Seamus K - Irish tech industry expat living in Sweden.

Tag: Cars

On Swedish cars, internet grocery shopping, and undertakers…

When I first moved to Sweden one of the things that surprised me was how this enviromentally aware, socially concious country is very very car centric. Out in the ‘burbs most people get around by car. The cities are ringed with retail parks accessible only by car. The average car size here is a lot larger than in Ireland. And the brands are fancier. You hardly notice the big Volvo XCs, or their VW, BMW, Audi equivalents. But then this is a country that makes cars. The rule of thumb is – “Countries that make cars, make them cheap (e.g. UK, Germany, USA). Countries that don’t make cars, make them expensive (e.g. Ireland, Denmark)”. 

Audi in a snowy landscape in front of trees

My first Swedish car- an Audi A6

On arrival in 2015 I bought a second hand Audi A6 2L turbo. Not because I was a petrol head that wanted a big luxury car. But because it was being sold at work, and was very good value. An Irish reader will go – “but what about the insurance?!?!?” And with good reason. If you contacted an insurance company in Ireland, newly arrived in the country, with no driving history for them to assess, and looked for a quote on a “luxury performance” car they would either:

a) laugh hysterically, before refusing outright to give you a quote. Or

b) give you one that would be a multiple of the car’s value, and involve handing over 1-2 of your children, as well as selling a few surplus organs.

Car insurance in Ireland is expensive*. It’s totally different in Sweden. Here the car is insured, not the driver. So my policy (fully comprehensive, and where anyone could drive the car) was about €900/year. Which I felt was pretty reasonable.

As an aside the A6 was a joy to drive on motorways. Not so practical in Swedish suburbs, and very thirsty when you did! It is no more though, and I am a bit more enviromentally sound today.

Back when I started this post in January (I discovered it sitting in my drafts folder) I was not driving. There was one big health related reason for that. And it was May before I got behind the wheel again. That was quite a pain in the arse. The suburbs of Stockholm are a place where things are easier with a car. But this being Sweden,  while a car may make things easier it is not essential. 

The local bus services are good. And the kids and I were able to adapt, even if we had to get up about 30 minutes earlier each day. Flexitime at work, an understanding boss, and remote working meant I could keep my employer happy. In this internet age it is possible to handle many things online. For the few we couldn’t – local friends, and sometimes family helped.

The biggest routine thing that needed to be taken care of was grocery shopping. But of course you can do that online. My usual supermarket is ICA, the largest chain here in Sweden. It works pretty much how you would expect. Order online, specify a delivery time and day, and pay the 99SEK delivery fee (about €9 – how does that compare to other countries)? As I have a loyalty card for them they can see my past purchases and their online site is quick to pre-populate the shopping cart with my usual stuff.

It’s convenient, really helped with my situation, and generally works well. Except when it doesn’t.

On the second order there was a couple of things I thought I had ordered, but figured I must have left them out. It was on the third order, when I checked, that I was sure I had problems. I found I was missing two loaves of bread, and about 1kg of mince (my plan was to make a load of lasagnes for the freezer). It was a little odd they were missed. These are big, and not exactly rare or unusual items. But hey, mistakes happen. I understand that. The real question is how are they handled by the company…

There wasn’t an online way of reporting a problem so I called ICA. They didn’t quibble about the report. They immediately put through a refund. But if I wanted the missing items I had to place another online order, and then call them to look for a refund of the delivery charges. 

Excuse me? They made the mistake. But I was expected to take three steps to get if fixed (as well as making sure I was at home when the replacement delivery turned up). That is not exactly outstanding customer service**. I pointed this out to them and while the CSR was sympathetic there was nothing she could do. This seems like a clear signal to check out their competitors.

MatHem is probably the best known one in the Swedish market. They are a pure play online delivery outfit – only around since about 2010. The expectation would be that an internet only company will have a different and more supportive attitude to their customers? I shall have to see***. 

In the Spring when I could not drive my slightly less enviromentally nasty automobile, I was on the bus all the time. And there is a high chance that is where I picked up (my probable case of) Covid. So I found myself at home, unable to go to the shops. And also unable to use any internet grocery service, as their lead times shot up to 2 weeks once everyone else was at home. What was an infectious person to do?

Fortunately I have good friends. They were able to pick up stuff for me, and drop it to the door. So if the virus would not get me, starvation wouldn’t either. One friend asked his girlfriend to do the drop as she would be working in the area. She left the bags at the door with some treats from her work as well. But you see she works for Fonus, one of the large Swedish funeral chains. 

