Looking Out - The Podcast: Ep. 4

In this episode of Looking Out - The Podcast, Joe and Drew discuss:

BMWs i Vision Dee, why some folk find her scary, and what she says about BMWs future

Why is it that a lot of folk in the West find robots scary and a lot of folk in the East don’t?

It’s a story that goes way back: about 400 years in the West, and about a thousand years in the East.

It’s also the lens through which we unpick BMWs virtual personal assistant, known as Dee, and her deep integration into their latest concept car.

Is the era of the Ultimate Driving Machine finally coming to an end? And is the Ultimate Entertainment Machine really what’s going to replace it?

(For a deeper dive on i Vision Dee, read Drew’s take here.)

Joe’s surprisingly normal Christmas run in an EV from Gothenburg to Leeds

Who’d have thought that Joe and his family would run out of range before his wife’s Polestar 2? But that’s precisely what happened on the family trip home for Christmas, as toilet breaks, driver swaps and snack stops intervened before the car ran out of charge.

Across the 3,227 kilometres, Joe learned that the factors limiting EV adoption in Europe are less to do with absolute range and the availability of chargers, and more to do with how people think about recharging versus refuelling.

It’s a mindset shift that we need to make if we’re to manage the compromises between vehicle cost, range, weight and safety. But, we wonder, when - and how - is the industry going to tackle that?

Why CES left us longing for a more systemic approach from the auto industry to the challenges we face

The Consumer Electronics Show is the most significant motor show — by a different name — on the global calendar. Suppliers and OEMs alike head there to share their take on the future of the car, and the future of mobility.

It’s quite ironic that they do so in isolated conference halls dispersed across an impossible-to-walk city in the middle of the desert. We reckon it speaks to a deep philosophical challenge that the automotive industry is facing: how do we better integrate our products and services in to existing sociocultural and economic systems, rather than imposing ourselves upon them?

Joe also gives a preview of an upcoming piece for Looking Out - The Newsletter about the Tesla Semi, and Drew wonders what Apple’s struggles in China might mean for the automotive industry.

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Note: This transcript is machine-generated and may contain some errors.

[00:00:00] Drew:

Hello, I’m Drew Smith!


And I’m Joe Simpson.


And welcome to Looking Out the podcast, auditory Sidekick to the newsletter in which we connect the dots across mobility, design and culture.

[00:00:20] Joe:

Coming up in this show, we explore why we need to shift from thinking about solutions to systems. What the iVision D says about BMWs future, and I give an update on my Christmas run across Europe in an electric car,

[00:00:43] Drew:

Right! Let’s get this show on the road!

At the recent Consumer Electronic Show in Las Vegas, BMW launched the I Vision Dee. Now this is BMWs take on the AI infused virtually augmented compact sedan of the future.

At its heart is a suite of technologies that allow customers to customise their experience of the car from changing its colour through the eInk panels embedded in its surfaces to being welcomed by their own avatar, projected on the driver’s door window as they approach the car.

It’s even possible to have the car shield you entirely from the outside world and immerse you in a virtual reality experience.

But the real star of the show embedded deep into the experience of the vehicle is an AI-driven virtual personal assistant (VPA) called Dee. But Dee promises to be so much more than an assistant in the style of Siri or Alexa. She wants to be your companion, or even she suggests your soulmate.

So why is this interesting?

Well, VPAs have been common in China for some time now, but this is the first time we’ve seen a Western automotive company extend a branded virtual personal assistance so deep into customers lives.

Dee doesn’t just respond to our commands, but appears to think and feel like us even mirroring the way that we speak and the language that we.

It’s also a clear signal of BMW breaking with their past as purveyors of the ultimate driving machine to become the company that builds the ultimate entertainment machine.

There’s just so much to unpack here that it’s hard to know where to start. Joe, you’ve gotta help me out.

[00:02:41] Joe:

Well, I mean, you are right in saying that there’s much to unpack here, but I don’t know if I can help you out.

