Category Archives: From D&J

Sergio’s Last Stand: Sell Chrysler To Google, Spin off Dodge-Jeep

I’ve written a few posts on our good Italian friend and leader of FCA, Sergio Marchionne, over the last few years. Most notably, I was incredibly critical of his view that combining FCA with any other carmaker was not the way forward. Since that post which he undoubtedly did not read, Mr. Marchionne has not had much luck in convincing any automaker of the argument.

In fact, he’s recently alluded that before his tenure as CEO is up in 2019, he may be changing his tune. Adam Jonas, a Morgan Stanley banker I wish I knew and who’s best known for his provocative bets on Tesla’s success, asked Marchionne if spinning off Jeep and Ram would be possible, to which he replied flatly “yes.”

Mr. Marchionne’s change in tone could signal that it’s more than just possible, but the suitors for who might buy the spun-off brands, or whether they’re just spun into their own public entities that Marchionne still runs is yet to be seen.

For me, FCA has some jewels and some not-so-jewels. The jewels are the red-hot Jeep and Dodge brands that are distinctly catering to unique customer segments very successfully, while Fiat and Chrysler have struggled to produce anything of substantive value. So here’s my thought:

  1. Spin off Jeep-Dodge into their own company. These brands are the most complementary brands in the game in both customers and technology, as can be seen by the now-famous Hellcat and HEMI engines that are advertised and found in both Jeep and Dodge brands. This is a specific example of a brand-transcendent product that is actually extremely hard to get right. Jaguar-Land Rover would look at this pair with extreme envy.
  2. Make Ram a sub-brand to Dodge again. It’s selling well right now in the latest SUV boom, but that’ll come to an end eventually, and I’d not want to be caught holding the bag when that music stops and you have only one product. The new Ram Raptor-fighter will benefit from the awesome engine tech that Dodge and Jeep share, and it’d give the brand back its performance edge on the ultra-hot F-150 and Silverado.
  3. Sell Chrysler to Google. It did not taste well coming out of my mouth, but given Google’s cash hoard, their current dominance in self-driving taxis, and existing partnership with Chrysler around making the Pacifica a self-driving taxi machine, it wouldn’t be a stretch to imagine why Google might want to make this work. Assuming it doesn’t lose money, it’d be like what Google and Apple and all the other tech players that have dominant products do – buy the supplier. In this case, Chrysler’s manufacturing footprint is established and has the processes in place to produce at least as many robo-taxis as Waymo requires. Also, imagine we’re in 2020 and carmakers are competing feverishly with Waymo, Uber, and Lyft for robo-taxi customers. Do you think the automakers are going to be willing to supply their competitors with an unending supply of quality cars? I wouldn’t bet on it. If Google already owned a carmaker, they could dominate this market (something they might do anyway).
  4. Add Alfa Romeo to Ferrari. Ferrari boosted its production when it IPO’d which made shareholders happy and the CEO angry enough to leave, but that won’t keep investors satisfied forever. To maintain the exclusivity of Ferrari while driving value as a company, tucking Alfa Romeo into Ferrari’s fold makes great sense. It also will bolster the reputation by association of Alfa Romeo, a brand that outside of Italy is virtually unknown, but that has strong roots and a distinctive character that could one day put it on the same course as Porsche (maybe). Either way, Alfa could be Ferrari’s growth plan, which would take the pressure off of Ferrari from diluting its brand while injecting some finer breeding into an emerging brand.

As Sergio contemplates his legacy, he’s definitely looking towards not just what to do with FCA, but where and how to leverage FCA’s brands and assets most efficiently. A combination of spin, sell, and move could be in the cards before he hangs his hat for good.

Better Together: A Case For Modular Transportation

Creativity without restraint is a hard concept to grasp because the restraints are generally self-imposed: “what will people think of my answer? Will they think I’m stupid? Or worse, naive?” When posed with a big question like “what should the future of transportation look like?” or “what’s the next big thing?”, most people, myself included, would immediately start mentally searching for the latest report or most dinner-party-friendly response; one that evokes the audience’s polite head tilt and petite frown, signaling they had considered your response in all its nuances and determined it suitable enough.

