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Get In: The Connected Vehicle Podcast From BlackBerry (Episode 11)

AUTOMOTIVE / 06.20.22 / Steve Kovsky

Building Cars Driven by Digital Experience With WhichEV

As cars become electrified, they’re more like computers – or mobile phones – on wheels. The realization of software-defined and autonomous vehicles is underway, and consumers buying them find themselves rolling up to a new intersection where the driving experience meets the digital experience. This convergence is fantastic and pushing fast toward the future.

Welcome to the 11th episode of “Get In: The Connected Vehicle Podcast from BlackBerry.” This series explores the possibilities created by – and technologies behind – the revolution in global transportation we are witnessing today. In this episode, we meet James Morris, editor of UK-based EV (electric vehicle) news and reviews site WhichEV.net, and sustainability contributor to Forbes.

Click to listen to the full Episode 11 podcast.
 

Morris started covering the EV market because it combined his background as a technology journalist and editor with a lifelong love for cars. Morris’ own first car, a Vauxhall Chevette, was a far cry from the sophisticated automobiles he drives and reviews today. A subcompact available in the U.K. from the mid-1970s to mid-1980s, the “saloon” (4-door) model had no ABS or power steering, and Morris had to install an aftermarket radio and cassette player himself—complete with speakers housed in repurposed ice cream cartons.

Fast-forward to today’s automotive landscape and the situation couldn’t be more different. Morris’ first EV experience was a Nissan Leaf in 2011. Beyond the instant torque and easy driving that the car offered, connected technology was already starting to appear. “There was an app that you could use to set the air conditioning remotely, and you could monitor the state of charge,” says Morris. “This was something that I found very exciting, because no petrol (gas) car that I knew of at that time had those kinds of functions available to them.”

Morris had also been writing about satellite navigation since non-restricted GPS became publicly available in 2000, and this location awareness also seemed like an exciting concept for drivers. As vehicles gained app-like functionality, they began to feel more like personal computers and smartphones, Morris notes. “The smartphone has apps that can do all kinds of different things, and now the car can be all kinds of different things as well.”

One of the more advanced apps becoming available in some models and markets is self-driving capabilities. For Morris, these features can turn day-to-day drudgery into a delight. “The traffic is getting worse and worse, and we constantly get stuck in jams and gridlock.” Yet with the latest versions of adaptive cruise control that include autosteering, you can “set your car to do most of the driving in those boring environments. I almost look forward to those sections now. You can relax and let the car do most of the work.” Fuller autonomy is developing rapidly, for example with Tesla’s “Autosteer on city streets” feature and trials taking place in China. “This is going to transform the way that we experience transportation.”

To Drive, or Not to Drive? 

The long-awaited promise of self-driving cars also has car-makers puzzling over how to address the two conflicting trends in transportation. “There are people who think that we're going to go to car-sharing entirely, we're just going to have autonomous vehicles, nobody's going to own a car anymore,” says Morris. “But that seems to forget the fact that some people really enjoy driving.”

Morris cites the Audi skysphere concept, a car he has described as having “low-slung swoopy Batmobile-like looks (that) are guaranteed to turn heads.” The remarkable vehicle actually reconfigures its exterior and interior layout, depending on whether you are driving for pleasure or letting it drive you from A to B. “It can be long when in autonomous mode, where it becomes more of a lounge experience and has a really amazing panoramic sunroof,” he says. “Or you can have a shorter wheelbase, and then it becomes more of a driving experience. I think concepts that allow both those practices in one package are very exciting.”

Connectivity and personalization are key to this, with the car knowing the mode you want to use and the kind of journey you want to make at a given moment. “There are these two parallel revolutions going on at the same time,” says Morris. “There's the electric vehicle and the connected vehicle. This started off with the entertainment system and then the connected sat nav (GPS), but now it's permeating the whole car.”

