Nerds of the road

Gavin Green is impressed by the new-look RAC's hi-tech plans

The RAC's new image is hypocritical: a shallow PR-inspired attempt by a motoring organisation to jump on the green bandwagon. The new crownless logo is a meaningless squiggle, a graphic mess, in contrast to the elegance of the old logo. If I were the Queen, I would give up my membership of the RAC in protest, and join the AA instead. And the new bright-orange RAC breakdown trucks look like Dyno-Rod vans, and are completely inappropriate vehicles for the self-styled "Knights of the Road".

That's what I think, anyway, and that's what I've written in the past.

Neil Johnson, the RAC's chief executive, ex-Sandhurst, ex-Royal Green Jackets and ex-Jaguar director, disagrees. This is not surprising. Many of the new features are his ideas. But instead of merely dropping me a snotty letter and wiping my name off the list for new RAC road atlases (for review, of course), he said: "Let's talk".

So we are. I'm in his big office, overlooking Cockspur Street, right next to Trafalgar Square. He says thanks for coming, and I say "Isn't the new image just an upshot of research you've commissioned that says the RAC is a fusty old organisation, about as in touch with everyday issues as Bertie Wooster, and some clever ad people have now come up with a new identity to boost business?" Or words to that effect.

He says, "Yes, partly", and that rather disarms me. "All organisations have to take stock of where they're at, and prepare for change. On our centenary, it seemed a good time to do that. Our corporate identity hadn't changed since 1972, so we thought it was time. But this isn't just a PR campaign. There is real substance behind our claims. If there wasn't, it would all be bullshit."

Mr Johnson says that the next 20 years will see as many changes for motorists as the first two decades after the car was invented. "Not so many years ago, people joined the RAC because there was a reasonable expectation that, on a long trip, your journey would be interrupted by a breakdown. That just isn't true any more. But, increasingly, there is a reasonable expectation of long delays owing to congestion. One of our main thrusts, in the new-look RAC, is to be able to help our members avoid delay, and keep them on the move."

The RAC's solution sounds like some sort of science fiction. Increasingly, though, the measures are science fact. "We'll not only tell members what the traffic is like before setting out - we do that already. We'll give them individual updates on traffic conditions as they move along." In a nutshell, Mr Johnson anticipates doing a deal with a mobile phone network so that, as a car moves from one phone cell to another, the RAC tracks its progress. "It's quite easy to anticipate the car's route. If bad traffic lies ahead, we'll ring you on your mobile phone, warn you about the traffic ahead, and suggest an alternative route." Mr Johnson reckons, "By the end of the decade, we'll be deeply there".

Equally, breakdown services will be revolutionised. The Knights of the Road will be replaced by nerds of the road. Come the new millennium, the on-board computers already fitted as standard to most modern cars will notify the RAC - via the car's mobile phone, about an imminent problem. "At the moment, the on-board computer diagnostic equipment is used when the car is being serviced but, on the move, it is incapable of transmitting this information. In the future, it will. It will tell us automatically about an imminent problem, we'll ring you in your car, and suggest you meet an RAC van in a certain location."

Mr Johnson says that an organisation dealing with such "hi-tech" issues needed a new logo, and that the crown, "which is perceived as quite old- fashioned," would not have been appropriate. "Plus, there is a certain tastelessness in commercially exploiting the crown. A lot of companies just don't like doing that sort of thing any more." The crown stays on the logo of the RAC Motor Sports Association, which controls all British motor sport, and on the logo of the Pall Mall men-only RAC Club. The Queen, far from rushing off to join the AA in a huff, "was fully supportive".

On the RAC's much publicised "greening", Mr Johnson confirms that the RAC "is still a motoring organisation". This is contrary to what was said at the Islington press conference a few months back (even the location was new-wave trendy) at which the RAC was transmogrified into a "mobility" organisation, whatever that means. Before I could cause Mr Johnson too much embarrassment here, he was quick to point out that "the main area of mobility we deal with, is, of course, motoring. But it should be obvious that traffic congestion is now at the stage that something has to be done. We're trying to balance the reality of what is happening with a desire to be able to continue to use the private car in a reasonable and enjoyable way, and for it to fit into an overall transport package."

He is encouraged by the new government. "They're talking about a rational, integrated transport policy. Of course, it is going to cost money. It's no good telling people they've got to get out of their cars into public transport. What you've got to do is make public transport more attractive It must be so user-friendly, so clean, so safe, so efficient and so predictable, that it's no contest. Would you rather sit in a traffic jam, or in clean, well-ventilated public transport?

He denies that such talk is just a big PR stunt, and that the recent multi-million pound ad campaign - which depicted the RAC as the potential saviours from an environmental Armageddon - is more than just puff to encourage a few more car-users to join them, rather than the AA. "The ads encouraged people to think in a new way, I hope. Add that to the considerable behind-the-scenes lobbying we do, to encourage the government to offer a proper transport policy, and it is a very tangible plan of action."

The new-look RAC will no longer always be in the "build more roads" camp. "The illogical Mr Toad-like `lay more concrete for my car' route just isn't realistic," says Mr Johnson. "But some bypasses still make sense, and we will campaign for them. Equally, the state of British roads is disgraceful. The golden rule - it's better to replace a few slates when the roof leaks, rather than wait so long that you need a new roof - was ignored by the last government. Repairs are desperately needed now."

I leave our 90-minute interview agreeing with almost everything that Neil Johnson says. So much for confrontation. But I still hate the logo, and the vans.

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