Monday, February 9, 2015


One of the running jokes in car circles for some time has been conjecture about the idea of an Apple car. Mostly it's a latter-day parlor game involving guesses about which stereotypical Apple traits would make their way onto four wheels and how the end result would function in the world of less insanely great Toyotas and BMWs and Chevy pickups. (Yes, I've indulged in this myself.)

Eventually the exercise falls apart when everyone begrudgingly accepts that Apple is as likely to build a car as it is to start making technical mountain climbing gear. It's not their game, it has little connection to their core strengths, it makes no real sense in the modern market.

Of course, none of this has anything to do with Apple's very clear desire to be in vehicles. CarPlay, the on-dash iPhone extension, is undergoing a slow and cautious rollout, but the idea is definitely sound. And, more importantly, it's scalable.

I'm starting to think that CarPlay is just the welcome screen of something very interesting that Apple plans to introduce soon.

There's an intriguing article in Business Insider tonight alleging that a mysterious Apple vehicular development program has been busy poaching Tesla employees - engineers, mostly, with some specific skillsets, including manufacturing and robotics. The anonymous source still clearly exists in the reality-distortion field, claiming that the project will "change the landscape and give Tesla a run for its money."

This comes on the heels of reports of an Apple-owned Chrysler minivan fitted with an array of cameras roaming Bay Area (and Brooklyn) neighborhoods. The simplistic first guess as to this thing's intention is that it's Apple's response to Google's familiar Street View fleet; on second thought, it could be a self-driving project. The camera positioning favors the second interpretation. No one is certain, though, and Apple is as characteristically tight-lipped about the project as ever.

Two Tesla-specific deductions come quickly to mind: First, one of the big features touted on the P85D is the inclusion of a rather highly evolved autopilot function.
Photo: Tesla
Second, look inside any Tesla. There are two panels: one driver information display, and one big, very iPad-like (aha!) screen between the seats that controls most secondary functions.

The deeper consideration is for the plight of modern product planners and vehicle-interior designers and electrical and computer engineers at any car company - and, by extension, the car companies themselves. They must face the very difficult task of presenting an ever-increasing number of features and functions in a rational usable form. They have to combine and connect sound systems, navigation systems, security systems, telecommunications systems from phones to OnStar-style services, maybe chassis and driveline dynamic-control systems, and do it all with an interface that is usable and responsive. They also have to include such modern gotta-have-its as keyless entry and keyless start. 

Setting up any modern car to include even some of these functions is enormously complicated, time-consuming, and expensive. Parts and systems come from any number of suppliers and must be made to work together harmoniously. Many components can be shared across a manufacturer's lineup, but others are probably model-specific. And no one has really done a truly great job with it all yet. (iDrive, anyone? Sync?) We won't even talk about how quickly some of these systems age. Tesla's system is likely the best, because they more or less cribbed the idea - big glass panel, ability to download updates and improvements - from the masters.

No one does interface better than Apple. And, arguably, no one surpasses Cupertino's ability to combine a broad multitude of sophisticated features in one easy-to-use arrangement.

What I've got on the mind is pure speculation at this point, but still:

I think Apple's working on a full in-car electronics suite, something that unifies connectivity and entertainment and navigation and probably some degree of self-driving ability and a lot of other features, in one coherent and networked package that can be offered as a finished off-the-shelf product to vehicle manufacturers.

That BI article very briefly mentions the potential for something this ambitious towards the end ("a much deeper set of integrated experiences"), but I think we can see the possibilities here.

It will use a standardized iPad-like controller - like CarPlay, like Tesla - to manage basically everything that requires operator input and computer modulation. It will be a component-based arrangement - want autopilot? No problem! Click on the option box and the factory will plug in another standardized bank of sensors. It will be capable of receiving over-the-air updates and upgrades, so the systems won't quickly become obsolete. And it will work very well.

Those Tesla engineers that defected to Apple? The manufacturing folks will help figure out how to make all of this into an affordable and installable package. The robotics heads are working on the autopilot system and how it can be adapted from vehicle to vehicle.

This vendor-supplied complete solution is, of course, more or less unheard of in the car and truck world where manufacturers either do all the work in-house or with a few choice suppliers, or at most go in for limited marque-specific partnerships (Ford and Microsoft, for example). However, it is common practice in aerospace, where an aircraft manufacturer purchases a complete aviation-electronics - avionics - package (radios, navigation, displays, autopilots, other necessities) from an outside supplier like Honeywell or Garmin and installs it in the airplane. This is what I am guessing Apple wants to provide to vehicle manufacturers.
The flight deck of the Cessna Citation M2 bizjet, with Garmin avionics and touchscreen displays. Photo: Cessna
Set it up to be compatible with Android and Windows phones and the rest in addition to iPhones - Boot Camp on wheels - and it's done.

