the automotive industry. The future of autonomous cars is not a Tesla in every driveway. It looks much more like Paris’ new driverless minibuses - in other words, the use case that we should extrapolate from is public transport, not private cars. The advent of autonomous self-driving technology will not add new capabilities to private cars. Rather, it will lead to an increase in the flexibility and capability of public transport networks.

This change will determine the end of the automotive industry as we know it. Already today, nobody cares especially about the marque of their Uber or Lyft vehicle1. In a scenario where those are the only types of vehicles on the road, the basis of competition between manufacturers would change dramatically to become something much more similar to the commercial vehicle market. The relevant drivers for competition would become the cost of operation and maintenance, without any particular brand cachet or driver experience factoring into selection. The overall size of the market would also shrink dramatically, as increased utilisation rates for individual vehicles lead to a requirement for a much smaller number of vehicles overall. Whatever happens, the sales volume for the industry will crash and most of the current manufacturers will exit the market one way or another.

Another expected advantage of autonomous vehicles is the new traffic control capabilities that they enable. One of the most frustrating types of traffic jam is the one that there is no apparent reason for. Traffic slows and stops, restarts, inches along - and then suddenly it’s flowing again. What happened in that situation is a signalling cascade: one human driver hits their brakes, the one behind them, unable to gauge intentions or speed accurately, hits their brakes a little harder, and pretty soon the whole line of cars has ground to a halt.

Instead, autonomous vehicles could enable swarming behaviours, where a whole line of vehicles can tailgate each other, safe in the knowledge that none of them is going to do anything unexpected. The immediate benefits would include optimal utilisation of road surfaces and reduced fuel consumption (from aerodynamic and other effects).

…but not today

All of this describes the ultimate end state, but for the reasons I discussed, I do not expect all of these consequences to manifest in the short term. What I do expect is that limited application of autonomous driving technology will deliver some initial benefits, and over time the technical, legal, and social hurdles will begin to fall, enabling some of these second-order benefits. However, none of that will happen in three to five years or even ten years, as some of the boosters argue, regardless of the technical progress that is made.

It is still important to think about the impact of technology adoption. Too often, IT people especially focus only on technical feasibility, and assume that just because something is possible, it will then be adopted. In actual fact, history is littered with the bones of products that failed to gain traction because of non-technical factors. Meanwhile, tech industry commentators lament the success of “inferior" products (whether or not they actually are inferior) that focus on user needs.

The canonical example of "not getting it" is of course Slashdot founder Rob Malda’s reaction to the iPod launch:

No wireless. Less space than a Nomad. Lame.

Of course we know how that played out: regardless of the technical specs, the iPod met users’ needs so completely that it defined the entire category - before, of course, it was in its own turn subsumed by the Next Big Thing.

The same will happen with driverless cars. Solving the tech issues is only a part of the problem. To achieve the sort of transformative effects that I described above will require a concerted push into all sorts of areas that I see as being currently ignored: city architecture, transportation policy, legal issues, insurance, and so on and so forth. The technology industry has a tendency to dismiss these types of issues as "soft factors".

When launching a new technology, ignore the soft factors at your peril.


Images by Austin Scherbarth and Peter Hershey via Unsplash


  1. Except that if I pay for Uber Black, I would be very disappointed it an UberX-grade Prius or whatever were to show up, instead of a big German luxury car. 

Thinking Two Steps Behind

In my day job, I spend a lot of my time building business cases to help understand whether our technology is a good fit for a customer. When you are building a startup business, this is the the expected trajectory: in the very early days, you have to make the technology work, translating the original interesting idea into an actual product that people can use in the real world. Once you have a working product, though, it’s all about who can use it, and what they can do with it.

In this phase, you stop pitching the technology. Instead, you ask questions and try to understand what ultimate goals your prospective customer has. Only once you have those down do you start talking about what your technology can do to satisfy those goals. If you do not do this, you find yourself running lots of "kick the tyres" evaluations that never go anywhere. You might have lots of activity, but you won’t have many significant results to show for it.

This discipline of analysing goals and identifying a technology fit is very useful in analysing other fields too, and it helps to identify when others may be missing some important aspect of a story.

Let’s think about driverless cars

Limited forms of self-driving technology already exist, from radar cruise-control to more complete approaches such as Tesla’s Autopilot. None of these are quite ready for prime time, and there are fairly regular stories about their failures, with consequences from the comic to the tragic.

Because of these issues, Tesla and others require that a drivers keep their hands on the wheel even when the car is in Autopilot mode. This brings its own problems, falling into an “uncanny valley" of attention: the driver is neither fully engaged, nor can they fully disengage. Basically it’s the worst of both worlds, as drivers are no longer involved in the driving, but still cannot relax and read a book or watch a film.

These limitations have not stopped much of the commentary from assuming self-driving car technology to be, if not a problem that is already solved, at least one that is solvable. Extrapolations from that point lead to car ownership becoming a thing of the past as people simply summon self-driving pods to their location, which in turn causes massive transformations in both labour force (human drivers, whether truckers or Uber drivers, are no longer required) and the physical make-up of cities (enormous increases in the utilisation rate for cars mean that large permanent parking structures are no longer required) - let alone the consequences for automotive manufacturers, faced with a secular transformation in their market.

Okay, maybe not cars

Self-driving technology is not nearly capable (yet) of navigating busy city streets, full of unpredictable pedestrians, cyclists, and so on, so near-term projections focus on what is perceived as a more easily solvable problem: long-distance trucking.

