Reilly Brennan lives in San Francisco but will always be a Detroiter at heart. He is the Executive Director of the Revs Automotive Research Program at Stanford and teaches a class on heroes and Dale Earnhardt at the Stanford d.school. He created a car photo thingy called Carmagnum.
Last month the author Virginia Postrel wrote a piece for Bloomberg that pulled together various perspectives on why ‘robocars’ are coming sooner than we think and why a lot of that innovation is happening outside of traditional automotive companies. It is a piece with a few very meaty points of view, including my friend Diego Rodriguez (his awesome, fans-only car blog UGG gets a good link too), Brad Templeton and yours truly.
One of the more revealing things happening in the valley right now is how one seemingly common goal (‘cars that drive themselves’) has all manner of different approaches. It’s fascinating and inspiring, but it’s also very ‘autonomous,’ meaning that some cars really can drive themselves but they cannot talk to one another — yet. The optimal view of the future is not one of autonomous cars, but collaborative ones.
All the same, I see manufacturers and technologists pushing forward with an idea of how their robocar project should be introduced. At Revs, which is at its core a multidisciplinary research center, I am lucky to be able to hear conversations about the technology, but also the human factors, the messaging and the infrastructure planning. The kernel that I see common among the best plans is the notion of offering something that might very well be described as ‘un-perfect.’ The word itself is somewhat ungainly and un-perfect, and I think it suits the situation we’re in. That is, it’s probably better to release something un-perfect today and reward your users through ongoing, product-improving releases than delay your release until it’s absolutely 100% dead on perfect.
This is difficult for traditional car companies because it’s just not the typical route. Big car companies have been able to make unbelievably reliable products due to a confluence of large capital investments, massive engineering/QA staffs and this perfection mindset. Designing, building and releasing a new car is usually a 6-year cycle (that’s long!), because you can’t do perfect much shorter than that.
What is the value in releasing something un-perfect? There are certainly disadvantages, but right now we are seeing some new advantages that are only now available due to a dramatic reframing of customer demands and norms we have seen in the last few years months.
The biggest advantage of un-perfect is something I’ll refer to as ‘surprise & delight.’ It’s hard to appreciate how much the world changed on October 12, 2011, but robocars should be thankful because it reframed our idea of surprise & delight. That was the release of Apple’s iOS5, the first time Apple offered OTA (over-the-air) updates to its smartphone (Nokia started offering OTA years before, just at a different scale). It meant a dramatic change in how people think about how products should perform. Think about it: Every few month or so, I get a new iOS update and my phone ‘gets better.’ I don’t pay for this, it just happens. I have been trained through various iOS updates to know that if something is deficient, there’s probably an improvement coming down the line. It is delightful. At Revs, our director Cliff Nass talks about this as a key differentiator for how some are thinking about robocars: if your car can get you from city to country autonomously with 78% accuracy and then next week with 79% accuracy and so on, you think it’s getting better, rather than thinking of it being 21% deficient.
This is a sea change in the kind of relationship we have with consumer products. Once a car manufacturer appreciates this change and uses it to their advantage, they would be in a position to release a ‘robocar’ innovation early and often. That would be a perfect way to build something new.
(Photo via Powerhouse Museum Collection)
Michael Sturtz and I took our Stanford class to Petaluma Speedway last weekend as a part of our Understanding Superfans course in the d.school (see a blog post about the experience here). The students did a range of intercepting interviews with fans at the track, in the parking lot and in the stands. Petaluma is one of the best little race tracks around. $15 tickets, $4 corn dogs, free fumes and great people. There are rumors that the speedway isn’t long for this world given rampant development in the area, but I hope we can find a way to hold onto it. It is within these short dirt ovals that we find the atomic unit of racing heritage in America.
I have started to see a lot more functional / useful gifs lately, a heady upgrade from the usual internet astrofluff you see and experience. Particularly of note is the way that Seems Books does their page layouts, where they feature a big image of the book but then inset on the page is a gif of the book opened and flipped through. It’s shot directly from the point of view of the reader/flipper, so it feels like you’re doing it. Even with a dozen or so frames you can really get the sense of the book’s size, heft, colors and feel. I wish there were more useful gifs like this in product descriptions around the internet and now that I have a mental model of this I might use it for an upcoming project. Below take a stroll through a number of books from Seems: