The race towards the fully automated car has only just begun. Car makers and their new potential competitors from the Tech industry have different views on the best approach for a driverless future.
While car OEMs like BMW or Daimler (and even newcomers like Tesla) are adding more and more driver assistance features such as lane-departure warning, brake assist, traffic jam assist, or parking pilot, in order to increase automation step by step over the next years, Tech industry companies like Google think of “leap-frogging” to as much automation as possible.
There are good reasons for both approaches. The classic step-by-step approach is very much in line with technology development and refinement, and with the slow moving other stakeholders such as governments and insurances. Ultimately a fully autonomous car would challenge the existing regulations and insurance schemes intensively, bringing up many unsolved issues of liability. What happens, for example, if a malfunctioning autonomous car hits a pedestrian? Driver or car maker liability?
The fully autonomous car, though, has the potential to be much safer than a car steered by a human, so naturally there is some incentive to go to as many automated functions as fast as possible. Especially as there are some indications that drivers in a only partly-automated car might be too slow to take over control in a situation that the partial automation cannot handle. As Chris Urmson, Head of Google’s Self Driving Car program, said in a recent article: “The better the technology gets, the less reliable the driver is going to get.”
Depending on the level of automation and intensity of alert, some drivers took an average of 17 seconds to respond to a takeover request and regain control of the vehicle, in a study just released by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and supported by Google and several leading automakers and suppliers. In that time, a car traveling at 60 miles per hour would travel more than a quarter of a mile.
Automakers, Google take different roads to automated cars
Tech Industry players, such as Apple, Google, Samsung, Baidu, or Alibaba, are increasingly looking for potential future growth opportunities in the automotive industry. The activities are manifold, ranging from providing data services to even building .
Forbes magazine had a close look on the innovation / patent side of this development. Interestingly, if looking at the number of new patents in the automotive area that are filed by tech companies, we can observe two things. Firstly, the number of new patents did not really take off until 2013. Secondly, the overall number is still low compared to the thousands of patents from car manufacturers and suppliers which are filed every year. The increase in patents since 2013 shows quite well the increasing interest in the automotive market, though.
The biggest contributors to the increasing number of patents were Samsung and Google, followed by Microsoft and Apple.
But in terms of who has the biggest war chest in patents so far, Samsung far exceeds all its competitors. For automobile-related patents filed in the past 10 years, Samsung leads with 510, Google GOOGL -1.70% with 308,Microsoft MSFT -0.98% with 222, and finally Apple AAPL -0.47% with 83, according to patent numbers pulled by SmartUp Legal.
Samsung Amasses Largest Patent War Chest Among Tech Giants For Cars Of The Future – forbes.com
Samsung obviously contributes with a lot of patents from its batteries division, however we can see as well patents for HMI components such as a transparent Head-Up-Display, which would make Samsung compete with Tier-1 suppliers such as Continental. On Google’s and Apple’s side Forbes notes down the main interest in digital data processing and navigation, as well as autonomous driving (Google) and User Interface / Interaction (Apple).
There is usually not much that connects a Seattle-based IT company (Microsoft) with a Swiss-based watchmaker (Swatch). Unless you look a bit closer on what former and current chief executives of the two companies think about competitors and innovation.
First, enter Steve Ballmer, former CEO of Microsoft. In 2007, shortly after the launch of the first iPhone, Steve Ballmer made a legendary statement to USA Today about the new innovative iPhone coming from Apple, and was even literally laughing at the iPhone in another video statement.
“There’s no chance that the iPhone is going to get any significant market share. No chance. It’s a $500 subsidized item. They may make a lot of money. But if you actually take a look at the 1.3 billion phones that get sold, I’d prefer to have our software in 60% or 70% or 80% of them, than I would to have 2% or 3%, which is what Apple might get.”
Steve Ballmer – CEO Microsoft – 2007
Yep. Sounds about right… The 2% or 3% are going to be for Microsoft’s Windows Phone, though. What has happened over the next years – Microsoft buying Nokia assets, Microsoft writing off Nokia assets – is history.
How does the Swiss watchmaker come into play now?
Enter Nick Hayek Jr, CEO of watchmaking corporation Swatch. Nick has been in a quite comfortable situation so far, heading a diversified watch company with products and brands from entry-level to luxury, and around 9.5 bn USD sales with a 15% profit margin in 2014. Nick wants to occupy your wrist with his watch products. And as a good CEO – of course – he is always on the lookout to survey the market and the competitive situation. What do you do if you have suddenly a twenty-times (~180 bn USD) bigger company than Swatch that is launching a watch product? A product that directly competes for the same space on customers’ wrists t as your own products?
Well, it seems that Mr Hayek is not particularly impressed by Apple’s Watch that launched this year – and “only” sold a couple of million units so far. For Mr Hayek, the new competitor product is only an “interesting toy”:
“The Apple watch is an interesting toy, but not a revolution. These devices, which all eat so much power that they last no longer than 24 hours without needing to be plugged in. In addition, the user immediately loses control of their data. I personally don’t want my blood pressure and blood sugar values stored in the cloud, or on servers in Silicon Valley.”
