Looking Out #15

GM’s McDonalds car and the choices we need to make, shaping and navigating places, profitable purpose and mass-transit moquette, and the fragility of our systems.

13 February, 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!


Comforting mediocrity: the McDonalds-isation of mobility?

Why it’s interesting: the Cruise Origin appears of little significance in the canon of great car design. Then you dig into the details and realise that a new mobility business model has been unveiled.

At the end of January, Cruise somewhat suddenly unveiled a Robocab concept that – apparently – is close to the real ‘car’ that will appear in 2022. The GM, Honda and Softbank owned company is, like many others, looking to take a slice of the so-called Robocab market, operating autonomous pods, just like Uber and Waymo plan to, which will whizz around cities of the future and provide seemless, cheaper, on-demand mobility. Or so many hope.

Commentary on the format and aesthetic design is inevitable, but Edward Niedermeyer has a much more important take – unravelling the business model behind the Origin. With many questioning what role OEMs will have (yes, I know Cruise isn’t an OEM but it is umbilically linked to GM and Honda), or how they can make money if this future comes to be reality. And Niedermeyer believes Cruise might have struck on something clever:

The Origin's design illustrates a surprisingly grounded vision for a business that is all too often imagined as sci-fi fantasy. Put simply, it seems that the Origin will be the foundation of a business positioned to become the McDonald's of mobility.

In essence, like the Golden M, it’s designed to deliver just two simple things – consistency and value. So that, as operator or user, you know what you’re going to get, how much it’ll cost and the experience should be the same everytime, anywhere in the world.

To wit, the Origin has been designed to:

  • cost $40,000 to $50,000, leveraging the scale of its investor-partners, GM and Honda

  • have a cheerfully minimalist interior that is built of durable and anti-microbial transit-grade materials, “not a ‘screen-soaked business class fantasy’”

  • be easily cleaned and refurbished

With Cruise looking to compete with big hitters Uber and Waymo in the future, Niedermeyer believes they’ve been clever by not falling into the trap of trying to beat them on cost alone. Instead he sees success stemming from pragmatic design decisions that make it easy to deliver a repeatably consistent experience. Comforting mediocrity if you will, or as Niedermeyer puts it:

You wouldn't want to buy "the McDonald's of cars" any more than you'd want to buy an Origin, but "The McDonald's of taxis" certainly has an appeal that works even without the autonomy angle.

What’s interesting about this? Waymo’s reportedly having issues with how it cleans and services its fleet of Pacificas, proving that autonomous vehicles *will* be used for more than just getting around. And it doesn’t take a genius to realise that for an unmanned taxi, durability and clean-ability are going to be two key design aspects. But they’re not the sort of things that traditional OEMs focus on, or indeed sit high on the priority list when designing with a singular owner-driver in mind. In fact, the Origin’s vision of beige mediocrity calls to mind one of the most amusing car adverts of recent times:

In other words, it’s the antithesis of what modern car design is about – expressive, individuality focused, avatar-led. But for Robocab-based on-demand-ability, it might be exactly what is needed.

Which leads to the obvious question, if Cruise (and Niedermeyer’s analysis) is right, is producing and operating a Robocab business a much more fundamental shift of mindset and approach for the automotive OEMs, than it might first seem? And if so, is that a space many of them are really equipped, or want, to get into?

Image: Cruise

| JS

The choices we make

Why it’s interesting: a story about Hummer gives us the chance to reconsider what we do, how we do it, and most importantly why.

Back in my second-to-last year of undergraduate study, I took a social theories submajor. Far from the easy ride I imagined, it was also far more interesting than I expected. Every fortnight, I had the chance to write about stuff I was observing in the world, propose a theory for understanding it, and then have it torn to shreds by my lecturer. Plus ça change and all that…

One topic I tackled was the rise of the SUV. This was 2003 in Australia, after all, and a new generation of softer 4x4s like BMW’s X5, Mercedes’ ML and Volvo’s XC90 were supercharging a market punch drunk on a Chinese resources boom.

Surveying the ads - a particularly fine example of which is shown above - led me to theorise that consumers viewed SUVs as escape vehicles, allowing them to outrun their existential angst and retreat to the safer climes of their suburban McMansion or beach house.

It turns out that the reality was darker and much more aggressive than I dared imagine.

