Rethinking Detroit and the automotive industry

In his Mobile World Congress keynote in Barcelona, Ford Motor Company Chairman Bill Ford rolled some eyes with his thoughts on technology and the future of the automotive industry.  The move to driver-less vehicles, envisioning a future still in development but very much on the horizon.  To many this may seem far-fetched, a future beyond our years.  However Mr. Ford’s comments were  based on some sound statistical metrics.  With the world population set to grow from 7 billion to 9 billion by 2050 and  automobiles set to grow from 1 billion on the road today to 4 billion by 2050.  In conjunction with these numbers it is expected people will continue to migrate to large metropolitan areas.  We are entering an era where we are going to be creating some major environmental issues and huge traffic congestion issues.  Is what Mr Ford touting revolutionary?

Well on the surface yes and I would argue and agree with Mr Ford that in time, we will enter a future where we are not as responsible for our driving as some would like to be.  Many cars today already come with a GPS system, many have satellite radio, have a connection for our iPhone so we can stream music via Pandora or play whatever we have purchased and loaded from iTunes.   As car technology matures the amount of data we will be able to capture, analyze and utilize will only increase.  We should be able to get a lot of information about drivers driving behavior. As cars move through the streets of America, we will also be able to capture information about the surroundings that they are traveling through.  Your insurance company would love to have this information so they could adjust your rates up or down.  A car is becoming a data collection device among other things.  How we manipulate and utilize that information will be a topic of hot discussion in the years to come.

The most dangerous thing about a car today is the people who drive them.  In fact it has pretty much been that way since Henry Ford rolled the first Model T’s off of the assembly line in Detroit.  The thing that makes humans interesting is their imperfections.  In most cases we inspire by doing the right thing or taking the right action.  However when we make the wrong decisions the results can be disastrous.  How many people are killed every year due to a drunk driving accident?  Or perhaps drivers who just have the thrill for speed or are just in a plain hurry and make reckless driving decisions?  Overall the statistics are pretty grim as is pointed out in Wired magazines article between 2001 and 2009, American roads claimed the lives of 369, 629 people. What if those choices were taken away?  To some (like myself), oh great joy.  I can just program in an address and let the vehicle get me there.  I might even be able to read a book or just enjoy the landscape on my drive.  No traffic issues as my auto computer has determined the quickest route to my destination base on up to the second traffic information received through the wireless network it receives.  My gas mileage will also be regulated and optimized, thus increasing my miles per gallon.  To those who scream at the thought of not being able to drive their beloved roadster and push the pedal to the metal I have but one phrase, “Get over it”.  As drivers you need to all understand.  Your precious driving ability can be summed up simply compared to what you will be competing with, “You suck”.  Your human, live with your imperfections. In the end technology moves forward gaining velocity as it does.  To try to stop or deny its progress is a waste of energy.  Look at the bright side you will now be able to text while driving.

Now that I have railed against everyone’s inadequacies I shall give you room to breathe.  When will all this happen?  As Mr. Ford has observed on his travels to the Silicon Valley, Detroit is in Michigan not California.  The entrepreneurial spirit is not evident in Detroit, at least not at the speed in which to make these changes happen.  The ability to shift and move quickly is not part of the old school automotive industry DNA.  This has always been a challenge for Detroit.  They did not see any of the oil shocks over the past four decades.  Every time oil prices go down they abandon ship on any typo of alternative fuel.  They seemingly have an amazing ability to not think about the future.  When you think of hybrid vehicles who do you think of?  The Toyota Prius.  There is about to be a slew of new competitors as both India and China get in the game.  Given their limited natural oil resources they are motivated to look at alternative fuels to feed their increasing upward mobile societies. Given the current price of gas (over $4 a gallon n Washington State). Are we looking within ten years?  Maybe.

The February issue of Wired magazine had an article regarding the state of robotic vehicles today.  Companies like Google are at work on creating the driver less experience on the roads of Silicon Valley.  They have prototypes on the road of the bay area today creating the experience of a vehicle with no driver.  Many auto manufacturer for years have had offices in the Silicon Valley to push technology into the vehicles we drive.  These include the likes of BMW and Mercedes.  Anyone who has had an older car can always marvel at the simplicity of the motor.  Look under the hood of today’s vehicle wonders is their room to out anything else in the vehicle’s engine space.  But cars are evolving as many come with new digital features with every iteration.  We can regulate temperature, get directions, satellite radio, cruise control,break systems, etc..It does raise a whole new set of regulatory issue that will need to be addressed. In Nevada they having already passed law regarding unmanned motor vehicles.  Many auto accidents today you can point to driver error.  What happens when you have a bug in the software that leads to an accident?  Do you then sue Chrysler?

The car, as Wired writer Tom Vanderbilt explains, is becoming a digital platform that we can, through the magic of software, create new value streams.   When the discussion of digital convergence first became a phrase we limited ourselves to media converging and being made available via the internet. But in the future it is apparent it will be far greater  than media, Technology will be pervasive in everything we touch.  We have entered an error where software in increasingly flying away from our desktops (Remember the Flying Toasters Screen Saver??).  Software will invade every aspect of our mechanized world in ways many have not imagined before.  The Americans beloved motor city automobile is no exception.  Detroit is a city as has well been documented that has struggled mightily since the oil shocks of the seventies.  A major US city that is actually shrinking as housing projects are being torn down and turned back into farm land.  As has always been the case in US history to see the future one only needs to look west.

Good Night and Good Luck

Hans Henrik Hoffmann March 9, 2012

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