The obvious problem is that dinner parties are not generally the venues from which groundbreaking thinking flows. And while I’ve generally tried to write the dinner-party-friendly version of my ideas and observations over the last few years, I’m now thinking of, well, not doing that.

My self-posed question is “what does the future of transportation look like?” Here’s my immediate, uncensored thought process:  Connect them. Not in the dumb IoT type of way. When I was little, my grandfather made me my own custom train track to build, but I used it for driving cars on. Would that work? Can we make trains of cars utilize train tracks? What about a train of cars? Isn’t that essentially what a highway is?

Overall, as I try to reconcile nature-based design with the future transportation networks, I am left with the notion that whatever the ultimate answer may be, it has to revolve around the idea of “better together.” The individual modes of transport in the future need to be more efficient when there are lots of them than when they are individually operating. In today’s world, the situation is very much the opposite, as can be discovered quickly between the times of 7 and 9 am and 5 to 6 pm every week day.

The idea of “better together” actually comes from birds, bison, and a host of other herd-like animals that can achieve more efficiency or more safety together rather than apart. Juxtapose this: a bunch of birds in a V-shape all traveling to the same place more efficiently against a bunch of cars going to the same place at an equally slow speed due to congestion. Could we create a train of individual modules (or cars) that are all roughly going to the same place, and then allow individual cars to attach and detach to the train as needed? For longer trips, could we have a skeleton of a train that individual modules can fit into and then collectively power the whole unit? Scale that to planes, could we have a bare-bones, UPS-like plane that a bunch of individual modules power?

The amount of power that you provide to the unit directly affects the price that you have to pay – similar to how if you have solar panels on your roof you can sell the power back to the grid? As a nod to this sharing economy concept, if all of these individual modules are making up the backbone of a plane or a train or a highway-type train, can you “sell” other seats of your module to other people looking to go to that same place? Could we design cars so you still feel separated if you don’t want to necessarily converse with the other person who’s sharing your module on your flight to Miami?

 

Designing From Nature Yields The Biggest Breakthroughs

Diverting from the usual, I want to talk about design, and I want to talk about it outside of the context of high-priced consulting firms (for which I work) and Amazon Echo and the iPod. In fact, I quite literally want to talk about design outside. Nature’s design, besides being a popular buzzword among church clergy, has and will continue to shape what we consider beautiful like the Echo and iPod. Perhaps more importantly, design derived from plants and animals has and will continue to lay the groundwork for the most beautiful and innovative man-made creations in history.

This last statement seems dramatic, but over the last few months, I’ve run across a few examples that demonstrate the evidence that nature does not just inform the finer arts, but widely inspires groundbreaking technologies. For concision, I’m going to select just a few examples of how nature can change the course of human progress, past and ongoing, to prime a further discussion.

Wilbur Wright was inspired by birds in flight. This is a fairly well-known piece of history, but until reading the brothers’ biography by David McCullough, I did not understand the depth of intense study that Wilbur conducted in order to comprehend the science of flight – why buzzards had a certain wing shape, why certain birds were able to fly without wind, and even why birds arched or flared their wings to remain at their preferred height. The design of different birds inspired part of the design of their initial Flyers, and Wilbur continued to leverage birds to test his theories and formulas of aeronautics.

Microsoft is storing data in the form of DNA. As a contemporary example, Microsoft teams are developing a revolutionary way to store data, using DNA as their template. Through the use of A,C,T, and G to store information instead of the standard binary 0 and 1, they’re able to store exponentially more data on the same amount of space. 

These are 2 examples of conscious design derived from nature. But plenty other inventions that have shaped human history were undoubtedly inspired by mimicking nature. The compass is a direct interaction with natural magnetic fields, and SONAR is used by dolphins for communication.

We’ve learned a lot from nature, and in many ways we have profoundly increased the velocity of human progress by listening to it. It’s hard to believe that there aren’t many more groundbreaking, history-altering natural designs staring us square in the face.

From a transportation perspective, can we learn from nature as to how to integrate forms of transportation in the most efficient and safe ways? How does the largest organism on earth, a quaking aspen tree network, deliver nutrients and information correctly and evenly in order to stay alive?

This is the type of question that I believe could provide some exciting answers.

