Dispatch from the 2017 NY Auto Show

The only way for a company to thrive is to think like a smartphone maker or mobile platform — while operating a huge customer service business.

I’m not into cars. I like the Fiat because it looks like a delicious loaf of bread. But I am obsessed with tech and platforms and digital products with massive scale.

When I think about gadgets, dinky plastic things that run on battery power and some blinking lights come to mind. I don’t discount the kind of engineering required to produce them — but it’s not nearly as sophisticated or risky as the engineering required to build cars (or rockets, as I’ll explain in a future post).

Car makers have been in the “automotive technology space” for more than a hundred years, starting with Ford and its Model T, GM, and Chrysler.

They’re the BlackBerry and Pebble of our blessed millennial generation. But like BlackBerry and Pebble, being first means nothing.

Current tech giants such as Uber and Alphabet’s Waymo are squirming their way into the motor vehicle marketplace by way of on-demand rides and autonomous technology. Their services and concept cars are redefining the relationship people have with vehicles — an offensive move.

Automakers, then, are forced to react and adapt to needier (yes let’s admit it, everything has to be our specific, special way) customers and their voracious technological appetites.

I saw this first today with Lincoln’s new chauffeur service. Not only is the company launching a ginormous vehicle this year as part of its legacy business model, but it’s also creating a new way for customers to become emotionally attach to the brand. Have a Lincoln? Need some help? Why go to an Uber when your existing car ownership will give you better perks?

“Luxury is more and more about experiences,” Lincoln president Kumar Galhotra told me while we sat in the swimming pool of an SUV, the 2018 Navigator.

GM’s newish third generation Infotainment platform was the second example.

The company’s head of product Brian Ullem is essentially responsible for designing and running GM’s equivalent of an Android operating system for its entire fleet of vehicles… then skinning it for all the different makes and models. Ullem’s job is to make the UX of the touch screen displays as comparable to smartphones and tablets as possible to limit user friction, but also customize the UI and UX for different classes of vehicles (and customers).

Lastly, Range Rover’s Velar vehicle demonstrated just how easy it is for brands to trap millennials with our insufferable values.

Not only does the new SUV come with the option of a suede-like interior made from recycle plastic bottles, but it also features wool and nice thick stitching so it feels like you’re sitting inside a hoodie or pair of organic sweat pants. The car — which took four years to develop, according to Vehicle Engineering Manager Mark Burniston — is trying really hard to look like it’s not trying hard and — yes, it kind of works. Even with the copper accents on the exterior, which to me seem a grab for the rose gold customer base, and hiring Ellie Goulding to sell the car… I was smitten.

We are inevitably moving to a future where physical driving becomes obsolete. Our cars are turning into computers strapped to an engine and wheels. Regardless of which car or tech brand gets us there in mass scale first is TBD.

But the only way for a company to thrive is to think like a smartphone maker or mobile platform — while operating a huge customer service business. I’m thrilled to watch the players figure this out.