Cars are not 'Smartphones on wheels'

If I had a £ for every time someone said ’today’s cars are just smartphones on wheels’ I’d be able to afford that BMW M4 I’ve always been after. On the face of it it’s a reasonable statement to make. Cars today, and actually for the last 5+ years, have embedded SIMs for 3/4G connectivity, they have touch screens, they run apps, and using Apple Car Play or Android Auto looks exactly as your phone does. Below the surface though that statement couldn’t be more wrong, and here’s why.


One of the foremost considerations with developing cars is safety. Safety of the users (drivers and passengers) and those who may come in to contact with it. If a component in a car fails it can significantly impact the safety, particularly if it’s a safety critical component such as a tyre, airbag or brake. A component failing in a car could cause death. A component failing in a smartphone will cause inconvenience at most.

Lifecycle & Durability

This is probably one of the biggest differences between a car and a smartphone. A smartphone is designed to work as new for perhaps 2 to 3 years and work at all for perhaps 3 to 4 years, certainly less than 5 years. In reality most phones will last less than 3 years before being binned or traded in and then recycled. Cars on the other hand have to work almost as new for at least 5 years and have a full lifecycle spanning 15+ years. 

The environment in which they must operate for 15+ years is also extremely challenging. There’s no soft dry pocket for cars (unless you’re rare and have a car garage and actually use it for your car). Cars must operate in the coldest, wettest winter right through to the hottest, driest summers and all on pot hole filled roads. A smartphone does not.


Related to their long lifecycle is the need to support models and the hundreds or thousands of components for a huge proportion of the vehicles expected life. Components must also be relatively easy to replace by either the owner or any garage, not just at main dealers. In many countries this is actually a legal requirement. Most smartphones, whilst maybe possible to repair at home are typically not. In fact you typically have to return it to the manufacturer where they’ll probably just give you a new device rather than repair it. Repairing it yourself may also void your warranty.


An average modern high-end car has somewhere in the region of 100 million lines of code. The Android Operating System has 12 million line of code. Vehicle manufacturers today are more system designers and integrators than they’ve ever been. According to Toyota the average car has 30,000 components. An average smartphone has roughly 2000. Cars are hugely complex systems where as discussed previously if one were to fail the results could be catastrophic.

Business Environment

We see the smartphone industry now consolidating in to two major operating systems: iOS and Android, with the number of device manufacturers generally moving in to the single digits or low double digits perhaps (at least those manufacturers with any valuable market share). The car market on the other hand remains extremely competitive with hundreds of manufacturers, all with sizeable market share. 

Profit margins in the automotive world tend to be extremely low. I heard that on average a Ford dealer makes £200 profit on a brand new Fiesta (not sure I believe that 100% but I suspect it’s pretty low). Ford in Europe hasn’t made a profit for years whilst in the US manufacturers were bailed out by the Government during the last financial crisis.

Trends I'll be watching in 2019

The new year is a rather arbitrary time to do this but it is a useful marker and reminder to think about the future and particularly the next 12 months. So here’s a few things I’ll be keeping an eye on in 2019 (and beyond).

You’ll notice that there’s not much tech related below. 2019 will, I believe, be quite a boring year for technology with many of the developments being iterative rather than disruptive. 

4 day work week

The idea of a 4 day week being standard is not new but will start to take off in 2019 as employees and employers really start taking notice of general wellbeing and most importantly mental health. While it was once ’trendy’ to work 60 hours per week and almost kill yourself along the way the dial is now shifting the other way to more flexible and more productive working in fewer hours, prioritising personal and family time.

A few smaller companies have started experimenting with and trialling a 4 day work week in various guises but I think 2019 will see more and larger companies take the idea more seriously. At first this may be small trials lasting a few months or perhaps seasonally, we could quite easily see companies starting out by working a 4 day week in the summer months for example, just as Basecamp do.
A standard 4 day week has the potential to profoundly change the well being of employees and if the trials and studies are correct they can greatly improve productivity for companies too.

GenZ Workforce

If you thought Millennials entering the work place was difficult for businesses to handle then wait until the next generation, so called GenZ, start getting jobs. Those graduating university in 2019 will have been born in the late 1990’s and those getting jobs straight out of high school born in early 2000s. Many of these new employees will have lived much of their lives with the internet at their fingertips, many have a real sense of wellbeing, a huge understanding of mental health (at least compared to previous generations), and an almost intrinsic belief in equality, inclusion and environmental issues.

For employers this presents a huge opportunity to attract some amazing new talent, so long as they share the same values. Employers who don’t have the right IT, don’t strive for equality and inclusion, don’t have an intrinsic purpose, don’t take social responsibility seriously will all lose out on attracting these brilliant new people.