A few thoughts on this. What does personalization mean today in the context of a car? How far do customers really want a automotive brand to extend into their lives and related in the context of Dee as a kind of vpa, how much do they want the car to really be their friend and persona more than a kind of support and assistant?

And you know, I think this is really interesting because you mentioned the China thing and I kind of want to put this back to you because I know you have some thoughts.

My main take is, I guess, and I think this is BMW really looking at the Chinese market because I think in China the fundamental relationship to car is different.

And as you mentioned, brands like Nio are doing really well and people love Nomi, who’s, you know, Neo’s VPA and there’s like this little kind of thing on top of the dashboard. And so I feel that this is BMW trying to kind of really stretch and say, okay, how can we engage with that customer in that market, which is still the fastest growing automotive market in the world.

But in Europe we have, and in America, I dare say, we have a complete different relationship to the car. My question to you is, do people really want cars to be their friends? Do people want automotive brands to have their presence in sort of such a wide spectra of their lives as kind of, I think BMW imagining?

[00:04:36] Drew:

Well, look, you know, I mean, I’ve got a piece on this coming out in the, in the next couple of days and in it, I refer to the fact that a few years ago I conducted some research on precisely this topic because we’d seen Nio and we were thinking Christ, what do we, what do we do for ourselves and, and how do we launch something similar in Europe?

And the very clear response from, the ethnographic research that we conducted with customers was, do not launch something like this in Europe. I do not want to have my car as a friend. I do not want to converse with them. The experience to date, particularly within the automotive realm even of assistant type technologies was so poor that people couldn’t even conceive really of using voice technology to command their car.,

I think that will change, right? Because I think, technologies like Siri and Alexa , have become that much better that entering into a command and response type situation is easy.

But what happens when technology starts to try and be our friend, particularly from a Western perspective? It enters into this uncanny valley because it’s trying to be human, and yet we know that it’s not human and therefore we don’t trust it.

You know, it’s really interesting if you think about how we think about inanimate objects that are brought to life in the West, we talk about them being possessed. It’s almost like there’s this devilish quality to them that doesn’t exist in the East. You know, the idea that an inanimate object can contain a benign, benevolent, or even positive spirit is quite central to a lot of Eastern religions. So I think that probably explains some of the, the difference in commentary that you see around d between Western audiences and eastern audiences.

I think the other thing that is really interesting for me with this is: You know, we’ve talked for a long time about the threat of electrification, essentially commoditising the hardware of the vehicle, right?

So Once BMW loses the premium that it has gained from decades of producing the best six cylinder engines in the world, the best rear wheel drive chassis in the world and, you know, it becomes a case of just sort of tweaking the electronics. Like how do you continue to differentiate your position in the marketplace when the hardware that you’re using, the drivetrain hardware that you’re using is essentially commodified. And that’s another really interesting aspect of this for me.

[00:07:08] Joe:

It is, and I think that what BMW kind of show us here is what they see of the future is that replaces those class leading drive trains. And the question for us all is, so can they make as good a job and can they genuinely lead and create experiences which people desire that are as differentiated, desirable, worth paying the money for as an E46 M3 with an S54 straight six and you know, sort of rear wheel drive and a fantastically set up chassis and all the kind of things that were built around that, through Motorsport heritage and the engineering.

You went into it, and I think it’s fascinating because right now, I don’t know if they can, but actually for all the criticism that this car has received, I would actually say in terms of what I know about BMW this is probably the tip of the iceberg. And I think inside they probably have some absolutely fascinating things going on. And I’d love to see this in person because when we saw in Munich two years ago, the i Vision Circular, that was quite disappointing in the metal, in the aluminium. And then when I went in a couple of days later into their house in the city and they showed how it worked and the materiality and how it was thought through and came together, and then the, the associated initiatives that went with it around the circularity.

It was deeply impressive actually. So I, I think if that kind of sits behind this and there’s a lot more going on inside, I’m curious to see how this evolves. So for me yeah, kind of an interesting one to watch.

