35 years of automotive innovation

The Agrawal family cars over the years. The Pontiac Catalina was our family’s first car when we immigrated to the United States. The Mini Cooper is my current car. (These are images gleaned from Google search, not my actual cars.)

What will cars look like 30 years from now? That’s a question I’ve been talking to friends about recently.

One way to assess the future is to look back at the past. My memories go back to when my parents drove us 35 years ago.

Safety features: shoulder belts, airbags, antilock brakes, crumple zones, electronic traction control, reinforced door beams, LATCH anchors. A passenger side mirror was an option; these days it’s standard. Third brake light. Xenon headlights. Tire pressure monitoring system. Some cars have wipers for lights. (Relatively rare.) LED brake lights. Back up sensors and back up cameras. High end cars can have night vision, pedestrian protection. Many of these changes are because of regulations, but they started because of new product development. For example, airbags were in some cars before they became mandatory. Backup cameras aren’t required today, but they’re in a lot of vehicles. But in 2018, they will be required.

Convenience features. Power locks/windows, air conditioning have become standard on all but the cheapest cars. Remote to lock/unlock. Reading lights, vanity lights. Rear defogger. Mid-level cars with keyless entry, power mirrors, power seats, auto dimming rear view mirror, heated seats, push button start. Garage door opener. Rain sensor. Automatic climate control, dual-zone climate control. Memory seats/mirrors. Voice recognition. Carplay, Android Auto, High end cars add self-opening glove box (really!), heated steering wheel, seat coolers, a zillion seating controls, massaging seats, electronic air freshener (really!)

Automation. Only 4% of cars sold today in US are stick shift. (vs. 31% 30 years ago.) Auto stick, paddle shifters. Cruise control, intermittent wipers. Power steering, power brakes. High-end cars have adaptive cruise control, blind spot warning, lane departure warning systems, automatic lane changing, automatic braking, self parking.

Infotainment/telematics. Tape decks have gone away, CD players replaced them and on Teslas, there isn’t even a CD player. Nav systems available on mid-high end cars. Minivans for a while had DVD players built into roof for kids. Bluetooth. Not widely adopted, but available: satellite radio, OnStar. Some cars can be managed by an app.

Infotainment/telematics. Tape decks have gone away, CD players replaced them and on Teslas, there isn’t even a CD player. Nav systems available on mid-high end cars. Minivans for a while had DVD players built into roof for kids. Bluetooth. Not widely adopted, but available: satellite radio, OnStar. Some cars can be managed by an app.

Repairability. Cars have become more difficult for the weekend mechanic to repair. Some things are still easy, like oil changes and filter changes. But a lot of the car is controlled by complex electronics instead of mechanical parts.

Software and connectivity. Cars are increasingly run by software. This can create problems when cars are poorly designed; recent Jeeps could be remotely controlled because hackers went to the CAN-bus through the infotainment system. Software can be upgraded. Some Fords can be upgraded through the USB port. Teslas update wirelessly and the company can add significant new features. The industry has standardized on the OBD-II connector. That sounds like it’s not important — but it’s provided a pathway for innovation. For example, my car insurance is charged per mile and I can get speed information via a dongle that plugs into the OBD-II port. The dongle also provides diagnostic data that I can read on my insurance app.

Pollution. Our first car ran on leaded gasoline. Now, most cars run on unleaded gasoline. Unless they’re running on electric, which has zero-emissions. On gas-powered engines, CO2 emissions are a fraction of what they were 30 years ago. Fuel economy has nearly doubled from 13.1 MPG to 24.7 MPG. 

Design. New form factors like SUV and minivan. Station wagons rare. Color keyed bumpers. (I miss chrome!) Hood ornaments have disappeared in place of badges on the front of the car. Antenna design has become increasing sophisticated and the antennas have become less visible. Vinyl tops have gone away. (Thankfully!) Cars have become much more aerodynamic.

Etc. More/better diagnostics. Instead of simply dummy lights, many mid+ cars have engine computers. Digital speedometers instead of analog. (Some cars.) Outside temperature sensor. Vinyl to cloth seats. Bench seats in front replaced with bucket seats. Fold down seats with trunk access. Cigarette lighters are less common. Even on my ’95 Nissan Altima, the lighter element was missing. (A 12V power plug was there, but the lighter was an accessory.) With the decline of smoking, ashtrays have become less common. We see USB ports, auxiliary inputs and iPhone connecters.

And, of course, cup holders!

