A conversation yesterday around the Picking up the pace post flicked a lightbulb (LED?) on about the current debate around what ‘drives’ cars; and if, perhaps, our cars are potentially this Century’s ‘difference engine’?

A word of warning, though. I’m not at all certain where this is going, or even if there’s a point to it, so do bear with me. Here’s the idea.

Charles Babbage is cited as the designer and engineer of the world first ‘computer’ (his ‘difference engine’; a computer in the sense of a machine for computing rather than what we’d use that word for today. I should say that this his attribution as the originator is disputed. Famous people are subject to the Matthew Effect and others, including Robert Recorde and J. H. Müller should be remembered) and while Babbage never built a fully resolved version, it set off one particular train of the industrial revolution, one which led us to the point where that machine’s prodigies will (most likely) end up driving our cars (and buses and trucks).

The parallel that struck me was this.

The age of coal enabled steam engineers (like Babbage, who was an ‘amateur’ mechanical engineer) to drive at the these innovations (at least imaginatively) and to prototype their ideas, but in the end he wasn’t able to realise his visions. Babbage lacked the funding to push the machinery he needed to actually make the components that would make his computer work.

Now we’ve replaced coal with oil (and via electricity, with the battery as its intermediary) as motive power we’ve reached a point where our internal combustion engineers are looking at how cars can become more like our other devices, the offspring of the ‘difference engines’ that are now so pervasive.

But given the investment needed in research and development the car makers need to either sell more (of the same) cars or increase profitability (by putting up prices or cutting costs). Which creates a paradox where the future never seems to ‘arrive’, in the sense of the expectation we have (being so fixated on the future providing the answers we need) for a ‘different engine’ in our cars (that drive themselves, don’t create pollution, congestion and can constantly adapt to our needs) and who can afford to deliver them. So we end up with a thousand difference engines which all do some of the job but none do it all.

So here’s the thing: will the convergence of car and computer as one ‘device’ prove to be this Century’s ‘difference engine’? Something that never quite becomes a tipping point into an entirely new future (both a future not predicated on the petrol {or diesel} engine or a driver) and that ultimately remains just out of reach? That what the difference engine didn’t achieve for the Victorians, the car/computer also won’t achieve for us – namely freedom, flexibility, efficiency while freeing us from the downsides that cars bring.

My point here is my belief that Form Follows Friction rather than function (in the sense of friction being the disruptive side effect that improvement forces) and the friction that’s fueling change here is the one between the ‘oil-age’ and who – rather than how – is likely to power things in future.

It’s easy (and dangerous) to fall into a post-hoc fallacy (‘after, this, because of this’) trap and assume that the manufacturers, in who’s control the current paradigms rest, will remain so. Which is why so many are keen to nurture (buy) relationships with tech companies, for whom vehicles are more likely to be a ingredient rather than vice-versa. The trajectory for all that is beyond guessing but the result, of what those relationship result in as products and the consequent effect on how we buy and own them, is what’s exercising me – as that’s a issue right now.

I guess my point is as ‘cars’ become increasingly powered by some sort of difference engine, the effect on every aspect of our relationship with them becomes open to question. It’s still common to hear dealerships described as ‘destinations’ with hotels, lounges and resorts used as similes. The metaphors are based on the experiences where we enjoy a stay but its duration seems in conflict with the evidence of visits to such spaces.

If future ownership patterns of a car powered by the difference engine are ‘Pay-per-use’, 12- or 24-month contracts rather than leases or ‘plans’ with a ‘free’ model, this prescribes an entirely different relationship. One often based on light- or even no physical contact with any actual ‘place’. Not that this is new or novel, as the success / slight-of-hand (depending on your perspective) that the new shopping mall operators (you know who you are) have begun to demonstrate.

I’d like to think that in fact these challenges are a golden opportunity for the retail real estate the car distribution model requires. If you need better representation in smaller spaces to demonstrate your products, why not separate the ‘buying’ bit from ’storage’ bit completely? A concentrated space in which to express the brand might help with the investment ‘debate’ between brand-owners and their representatives and partners – less physical space that needs costly fixtures and finishes for example.

The retail model for cars (a ‘garage’, except without the petrol pumps. In most cases, there are still some, mind) is as old as the car. Great for when cars needed constant attention. Not so great when you’ve so much stock your customers can’t park.

When you start carrying your ‘car’ around in your pocket just how much garage space will you need? Rather exciting when you start to think about it.

Feature image by Mathieu De Steur


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About Richard Hill

Creative director, writer, designer, illustrator based in the UK with global project experience and consulting skills across sectors.

Latest Posts By Richard Hill


Architecture, automotive, Dealership, Design, emerging technology, Experiences, Ideas for business, Re-thinking, Retail, strategy


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