Nick Hayek Jr – CEO Swatch Group – 2015
Let’s hope that the toy will not suddenly appeal to a large group of adult customers.
And while Nick Hayek Jr. is still laughing about the new competitor toy in his backyard, let us quickly remind ourselves that threats of new competitors entering our individual industries are more prevailing than ever. We are facing not only just increased pressure from known players in our current industry, but also from companies from other industries, which are looking at our market as potential future growth opportunity.
In the Automotive industry, for example, car OEMs might suddenly be challenged not only just by new entrants such as Tesla, but also potentially from “IT / Consumer” companies like Apple or Google. And on the supplier side, companies should have a close look at high-tech companies like Huawei that have the potential to enter the market very quickly and thoroughly. A “non-automotive-grade-quality-no-automotive-experience” company, product, or innovation, could potentially very quickly bring the the perfect storm even into an established Automotive industry.
This examples can be found for basically any industry, and it will be an crucial competitive advantage for strategic leaders to sense, plan, and act accordingly. Don’t laugh at your potential competitors, but try to learn from them instead.
The future looks bright for an Uber manager, thinking of all the fully-autonomous vehicles that will roll through our streets in a couple of years. If you need a car you just fire up your Uber app, and a couple of minutes later you will get in a self-driving Uber car. No need anymore for Uber to sign up new drivers and make sure that always enough of them are on the street. Automatic algorithms can simply dispatch autonomous cars on the streets, depending on actual and expected demand. And all 160,000-something drivers of Uber can slowly be replaced with a safe and smart “robot car” … Everyone is happy! 🙂
As soon as all technological and regulatory challenges are met to have the fully-autonomous car ready for sale, Uber just hast to make sure to get enough cars for their business. So far, it looked like as they had already identified a potential partner – Tesla. Steve Juvertson, a Tesla board member, is pretty sure that Uber is going to fill Tesla’s order books:
“Travis [Kalanick – CEO of Uber] recently told me that in 2020, if Telsas are autonomous, he’d want to buy all of them. He said all 500,000 of estimated 2020 production, I’d want them all,” Jurvetson said. “But he couldn’t get a return call from Elon [Musk – CEO of Tesla].”
“I’m not saying you’re all going to have robocars. But, for those of us who have a chance to be in one, there’ll be one of those epiphanies. You’ll never go back.”
Uber will buy all the self-driving cars that Tesla can build in 2020
However, it seems that Uber is not only relying on Tesla or other OEMs to build the car for them. Recently Uber has invested in a couple of areas that indicate their potential interest to build their own self-driving cars. First, Uber set up shop close to the Carnegie Mellon University’s robotics center in Pittsburgh, USA, in January 2015. From there they went on a hiring spree to get more than 50 people of the top staff from the robotics center for their newly set up subsidiary.
“They took all the guys that were working on vehicle autonomy — basically whole groups, whole teams of developers, commercialization specialists, all the guys that find grants and who were bringing the intellectual property,” recalls a person who was there during the departures. “These guys, they took everybody.”
Uber gutted Carnegie Mellon’s top robotics lab to build self-driving cars
Later on, Uber and Carnegie Mellon University announced that they will form a strategic partnership, with “focus on the development of key long-term technologies that advance Uber’s mission of bringing safe, reliable transportation to everyone, everywhere”.
This was not the last new development, though. In August 2015, Uber announced that it will partner with University of Arizona for self-driving car research.
Uber has signed a partnership with the University of Arizona focused on research and development in the optics space for mapping and safety. We’ll work with some of the world’s leading experts in lens design at the University to improve the imagery we capture and use to build out mapping and safety features. As part of this partnership, Uber will also be donating to U of A’s College of Optical Sciences — supporting the next generation of optical scientists and engineers as they make new exciting breakthroughs.
Driving Innovation In Arizona
I am not convinced that we will see a self-produced Uber car on the road, though. There would be much more invest needed in order to get to be able to produce a working car than just forming strategic partnerships and investing in knowledge. The necessary asset invest would be huge as well, completely going against the current Uber model. However, it is a good way for Uber to keep all strategic options open. They could, for example, partner with an existing OEM sometime in the future and add additional engineering capabilities to make sure to get exactly the right car for their future “driver-less” business model.
Great info graphic on bloomberg.com showing the rise and fall of the stock market in China, and the corresponding market and policy news over the last couple of months.
A long and interesting read at Forbes on Tesla’s approach on building a car. Coming not as the classic ‘disruptor’ gaining traction only as an alternative slightly inferior product for the price-conscious customer (e.g.what Skype was compared to classic long-distance phone calls in the beginning), Tesla positions itself as ‘high-end disruptor’.
High-end disruptors produce innovations that are leapfrog in nature, making them difficult to imitate rapidly. They outperform existing products on critical attributes on their debut; they sell for a premium price rather than a discount; and they target incumbents’ most profitable customers, going after the most discriminating and least price-sensitive buyers before spreading to the mainstream.