The idea is that currently existing self-driving tech is already just about capable of navigating the constrained, more predictable environment of the highways between cities. Given some linear improvement, it does not seem that far-fetched to assume that a few more years of development would give us software capable of staying in lane and avoiding obstacles reliably enough to navigate a motorway in formation with other trucks.

Extrapolating this capability to the wholesale replacement of truckers with autonomous robot trucks, however, is a big reach - and not so much for technical reasons, as for less easily tractable external reasons.

Assuming for the sake of argument that Otto (or whoever) successfully develop their technology and build an autonomous truck that can navigate between cities, but not enter the actual city itself. This means that Otto or its customers would need to build warehouses right at the motorway junctions in areas where they wish to operate, to function as local hubs. From these locations, smaller, human-operated vehicles would make the last-mile deliveries to homes and businesses inside the city streets, which are still not accessible to the robot trucks.

This is all starting to sound very familiar. We already have a network optimised for long-distance freight between local distribution hubs. It is very predictable by design, allowing only limited variables in its environment, and it is already highly instrumented and very closely monitored. Even better, it has been in operation at massive scale for more than a century, and has a whole set of industry best practices and commercial relationships already in place.

I am of course talking about railways.

Get on the train

Let’s do something unusual for high-tech, and try to learn something from history for once. What can the example of railways teach us about the potential for self-driving technology on the road?

The reason for the shift from rail freight to road freight was to avoid trans-shipment costs. It’s somewhat inefficient to load your goods onto one vehicle, drive it to a warehouse, unload them, wait for many other shipments to be assembled together, load all of them onto another vehicle, drive that vehicle to another warehouse, unload everything, load your goods onto yet another vehicle, and finally drive that third vehicle to your final destination. It’s only really worthwhile to do this for bulk freight that is not time-sensitive. For anything else, it’s much easier to just back a truck up to your own warehouse, load up the goods, and drive them straight to their final destination.

Containerisation helped somewhat, but railways are still limited to existing routes; a new rail spur is an expensive proposition, and even maintenance of existing rail spurs to factories is now seen as unnecessary overhead, given the convenience of road transport’s flexibility and ability to deliver directly to the final destination.

In light of this, a network of self-driving trucks that are limited to predictable, pre-mapped routes on major highways can be expected to run into many of the same issues.

Don’t forget those pesky humans

Another interesting lesson that we can take from railways is the actual uptake of driverless technology. As noted above, railways are a far more predictable environment than roads: trains don’t have to manoeuvre, they just move forwards along the rails, stopping at locations that are predetermined. Changes of directions are handled by switching points in the rails, not by the operator needing to steer the train around obstacles. Intersections with other forms of transport are rare, as other traffic generally uses bridges and underpasses. Where this separation is not possible, level crossings are still far more controlled than road intersections. Finally, there are sensors everywhere on railways; controllers know exactly where a certain train is, what its destination and speed are, and what is the state of the network around it.

So why don’t we have self-driving trains?

The technology exists, and has done so for years - it’s a much simpler problem than self-driving cars - and it is in use in a few locations around the world (e.g. London and Milan); but still, human-operated trains are the norm. Partly, it’s a labour problem; those human drivers don’t want to be out of a job, and have been known to go on strike against even the possibility of the introduction of driverless trains. Partly, it’s a perception problem: trains are massive, heavy, powerful things, and most people simply feel more comfortable knowing that a human is in charge, rather than potentially buggy software. And partly, of course, it’s the economics; human train drivers are a known quantity, and any technology that wants to replace them is not.

This means that the added convenience of end-to-end transportation limits the uptake of rail transport, and human factors limit the adoption of driverless technology even when it is perfectly feasible - something that has not yet been proven in the case of road transport.

A more familiar example?

In Silicon Valley, people are often moving too fast and too busy breaking things that work to learn from other industries, let alone one that is over a hundred years old1, but there is a relevant example that is closer to home - literally.

When the Internet first opened to the public late last century, the way most people connected was through a dial-up modem over an analogue telephone line. We all become expert in arcane incantations in the Hayes AT command language, and we learned to recognise the weird squeals and hisses emitted by our modems and use them to debug the handshake with our ISP's modem at the far end. Modem speeds did accelerate pretty rapidly, going from the initial 9.6 kbits per second to 14.4, to 28.8, to weird 33.6, to a screamingly fast 56k (if the sun was shining and the wind was in the right quarter) in a matter of years.

However, this was still nowhere near fast enough. These days, if our mobile phones drop to EDGE - roughly equivalent to a 56k modem on a good day - we consider the network as being basically unusable. Therefore, there was a lot of angst about how to achieve higher speeds. Getting faster network speeds in general was not a problem - 10 Mbps Ethernet was widely available at the time. The issue was the last mile from the trunk line to subscribers' homes. Various schemes were mooted to get fast internet to the curb - or kerb, for Americans. Motivated individuals could sign up for ISDN lines, or more exotic connectivity depending on their location, but very few did. When we finally got widespread consumer broadband, it was in the form of ADSL over the existing copper telephone lines.

So where does this leave us?

Driverless vehicles will follow the same development roadmap2: until they can deliver the whole journey end to end, uptake will be limited. Otherwise, they are not delivering what people need.

More generally, to achieve any specific goals, it is usually better to work with existing systems and processes. That status quo came to be over time, and generally for good reason. Looking at something now, without the historical context, and deciding that it is wrong and needs to be disrupted, is the sort of Silicon Valley hubris that ends in tears.