[00:08:52] Drew:

Coming up next, we take a run across Europe with Joe for Christmas,

[00:09:02] Joe:

3,227 kilometers. It’s a long journey, however you cut it, but in an electric car, who would fancy it? Well, me actually, that’s how far I drove between the 23rd of December and the 5th of January from Gothenburg in Sweden to Leeds in the United Kingdom and back again in my wife’s electric car.

On Looking Out we’ve talked before about EV charging and whether it’s ultimately going to stall adoption of EVs, so I was keen to do a long road trip myself and put some skin in the game. So I imagine you’re dying to ask just how was it rather enjoyable actually. Driving and riding in an EV is an eminently pleasant way to travel.

Electric vehicles tend to be fast, comfortable, and quiet, and our trip passed off without a hitch. We didn’t hit a single failed charger or blocked charging session. We only cued once for about 15 minutes in the. To wait for a fast charger to become available. And while a usable highway range of around 300 kilometers doesn’t sound like much, it actually equates to a good two and a half hours of driving, which with two small kids in the car usually meant that a bathroom trip, a snack boost or a stretch legs was required before the car actually needed to be re.

Put simply, they or we as a family needed to stop more often than the car did. So would I do it again? Yes. In a heartbeat. Does that mean things are perfect in fast charger dependent EV road trip land Far from it.

So why is this interesting?

Doing a trip of this magnitude helped me realize that so many of the challenges we face when it comes to EV adoption aren’t about the products themselves.

As I proved, 300 kilometers is a perfectly serviceable range. If, and it’s a big, if the right infrastructure is in place, and this is the issue I see the industry failing to address, we can help people shift their mindsets and their behaviors around charging. Drew, any thoughts?

[00:11:28] Drew:

Yeah, look, I just cast my mind back to an interview that I did with Richard Hackworth Jones on the next billion cars.

And we were talking specifically around th this mindset, mindset shift factor, and. You know, we’re, we’re so used to kind of having our mobile phones, right? We, get to the office, we plug it in, we get home, we plug it in. We might have a battery in our bag. We plug it in like we, we have the right mindset already.

Right. We, have this behavior kind of already ingrained. The challenge is how do we shift that to a product that we’re used to brimming with petrol or diesel and then running all the way down.

[00:12:16] Joe:

Exactly. And I think one of my reflections is Okay, quite easily. They’re gonna be, there are already cars and there are gonna be next generation cars that happily do around 500 kilometers on a charge.

Now, if you start a journey with 500 kilometers range, and then you stop and you can recharge that car to 80% in 15 or 20 minutes, which is a reality, kinder, now actually, you’ve got essentially about 900 kilometers of driving for a 20 minute stop now. I think there’s a kind of thing in journalism land that there’s a bit of a hero thing of drive across Europe all day without stopping and cover thousands of kilometers.

But realistically, 900 a thousand kilometers, that’s a solid 10 hours of driving. Who wants to do that? With only a 20 minute stop. Who can do that? Whose bladder can do that?

[00:13:11] Drew:

But, but also, quite frankly, it’s, it’s pretty bloody boring. And , I happen to own a car that is known as a continent crusher.

It is supposedly one of these cars that you would want to cross European and even it only managed 750 kilometers from a hundred. Tank of petrol. So this idea of of having to stretch more and more range out of these things particularly when we think about the trade-offs that come in terms of the weight of the battery.

The cost. What’s now starting to emerge as the impact on crash safety from having these massively heavier vehicles? You know, it’s a, it’s an, it’s an extreme set of trade offs and , I refer back to this study that was produced by the University of Geneva. They found that in Europe 90% of people’s needs would be covered by a battery with a range of 200 kilometers, right.

[00:14:08] Joe:

And, and I think you hit upon something that really important and struck me after the trip. I think the industry and then the. Particularly in the uk I saw over Christmas we’re jumping onto this. I have kind of treated this as a kind of this network charging problem, as an engineering problem. I mean, realistically it’s been give cars more range, make them charge quicker, and that’s the focus and sort of.

