I’ve been working with teams in the automotive industry for many years now. In some cases with startups trying to disrupt a part of the mobility ecosystem, in other cases with worldwide leaders of this market. Right now, I’m even in charge of focusing the go-to-market efforts of a group of startups in a transversal incubation program purely on mobility. I can’t say that I know these markets inside out, but I’ll admit that I start to have a fair grasp on what drives innovation around – pun intended.
Although after a few years in consulting, or in business in general, you know that there is a moment when things click together. Not only do you understand the logic of it all, but you gut-feel it. That’s the proverbial ten thousand hours of practice, the capability of thin-slicing a problem with surgical laser-clarity because you’ve been playing all the angles for so long, so many times. I don’t know really how it works for others, but in my case getting there always requires a pivotal experience that will help me click everything together.
It happened to me this weekend during a very mundane experience.
I was watching an honest-but-really-not-that-good documentary on Netflix on how Ford is making the Mustang and has been doing it since the sixties. Really, this is not by any mean a fantastic documentary. It’s the kind of thing that you’ll end up watching to kill an hour because you’ve already seen anything worth your time on Netflix, and you just want to unplug your cerebral cortex for a bit.
Watching what looked like a cute infomercial on how engineers at Ford’s are so dedicated, down-to-earth people, who feel the pulse of America and really, really do their best to manufacture the next version of this icon, while dealing with costs, hurdles, and engineering problems, was kind of “meh”.
But it all clicked together.
I mean I’ve been working with these guys. Not THESE guys at Ford’s, but all the other guys from other automotive companies, from competitors or their partners, people in their supply chain, people hosting their servers, people designing cloud solutions for them, people working in sound design for the car, people that invented the digital dashboard, or new clean exhausts system. And something always escaped me at the end of the day.
The thermic car is an artifact of the past.
This is a sobering thought: there is no serious reason to have thermic cars on the market anymore. It has become a crass, cumbersome, inelegant solution to all the problems it should be solving. Watching every hoop they had to jump through every day, every week and month to redesign a Mustang and deliver the new iteration to the market was crazy. And again, I perfectly knew it. It just didn’t click completely in my brain.
Remove the thermic engine from day one, parts number in the car decrease brutally, you remove 80% of the hoops, and problems dissolve exponentially. Design and conception can now fully focus on the car as a transportation system, which is both a utilitarian thing and a pleasure thing (we’re somehow still speaking of the Mustang).
Remove this complex piece of hardware and you’re jumping from mechanical watch-making to simple, ultra-efficient quartz technology.
Except that in that case – and this is the worst blow to how Ford-like companies think of their business – pleasure is still there. Don’t even try to argue on this one, you are on the wrong side of history. Thank or blame Tesla for that, but there’s no way anymore to ignore that EV can’t bring the sheer mischievous pleasure of driving… scratch that… PILOTING a supercar. Not only pumping five years of design, engineering and work in a thermic car have become absurd, it probably also holds you back in delivering the best car possible.
Of course, there’s a catch.
This catch we all know it, because we’ve read and listened to Clayton Christensen and because we learned that companies are not entities of crystalline reason. Companies are people. And people do things in certain ways. When 80% of the time involved in designing and producing a car is about the thermic engine, 80% of your teams are to some degree specialized in dealing with that matter. Your culture is focused on optimizing thermic performance, feeling and hearing glitches the way a carburetor tics or tacs, engineering pieces that gracefully adapt to extreme temperatures and rapid cooling offs, tracking and removing parasite vibrations propagating to the steering wheel. You excel at that. You are a collective of people fighting, bickering, struggling and finding epiphanies on your own on all these subjects. You’ve been doing that for decades. That’s how you compete with the rest of the industry and best them when you’re really aligned together for long enough.
Now, let me remove all the need for this. How fiercely are you going to fight me?
And let no one speak ill of your craft because it is a thing of beauty. You are Japanese swordsmiths, only doing things more complex. You have distilled your craft to the ultimate level of Zen. And yet, reality is a bitch: your craft is not required anymore. There’s no reason to keep it alive, except for sentimental reasons, culture and art – pretty strong reasons if you ask me, but not your past market anymore for sure.
The souls of the car industry, the pleasure of driving, the freedom of it, has been transferred in the other craft. A craft where the car can now really shine, not as an accessory to the engine. This is a fucking huge paradigm shift, and it boils down to that.
Of course, you’ll cry, shout, and deny it. You’ll invoke range anxiety (gone within the next five years), the pleasure of noise and vibrations in your spine (adapt and enjoy the woof of your EV supercar slicing the air with ungodly acceleration), and so many things that will be in the end irrelevant. You’re people from Ford, I’m not going to explain that when you started your business people were probably fighting you because horses smelt good in the early morning. Travelers of the past had probably special cell’s captors in their brain, connecting the mix of leather and horse shit smell to pleasure.
And yet you knew that a faster horse was not the solution because you were the one to disrupt this business. Hell, you still brag about it to this day with a car (if anything else) to embody that spirit of the past. You called it a MUSTANG.
The sad thing is that there’s no way that traditional automotive companies can adjust, pivot and gradually adapt to a new paradigm. Most of their DNA is in the past, and removing it would reset all businesses in territories where they are all on par, and not terribly good. Also, it’s not only about them, it’s also about the thousands of subsidiaries and companies in their value chain that compound the inertia of the ecosystem.
In the end, you cannot scale down your DNA.
This is something that we forget when we look back at Kodak (or Nintendo right now) and think that, duh! they should have seen it coming… Innovation is a bitter-sweet thing.
Now, before nostalgia hits you too hard remember that Japanese swordsmiths were your regular neighborhood arm-dealer making sure that your feudal overload militia was able to cut you down because you looked at them in an inappropriate way this morning. In a less dramatic way, Ford happily destroyed a large chunk of the US automotive market in the early sixties.
Designed on the cheapest platform Ford could find at the time (the Falcon if you have to know), they ran a design contest on the cheap, to repackage a low-cost offer for young baby-boomers (think “millennials with money”). They bet on the opposite of the traditional long, slow, family wagon with pointy things at the back. They invented the first mass-market indulgence car for a bored generation. This was brilliant, and also a tsunami that still ripples in our current reality.
Can you imagine past the Tesla M, further down the road three years from now, what will be the next Golf GTI designed by an EV-native company? Because none of the thermic-native companies of the last century will do it. Oh, mind you, they WILL show it to you. They’ve already been doing it for a few years now with quite thrilling cars – even if they’re not fully there yet. They just don’t expect that you’d buy the car. They have to bet against the market on this one, play a game of trade shows and press conferences, convince investors that they are future-proof while not budging from their core business for as long as they can afford. Which is certainly another ten years?
That’s plenty of time for your average executive. Why bother so much?
Then, of course, meanwhile others are clicking innovation together…