There's a paradigm shift happening in the automotive world. Cars, as we know them, will soon be joined by things that look and function nothing like them. For years, we've heard terms like "mobility" and "electric" and "autonomous" bandied about, but at the 2016 LA Auto Show, it's getting real. Really real.
A year ago, the Consumer Electronics Association – the entity that assembles CES each year – changed its name to Consumer Technology Association. The reason is clear: its flagship conference has become about so much more than electronics.
If we had to hazard a guess, we'd give the LA Auto Show maybe five years before "auto" is reconsidered. Cars aren't going anywhere anytime soon, but this show – this industry – is now just as much about technology as it is combustion.
Mobility has arrived
Ford CEO Mark Fields opened this year's gala – dubbed AutoMobility LA, by the way – with a few staggering statistics. He began by informing the audience that this year's show was the first in the world "that's not just about cars." He also noted that today, people are moving for (on average) one to 1.5 hours each day, and that while Ford will continue to manufacture cars, "they are no longer [its] entire game."
Fields has a mission to create "the city of tomorrow," which isn't something you'd expect the head of an automaker to say. The reality, however, is that making cars for people to drive is a business that's changing, if not waning. Those crammed in dense cities view cars for what they are: a massive headache. What they really want is mobility, which is why subways and light rails exist.
All automakers are now looking at a market that they've largely tapped out, and are curious where the next wave of growth will come from. The answer to that lies in mobility, which Fields admitted that he and his rivals receive basically zero revenue from today.
Take one look at the likes of Uber, Car2Go, Zipcar, Chariot and Citi Bike, and it's clear that there's money to be made, as well as problems to be solved.
The wrinkle in all of this is how conventional automakers are now playing in that same app-based, startup-y world. Ford itself acquired the crowdsourced shuttle company Chariot, while GM launched its Maven car-sharing service in Los Angeles. This is the kind of revenue differentiation that signals a sea change in what automakers are.
Even if you don't own a car
During Fields' keynote, he made clear that Ford's hope was to make the lives of everyone better, regardless of whether they own a car or not. That's pretty jarring if you still view the likes of Ford, GM, Audi, and Toyota as car companies, but not so much if you view them as technology and information companies.
Cities have struggled mightily to provide adequate mobility solutions for their populations. Denizens of New York City, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and London don't adore wasting hours of their life in traffic. (Shocking, right?) But without a reliable, quick, always-on alternative for the masses, we humans generally default to driving our own car.
We're at an inflection point in history where we finally have both the information and the tools to radically solve this.
In San Francisco, for example, BART is a beautiful thing if two things are true: one, you live within walking distance of a BART station, and two, you work within walking distance of a BART station. As soon as either of those fail, the notion of public transit becomes unattractive, and we default to using a personal automobile – easily the worst option for both our mental health and the well-being of our environment.
Today, however, it's reasonable to assume that anyone working in a city center would also have a smartphone. That piece of the puzzle has enabled companies like Ford to think about the 'first mile, last mile' problem.
If you can easily, cheaply, and reliably transport huge quantities of people from their homes to 'trunk lines' (things like BART, subways, buses, and light rails), you instantly take a huge amount of traffic off of the road. You also make us, as society, less angry at the state of our infrastructure, less beholden to the price of fuel, and less likely to end up like Beijing, which has to ration license plates due to insane automotive overcrowding.
The road ahead
Though we've grown up adoring the idea of a personal automobile, that luster is beginning to fade – and automakers know it. Personal vehicles are amazing when there's clear air ahead, but once your association with 'car' immediately conjures up thoughts of 'taking an hour to move 10 miles', the novelty wilts.
Fields pointed to a stat that showed the average Los Angeles commuter could spend an hour each way in traffic getting to and from work. If you do that for a lifetime, you will die knowing that you spent 25% of your free time in traffic. That alone should be enough to trigger the future of mobility and flexible/remote working.
And indeed, it is. Ford's acquisition of Chariot and its intention to launch a bike-sharing service (GoBike) next year are just the start. Along with others, it's working diligently to get autonomous cars into cities as fast as possible.
Even if you have to spend the same hour commuting, but you do it in a self-driving shuttle, you're able to use that hour for any of the above: sleeping, meditating, working, learning a new language, yoga, calling your mom every once in a while, buying stuff you don't need on Amazon, looking up Instant Pot recipes, or finally updating your woefully outdated LinkedIn profile.
It's an exciting time to be a fan of automotive, particularly if you're already a fan of technology. The two have never intersected more directly, and if we ever hope to defeat the soul-crusher that is traffic, we should hope that they start spending even more time together.
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