This presents an issue for incumbent manufacturers. “If the newcomers to this industry come from a software background, they're in their wheelhouse for that kind of thing,” says Morris. “Whereas if your company has 100 years of experience producing fantastic brakes, wheels, and internal combustion engines, you've brought in all this software in the past. What you really need is something to allow you to leapfrog into the software era. You need to be able to bring all these systems that you've got together and to be able to get them to talk to each other, so you can deliver those software experiences.”

Where IVY Grows

This is where BlackBerry’s work providing a platform for connected vehicle software is so crucial, says Morris. “What you guys are doing at BlackBerry with BlackBerry IVY™ and QNX® is very exciting,” he says, not least because it provides a means for established car manufacturers to pull even with – or perhaps ahead of – their “digital native” competitors. “We want a world full of competition, where all these great historical brands are still producing vehicles that have style and heritage, but also great software features at the same time.”

Morris has some sage advice for both consumers and automakers. For consumers, he suggests, “Do your research. Particularly with electric vehicles, you need to know what's the real situation with your vehicle.” Also, prepare to spend some time acclimating to the new EV offerings by “getting to know the lifestyle change with electric vehicles. There's more planning involved with thinking about how far you're going to be able to go, and making sure you have a few options of where to stop and charge.” Having this information placed at your fingertips by features built into the vehicle itself can help streamline the transition.

For automakers, Morris suggests they are also facing some cultural adjustments as they turn to thinking about their vehicles as moving targets that can improve with future software versions. “Quite a few manufacturers are providing over-the-air software updates now,” he says. “Volkswagen does, Volvo/Polestar does, obviously Tesla has been doing that for a while. This is something that consumers are going to expect, and so you need to be able to deliver something that improves. People are used to the smartphone experience of having this device, but two years later it's got a new operating system, it's got a different set of apps in there.”

Some manufacturers are even providing features that can be temporarily rented, such as the Volkswagen Group’s Matrix LED lighting that can be accessed via subscription for limited periods, such as during the dark winter months. “Manufacturers should really concentrate on the software side and making sure your car is a living thing,” says Morris. “You buy a car for three to five years, which is longer than a phone, but you don't want to have the feeling that it's really outmoded within a year's time because it's not got all the new bells and whistles of the same car being produced now. Keep it flexible, to sum that up.”

Listen to Episode 11 of “Get In: The Connected Vehicle Podcast From BlackBerry.”
 


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Podcast Transcript

Steve Kovsky:
Hi, welcome to Get In, the connected vehicle podcast from BlackBerry. I'm your host, Steve Kovsky, and in this series, we'll be diving into what the future of transportation just might look like. Today we're joined by somebody who has some opinions on that, and I think some insights that you'll be interested in hearing. James, would you introduce yourself?

James Morris:
Hi, I'm James Morris, I'm the editor of a U.K. electric vehicle site called WhichEV, and I'm also a sustainability writer for Forbes.

Steve Kovsky:
All right, and a learned professor of journalism in his home country.

James Morris:
That's true too.

Steve Kovsky:
Many, many accolades. James, tell us a little bit about WhichEV and why you started it, and what its purpose is.

James Morris:
Well, maybe I should delve a little bit into my background. I'm a technology journalist by trade, I've been doing that for a couple of decades, and I've also been a massive petrol head and car enthusiast since I was a kid. WhichEV was launched in 2019, and I was asked to join in 2020, and I really jumped at the opportunity because electric vehicles brought together these two things in my life, my love of cars and my professional background and interest in technology, so they encapsulate the confluence of these two trends.

Steve Kovsky:
That makes a lot of sense. What kind of reaction and following have you been getting with WhichEV?

James Morris:
WhichEV has grown incredibly fast, and I think it was launched with the intention of grabbing this opportunity, because if you think back to 2019, this was the Tesla Model 3 launch in 2018 in America and 2019 in the U.K., and it was just starting to build a head of steam. Ever since then, we've seen, particularly in the U.K. where I am, quarterly growth every single month, there's been an increase in the number of electric vehicles sold. Our site has just grown exponentially, we have over a million readers now a month, which it certainly wasn't that when I started two years ago.

