The struggle to stay fresh in the mobility industry

Is mobility actually a thing? Or is it just our attempt to make something old new again?

Earlier this year, we brought together some industry experts and thought leaders to ruminate on the evolution of the automotive space, and to discuss the elusive notion of “mobility”. It was enlightening to hear the different perspectives of these seasoned automotive experts — Reilly Brennan from the Stanford Revs Program, Elliot Martin from the Transportation Sustainability Research Center at UC Berkeley, Zach Barasz from BMW iVentures, and Alex Roy, editor of Time’s The Drive.

We debated topics from connected cars to whether the car enthusiast was destined for the endangered species list, and the key takeaway was that the automotive industry is changing faster and more dramatically than ever before. From connectivity to autonomy to the ongoing struggle of OEMs to stay relevant, so-called “mobility” players are angling to stay ahead of the next big thing. But the question remains, are these contenders for the mobility throne true innovators, or just modern day Sisyphuses scrambling to stay fresh, only to be stale the next day?

What is “mobility”?

First things first: what the hell is “mobility”? This question came up at our Turbo Week panel and I think it was Reilly who said that mobility is really just a gussied-up term for “transportation”, or how to get to where you need to go. I totally agree with his assessment — mobility has become a buzzword, especially in Silicon Valley, just as “connected cars” and “autonomy” are the buzzwords du jour within the mobility discussion. Mobility is the tech world’s rebranding of age-old transportation discussions, perhaps an attempt to bring sexy back to the transportation sector, or at least to usher it into 2017.

So even if the term “mobility” is a bit of a contrivance, perhaps it’s the neologism for how transportation paradigms have shifted under the auspices of connectivity. Modern day “mobility” blurs the public and the private, it’s powered by data, and it’s proving to be a genuine head-scratcher for even the most forward-thinking OEMs.

When private becomes public

With the emergence of new products and services wiggling their way into the transportation sector, the clear distinction between private transportation (completely privately owned and operated vehicles, à la commuter car) and public transportation (trains, planes, and automobiles) is becoming increasingly ambiguous. Private cars are now more available to the public and are steadily supplanting their traditional counterparts — privately owned cars fuel Uber and Lyft in the ridesharing space, and Turo in the peer-to-peer carsharing space.

What were once self-contained nodes are now part of a network, thanks to both an evolving perception of ownership and the connectedness of the enterprising owners and intrepid users of these shared assets. Our mobility these days in many ways depends on network connectivity, so while the means of transportation haven’t changed, the way we think about them certainly has.

Where the rubber meets the road: Data

These shifting views of transportation are directional indicators of where the industry is moving. Unsurprisingly, data is the belle of the ball. Data must drive industry for industry to stay current and fresh. Data enables relevance, data defines the user experience, data is every business buzzword imaginable rolled up into the ultimate signifier.

And who has the data? Those who already live in their customers’ pockets. Businesses where their customers sign up for accounts have a leg up on those who don’t; they have access to rich wells of data, which grant them rich insights into their customers. Turo, for instance, knows where our customers book cars. We know which types of cars they prefer, whether they prefer cars with more horsepower, budget-conscious cars, or eco-friendly cars, and we know which parts of our app they thrive in and struggle with.

And at the end of the day, this data lets us better serve our customers — we can be more relevant with our marketing, we can improve our product where there may be confusion, we can pivot based on insights into how, where, and in some cases why they use Turo. And therein lies the boon of technological ubiquity, and why tech companies have a big leg up on analog businesses — we know more about our customers.

Hurdles for OEMs

Which analog businesses? In this case, OEMs, the former kings of “mobility”. The quest for data is the OEMs’ achilles heel; they’re having a tough time competing with software companies who are operating squarely within their wheelhouses, while OEMs’ inherent sweet spot is hardware. The rich past of the auto industry is nothing to scoff at, of course. Who knows where we’d be without the strides and tremendous automotive advancements over the last hundred years. But where they shine mechanically, they show vulnerability technologically.

