Looking Out #1

BMW's double bill, pedestrian Paris, the horse before the car and 热闹.

May 31, 2019 

A newsletter about the auto industry, mobility, design, and the cultures that surround us. Brought to you by Joe Simpson and Drew Smith of The Automobility Group. If you like what you see, tell your friends!


BMW’s double bill

Why it matters: BMW looks to its past, while its present looks challenging.

In the same week as BMW announced it’s millimetre-accurate recreation of Bertone’s Garmisch concept at Villa d’Este, they showed the new 1-Series, this time based on the FAAR front wheel-drive platform. Both cars have garnered strong reactions from designers, and provide a fascinating insight in to the psychology of BMW at a time of change in the industry.

Confessions of a capital junkie come to life

Why it matters: a renewed push for industry consolidation could allow brands to focus more on what matters to customers

In 2015, Sergio Marchionne - former CEO of Fiat Chrysler Auto (FCA) - sent out a rallying cry for automakers to focus on the things that matter to customers: user experience, connected services and safety. Published in a presentation called Confessions of a Capital Junkie, he called for automakers to consolidate platform and drivetrain development to free up the capital required to better meet consumer needs. 

Although he didn’t live to see his vision come to life (Sergio died in 2018), a potential merger between FCA and Renault (which also has an alliance with Nissan and Mitsubishi) could allow the new group to tackle major changes in technology, regulation and customer expectations, while building economies of scale from a rationalised platform portfolio.

However, the path ahead isn’t easy, suggests Evercore ISI analyst Arndt Ellinghorst:

“We now have the French, the Italians, the Japanese and the Americans needing to find consensus on the board of a Dutch company, where the French state stands to lose its special status.” 

“This requires quite a bit of creativity.”


Pedestrian Paris

Why it matters: as cities look to remove cars from their streets, the spaces left behind take on a new significance.

It’s all well and good removing cars from cities, but what happens to the space that’s left behind? Paris has been pedestrianising for decades, and inner-city driving has dropped 45% since 1990. This new newe initiative revitalises the area surrounding the city’s most iconic feature, the Eiffel Tower, and shows what a city can gain when it loses cars.

Peak horse vs peak car

Why it matters: The adoption of new technologies take time, but the shift from car to micromobility faces fewer hurdles than the switch from horse to car

Technology analyst Horace Didieu explores the emergence of micromobility (sub-500Kg vehicles) and its potential to impact the automotive industry’s dominance of short-distance personal mobility. In an interesting bit of data analysis, he identified that peak horse occurred around 20 years after the introduction of the mass-produced car in 1908, saying that: 

Despite the superiority of the car as a mode of personal mobility, many things needed to happen before it could disrupt the horse and buggy. 

Manufacturing and distribution had to be streamlined, roads had to be updated, traffic rules had to be rewritten, attitudes had to change. All the while, as the car was scaling, horse breeders’ profits continued to tick upward, as if the future of transport hadn’t already moved on without them.

Given that micromobility requires few-to-no infrastructural and legislative changes, and that data shows that consumers like this new mode of transportation, the question is now when and where peak car will occur first.

(As an aside, 14 years after the introduction of the Ford Model T in 1908, the first tinned dog food came to market…)


Exploring future visions with design fiction

Why it matters: design fiction allows us to quickly explore, share and iterate the future we want to create.

So often, organisations’ visions for the future are built on an understanding of current technological and organisational capabilities. Design fiction, like the video for Amazon Go above, can be a way to push a vision forward, using emerging technologies and business models to inspire creative teams. Props, including future product videos, fictional brochures or advertisements, can then be used to test peoples’ responses and explore alternatives.

Here’s a deep-dive in to why it’s such a powerful tool, and how to get started with it.


Digital assistants with female voices reinforce gender bias

Why it matters: as digital assistants find their way in to cars, manufacturers must ensure that they don’t entrench gender stereotypes. 

A recent United Nations report titled I’d Blush if I Could found that female-sounding voice assistants returned flirty and submissive responses in response to queries, reinforcing the idea that women are subservient. It goes on to note that female assistants are often subject to verbal abuse:

The subservience of digital voice assistants becomes especially concerning when these machines – anthropomorphized as female by technology companies – give deflecting, lackluster or apologetic responses to verbal sexual harassment.

This harassment is not, it bears noting, uncommon. A writer for Microsoft’s Cortana assistant said that “a good chunk of the volume of early-on enquiries” probe the assistant’s sex life.

热闹 for the social media generation

Why it matters: for China’s post-90s generation, one that prefers to stay home to socialising or drinking, platforms like Bilibili bring people together in new ways.

热闹 (rè nào) is hard to concisely translate into English with its personality intact. Literally meaning "heat and noise," it describes an atmosphere of bustling conviviality: a balance point between hygge and lit. A night market sizzling with smells and chatter is re nao, as is a table-slapping game of mahjong after a big family meal. Re nao is as central to the Chinese vision of the good life as freedom is to America’s; it’s deep-rooted in a way that defies rationality.

An anthropological take on the emergence of bullet commenting on videos on the Bilibili platform, how it’s becoming a new way of generating rè nào, and a replacement for the face-to-face socialising of previous generations.

That's it for this issue. We love feedback (positive and negative), and to answer any questions you have. So email Joe or Drew and we’ll get back to you.

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