Steve Kovsky:
For those who are listening, you should follow James and his articles on Forbes, if you don't already, and it will keep you abreast of what's happening with electric vehicles and with transportation at large. James, one of the things that, as you know, we like to ask our guests on this show is, what was their first experience behind the wheel of an automobile? What was yours?

James Morris:
My first car was something called a Vauxhall Chevette, which I don't imagine you even have any experience of in America.

Steve Kovsky:
I don't even think I could spell it, to tell you the truth.

James Morris:
Vauxhall was the General Motors brand equivalent to Opal in continental Europe, and the Chevette was what you'd probably call a sub-compact in America. The version I had was the saloon version, with four doors. It was called a special, so it had a metallic paint, a sports steering wheel, and a short gearstick, but barely had any kind of technology beyond that. It certainly wouldn't have had anything like ABS or needed power steering – it was before cars in that era started becoming front wheel drive and was still rear wheel drive.

I actually installed the radio myself and fitted speakers in ice cream cartons on the back shelf of the car. That was really getting into customization and bringing technology into the car. Things have really changed in that respect.

Steve Kovsky:
Well, you were a pioneer. Now I do recall the Chevette, it was the Vauxhall name that threw me a little bit. It sounds like this was a pretty swanky car, but I don't recall the Chevette being considered really a power car.

James Morris:
No, it wasn't very powerful. I'm not sure what this is in the cubic inches that you like to talk about in America, but it was a 1.4-liter. It felt fast and I could have a lot of fun with it. I learned to drive when I was in high school because we learned to drive a little bit later. I think it's 16, isn't it, when you can learn to drive in America? It's 17 in the U.K. I learned quickly because I wanted to be able to go out with my friends and take this car out, and go around and enjoy myself. We had a lot of fun – it was all about the social experience and what it enabled in terms of freedom for my social group.

Steve Kovsky:
We've had a lot of people on this show that I think are car people, and maybe not so many who've driven as many electric and connected vehicles as you have. What is your experience, because you're frequently reviewing cars, what have you found in the current generation of cars that excites you or that makes you a little reminiscent of the old Chevette?

James Morris:
The things that really excite me about electric cars, apart from the performance, I remember the first time I drove an electric vehicle, it was over 10 years ago, I drove a Nissan Leaf in 2011 at a car event. I used to own a Porsche, and I turned up in that for this event, and this Nissan Leaf at the low city speeds felt as quick, possibly even quicker than my Porsche, and that kind of blew my mind in terms of what this technology could deliver. Also, I liked the kind of science fiction element of it and the high tech, it had this kind of joystick that you'd use for selecting drive, it was beyond the automatic gearstick that people are familiar with, and it also had connected features.

Even back then in 2011, there was an app that you could use and you could set the air conditioning remotely, and you could monitor the state of charge. This was something that I found very exciting, because no petrol car that I knew of at that time had those kinds of functions available to them. I had obviously started to experience things like sat navs and those kind of connected things, but being able to integrate that with the car so you could potentially see where the car was, as well remotely, was a very exciting concept at that time.

Steve Kovsky:
You've always had an eye on the future of automotive, and what do you see in the cars today that you didn't foresee before, that you find exciting and inspiring?

James Morris:
It's to do with the way they are gadgets. I talked about how I came to my current role as writing about electric vehicles through a love of technology, and again, I know this is the background of your company, BlackBerry, as well, the smartphone. The smartphone was this kind of expandable device where it became the heir of the personal computer, to a certain extent, maybe even the mass volume version of a personal computer. You probably remember in the early '90s, it was very exciting to have this general purpose to buy, so you could install all different kinds of software, you could write your documents whenever, you could also watch movies on it, you could edit movies on it.