Which meant that later when people asked me how I was doing I could also tell them that the undertaker has been and left her card and brochure! 🤣

* People are quick to blame the insurance companies for this. They may be making big profits (I don’t know), but I would place the blame at the liability law that allows the claims and the payouts. A different legal framework in Austria and Sweden means the Irish experience is not repeated – and *shock* the roads feel safer! But the Irish legal profession are doing very nicely out of the local system. And they have managed to avoid most of the public anger over “compo culture”.

** In general customer service in Sweden is good. Once you reach a human that is. There are horrible queues to talk to real people on phone support lines. But it is a world away from Austria. There the idea that a customer could make a complaint is met with puzzled confusion. And you can forget any chance of them actually taking some sort of action.

*** Word has it that MatHem is burning through their investors money while they try and make a profit in the online grocery business. I don’t have a problem with getting some VC/TechBros pay to deliver my groceries to me!

[2020 Target: 19/52. 8,034/25,000]

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A cautionary tale about IOT. Sorry, about poor design decisions.

This story turned up in my RSS* feeds this morning.

This has to be a nightmare story for someone working in PR. Your product is being used by a journalist. It fails in a major (if not life threatening) way. Your customer service people badly mismanage their call for help. The story goes viral.

PR person – your assignment is to suggest strategies for salvaging something from this shit storm.

Now that the story has grown legs, there will be plenty of people whining about 5G, IOT and the like. Except, I would say that this is a problem for the car company not with mobile connectivity. Because as someone who works in the mobile technology business** I can tell you that this is not an unknown issue. I was working on it over 10 years ago. 

Back then I was involved in a project around connected cars involving my employer and a luxury car manufacturer. This company had an emergency assist system in their high end autos – if the car conks out, or just runs out of petrol, then hit the button and you will be connected to help (for a very reasonable monthly fee). They wanted to make sure it was as robust as possible, and were interested in seeing what other services could be built on top of this once the car was connected.

There are a load of interesting challenges you have to connecting a vehicle (I worked on trucks as well at the time):

  • Vehicles tend to have long lives compared to mobile devices. So any technical solution had to be able to last for at least 10 years without maintenance, without going obsolete (is that frequency going to stay allocated to that tech for a few decades)?
  • It had to survive being stuck in a box somewhere that might be subject to extremes of heat, cold and vibration like say the engine compartment.
  • High end cars often have filament heaters in all the windows which effectively turn the car into a faraday cage. We could use an external antennae for the car system, but passengers cell phones will probably take a huge hit to their signal. 
  • Emergency systems tend be needed quite often in remote places where coverage is more of a challenge. And they were worried that someone paying a monthly subscription for this service would have no signal, while their au-pair’s pre-pay phone would. Embarrassing.

It became clear that while it was the dawn of the 3G age, GSM was the way to go for the moment. But it also was clear that any service needed roaming – both international roaming (big problem in Europe where you can get through 5 countries in a day) and also national roaming. And there you step from a technical problem to a business and economic one. Which of course is why I was involved…

At the end of the day perfect coverage is never going to be possible (ever tried to get a cell signal at the bottom of a remote forested valley, or the basement level of a car park, or even just in many countries metro systems)? Any system needs to be able to handle this. I think there is a technical term for this – oh yeah “Failsafe“.

So while my employer, and I, and a very large global industry base, will continue to push IOT (and 5G and ubiquitous connectivity) forward, we understand that it has its limitations, like any technology. You need to be ready for when (not if) it reaches its limits. And in the case of the connected rental car this was a predictable failure. The system should have been better able to handle a loss of signal. The article says the company has some approaches for this, but they were not robust enough to keep this journalist moving.

And as for the support person who suggested to a journalist for a globally read publication that they should spend the night sleeping in the car in the woods

Oh dear. Oh dear oh dear…

* Do you remember RSS? I do, and still use it all the time. Because I am one of those weirdos who think I should decide what new stories I want read. I remain unwilling to let Google or Facebook or Twitter decide that for me. Give me the firehose of 100 and I will pick the ones I want dammit!

** My employer is one of the big three mobile technology vendors. Which means a) I have an interest c) actual knowledge about this topic c) strong opinions on it 🙂

[2020 Target: 4/52. 1640/25,000]Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblr

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