In this remarkable piece for Vice, Aaron Gordon dissects the genesis of that most egregious excess of the SUV era, the Hummer.

I hold my hand up: it made for uncomfortable reading, because it opens with passages like:

“Cars are inherently about projecting a self-image, and hundreds of thousands of Americans chose to project one of profound, pathological selfishness. The electrification of the Hummer is not a signal of climate progress. It is a declaration that it’s still OK to be an asshole.”

… bulks the middle section with statements along the lines of:

“In other words, auto companies spent billions of dollars on marketing every year to nudge people to buy over-engineered, inefficient, and expensive vehicles in order to allay irrational fears far out of touch with the lives they actually had.”

And closes with:

“It was the entire apparatus that targeted and celebrated the reptilian brain. The Hummer was a symbol of a society that granted permission, and even idolized, consumers who were deeply, profoundly selfish. If any of those auto industry marketing studies were about a single person, that person would be an asshole. But it wasn’t about any one person. It was about us. And we’ve embraced it.”

The story is littered with the names of people who made conscious decisions to tap in to our baser nature to the enormous detriment of pedestrians and other road users, to say nothing of the environment. And

And in that sense, the picture that Gordon paints of the automotive industry is just as dark as that painted by the now-innumerable exposès of technology companies. It’s a picture that paints OEMs in the same light as Facebook and Twitter, companies now infamous for tapping in to our basest desires for outrage and hatred to boost their bottom line, no matter which democracies or individuals they fuck over in the process.

In both OEMs and technology companies, some individuals decided that the collateral damage was worth it, and went ahead anyway. And many of us just went along with it.

The thing is, now I know, you know and we collectively know about the damage that we’ve done. Yes, I’m just as culpable as anyone else in this game. Hell, I still have a tortured relationship with a V8-engined sports car. But with knowledge comes the the ability to chose, to think different, and most importantly, to do different.

At this point I risk sounding shrill, alienating the very people I want to continue to connect with: you. The industry is facing in to a downturn. Jobs are at risk from electrification. Whole domains of knowledge are at risk of redundancy. These are truly existential matters for many of us, and the people we call our colleagues.

And yet I firmly believe that through sharing, discussing and acting that we can prepare ourselves for these changes, and take an active role in shaping how it plays out.

| DS


Making places for people

Why it’s interesting: cars have defined our streetscapes for the better part of a century. We need to think about how we’ll reclaim the pace they leave behind.

It’s hard to think of a single streetscape which is improved aesthetically or functionally by the presence of cars. I know, I know… most of you reading this (And the chap writing it Ed.) absolutely love cars.

I’d venture, however, that we love cars in isolation, dissociated from the aesthetic and airborne pollution they cause, or the stress that comes with navigating, refuelling, parking, and owning a car in a major city.

So if we assess their impacts in aggregate, as many cities are starting to do, the car is part of a less-than-rosy picture. And many cities are aiming to minimise their presence, if not erase them all together.

But what of the space left behind? How do we reclaim what was the realm of the private car for the public good?

For some clues, I point you to two different sources.

The first is an easy three minute listen, as Andrew Tuck - Monocle’s mellifluous editor and urban raconteur - dives in to what makes a place, well, a place.

The second requires a little more commitment but grounds this question in, or should I say on, the high streets of London and in so doing, takes our discussion from the abstract to, if you’ll forgive me, the concrete.

Towards the end of the piece, titled Cars as the new horses, high streets as the new high streets: Reinventing London’s high streets in the age of Amazon, author Dan Hill states that

“Horses subjected London to a lot of crap, literally. The car did likewise. Excising that actor presents a huge opportunity. But how to build enough motivation to grasp the nettle?”

Because therein lies the rub. What do you do with the space left behind? It’s a far thornier question than it may first appear, lest we end up with barren, windswept corridors. And neither Dan nor I are naive enough to think that large, four-wheeled vehicles will disappear completely.

But with their vast reduction in number comes the opportunity to revitalise spaces that have been ravaged by cancerous chain stores and delivery giants like Amazon, to revisit a theme raised by Alex Mitchell in our last issue.

For those of us working for companies in the mobility space, and in particular at OEMs, the question is how do we want to show up in these reinvented, reinvigorated spaces? Do you want to be a Hummer, or something altogether more human?

