5 min read

Car manufacturers are the new Nokia

Car manufacturers are the new Nokia
Photo by Matt Hearne / Unsplash

For anyone seriously involved in innovation, it’s stunning to realize that the industry learned nothing from early 2000s Nokia. People still think of the car industry as a hardware business. It’s all about the car, the engine, the brakes, the dashboard, the performance, the security, and the comfort. We barely register that vehicles are now being hacked into, that accidents happen because of dozens of millions of lines of code that make a modern suburban vehicle today, or that mapping, geolocalization, and communications are now indispensable.

Now consider the autonomous vehicle market and cut through the wishful thinking debates: it’s not a new market growth in a new envelope. It’s a replacement market trying to push into a shrinking envelope. It’s probably why the autonomous car is currently thought of as the CD was, for the magnetic tape. It seems to be a pretense of making current customers renew what they already have, pay more for it, and become even more locked in with the industry.

The slight problem that no one wants to look in the eye is that the autonomous car brings nothing to customers. Not even more eco-friendliness and probably no security in the foreseeable future (and by the way, let’s see how the first thousands of kilometers outside of the gentle, sunny, and dry Californian weather work out).

When mobile phones appeared, they were pretty much in the same spot. They were thought at first to be an upgrade from landlines, managed as a premium product by the telecom operators, and we're not bringing any tremendous added value to anyone outside of key executives' circles.

Then many things happened, and slowly the market started to appear.

Eventually, this market hit critical mass, and network effects transformed it into a wildfire, and here we are today, spending a significant part of our life plugged into our mobiles.

But during all this time, every phone manufacturer was stuck in a hardware paradigm: how do we make the sexiest phone? How do we offer the most functionalities, the cheapest mobile, the most elegant one, etc.? The best player in that game was Nokia, introducing every six months ground-breaking technical innovations, such as the first camera on the phone, the first data connection, then, lo and behold, the first mobile internet connection.

They died a shameful death being number one at selling mobiles on the planet, not making money and being ignored everywhere except in Africa and India as sturdy commodity products.

The now well-understood drama of Nokia was to be the best at what wasn’t that important for the market: the product itself, missing the critical element: the underlying platform that operates the product connects people and opens up the market to exponential growth.

History repeats itself perfectly with the autonomous car, and car manufacturers are the new Nokia.

As it is, a car is everything but just a piece of hardware. For what it’s worth as a comparable, there are more lines of codes in a modern car than in Facebook backend.

This will probably double or triple in just a few years from now…

It’s early 2016, and the car is already under a perfect storm of network effects, meshing together communications, mapping, weather, photos, video, music, payment, shopping, social experience, and more. There is no doubt that the one building the most pervasive platform will own this market.

How many car manufacturers are working on the underlying transportation platform? Or, to be fair, how many of them have an authentic platform culture and corresponding key assets?

The thing also is that such a platform may or may not be for consumers first.

Dream all you want, but it’s doubtful that by 2020 laws and regulations will bend to adapt the autonomous vehicle for Main Street. Among the many problems that will stop that, there are probably two that will predominate:

  • Fatal accidents caused by the irreducible 0.001% blindsight of autonomous vehicles would be much less socially acceptable than drivers killing themselves or each other. As bad as they are, we are used to the latter. And in a culture that thinks that total security can be achieved, we won’t react like the proverbial Homo Economicus: even if the road death toll falls 50%, we’ll reject “the horror” of machines killing people. And then who are we going to blame? The car manufacturer? The non-driver using the car? The city?
  • Even before we get there, we won’t switch off overnight the car as we know it. What will happen when we have 20% of autonomous vehicles on the street? Who’s going to give them away when they have priority, knowing that no matter what, they will let you pass for security's sake? How bad will be the impact of autonomous cars driving around in cities while the rest of the traffic will react in oh-so-slightly different ways?

So in all probability, if you want to predict the future of the autonomous vehicle, you should probably look more into trucks isolated on dedicated highways lanes. We were promised video games with our kids while the family drives around all by itself; we’ll get freight convoys reinventing train logistics with dirt-cheap infrastructure and real-time supply chain management.

Then ask the question again: who’s working on that?

Like with Nokia all over again, it’s not a Toyota, GM, or BMW that will lead this market. And if we were still in the early 2000s, it could have been an IBM or an SAP stealing away the autonomous vehicle market.

But we were now in 2016, and there’s a huge difference: the platforms are already there, powerful, sitting on mountains of cash, and very active.

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In 2011, when NOKIA’s CEO, Stephen ELOP, addressed his teams in the now-famous “burning platform” memo, he wrote:

The first iPhone shipped in 2007, and we still don’t have a product that is close to their experience. Android came on the scene just over 2 years ago, and this week they took our leadership position in smartphone volumes. Unbelievable.

If you’re currently on the board of any car manufacturer, you could probably change iPhone for Tesla, Android to… Google car, and resend the memo Monday morning to your teams.

Except that, hey, you don’t even have a platform yet.