Should the mobility revolution be left to the manufacturers?

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The changes in which the world automobile industry is engaged call for in-depth strategic reflection and investment in new territories. This aspiration to "change of paradigm" is recurrent in the industry and most often leads to modest changes. Toyota today seems a little "alone against all" in examining radical alternatives. The examination of the Woven project is, from this point of view, as interesting as it is worrying.
Car manufacturers are repeatedly convinced that they will have to "change their paradigm" and stop seeing themselves as designer-producer-sellers of cars and reposition themselves as providers of mobility services or even as players in the transformation of cities and territories, of the mobility of goods and people and of the energy production systems that will make them possible. 
 
At the beginning of the 2000s, Ford and GM had sung this tune and considered that the "manufacturing" conception of the activity of manufacturers had lived: value had to be sought not only at the end of the assembly lines but also throughout the entire life cycle of the product. It was in this perspective, for example, that Jac Nasser tried, when he directed Ford from 1999 to 2001, to structure a "services" division which he wanted to be as powerful as the vehicle brands.
He, who had directed Ford Europe, was the initiator of the takeover of Kwik-Fit (the Scottish fast-fitter who had bought Speedy a short time before). After a few months, the reference shareholder, the Ford family, which had kept the presidency, sounded the end of the break: Bill Ford took over from Nasser and set a new course: "back to basis".
 
Twenty years ago, this call for change was mainly motivated by the development of the Internet and the fear that the emergence of new entrants in the field of OOH for example was causing.
Nasser's observation at the time was that, in relation to the lifespan of a Ford product and the associated expenses, what the manufacturer and its network are able to capture is extremely limited and rather diminishing as the fleets age and the majority of households are equipped with second-hand vehicles.
 
Here we find ingredients which are very present both in the strategy of PSA and the priority it has given to the used car or PR, and in the credo that Renault structures around Flins and the need to place itself henceforth in an approach of the "circular economy" type.
 
In any case, we will hear about a reversal of perspective, a change of culture and the need to put at the heart of the strategic reflection the actors and skills that were hitherto considered as marginal.
This recurring aspiration for a fundamental change of perspective is virtuous. Indeed, while the radicality of the promised transformations is very rarely achieved, given the resilience of automotive systems, these phases of re-examination of the validity of past strategies are opportunities to explore new opportunities and to give new projects or new organisations a chance.
 
In this perspective, the period that the automotive industry is going through and the obligation for the industry to embrace the prospect of carbon neutrality by 2050 can only lead to a multiplication of these managerial injunctions to radically change perspective and/or redefine the contours of the professions and the relevant perimeter of the quest for value.
 
More often than not, consultants, managers and journalists are content to make do with a few clichés about the vehicle of tomorrow, which will be shared, will no longer emit and will no longer kill. 
In 2021, this aspiration to revolution is translated into a few marginal initiatives to promote car-sharing at a loss, enrich its catalogue of electric or electrified vehicles and provide them with a few additional ADAS that are supposed to prepare for the very long-term advent of the driverless car. No one is fooled, but a few complacent or naive journalists still manage to relay the revolutionary discourse. 
 
In 2020-2021, the difficult times experienced by most manufacturers will lead to more selective innovation and investment strategies. The urgency being clearly on the electrification of the ranges and the technical and industrial mastery of this transformation of the "core business", the emphasis has been placed on this priority and everything indicates that the initiatives in terms of the development of mobility services and/or the structuring of ambitious programmes concerning the autonomous vehicle tend rather to mark time.
 
As far as electrification is concerned, we are no longer as we were ten years ago with the prototypes and experiments of shared vehicles powered by "smart grids", but with the commercial launch of mass-battery electric vehicles intended to structure the hierarchies between manufacturers for the next ten years, Reflections on the mutations of "automobile systems" are suspended and VW like Renault or Stellantis are seeking to develop vehicles and tools for their design and production that will enable them tomorrow, when purchasing aids disappear, to continue to seduce individuals or companies with products that have become profitable.
 
That it is necessary to offer vehicles for sharing and/or to get involved in recharging projects using renewable energies and/or that it is appropriate to integrate the question of the life cycle of products further upstream is a result of the reflections of the last few years on the necessary changes in automobile systems, Basically, the manufacturers leave the energy question to others and, in the same way, the question of whether vehicles should be shared or owned is prosaically reduced to the question of how the captives' commercial priorities are prioritised in terms of the classic credit offer and solutions of the LOA or LTC type.
In this rather conservative concert that is taking shape at the beginning of the decade, only one tenor seems to be still driven by the desire for radical change and/or by the conviction that this is desirable or possible. It is the world's number 1 in 2020, Toyota, which claims both its pragmatism and its concern for operational excellence and a willingness, almost worrying in many respects, to make us happy. 
 
Thus, as Florence Lagarde noted when reporting on Akio Toyoda's press conference in November, the latter taunts Tesla who, he says, sells recipes where Toyota has "a real kitchen and a real chef" but at the same time claims to go far beyond this kitchen by "inventing the life (and the city) that goes with it". This is the meaning of the Woven project which, at the foot of Mount Fuji, in the place of an old factory, is supposed to show and explore all the best that can be done by mobilising artificial intelligence, robotics and new energies at the same time.
It's a kind of 21st century Fourier Phalanstery where Toyota, its boss and his son, supported by Jason Kuffner, a former Google's Robotics employee recruited in 2016, would draw the future of Toyota and ours, or at least that of Japanese cities and society, by placing themselves at the heart of a new ecosystem.
 
In addition to the sharing of space and roads between the different Toyota autonomous mobility solutions for people and goods that will design the urban space to green and pacify it, the document published by Toyota states that: "The residences will be equipped with the latest existing technologies in terms of assistance to humans and, in particular, all the solutions of domestic robotics. The residences will use sensors and AI to ensure the good health of the occupants, verify that their basic needs are met and improve their daily lives by creating every opportunity to deploy the connected technologies with integrity and trust, in a secure and positive manner".
One can be pleased with the height of vision and the depth of the strategic thinking undertaken by Toyota and its boss. In fact, to challenge the "all electric" (battery powered) and defend the hydrogen solution, Woven is engaged in a systemic exploration and, in the same way, the work done to master the "soft" goes far beyond the vehicle and Toyota is going further - and probably faster - than its main competitors.
 
We can also be concerned about this Toyota utopia and hope that society and politics will be able to calm Akio Toyoda's ardour and his aspirations to make others happy by reminding him that he remains an industrialist and that the invention of life that goes with technology is not his responsibility but that of society and history.
 
01/02/2021
 

The weekly column by Bernard Jullien is also on www.autoactu.com.

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