The Valley Can Only Juggle So Many Auto Goliaths

Tech companies, especially those that self-identify as “disruptors”, tend to build their businesses around the idea of pushing the establishment out of their own industry, portraying them as inefficient and greedy dinosaurs that make customers worse off. In many cases this is true, but there may be ways to incentivize them to work with you rather than against you. 

Most trendy tech chooses the obstinate path – confronting the establishment head on. It’s never easy, but, as Netflix and HBO will attest for their respective industry, the results are almost infinitely positive. There’s a big difference, though, between taking on Big <insert industry> and confronting Big Auto. That’s because when you try to disrupt this particular industry in the way that Tesla, Google, and others want to, you don’t just get hunted by Big Auto – you get hunted by Big Oil, Big Gas Station, Big Insurance, and Big Auto Dealer. Any of these 5 groups would be a mammoth to take on, but all 5 is pretty much suicide. They collectively have enough money and lobbying power to probably ex-communicate Tim Cook from America if they tried hard enough.

I actually love the David-and-Goliath mantra of Tesla and Google, but I also think that within this endless war between incomer and establishment, there’s an interesting and perhaps more lucrative proposition for a young auto tech company looking to try their hand.

What would happen if you came up with a solution that made at least some of the incumbents money? You would be the industry white knight that no one (or at least fewer people) was trying to constantly beat into submission.

What would it take? Well, let’s look at where the different incumbents feel cornered:

Big Oil is my number one spouse if I’m trying to get an incumbent to play ball. They’re petrified of lithium-ion batteries because they have no expertise or IP to leverage or commercialize. That’s why they’ve been enthusiastic in flooding Hyundai and Honda and Toyota with funding and R&D support in developing hydrogen fuel cells; this is still a new fuel that no one has cornered yet, and they can retrofit their existing gigantic network of pump stations (that outnumber supercharger networks by like 1000:1). What would happen if a young tech company tried to get a new type of battery funded by Big Oil that they could realistically profit from?

Big Auto is afraid that they will become simply hardware suppliers to Apple and Google like Foxconn is to the iPhone. This is probably an overblown worst scenario, but showing carmakers where they can own the driver experience above what their smartphone can do may perk some ears. 

Big Insurance is worried that their profitable auto insurance business will shrink into oblivion with the dawning of crash less vehicles. I honestly don’t have an good thought here other than people will likely not want their driving habits to be monitored 24/7 in order to determine their insurance rates. Because if everyone is like me, we enjoy getting away with semi-illegal “fuck it” U-turns when we blow past the Taco Bell going ten over on one of those laughable 25 mph main streets. 

Big Auto Dealer has a target on Mr. Musk’s back for challenging the dinosaurs of a pre-digital shopping era. Over the past several years, dealers, content with profiting mightily off of the carmakers’ actual work, failed to transition or react to consumer changes. As such, Mr. Musk takes one for the team, and the industry will be better off for it. 

Point being that perhaps a few incumbents deservedly need to be taken on, but the world of New Auto will undoubtedly still contain many of the same players in the world of Old Auto. Best to choose your battles wisely, and perhaps consider the fact that many incumbents maintain assets and capabilities that could advance new technologies faster and more efficiently than the cash-flush tech companies – gasp!

Connected Cars: Moving from gimmicky jargon to the bedrock of future cars

connected_car_litmus_loop
Photo courtesy of litmusautomation.com

Quick pedestal rant: with anything new or trending, media outlets and business leaders love to name and then profusely overuse their bestowed name for a movement, new business trend, or scandal. They add “-gate” as a suffix to any trivial scandal that probably takes away from the severity of Watergate and they add the words “disruption” and “innovation” to situations and ideas that are probably not either in the hopes of garnering audience attention.

No doubt this type of jargon showboating is effective in bringing new ideas to the public. In the automotive industry, “autonomous”, “access over ownership”, “internet of things”, and “connected” sound cool enough to go viral, yet vague enough for leaders and the media to use them superfluously without ever actually having to explain what they mean or how we accomplish them.