Apple doesn't need to build the whole car. It can just build the parts of the car which it can do better than anyone else.

I wonder if Tesla will be interested.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Raising awareness

Unlike 114.4 million other people I didn't watch the Super Bowl this year (long story, mostly because I don't own a TV), which means I didn't see any of the ads until afterward - the most noteworthy of them being the surprise unveiling of the new Nissan Maxima (and the slightly-less-surprising-at-that-point, if still deeply weird, GT-R LM). After the first few slightly fuzzy screenshots got posted, my curiosity was piqued and I pulled up the full commercial.

Oh, dear.

Even a few days later I remain utterly baffled by this ad: what its deliberate marketing intention is, what thematic connection it has to Nissan's showroom products, what positive statements it's trying to say about anything.

Past that, as the son of a man who was spent a significant amount of my childhood away on business trips and with whom I had an extremely complex relationship up until he died of cancer fifteen years ago, this took me on an unwelcome trip to some pretty dark places. I can only imagine how many other people likewise got a nasty kick in the consciousness from the whole "#withdad" thing. Quick note: I prefer my car ads to somehow concentrate on cars, not subliminally suggest that I might still need therapy to deal with unresolved personal issues.

At the very least Nissan and ad agency TBWA/Chiat/Day spared us ghastly M. Night Shyamalan twists, and they didn't directly insult our intelligence or preferences, and it seems like this one fit in with what turned out to be a flock of other similarly downbeat ads this year. (And on a really extended conjecture, I wonder if this little film gives us a clue about whether the wife of Patrick Dempsey, professional actor, maybe eventually realized that she was actually the wife of Patrick Dempsey, professional racer, and because of that is therefore now the ex-wife of Patrick Dempsey, professional racer. But I digress.)

Even appreciating that and glossing over the bad vibes for many in the audience (and it would take a year's production from PPG to come up with that much gloss), it's hard to get past the fact that this is a really, really horrible car ad. It offers Nissan as a sponsor of emotionally strained families and distant father-son relationships. It makes racing - and Nissan's involvement in racing - look flatly sociopathic. And, worst of all, the cars themselves are reduced to mere props. They're secondary at best to the storyline. Nissan paid for the ad (handsomely, apparently), but I don't see how it's about their vehicles.

At this point, fine, it's time to eject Jim Croce from my mental sound system and write this thing off as an expensive lapse of judgement on someone's part and get on with it all. But I guess underlying all of this is a very literal take on a modern cliche: What were they thinking?

Not joking, not dismissing: What was the idea here, how was it developed, why did enough of the right people agree to this without realizing what they were making?

Look, I understand: The people who craft vehicle-related advertising to appear in the modern media multiverse are devoted to an immensely complicated and delicate task, working to promote a product whose appeal must combine the objective and subjective and pragmatic and romantic to a degree unique in the sphere of consumer goods - and to deeply varying degrees from product to product. They must come up with a production that manages to stake and hold a place in someone's thoughts, something increasingly difficult in this everyday life. They must also answer to marketers, to lawyers, to accountants, and to their own ability to create something.

That said, the general quality of automotive advertising has always seemed a bit less than brilliant. Maybe it's an understandable conservatism and apprehensiveness on the part of people effectively risking millions and millions of dollars, maybe it's just entrenched Detroit-style attitudes about the way things have always been, maybe it's Sturgeon's revelation at work, but car ads are rarely inspiring.

More insidiously, there are certain issues that occur in vehicle advertising over and over that do significant, if subliminal, damage to both any single effort to promote a high-quality well-engineered product and to the field as a whole.

It's little things. And it's stuff that should never have become common. And it's all quickly, eminently correctable.

I'm not going to do a full orthodox David Ogilvy-style list of rules for how to do a proper successful ad, mostly because I'm not David Ogilvy. However, I would like to offer a few simple suggestions to those in the system for creating a more appealing ad versus one that subtly pisses me off:

- Be deeply mindful of the images your work is explicitly showing and implicitly inducing. That little Nissan fiasco is its own case, but there have been way too many other episodes of advertising hyperbole and strangeness-by-association that go past reasonable limits or in really odd directions - think the MTV overkill of the Plymouth Duster or Infiniti's original Zen poems. A personal favorite was in a brochure for some mid-'90s Oldsmobile sedan that described engine output as feeling like "an avalanche of honey." Maybe it's me, but I don't find the appeal in powerplant characteristics exemplified by the Blob.