I’ve been sort of watching this play out a little in the latter half of 2018 and will most definitely be looking at it closely in 2019.

Retail Downturn

2018 has not been a great year for retail with many big name UK businesses going bust. Toys R Us, Maplin, House of Fraser, Evans Cycles and most recently HMV are just a few of a huge number of examples of retailers that have gone out of business in 2018. 

2019 will be an even more difficult environment for not only retail but all consumer focussed businesses, particularly those in the sort of discretionary spending arena such as restaurants and entertainment. Consumers in 2019 will be ever more cautious in their spending as Brexit plays out bu there will be a clear trend though in all of these struggling businesses, they will all be those who have not adapted to changes in consumer behaviour. They will nearly all be those who have a poor online offering and bad customer service such as difficult returns processes and poorly trained and demotivated staff. A shift towards 'direct to consumer’ models will also begin to hurt retailers.

2019 will really highlight the need for continual business change, and that doesn’t mean just sticking in a load of new technology, it means looking at processes and people/culture, making everything as easy as possible for the customer and asking ‘why does this step in the process exist?’ or even better ‘why does this whole process exist?’.

Let’s see how many businesses are ’shocked’ that they’ve gone out of business in 2019 despite not adapting over the last 5 years.

5G Devices

I couldn’t possibly write this and not talk about 5G could I. I wish I could though. Unless you’re a network operator, a regulator or involved in government policy you can absolutely ignore 5G in 2019. There will be 5G phones released by some big names like Samsung but real world networks will be few and far between. For consumers these new phones will provide little to no benefit, in fact they’ll probably be worse that today’s devices but for those operators, regulators and policy people it will give an opportunity to see what is possible in the real world with early 5G, see how consumers react, and see how their new networks operate testing new bits on a small number of keen consumers.

The Reality of the Pace of Change

“Unprecented pace of change”, “the pace of change is only getting faster”, “the pace of change is unmanageable”. These are phrases used so often in our industry and many others I suspect, but what’s the reality and what do people really mean when they say it.

While I think it’s true that the general pace of change in technology is staggering I don’t believe that the pace of change is increasing or that’s unmanageable. In fact I think changes are entirely predictable. Particularly in the general areas I’m focussed on; Telecoms and general consumer technology.

If you look at consumer technology we haven’t actually seen major change in the last 5-10 years. The first iPhone was released in 2007 and even before that Blackberries were doing email and web browsing with their sort-of-smarphones in the very late 90s to early 2000s, getting close to 20 years ago. While of course smartphone use has grown significantly and the hardware and software has continued to develop they’re fundamentally similar devices that they were 10+ years ago. The development of these devices has been entirely predictable. Since the first iPhone in 2007 there’s been a new model every single year, often pretty much on the same date. Like clockwork.

I’m going to put my neck on the line and say that the next model will be announced in September 2018, what do you think?

The same is pretty much true too for Android based handsets such as those from Samsung and HTC.

While we don’t know for sure what new features each new model will have there’s always a pretty big pot of rumours swirling in the months before a release, and actually a lot of them are pretty accurate, often from very targeted ‘leaks’ from the company themselves. Most of these hardware changes actually have little impact on what we do. A lot of new models are simply faster and thinner with better batteries, screens and cameras, with nothing particularly fundamental changing in the hardware.

Looking at the software there are clearly more fundamental changes happening particularly with developments in AI techniques allowing advanced machine vision and speech recognition paving the way for some interesting new use cases. We also 

However, if we look at the things that the majority of consumers are doing it hasn’t really changed that much in the last 5-10 years, similarly to hardware. Ultimately humans are still doing the same things they’ve always done - communicate, shop, be entertained, learn, earn money. It’s just that they’re now doing it on this thing called the Internet (which has been around in a commercial form since the early 1990s by the way).

Today’s most popular communication method is probably WhatsApp on which over 55 billion messages are sent per day. WhatsApp was created in 2009, nearly 10 years ago and was acquired by Facebook in 2014, nearly 5 years ago. It’s estimated that WhatsApp surpassed SMS for example back in 2014 in terms of number of daily messages sent. WhatsApp has probably been the dominant consumer communication method since then. The main apps of Facebook, Messenger, WhatsApp, Instagram (all owned by Facebook), iMessage, Telegram, Viber etc have all been around for at least the last 5 years. It is true though that these apps/services do change themselves quite often with new features and changes to how they work from a technical point of view by utilising new protocols, adding features and so on.

In terms of communication it’s always useful to remember that humans only have five senses, so realistically any form of communication will be limited to sight (text, pictures, videos) and sound. I can’t particularly imagine any communication apps being based on smell, touch, or taste. So the opportunities for significant change are extremely limited and quite predictable.