It’s important to note that this is based on the U.S. market. Despite globalization of the auto industry, there is significant variation from market-to-market. Manual transmissions are very common in Europe and Asia; they’re rare in the U.S. Emissions standards are different. There is also right drive vs. left drive.

So what does this tell us about the future? It says cars evolve slowly.

But I expect that the pace of innovation to speed up for a number of reasons:

  • Increasing competition from other car manufactures. The “big three” aren’t as dominant as they used to be. Chrysler is merely a brand. GM has shuttered Oldsmobile, Pontiac. Saturn was created and shuttered in that time frame.
  • Cars are now designed using software, making it easy to test variations before going through the expense of tooling.
  • Standardized parts suppliers. In the old days, car manufacturers had captive parts arms. Now companies like Continental, Alpine and Johnson Controls provide many of the parts. This allows innovation to spread faster. To some extent, car companies are systems integrators.

Of course, the biggest push toward automation is being driven by Google with its focus on automation.

But there are also a lot of factors that slow innovation. Despite the fact that technology can improve quickly, the regulatory environment doesn’t because of the slow pace of legislative change.

The basic process of buying a car has been virtually unchanged. You go into a dealership and haggle with a guy (still mostly guys) who then “talks to his manager” to “see what he can do” to “put you in that car today.”

Behind the scenes, many car dealers are really owned by the same companies despite having localized brands. Heard of Penske Automotive? Probably in the context of auto racing. Penske owns 243 dealerships generating $15B in annual revenue. Single rooftop dealers are much rarer.

With today’s market, the right way to sell cars is direct-to-consumer by manufacturers. But dealers control state legislatures with promises of campaign contributions and local jobs. In some states, you have to go through machinations to buy a Tesla.

Politics plays a role in other ways. In Florida, a candidate used an ad to attack an opponent for supporting self-driving cars. Scaring the shit out of seniors is a time-honored practice. Never mind that self-driving cars would give seniors with vision problems, reduced reaction times and limited mobility a lot more freedom.

Some regulation is done on a state-by-state basis. Legally, a car can’t drive itself across the country.

There is much work to be done. In the road ahead, I’ll look at the effects of automation on the design of cars themselves and the effects on society.

11 questions for marketing and product interviews

I’ve always hated job interviews. On both sides. Not only are they poor indicators of eventual success, they also create a dynamic that isn’t good.

Some of the things I hate:

  • They don’t allow for the possibility that the interviewee is smarter or has a level of experience that interviewer doesn’t have. This is especially true when you have a marketing person interviewing an engineer. Often, the only assessment that can be made is cultural fit.
  • There’s generally no way to assess the interviewer. There have been several cases in my professional life when I know the interviewer was a terrible interviewer and not getting any insight. In some cases, an asshole on the interview loop may by annoying prospective candidates to the point that they don’t want to join the company. There should be a mechanism for an interviewee to rate an interviewer. (The incentives are complicated here, but I can think of some ways.)
  • The process rewards people who know the tricks of interviewing. Because it’s only 20-25 minutes per interviewer, it is often easy to blow through the process with prepackaged talking points.

The biggest issue is that they create a confrontational dynamic, instead of a conversational dynamic.

Here are some of the questions I use when interviewing marketing and product people. In most cases, there is no “right” answer. I’ve often learned something when talking to interviewers. But for some of them, there is a definite wrong answer.

  1. Late-night talk show host Jimmy Kimmel comes up to you with a camera crew and asks you, “Who is the president of the United States?” What should you say? Why?
  2. A pizzeria charges $12 for a 9″ pizza. How much should it charge for an 18″ pizza?
  3. Financial analyst frequently beat up on Google because its CPC is declining (the revenue generated per click). Is a declining CPC really bad for business? Why or why not?
  4. There are extremely rare circumstances where a self-driving car will have to chose among hitting two people. How do you decide which person to hit?
  5. In question 3, what if the pedestrians could be identified as Stephen Hawking and a Wal-Mart clerk?
  6. In the self-driving car scenario, assume the car’s options are: hit a deer head on or swerve into oncoming traffic. If you hit the deer, there is a high probability that the driver will die. If you swerve into oncoming traffic, there is a lesser probability that you will die. But you create a risk for the other driver that he could be injured or killed.
  7. You accidentally get a Vanguard statement that was supposed to go to a well-known psychic. Does this make you believe in her skills more or less? (For the purpose of this question, assume you have some level of belief. You can’t opt out of the question by saying psychics separate the gullible from their money.)
  8. In the heart of Time Square, there has been a tkts booth since 1973. The booth offers 1/2 off tickets many Broadway shows. People line up and wait for an hour or more to get these cheaper tickets. Obviously, technology has changed a lot since 1973. They have a great app whose functionality could be enhanced for online ticketing. The 1 hour wait would go away and offer theatergoers instant access. Should they add app based ticketing? Why or why not?
  9. You are product manager for an OnStar like service. The capabilities include remote door unlock, vehicle status reports, turn-by-turn directions for navigation (talking to an agent to enter the destination), warnings when you need to go the dealer for service. The technical capability is in every car. The package costs $200 a year for unlimited use of all services. It’s possible to offer a one-time remote unlock service. It would cost you $1 to do a one-time unlock. It happens instantly. The consumer’s other alternative is to call a locksmith. The locksmith has to pay a technician $40. The retail price is $80. Again, assuming it only costs you $1 to provide the service, should you offer the a la carte product? If so, how much should it cost?
  10. Back to Question 1. Does your answer change if you’re a 24-year-old aspiring actress? If so, why?
  11. How would you market Twitter?

