Past, present and cars of the future

Our Editor looks back and forwards with his old colleague, Neil Kennett, who is joining the mag’s roster of regular contributors

Published:  14 June, 2022

Neil, we worked literally alongside each other in the RMI press office for years. What do you remember most about those days?
Oh, where to start?  We used to joke that nobody ever leaves the motor industry, and here we both are 20 years and several kids later. I joined in early 2003. You were already the Press Officer and I was Website Editor. I also worked on Forecourt magazine and the fuel protests were huge news at the time. The poor petrol retailers took loads of stick, quite unfairly because they earnt very little from fuel sales. Imagine the outrage if the protestors had known what a gallon would cost today. There were a lot of strong opinions about Block Exemption, authorised repairer status and emissions too, so in some ways we’ve made incredible progress, and in other ways it’s the same old industry tensions.

Then one day you left to go freelance…
Yes, sorry about that. I completed my NCTJ journalism course by passing the 80-words-per-minute shorthand exam, admittedly at the second time of asking, and launched Featurebank in 2007, offering journalism and PR services. From the start the trade titles were brilliant. I got writing gigs with Aftermarket, among others, and ticked a few items off the bucket list – writing race reports for Autosport, interviewing legends like Sir Stirling Moss and covering a consumer court victory for Auto Express.
    
The PR side picked up nicely too. The Mail on Sunday naming MyCarCheck its “No.1 cash-saving app” was an important early win, and I worked for Euro Car Parts for years, back when Sukhpal was in charge. I wrote all sorts for them – internal and external comms, ad copy –press releases about landmark moments like becoming part of LKQ and buying up all those Unipart sites. Those were big deals which made international headlines. I’d admired ECP since a press tour of the old Wembley site – they had teams of people with headsets on selling like something out of Wall Street.
    
I hadn’t seen that in the aftermarket before – it was next level.”

Speaking of the silver screen, at some point you got into TV
The Dispatches? Superb experience. It was called Secrets Of Your Car Insurance, but really it was about the bodyshop industry. The heavy lifting was done by another old RMI contact, Andrew Moody, a panel beater who became a solicitor and barrister specialising in automotive law – quite a unique skillset. In 2012, he sent me a hefty bundle of paperwork outlining how some approved repairer networks were operating to the detriment of both bodyshops and consumers. I suggested it was either a book no-one would read or a TV programme, so we took it Channel 4.
    
It made waves and we ended up at the House of Commons with Andrew presenting to an All-Party Parliamentary Group. We stood up for what was right even though it involved taking on some seriously powerful organisations. I’m still very proud of that. To make you feel old, I’ve recently started doing PR for Andrew’s son, John. He’s 21, a qualified pilot and he’s built this fantastic In-House HR system, an online human resources solution developed specifically with repairers in mind.

We can’t go any further without getting into driverless cars. I can’t believe you haven’t mentioned it already.
What can I say? I’m obsessed. I was writing more and more about ADAS and in 2018 I wrote a cover story for the IMI, ‘Autonomous now: the shift to self-driving’, which was a gamechanger for me. The response was overwhelming and it convinced me to launch Carsofthefuture.co.uk to raise the standard of debate. So much of the coverage is misguided, overly simplistic or plain wrong, with driverless cars frequently presented as the harbingers of a Terminator-style apocalypse. I set out to promote informed voices of reason and now I’ve written over two hundred thousand words about it.
    
It’s a shame, given everything Tesla’s done for electric cars, that so many hyperbolic headlines are caused by its confusingly-named Full Self-Driving (FSD) package. It simply isn’t self-driving as the rest of the industry understands it. Conflating assisted and automated is dangerous, because it risks drivers misunderstanding what their cars are capable of. Things are coming to a head in America with a group called The Dawn Project taking out a full-page advert in The New York Times with the tagline “Don’t be a Tesla crash test dummy.” They’re offering $10,000 to “the first person who can name another commercial product from a Fortune 500 company that has a critical malfunction every eight minutes.” Ouch!
    
Honestly, I find Tesla’s approach so frustrating. It’s not only ill-advised, it’s counterproductive, because news of so-called driverless car crashes dents consumer confidence. Why gild the lily? True self-driving has seismic potential and it’s coming soon. If adopted sensibly it will dramatically improve safety and combine with zero emissions, mobility-as-a-service and active travel to completely transform road transport.
    
Notice the “if” there. None of these outcomes are guaranteed and now is a crucial time in terms of public perception. These are safety-critical issues and utmost clarity is vital. For the near future at least, the best advice is that drivers need to be alert at all times. To promote that message, I’ve just signed a new media partnership deal with Reuters for their flagship Auto Tech 2022 event. I get to interview Sammy Omari, vice president of autonomy at Motional, and Xinzhou Wu, head of Xpeng Motors’ Autonomous Driving Centre.
    
Now you’ve got me started! I’d like to emphasise that I still love cars and driving. However, I firmly believe that self-driving will be utterly transformative. It’s a fascinating area with unique selling points, increasingly distinct from traditional automotive, and it forces us to face some uncomfortable truths: that 95% of the time most cars are just taking up space and depreciating; and that well over a million road deaths occur worldwide every year. Connected and autonomous vehicles will need maintaining and repairing, of course, so the aftermarket absolutely needs to be part of this conversation.

Which brings us nicely to your new Aftermarket of the Future column
Indeed! From next month I’ll be bringing you all the self-driving news with implications for the aftermarket. This is such a fast-moving sector. Over the last few weeks alone we’ve had: the announcement of a major driverless trial in Milton Keynes, which on closer inspection turns out to be not quite as described; An opinion poll of 1,000 UK adults by BSI finding that 70% see benefits in connected and automated vehicles, but 59% would feel more confident with an onboard safety operator; Grant Shapps, Secretary of State for Transport, reiterating that he wants the UK to be a world leader in driverless; Lastly, Mercedes becoming the first automotive company in the world to meet the demanding UN-R157 standard for a Level 3 system.
    
We’ll look at the latest cutting-edge tech, some frightening proposed changes to the Highway Code and much more.

Alex Wells: “That’s great Neil. We are sure our readers will be fascinated. See Aftermarket of the Future in our next issue and for any queries please email neil@self-drivingpr.com”


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