Guccimobile

October 17, 2010

The most interesting thing about revolutionary new kinds of car propulsion, like in-wheel electric motors & hydrogen fuel cells, is nothing to do with the technology or even the environmental impact. It is the fact that it gives designers & consumers the opportunity to start completely from scratch.

With something like the original Audi etron concept, other than the (admittedly still quite lumpy, for now) battery pack, there are almost none of the packaging requirements that lead to the shape & interior layout of the humdrum carbon-buckets we all parp around in now. No engine (motors in the wheel hubs instead), no gearbox to speak of,  no fuel tank – nuffink.

Obviously car designers are playing it pretty safe in the short term – they don’t want to panic everyone with a whole new paradigm in transport, and at the same time confuse or damage the visual brand they have carefully built up over the many decades of conventional car production. OK, for some reason Renault are quite happy to, but most of the others aren’t.

But the really interesting thing here is contained in the idea of brands; every now & again a bored but fruity billionaire reawakens the essentially pre-war idea of coachbuilding, and commissions someone to build him a unique motoring icon on the chassis of an existing ubercar – gorgeous autoporn that still rolls over the  speed bump at the entrance to the yacht club.

But what if they didn’t need to – since all the oily bits in a car are no longer oily, and what’s more they don’t really intrude above the wheels anyway, then what’s to stop Audi, BMW and everyone else just making the base? Fast, frugal, but above all flat, you pop online and order whatever chassis makes the most sense for you size & cost-wise. Click ‘buy’, and the next step will be to decide which brand you want to be responsible for the outside and which for the inside of your new wheels – probably from a list of companies that this particular manufacturer works with.

Prestige car brands already basically operate as labels that say ‘I’m rich, rich! Now will you love me, mummy?’ (BMW X6) or ‘I’ve done fairly well, thank you for not mentioning it’ (Volvo XC60) or ‘I’ve never actually held money and went into the family arms business at 19’ (Maybach). So it’s not a stretch to imagine bringing other brands from outside the car world into play.

How about an Audi A1 etron chassis with a body by Apple and an interior by North Face? Or a Mercedes E-Class with a Mulberry interior and a nice subtle, grown-up outside by Gieves & Hawkes? We as consumers already see & understand these kind of relationships – Nike & Apple (music to run to) for example. Prestige car brands will still operate as labels – because you won’t be able to get Gucci seats in Ford Focus.

This will definitely happen.

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Clifford Stoll wrote a an essay in 1995 explaining why the internet will fail. This has been unearthed recently by the ThreeWordChant blog, and discussed on BoingBoing – and most likely elsewhere too, especially in the form of the accompanying contemporary book ‘Silicon Snake Oil’.

Obviously, this kind of stuff is fun and common grist to the tech press mill – it being eminently satisfying to us sat in the future, looking at the internet. But actually, there something more interesting in this as well.

Stoll was an internet professional before most people knew that existed as an option; he caught hackers. In other words, he was pretty close to the technological coalface.

Bearing that in mind, let’s look at what he actually said – along with the developments that have negated his reasons for pessimism at the time:

“Lacking editors, reviewers or critics, the Internet has become a wasteland of unfiltered data. You don’t know what to ignore and what’s worth reading” [search engines – Stoll is writing at pretty much the exact launch of the consumer-facing search tool, starting with Lycos then AltaVista, Ask Jeeves and then Google in 1998]

“You can’t tote that laptop to the beach. Yet Nicholas Negroponte, director of the MIT Media Lab, predicts that we’ll soon buy books and newspapers straight over the Internet. Uh, sure” [fundamentally, the relentless downsizing of components is the key here, but also the development of Amazon from its launch at this exact point in 1995 to becoming America’s biggest online retailer]

“Computers and networks isolate us from one another. A network chat line is a limp substitute for meeting friends over coffee” [everything from Skype & IM to blogging and social networks]

“And who’d prefer cybersex to the real thing?” [about a billion people – as of October 2008, about one quarter of employees visit Internet porn sites during working hours according to Nielsen Online]

“We’re promised instant catalog shopping–just point and click for great deals. We’ll order airline tickets over the network, make restaurant reservations and negotiate sales contracts. Stores will become obsolete. So how come my local mall does more business in an afternoon than the entire Internet handles in a month? Even if there were a trustworthy way to send money over the Internet–which there isn’t–the network is missing a most essential ingredient of capitalism: salespeople. ” [this covers pretty much the whole internet, but certainly PayPal, Lastminute.com, eBay, Toptable.com.. all the obvious e-tail candidates]

Now imagine that instead of a negative article, decrying the lack of these things, instead Stoll had written a positive one – listing the necessary waypoints the internet would need to accomplish on its journey to omnipotence.
He would rightly be considered the father of internet commerce, and there would be statues of him in every town. OK, maybe not every town – but certainly Cambridge, Massachusetts. Perhaps in Second Life too.
My point is – he actually understood very well the physical specification of a successful internet. He listed precisely what would need to happen in order for it to embed completely into peoples lives.
As Jonathan MacDonald says, assumptive certainty is more dangerous than unpredictability.
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