The Car, The Phone And The Platform

Who needs a car to do this?

Who needs a car to do this? (courtesy: General Motors)

I remember the first flashes of the technological blossoming we are currently living through, in the five formative years I spent growing up just South of California’s Silicon Valley. Though we were hardly a technology-focused family (the television was kept in a wardrobe), my dad already had his first 8086 “laptop” PC by the time we moved to Los Gatos in 1987. Some time around second grade I remember a friend showing me something called “Prodigy,” which he claimed had allowed him to “accidentally” place an order for a bulk volume of dog food through his home computer. But the most convincing evidence that we were living on the cusp of a glorious future was my father’s Mercedes 300E. I was, of course, to young to truly appreciate the car itself, but inside the leather-scented bank vault of its interior were hidden great technological wonders of the age: a Sony Watchman portable TV and a car phone. To my young mind, such extravagant connectivity was undeniable proof that we already living in the future.

More than twenty years later, it’s remarkable how far those then-high-tech talismans were from the actual future. Both television and telephony are rapidly being subsumed by the internet, the cathode ray tube is as dead as the eight track and having either a telephone or a television physically attached to your vehicle is absurd in the modern technological environment (with the possible exception of the flip-down video system babysitters offered in minivans and CUVs). Though Dad’s early 90s TV executive toolkit was a harbinger of our hyper-connected, screen-centric, distracted driving-plagued age, it was a vision of the future seen through a glass, darkly.

The revolution in connectivity and computing power of the last twenty years has long since wiped away the Watchman and car phone (not to mention Prodigy), and increasingly consumers find themselves distracted from their cars by high-tech devices, both in the literal sense and in economic and cultural terms. For automakers already navigating intense global competition, finding relevance in the information age (or at the very least, an accommodation with it)  is a critical challenge to long-term viability.

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