Right now, with my business analyst hat on, driverless vehicles look like a cool idea (albeit one that is still unproven) that is being shoe-horned into a situation that it is not a good match for. If I were looking at a situation like this one in my day job, I would advise everyone to take a step back, re-evaluate what the actual goals are, and see whether a better approach might be possible. Until then, no matter how good the technology gets, it won’t actually deliver on the requirements.

But that doesn’t get as many visionary thinkpieces and TED talks.


Images by Nabeel Syed and Darren Bockman via Unsplash, and by ronnieb via Morguefile


  1. The old saw is that "In Europe, a hundred miles is a long way; in the US, a hundred years is a long time". In Silicon Valley, which was all groves of fruit trees fifty years ago, that time frame is shorter still. 

  2. Sorry - not sorry. 

Updating the Car

As I mentioned in my one-year review of my car, the one aftermarket upgrade I made was to swap the rather dated factory ICE for a CarPlay head unit. That modification is itself now about a year into its service, so it is also about due a review.

The reason for the upgrade is that the factory PCM 2.1 unit was really showing its age, with no USB, Bluetooth, or even Aux-in. In other words, Porsche were way ahead of Apple in removing the headphone jack… Courage!

This meant it was not possible to connect my phone to the car. Instead, I had a second SIM card which lived in the dash itself, and a curly-cord handset in the armrest between the front seats. Very retro, but not the most practical solution.

The worst part, though, was the near decade-old maps. While we do have some roads around here that are a couple of thousand years old, lots of them are quite a bit newer, and even on the Roman roads, it’s important to know about one-way systems and traffic restrictions.

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My solution for these problems was to swap the PCM 2.1 system for a head unit that is basically just a dumb screen driven by an iPhone, with no functionality of its own beyond a FM tuner. The reason is that I change phones much more frequently than I change cars, and upgrade the software on my phone more frequently than that.

The specific device is an Alpine ILX-007, and I am quite satisfied with it. It has a decent screen, which seems to be one of the key complaints people have about other CarPlay systems. There is occasionally a little lag, but I assume that’s software rather than hardware, since it’s not reproducible. It did crash on me once, losing my radio presets, but that’s it.

Upgrades

Adding this system to my car has been a substantial upgrade. I have all my music, podcasts and so on immediately available, I can make phone calls, and there is even a dedicated button to talk to Siri. I use this a lot to add reminders to myself while driving, as well as obvious stuff like calling people.

Siri also reads messages that come in while the phone is in CarPlay mode, which is occasionally hilarious when she tries to read something written in a language other than English. On the other hand Siri handles emoji pretty well, reading their name (e.g. "face blowing kisses"), which is very effective at getting the meaning across - although it’s a bit disconcerting the first time it happens!

Contrary to my early fears about CarPlay, it works perfectly with my steering-wheel controls too, so ergonomics are great.

The main win though is that my in-car entertainment now benefits from iOS upgrades in a big way. In particular, iOS 10 brings a redesigned Music screen and a major update to Maps.

Show me around

The Music screen used to have five tabs, which is way too many to navigate while driving. The new version has three tabs, and is generally much clearer to use. I don’t use Apple Music, and one of the things that I hated about the old version was that it would default to the Apple Music tab. The biggest reason why I don’t use streaming services like Apple Music is that the only time I really get to listen to music is while I’m out and about. That means either in aeroplanes, where connectivity is generally entirely absent, or in the car, where it is unreliable and expensive. Therefore, I only listen to music stored locally on my phone, but I had to switch away each and every time I launched the Music app. iOS 10 fixes that.

The biggest change iOS 10 brings to the CarPlay experience is to Maps. Many people have pointed out that Maps will now add a waypoint when the iPhone is disconnected from the car, so that drivers can easily retrace their steps to their parked car. I have to admit that I have never lost my car, but it’s good to know that it’s, say, ten minutes’ walk away when it’s raining.

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There are also updated graphics, which are much clearer to read in a hurry. These are not just limited to pretty icons, though; there is actual improved functionality. Previously, users had to switch manually between separate Overview and Detail modes. Annoyingly, there was a significant gap between the greatest zoom on Overview and the widest area on Detail. Also, Detail did not include traffic alerts, while Overview by default showed the entire route, not just currently relevant parts, so a typical journey required a fair amount of switching back and forth between modes.

The new Maps zooms gradually over the course of the journey, always showing current position near one edge of the screen and destination near another edge. This is much more useful, allowing the driver to focus on alerts that are coming up rather than being distracted by ones that are already passed. There is also more intelligence about proposing alternate routes around congestion.

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And yes, Maps works perfectly well for me, thank you. I would probably use it anyway given that, as the system-level mapping service, it plugs into everything, so I can quickly get directions to my next appointment from the calendar or go to a contact’s home or office address. The search could still be better, requiring very precise phrasing, but contrary to Maps’ reputation out there, landmarks generally exist and are in the correct place.

I am on record as an Apple Maps fan even in the early days, and it’s improved enormously since then. Don’t believe the hype, give it a go.

The integration is a big deal, as I saw last Wednesday. I was supposed to meet a colleague out and about, so I used Messages to send him my current location. To be extra sure, I chose the actual restaurant I was in, rather than just my GPS location. All my colleague needed to do was to tap on the location in the chat to be routed to my location. Unfortunately, he is one of those who prefer Google Maps, so he eyeballed the pin location and entered that in Google Maps. Unfortunately for him, the location he eyeballed turned out to correspond to a chain, and Google in its eagerness to give a result (any result) gave him the location of the nearest branch of that chain, rather than the specific location I was near.

It all worked out in the end, after a half-hour detour and a second taxi trip…

Trust the system, it works.

