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Digital already disrupting global auto industry

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The global automotive industry and many related facets of the business are changing rapidly as the digital revolution causes major disruption. This makes it essential for motor businesses to adapt or die.

This message came through loud and clear at the biennial CAR Conference held at the Kyalami Grand Prix circuit as part of the SA Festival of Motoring last weekend, where the overall conference theme was “Consumer Trends and Disruption: How SA automakers can drive the change required to adapt to a new future.”

The arrival of self-driving autonomous cars sooner rather than later was also a topic for many of the speakers.

Martyn Briggs, an industry principal of Frost and Sullivan in the United Kingdom and one of the keynote speakers, presented on the topic “Megatrends and the future of mobility”, an area of the industry where he is an expert. His address was an ideal scene-setter for the intriguing series of presentations that followed.

Much of what Briggs told the delegates was admittedly about future developments but he also had plenty of facts and figures about what was happening right now in terms of ride sharing, car sharing and ride hailing apps as well as the increasing use of apps to assist in finding a parking space in congested cities.

Briggs went on to explain how digital dealerships using small showrooms in shopping malls, with only one or two cars on display and doing business online, were proving increasingly successful in the UK. He predicted that this trend is expected to spread worldwide.

Briggs added that most people now know exactly which car they want to buy by the time they entered the relevant dealership and on average only visited the dealer only twice when doing the deal to buy a new car.

Briggs said that car design is another aspect of the automotive world that is being influenced by the changing digital landscape and the manner in which more and more vehicles are being used these days. This is resulting in the so-called trifecta design proposition whereby traditional body styles like hatches, sedans, MPVs and SUVs are being crossed and morphed to make hybrid designs. Examples here are the Suzuki SX4 and Tesla Model X.

Shayne Mann, the managing director of Mann Made, a brand experience company, summed up the rapidly changing automotive landscape when he said: “Technology is disrupting every industry worldwide and motor retail is not going to be spared. Disruption is coming – from online retail to driverless cars – and those who don’t learn to innovate now will find themselves left behind.”

Mann, who has already been involved in developing virtual automotive showrooms for local dealer groups, offered sound advice and examples of how dealers can catch the wave and start innovating faster.

He says that It’s “time to reboot!”; it is not necessary to throw away the expertise and physical footprint offered by traditional dealerships, but rather to re-imagine their role in an uncertain (but exciting) future.

Chris de Kock, the managing director of WesBank, the country’s leading vehicle finance house and the main sponsor of the SA Festival of Motoring, continued in the same vein about the need for change. He said that the current linear process of buying a car – search, sell, finance, buy – had to change as it was inefficient, did not offer a personalised experience and was expensive for the customer.

De Kock said WesBank was mulling the various disruptive technologies that will deliver the desired experience to the customer. Options include Platform Business Systems, Blockchain, Cloud Computing and the Internet of Things.

The need for change was reinforced by Dave Duarte, the founder of Treeshake, a consultancy dedicated to growing digital marketing capability, who also served as the master of ceremonies at the conference.

He set the scene by explaining that the growth towards a digital world in South Africa was driven by the fact that the number of active website users in the country, which now numbered 18-million people, was already double the number of cars on South African roads.

Other thought-provoking statistics that  were put on the table by Duarte were that 45.9% of 1 000 people surveyed in SA would be willing to buy a car online and that  only 17 people out of more than 4 000  interviewed in another survey said they were satisfied  with the current car buying process; all the others wanted change.

Duarte warned dealers that quick responses were necessary when dealing with potential buyers online. “They are not prepared to wait long for feedback to queries.”

The founder of Treeshake also explained that buyers of new vehicles were using general websites such as Gumtree when buying a new vehicle and not only using these sites for buying used vehicles. This trend has resulted in many dealers now using Gumtree and similar online websites to advertise both new and used models.

Delegates to this well-attended conference, which enjoyed backing from Gumtree, Tracker and Sasol, were certainly not left in any doubt that the digital world was the way to go if they still wanted to be in business in the future.

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Project Bloodhound saved

The British project to break the world landspeed record at a site in the Northern Cape has been saved by a new backer, after it went into bankruptcy proceedings in October.

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Two weeks ago,  and two months after entering voluntary administration, the Bloodhound Programme Limited announced it was shutting down. This week it announced that its assets, including the Bloodhound Supersonic Car (SSC), had been acquired by an enthusiastic – and wealthy – supporter.

“We are absolutely delighted that on Monday 17th December, the business and assets were bought, allowing the Project to continue,” the team said in a statement.

“The acquisition was made by Yorkshire-based entrepreneur Ian Warhurst. Ian is a mechanical engineer by training, with a strong background in managing a highly successful business in the automotive engineering sector, so he will bring a lot of expertise to the Project.”

Warhurst and his family, says the team, have been enthusiastic Bloodhound supporters for many years, and this inspired his new involvement with the Project.