For a lot of people, I think still is the focus, and then you get the journalist going, look at these useless electric cars that can hardly go anywhere and then need charging, and the charging network’s terrible, but there’s some truth in that. The charging network has issues, don’t get me wrong, particularly in America, but the issues we are seeing now in the network.

That I sort of read about and saw some evidence of long accused, it’s not necessarily because the cars have bad range, and it’s not necessarily because the charges are all broken and hopeless. It’s at its root, a human behavior problem. As you say, we have grown up in a world where a car you run low and fuel, you stopped, you brimmed it to full.

But did you know for instance, drew that if you’re using the fast charges, like people like ity and fast net and that you generally find on on the highways, have that. There is no point trying to charge the car above 80% because the charge speed drops off so much. You’ll spend as long trying to get the battery from 80 to 95% as you did getting it from 10 to 80%.

But I don’t think based on the tens of people I talk to on the trip that that’s understood at all. By people who are new to EV lands. So you’ve got this guy in a poise tacan with it at 97% who’s refusing to move cuz it’s not full and a taken can charge really fast. And he’s sitting there and 50 minutes later it’s at 98%.

And it’s like this is causing a queue and wasting everyone’s time. That’s not me blaming this guy on the Titan. It’s a different mindset and he’s not been educated and fundamentally. Trying to tell someone and sell someone. That is a bit of a mind shift, to put it politely. And it’s not how the industry’s geared or how people think about cars today.

[00:16:31] Drew:

I think you’ve hit the nail on the head. This is a social sciences problem. Not a hard sciences problem at this point which happens to be a, a, a fantastic lead in to, to the next item on our agenda. So I, I, I wanna return to CES for a moment because, you know, the show’s so huge that it’s hard not to take a step back from BMWs launch and take a look at the broader implications for the industry.

If you’d had the dubious pleasure of walking the show floors and I didn’t you’d have seen the latest in VR hardware companies attempts to prove their sustainability credentials were everywhere. And of course there were also various takes on the future of the car. Samsung and LG showed their competitors to Android Auto and Apple CarPlay and Sony and Honda came together to launch a feeler.

The new EV brand with a focus on in-car entertainment, which interestingly they are developing in collaboration with Epic Games the gaming company. But among all of these solutions there really wasn’t anything that addressed the crisis of affordable, equitable mobility that the automotive industry really needs to address. I think if we’re to think about it’s long-term survival.

So why is this interesting?

Well, journalist Ed Niedermeyer put it best in his wrap up of the show when he said, even the most brilliantly conceived solution”” — and I’m putting inverted commas around solution — is always part of a much broader system of infrastructure, economic interests, and human habits”.

When we lose sight of this broader context, we fall victim to overhype and outright fraud. . And whether it’s in-car, augmented reality, circularity, autonomous drive, or shared mobility, our failures as an industry, past, present, and future, all rest on a struggle to develop an an awareness of how our solutions must fit into a much broader sociocultural system.

Joe, how do you feel about this?

[00:18:33] Joe:

Ed’s right. I think there’s a deep irony as he points out in that article, which we’ll link to in the show notes that for years now, and I think this started, you know I attended Vegas CS for the first time, I think in 2009, and this started around that time where it became, A car show quasi mobility show.

And what Ed says in his piece is there’s an irony that we rock up in Vegas every January, still slightly hungover from Christmas and New Year. To see this almost kind of utopian or maybe his dystopian future of like how we’ll move around with technology and mobility in cars or fusing together.

In a place where during cs, it is frankly impossible to move between one place and another, easily, quickly, safely. cheaply, and anyone who’s been to CS will know that. It’s a sprawling show. It’s not just a convention center. It’s scattered across kind of hotels and halls and things that, you know, run the kind of length and breadth of the Las Vegas strip.

