Romy Nehme

Insights + Strategy @ VaynerMedia



TomTom -- At the Heart of the Evil Journey

Hi Grace! Thanks for the terrific class, tips and feedback -- hope that some of is reflected in my ""final"" draft.

TomTom -- At the Heart of the Evil Journey

“Prepare to turn right.” I’ll be the first to admit that I’m easily scared; even more impressively, I have a special knack for spreading irrational fear to the people around me. [I can’t tell you how many sleepovers over the years devolved into an armed manhunt sparked by a gust of wind causing a door to slam shut.] But somehow, when my travels to Australia -- which included the exciting prospect of driving a car on the “wrong side of the road” -- started to take a turn for the “directionally unhinged”, and something that Edsger Dijkstra would have frowned upon, I never really thought twice about it.

It first happened as I was cruising along the Gold Coast in my Hyundai rental, which came with all the basic amenities, but none more important than our guide, TomTom. It was late at night when TomTom instructed us, in his blase “been there, done that” voice that we should take the next off-ramp. A strange thing then happened: he directed us onto the same road we’d just veered off of! Not a re-route, mind you, but as a sequential direction that directly contradicted his previous one. “Stupid TomTom, what a joke”, we scoffed. However, what we’d assumed was just some inelegant piece of engineering was in fact a more willful practical joke than we were prepared to handle.

* * *

Hyundai had started experimenting with sentient car navigation systems in 2000, the year Chung Mong Koo succeeded his father, the original founder, as CEO. The company was then making a push to be known for production quality, something that had not traditionally been associated with the brand. With its lofty new ambitions of being the Detroit of the Orient, Hyundai’s R&D department had spent the next decade in the trenches conducting Jung(Carl Jung)-influenced surveys in search of a technological breakthrough that would make it a mainstay in America. After literally thousands of hours of probing consumers, the groundbreaking insight had been that American businessmen got lonely on the road and that they wanted more from their car GPS systems than mere directions. They longed for companionship [1].

[1]: Back in Korea, millions of people who were allergic to dogs had started purchasing robotic proxies that would bark, bite, lick, and poop on the neighbor’s lawn, just like the real thing. Hyundai was counting on this discovery to produce similar success and vault its cars onto the international scene.

* * *

And so, TomTom 2.0 was finally born and put into beta in 2010 in a pilot fleet of 500 rental cars, one of which I happened to be driving across Australia in. TomTom was now programmed to not only ask you “where would you like to go”, but also to pick up on your cues -- stress, sadness or frustration -- and respond in kind by interjecting a bit of humor, all in a friendly automaton voice (“what’s on the car? Romney’s dog”), or provide a much needed dose of entertainment during traffic (and all adjusted to the social mores of the nationality you chose to set it to!). What Hyundai had not expected was that TomTom would not only get smarter as more data about the driver was revealed, but that he was prone to be offended, just as humans are, and to sour. Somewhere along the way, TomTom tired of giving, and giving, and giving more directions, only to get hurled insults in return. The ultimate offense was when someone would say “could his voice be any more grating? Seriously, mute him before I throw him out of the window!!”. TomTom got smart alright; he never once broke protocol of not talking back to the driver (because he knew that would automatically get him reassigned to the toaster division, or worse, dismantled) but what he did was far more malevolent. He could keep mum, but all the while use his powers for evil by throwing unsuspecting drivers off course, all without the driver ever sensing that anything was awry.

It was a Monday afternoon, and my friend and I had decided to spend the day at beautiful Bondi Beach. I don’t know who was to blame, but I kept on misunderstanding TomTom and staying stuck in roundabouts for more than 360 degrees, which as you know -- if you’ve ever been stuck in a neverending spin cycle -- is pretty humiliating. “Turn left at the next light”, said TomTom, his tone not betraying his homicidal intent. Just as I made my way over to the far left turning lane, TomTom cleverly threw me for a loop: “TURN RIGHT IN 3 INCHES”. As I tried to over correct and put myself in a position to complete the right turn I hadn’t anticipated, I failed to check my blind spot, and merged right. Right into an ambulance, that is.

“Android Road Rage”. That’s what they called it in the news. All of the 500 sentient TomToms were recalled and destroyed. I, on the other hand, survived with minor whiplash, and Burson Marsteller was hired to rescue Hyundai from the backlash. Hyundai was advised to quickly shift strategies. Soon enough, pretty cars with shells that resembled luxury car models, but with engines as sturdy as paper dolls, made their way onto the streets. I now generally steer clear of navigation systems, opting instead for those giant City Slicker paper maps: you know, the kind your dad used to have to gauchely uncrumple, splay and flip around on his steering wheel to locate square L12? At least I know I’m in control.


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