(Note: Find Part 1 of this series here)
After nearly ten years of making appearances at CES and trying to generate excitement and buzz, not to mention trying to position themselves as technological innovators and leaders automakers have spent 2015 and 2016 basking in the glow that only CES buzz can lend. Pundits have excitedly proclaimed that “car technology once again stole the show at CES.” It would seem that, as I wrote yesterday, after a long period of at least the U.S. Big Three (if not the whole industry) being considered dinosaurs, the automotive industry has suddenly found the right lightning bolt to ride and established itself as a technology leader.
What’s different? Why has the narrative automakers have been trying to sell for years suddenly taking hold? Why has CES, long the domain of technology and electronics companies, suddenly been proclaimed an auto show? Have the automakers’ communications departments just suddenly gotten that much more sophisticated? Perhaps — but they also have some powerful new story elements at their disposal.
Obvious Change For Literally Everyone
First and foremost, the automobile is the most overt demonstration of the applications of technology. Most American households — 95%, in fact — own a car. Those that don’t own one certainly have ridden in one. It’s one of the most relatable places to notice the changes due to new technology. But there’s a key difference in how the technology in automobiles is being applied today. Until recently, technology has been applied to improve the existing in-vehicle experience. But now, technology is being applied to change the paradigm and create a new in-vehicle experience.
Autonomous vehicles (or “driverless” if you like) would change everything you know or have ever experienced about being in a car. Many of the major manufacturers, from Mercedes to Volvo to Ford, announced concrete plans for autonomous vehicles. General Motors is even making a $500 million investment in Lyft to develop and build a fleet of driverless cars. When you’re talking about really building the vehicles and technology that have only been the realm of science fiction for generations, you’re going to get attention. Technology has allowed such a broader storytelling that even people who don’t love cars can understand the new possibilities.
Smart mobility also promises to change the car experience as we know it. New technologies will will give car owners and passengers the ability to tailor their in-car experience with personalized, customizable dashboards, connectivity to their smart homes and entertainment or information apps. Getting in your car once meant a welcome getaway from the rest of your life; a generation later, it became an unwelcome disconnect from the rest of your life. Now, the technology exists to make the car a seamless extension of not just the rest of your life, but of your individual personality. That changes the experience for good. Communicators, whatever their medium (traditional media relations, advertising, digital and social content, etc.), have always thrived on telling a great story — and thanks to the technology that they’ve helped drive, there’s a much sexier story to tell.
New Industrial Partnerships Are Driving Faster Innovation
It’s not just the technology that’s driving this narrative, it’s the partnerships; it matters who the industry is working with. The automotive industry is notoriously insular, both in terms of personnel and development. Few industries have demonstrated such stubborn self-dependence and belief in their own ability to solve problems or innovate. This has been both to automotive’s benefit, and then over the last 25 years to its detriment. Outsiders don’t often get access to automotive R&D; even within the industry, companies’ development plans are closely guarded secrets divulged on a need-to-know basis. This insularity has led to, at best, perceptions of the industry as tired laggards who wouldn’t know the cutting edge if they fell off it; at worst, this industrial xenophobia has stifled innovation and prevented more dramatic advances in everything from cleaner technology to entertainment.
By 2016, however, the automakers have figured out that technology is moving faster than most any industry other than high tech can keep pace with. They know what’s possible, but they are willing to acknowledge that they can’t execute these changes on their own — or if they could, it would take much longer than the market wants to wait. So they’ve come off of their island and have reached out to the technology industry for partnerships to drive them both forward.
I’ve already mentioned GM’s partnership with Lyft. Ford has announced a partnership with Amazon on smart mobility. Toyota has hired Google’s former head of robotics. Volvo is working with Apple on CarPlay and with Ericsson on intelligent HD streaming into the vehicle. Automotive suppliers like Continental AG, Robert Bosch, ZF and LG Electronics are partnering with Google on autonomous vehicle technology. Volvo, Mercedes-Benz and others are working with Nvidia Corp , a Silicon Valley chipmaker. Rumors continue to fly that Google and Ford are contemplating a partnership.
These are some of the technology industry’s sexiest names and most innovative companies. By fully embracing partnerships with an outside industry for the first time at such magnitude, automakers get access to some of the leading engineering and technical minds to be found anywhere. Better yet, embracing these new technology partnerships has opened up a new communications narrative that allows the automotive companies the ability to credibly and demonstrably position themselves as at the forefront of innovation in any industry. If you want to find the most exciting things happening in any industry, they can say, look to us. We’re going to make the next generation’s life experience as different from today as anyone in business. The coolest new smart device you can buy won’t be a smartphone, a tablet, a virtual reality device, or anything wearable; instead, it will be your vehicle.
For their part, consumer technology companies get access to a virtually ubiquitous platform on which to deploy their advances — not to mention partnerships with the automakers’ wealthy and innovative-in-their-own-right R&D teams. And they open up their own partnership narrative; Silicon Valley has in some corners almost as big a reputation for self-importance as the automakers have. These partnerships chip away at the image of Silicon Valley as a self-absorbed tower of innovation that sometimes pursues disruption for its own sake.
Both industries get to advance faster than they otherwise would have. Both industries get to have a significant impact outside of their traditional spheres of influence, and can fuel the imaginations of fans of each. Both industries crack open a new narrative and new storylines to tell. It’s a win-win. Actually, it’s a win-win-win, as consumers stand to reap the most obvious benefits of these partnerships.
So what will this mean for the road ahead? Where does this exciting next leg of the journey take us? In the last post in this series tomorrow, I’ll take a look at what I think the future holds for each industry and for us as consumers.