And I can’t help wondering whether we’re in the kind of, this is the thin end of the wedge and what we are seeing in Vegas is not solutions to society’s problems, but solutions that. Make great Instagram content or that are just a way of the tech industry trying to kind of, you know, understand how it takes over the auto industry or vice versa.

The auto industry transforming itself into kind of a tech mobility.

[00:20:28] Drew:

So I’ve got a, a take on this which relates to something that , we talked about in the previous segment, which is this idea of kind of the hard sciences versus the social sciences and how both these disciplines approach problem solving.

Right now, if you’ve got a, a, a massive complex problem in the hard sciences, you keep on dividing it into smaller and smaller and smaller pieces, right? Until you get to the smaller, solvable unit. , and then you solve that, right? And then you move on to the next thing, and then you move on to the next thing, and then you move on to the next thing.

Don’t get me wrong, like, some of the, the, the most significant advances we’ve enjoyed from a technology and engineering perspective, have come from this ability to kind of chunk stuff up into smaller increments, and solve them. The social sciences. If you do that, then you, you lose the overarching context of the system in which you’re operating such that you are not looking at the problem to be solved anymore.

And it’s that lack of context I feel. That means that a solution which might be superbly developed for the needs of the individual. And I think the idea of customer-centric or human-centric design potentially has a bit of a case to answer for here, you lose sight of the fact that in order for a, an individual’s needs to be met.

Resources have to come from somewhere. Infrastructure needs to be in place. Who’s paying for the resources? Where are they coming from? Who’s paying the in for the infrastructure? Who’s maintaining that infrastructure? And go on.

[00:22:14] Joe:

I was just gonna say as you were talking, I was thinking back to when I wrote about eScooters in the newsletter and the kind of need for infrastructure to make that kind of stuff work. And how as a sort of tech mobility companies, that was probably the last thing that the eScooters were interested in. And to your point, that what’s happened with the acceleration of individualistic kind of mobility, Infused with technology is that it’s occurred at the same time as over the past 20 years.

And I hope I don’t sound like an old socialist here, but the

[00:22:50] Drew:

You live in Sweden, it’s fair.

[00:22:51] Joe:

Exactly. The government the people who pay for infrastructure all, all the kind of societal stuff that makes this work has. hollowed out in real terms. It has less money. There’s less money going in to maintain it, to build new to, , ensure that those kind of infrastructure and social systems that actually are fundamental and underpin, , the kind of technology or the device that sits within it or work properly,

[00:23:19] Drew:

Building on that, I was having a conversation with somebody a couple of weeks ago who’s in the, like the VC space in in micromobility. And I said, okay, well look where, where do you think the really big problems to be solved are? And he said, mate, like, infrastructure, infrastructure is just huge. And I said, okay. So what are you doing in that space? He’s like, oh, wouldn’t touch it. Far too difficult, too slow, no return, like leave it to other people. And I was just thinking to myself, okay, so who, who are those other people? And, and I think, given the scale of the challenges that not just we face as an industry, but I think that we face as a civilisation, we need to work out a way to balance kind of the scientific approach with, you know, the, the, the social approach.

The pro-social approach that says, okay, we need to be able to locate these solutions within a much larger system. Yeah. If we’re to have any hope of, of making it.

[00:24:23] Joe:

Indeed. And I mean, you mentioned a second ago that, you know, does human-centered design have something to answer for? I wonder to that point whether the kind of big data approach has something to answer for, because in terms of the work I’ve done in the past, a big data is great in one sense.

And having loads of data and understanding where people are and what’s happening is fantastic. It doesn’t. Usually tell you a lot in terms of the why things are happening, why problems are occurring, why people feel like they do, or any of the nuances. So I think that’s maybe to your point, it’s part of the issue too.


Yeah, absolutely.

Well, that’s it for the headlines. But Joe, have you found anything else interesting since we last spoke?

