Buying a New Car … Er, Computer

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It might just be tech jobs that define the automotive industry going forward. In fact, in many cases, they already do.

For the last few weeks, my wife, Barbara, has been focused on buying a new car. She knew the type of car she wanted – a mid-sized SUV with four-wheel drive – and the features she wanted. She had read the newspaper critiques and the Consumer Reports analyses and had limited her search to a number of models. She then went to look at each of the models on her list and ruled more of them out based on how she liked the feel of them. Finally, she enlisted my help to analyze the remaining cars and began to set up test drives.

What I immediately noticed is that things have changed since we bought our last car. All of the factors that I had last used to evaluate new cars, such as miles per gallon, pickup, four-wheel-drive, steering, brakes, overall handling, etc. – were all a bit of a wash. What really differentiated the cars were the amenities, most of which were electronic, such as the GPS navigation, keyless start, remote start, electronic display, satellite radio, Bluetooth and USB connections, backup cameras, lane sensors and more. When we purchased our last new car in 2005, most of these features did not exist and the few that did, such as GPS and satellite radio, were third-party add-ons that had to be installed separately by their respective vendors. (Smart keys are becoming standard in cars, but are they really better than classic keys? Find out in Does a Car Really Need a 'Smart Key'?)

Technology and the Automotive Industry

Much has been written about the automation of the automotive manufacturing process and the resulting loss of jobs. That's a reality of some of the technological changes we've seen over the past couple of decades. But there's another side to the coin too: The scientists, engineers and third-party firms that have developed all the high-tech add-ons that have become a major part of the automotive industry. Interestingly, it might just be tech jobs that define the automotive industry going forward. In fact, in many cases, they already do.

These jobs are not limited to the development of the amenities described above. Remember Google's announcement of the "driverless car"? It originally seemed like interesting science fiction, but it didn't take long before it had been approved for highway use in California, with pending approvals in other states. Now it's being tested in several states, with a driverless shuttle operating in Las Vegas. In other words, this high-tech car is the real deal, and it definitely has the power to shake things up – not just in the industry, but in terms of the types of products that people might demand if it becomes a more dominant form of transportation.

As Nick Bilton points out in a piece that appeared in the New York Times, driverless cars will do much more than take the partial place of a driver on a commute.

"Imagine a city where you don’t drive in loops looking for a parking spot because your car drops you off and scoots off to some location to wait, sort of like taxi holding pens at airports," Bilton writes. "Or maybe it is picked up by a robotic minder and carted off with other vehicles, like a row of shopping carts. Inner-city parking lots could become parks. Traffic lights could be less common because hidden sensors in cars and streets coordinate traffic. And, yes, parking tickets could become a rarity since cars would be smart enough to know where they are not supposed to be." (TO learn more about the future of cities, check out How Big Data is Helping Build Smart Cities.)


Heady stuff! And it's not limited to Google's or Bilton's imagination; Audi, Toyota and Mercedes-Benz are all in the planning for their own versions of driverless cars, each of which will require its own set of high-tech amenities. After all, satellite TV and DVD players would no longer be a distraction to the driver.

Problems and Possibilities

If cars go driverless, it's tech that's likely to be the winner. It'll provide the sensors, the computing power and even the entertainment systems and other gadgets these cars are more likely to have. So, while the change will certainly shake up the automotive industry, there are likely to be many new jobs involved. They'll just be different kinds of jobs.

Of course, that doesn't mean the transition will be smooth or easy. As in the early days of personal computer development, opportunities and companies will come and then go based on the vagaries of competition.

For example, in the early days of the MS-DOS operating system for what was then called "IBM-and-compatible" personal computers, there were many problems. But check out how the solutions to these problems also created new opportunity:

  • When hard disks first appeared for these computers, the DOS method of storing files, while efficient in space management, caused file fragmentation, eventually impacting the speed of the computer. Peter Norton saw this problem early, wrote a utility program to "defrag" the hard disk and, based on its rapid success, started his own company, developing programs called the Norton Utilities.
  • If a user mistakenly deleted a file, there was no way to get it back. Paul Mace analyzed how the operating system "deleted files" and found that if the problem was recognized early enough, the file allocation table could be modified to put the file back in play. Mace then wrote and successfully marketed Mace Utilities to give users the ability to restore deleted files.
  • Microsoft DOS could only have one program in memory at a time. While this was generally not a problem in the early days of personal computing, it meant that if a user maintained an electronic telephone book or a to-do list, he or she would have to interrupt a lengthy word processing or spreadsheet session by saving the files, ending the program, starting the telephone book or tasks program, looking up the needed information, ending that program, and then starting the spreadsheet or word processing program again. These involved processes gave users good reason to revert to paper files for contacts and tasks. Philippe Kahn’s Borland firm developed a terminate-and-stay-resident (TSR) program, Sidekick, which allowed users to interrupt the main program with a few keystrokes, perform those utility functions, and return to the main program.

These innovative programs did very well until, in subsequent releases of DOS, it incorporated defragmentation and undelete functions. When Windows was finally introduced, it put the ability to have multiple programs in memory and flip back-and-forth between them. The game was over for the above programs.

The point here is that while innovation definitely destroys some jobs, it also creates many others. That's the side of the equation we don't hear about as much, often because those new jobs don't appear all at once, but develop over time as companies and entrepreneurs emerge to address all the problems a new technology always presents for users.

The More Things Change …

As mentioned earlier, we bought third-party devices for GPS navigation and satellite radio for our 2005 Forester. We chose a GPS navigation device and program from Magellan over competing products from Garmin and Tom-Tom, and chose XM over Sirius radio. We also paid retail prices for these services. With today's integrated packages (which are much more appealing to a purchaser), Subaru or General Motors or Ford will choose the technology vendor, cutting a large volume discount (or manufacture it itself) and install it in all its cars. Such a process will lead to a decrease of jobs at the losing providers and possibly even at the winning vendor.

All in all, the replacement of humans by robots in the manufacturing process, the constant addition of technology to the control of driving and maintenance, and the aforementioned addition of comfort and entertainment features in the cockpit of the vehicle all point to employment opportunities for the technically gifted.

Of course, we also have to be prepared to profit. We have a dramatically changing auto industry with opportunities for those not just with technical skills, but the skill to adapt. And while the auto industry – at least as we know it – might not make it, we'll all have to get around somehow. After all, even teleportation would require design, manufacturing, maintenance and parts, not to mention a whole lot of other do-dads and gadgets we haven't even thought of yet.


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John F. McMullen

John F. McMullen lives with his wife, Barbara, in Jefferson Valley, New York, in a converted barn full of pets (dog, cats, and turtles) and books. He has been involved in technology for more than 40 years and has written more than 1,500 articles, columns and reviews about it for major publications. He is a professor at Purchase College and has previously taught at Monroe College, Marist College and the New School for Social Research. MucMullen has a wealth of experience in both technology and in writing for publication. He has worked as a programmer, analyst, manager and director of…