Why I’m bearish on bots

Bots are all the rage in Silicon Valley these days. Everyone is talking about them. Facebook has a bot built into Messenger. Google announced a platform for bots. Many startup pitches focus on bots.

But, so far, I’m not convinced.

I’ve worked on bot-related projects. I’ve worked in messaging, speech recognition and natural-language processing. At AOL, we had a local search bot in 2004. (Not my project, but we had one.)

Today’s bots are pretty stupid. They are based on simple keyword recognition. See this example from a recent Messenger conversation I had after I was hit by an Uber:


Ideally, the bot would realize the context and not even show the “Request a Ride” message. At a minimum, it should be frequency capped so it doesn’t appear every message.

Like I said, bots today are stupid.

Will they get better? Undoubtedly.

Will they replace a personal assistant in the near future? Unlikely.

Consider an obvious use case for bots: appointment scheduling. After all this time, appointments are still tough to schedule.

It sounds simple. Check two calendars and find overlapping free spaces. But it’s not.

Availability isn’t fixed. My availability can vary based on who is asking. Mark Zuckerberg wants a meeting? My calendar is wide open.

For me, multiple factors go into availability. What is my relationship to the person? Are either of us working on an important project? Have I met this person recently? Were they referred by someone I trust?

Have the assistant look at my address book, you say? Well, relationships vary over time.

Location matters. Again, this is context sensitive. I one joked with VC Shervin Pishevar that location varies based on importance of the two parites. Jokingly, we scheduled lunch at Madera, which is basically across the street from most venture firms. But there’s a lot of truth to that. If I’m meeting a friend who lives on the peninsula, we try to alternate peninsula and SF. If I’m meeting a VC, it is usually in Menlo Park. Meeting someone who needs my advice? Probably a coffee shop a few blocks from me.

Location also depends based on our local travel patterns. I try to schedule my meetings on the peninsula on one day to minimize my driving. I know some people spend one day in SF. I adjust to take that into account.

The rules vary for out-of-town visitors. Some of my friends visit from the East Coast. Some do it every other week. I can see them pretty much any time. But for a friend who visits once every six months. I’ll work hard to open up space.

Location can be a Skype call if I need to chat with someone who I won’t likely meet up with.

Timing matters. Is the request urgent? I’ll open up availability. If not, it might wait a couple of weeks.

I’m having surgery next week. It was scheduled according to the surgeon’s schedule because she has a specialized skill. I scheduled everything around it. During the recovery period, I’m not taking meetings. But if someone and something important needs to happen, I’ll suck up the pain.

Then there’s the issue of social projection. Maybe I don’t want to project that I have nothing going on and my calendar is wide open. Or I want to project that someone is really important to me.

Something that seems to be so simple can actually be really complicated.

Is my scheduling more complicated than most? Probably. But if it weren’t complicated, the utility of a bot would be less valuable. Could a bot learn all of these rules? Maybe.

It’ll take a lot of time to get there.

Maybe a bot can put it in on my calendar for 2020.

Reinventing the banking experience in 2016


On a recent trip to New York City, I did some secret shopping of banks. I posed as a customer looking to open a new account with $250,000. I visited banks large and small, including Citibank, Bank of America, Chase, Valley National Bank and TD Bank.

Although banks have become more open and inviting to consumers — in many neighborhoods, it isn’t a prison environment with tellers behind bulletproof glass — I came up with a number of ways to update the banking experience. Some of these require changes to approaches to security, but I think they are necessary for banks to be relevant.

