When I was a young boy grow­ing up in Detroit, you bought a new car every year. If you worked at Gen­er­al Motors, you had to dri­ve their lat­est new mod­el. Same for Ford and Chrysler. It seemed that every fam­i­ly in one way or anoth­er worked for the auto­mo­bile indus­try. It was, after all, the “Motor City”.

More recent­ly, some­thing unimag­in­able (to a Detroit boy) is now part of the reg­u­lar dis­course about auto­mo­biles: cars with­out dri­vers! Real­ly?

It seems that cars are quick­ly becom­ing the new tech­nol­o­gy fron­tier and that all the bells and whis­tles (not horns) of our smart­phones are find­ing their way into our cars. That kind of tech­nol­o­gy is now envi­sioned as increas­ing­ly capa­ble of serv­ing as an “auto-pilot” for cars. The Econ­o­mist has a great arti­cle about this, but you can eas­i­ly find many oth­ers.

From what I glean from a num­ber of sources, some man­u­fac­tur­ers have already tried to inte­grate smart tech­nol­o­gy direct­ly into the dash­board, which is a slow process since new-mod­el cycles of such a pro­duc­tion-dri­ven indus­try puts such inno­va­tions 3 – 5 years into the future. That’s mul­ti­ple life­times in the mobile apps world! Oth­ers have made it pos­si­ble for smart­phones to become inte­grat­ed right into the driver’s cock­pit, thus putting the onus of con­tin­u­al updat­ing onto the phone, not the car’s dash­board. Either way, this could be the shape of the next auto­mo­tive indus­try.

In cul­tures such as the US, the auto­mo­bile is one of the top three places peo­ple spend their time (along with home and office). Now, when in the car, what if you didn’t real­ly have to dri­ve because tech­nol­o­gy con­vert­ed the driver’s seat into just anoth­er pas­sen­ger seat? Giv­en that peo­ple would freely be able to use their smart­phones, the expand­ed poten­tial for man­ag­ing infor­ma­tion and com­mu­ni­ca­tion and enjoy­ing enter­tain­ment would become plen­ti­ful.

How the glob­al auto­mo­bile com­pa­nies respond to this pos­si­bil­i­ty (or is it real­ly an inevitabil­i­ty?) will be a key deter­mi­nant of what kind of future auto­mo­tive choic­es you will have when you select the car or truck you want to, ummm, dri­ve. Dri­ver­less cars with added com­mu­ni­ca­tions capa­bil­i­ties will give a whole new mean­ing to “what is under the hood”. Is this a major change? If it goes the way some are think­ing, you bet. Auto­mo­bile man­u­fac­tur­ing has long been con­trolled by design­ers and engi­neers (and not of the telecom­mu­ni­ca­tion per­sua­sion). Will some future Bill Gates or Steve Jobs choose to be a car design­er instead of a com­put­er geek?

Car BubblesBut will the indus­try choose to move in this way? Up till now, car buy­ers have been attract­ed to deal­er­ships based on the sleek designs, inte­ri­or ele­gance, greater horse­pow­er or fuel effi­cien­cy (but not both) of the cars they car­ry. Then, too, cars have been sold sim­ply because of the “expe­ri­ence” and the “feel” that one has on an open road dri­ving in what they believe is the ultra­mo­bile of all time. Do the auto exec­u­tives who have inher­it­ed a lega­cy of more than 100 years of mass pro­duc­tion effi­cien­cies and emo­tion­al­ly com­pelling style choic­es have what it takes to answer the dri­ver­less call? And will buy­ers open their wal­lets sim­ply because a new car gives them time to read and write more emails? When dri­ver­less cars are as com­mon as, say, hybrids are today, what will be the most com­pelling val­ue propo­si­tion for prospec­tive buy­ers?

More ques­tions than answers, to be sure. To me, this seems to rep­re­sent anoth­er con­ver­gence of things that were once mutu­al­ly exclu­sive­ly. We now live in a world that takes a harsh view on dis­trac­tive com­mu­ni­ca­tion while you’re dri­ving. Soon, that may not mat­ter.

I am plac­ing my bet on those auto man­u­fac­tur­ers that sensed ear­ly that some­thing dri­ver­less was on the hori­zon and took the steps to exper­i­ment with these dar­ing new pos­si­bil­i­ties. Their 2015 – 16 mod­els are still on draw­ing boards, and I for one can’t wait to see what’s com­ing. And while there are clear­ly engi­neer­ing and design chal­lenges aplen­ty, the real chal­lenge (hence, oppor­tu­ni­ty) is think­ing dif­fer­ent­ly about what the auto­mo­bile can become and how that will dri­ve (pun intend­ed) the buy­ing deci­sions of the next gen­er­a­tion of car buy­er-pas­sen­gers. In the mean­time, I plan to pon­der the won­der of the 50th anniver­sary Mus­tang with my fin­gers crossed that it still needs to be dri­ven.

PS: Some good thoughts on this sub­ject can also be found in this FT arti­cle by Emi­ly Steel. There’s also a super arti­cle by Jamie Page Deaton on “How Dri­ver­less Cars Will Work”; it’s well worth your time as well.

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