“I am delighted to have been able to safeguard the business and assets preventing the project breakup,” he said. “I know how important it is to inspire young people about science, technology, engineering and maths, and I want to ensure Bloodhound can continue doing that into the future.

“It’s clear how much this unique British project means to people and I have been overwhelmed by the messages of thanks I have received in the last few days.”

The record attempt was due to be made late next year at Hakskeen Pan in the Kalahari Desert, where retired pilot Andy Green planned to beat the 1228km/h land-speed record he set in the United States in 1997. The target is for Bloodhound to become the first car to reach 1000mph (1610km/h). A track 19km long and 500 metres wide has been prepared, with members of the local community hired to clear 16 000 tons of rock and stone to smooth the surface.

The team said in its announcement this week: “Although it has been a frustrating few months for Bloodhound, we are thrilled that Ian has saved Bloodhound SSC from closure for the country and the many supporters around the world who have been inspired by the Project. We now have a lot of planning to do for 2019 and beyond.”

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Motor Racing meets Machine Learning

The futuristic car technology of tomorrow is being built today in both racing cars and
toys, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK

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The car of tomorrow, most of us imagine, is being built by the great automobile manufacturers of the world. More and more, however, we are seeing information technology companies joining the race to power the autonomous vehicle future.

Last year, chip-maker Intel paid $15.3-billion to acquire Israeli company Mobileye, a leader in computer vision for autonomous driving technology. Google’s autonomous taxi division, Waymo, has been valued at $45-billion.

Now there’s a new name to add to the roster of technology giants driving the future.

DeepRacer on the inside

Amazon Web Services, the world’s biggest cloud computing service and a subsidiary of Amazon.com,  last month unveiled a scale model autonomous racing car for developers to build new artificial intelligence applications. Almost in the same breath, at its annual re:Invent conference in Las Vegas, it showcased the work being done with machine learning in Formula 1 racing.

AWS DeepRacer is a 1/18th scale fully autonomous race car, designed to incorporate the features and behaviour of a full-sized vehicle. It boasts all-wheel drive, monster truck tires, an HD video camera, and on-board computing power. In short, everything a kid would want of a self-driving toy car.

But then, it also adds everything a developer would need to make the car autonomous in ways that, for now, can only be imagined. It uses a new form of machine learning (ML), the technology that allows computer systems to improve their functions progressively as they receive feedback from their activities. ML is at the heart of artificial intelligence (AI), and will be core to autonomous, self-driving vehicles.

AWS has taken ML a step further, with an approach called reinforcement learning. This allows for quicker development of ML models and applications, and DeepRacer is designed to allow developers to experiment with and hone their skill in this area. It is built on top of another AWS platform, called Amazon SageMaker, which enables developers and data scientists to build, train, and deploy machine learning quickly and easily.

Along with DeepRacer, AWS also announced the DeepRacer League, the world’s first global autonomous racing league, open to anyone who orders the scale model from AWS.

DeepRacer on the outside

As if to prove that DeepRacer is not just a quirky entry into the world of motor racing, AWS also showcased the work it is doing with the Formula One Group. Ross Brawn, Formula 1’s managing director of Motor Sports, joined AWS CEO Andy Jassy during the keynote address at the re:Invent conference, to demonstrate how motor racing meets machine learning.

“More than a million data points a second are transmitted between car and team during a Formula 1 race,” he said. “From this data, we can make predictions about what we expect to happen in a wheel-to-wheel situation, overtaking advantage, and pit stop advantage. ML can help us apply a proper analysis of a situation, and also bring it to fans.

“Formula 1 is a complete team contest. If you look at a video of tyre-changing in a pit stop – it takes 1.6 seconds to change four wheels and tyres – blink and you will miss it. Imagine the training that goes into it? It’s also a contest of innovative minds.”

AWS CEO Andy Jassy unveils DeepRacer

Formula 1 racing has more than 500 million global fans and generated $1.8 billion in revenue in 2017. As a result, there are massive demands on performance, analysis and information. 

During a race, up to 120 sensors on each car generate up to 3GB of data and 1 500 data points – every second. It is impossible to analyse this data on the fly without an ML platform like Amazon SageMaker. It has a further advantage: the data scientists are able to incorporate 65 years of historical race data to compare performance, make predictions, and provide insights into the teams’ and drivers’ split-second decisions and strategies.

This means Formula 1 can pinpoint how a driver is performing and whether or not drivers have pushed themselves over the limit.

“By leveraging Amazon SageMaker and AWS’s machine-learning services, we are able to deliver these powerful insights and predictions to fans in real time,” said Pete Samara, director of innovation and digital technology at Formula 1.

  • Arthur Goldstuck is founder of World Wide Worx and editor-in-chief of Gadget.co.za. Follow him on Twitter on @art2gee and on YouTube

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