That was the thing that really excited me. The smartphone was a little bit like that by having apps that could do all kinds of different things, and now the car can be all kinds of different things as well. I think the way they're connected and the way they have this ability to improve your experience. I'm now a Tesla owner, and one of the things I really enjoy is the autopilot aspect. The traffic is getting worse and worse, and we constantly get stuck in jams and gridlock. All these zones where they track the average speed that you're doing, and being able to set your car to basically do most of the driving in those kinds of really boring environments, I almost look forward to those sections, whereas previously it was like, "This is going to be terrible, I'm going to absolutely hate this 20-mile section where they have a 50 mile an hour average speed zone."

Now I'm kind of, "Well, I'll just set my car on autopilot," and obviously you have to still pay attention and jog the wheel in a Tesla and keep your hands on the steering wheel, but you can relax and let the car do most of the work. This is only the beginning of it as well, because full self-driving in city streets is being piloted in America with Tesla, there are Chinese companies who've got robo-taxis in a number of Chinese cities – Beijing and Shanghai I believe have those. This is going to really transform the way that we experience transportation.

Steve Kovsky:
It's really interesting, James, that we may have reached a point where people, even if it's just you, that anybody would look forward to traffic. That’s, I think, revolutionary. This could change the driving experience maybe as much as anything, if we start to look forward to those parts of driving that are tedious. Parking is another one that I think one of the lower levels of autonomy is the ability for a car to park itself, I would be perfectly happy never having to park a car again, just to leave that to the automobile. I think there is some reason for rejoicing, perhaps even excitement.

One of the things that you bring, James, through WhichEV and I'm sure, the feedback you get to your Forbes articles, you are very close to the consumer decision of which EV to buy, that is the premise of your website. What are people gravitating toward right now? What are the features and even the brands that seem to stand out?

James Morris:
I think people are looking for two kinds of things. We're still in an early adopter phase for electric vehicles, so a lot of people are looking for the great gadget, the new thing. But we also are seeing people for who maybe some of the more avant garde features of the car are a bit too far for them – they still want to have discrete buttons. My personal bugbear with my car is the fact that it's very hard to change the speed of the windscreen wipers, because they've taken that perfectly normal stalk off of the Tesla that I own.

You have people who want to have that as well, so now I think people are really excited about seeing a brand that they already enjoy. Maybe they're a longtime lover of BMW, maybe they're an Audi fan, maybe they've always had good experiences with Volkswagen? So, they're really glad to see that now there's an electric version of their favorite car. Mercedes is coming out with some great new platforms as well, although they're still very much in the expensive, high luxury area.

We're also seeing some great new electric-only brands from companies like Ionic, which is Hyundai's standalone electric vehicle brand, Kia hasn't bothered to spin off a specific electric brand, but they have a range with EV in them that they're spinning off. Then there's Cupra for example, the performance wing of Seat, and they're looking to be more electrified as well. So, it's great to see that these companies are almost making electric the premium end of their branding – which the market is still a premium one for electric vehicles – for the time being anyway.

Steve Kovsky:
Well, just driving seems to be a premium price function these days, and particularly if you've got still a combustion engine, as many of us do. There are also some very interesting things that are happening with concept cars, and some of the things that have been shown in the last one to two years are a little bit mind blowing for those of us who learned to drive in a previous generation. Can you talk about some of these new developments, I'm just going to throw one out, the ability to change the color of your car electrically? Some of these things really are quite revolutionary, what has caught your eye?

James Morris:
I presume with that one, you're talking about something that BMW talked about? But going back to what I was saying a couple of questions ago about actually enjoying traffic jams now, that shows the two types of driving. Because there are people out there who think that we're going to go to car sharing entirely, we're just going to have autonomous vehicles, nobody's going to own a car anymore, but that seems to forget the fact that some people really enjoy driving. Certainly listening back to some of your previous podcasts, there is a great consensus I think amongst the people you've interviewed that driving is an enjoyable experience and people have got a lot of pleasure out of it, but what's really great is being able to recognize that there are these two modes.

