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Will Cars Become Transportation Appliances?

December 6, 2017, by - Also by this author

In a sign of the times, the L.A. Auto Show is now AutoMobility LA, as everyone, it seems, is rushing to get out in front of the changes afoot in transportation (including me). When the show rebranded last year, no one bat an eyelash. Ironically, though, in news reports the media still refers to its name christened some 110 years ago.

Media-ites drive a Volkswagen GTI - virtually - at the 2017 L.A. Auto Show. (Photo courtesy of Andy Lundin.)
Media-ites drive a Volkswagen GTI - virtually - at the 2017 L.A. Auto Show. (Photo courtesy of Andy Lundin.)

Apropos of the name change, much of the news has shifted from the vehicles themselves to the services auto manufacturers are offering around the vehicles, and the tech to support that. Indeed, the industry is expected to lose 300,000 to 400,000 in new vehicle sales next year, and these new services — from vehicle subscriptions and satellite connectivity to personal drivers — are a welcome migration for automakers and dealers to higher profit margins.

These services encompass a more holistic view of the journey. For instance, Lincoln announced that its new subscription service pilot will come with the option of a personal driver to assist with daily errands as well as a partnership with CLEAR, the system to expedite airport security.

Hyundai revealed its Blue Link All-Access service, which connects owners with mobile car washing, grocery delivery, and on-demand fuel delivery services. Mitsubishi announced a subscription-based telematics service with safety and remote access options.

In another telling trend, 12 out of 35 press announcements were delivered not from the show floor but from the Technology Pavilion outside.

These announcements, while trend-setting, erode a bit of the sex appeal of an auto show — no reveal of an app or a service can compete with the smoke, lights, and pulsing, neo-noir soundtrack while the cover is pulled off a new model. When we arrive at our driverless future, can you imagine that same theater for the reveal of the likes of Ollie, Local Motors’ autonomous shuttle?

Faced with this conundrum, Volvo engaged in a bit of inspired showmanship during its press conference to reveal the details of its new subscription service, Care by Volvo. Volvo exec Anders Gustafsson invited onto the stage Heith Rogers, plucked from obscurity to be the service’s first-ever customer. Gustafsson put Rogers on a couch to complete an application within the last 10 minutes of Volvo’s press conference. The idea was to tangibly showcase a new way to acquire a vehicle — fast, easy, and transparent. It worked. 

Yes, the cars are still the stars. There were a bevy of new SUVs, and their reveals still included a little glam, from a full five-minute drum jam from electronic musician Robert DeLong at the reveal of Nissan Kicks, a new small crossover, to a classy lounge piano set before Lincoln’s Nautilus uncovering.
Yet this evaporation of auto show attitude is indicative of something larger, the evolution of how we view vehicles. This fact was not lost on Masahiro Moro, president and CEO of Mazda’s North American Operations.

In Mazda’s noticeably Spartan pavilion, Moro spoke of an auto industry at a crossroads, in which companies are battling over how the future will look. “Is it a future where the steering wheel becomes an option, or a place where the car is reduced to a transportation appliance?” he asked.

At Mazda, creators of the design philosophy Kodo, or Soul of Motion, Moro said, “We’ll always believe that how your car looks and performs will continue to matter. There will always be a special bond drivers have with their cars.”

I thought about Moro’s comments as I passed one of the show’s virtual reality simulator displays. How cool, you can drive an Acura NSX without actually getting into one!

For the first time, I got wistful for a past that has yet to come. I can just imagine future generations excited to put on a headset to feel what it actually must’ve been like to drive.

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Chris Brown

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