In bank

  • Ability for bank staff to access Dropbox, email, etc. There are obvious security implications of this, but this is the way millennials work. The primary repository for many documents are in cloud storage. If your bankers don’t have the ability to access Web services, you’re at a disadvantage. I love that my banker at First Republic can do most things over email and Dropbox.
  • Web access for certain employees. Although some bank networks are locked down for the lowest common denominator (bank tellers), some people need access to the broader Web. This includes investment advisers and personal bankers.
  • Simpler ATMs that allow most of the transaction to be done from the customer’s mobile device.
  • Allow customers to enter their data. Although many banks use PIN pads, there is other data that needs to be entered. iPads could allow people to comfortably enter data such as email addresses.
  • Bathrooms! In the past, bank transactions were predominantly about quick withdrawals and deposits. Now, more transactions require more time. This includes account opening and investment transactions. When you might be in the bank for 15-20 minutes, bathrooms become more important. In my secret shopping, most banks wouldn’t offer a bathroom. A few did, but it involved going into a backroom.
  • Chargers. Just like bathrooms, charging devices are becoming a Big Necessity. In some of my secret shopping, bankers allowed me to use their personal chargers or asked around the bank for one. It’s not expensive to outfit each station with micro USB and lightning charges.

Call center

  • Better IVR and ASR systems. One of the more frustrating banking experiences is calling a bank, entering the account number and then having to give it again to the rep. These systems need a streamlined user experience with user needs in mind. They shouldn’t be one-size-fits-all. For example, if a bank notices that I do all my banking online, I should go straight to a representative. (The chances that I will call for something I can do online are zero.) People who never bank online would be given the full automated system. Segmentation could also be done by asset level, e.g. customers with more than $100,000 go straight to a rep.
  • Allow CSRs to follow transactions. For some transactions and events, there is a time delay between a request and a final outcome. Normally, this involves the customer calling back and dealing with someone brand new and re-explaining the situation. Citi lets an agent monitor an account for future follow up. I’m always impressed when the same person calls me back with a resolution.
  • Automatic emails for frequent transactions. For example, if a customer requests a late-fee credit, an email is automatically generated stating the amount of the late fee credit and an expected post date. Ideally, these emails will show up before the customer hangs up.


  • Data should be shared across platforms. If I start a credit card application online, I should be able to finish on the phone if I have a question.

One thing I noticed that really impressed me: Chase bankers rate other Chase employees. My banker had to call a support line. After he finished, he was presented with a survey to rate the support desk. This kind of feedback is invaluable in weeding out bad employees.

redesign | payments: redesigning the ATM


The humble ATM. We’re surrounded by them. Since Chemical Bank opened the first ATM in 1969, consumers have had access to their money more conveniently than waiting in line for a bank teller.

ATMs have evolved over time, becoming smaller, smarter and ubiquitous.


  • The advent of ATM surcharges meant that every mom and pop grocery store, gas station and bar could afford to put one in.
  • ATMs can now accept checks and cash for deposit without using an envelope.
  • ATMs have been used to sell postage stamps and airline tickets.
  • The newer Chase ATMs now stand in between customers and tellers, offering a wider array of services.

But mobile technology allows ATMs to slim down considerably. Here’s how:

  1. Open your bank’s mobile app.
  2. Specify the amount of cash you want to withdraw.
  3. Touch your fingerprint.
  4. Tap your phone against an NFC reader.
  5. Cash pops out of a dispenser.
  6. Your receipt is shown on your phone.

This eliminates the screen, keyboard and printer.

Banks benefit in a number of ways: less space per machine, lower costs, more throughput per machine (due to shortened transaction times) and eliminating skimming at the ATM.

Consumers benefit from more convenient access and shorter line times.

What would 9/11 and its aftermath look like with the social tools we have today?

Tribute in Light, from Empire State Building
Tribute in Light as seen from Empire State Building – 9/11/2003

Today is the 15th anniversary of the attacks on 9/11.

Shortly after the attacks, I was walking around an exhibit in SoHo called Here Is New York. People had been invited to submit their pictures. These were hung in a gallery. The atmosphere was somber. Union Square was plastered with posters asking if someone had been seen.

In those 15 years, a lot has changed. YouTube didn’t exist back then. (Founded in 2005.) flickr didn’t exist. (Launched 2004.) Facebook didn’t exist (2004). Mobile was in its infancy. (The iPhone didn’t come out until 2007.) Of course, more recent innovations like Snapchat, Instagram, Meerkat, Vine and Periscope didn’t exist. Then-dominant players like Yahoo! and Aol have largely fallen by the wayside. Flickr has become a has-been.