I think another concept that caught both our eyes was the Audi grandsphere, which is this grand tourer vehicle that can change shape depending on your driving style. It can be long when in autonomous mode, and it becomes more of a lounge experience and has a really amazing panoramic sunroof, so you can lie back and just look at the stars if you want to while you're driving, or you can have it shorten, give it a shorter wheel base, and then it becomes more of a driving experience, and even in extended mode, the steering wheel disappears entirely.

There's recognizing that the way people travel there are different modes, but also there could be different modes within a journey. That's very exciting, not saying, "We're all going to switch to basically a personalized version of public transport," but we might want to do that occasionally. If we're going to be on a highway, I know what American highways can be like, or a country like Australia that has interminable hundreds of miles of empty roads, you're probably going to want to kick back and let the vehicle do that for you. Whereas if you get a nice twisty road with the south of England, where I am, there's some fantastic roads, or up in Scotland or Wales, lovely twisty A-class roads, being able to enjoy those still is having that ability. Concepts allowing that – both of those practices in one package – are very exciting.

Steve Kovsky:
It really is taking personalization of the vehicle to a new level, isn't it? If the vehicle can change some of its physical characteristics to suit your mood and your disposition and the roadway, these things are exciting. I think also some of the discussions that we've had along the way in this podcast about shared modes or mixed modes of transportation, so you may be taking a journey that involves driving a train or a plane. In one case, we had a gentleman who had to jump out of his Uber and grab a scooter in order to make it to the venue in Stockholm, where he was about to deliver a keynote.

That's a movie to me, a really interesting way of looking at how we get from point A to point B. We've also talked to other guests about how some of the premium brands are looking at that, and how can they provide that consistency of luxury for people who can afford it and who value that, where maybe you get off your plane in another city and the car that's waiting for you is the same model as the one that you left at the carpark at home. These are some things that are exciting.

One of the things we talk about a lot is connectivity, and what is occurring with vehicles being able to talk to other vehicles, infrastructure, being able to communicate with your vehicle even when you're not in it. What are some of the trends that you're seeing and some of the features today that you think are capturing people's attention?

James Morris:
I've talked about in one of my articles before, it was about there being these two parallel revolutions going on at the same time, there's the electric vehicle and the connected vehicle. They are very much interconnected, because one of the things is with electric vehicles, and certainly looking at the manufacturers who are prevailing in the initial stages at least, they are companies that come from more of a software background. I know you've talked about this in some previous podcasts, the concept of the software defined vehicle, and how this started off with things like the entertainment system and then the connected sat nav, but now it's permeating the whole car.

This is the problem, if newcomers to this industry come from a software background, they're in their wheelhouse for that kind of thing, whereas if your company has 100 years of experience producing fantastic brakes, wheels, internal combustion engines, you've brought in all this software in the past. What you really need is something to allow you to leapfrog into the software era, you need to be able to bring all these systems that you've got together and to be able to get them to talk to each other, so you can deliver those software experiences.

I mentioned connected sat navs, that was the first thing that really excited me about connectivity, the idea, first of all that it wasn't an in-car, it was actually a separate device, but it knew where you were and what road you were probably on. Then it had these live traffic abilities, so it was able to detect the traffic situation and then even use that historically to give you a much more accurate idea of how long it would take you, because there's a limit and that's how fast you can drive on a road. It's great, the only way you can know how fast you can drive on a road is by measuring how fast people have traditionally driven on that road, and that was added in.

Now you're getting things like the ability to tell you where the next fuel station is, whether you'll reach it in time, maybe you should stop at this one that's a bit closer. With electric cars, doing things like preconditioning your battery temperature so that it's ready to be charged at the fastest possible speed when you get there, there's potentially things like reserving you a parking space. You talked about a self-parking car, so maybe the car in advance can book you a parking space, so all you have to do is stop at the entrance to the parking lot and let the car park itself, and then be available when you come back – like the valet experience at an airport.

