VRROOM WITH A VIEW: BMW Active Hybrid 5
HERE’s an interesting thought. Apple’s iPhone is now five-and-a-half years old. Since then, the pace of advancement in mobile devices has been breathtaking.
It’s a great study in what a brilliant idea perfectly executed can do to an industry, and in the case of mobile devices, what it has done is utterly transform the technology landscape. It is also a story of what happens when you fail to innovate.
The iPhone’s rise has not gone without casualties. In fact, I cannot think of anything that has created such a precipitous decline of value in rival companies, ever.
In June, Nokia confirmed it was retrenching 10,000 people. According to reports, the company has lost 90% of its market value since Steve Jobs walked onto the stage to introduce the first iPhone.
In terms of mobile, Nokia is dragging Microsoft under with it. Nokia’s Windows phones aren’t selling and the rest of the world is rapidly standardising around Google’s Android and the iPhone.
Microsoft has always been able to ride bad luck and poor decisions because of its Windows cash cow, but in all seriousness, I wonder how it can survive when it is lagging so badly in the mobile space.
And RIM’s BlackBerry is in deep trouble — because it failed to innovate. What seemed so astonishing in 1999, with proper mobile e-mail, suddenly in 2007, in the context of the iPhone, seemed clunky and difficult.
Apple quickly followed the iPhone with the iPad, which pretty much killed off the market for netbooks. So that’s three big companies in deep trouble, and two at death’s door, within five years of one very good idea very well implemented. It’s pretty Darwinian and brutal, isn’t it? But it’s absolutely the best way to find the way forward, a great example of the incredibly efficient way in which capitalism drives the best kind of innovation. There is nothing planned about this, and governments have no say in the process. Nobody is stepping in to save anyone.
To succeed, rivals will need to stop trying to out-Apple Apple, and come up with the next big thing. And one company is doing that. Asus, which pioneered cheap netbooks and saw that business flattened by the iPad, has not slavishly released a tablet of its own. Instead, it has innovated.
The Padfone is amazing. It’s an Android touch-screen phone that can be docked into a tablet (which uses the phone’s brain, saving you the costs of replicating that tech, as with the iPhone and iPad, and also the same data plan), giving you two devices in one. Then, cleverly, the tablet can also be docked with a keyboard, meaning Padfone becomes a third device in one — a laptop. Boy do I want one of these Padfones. It’s a step forward, not a slavish copy and, who knows, perhaps it’ll give Apple something to think about.
It is unlikely that an iPhone-style event could ever occur in the motor industry. Lead times are too long and there’s so much regulation around emissions and crash safety that companies have limited wriggle room. An event of that scale and significance would, in the motor industry, need to be so seismic as to, for example, wipe out General Motors and Daimler-Benz while leaving, say, Ford in deep dwang. And I can’t see that happening any time soon. But the industry does have its moments: Toyota’s introduction of the hybrid car in 1999 is one. Other companies have seen that the technology does work and are introducing it themselves.
Arguably, Toyota’s mistake was to market the Prius as an eco-car to drivers, which is like trying to sell couscous to carnivores. And while they still bang the eco-drum, the company’s increased focus on running costs, and the roll-out of the hybrid systems to otherwise ordinary cars such as the Yaris, has driven acceptability and the idea that it just makes sense.
And so to BMW, which has, through its Efficient Dynamics programme, focused on reducing emissions through clever interventions on ordinary internal-combustion motors. But that can only go so far, which is why the firm recently released a full-hybrid version of its 5-Series in South Africa, the Active Hybrid 5. This is no eco-car. Under the bonnet lies that superb turbo-charged 3l inline six from the 535i, it’s just that in this case it’s backed up with a full hybrid system of electric motors and batteries, which kick as and when required. Crucially, this reduces fuel consumption in town significantly, and the car pootles about the traffic either in full electric mode, or with petrol power along with an assisting electric shove.
It switches the motor off not just at traffic lights, but also on overrun and downhill. This means a car that can dispatch 100km/h in just 5.9 seconds will also return an official 5.7l/100km in the urban crawl.
So, yes, it’s pricey at a smidge under R760,000. That’s R80,000 more than the standard 335i, but you do get all the performance, much less consumption and fiendishly clever satellite navigation as standard. Now R80,000 buys a lot of fuel, but depending on the kind of driving you do, it might make financial sense, especially in diesel-averse South Africa, where folk might avoid the equally frugal and quick 530d.
The very best bit about the Active Hybrid 5 is that it is an undiluted 5-Series. It’s all there — the power, the poise and the comfort and the very special BMW-ishness in the drive. It talks to the driver and at speed it is a joy to place on the road.
An iPhone moment, however, it is not.
That may never come.
But none of this means the Active Hybrid 5 is anything other than a really rather clever, fun car.