So, I Just Bought a Car from a Lady Prison Officer...

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You know when you go to a car dealer and they say the one particular car you're looking at has "had only one careful lady owner", what they really mean is it's been owned by five boy racers, a bus driver, and a DIY freak who rewired it for a bet. In fact the last car I bought was described as a "demonstrator that the Managing Director uses occasionally". Yet, when the vehicle registration documents arrived a week later, it turned out to have had two previous owners. Luckily for the dealer, they are 350 miles away so I never got round to going back to complain.

Anyway, it was looking like time to change cars again, before I had to pay for new tyres, brakes, and whatever else was due to fall off, and I decided that this time I was going to have a brand new car - one with zero miles on the clock and that still smells like the factory. After visiting what seemed like every local dealer, I finally settled on a nice white and relatively sporty one that meets all the increasingly burdensome emission and fuel consumption regulations of the People's Republic of Europe.

Well, actually the decision was my wife's. She instantly made friends with a rather petite and attractive young lady sales executive, and insisted that I buy a car from her. Now I would have preferred to have dealt with some seasoned guy in a grubby sports jacket, so that we could have a good battle over the price and freebies, but this argument held no sway with my wife. In fact, I was told in no uncertain terms that "I had to let that nice Amy sell me a car..."

So when we met her again a few days later for lunch (part of their superb after-sales service I guess), you can imagine that I was quite surprised to hear that her last job was as a warder in a local men's jail. Of course, as is always the case, it turned out that she and my wife have friends in common. I always say that I reckon my wife knows everybody - we've met people she knows in Las Vegas, Denver, Nice, Munich, and most towns of England - so I guess I shouldn't be surprised.

What's really amazing, however, is the whiz-bang, all-singing, all-dancing gadgetry they put into cars these days. I know that we bought something rather nearer the top of the range than an economy model, but I reckon there's more computing power in there than on my desk. LCD displays, sat-nav, Bluetooth, automatic everything, and only a couple of knobs to twiddle with on the dashboard - one of which seems, after a while, to start the engine.

Most incredible of all, however, is that one of the models I road-tested actually responded to voice commands. I've experimented over the years with software that supposedly lets you talk to your PC, and never had much success. Dictated documents might as well be written in Klingon for all the sense they make afterwards, and every command results in it deleting the document or emailing it to somebody in Australia. Yet, this thing seemed to understand anything and everything you said, even with the radio on, and even at 80 miles per hour. On the odd occasion it didn't, it said very politely "I'm sorry, I didn't understand that, please say it again". Still, they tell me that all the commands are listed in the handbook, which devotes only the first three pages to the useful stuff like where the steering wheel is and what the pedals on the floor do. The other 300 or so pages describe the car's electronic management systems and automatic features.

On the subject of documentation (and I guess where I was going with this), the handbook for my new motor is perfect. Well organized, accurate, comprehensive, and even has useful pictures. I wonder how long before the release date they "code freeze" the car's operating system to let the doc team create the "guidance", and if they use agile development to create the software in the first place. My guess is that they outsource it all, that it runs Microsoft Embedded, and it would be nice to think they get 100% code coverage in testing. Having the whole O/S throw a wobbly at speed on a motorway could be an interesting experience.

Meanwhile, there's the constant nagging doubt that any computer geek will recognize. When will it suddenly go wrong? Do I have to install fixes and patches every month? Will it be compatible with CDs by both the Arctic Monkeys and Wishbone Ash? Where do I look for the reset button? I suppose they just plug the car into an even bigger computer when something does go wrong, and ask it the question of fuel pump pressure, the meaning of sat-nav, and everything. Knowing my luck, the answer will be 42.

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So, I Just Bought a Car from a Lady Prison Officer...