They're not quite there yet, they're starting to be, some car manufacturers are giving features that are a little bit like that, but they're not quite at that level yet. For everyday manufacturers to deliver that, who haven't had that software background, they need a platform that enables them to bring all those features of their cars together, which is why what you guys are doing at BlackBberry with BlackBerry IVY™ and QNX® is very exciting. Because we want a world full of competition, where all these great historical brands are still producing really competitive vehicles that have the style and heritage that they have, but also have these great software features at the same time.

Steve Kovsky:
James, I think you're in a position to offer advice, and I'd like to ask you to give us some advice for auto makers. First, what's your advice for consumers?

James Morris:
I would say, do your research. Particularly with electric vehicles, you need to know the real situation with your vehicle. I've just written an article for WhichEV about hints and tips for charging, and one of the things is you use the EPA test for your range of electric vehicles, we use something called WLTP, (Worldwide Harmonized Light Vehicle Test Procedure) which replaced something called NEDC, (New European Driving Cycle), which is what they still use in China. None of these tests are very accurate, about how far your vehicle will go, and so the first thing is to get to know the characteristics.

It's also good to be aware of the fact there is a variance in electric range, for example, in different conditions, but also getting to know the lifestyle change with electric vehicles as well, which is that at the moment at least, there's more planning involved with thinking about how far you're going to be able to go, and making sure you have a few options of where to stop and charge. Whereas our traditional strategy with petrol cars or gasoline cars, as you say in America, is just, "Oh look, it's hitting the red, where is the nearest gas station?"

It's not necessarily a bad thing though, because a parallel happening with electric vehicles is these new styles of stops, where there's extra facilities involved and cars that have things you can do that are fun, like games and media while your vehicle is charging. Again, like looking forward to a traffic jam, you could enjoy looking forward to that charging situation.

Steve Kovsky:
In the hopes that some folks in the auto industry are listening as well, what would you advise them as they're trying to address this growing consumer demand? What should they focus on?

James Morris:
I think they need to think about their cars as not being fixed points when they come out of the factory. Fortunately, quite a few manufacturers are providing over-the-air software updates now, Volkswagen does, I think Volvo/Polestar does, obviously the “T” company has been doing that for a while. This is something consumers are going to expect, and so you need to be able to deliver something that improves, because people are used to the mobile phone smartphone experience of having this device, but two years later it's got a new operating system, it's got a different set of apps in there.

Being able to have this kind of expanding ability, to have bolt-ons as well. One of the things I noticed was Volkswagen, for example, allows you to rent lighting. I think it's just become legal in America, but in Europe, because they have this thing called Matrix LED lighting, which is a phenomenal technology where the headlight is an array of LEDs, and it shuts down the ones that are going to blind the oncoming car and leaves the others on. The oncoming car goes through its curtain of darkness as it goes past you, but you still see as much of the road as possible. You can rent that for the winter period, for example, rather than having to buy it outright.

Maybe you could rent certain other connected services, like a toll experience where you're traveling across continental Europe with a British car, and vice-versa? Really concentrating on the software side and making sure it is flexible and makes your car a living thing. You buy a car for three to five years, which is longer than a phone, but you don't want to have the feeling it's really outmoded within a year's time because it's not got all the new bells and whistles of the same car being produced now. Keep it flexible, I guess is it, to sum that up.

Steve Kovsky:
Excellent advice and great insights, James, thank you so much for joining us today.

James Morris:
Thank you very much.

Steve Kovsky:
That's the end of our episode for today, but if you'd like to get more information on the topics or our guest, check out blackberry.com/podcast. Get In, the connected vehicle podcast from BlackBerry is available wherever you get your podcasts, and don't forget to subscribe to keep up to date with our latest episodes.

Steve Kovsky

About Steve Kovsky

Steve Kovsky is Editorial Director at BlackBerry.