Over to you.

Image: ‘High Street’, by JM Richards and Eric Ravilious (1938)


Are navigation apps causing traffic chaos?

Why it’s interesting: Smartphone based mapping apps have replaced paper, plug-in navigation devices and increasingly in-car GPS systems. But they’re having secondary consequences. What next for cities, and those trying to get places in a hurry?

Artist Simon Wickwert ‘hacked’ Google Maps – creating a digital traffic jam by towing a cart full of phones down Berlin streets, creating a powerful frame for us to consider the relationship between digital and physical, our own behaviour, and the impact/control that apparently useful tools (such as Waze or Google Maps) can have in the real world.

In fact, next time one of these apps routes you on to an unfamiliar back street to avoid the traffic, consider the following hypothesis:

Now online navigation apps are in charge, they’re causing more problems than they solve. The apps are typically optimised to keep an individual driver’s travel time as short as possible; they don’t care whether the residential streets can absorb the traffic or whether motorists who show up in unexpected places may compromise safety.

Mapping and Global positioning technology has evolved quite quickly. From the Ordance Survey paper maps that were the long and short of mapping when I was a kid, through the Navteq and TomTom days of digital mapping, the smartphone era has changed the game. But the chaos didn’t truly begin until 2013 when:

Here Technologies, TomTom, Waze, and Google went beyond just flagging traffic jams ahead. They began offering real-time rerouting suggestions, considering current traffic on top of the characteristics of the road network. That gave their users opportunities to get around traffic slowdowns, and that’s how the chaos began.

As the article points out, this in itself, shouldn’t be a problem:

On its face, real-time rerouting isn’t a problem. Cities do it all the time by changing the signal, phase, and timing of traffic lights or flashing detour alerts on signs.

But the crux of the issues is that:

traffic management apps are not working with existing urban infrastructures to move the most traffic in the most efficient way.

And, more to the point:

these rerouting apps are all out for themselves. They take a selfish view in which each vehicle is competing for the fastest route to its destination. This can lead to the router creating new traffic congestion in unexpected places.

It begs the question, in what ways could cities and providers of infrastructure-based telematics systems, work better with new software, and data-gathering based mapping apps? The author suggests that ultimately:

most people, when well informed, would be open to a little inconvenience in the furtherance of the common good. Wouldn’t you be willing to drive a few extra minutes to spare a neighborhood and improve the environment?

But this seems a little optimistic. There’s little evidence to suggest that, in this sort of scenario, people tend to plump for the greater good – especially when they’re late to pick their kids up from school. Expect more in the way of rebellion, and hacks like Simon’s.

| JS


Unilever doubles down on purpose

Why it’s interesting: with the emergence of progressive capitalism, companies like Unilever find that having a purpose beyond mere profit is a plus.

Until recently, case studies of companies driven by a strong sense of social purpose, Patagonia, say, were the stuff of fantasy for folk working in “serious” businesses. Their sense of purpose has served as mere titillation, a prompt for how the world might look if we weren’t stuck in a grey conference room in a a grey office park reviewing a (grey) mood board, or trying to motivate ourselves with a speech by someone at a TED conference.

But when purpose push comes to purposeful shove, motivated managers are ground down by the difficulties of defining a purpose-driven business case, and cries of “They’re different. We can’t do that.”

And yet Unilever, the consumer packaged goods behemoth that counts Dove, Knorr, Omo/Persil and Rexona/Sure among its brands, is showing that you can. And what’s more, they’re proving that that being deeply purpose-driven is also deeply profitable.

Unilever says that its Sustainable Living brands - those that…

communicate a strong environmental or social purpose, with products that contribute to achieving the company’s ambition of halving its environmental footprint and increasing its positive social impact…

- grew 69% faster than their other brands in 2018. As a result, Unilever will invest more in purpose-drive brands and on purposeful communications, because in the words of CEO Alan Jope

“… we have extremely strong data on the link between both purposeful communication and short- and long-term growth…. [Brand purpose] is important for the short-term, but also to ensure our brands remain relevant for generations to come.”

What’s your company’s purpose, and will it be relevant for generations to come? Or your current CEO? Or just the next reporting quarter?

| DS

The history of the London Underground’s moquette

Why it’s interesting: corporate identity remains a key aspect in building a brand – but London underground’s moquette illustrates how it can have much deeper and more subtle impacts on our lives.

