Mini sold some 66,000 vehicles in the United States last year, and despite being on American soil (in its current incarnation, anyway) for just 13 years, this market has quickly become its biggest. Those drawn to the brand are likely intrigued by, if not outright enamored of, its quirkiness. Mini likes to say that the company is "Not Normal," and it only takes a glance inside its cartoonish Countryman to see what that means.
During a recent kickoff event to celebrate the impending launch of its Paceman model, we sought to get beneath the sheet metal and gear ratios, instead looking at the kinds of decisions that impact the marriage of automobiles and technology. Turns out, Johnly Velasquez and Chris Potgieter -- two gentlemen in charge of determining what technology ends up in Mini products -- were more than happy to discuss those nuances. In particular, we discussed how those details relate to the future of its Connected platform, the role that infotainment plays in its entire range of motorcars and the opportunities that lie ahead for Mini to embrace alternative power.
Could Mini's prioritization of technology as a pillar of automotive manufacturing influence the entire industry? That's exactly what we'll explore just beyond the break.
It's all Connected
First and foremost, we inquired about the automaker's plans for technologies within the vehicle -- specifically, about its upcoming goals for Connected, the infotainment industry as a whole and the role that mobile data will play in enhancing Mini vehicles going forward. While the vast majority of Mini's specific plans were being kept under wraps, they did open our eyes a bit as to how things truly play out behind the scenes.
Yelp is on the (very) short list for inclusion in Mini Connected.
To start, we confirmed that Yelp is on the (very) short list for inclusion in Mini Connected. For those unaware, Connected is an iPhone app that enables Mini vehicles to do more than they otherwise could from an infotainment standpoint. (As for other platforms, Velasquez admitted that Android was high on the list for a Connected build of its own, while Windows Phone and BlackBerry 10 were simply on Mini's radar; naturally, market share drives developer focus.) While a precious few programs are loaded onto the company's optional satellite navigation system -- things like Bluetooth connectivity, routing, an address book and glanceable statistics about the vehicle itself -- Connected enables it to interface with a smartphone in order to do even more. In a way, the system is only limited by whatever programs Mini decides to port to Connected.
Velasquez confessed that there's a near-equal amount of push versus pull when it comes to fielding app inclusion requests. "There are a number of companies begging us to include their apps on Connected, but being on the Product team, I'm always looking at programs already on the market that would make sense to integrate into a vehicle," he said. While he stopped short of confessing the entire list of probables, he did acknowledge that Yelp is already in testing. Not surprisingly, Mini recognizes that points of interest only provide so much value; it's the real-time reviews and social connections to venues, eateries and attractions that make the information truly useful to motorists. He wouldn't say for sure how long Mini users would have to wait for the app to be updated with Yelp integration, but we gathered the quality assurance testing took many times longer than the actual coding.
When we asked what factors are considered before a particular program is admitted into the Connected universe, we received a somewhat surprising reply from Velasquez. In many ways, it starts with what Mini customers are jonesing for. In other words, if you're clamoring for a particular program to join the fray, you'd be wise to start making a bit of (sensible) noise at your local dealer. (Seriously, they're tasked with listening!) To Mini's credit, it's able to hear its customers out better than some other automakers -- considering the (relatively) low volume it moves to (comparatively) passionate users, there's less noise to filter. In fact, Velasquez credits a particularly high amount of feedback as the driving reason that all new Minis now have Bluetooth as a standard feature. Jaded technophiles may scoff and wonder why it took so long, but that brings us to our next topic of conversation.
Vision versus reality
Velasquez affirmed that no automobile sold in the United States is regulated specifically for infotainment inclusions. As of now, it's fully on the automaker to keep itself in check, and to not install a system in a car that would involve massive distractions (and in turn, attract a massive quantity of lawsuits). As he put it, Mini (and all other car companies) are attempting to walk a fine internal line that'll prevent such an official system of checks and balances from becoming necessary. After all, no one wants one more hoop to jump through before a car can be shipped to US soil. Well, no one that builds cars for a living, anyway.
Product teams can't just express unbridled passion for a given technology and have it included -- as with everything else, a business case has to be made.
The line between whiz-bang functionality and an unnecessary distraction couldn't possibly be blurrier, and for technology enthusiasts, we're apt to see that line skewed a bit to the liberal side. It's hard to deny that flashing LCDs, joysticks, toggles and smartphone interactivity add some level of distraction, but in the effort to push the envelope, we're obviously fans of figuring out safer ways to install additional functionality -- even if it asks for a bit more responsibility from the driver. Velasquez and Potgieter seemed to share our views, fighting the good fight inside of a company that operates in an obsessively regulated space. Despite its best attempts to not be normal, there's no question that Mini faces some of the same realities as its more normal competitors.
We've often wondered why the automobile industry seemed to lag behind nearly every other when it came to technology adoption. The challenge to bend consumer tech into a safe package suitable for a driver to operate is one thing, but in fact, it goes much deeper than keeping someone's eyes fixated on the road ahead. Particularly at an automaker that can't always count on making its ends meet on volume, bean counters and paranoid lawyers most definitely have a say in what technology is admitted onto the playing field. Granted, both are just doing their respective jobs, but those two hurdles are unquestionably the largest standing in the way of infotainment nirvana.