The System Works

This is exactly why I got a CarPlay unit in the first place: so I would get updates in the car more frequently than every few years when I get a whole new car. So far, that’s working out just perfectly. The iOS 10 upgrade cleaned up some annoyances and added convenient new features without requiring me to rip out all my dashboard wiring. I won’t consider another car without CarPlay support.

Dream garage, Hall 2

Following on from my earlier Dream garage post, there were several conversations along the lines of "you missed out on this, and that, and what about the other thing…" These are all fun, and it’s all fantasy anyway - but I just wanted to share the ones that just barely didn’t make the cut.

Jaguar XK120

Top of the list of cars that almost made it into the top ten is this beauty. In the end, I felt it did not make sense to have both the Morgan and the Jaaaag. With the big cat being a classic, it’s just less practical than the Morgan, which is thoroughly modern - at least underneath.

I was lucky enough to be able to borrow an XK120 that looked almost exactly like this for my wedding day, though, and it was the second most beautiful sight I saw that day. The engine sounded wonderful, and was still very strong. What let it down was the brakes, or the complete absence thereof. I was absolutely terrified that I was going to wrap an extremely expensive car that did not belong to me around something! In the end all went well, and I have one more amazing memory from a wonderful day.

If I can ever figure out a way to justify it to myself, I would love to own one - but I’d upgrade the brakes before driving it anywhere!

AMG Rote Sau

The whole Lotus, "simplify and add lightness" thing is all very well, but what I really like is a big bruiser that actually has too much power, even if that means it struggles to put it all down. The Rote Sau (Red Pig) was the motorsport evolution of Mercedes-Benz’ already pretty fast 300SEL 6.3, and it is utterly bonkers.

They are getting pretty rare, so the sensible option might be to start with a stock 300SEL and do a “restomod" version. I’d be after a street version anyway, losing all the racing stickers - although I’d keep those outsize front lights. If I went that route, I'd probably also delete the roll cage and give it a more street-friendly interior.

Caterham

Or then again, maybe I do buy into the Lotus-lightweight thing? The way to do that nowadays is to get Caterham’s up-to-date interpretation of the Lotus 7, add a full-faced helmet so you don’t get a face full of insects, and then enjoy the amazing handling. The power-to-weight ratio of 520bhp per tonne on the R500 is nothing to sneeze at, either.

Alfaholics GTA-R

Every car lover should own an Alfa Romeo, at least once. I’m okay on that front, as I have owned and loved both a 156 2.5 V6, and a 147 Blackline. How could I not have an Alfa in my dream garage, though?

This may look like a classic, but it’s actually been thoroughly updated, so it’s about as practical as old Alfas get. I might want a bit of a body kit on mine, though - just slightly rolled arches and a front lip spoiler, something like that. Nobody seems to do exactly what I want, though, which is why it didn’t make the cut.

Lancia Stratos

As long as we’re talking about classic Italian marques that have had their history shamelessly destroyed under Fiat ownership (ahem), we can’t forget Lancia. Much as I’d love an S4 or 037 Stradale, if you’re going to go, you have to go big. Lancia Stratos it is, with classic Alitalia livery, and maybe even Sandro Munari’s name (all hail) emblazoned on the side.

This is one case where I would actually want an original car, so that I could take it up the hill at my local historic hill-climb, the Vernasca Silver Flag.

TVR Tuscan1

Just go ahead and file this one under "scary". Depending on which generation it is, you’re looking at anywhere between 350 and 440 bhp, a fibreglass body, and no ABS, traction control, airbags - or much of anything else. On top of that, all the controls were insanely positioned, to the point that nobody could ever get in, and once they had been shown how, could not get out again.

When I was working in the UK, a colleague had a yellow one of these monsters. You could hear him coming from a mile off - but he was always the slowest thing on the road, because it had a nasty habit of spinning up the rear wheels in third and even fourth if provoked. Taught you respect, it did.

Shelby Cobra

Talking of scary cars…

This one didn’t make the cut into the top ten because I felt that I couldn’t have two Shelbys, and between the two of them, I slightly prefer the looks of the Daytona Coupe. It doesn’t help that the Daytona is also that little bit more practical, what with its effete concessions like, I don’t know, a roof.

Still love the look of these, though, and if the dream garage did expand, I would definitely add one.

Lincoln Continental (Mobsteel)

Forget about all that lightness nonsense with the Caterham up there - we’re back to the big stuff! Mobsteel are a Detroit crew, and appropriately, they only work on classic Detroit iron. The idea is big, comfortable rides, done for cruising and the occasional burnout. I might go for slightly less flashy rims than in this picture, and I’m still torn between hard and soft tops, so that indecision is why this one didn’t make it higher up the list.

Lamborghini Espada

This is definitely a Marmite car, and I freely admit it's an odd choice as the first Lambo in the collection - but I love the looks of the big thing, and it's actually far more competent on the road than a more mainstream classic like the Miura. It does share a designer with the Miura, Marcello Gandini, and the V12 is from the same Giotto Bizzarrini lineage too. It's a car that lets you share the Lambo experience with your friends.

I also really think that scene at the beginning of The Italian Job should have featured an Espada rather than a Miura. It just suits the character of Roger Beckermann far better.