- Use complete sentences and proper grammar. Sentence fragments are irritating, as are comma splices. Have enough respect for your readers or viewers to use language properly. Trust that they will read or listen through well-written copy of the sort that used to make Volkswagen and Honda and Porsche ads so effective. (On the flip side, trust that people who will read through well-written copy are the sort of intelligent and discerning people you want as customers.)
Look! Words! (More legible original here.)
- Comparisons to other vehicles should be kept to a minimum, if done at all. The product should be able to speak for itself without inducing a sort of distasteful keeping-up-with-the-Joneses insecurity in the proposition. If I hear one more exclamation about how Product F or Product C has X more features and better mileage than Camry or Accord, that manufacturer is off of my purchase list for life. Also, why remind your potential customers of how the competition is a respectable benchmark? (This rule may perhaps be reconsidered in serious objective cases like full-size pickup towing ratings, but again, discretion is the better part of valor.)

- And for the love of all that is good in the civilized world, stop trying to be down with the hip street lingo. There is a real perceptible difference between writing something that is psychologically accessible to young adult customers and writing something that is the equivalent of a fifty-year-old account exec trying to rap during the office Christmas party.
Yes, this really happened.
The purchase of any vehicle is a significant act of identification and faith on the part of a buyer. Respect the buyer, respect the car, aim for a bit of enlightenment and intelligence throughout the presentation, and the market just might be a better place as a result.


Oh, the new Maxima?

Friday, January 23, 2015

Future tense

All photos: Buick/GM
If we learned anything from the press cycle of the Detroit auto show, it's that good old-fashioned surprises still work. The Ford GT would have been the class of the show in any case, but the way it was such a colossal shock - from deeply vague rumor to there on stage in about 1.3 "Oh, my God"s - just added that much more drama and grabbed that much more attention. It's been said repeatedly, but still: Pity the poor folks at Acura who had to follow the blue storm by presenting the by-now-familiar-looking NSX.

The GT was the biggest and most lust-inducing surprise of the show, but I think the one that occurred the day before was more interesting - and I wonder if it may turn out to be more significant.

Buick is in kind of a curious spot right now. Its position in the GM car hierarchy doesn't really align it with many competitors in the North American market. Chevrolet is of course the mass-market nameplate, and Cadillac is well on its way to facing off against the Germans. Buick is left somewhere in a vague middle, trying to establish and assert a new identity as it moves past the velour-and-whitewalls stereotype.

If the Avenir (French for "future") is any indication, I think they could be onto something very appealing. I just wonder if, provided this effort turns out to be what I think or hope it might be (a stretch, to be sure), it will be enough to matter in the vehicle market of the near future.

Start with what we have: The Avenir is, simply, a lovely car. It is elegant, it is interesting, it looks like the kind of machine driven by someone who knows and cares about tailoring and presentation. Some have complained that it is not as original or audacious a design as it could have been. So? Better to assemble styling traits that has been developed over the last few years into a coherent and attractive whole than push into yet another direction without resolution. One of the defining features of a good brand is a certain continuity in design and character; the Avenir uses the existing Buick design language, but moves all of it to a much more impressive and appealing level.

It is also clearly not a German car. It is a comfortable, stylish tourer instead of some N├╝rburgring-tuned exercise in merciless Teutonic competence. It seems more humane, more relaxed, more charming. And in that - even in concept form - it is something special, something of a rebuke to an increasingly dreary status quo.

I certainly don't have problems appreciating the numerous traditional strengths of German - and, in a similar way,  Japanese - vehicles. I am, however, starting to dislike the way in which the often dour and clinical paradigm that they embody has become the prevailing standard by which luxury cars are judged in, and designed for, the American market. Luxury is now too strongly defined by stiffness and arrogance and technological overkill, a state which has been developed and refined for decades to the strong exclusion of other understandings.

That attitude is where Cadillac is going right now, very much on purpose. It's playing by the German rules and working hard to live up to that metric. It's apparently working; in some ways Cadillac has already out-BMW'd BMW, if the published impressions of ATS chassis tuning are to be believed. But in the process it is forgoing a significant sense of individuality and reinforcing this status quo.

I wish we had more options. I want luxury to be broader than overbearing sedans and CUVs, draped in computer controls, with all the warmth of a submarine. Does the marketplace really dictate this kind of adherence to one standard model? Do we live with a strict communal idea of "luxury" - in the same way that pillow suspensions and opera windows were the accepted norm in the '70s, do we have to abide by this uptight and increasingly tired set of rules?