The term “connected car”, above all other auto jargon, leaves a particularly unpleasant tang on my tongue – mostly because carmakers describe connected features more like cute gizmos that you’ll use as much as you use the cigarette lighter for it’s intended purpose rather than game-changing capabilities that enable the driver in unprecedented ways.

WiFi hotspots, a proprietary suite of apps, and using your car to pay for gas are the various touted features of connected vehicles. Groundbreaking. My iPhone does all the same things. There is no value to customers in these features, and there sure as hell isn’t a business case for them either. To be fair, things like WiFi hotspots will lay the groundwork for over-the-air updates which does add value, but carmakers seem very hesitant to say or do anything beyond these gimmicky features.

Ironically, the tables are turned on the autonomous front, technically also a connected technology. Every carmaker has checked the box for buying a very expensive “testing ground” for the technology, touting how fast they’re going to bring a fully-autonomous car to market while confusing customers through their lackadaisical distinctions between automated and autonomous driving, two starkly different concepts.

Another consequence of overusing jargon, terms like “connected” generally lose their meaning as stakeholders and journalists layer on their own definitions and point of view. Fundamentally, connected technology is based on leveraging the internal sensors, transmitters, software, and network connectivity to enable everything from autonomous cars to over-the-air updates to vehicle-to-vehicle communication and beyond.

Connected cars are truly the bedrock of the new automobile, centered around developing and honing the driver-car relationship beyond what we’ve ever been able to accomplish. We’ll create performance cars that respond viscerally to your fingertips on a screen, off-road SUVs that leverage on-board sensors to show the driver the most effective path to take through a HUD (heads-up display) windshield, and luxury vehicles that know your preferences and desires without you asking.

As mentioned, the basis of the connected car is the relationship with its driver. Cars have been probably the one product we purchase with which we genuinely bond. Connected cars will connect (sorry for the pun) people with their cars to forge deeper bonds than has ever been possible. In doing so, we’ll start alleviating some of the pain points with driving (namely traffic and crashes), create cheaper options and ownership methods to enable more people to access cars, and lay the groundwork for an even farther out vision of connecting multiple forms of transportation through the car (think of being able to jump in your car in San Francisco, take the high-speed train to LA, and drive to your office all without leaving your car.)

“The cars of the future will undoubtedly be amazingly connected,” but we’re passed the point at which it should be acceptable to end the sentence with that phrase. If we’re ever going to get there, we have to get beyond WiFi hotspots and proprietary app stores, beyond how fast fully autonomous cars will come to market, and focus on what is going to truly bring value to the driver. The question before any business decision is made with regard to new car tech should be: How does this strengthen the relationship between car and driver? Unconvincing answers should be scrapped.

What’s in an Auto CEO? It’s Anybody’s Guess

I’ve always been more curious about the differences in the backgrounds and ideologies of the big auto OEM CEOs than the similarities. Why? Because there are a few stark and surprising differences that seem to disrupt an otherwise fairly guessable resume for the people at the top of the car food chain. Let’s analyze the following companies, selected not to conform to my biases but rather for the sake of convenience.