And all the rest

I didn’t forget about supercars! It’s just that I cannot decide which one I would want, and it seemed silly just to make a huge list. Here are some of the ones that I was considering, before I realised the problem:

  • Lamborghini Murcielago/Diablo SV (open-gate shifter FTW)

  • any Koenigsegg

  • Pagani Zonda/Huayra

  • Noble M600

  • McLaren F1/P1

  • Ford GT (2005 version)

  • Porsche Carrera GT

  • Ferrari F40/288 GTO

  • I don’t particularly care for the Enzo - but I’d definitely have a Maserati MC12…

Realistically, these all overlap with each other. Sure, they have their differences and blah blah blah, but I don’t see much point in just having a row of supercars in the garage; you’d never drive any one of them enough to get to know it properly, so you’d just be depriving someone else of the chance to own or at least see them.

I already picked the Bugatti EB110 as my ultimate supercar, and I stand by that. If I were fortunate enough to be looking at more supercars, I’d probably just join one of those fractional-ownership clubs to scratch the occasional urge to check out something different.

In the same vein, I would love a Porsche 911 993 GT2, or a 964 Leichtbau, and I even have an unreasonable lust for some sort of RWB 911 - but I already chose my ultimate 911, so it would seem greedy to add more.

Finally I might add something silly like a Citroën Méhari for a beach house, or a ridiculous project like, oh, a Hayabusa-engined classic Fiat 500 - but that sort of thing is more spur-of-the-moment than stuff of dreams, as far as I’m concerned.

I suspect this is an ongoing topic…


  1. Although to be honest pretty much any TVR will do - they’re all wonderfully mad. 

Stupid Car Review, One Year In

Since I just renewed the insurance on the ridiculous thing, I thought it an appropriate time to look back on a year with a very silly car.

A year ago I had just quit my job. The old job was one of the few that still came with a company car, so I had to get myself a new car quickly to be able to drive to the airport for the new gig. Luckily I’m a fool car nut, so I had a short list ready to deploy. (As it happens, I have a short list for every occasion…)

I ran the short list past my wife, AKA the sensible person in my house, and she immediately nixed all but one of the options. So that was easy.

So what did you get?

I got myself a Porsche Cayenne (955) Turbo S. No, the new job was not as a bank robber! I found a lightly used one that was eight years old by the time I got it, and despite the low mileage and generally excellent condition, it cost about the same as my wife’s new mid-spec Golf. Still an extremely silly car, but not entirely idiotic.

Let's review some of the relevant stats (emphasis mine):

It was powered by a twin-turbocharged 4.5-L V8 that produced 521 PS (383 kW) and 720 N·m (530 lb·ft) of torque. Acceleration from 0–60 mph (96 km/h) was 5.0 seconds and the top speed was 171 miles per hour.

Beyond a certain point, I think car manufacturers should just do like Rolls-Royce and simply declare horsepower to be "adequate".

Since I bought it I’ve put 30k on it with zero maintenance issues so far, apart from a single burned-out light bulb (touch wood). Sure, it drinks like a drunken sailor with a drinking problem who’s really thirsty and also isn’t paying for his own drinks, and likes to wash its drink down with the occasional drop of oil too - but every time I put my foot down I forgive it. Basically it’s the cheapest way I could find to drive something fun that could haul the kids and all their clobber. It also very definitely has presence - looming suddenly into someone’s rear view mirror generally causes them to jump out of the way pretty promptly, and if they don’t move over, the xenons are probably bright enough to give them sunburn.

What’s it like to drive?

It’s surprisingly capable in the twisty stuff, unless the going gets really tight. It’s definitely better than it has any right to be, especially with the air suspension dropped a notch and set to Sport mode. I have had the tyres chirping a few times on late night drives - the rear tyres, note. Even though it can feel like it’s reluctant to get its nose into the corner, you can drive around that and find a surprising level of agility. Okay, it’s no Caterham, but compared to other big SUVs I’ve driven, it’s night and day. "Worst Porsche, best SUV", as the saying goes.

Straight-line speed is, predictably, ridiculous, being apparently unrestrained by mere laws of physics, but only by the driver's desire to hang onto their license. Amazingly, I have so far managed to avoid speeding tickets too. Probably jinxed myself on both counts (that and maintenance) now!

I will say that having this much power under my right foot has paradoxically made me a more relaxed driver. Knowing that I can at any moment summon the thunder and disappear into the distance in a cloud of dust means I don't feel the urge to floor it at every possible opportunity, and am more likely to view aggressive drivers' antics with amused condescension than as any sort of challenge.

The Tiptronic S transmission is… fine. In automatic mode it shuffles ratios fairly competently, although it has the usual failing of automatics, where it is always either trying to hang onto a gear too long, or dropping two cogs at once. The former isn’t that big a problem with this much torque, just giving you a moment to enjoy the feeling of the building boooOOOOST, but the latter can leave you with a double-handful of unwanted revs and sudden acceleration. Fortunately there are steering-wheel-mounted buttons to control matters. Even one year in, I still find it odd that there is a + and a - control on each side of the wheel, rather than one side being + and the other being -. To avoid confusing myself, I tend to use each side for only one purpose. I don’t think I’ve ever shifted with the gear lever - not least because you can still use the Tiptronic controls while remaining in automatic mode. This will let you drop a gear or two for an overtake or a tight corner, and then revert to slushmatic mode a few seconds later - very convenient.

Being a Turbo S, the thing comes with front and rear locking diffs and a low-range gear box, so it’s probably more capable off road than I am. The worst terrain I need to deal with is the occasional dirt road, though, so I haven’t actually used those features yet beyond checking that they worked. I did overtake the snow plough driving up an Alpine pass one night, but that was enabled more by good winter tyres than any special drivetrain mode.

Surely it can’t be all good, right?