Velasquez admitted that product teams can't just express unbridled passion for a given technology and have it included -- as with everything else, a business case has to be made. Unfortunately, it's fairly difficult to prove that an automobile isn't going to be taken seriously in 2013 without an inbuilt USB port. As Velasquez puts it, "Things like that are hard to quantify." Given that the primary objective of a new car is to transport one from Point A to Point B, many consumers don't stop to dream up the technology they'd enjoy while getting there‚ until a rival automaker introduces something first, and immediately puts pressure on the rest of the lot to follow suit in meeting newfound expectations.
An alternative mindset
During a Q&A session at the Paceman launch, one member of the media inquired about Mini's intentions to produce vehicles in America that used something other than conventional gasoline. Biodiesel, electric, hybrid, fuel cells -- anything. The company confessed that all of those options were "within consideration for the next generation" of Mini vehicles, but when we dug a little deeper, we found the truth was more complicated.
A few years back, an electric Mini program put a smattering of Mini E vehicles into the hands of testers. In fact, one showed up at a New York-based Engadget Reader Meetup in August 2011. In reality, it was parent company BMW that would collect and analyze most of that data, using it to better shape the impending i3 and i8. Speaking candidly, Velasquez stated that in this particular case, Mini was a victim of its own success. We were shown internal company data that placed "fuel economy" as the top reason Mini Hardtop buyers chose that as their next vehicle, followed closely by exterior design and performance. (Mini Hardtop vehicles average around 37 miles per gallon when looking at combined city  and highway  figures.)
In other words, Mini automobiles already enjoy world-class mileage, and Velasquez confessed its electric tests didn't produce overwhelming evidence that an EV Mini would provide a substantial enough improvement to warrant its existence. As it stands, Mini's automobiles are already priced at a premium -- toss in an electrified drivetrain, and you're apt to push a cute commuter into unrealistically expensive territory. Of course, perceptions could change if fuel prices continue to rise, but that's the general feeling today.
As with any company, Mini too has limited resources to work with, and can only direct focus to so many areas. But in the effort of keeping your hopes up, its executive team did confirm that Mini was looking at the possibility of expanding its range of seven cars to 10. Whether or not those two or three newcomers will be powered by something other than petrol, however, remains to be seen.
A different kind of speed limit
Throughout our visit, one particular excuse continued to be repeated. Regardless of whether it was a question of adding a dual-clutch system mid-lifecycle, or whether or not LCD prices had finally sunk enough to have one in even the base Mini Hardtop, the team seemed hell-bent on insisting that no major changes would come prior to the "next generation" of cars. You see, even a company that breaks the norm by installing speedometers the size of Shaq's face is stuck on an antiquated lifecycle model that no longer makes sense. In general, cars are planned to last -- with only basic year-over-year updates -- for seven full years. According to Mini, that's about how long it took to profit from the research and development that went into building and delivering a platform. But in today's world, isn't seven years equivalent to an eternity? No consumer electronics company is belching out wares with a seven-year plan, and it pains us to see most mainstream automakers sticking to the lines of convention.
It seems just a matter of time before all Mini vehicles (and more broadly, vehicles across the board) have some sort of in-dash LCD.
Take Tesla as a counterexample. In many ways, Tesla is a software and technology company that makes automobiles. It's the reason why a Tegra 3-infused Tesla sounds completely sensible, but a $100,000 BMW M5 with a navigation program superior to the free one on any Android phone sounds implausible. There's no question that car companies have woken up a bit in recent years -- iPod integration and Bluetooth support is nearly standard across the board, but only standouts like Audi and Tesla have bothered to truly push the infotainment envelope. The silver lining in all of this is that a savior may be on the way.
It seems just a matter of time before all Mini vehicles (and more broadly, vehicles across the board) have some sort of in-dash LCD. Around seven years ago -- or, a vehicle platform ago -- the only real option for adding in-car entertainment was an expensive one. It involved heaps of proprietary hardware and software, months of QA testing, incompatibilities across regions and languages, and MSRP bumps that most consumers found unconscionable. But today, there's something we often refer to as a "smartphone." Indeed, it may prove to be one of the best things to ever happen to the automobile industry.
None of the Mini officials on hand would go so far as to affirm the basic technology package being planned for the next iteration of its vehicles, but there was one point we could certainly agree on: it no longer has to rely solely on itself. In fact, the solution to unlocking the true potential of infotainment may end up looking a lot like this: a dumb terminal paired to an LCD in the dash, a built-in USB port, integrated Bluetooth and a small-but-passionate team of developers that work to safely port applications into driver-friendly wrappers. Suddenly, you've shifted a massive burden from the automaker onto the app development community at large.
Suddenly, you've shifted a massive burden from the automaker onto the app development community at large.
Today, it feels as if we're at the earliest of stages in witnessing this shift. Mini Connected is just one example of a smartphone (and crucially, its embedded 3G / 4G data capabilities) being the brains of the operation, while the automobile itself simply acts as the conduit for enjoyment. Everything save for the screen and the in-car control mechanisms are already provided in most of today's flagship phones: internet access, NFC, Bluetooth, multitasking capabilities, hundreds of thousands of applications and operating systems that are all too happy to interface with in-car GUIs.
It doesn't take a Ph.D. in aeronautical sciences to envision an extrapolation so potent that cars become the next battleground for premium apps. Developers have already proven themselves willing to adapt phone applications for use on tablets and refrigerators, and it's our sincere hope that proprietary systems are pushed as far away as humanly possible in order to allow that kind of innovation to completely change how we interact with the interiors of vehicles to come. We already buy laptops, phones, tablets and watches with the expectation that software will make each better with time. It's time for automakers to be held to the same standard -- in other words, it's time for a new normal.