Rethinking The Consequences Of Technology Disruption

What all businesses can learn from the automotive industry

I’ve enjoyed a passion for cars since I was knee-high. I even buy and sell cars as a hobby. I’ve probably owned somewhere close to 60 cars in my lifetime – thankfully not all at the same time. To me, Autotrader is more than a website for buying a car. It’s a form of entertainment – a way to dream of the cars I could have and lust after the cars I will never have. The reality is, I’ll have to find a new pastime as we rapidly head towards deployment of driverless cars. As a car-enthusiast I find myself at odds with my eager anticipation of the arrival of driverless cars. I’m starting to come to terms with my betrayal, and how I now view anything with four wheels and an internal combustion engine through a different set of eyes.

I appreciate cars for what they are and what they represent. Having worked in the car industry for most of my career, I have been part of teams that have poured thousands of years into their development and production. I recognise their functional purpose, design, engineering and quality – and their emotional performance – how they make you feel and the smile they can put on your face, as functional art. It’s just that as things change, so I realise I am entering a new phase in my appreciation of, and relationship with, the motor car.

However, I’m increasingly at odds with a resolute belief from fellow enthusiasts and parts of the auto industry that ‘driving’ still matters. Even as we rapidly accelerate towards a driverless future a dogged determination to retain the ‘feel at the wheel’ remains. I couldn’t disagree more. Increasingly, I don’t even think the driving experience matters today. Driving has become an anathema. For the majority, the driving experience, 99% of the time, is a boring, frequently terrifying and often frustrating experience. It doesn’t matter how much power you have under the hood, in the majority of everyday driving situations, in the majority of cities and road networks around the world, driving has become an experience to endure. The open road, is, unfortunately, rarely that.

Holding on to established beliefs

So, why is the steering wheel being held onto so firmly by the car manufacturers? It’s clear that the likes of BMW, Jaguar and others rest their laurels firmly on the driving experience. They have built their brands on driving heritage and pedigree from the racetrack. It’s how they differentiate themselves, having spent billions on positioning their brands around the ‘driving experience’.

When your very core is under threat from driverless technology it’s convenient for brands to maintain the belief that a driver’s hands on the wheel and connection to the road should never be lost. To quote Iain Robertson, board member for BMW, “The two (autonomy and driving) fit very easily together. We are renowned for Sheer Driving Pleasure, and the Ultimate Driving Machine. The word driving is very much in our DNA. And it’s very much in the brand positioning that our customers enjoy.”

Brand relevance

The question is, what relevance will the likes of BMW have when they continue to push the driving experience in a driverless world? When level 5 fully autonomous shared transport services are available, who will even care that they are travelling in a BMW over a Mercedes? They may care if it’s a premium experience, but not necessarily the make. Do you care if you travel business class on a Boeing or an Airbus? Or do you care more about the seat configuration, pitch and leg room and the standard of service you receive?

The auto industry is moving rapidly towards realising a superior passenger experience, and away from delivering the best driver experience. The continued growth of Volvo demonstrates that comfort, function and convenience are the attributes that a large part of the market cares about. Increasingly, Volvo is finding it is better positioned to transition to, and succeed in, a world of driverless cars than some of their luxury brand counterparts.

Drivers, decisions and safety

However difficult it might be to come to terms with the death of the ultimate driving machine, we are on a relentless path towards passenger engagement and a transformation of the in-car experience. How passengers engage with their environment and occupy their time is the most significant second order consequence of driverless technology. It will open up a whole new avenue of services that will turn the vehicle into a two-way pipeline of communications.

In his blog, Benedict Evans of Andreessen Horowitz, refers to the second and third order consequences of introducing new technologies, particularly around driverless cars. It’s clear that the first order consequence of driverless technology is increased safety and greater convenience of travel. However, it’s often more useful, and perhaps more challenging, to think about the second and third order consequences.

A clear second order consequence of driverless cars is the increased efficiency we will experience as we optimise journey times. It’s easy to imagine how the removal of traffic lights or that platooning will reduce drag and increase in efficiency. However, I believe there will be much greater benefit to society by eliminating human drivers behind the wheel.

As drivers, humans are incredibly inefficient at driving and navigating due to poor decision making, distractions and our, often, emotional responses when sitting behind the wheel and interacting with our surroundings. It is not my intention to offend anyone, even if you possess a driver skill equal to Lewis Hamilton.

Take so called, ‘rubber-necking’ for example, a plague on our motorways today. It’s ridiculous to think this occurs as result of a perverse desire to see an accident or the misfortune of someone else by the side of the road. We cause ourselves delays at the expense of someone else’s misery. Consider the economic impact of traffic jams and queues caused by ‘rubber-necking’ and its eradication under autonomous driving.

I can’t wait for technology to put an end to ‘Sunday drivers’, ‘middle-lane motorway hoggers’, road rage, failing to indicate and the many other traits we have collectively developed in the last 20 years associated with being a ‘driver’.  Over ninety percent of motor vehicle crashes are caused at least in part by human error.

For this reason, I believe autonomous cars can’t come soon enough. No matter how much we emphasise the emotional associations with the car and the ‘joy of driving’, technological progress will change our relationship with how we move.  In the last century, the car has always stood at the forefront of human progression – revolutionising and democratising society in a way that nothing else truly has.

It’s now time for a new phase as we collectively face a new dawn in our relationship with the motor car. It’s a wake-up call for any brand that refuses to change with technological progress. Any business should strongly evaluate the first, second and third consequences of new technology and how they will reshape their business.

Brands need to ensure their values and positioning are compatible with a new world, where technological progress challenges their relevance and very foundation. Transform what you stand for or become obsolete. Accept that everything, not matter how invested you are, either must change or to come to an end. However uncomfortable that feels, no matter the challenge in the short term, reconcile those goals with a long-term ambition to embrace technological change. Adapt or die. Relinquish or hold-on.

For the likes of BMW, perhaps, that means they will instead create the “ultimate driverless machine”. The road ahead will be challenging, but at least autopilot will be there to help.

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