If you want a real-world picture of the downsides, I’ll just say that I’m now on first-name terms with the staff at my usual petrol station… The Beast (as it is nicknamed for obvious reasons) is picky about its fuel, too, preferring to drink the 98-octane-plus top-shelf stuff, which is only available at two locations that are convenient to me.

Also, even though I bought the thing on the right side of the depreciation curve (seriously, I paid something like one-sixth of the original list price), parts are still Porsche parts, with a price tag to suit. I had to fit new front brake disks, and each one ran over €900! I was actually braced to replace all four, since you don’t want to skimp on brakes, especially on something that big, fast, and heavy. However my local Porsche dealer was scrupulously honest, and after I had already approved replacing both fronts and rears, they called me up and told me the rears were good for another year or so. After that one, they’ve got themselves a customer for life.

Tyre prices are equally terrifying, but when you see the sheer acreage of rubber (245/40/20) next to more normal tyres, you begin to understand why - plus of course you need compounds rated for the speeds and loads the Beast puts on them. Once they’re on, they seem to last well enough; the new winter set that just came off looked nicely healthy and evenly worn, and still had plenty of tread left.

On the plus side of that equation, Porsche ownership gets you invited to Porsche events - so last weekend found me haring around the Circuito Tazio Nuvolari in the new 718 Boxster S, before hitting the handling track in the new 911 C4S (the one with the rear-wheel steering - very nice).

What would you change

I already changed the one thing that really bugged me, which was the in-car entertainment system. The Beast came with PCM 2.1, and that is really quite dated, with no Bluetooth, USB, or even aux-in - basically no way whatsoever of talking to the outside world. The novelty factor of the curly-cord handset in the armrest was cute, and I was able to get a second SIM card for my mobile number to put in the car, so I ran it like that for a while. However, after a few months I had had enough of having to swap out CDs in the six-disc changer in the back, not being able to listen to podcasts, and having nearly decade-old maps in the satnav.

I replaced the original ICE system with an Alpine head unit with CarPlay1, so now I just plug my iPhone into the armrest where that phone handset used to go, and I have all my music, podcasts, and maps on the screen in the dashboard. There’s even a dedicated Siri button, so the Son&Heir can tell her to "play some Ramones" as soon as he gets in the car. I had to get an additional amp to feed the (very nice) Bose system that the car came with, but I am very happy with the results.

The only other thing I am tempted to change is the exhaust. There’s a lovely burble when starting the engine from cold, but unless you’re really hoofing it, it’s pretty subtle on the move. (Tunnels are great fun, though!) I would quite like to hear more of the engine’s voice, but I can’t really justify the four-figure cost, especially for something that would probably make my wife’s eyes roll right back into her head.

There is absolutely no call for chipping it, what with the amount of power it’s throwing about already. I love the looks just as they are, and the 20" Porsche OEM wheels are perfect too, so I think it will stay stock apart from the PCM swap.

Now tell us what you really think

Bottom line, I love the thing to bits, even though it has probably spoiled me for any other car that does not have heated electric everything and all the POWERRRR in the world. Buy with care, and you can have a lot of fun with one of these things.


  1. Yes, the steering wheel buttons work with the new head unit thanks to a little adapter, so between that and Siri, my fears over CarPlay were not justified. 

Bad Sales

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Let’s see, the mother company just launched a hot new product and customers are emailing about it. I think we should ignore them and focus on pushing mediocre products on drive-by prospects.

If you tried this in any other industry, you’d be fired with extreme prejudice. But in car sales, this sort of thing seems to be standard operating procedure.

There was the time I almost had to rugby-tackle a salesperson in the showroom to get them to pay attention to me.

There was the time when, still pre-kids, I was looking at two-seater sports cars, and chased the dealership for six months (!) to get a test drive. Finally instead of just arranging a test drive, they comped me a full day of driving academy on the Monza F1 circuit, which they told me was several thousand Euros’ worth. This day gave me the chance to do several hot laps in the BMW Z4 M Coupe, plus messing around in a Mini Cooper S, a 135i, and a 330d M Sport, on the skid pan, in the cones, and generally left me with a huge grin on my face.

Think they followed up with me afterwards?1

The current idiocy is over the new Abarth 124 Spider. The announcement made quite the splash, and I am thinking vaguely about a weekend car, so I messed around with the configurator on the Abarth site (not that you can do much with the spec), and then filled in the form to be put in touch with my local Abarth dealer.

Crickets.

Tumbleweed.

Okay, fair enough, they probably get a number of time-wasters wanting to drive their hot cars, and I’ll be the first to admit that my interest is tentative and not immediate. Still, it’s the twenty-first century. You can at least set up an auto-responder - “thank you for your interest", sort of thing.

I have already written off ever owning another BMW because of shenanigans my local dealer pulled - not just on the sales front, but in maintenance. Their shoddy workmanship left me by the side of the road and forced me to cancel a very important meeting, but the worst of it was that they refused to apologise when I called them on it.

Customers are fickle, but not that fickle. Treat them right, they can be yours for life. Treat them poorly, you’ve lost them forever.

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The part of the process of engagement that makes the greatest difference is the point of contact with the customer. I love BMW products, regard their advertising as high-quality, and generally appreciate the company in every way - but I will not have anything to do with the local dealer. The process of terminating my Fastweb contract was so unpleasant that despite the fact that I had been a fan until then, I will not only no longer consider them for myself, I will go out of my way to advise others to avoid them.