Travelling on London’s transport network, you can’t help but have your eye drawn to the patterns that cover seats, and differ from vehicle to vehicle, line to line.

These woven fabrics, known as moquettes (french for carpet), tell a distinct story – often relative to the route they’re employed on, and are periodically updated. This wonderful yarn (sorry) of the history and impact of the moquette is told on It’s Nice That’s piece, amusingly named ‘what’s under your bum’ – and relating to a new book by historian Andrew Martin: Seats of London: A field guide to London transport moquette patterns.

It reminds us of how Transport for London (as it’s now known) has built up one of the strongest and most recognisable corporate identities, but how within that identity, they’ve created a language which has variety, bandwidth and a relationship to place.

There’s also a nice reflection on the way that elements of infrastructure like this impact on our memory making – relating to specific periods of time, or life phases:  

“If you travel on the Tube every day, and say you have a working life of 30 to 40 years and you use the same line, you will probably see about five different moquettes because they change every five or six years. So the history of moquettes is sort of the story of London in a way that you can associate them with different periods of your life.”

It’s well worth a read.

Image: TfL from the London Transport Museum Collection

| JS


Counting the costs of coronavirus

Why it’s interesting: at the hands of a flu virus, we’re receiving a global lesson in the fragility of our systems.

Last night, I was out with a friend for a yoga class. As we wound our way through Mayfair for some dinner at our favourite sushi train, I pointed out Victoria Beckham’s new store on Dover Street. ”Heamohrraging money.”, spat my friend. As we slipped on to Old Bond Street, past Saint Laurent, Moncler and McQueen, the slightly weary voice beside me said “It’s all looking a bit silly, all this luxury stuff, isn’t it?”.

Now the friend in question loves luxury, and has built a business out of getting other people to love it, too. My secret spider sense twitching, I asked him why it was all looking silly. He said “It’s the Chinese. They’re not coming any more. No one’s spending any money.” And when the likes of Moncler and McQueen aren’t making money, nor is my friend.

Now it’s not as if coronavirus is the only factor at play in the downturn in the luxury goods industry in London. But it has served to compound other issues like the struggle to maintain relevance, market saturation, and a sense that for many, the tide is turning against conspicuous consumption. Sounds a little like the automotive industry, doesn’t it?

Hyundai’s shut factories and Toyota’s revised sales and profit projections. International travel plans have been cancelled and employees confined to their homes. And all of a sudden, the globalised and heavily-optimised nature of our industry, with its heavy reliance on China for both sales and supplies is starting to look like rather too singular a point of failure.

Again, two useful pieces come to mind here. One is Azeem Azhar’s overview of the impacts, positive and negative, on coronavirus.

The other is a book called Antifragile: Things that Gain from Disorder, written by Naseem Nicholas Taleb. It’s a wonderful romp through what happens when massively optimised and therefore fragile systems - globalised supply chains, luxury retail focussed on visiting tourists - are subjected to massive shocks like coronavirus.

Usefully, Taleb also includes recommendations for how to make our own lives less fragile. It’s well worth a read, given the current climate.

Image: John Hopkins CSSE

| DS

Tech in 2020: standing on the shoulders of giants

Why it’s interesting: Ben Evans is one of the most important and influential commentators on the tech industry, and his state of industry presentation for the year is a must read for anyone looking to understand what’s going on in the world right now.

‘Standing on the shoulders of giants’ looks at what it means that 4bn people have a smartphone; we connected everyone, and now we wonder what the Next Big Thing is, but meanwhile, connecting everyone means we connected all the problems. Tech is becoming a regulated industry, but we don’t really know what that will mean.  

What I find so interesting about this (other than the simplicity and clarity with which complex ideas are presented, is Evans’ gentle prodding of traditional thinking. What, today, is a tech company he asks? Is any company with a website ultimately a tech company? And relative to the potential issues tech is creating, he explores what it is we’re trying to solve – concluding that, since software ate the world, all the world’s problems now get expressed in software.

| JS

Thanks to Ed NiedermeyerBenedict EvansKyle Westaway, Azeem Azhar and Nassim Nicholas Taleb for inspiring us this past fortnight.

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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