Leaps in automotive technology are on the verge of transforming the role the car plays in our lives. It's now time for the automotive industry to take a step back and reassess the fundamentals of what personal mobility will really mean in the future.
Uber may have been the watch-word for industry disruption over the past few years, but numerous emerging forces are redefining how we think about personal mobility – and transportation as a whole. From CityMapper's private-hire-meets-public-transit routes around London, to the Virgin Hyperloop One concept, companies big and small are reimagining mobility at a fundamental level. Whether the ambition is to whizz passengers cross-country at 800mph, or simply to fill a hole in existing urban transit networks, disruption is happening to a mode of transport which has remained largely unchanged in its core concept for the past 100 years: the car.
As an industry under pressure from new technology and changing customer expectations, we're due to see automotive brands undergo a radical pivot in the years ahead. And as with any systemic change, the race is on between the disruptors and the legacy brands to navigate a new reality.
The open road vs. flexible living
The Romance of the car is at the very core of how we lived, and what we aspired to, during the 20th century. The freedom of the open road, self actualisation, personal liberty and expression – cars have historically been nothing short of our personal avatars. Still today, there are plenty of enthusiasts who love cars as beautiful mechanical, sculptural, visceral objects.
However – note the word 'enthusiast'. Mainstream interest in actually owning a car has been on the wane for some time – The UK Driving and Vehicle Standards Agency (DVSA) figures show that new license applications have declined by 28% over the last ten years, while the University of Michigan has found a pattern of decreasing US drivers which begins as far back as 1983. The context for these changes certainly include new economic and social circumstances, but in recent years it is the influence of mobile technology that has fundamentally negated many of the fundamental reasons for car ownership.
Ride-sharing and transit services have reduced the practical need for cars in an urban context, and the emotional ideals that once sold a car – the independence, status and wealth it symbolised – are less relevant today than ever before. Flexibility and immediacy are more valuable – from streamed content to flexible working patterns, the immediacy of online shopping, constant connectivity and customisation has redefined our values. In this light, the prospect of owning a car – complete with responsibilities of insurance, maintenance, commitment to financing a depreciating asset and, of course, driving it – seems more a burden than a benefit.
Responding to these shifts, industry figures are starting to articulate a new vision for the future of the car, and mobility in general. In February, Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi quipped: "cars are to us what books are to Amazon", as he teased the idea of comprehensive transport networks to connect cars to subway networks, busses, cycles – and autonomous personal drones. Uber wants to own city-wide mobility of people and things in all its forms.
Toyota's vision fits a similar model. The firm's design head Simon Humphries described the end of mass-market automobiles, replaced by units for pure automated utility. These 'e-palettes' do away with traditional car components (engine, fuel tank, drivers' dashboard, etc.) to give designers the freedom to create them as busses, goods transporters, even mini shops and spas. Networked mobility would be combined with other types of utility for almost every need. The future may not be about beautiful bent sheet metal any more, but the design and experience possibilities could be so much broader.
The great platform race?
However, this vision of the future presents a new challenge for established auto brands. If the cars of yesterday become the connected, self repairing, autonomous transport units of the future, what sort of brand would provide them?
In the first instance, we could see a race for partnerships with leading platform apps to form Amazon-style portals for transport services. While this may secure a first-mover advantage, there's a risk of diluting and intermediating automotive brands to a commodity - not unlike the relationship we have with on-demand transport today. When you jump in the vehicle you've just called on your smartphone, do you notice (or care about) the make and model, or is it just an Uber?
That shift in people's priorities puts car-makers at the mercy of commercial contracts for a transport network – a risky proposition. Suddenly, the car is a commodity bought by the thousand at razor thin margins by mobility operators rather than by consumers willing to pay based on emotional connection as well as utility.
Doesn't sound like a great future if you're a car brand. But there is hope – and it depends on those brands' ability to deliver a unique end-user experience.
Car brands as a service
There are few brands as well-defined as those in the car industry. Racing heritage, patriotic country ties, engineering standards and even signature lines and colours are powerful brand attributes, which car marques have carefully cultivated through generations. However, repeating those attributes to the generations to come risks irrelevance.
But brand characteristics have a role to play. If they're set to compete or partner with platform businesses, strong brands have a chance to lever their reputations for continued relevance in the future.
The answer lies in a fundamental pivot for auto brands, in which they focus less on machines than the jobs they can do to help people make progress in their lives. By understanding their core users and the challenges facing them, car-makers may be able to transfigure their products into lifestyle services.
For instance - if Ford follows Toyota into building a multi-purpose network, could its Mondeo brand become repurposed as a family-supporting tool? An operating system for a hectic household to orchestrate family logistics, time and resources – a nanny-meets-housekeeper, automated and reliable.
Alternatively, a suite of executive services could live under the banner of BMW's 5-series. A sleek platform for international business travel which manages a door-to-door journey in comfort could be invaluable for the time-poor business traveller.
In these scenarios, the vehicle itself becomes a nerve centre for relaying and parsing information between a passenger and a wider ecosystem tailored to their needs. The engineering and mechanics of the car are married to a uniquely relevant interface which adds value far above and beyond the vehicle alone.
That vision of the future may sound like sci-fi, but it's grounded in today's innovations. First and foremost is data infrastructure being conceived and trialled in smart city environments like Sidewalk Labs' $50 million redevelopment for Toronto's Quayside district. The infrastructure, technology and architecture systems it proposes are geared to turn the region into a telemetry-rich network for a new wave of services. In the future, plugging into such networks would be crucial for automated cars and their associated services to come to life.
Building on trusted foundations
But, as some of the backlash to these plans indicate, there is distrust of tech companies and their platforms, particularly when it comes to data. What will these systems gather, how will it be stored and who gets to use it?
In this respect, auto brands may actually find an advantage of trust – we have long since trusted these companies with our lives on the road, after all. While groundwork is being laid for data to be gathered, arguably more urgent cultural groundwork is required to ensure the public is happy to provide it.
Automotive brands could find strength in numbers here, by drawing on the cumulative trust and benefits of several brands operating in tandem. For the family example mentioned above, a theoretical Mondeo platform could see Ford join with Marks & Spencer for grocery and clothing deliveries, while a business-travellers' platform could include airlines and hotels to share travel points and offer seamless door-to-door transfers for its users – with everything configured to anticipate and deliver exactly what's needed and when.
Suddenly, the car is back at the centre. A trusted, autonomous, intelligent device to enable peoples' lifestyles. A new must-have device. So much more than a 'car', in the same way a smartphone is so much more than a phone. Many car brands are beginning to see the opportunities over the horizon – the new jobs they could be hired to do in people's lives. But it's a leap – and the journey can't start soon enough.