In terms of Telecoms we tend to see similar timescales for change. Approximately every 10 years there’s a new generation of 3GPP standard (3G in 2000, LTE (4G) in 2008/9, 5G in 2018), the development of which takes place over months to years. Between these major generations there can be quite significant releases but network operators still tend to take years before implementing these releases on their networks as the costs can be quite significant and testing quite intensive. The telecoms industry is heavily regulated, competitive, expensive, and average revenues have been dropping for many years which means there’s not significant outside investment (at least relative to other industries), further adding to the difficulties of deploying new network technologies and new entrants entering the market. Now it will be interesting to see how technologies such as network virtualisation change this as we progress (slowly) towards 5G networks.

People use the pace of change argument to put the blame for their lack of ability to change on to someone else. By blaming the pace of change they shift attention to the world outside of their organisation… "it’s somebody else’s fault, they’re developing things too quickly, they need to slow down to match our speed of change” is what people actually mean when they talk about the increasing pace of change.

The Reinvention of the Bus Route

A staple in every town and city around the world, the cheap yet reliable bus route has been allowing people to get from A to B with ease. In the last year or two though it’s been going through something of a reinvention all thanks to the smartphones in our pockets.

If you want to get around a big city, let’s say London, there’s now a swathe of different options that are very competitive with the old school public transport like buses and tubes. There’s now at least five mobility companies that I’m aware of in London operating public transport like services. Let’s explore them.


Probably the one everyone knows about is Uber, specifically Uber Pool and in some US cities Uber Pool Express. Uber Pool links up riders that are going to roughly along the same route. It’s usually 10-20% cheaper than a regular Uber but can take a bit longer as you’re diverted to pick-up and drop-off other passengers. I’ve found, particularly in London, that it’s not a very popular service. 

In some US cities they’ve been trialling a new service called ‘Express Pool’ which makes riders walk a short distance to a more appropriate pick-up point which may be with other riders. A bit like a bus stop?


Gett is a company extremely similar to Uber but it’s almost exclusively black cabs. One of their newer services is called ‘Gett Together’. It’s a service I’ve actually been using for a couple of months and it’s brilliant. During the morning and evening commute times Gett has black cabs operating fixed routes where people get picked up and dropped off anywhere along them for a fixed fare of £3. At the moment they have three routes running in London which go one way during the morning commute and in the reverse direction in the evenings. These routes typically link up the outer boroughs with Central London and the main transport hubs such as Waterloo, London Bridge and Clapham Junction.

I’ve used this service quite a bit as it runs directly past my flat and within a five minute walk of the office. It’s a brilliant service. The only minor annoyance is that London’s Black Cabs are so unbelievably uncomfortable. It’s also actually faster to cycle this route for me which I tend to do when the weather’s a bit nicer. I used Gett Together a lot over the winter and when it was snowing.


Now this is an interesting one as it’s an offering directly from a major vehicle manufacturer - Ford. Ford actually acquired the early stage start-up in September 2016 just two years after it was founded. It’s quite new to London and operates four short routes which work in a similar way to Gett except that they only pick-up and drop-off at actual bus stops. It costs £2.40 for each journey or you can buy a weekly or monthly pass which could bring the cost down to £1.60 per journey. They’re also able to use the bus lanes in London which massively helps with avoiding congestion. The only issue I see with Chariot in a city like London is that public transport is really quite good so I hope they can make good use of data to fill in the public transport gaps.

One of their routes goes right past my flat but doesn’t go anywhere useful for me so I’m to use it. I see them driving past constantly and interestingly always look empty. In fact I don’t think I’ve ever seen one pickup or drop-off a passenger yet.

To get a real sense of the potential of Chariot it’s well worth taking a look at their San Fransisco Bay Area routes. One of the most interesting offerings is for Private routes which are put on by companies for their staff and visitors. In SF there’s some 55 private routes from companies like Amazon, GoPro, and Packard. Making it as easy as possible for employees to get to work without driving is really important in a modern city and putting on a train station to work private bus service is a great way of doing this. A good example of this is the Boston Scientific ‘Last Mile’ route which runs from their office and stops at all the major train stations.


I’m quite excited to see how Chariot develops.


This is another offering from a vehicle manufacturer, this time Mercedes Benz Vans. They’ve partnered with a company called Via which offers a mobility platform which essentially does the same thing as Uber Pool - it puts together riders who are going in the same direction. They direct riders to street corners which ViaVan calls ‘Virtual Bus Stops’ to avoid lengthy detours to pickup and drop-off passengers. The service started in London in early April and it’s first city was Amsterdam a short while before in March. It’s soon to start in Berlin. It’s not clear what the pricing is like for ViaVan but they have an introductory £3 per ride anywhere in Zone 1 and I’m guessing it’ll be quite competitive with Uber.