I think Reilly said it best when he noted that the urinal in the men’s bathroom knows more about him than his car does — at least the urinal knows when he’s there or not. (Sorry, Reilly, it was just too good a sound byte to pass up!) Today’s car (with one notable exception that I’ll get to momentarily) has a ton of intelligent software in it, but it’s all behind-the-scenes software, invisible to the consumer eye. Most OEMs don’t even know where their customers live, since that info is stored at the dealership level and even then isn’t kept fresh.

The lone outlier

The lone OEM that does have a one-to-one relationship is new to the game and the most tech-forward auto manufacturer out there — Tesla. I have a Model X, and the experience of driving it is distinct from driving say, my Porsche 911 (which I love), in myriad ways.

For one, it has an app. Sure, other manufacturers have apps, but this app enhances the experience of owning and interacting with the car. The Tesla app tells me how much charge it has, whether it’s locked, and where I parked. I can control the climate remotely, I can honk and flash the lights if I can’t find it in a dark garage, it even integrates my calendar into the car’s dashboard so I always know where I’m off to next. The car and the app actually enhance my transportation experience in a highly personal and handy way.

It also has the less visible intelligence that many other makers are touting, but its consumer-facing tech elevates it above its peers.

And aggregating this data opens up myriad possibilities for future innovation. The app is currently proprietary, but imagine an open OEM operating system, where other app makers and third party developers can integrate to further ameliorate the car owner and the driver’s experiences. The car knows what kind of driver I am, so if, God forbid, I get into an accident, there’s data accessible to analyze the crash. If I’m a five-star driver, the car could ping my insurance company which could reward me for being such a conscientious driver.

BUT, to reap these benefits, I need to have an account. I need to be in some way connected to the vendor so they can gather that data and usefully apply it. It’s electrifying to ponder of all the prospective features of a truly connected, intelligent car; the hurdle is gaining digital access to your customer. My Tesla already knows so much about me — where I live, where I’m going, what meetings I have — it knows more than Reilly’s urinal, and way more than my 911.

The analog world is becoming digital and the car — for the most part — still hasn’t transformed itself.

Melding the analog and digital

For OEMs to succeed in this cutthroat mobility game, they need to extricate themselves from the hardware-only niche. Think of PCs in the ’90s. They enabled crazy amounts of innovation, so much so that operating systems were built atop the hardware. Then came the applications, and then the web browser. The only trouble was that web browsers, which enabled open access to all of the world’s websites, captured the most data, and thus, the most value. The PC hardware, while essential for everything to operate, was the foundation, and consequently at the bottom of the value chain. Despite being physically necessary, they got the short end of the value stick.

OEMs are currently at risk of succumbing to the same phenomenon. Once software companies start building atop their meticulously designed hardware, the data-capturing software will have the upper hand. If OEMs can think of themselves as a platform where they pull data into the car (like my calendar, for instance), and push data out of the car (my five-star driving habits, for instance), they’ll be able to improve efficiency, user experiences, safety, and their hold on their own value chain.

Are car enthusiasts endangered?

Companies like Uber are making strides to position cars as commodities. The riders could care less which car they ride in, as long as they get to where they’re going efficiently and safely. But while in many cases, the car is a utilitarian function rather than a desirable form, the increasing commoditization for some will make the fun cars all the more attainable for others. As I’ve posited previously, relaxing paradigms of ownership will give rise to more customized use cases for car design. Rather than catering to the lowest common denominator to get the job done (transport people easily and cost effectively), OEMs will be able to design cars for specific purposes, whether it’s to fill a need or a desire.

Think of your shoes. What if you had to wear the same pair of shoes for all occasions — for work and on the weekends, for dressing up and working out, in the summertime and the wintertime, rain and shine, always the same damn shoes. That’s currently where we are with cars. I envision a future where I drive the car that suits my task at hand, the vacation I’m planning, even my mood.

No, car enthusiasts aren’t dead, nor are we endangered. We love to drive canyons and curves, we love the growl of a V8, and we love the soft hum of an electric engine. And we’re waiting with baited breath to see where the mobility vanguard will take us next.

I, for one, can’t wait to see.