Mercedes-Benz: Dieter Zetsche

Age, Place of Birth: 61, Istanbul

Education: electrical engineering, engineering doctorate

Duration at Mercedes: 39 years

Duration in car industry: 39 years


BMW: (soon to be) Harald Krueger

Age, Place of Birth: 50, Germany

Education: mechanical engineering

Duration at BMW: 23 years

Duration in car industry: 23 years


Cadillac: Johan de Nysschen

Age, Place of Birth: 54, unknown

Education: BA in economics, commerce and MBA in finance and marketing

Duration at Cadillac: 6 months

Duration in car industry: 34 years


Audi: Rupert Stadler

Age, Place of Birth: 51, Germany

Education: business management, finance

Duration at Audi (VW Group): 18 years

Duration in car industry: 18 years


Toyota: Akio Toyoda

Age, Place of Birth: 58, Japan

Education: business administration, law

Duration at Toyota: 31 years

Duration in car industry: 31 years


Ford: Mark Fields

Age, Place of Birth: 53, Brooklyn

Education: economics undergrad, MBA

Duration at Ford: 26 years

Duration in car industry: 26 years


Nissan: Carlos Ghosn

Age, Place of Birth: 60, Brazil

Education: engineering

Duration at Nissan: 19 years

Duration in car industry: 19 years


Jaguar/Land Rover: Ralf Speth

Age, Place of Birth: 59, Germany

Education: mechanical engineering

Duration at Jaguar/Land Rover: 5 years

Duration in car industry: 35 years


VW: Martin Winterkorn

Age, Place of Birth: 67, Germany

Education: metallurgy and physics

Duration at VW: 22 years

Duration in car industry: 22 years


Fiat/Chrysler: Sergio Marchionne

Age, Place of Birth: 62, Italy

Education: philosophy, business, law

Duration at Fiat/Chrysler: 11 years

Duration in car industry: 11 years

While this is by no means an exhaustive list of CEOs and is probably skewed in more than one way, a couple interesting patterns and weird outliers seem to emerge. First, despite common sense, there are some very successful CEOs on this list that haven’t touched engineering in their schooling. Among the main three luxury German brands, Audi’s Stadler comes from the business side. Further, there seems to be businessmen and engineers in both mass and premium brands, and a similar mix appears when comparing CEOs that have turned around flailing OEMs versus those that have been historically strong.

Looking at the years they’ve spent with the respective companies and where they’re from does not seem to help create a clear pattern either. Yes, the CEOs tend to come from their homeland, but that’s about as far as one can surmise. Also, a good number of CEOs have been at their company since they entered the workforce, but plenty others have switched around and dabbled into multiple companies.

So is there a formula for who is more likely to succeed into becoming an auto CEO one day? Based on the very limited data I pulled, no. But I believe that by not having a clear pattern of who is CEO material tells us something else about the automotive industry as a whole – it’s not about where you came from, what you studied, or where you’ve worked. In this industry, there is no one formula for success because there are so many ways to succeed (and fail). You can have the most fuel efficient cars, the most profitable cars, the most technologically advanced cars, the most popular cars, the most reliable cars, the fastest cars, the safest cars, or the most differentiated product line of cars.

In any industry, a CEO chooses the direction of the company. In the car industry, the best direction a CEO can choose entails a similar answer to the question of who makes a successful automotive CEO – your guess is as good as mine. The successful auto CEOs have an answer to this question, but it does not appear that a learned skill set or background has prepared them to answer it.

Who Said Gen Y Doesn’t Care About Cars?

Courtesy of techradar.com
Courtesy of Tech Radar

Gen Y and Gen X utilize, shop, and buy cars differently. But why is this shocking?  Every generation does things a bit differently than the last. So when ‘studies’ reveal that “generation Y would rather invest in iPhones than cars,” that’s essentially the equivalent of starting a conversation with “Well back in my day, we did things a bit differently.” Of course they’re more influenced by the internet and tech revolution, but as they grow up, they still need to get places and they’re still having families. All this to say there are more factors driving Gen Y’s car decision making than whether they’d prefer an iPhone to a car.

Fact: Gen Y is buying more new cars than Gen X as of August of this year. Our trusty ‘studies’ show that Y prefers smaller compact cars whereas X prefers larger SUVs. Again, could this be attributed to the natural progression of life? Probably. Like Gen X, they will eventually grow bigger families and salaries that command larger, more premium cars.

So what are the differences that carmakers should actually consider important when they target this crucial customer segment? The big one is that Gen Y cares about experiences over objects, adventures over status symbols. It doesn’t mean as much to them that the car has a BMW crest so much as what the car represents, what it embodies. When car companies start talking about the experiences, the adventures, and the memories that their cars can create, that’s when young car buyers will start to pay attention.

Though I’ve talked about it before in a previous post, Subaru does this incredibly well. All of their cars are catered to a non-pompous, exploratory, outdoorsy lifestyle that happen to resonate with many born after 1980. Their ads portray the cars as enablers, conduits for young people to seek adventure wherever their lives take them. To succeed in this segment, companies need their cars to be part of the customer’s family, a trusty friend accompanying them on their journey.

 

Sources for this post:

http://www.thinkwithgoogle.com/articles/key-to-driving-gen-y.html

http://carbuying.jalopnik.com/turns-out-millennials-buy-more-cars-than-generation-x-e-1614724175