I think the nice thing ViaVan has to offer above the likes of Uber Pool is that they’re using nice Mercedes Benz people carriers which are far more comfortable than the old Prius that you’re likely to get with Uber.


Citymapper did something quite interesting. About a year ago the route finding company (their app is brilliant by the way) spotted a gap in London’s night bus route. They were able to see this as they have lots of data on where people are trying to get from and to and what transport options are available to them. The gap they spotted led them to trial a quite conventional bus route that ran from A to B and stopped at normal bus stops to pickup and drop-off passengers. It of course added a bit of technology to help them run more efficiently but overall it was just a normal bus. It turns out they found it quite hard to do anything innovative with a traditional bus service. They wrote a fantastic blog post about their difficulties which seem to mostly stem from outdated regulations. They eventually stopped running this service and developed something they’ve called ‘Smart Ride’.

Smart Ride seems quite similar to the other services I’ve written about here in that it groups riders going in the same direction and it (sort of) operates along routes dropping off and picking up passengers anywhere along it. The difference I can see though is that they operate a network of routes so you can get picked up and dropped off anywhere along one of the lines.

Citymapper Smart Ride Network

Citymapper Smart Ride Network

Citymapper say that this network can be responsive to differing demand levels, congestions and special events. They’re aiming this at somewhere between a taxi and a bus and using nice 6 seater people carriers (Mercedes Benz V-Class I believe). Rides are currently priced at £3.

I’m yet to use this service but it looks quite promising.


So that’s a super quick overview of some of the really interesting and promising new mobility services running in London that are (sort of) reinventing the bus route. I think the future of these types of services is very bright. Certainly having used Gett Together quite a bit I can say that they’re always quite busy and loved by both riders and drivers it seems. 

My 3 Best Subscriptions

Businesses of all shapes and sizes have fully embraced the subscription model over the last ten years with a huge swathe of new companies starting up under the subscription business model. I count myself having around 10 subscriptions (with a relatively loose definition), but here’s my top three.

1. The Economist

This is a new subscription for me. I’ve been subscribed to The Economist for only about a month but already I’m extremely impressed with the quality of content. I’ve always followed them online but the limitations of the paywall were always quite annoying so I decided to subscribe.

An Economist subscription gets you the print edition delivered every Friday and of course access to all the online content plus the audio edition and something I find very useful, The Economist Espresso. This is a daily rundown of the most important stories delivered on a separate app - great for a quick read on the morning walk to work.

The full subscription (Print + Digital) costs an initial £12 for 12 weeks and then renews at £53 per quarter which over a year works out at just over £3/week. Alternatively they do yearly subscriptions which get cheaper the more years you subscribe.

All the details are here:

2. Pact Coffee

The staple of every morning routine, a good cup of coffee. Pact offer a range of really flexible coffee subscriptions depending on frequency, budget and type of brewing you do. The thing I like about Pact is that all their coffee is ethically sourced directly from the farmers meaning they pay much higher rates to the farmers than fair-trade sourced coffee. They also deliver in recyclable packages and their pods are also 100% recyclable. In 2016 they released a transparency report which details all of this and more.

So, with Pact you start off by selecting your package type; Filter, Pods, or Espresso machine, then decaf or ordinary, then the size of the grind which all depends on the method. Then you get to choose your budget. Here they offer three options; House, Select and Micro Lot (see the screenshot below). Finally, choose your frequency, and you’re done. The flexibility and choice is huge.

Pact Coffee Options

Each time you get a different coffee delivered to your door with a little sheet explaining where it’s from and the sort of taste to expect - I’ve not had a bad one yet. Of course you can also adjust your subscription at any time and if you run out mid way through you can get your order sent out straight away.

Personally, I have two subscriptions. One is a fine ground for my Aeropress which is great for just one cup at a time, and another is a coarse ground for my Cafetiere - perfect for a few cups.

All the details on their website, and using the code 'JAMES-98790A' gets us both £5 off. :)

3. Charged

Charged is another news subscription but is much more curated than a subscription to a large news site such as The Economist. Charged is all about tech news and is run by a great writer called Owen Williams (you should follow him on Twitter as a minimum). 

With Charged you get a daily briefing (here’s an example) and access to a community (via a forum and Slack channel) which is a great place for discussions. You get all this without any adverts too which is nice. In addition to the paid-for briefings and community access Owen also has a free weekly newsletter and a (sort of) regular Podcast.

The subscription is just 8 EUR per month or 80 EUR for a year.

All the details are on the website and I think you can use the code ‘bestfriends’ to get 25% off for three months (that code is not affiliated to me at all)