Winter is coming for car manufacturers. An Autonomous Winter, without end. If you’ve seen what Tesla is doing with Autopilot, and all they plan to do with it, you’ve already seen the future. Now it’s up to automakers to figure out what they want to be in this new world as quickly as possible.
Don’t think so? It’s because no one can remember anything that happened before the VW emissions scandal. While everyone is talking about the future of diesel and the consequences for VW, two big announcements were made around the Frankfurt Auto Show have been mostly forgotten: Google’s hiring of former head of Hyundai Motors America John Krafcik as CEO of their Self-Driving Car Project, and Daimler CEO Dieter Zetsche’s claim that “we do not plan to become the Foxconn of Apple.”
No matter how cataclysmic the fallout of the VW scandal, trust me, these two items are bigger long-term. We’re talking about setting the scene for things that are decades into the future, not just years.
Understanding why requires putting the scandal in the context of much larger changes coming in the automotive marketplace. VW’s malfeasance merely highlights the coming shift in the dominant form of propulsion for cars in the near term. VW bet big on diesel at the expense of EV and hybrid research and lost, ceding years to Toyota and Tesla.
The end of TDI may be a blessing in disguise, however, should VW—once out of the woods—refocuses their R&D on the future rather than incremental (and illusory) improvements of legacy technology. If they can afford to after the coming payouts. If they survive in their current form.
The bigger issue is the coming Autonomotive Singularity. It will take decades to get there, and probably a lot longer, but however long its timeline, the tipping point will come when 1) EV range begins to match and exceed that of ICE vehicles, and 2) EV charging infrastructure enables ICE-level convenience. The march of progress won’t stop until every manufacturer has slid down the ICE/hybrid/EV continuum, and superchargers become ubiquitous.
Between now and then manufacturers will continue to market Autonomous Driving (AD) at some marginal pace, waiting for Google, Apple, Uber, Didi Dache and Tesla to bear the expense of figuring out what people will actually pay for.
Autonomy is the Hinge
Meanwhile, manufacturers ignore an unforeseen consequence of AD to their peril: the winter I refer to has to do with the future of car sales. All car sales. Numerous studies suggest that the proliferation of Autonomous Cars may decrease the number of cars on the road by up to 70 percent.
A seventy percent reduction in cars on the road. Forever.
Read that again and let it sink in. That’s my definition of an Autonomous Winter.
Let’s suppose the studies are wrong. Let’s suppose new car sales only declined by half, or 40 percent, or even 30 percent. That’s still a huge decline, and for several manufacturers will mean life, death or acquisition.
The rise of Autonomous Car sales may seem like an opportunity, but it is in fact the hinge upon which the door of opportunity will close for manufacturers unprepared for the inevitable long-term collapse of car sales.
Studies suggest that every AD car deployed will take nine to 13 human-driven cars off the road. Whatever the size of the future car market, any real growth is going to come from the AD side, and herein lies the problem.
Mobility Brands vs. Driving Brands
The future of any given manufacturer will be determined by how successfully they manage their brands in a market split between Mobility customers and Driving customers.
There are two schools of thought in AD: 1) Ditch steering wheels and 2) Keep steering wheels. Google isn’t just in the first school. Google IS the first school. Google has clearly stated that humans are best left out of driving, and we all know Uber will cut costs at the first opportunity.
Established automakers are in the second school, and the market is their teacher. The market speaks only of keeping steering wheels, because it knows nothing else. If your brand is inextricably linked to the relationship between car & driver (I’m speaking to you, BMW, Mercedes & Audi), there is zero chance you will be first to release a car without a steering wheel because although you build cars you sell Driving.
If your brand isn’t bolted, welded or glued to Driving, even if you build a sports car and/or offer sporty variants of anything else, you’re selling Mobility.
It’s why the Lexus F-models, however good, don’t move the enthusiast meter. Mobility and Driving used to be the same thing. The rise of AD is forcing a wedge between the two, and the arrival of the first car lacking a steering wheel will open a chasm.
There was a time when manufacturers had their specific areas of expertise, of specialization. When brand meant something. Or claimed to. Comfort, or handling, or reliability or safety. Those days are over. We now live in an age of screaming Range Rovers tuned for the Nürburgring. Now that manufacturers have a stake in every segment, and every model makes every claim, and entry-level models can be up-trimmed to within 90% of the functionality and bolt-on cosmetics of halo models, how are brands to differentiate themselves?
