Last week I was in the Indian capital and loaned a Vitara Brezza from friends in Maruti. Now as an automotive writer, I have been living under the proverbial rock for the last two years. My daily ride has been a Trek and the family car is a 2005 Skoda that I bought at a flea market.
Yup, I have been the runt of the late 90s automotive writer litter.
This was the first time I was looking at the insides of the Vitara Brezza and it did come across as a revelation. I don’t like to make comments on the quality of plastics unless I am drinking from them so I will leave that to the more accomplished testers but what did pleasantly surprise me was the amount of equipment the cheeky little crossover packed. There was the keyless start/stop button, cruise control, rain sensing wipers, auto headlamps, and every sort of safety equipment that I would expect from a car two segments above.
I can talk a lot about the touch-screen infotainment system as it came loaded with Apple CarPlay which makes life simpler and (in the simplest terms) replicates a major chunk of your iPhone on the dash’s touchscreen. There is also a rear-facing camera. Yup, not sensors, not alarms, it’s an effing camera that makes parking a breeze.
However, if I go any further, this may start looking like a late-by-many-months review of the Vitara Brezza, which this is not.
What the Brezza got me thinking about is technology percolation, specifically the speed of it. More specifically, how accelerated this speed has become. The speed of a tech’s travel from an SAE Paper to a Mercedes feature to a Suzuki specs list has become quite fast.
Automotive technology — most of the fancy one at least — often starts at the top of the price pyramid. It then makes its way down. This is called percolation. In simpler terms, a Mercedes S-Class packs in technology today that may appear in a C-Class tomorrow, in a VW Polo day after and in a Suzuki Alto the week next.
Luxury carmakers equip their high-end models with the latest in safety, infotainment and navigation tech. This is achieved by working closely with technology leader suppliers often on a time-bound exclusivity basis.
The buyers for these cars are the most demanding when it comes to features and pay a heavy premium in price for the amalgamation of such features. Often new infotainment & telematic systems are first introduced on a new Audi / BMW / Mercedes as features distinguish luxury cars from premium cars, the premium from the semi-premium, and the semi-premium from the mere mortals.
The demand for new technology from suppliers is often the key differentiator between a luxury and a mass-market brand. In one of my previous roles, I worked as a partner at SupplierBusiness (now a part of IHS Markit), a research firm studying automotive OEM-supplier relationships. Every year we conducted a much-awaited survey of automotive suppliers where one of the key questions was - which brand is the most demanding in terms of technology from suppliers?
This is pretty much what you would see in the market as well if you did a features comparison between mid-size family sedans in the global market. The Audi-BMW-Merc trio often leads in features while some of the top-end Toyota & Hyundai models pack in some surprisingly nifty features as well.
As time passes, premium brands move to even newer technology and the exclusivity agreements are relaxed. The suppliers need to make (more) money while the semi-premium and mere mortal car brands want to use the technology as well. The pricing of the tech is also rationalised as a much larger volume is now available. The result is a widespread introduction of the tech. The percolation is now in advanced stages.
Shortening Percolation Times
Traditionally such percolation took a long time.
Not any more. The speed has increased and the time of percolation has come down to a few years from the usual decade plus it used to take.
Electric seats took a long time to percolate down & across the automotive industry. The first of them were introduced way back in the 1940s. The Suzuki Alto is yet to get them. Similar is the case with Power Windows. The first fitments were in the 1940s. Again the Suzuki Alto…
Now admittedly I took some creative liberties with the analysis above. The Alto doesn’t integrate these systems not because they are not available but because they are just too expensive to be put in a low-end mass-market car.
A better example is steering mounted controls for infotainment systems. They first started appearing in the mid 1990s in luxury cars. Today the Maruti Celerio has a much better example of them. The time of percolation I calculate is roughly 20 years or four car generations.
Or let’s look at Autonomous Cruise Control (also called Active / Adaptive Cruise Control or Radar Assisted Cruise Control) with a full-speed range. In simple terms, the system not only maintains the car’s speed but also the distance from other cars on the motorway using radar or laser guidance. A full-speed range means the system can also bring the car to a complete halt like in a panic braking situation. The first of these systems appeared in the US market in 2005 with the Acura RL and the Merc S-Class. In the next three years, Lexus, BMW & Audi had also introduced the system. Come 2014, Hyundai used the system (more advanced as it also had a lane keeping assist) in its Genesis sedan and also broke the Internet with a viral video. Today, nearly every carmaker is offering the system in their high-end cars. The total time of percolation for the tech has been 9-12 years or nearly two generation of cars.
A similar example is the Automatic Parking System. In this, the vehicle is equipped with the capability to do an autonomous parallel parking. The basic system first appeared in a Toyota Prius payback in 2003. Wider application started with Lexus in another three years time. The rest of the luxury car boutique caught up by 2010 and the system being offered as an option on multiple BMW, Lincoln, Audi and Mercedes models. Now I notice the same system as a selling point for the Kia Sorento. This puts the percolation time at 8-11 years.
However, these are really top-end systems and involve a lot of tech wizardry that puts them beyond the pay-grade of a mass market car model. Percolation is hindered as a result. However, there are features that percolate faster as they are relatively cheap and the technology adds an essential feature to the car.
Facilitating Faster Percolation
The Apple CarPlay is another beast altogether. Mobile phone industry is much more nimble than the automotive industry and it’s relatively easy to do so. At the very basic level, it is porting a software to a touchscreen. Costs drop rapidly as volume multiplies and percolation is fast. In a way, it’s a standard and not a tech. The system first appeared in a Hyundai Sonata in early 2015. Within two years, it is available across the automotive spectrum, including the Vitara Brezza. The speed of percolation here is just a few months.
Using Percolation to Predict the Future
It is now easy to look at the brochure of a BMW 7 Series or a Mercedes S-Class and guess what my future mass market hatchback would carry. One thing that stands out is Night Vision. This is a safety tech and uses a night vision device to warn you about people and animals in the way. I see NVDs becoming drastically cheaper as we go on and their integration would become almost mandatory in the next five years. More and more carmakers would be tempted to offer the same as it’s a safety feature that also adds a lot of oomph value to the car. Yes every driver wants to feel like a tank commander.
A faster percolation happened with LED lamps. The first LED daytime running lamps started appearing in cars in 2006 with the Audi R8. However, it took only 5-6 years for even the basic Hyundais to start sporting similar lamps. Today scooters in the Indian market come with such lamps. The percolation time in this case has been only 4-7 years.
Now Audi has started offering the new A6 with LED headlamps. I count another 3 years when the top-range Hyundais would start featuring the same and 5 years when the basic hatchbacks would shift to LEDs. So the 2022 Suzuki Swift would come with LED headlamps.
There, that was easy to predict!
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