I thought it would be an interesting thought exercise to look at what the world would look like if 9/11 had instead occurred today.

  • Instead of posting flyers, people would use Facebook’s “I’m OK” feature to find news of their loved ones. The service, activated after disasters, prompts people to press a button saying that they’re OK.
  • We’d have live accounts from the disaster scene on Twitter. The whole world would be expressing their sympathies in 140 characters.
  • With smart phone cameras and cheap video cameras like Dropcam, investigators (working with the likes of Google) would be able to create 3D models of the events.
  • We’d see a flood of pictures on Instagram.
  • CNN and other news networks would offer live streams to everyone.
  • People would watch replays of the events on YouTube.

One thing that likely wouldn’t happen: Periscopes and Facebook live. The apps wouldn’t work in the saturated environment. The excessive demand during 9/11 meant that cell networks and landlines in the area were overloaded. There’s no way that current data networks could handle all that traffic. Even pictures would have to be uploaded over broadband connections.

The biggest change — and the one with the most effect — is the advent of in-flight WiFi. Using the communication networks we have today, passengers would be better informed of the events. They could follow the news. With the additional information, they could thwart the hijackers like heroic passengers on Flight 93 did.

In flight WiFi would also allow passengers to leave messages for their loved ones.

In short, 9/11 would be completely different on 9/11/2016.

(This post was posted on a flight from San Francisco to Seattle.)

(This post was updated on 9/11/2016 to reflect the 15th anniversary and to add Facebook Live, which didn’t exist back then.)

Amazon’s Echo is a brilliant, brilliant gadget

Rakesh Agrawal is an expert in product design, having designed products for leading companies such as Microsoft and Aol. He has also reviewed products and written for TechCrunch, VentureBeat, The Washington Post and GigaOm.

The best $100 I’ve ever spent on a gadget. The price has since gone up to $150, but it would be a bargain at $300.

Full review to come. But don’t wait, just BUY IT!

After you watch this video, of course.

redesign | news: The Washington Post

The Washington Post | May 15, 2015

Why Google and Facebook won’t suffer the same fate as AOL

Our CEO, Rakesh Agrawal, writes for The Washington Post on why Google and Facebook won’t suffer the fate of AOL.

With Verizon finally putting an end to the misery of AOL’s decade and a half long decline, some are wondering whether today’s juggernauts — Facebook and Google — will face the same fate. The answer is unequivocal: No.

To understand why, it’s helpful to look at why AOL went from being the No. 1 Internet provider in the country to a has-been outpaced by companies such as Facebook and Google. Facebook is worth more than 50 times the acquisition price for AOL. Google nearly 100 times.

redesign | travel: Travel gear 2007 vs. 2015

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I’ve been traveling all of my professional life. As the years have passed, so have the tools I use when I travel.

Here are my 2007 travel gadgets:


And now:

IMG_20150111_101218Many of the things in the top picture have been consolidated into my iPhone 6:

  • Garmin navigation GPS/Palm.
  • Garmin hiking GPS.
  • iPod.
  • Phone.
  • USB sticks (I just mail or cloud the contents).

Others have been obviated by technology. I no longer carry Ethernet cables or the router to provide WiFi for me.

My current line up includes:

  • GoPro and accessories. (This is a ski trip; not taken for pure business trips.)
  • A bunch of cables and accessories stored in a GridIt.
  • A Lumix DMC-FZ70. 60x optical zoom FTW. (Don’t usually bring my DSLR.)
  • A power strip. Great for sharing power with others at airports.
  • A SOL Republic Punk speaker. (It’s smaller than a Jambox.)
  • A nano SIM cutter. I use this only on international trips, but it’s small enough to leave in my travel bag.
  • Car power adapter. Always be charging!
  • A 5-port USB charger. Always be charging! This one has a separate cable to deal with tricky hotel room situations.
  • Massive Mophie. Always be charging!
  • LiveScribe 3. It’s the real deal for note taking and syncs great with Evernote.
  • An Asus Chromebook. Unlike my MacBook Air, I won’t be heartbroken if I lose it at security.
  • iPad mini 3.
  • iPhone 6.

I’d probably ditch the Chromebook, but Google gives you 12 free gogo passes with each Chromebook. That alone is worth more than the cost of the Chromebook. Having it lets me stay productive in the air.

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