If manufacturers want to survive in the AD world, they have to stop worrying about mirroring their competition in the next product cycle and start thinking about what the market will really look like three or four cycles out. They will have to decide which side of the chasm they’re on.
Brands that double down will likely survive. Brands that attempt to straddle the chasm are going to have a very hard time.
BMW is the first-mover in such a straddle. The i3 defines Mobility, whereas the i8 is a very forward-thinking Driving product, and yet both fall under the i brand, which—as a sub brand—is itself doing the straddling. Simultaneously, the same hybrid technologies in the i3 and i8 are available in traditional BMW products, yet barely marketed.
Given how BMW and Mercedes have mirrored each other product for product for 10+ years, the latter’s choice not to do so in this particular strategy seems telling.
Opportunities in a Split Market
Someone will have to build cars for people who want the option of a steering wheel. Someone will have to sell to Uber and China’s Didi Dache, whose #1 goal is to remove the steering wheel. Who will it be?
Thirty years from now, 99 percent of cars on the market will be capable of full autonomy, but not every car on the market will have a steering wheel. That will be the dividing line between Mobility brands and Driving brands.
Mobility brands will probably be wasting their time by keeping a toe in Driving, but Driving brands - in order to remain and survive as Driving brands - would be insane to offer pure Mobility products, except for premium customers who want, say, a fully Autonomous S Class. Their bodyguards will still need somewhere to sit. I don’t think that will be a big market.
Mobility brands will thrive in the new market, under their own banner and/or as OEMs for Apple, Google, Uber or Didi Dache.
If Driving brands are to survive, they will have to spin off their Mobility products under sub-brands, compete with Mobility brands for manufacturing contracts like Google’s, and/or partner with other Driving brands to launch their own Uber-like platform. Soon. New inefficiencies will rise even for those who take these actions.
Obviously, Ferrari will double down. Morgan, hilariously, will putter on.
Brands that don’t make a clear choice - brands that fall on both sides of the chasm - will give “brand dilution” a whole new meaning. The day BMW releases an M car without a steering wheel, the Mercedes marketing team will launch fireworks to celebrate their decision not to. Don’t laugh. It will happen. But it might happen the other way around. Because the shrinking pool of people who want a steering wheel they don’t use will want to own the purer brand.
The Driving brands who lag in taking action will fall prey to consolidation.
No one wants to be the slowest shark in an evaporating pool. This is why Krafcik’s hiring matters.
The First Two Shots In The Next War
Sure, Krafcik is an engineer. Sure, his dream as a kid was to design cars. Sure, he owns a 997 and loves it. Sure, his heart is in Driving products. But his head - his intellect - is now in Mobility products. He’s now head of self-driving cars at Google. Google is leading the crusade toward the Autonomotive Singularity. It’s a crusade to remove the steering wheel.
Krafcik may now be at the head of that crusade. Although Google hasn’t declared plans to manufacture AD cars, Krafcik certainly know how. He coined the term “Lean Production System.” He was the first plant manager at NUMMI. And he’s going to start looking for someone to build cars. Someone bigger than Roush. Soon. Sergey Brin himself said they want to do this: “I expect as we bring it to scale, we’ll moreso partner, including with top-tier OEMs.”
If I was a manufacturer, I’d call Krafcik. Soon. I’d also look up whoever’s in charge at Didi Dache, and that French car-sharing startup whose name I can’t remember. I just wouldn’t use Google to do it.
I know who won’t be calling Krafcik: Dieter Zetsche. If Daimler won’t be the “Foxconn of Apple”—in other words, simply the factory that makes for others—then Zetsche’s already decided so. Daimler will straddle the chasm, pouring monumental sums into a brand-diluting strategy he hopes will stave off the coming winter.
While VW burns.
Roy is really proud of coining the phrase “Autonomotive Singularity.” Roy is President of Europe By Car, the founder of Team Polizei, a columnist for Jalopnik, a host on /DRIVE and author of The Driver - which depicts his 2006 NY-LA Transcontinental Driving Record, accomplished in 31 hours and 4 minutes. He also the Producer of The Great Chicken Wing Hunt & 32 Hours 7 Minutes, was Chairman of The Moth from 2002-2007, won The Ultimate Playboy on Sky One, has competed in LeMons & the Baja 1000, and holds a variety of driving records which must still remain secret.
Top graphic credit Jim Cooke