In an ideal situation we could depend on various companies to provide thoughtful and appealing alternatives given their different identities and cultural roots. Unfortunately, Lexus and especially Infiniti both model themselves after - and even influence - that same proto-Teutonic ideal; Maserati is very appealing in its more Italianate approach, but is still a marginal player for the foreseeable future; and Jaguar is Jaguar in its perennial tendency to be charming without being all there somehow. If only.

Someone else seems to think they can indeed be different, because there's this graceful creation wearing a tri-shield badge that seems to point somewhere else.

Buick, like Cadillac, has moved to shed its shipload of cultural baggage, but in doing so it's looking at an existential freedom that Cadillac is not allowed to have. As it continues to distance itself from a legacy of of wire wheel covers and vinyl roofs and burled plastiwood, it can - should - develop a definition of moderate-upscale luxury that is more graceful and comforting and, arguably, much better suited to driving in the United States.

And, yes, probably China too, but just for the sake of conversation let's stick with the more familiar frame of reference.

The great thing about the Avenir is that it's very different. It's not a prisoner of that same paradigm. It sees luxury as something less harsh and more comforting, maybe more humane: it's cashmere instead of creases, leather instead of steel, a fountain pen instead of a laser pointer.

Strangely, wonderfully, this is a more contemporary take on the idea of luxury and high living. Styles are moving towards a less structured, less rigorous, more colorful, more serene ideal. The concrete-and-arrogance attitude of the recent past is weathering. (Looking at Audi's recent trends and the interior of the new S-Class, I wonder if even the Germans are getting a bit tired of it all.) The Avenir is dangerously close to reflecting this.

Really: Buick is being the progressive and fashionable party here.

Consider the menswear collections on display in Milan this season. The designs uniformly shun severity. There is an ineffable degree of richness and stylishness on display, but it's all draped and casually elegant. These are not the clothes of a hard-edged (and perhaps slightly insecure) stockbroker; these are the clothes of someone who is comfortable with himself and knows how to live well.

The Avenir makes much more sense to this mindset than, say, a 5-Series. It's almost accidentally a wonderful reinterpretation of much of the grace and civilized good cheer of vintage touring cars - Lancias, old Jaguar sedans, the Citro├źn DS, machines that very often show up in fashion spreads as signifiers of the Good Life.

However, it remains to be seen whether an identity this removed from an entrenched and rigid status quo can find success, especially coming from an American company, especially coming from Buick. They do deserve serious credit for trying and continuing to try; this new perspective has shown up in some of the ads, it's shown up in some of the detailing applied to their takes on certain platforms, it's become a steady current of taste and refinement. Admittedly, though, as the division is making serious thematic progress on some fronts it still seems to be learning how to apply that more evolved and civilized identity across the board. (Quiet advice to Buick marketing heads: you need a better website. Go look at Volvo's, then steal it in its entirety and you're pretty much there.)

But if they get the pieces in place and persist with the marketing and identity, I seriously think Buick has the ability to reach a deep well of customers out there, even worldwide, who want something other than, even better than, what is too common now. In the midst of consolidation and narrowing mindsets, this is a chance to make a genuinely ambitious move towards something great and desirable.

This car deserves to start something.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

A quick note on being in second place

I tend to be a fairly deliberate person. I like to think things through, consider options, let the process of forming an opinion or making a decision gather direction and momentum, make sure I'm comfortable with an action after it has been chosen but not done. In many cases this trait has served me pretty well. Once something is set and done, I tend to be pretty satisfied with it. I'm sure I've missed out on a lot, but I'm also in one piece here and life keeps getting better.

There are two downsides to this as pertains to the reality of SoM here, though: First, I like to have a discrete block of time available - on the order of two or three hours, if not more - to sit and write and consider and revise and expand and so on, and my ability to schedule such an indulgence is limited at best. My everyday is starting to shift a bit, so this will change for the better. (Maybe I also should hold off on writing magnum opus comments in response to other people's original stuff. That's sort of why this is here, right?)

Second, and more annoyingly, it is deeply galling to see an idea that I have been mulling and wanting to really sit down and explore for some significant time get done almost as a side thought by someone else, sometimes summarizing weeks of contemplation in a sentence or two.

So yes, as a dismal summer of too many sadnesses and outrages turns into a complicated autumn and a foreboding winter, it is good to remember that enthusiasms and hobbies are good things. I've been thinking about this going in any number of directions, especially since everything that happened in Ferguson, but those first two sentences cover it pretty well.

Time and tide and all that. More to come soon.