[00:25:21] Joe:

Well, yes. I have been looking at Tesla’s Sem-i as my esteemed friend, Brian Black says I must call it . I’m apparently not allowed to call it a Tesla Semi

[00:25:34] Drew:

For obvious reasons. This is as a g-rated show ,

[00:25:39] Joe:

But I have a, I have a piece coming up on it in the forthcoming newsletter and I’d like to keep my powder dry on that, but basically I’ve found it fascinating to compare commentary and analysis on it.

On one hand, which sort of, I think, highlights why Tesla’s been so successful in terms of their. Understanding of networks, understanding of technology, understanding of software, and some of the things that they have integrated into that truck.

And some of the things that have done that have never been done in trucking before. That will, I think, mean that the uptime of the truck, which is important it, you know, is crucially important in the trucking sector, is. Pretty phenomenal. I think the truck could genuinely give some of the operators a kind of competitive advantage.

And yet on the other side, when we look at hardware, the actual vehicle, the vehicle design itself most of reference I’ve taken is from kind of a guy who’s a kind of seasoned trucker and who did an amazing analysis of. All the points in the hardware design of that truck, which will create issues for drivers, which will actually slow you down at kind of headway and checkpoints.

Even the positioning, the choice of the positioning of the door when you need to get out and hand over, say customs papers and things like that. How much extra effort and time that will slow things down the how the. Aerodynamic and the kind of slant of the windscreen will actually cause much greater solar gain into the cabin, which will mean you’ll have to run the air conditioning much harder to keep it cool.

And just trying to balance the kind of equation on what’s that mean in terms of oil efficiency. So a fascinating topic. Look out for that. It’ll be coming in the next episode of the newsletter. But drew, what have you been looking at and what have you found interesting?

[00:27:33] Drew:

Well, there has been an amazing two-parter in the FT over the past couple of days looking at the unbelievable dependence of Apple on China and the fact that they basically backed themselves into a quite remarkable corner. They’re in an extremely risky position in terms of their dependence on a Chinese manufacturing sector that they have essentially funded. So it gives you phenomenal insight into how Apple built sort of precision manufacturing capability in China.

When the uni body MacBook Pros came around apparently Apple bought like 10,000 CNC machines to be able to manufacture these devices at scale. They bought up the entire world supply and then some, you know, for years, right? They have exclusivity contracts with robotics manufacturers that, that tie up their production for years to come.

So they’ve done an incredible job of building a a manufacturing base, you know, with factories that employ half a million people to produce iPhones, but they can’t do this anywhere in the world anywhere else in the world. So if we, if we think about the geopolitical situation at the moment and all this conversation about decoupling and before the show, we were talking about the tariffs that head in each direction when, when products are produced in China and sent to America, and vice versa.

Apple’s gonna have a great deal of difficulty in establishing a supply chain outside, you know, and, and some people predict that they may only ever manage kind of 20% outside of China because the supply chain is so deep. And this is interesting to me because I think it has some parallels for the automotive industry.

I’d venture a guess that. European manufacturers probably aren’t quite so dependent on, on a Chinese supply base, but you know, you do hear of upwards of 40% of content within vehicles coming from Chinese factories, even though they’re being assembled in Europe. And then you’ve got BMW group who, you know, they derive 30% of their revenue from vehicle.

Sold in China, so they too have this interdependence and it’s gonna be really interesting to see A, how Apple manages that, and B, what the implications are gonna be for the industry that we’re particularly interested in. Absolutely.

Well, that’s it for this fourth episode of Looking Out the podcast. It’s been as always, a huge pleasure to have you with us. If you like the show, please go on. Leave us a review. We love the feedback and if you know somebody who might like it too, go on and share it with them. For more about the topics in this show, visit our website lookingout.io.

That’s LookingOut.io where you can also sign up for the Looking Out Newsletter.

Looking out the podcast was written and presented by Drew Smith and Joe Simpson with Sound and Production by Chris Frith.

This is Drew Smith and thank you for listening.

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January 30, 2023