Unusually for a car company, the Lynk & Co 01—the Volvo/Geely joint-venture SUV from an all-new global car brand—itself isn’t the most important part of what they’re trying to do. They want it to be a “smartphone on wheels,” and while that sounds like bad marketing hype, there’s truth to it, from how the cars will be financed to how they’re always connected to the internet.
I learned this today at an event in Berlin, but to get there I had to endure an event that seems like a dress rehearsal for what Satan is planning to do when all the hipsters start showing up.
To set the scene and tone for what Lynk & Co was trying to do, I think I should just tell you about what happened when I first stepped through the door: a young woman in an apron attempted to shove a huge spoonful full of something into my mouth.
In fact, there was a whole gauntlet of young men and women in aprons, brandishing spoons heaped with various strands and chunks and glops, and they all wanted to shove those spoons right in your mouth, immediately.
It was weird. And sort of creepy in a fetishy, forced-infantilization kind of way. Unsettling. I never imagined there’d be a way to serve hors d’oeuvres that could somehow manage to demean everyone involved, but some driven young go-getter tasked with the goal of “disrupting” snacking sure managed to find it.
That’s sort of the tone for the whole event. They were trying so goddamn hard everything rapidly devolved into a caricature of the idealized target Millennial audience the brand believes to be its key target demographic.
While it’d be fun to talk about the painfully cliché DJs and urban decay motif that only comes with throwing a metric assload of money at an event, I’m here to talk about what Lynk & Co is planning on doing that they feel is so radical.
They’re rebirthing Saturn, but now with the internet all over it!
The Smartphone Model For Cars
Sort of. Like Saturn, they’re planning on selling their cars without negotiation, and without overly complex configurators. They’re planning to have just a few basic variants of their 01 SUV to start with, and you just pick between them.
You can buy a car online, it gets delivered to you, and when it needs service, people just come, take the car, do what they need to do, and bring it back. Seamless and easy. It’s a lot like what Tesla does in the U.S., in fact.
They’re even talking about a model where you just “subscribe” to the car, and then upgrade it after a few years or so.
If all this sounds sort of like how people buy and own smartphones, it’s because it’s all they talked about. They called the car a “smartphone on wheels” so many times I was just puking up IOUs for pretentious, difficult food after a while.
But hear me out: Lynk & Co actually has some potentially good and innovative ideas, once you get past all of the marketing hype. And, what’s especially remarkable about these good ideas is how seemingly flexible and unformed they currently are, which, paradoxically, I think will turn out to be a good thing. Let me explain.
See, every Lynk & Co car will be connected to the internet 24/7, on or off, always. Well, I’m sure there’s possible battery-related reasons why something may interrupt this, but for normal use, it’s always connected.
This is why this event felt so Millennial-focused. They’re not after traditional car buyers, or even enthusiasts. They’re going direct for that young, urban market and the different ways they may use cars.
In addition to this, the cars have two very important features: instead of keys, there will be a smartphone-based entry system of some kind, and there’s an API for people to program applications for the car.
What these tools allow is a pretty radical re-thinking of what car ownership means. Sure, you could just buy an 01 at whatever price they set (they’re targeting Hyundai and Kia price-points) and use it like any normal car.
But let’s say you and six friends live in Brooklyn, and it’s hard to find a place to store a car, but you occasionally would love to have access to a car. You and your little car-klatch could communally buy a Lynk & Co 01, and could work out a sharing schedule that made sense.
You’d have access to a car, your payments would be 1/6th of buying, say, a Hyundai Santa Fe, and you would all split garage or parking costs.
(It should be noted Ford just tried something very similar in Austin and no one did it, so while the model sounds great in principle, it has limited real world success.)
Or, let’s say you work eight hours a day, and during that time you think your lazy-ass car should do some working, too. So, you make your car available via a Craigslist ad, you vet potential renters, take their money (via an app ecosystem I was told Lynk & Co would have) and, I guess, hope they return your car on time.
Of course, the more you think about these scenarios, the messier they get. I asked Lynk & Co CEO Alain Visser about these complicated issues—how would insurance work, how would registration work, how do you deal with liability if someone turns your car into a rolling meth lab, all that.
Ideas Without Answers, Yet
I was impressed with Visser’s responses, not because he had immediate, clear answers, but rather because of the open and free way he admitted they were still working on details, and his general open, experimental attitude. This is not something you normally get from a car company CEO.
For some of these, they have work in progress, like for the insurance issues for car sharing. They’re already working on it. They’ve been studying Tesla’s struggle with skipping a dealer network, and learning from that. But they seem to be remarkably open to outside ideas.
For example, I felt that if you’re going to, essentially, AirBnB your car, you’d need a way to stash all the personal shit that everyone’s car is full of: registration papers, old mail, personal items, embarrassing prescriptions, strange pornography, all that stuff that you want to keep private.
I suggested the cars would need some sort of strong, physically-lockable lockbox that all your shit could be easily raked into when you decide to make your car shareable. As I thought about it, I realized that there really should be a whole option package for people who intended to share their cars extensively, a package that replaced the lovely and novel interior materials with hard-wearing, washable rubbers and vinyls and plastics.
You really have no idea if you’re renting out your own car if someone is holding cockfights in the trunk or just decides to live a personal fantasy of wetting themselves while driving. The Shareable 01 Edition would be ready for anything.
Surprisingly, Visser understood immediately and actually seemed to like the idea. This sort of openness shows up in their plans to release an API for third-party app development, with a special app store for the car.
I’m told the API would be able to access over 100 key signals. I was told by David Green, their Chief Digital Officer, that the car generates over 400 GB of data/hour. That’s too much to use, but they’ve picked a set of signals they think has the most potential for use. These include GPS position, fluid and fuel levels, whether or not things like wipers or lights are on, and so on. So far, no camera input or streaming is in there, but I was told that could be possible.
It’s not clear at all what sort of apps they’re expecting to get. And, based on the few sample ideas (weather app based on which cars have wipers on, dating apps, etc.) I don’t think they have much of an idea, either.
And while all of can sound like it’s an invitation to complications and trouble and strange, useless digital playthings, you likely could have said that about the first set of phone apps.
The traditional buying model still exists, too. You can ignore all the sharing and other stuff if you just want a cheaper Volvo. But they are definitely experimenting in these other ways.
There is some value to a car and company and related connected digital ecosystem that I’m pretty sure has potential to alter the way cars are owned, used, and shared. I’m not exactly sure yet what form this will take, and I’m pretty sure that Lynk & Co isn’t sure either.
But I have to give them credit for putting tools out there and seeing what happens. It’s an unusually brazen approach to something as daunting as launching a new car brand, but I think that, after some inevitable missteps and mistakes and false starts, there’s enough here that Lynk & Co could find themselves as the vanguard of a new way to deal with cars.
It’s risky, and it could all end in failure, of course. But there’s some interesting potential here.
I’m still not forgiving them for that creepy spoon-feeding, though.