Don’t get gaga over the Apple Watch. It’s about to repeat 13 year old sins of Volkswagen

Don't get fobbed-off again

Don’t get fobbed-off again

According to overpowering on-line drone, the automotive world as we know it will come to an end on March 9, and it will be upended by an Apple watch. That watch, OMG, will open car doors, possibly even start the car. Keyless! Wow! Amazing! What will they think of next? I haven’t worn a watch for years, but I remember 2002, when the ill-phaeted Volkswagen Phaeton was launched. It had keyless entry, and it confused the heck out of people.

I had a few of the Phaetons. Never bought one, but I provided propaganda services for Volkswagen, and somehow, long term evaluation models of the Phaeton kept ending up in my garage. If you knew the right people, and I did, getting a free Phaeton was much easier than getting a free Golf. The Golf was and is Volkswagen’s best-selling car, so it always was in short supply. There never was a shortage of Phaetons, it could be passed around freely. For a while, I had the Phaeton with the W12-cylinder engine. It was even easier to get. At 120,000 euro for a nicely equipped model, people said: “Nice car. Really nice. But for 10,000 or 20,000 more, I get a nice Siebener, or an S-Class.” Nobody bought a Phaeton. It was given away.

13 years ago, the ill-Phaeton had something the Apple Watch may bring in a week: Keyless entry. As long as you carried the key fob in your pocket, or purse, you could walk up to the car, and the door would already be open. Toyota denied it had ghosts in the machine. At Volkswagen, ghosts kept the door open for you. You could sit down, push a button, and the car would start, all without the cold steel of a key penetrating the virginity of the car. Another industry was disrupted, that of the locksmith.

Scheisse, I left the door open,” exclaimed my friend at Volkswagen when we walked up to the Phaeton that was waiting for us in the garage of Hannover Airport. “I hope nothing was stolen.” He hadn’t left the door unlocked. The Phaeton quietly opened the door when the fob was in range. Somehow, that wasn’t appreciated.

Locking the car was an even bigger ordeal. The car would lock itself when you walked away with the key fob. But did it really? When the car was loaned to me, I asked: “What happens if there is an accident, or it gets stolen?” My friend at Volkswagen grinned, and said: “No problem at all! Just buy a new one!” I made doubly sure that the 120,000 euro car was locked at all times in my absence, but it was hard. Go back to the car, check whether it’s locked, and it always was open. I learned to walk away from the Phaeton, deposit the key fob well out of range on a window sill, or in a flower-pot, then I would walk back to the Phaeton to check whether it was locked. Now, it was, and I could concentrate on finding the key fob again.

The trunk was an even bigger problem. On any other car, you pulled a lever, or pushed a mechanical button, and the trunk would open with a reassuring “thunk.” With the Phaeton, you fondled the big VW logo, and the trunk lid opened, if you were lucky.  The electronics of the Phaeton were complex and temperamental, and the average Volkswagen mechanic was overwhelmed by so much advanced technology. Even more reason to hide the key fob in a flower-pot to check whether the door was locked.

The keyless entry made the Phaeton a trailblazer with a certain criminal element that now could steal the car without a key. “Don’t worry about it,” reassuring comments on Phaeton-fan-forums said, ”that car is so often in the shop, you’ll get in back in no time!” Another satisfied Phaeton owner disagreed: “I can leave mine open. No common-sense criminal will steal such a thing.”

My job was to promote the sales of the Phaeton, and I had my hands full. “With 56 on-board computers talking via 3 CAN-busses, the Phaeton is better networked than a medium-sized business,” I wrote at the time, but the damn customers would either not listen, or they were frightened by the prospect. Despite groundbreaking features such as keyless entry, or millimeter RADAR that – as long as it worked – could keep the Phaeton at a safe distance in the dark of night, sales of the Phaeton remained anemic 13 years ago, and they are anemic to this day.

13 years ago, implementing a keyless car had its issues, but it was doable, as long as you were Volkswagen. The only requirement was that Ferdinand Piech wanted it that way. OnStar could open a car for years, with just a phone call. 13 years after the Phaeton, Tim Cook will have it much harder. His problem: He’s no Piech, no Mary Barra, and he doesn’t make the car.

In a great Linkedin-post that should be required reading for all fawning “Apple watch will open car door” writers, Roger C. Lanctot enumerates just a few obstacles that keep the Apple Watch from disrupting locksmiths:

Connecting to cars will be different than controlling a car. Apple will need an OEM’s cooperation to control this functionality and most likely the car will need to be using CarPlay.

Apple will need to add hardware to the car and the vehicle will have to be designed around this hardware. Lead times are a consideration to implementation and market penetration.

Requirements include: Bluetooth communication with the vehicle “off;” however, it has to be very low power. System must be able to wake up the vehicle, support encryption and security. All of these are doable but are considerations to implement the system.

In the case of multiple users, Apple will need to differentiate permissions between different levels of users and Apple has traditionally NOT supported this type of functionality. For example, having different types of permissions for people who can enter the car vs people who can drive the car. (Once you are on an IPad – you have total access to everything.)

To reach the aftermarket and/or non-CarPlay vehicles, the Apple Watch will require additional hardware be added to a non-supported car to authenticate access and engine start. One model requires a custom install as used by ZipCar and other car sharing companies or a modular, plug and play system like Voyo.

And that’s just the beginning. Who’s still wearing watches anyway? Hasn’t the watch industry long been disrupted by the smartphone?