Automotive Blogs

COVID-19: Yesterday's Gone, or is It?

by Roger Lanctot | 5月 29, 2020

Some people, U.S. President Donald J. Trump among them, will have you believe that one day, soon, we will wake up and everything will be as it was before the arrival of COVID-19. I don’t think that’s possible.

COVID-19 robbed human beings around the world of their liberty, their ability to move. We all learned that we could survive that movement deprivation, but we have also learned how much movement meant to us.

Car companies are in the movement business and the onset of COVID-19 was an existential threat to the industry. The world is beginning to get back to normal, but we are confronting a new normal where movement and human interactions are a source of peril.

Competing in this new environment demands innovation and accommodation to a newly-emerging element of fear in daily decision making – and vehicle selection and operation. How companies respond to these new demands will redefine brand perceptions and product and service satisfaction.

The most notable change from the non-vehicular world was Twitter’s decision, this week, to commence annotating President Trump’s Twitter posts. For the automotive industry, post-COVID-19 innovation will take many forms from new uses of materials and sensors to the introduction of reconceived or entirely new kinds of vehicles. (Fortunately, those kinds of innovations don’t involve the President, or do they?)

One of the most amazing developments in the automotive industry’s response to COVID-19 was the nearly instantaneous effort to commence the production of ventilators. Multiple car companies around the world stepped forward and fired up production lines to produce a wide variety of ventilators – something they had never done before.

We are starting to move again. And things have changed since COVID-19 arrived on the scene. The nimbleness exhibited in the shift to ventilator production now must be applied to creative responses to anticipating customer desires in this post-COVID-19 world.

Most notable of all is the fact that cities around the world have accelerated their efforts to limit the use of cars and privilege pedestrian access to public streets. Car companies will do well to take note that cars, as we know them, now more than ever, are an endangered species.

From Paris to London to New York, Mumbai, and Shanghai, city leaders have seen the future. They have seen their streets freed from vehicles and their skies freed from smog. That vision cannot be un-seen. As Fleetwood Mac sang, “yesterday’s gone.”

To prepare for this new normal, car companies need to fire up their innovation engines. Things may look like they were in January 2020, but nothing is the same nor can be the same ever again.

But innovating in the automotive industry is an enormous challenge. Automotive engineers come up with great ideas for saving lives and exciting customers every day, but getting a good idea from computer rendering to carpark is a challenge.

General Motors is a good example. GM is the home of great transportation ideas gone wrong. If you want to do something in motorized transportation chances are good that GM has already done it and proved that it won’t work.

In “Car Guys and Bean Counters” former senior GM (and Chrysler and BMW) executive Bob Lutz complains about the egotists and blowhards that damn near destroyed GM on multiple occasions with their hubris and stupidity. (Of course, Lutz contributed some of his own – but he wrote the book and got the last laugh.)

Lutz documents the decision –making challenges facing car companies. In fact, it is something that GM’s original OnStar head Chet Huber himself documents in his book: “Detour.”

The challenge for car companies is that they bring together the best lawyers, the best engineers, the best accountants, and the best marketers each of whom, individually, has his or her own idea of what the next vehicle should be. A strong vision in the CEO seat is necessary to define the company’s strategy and mediate the inevitable management strife. (Lutz thankfully had Rick Wagoner running interference for him.)

GM is a unique case when it comes to innovation. The company has a long history of being ahead of its time and failing to capitalize on visionary creations. For example:

Electrification: GM’s now-infamous EV-1 was the first mass produced electric vehicle. It was leased to customers between 1996-1999 before being discontinued.

 

Autonomy: The Autonomy – shown at the 2002 Detroit Auto Show - was a so-called “skateboard” vehicle architectural element with in-wheel motors and an electric powertrain that could be configured with different “tophat” passenger compartment add-ons.

Autonomous: The EN-V was a two person, 2- or 4-wheel small vehicle created for the 2010 Expo in Shanghai and equipped with vehicle-to-x communications for autonomous operation.

These inventions preceded the likes of Tesla Motors and Waymo, just as GM’s OnStar connectivity system – launch in 1996 – preceded Waze. (GM might have collected vehicle probe data via OnStar for the purpose of creating enhanced traffic and navigation services for OnStar users – but chose not to leverage the service for that purpose – most likely due to privacy and cost considerations.)

An amusing footnote on GM innovation was the creation of “Quiet Servant” – an early voice recognition system described in Lutz’s “Car Guys.” Lutz was flummoxed by the system’s menus during a test drive and he vetoed the entire project.

We’re all beginning to move again and we’re all thinking about how we want to move. Car companies and transportation innovators will do well to consider what has changed and recognize that nothing will be the same.

Car makers like GM have the advantage of being able to pull old ideas out of mothballs and reconsider them in this new context. EN-V may have seemed like a crazy idea back in 2010, but maybe it is worthy of another look – or maybe there are elements of that product created in partnership with Segway that make sense today.

Will we insist on moving in our personally owned and operated vehicles in the future? Under what circumstances will we be willing to share transportation resources? Can mass transportation recover? 

There are some bigger contextual questions regarding remote working and unemployment, but I hope we can all agree that nothing will ever be the same. The new normal calls for new thinking regarding the products and services that humans will be seeking – especially in transportation. Yesterday’s gone.

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