The local VW/Porsche dealer, on the other hand, treated both my wife and me so well that I can see myself sticking to VAG products for the foreseeable future. Same goes for Vodafone: even when they have had technical difficulties, they have been so communicative and willing to engage that I have made allowances, and still recommend Vodafone over alternatives.

I try to do the same in my own sales engagements. I do my best to communicate in a clear and timely manner, and so far, it seems to work. My end of the IT market is of course a pretty small shop, so I am strongly conditioned to treat people well because I keep running into the same people over and over. Even in mass markets, though, people talk, and through social media, your actions will catch up with you.

As the saying goes, you only get one chance to make a first impression. Make it count, whether you’re selling cars, phone lines, or enterprise software.


  1. They weren’t to know that kids were on their way and so from then on out it was all wagons, not slinky coupés.  

Dream garage

So with all the news of the $1.5B (that’s billions with a B) US lottery win, people are inevitably talking about how they would spend such an incredible sum of money. I’m not even in the US, let alone buying lottery tickets, but what the heck.

I’m not the type to quit my job and be a tourist for the rest of my life, or set up my own foundation, or whatever. There is one thing I like to spend money on, though, and that is cars. Without further ado, here is my dream garage.

Bugatti EB 110

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This is a criminally under-rated supercar, and I want to take it in and cuddle it. Okay, the looks are challenging, and the nose especially dates the car, but I think it looks better now than when it was new - and the rear three-quarters view is, to my eyes at least, the definition of supercar pr0n.

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Obviously I’ve never driven one, nor even seen one in real life, but that’s part of the supercar mystique. EVO approved, as did Michael Schumacher, and that’s good enough for me to dream.

Lightspeed Classic 911

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Hot-rod 911s are where it’s at right now. Singer are probably the best-known in this space, but their approach is so extreme that it’s a little off-putting. Lightspeed Classic seem to have a more reasonable approach, but with equally sensational results for all practical purposes.

I’d need to sit down with them & spec out my ideal car, but this picture shows some of the key elements, with the ducktail spoiler, flared arches, and Fuchs alloys.

Citroen DS

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I’m just going to let the pictures speak for themselves - except to add that this is the only car that could live up to the name “goddess".

Superformance Daytona Coupe

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Okay, it’s a replica, but not as you know it. This thing was approved by Carroll Shelby himself as a “continuation" car. I also like the idea of modern technology combined with old-school style. Plus, this is the “race car" of the collection, and the idea of stuffing an original Shelby Daytona Coupe into the Armco around the Nurburgring or whatever just doesn’t bear thinking about.

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That Kamm tail, too…

Unimog

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I have an unreasonable1 lust for a ‘60s Unimog, but with an uprated engine and creature comforts. This would be for tooling around my chalet in the Alps, obviously. I’d love to get the ICON guys to do this one for me.

Ferrari 575 Fiorano

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The Ferrari 550/575 is to my eyes the best-looking of the Ferrari GTs. The 599 is certainly purposeful, but the design is a bit too busy for me. Of course, the GTs with the V12 engine in front driving the rear wheels are the only “proper" Ferraris; all these mid-engined V8s are a modern aberration. After all, Enzo Ferrari himself famously said "The horse doesn’t push the cart, it pulls it!".

Ford Model A-based hot rod

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I just love the looks of these things. I know they’re probably terrible to drive, but there are other cars in this garage for that!

1969 Mercury Marauder

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Gotta have a muscle car! Again, this one is mainly about looks and cruising, but I’d want the engine tickled to make sure I could do burnouts and other muscle-car stuff.

Morgan Plus 8

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Who doesn’t love a car that has major chassis elements still made of wood? I don’t think you can beat this for open-top motoring.

…and as a daily driver (not that the others would be garage queens, but this is for getting the groceries), an Audi RS6 Avant.

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The idea here is to organise the garage by category, with only one car of each type. That one car is not supposed to be the “ultimate" or anything like that, just the car that I would really most like to own for that purpose.

What’s in your dream garage?


  1. Because the rest of this list is so reasonable

Dashboards and Information

Of all the inconvenient times for my car's rampant hypochondria to manifest itself, the Sunday evening before an early-morning Monday jaunt to the airport is the worst.

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Last time it was tyre pressure. The warning light came on, so I dutifully stopped to check everything out. The shortfall was smaller than the measurement interval afforded by the compressed air machine on a petrol station forecourt, but I managed to get enough air in to turn the light off. Coughing into the hose would probably have given enough pressure…

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This time it was oil. The dipstick assured me there was plenty of oil, but I don't like warning lights, so I stopped at the first petrol station on the motorway at o'dark-hundred on a Monday morning to buy some engine oil. Of course they were out of the type of oil that the Beast's exacting tastes require, so I had to go on to the next place. This place did stock the right approved oil, so I was able to continue my journey fully lubed up.

This sort of thing is why I hate idiot lights. Give me a measurement! These days, with any number of digital displays on cars' dashboards, lack of real estate is no excuse. The Beast is actually pretty good about this, with physical gauges for both oil and water temps as well as turbo boost pressure. There is also a display for tyre pressure that can be put up in the central virtual gauge in front of the driver, between the speed and RPM.

What drove me nuts about my old car was the lack of these displays. On a turbo diesel, especially when cold, you don't want the turbocharger spooling straight away - but it's really hard to avoid it when the only instruments you have to measure boost pressure are RPM and engine noise!

Software designers on the other hand have a tendency to go the opposite way, with too much information being thrown at the user without context. The happy medium is to show the information, but include some context indicating what is good and expected, as opposed to what is out of the ordinary. Here car dashboards show the way: don't just have an idiot light that comes on when the driver is going "too fast". Instead, have nice big clear dials showing vehicle speed and RPM - but include red lines on both displays to indicate where the danger areas are.

Note: I’m not implying that all information should be displayed all the time. Software developers often fall into the trap of displaying every piece of information they can get their hands - well, digits, anyway - onto. The only result of this smorgasbord approach is to overwhelm users. This way, important things can easily get drowned in the noise. Operators then end up missing some thing important.

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The most famous recent example of users drowning in data and missing the one really important piece of information was probably at Target. You may remember Target from such data breaches as The Largest Retail Hack in U.S. History - well, until Home Depot, at least.

The most interesting aspect to me, however, was that Target did in fact have systems in place to detect exactly the sort of activity that was involved in the breach. Those systems worked perfectly, and did indeed detect the breach in progress and alert operators. The operators simply missed the alarms.

How does that happen? Easily. At any given time there are scads of alerts flying around any sizeable IT environment. The trick is filtering out the all-important signal from the all-consuming noise - and this is where Target failed.

Target should not be blamed too much, though - most IT organisations are in exactly the same situation. The problem in IT used to be about too little information - but now it’s about too much.

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And now is where I finally get to my point. My new gig is for a company called Moogsoft, which is working to solve precisely this problem. Our technology is able to sift automatically through masses of raw event data, figure out what is important, and show those important alerts to the people who can actually do something about it. The way we do that is with various algorithms, and I can geek out for quite some time on the information theory aspects of that - but the proof is in the results we are already bringing our customers.

Bottom line: information is good, but it has to be possible for users to consume it. Useful1 context is critical for people to be able to make sense of data instead of simply being overwhelmed.


  1. "Useful" is key here. Those nagging displays that prompt drivers to shift to another gear are the opposite of that. It's not like they come on at a million RPM just before all the valves come out of the engine; in many cases they come on just as you enter the engine's power band. This is the opposite of a safety feature, overwhelming the user with pointless information.  

Courage

I finally had the chance to see the new Smart forfour in the metal - and my, it's a bland, ungainly thing.

Lest we forget, the original Smart car, retroactively named the "fortwo", was a design that embraced its tradeoffs and compromises.

Designs that have the courage of their convictions are the ones that stand the test of time. Compare the original Fiat Multipla with the bland face lifted version that replaced it.

Original: definitely challenging, but the designers were trying to do something new and different, and the aspect of the car reflected this. Three-plus-three seating is still unique today, and on top of that, the car still fits in a "traditional car" footprint. No wonder these were instantly popular as taxis - one more seat in a car with almost the same exterior dimensions!

The updated version toned down all the quirks, becoming so instantly forgettable that I'm surprised owners didn't forget they owned a car. I imagine queues of confused Multipla owners back at the Fiat dealership: "I could have sworn I owned a car, but I can't for the life of me remember what it looked like!".

People defend courageous designs; the original Multipla and the first Smart have their partisans, but nobody will stand up for their unworthy descendants. If you're going to do something, do it all the way. By trying to please everybody, you guarantee that you will excite nobody. And once you cede that high ground, it's a race to the bottom on price, and there will always be someone hungrier and more desperate.

Instead, define what you stand for, and stand behind that definition with everything you do. This is how you gain and keep customers, by doing something that you and your customers care about. If your design shows that you don't care, guess what? Your customers won't care either, and next time they'll buy a Hyundai or some other interchangeable "appliance" car.

The Problem with CarPlay

Today at the Geneva International Motor Show, Apple announced CarPlay, with is the new name for "iOS in the car". It looks great!

They are pitching it as "a Smarter, Safer & More Fun Way to Use iPhone in the Car", and I love the concept. We upgrade our phones every year or two, but our cars much less frequently than that. In-car entertainment systems are limited by the automotive industry’s product cycles, so they are basically already obsolete (in consumer terms) by the time the car hits the showroom. Enabling cars to piggy-back on the smart, GPS-navigating, voice-recognising, music-playing computers that we already carry in our pockets can only be a good thing.

If you take a look at a video of CarPlay in action, though, I see one huge issue.

Touchscreens in cars are a terrible idea. Old-school controls gave drivers haptic feedback: if you turn the dial one notch, you feel the click, and you get the next radio station, or one increment of temperature, or whatever it is. This is something drivers can do completely blind, without taking their eyes off the road.

It’s been at least a decade since cars could accommodate physical controls for all of their functions, so multi-function control systems like iDrive, Comand or MMI were introduced to help with the plethora of systems and settings that modern cars require. All of these systems allow users to navigate hierarchical menu trees to control in-car entertainment, navigation, and vehicle settings.

These systems are still better than touchscreens, though, because at least the driver’s hand rests on the one control, and that control still has tactile increments to it. The haptic feedback from those clicks is enough for seasoned users to be able to navigate the menu tree with only occasional glances at the screen - very important at highway speeds.

Touchscreens are terrible for non-visual feedback. Users have no idea, short of looking at the screen, whether their action achieved the result they wanted or not.

Apple’s suggestion of using Siri is not much of a fix. I like Siri and use the feature a lot in my car to dictate e-mails or messages, but it depends entirely on network access. Out of major cities - you know, where I take my car - network access is often insufficient to use Siri with any reliability, so drivers will almost certainly need to use the touchscreen as well.

I really hope that CarPlay also works with steering-wheel mounted controls, as those allow control with an absolute minimum of interruption. If we could have audio feedback that did not require network access, using the existing Accessibility text-to-speech functionality in iOS, that would be perfect.