Forbes – Decoding Tesla’s Secret Formula
While still losing money, Tesla is constantly refining its processes and products, learning from other industries than automotive. Customer experience – similar as Apple’s approach -is everything, even if it means to have to spend more money than necessary.
Learning in an environment of uncertainty requires a willingness to admit mistakes and move quickly rather than digging in and doing nothing for fear of admitting failure. In fact, obsessively attempting to avoid failure can lead to the greater failure of missing the big opportunity.
Forbes – Decoding Tesla’s Secret Formula
The Guardian had an interesting article, indicating that Apple’s (autonomous) car might be closer to start of production than expected. They try to tie this down on base of Apple’s interest in a former Naval base that could be used as secret testing ground for an Apple car.
Apple is building a self-driving car in Silicon Valley, and is scouting for secure locations in the San Francisco Bay area to test it, the Guardian has learned. Documents show the oft-rumoured Apple car project appears to be further along than many suspected.
In May, engineers from Apple’s secretive Special Project group met with officials from GoMentum Station, a 2,100-acre former naval base near San Francisco that is being turned into a high-security testing ground for autonomous vehicles.
Combine that with Apple designer Marc Newson’s “design pet-peeve”, the automotive industry, and you can imagine even more that Apple has already the design and marketing for the soon-to-be-available car worked out:
My design pet-peeve is: the automotive industry. There were moments when cars somehow encapsulated everything that was good about progress. But right now we’re at the bottom of a trough.
WSJ interview with Marc Newson
However, while it is obvious that Apple is having a close look at the automotive industry, this does not mean that we will see an Apple Car on the street very soon. Designing a good looking car is one thing, getting manufacturing and technology right is another. As reported, Tim Cook and several executives met with BMW recently, and they still will have to figure out how to build an actual working vehicle.
Apple’s plan to have a separate testing facility does make sense in this context, so that they can start now to test functions and systems, figuring out the manufacturing process (or identifying which existing car OEM they simply would like to partner/buy instead), and preparing everything what is needed from regulatory and government perspective as well. Having a good looking car that is able to perform well in a crash test for example, might be a bit more difficult than getting a phone approved. Thus, having Apple investing now in testing grounds and further expertise might indicate a possible real car not already in 2016, but a couple of years down the road instead.
July has been an especially challenging month for the Automotive industry in China. The latest CAAM data shows a YoY decrease in production in July 2015 compared to July 2014 by -12.1%, mainly driven by the slow sedan segment with -27% YoY growth.
This weak monthly development brings down the overall growth in Passenger Vehicle segment to 4.0% YTD, 11.63 million produced cars compared to the 11.18 million of same time frame in the previous year. Combined with the weak LCV segment (-8.5% YTD growth), the total Light Vehicle production in China thus only grew by 2.4%, from 12.78 million units to 13.10 million units YTD July.
If you are about to launch a new app or service for mobile devices, doing that for Android is kind of a double-edged sword. On the one hand, you can access a vast community of users based on the sheer number of Android installations world-wide. On the other hand, this massive amount of users are not running a homogeneous Android base or devices. Vast differences in performance, screen size, installed Android version, and more, makes it extremely difficult for developers to fully exploit the potential of the platform.
In addition, there is always a latent security risk of having devices running old and outdated versions of Android. A very prominent – and extremely severe – example has just happened with the Stagefright bug, allowing an attacker to get control of the Android device by simply sending a multimedia text message to the target. This vulnerability concerns millions of Android devices in the market, which haven’t received an appropriate security update. However, due to the nature of the Android update process – an update is developed by Google and given to the handset manufacturers and to the telecom providers, which have to roll the update out to the users – this security update either has not happened, or even is not going to happen at all.
Analysts from opensignal have created an extremely interesting overview map of the current state of Android fragmentation by devices, OS version, and brands, based on data of 682,000 devices worldwide. The first chart below show the over 24,000 distinct device types of the study. The second chart show the differences between iOS and Android, and the fragmented state of OS versions developers for the platform have to consider – from both application/service and data security point of view.
The Chinese Uber competitor Didi Kuaidi is ramping up the valuation game with a prominent invest from China’s sovereign-wealth fund CIC. Didi Kuaidi, which was formed by the USD$6 billion merger of the two competing taxi-hailing apps, Kuaidi Dache and Didi Dache, in February has now reached a valuation of USD$15 billion.
While this might be still small compared to Uber’s current boasting USD$50 billion valuation, the potential mid- and long-term implications for Uber in China are interesting. Didi Kuaidi claims to control around 80% of the market, on both taxi hailing as well as premium / limousine booking.
With government-close CIC as investor – and the respective ‘guanxi’ with the authorities, and the close roots to the existing taxi industry, Didi Kuaidi might be much better suited to further establish its presence and dominate the market for ride-hailing. The model of Didi Kuaidi’s operation – going hand in hand with existing providers and offering additional services on top – fundamentally differs from Uber’s ‘let’s disrupt the taxi industry” approach.
Jean Liu – president of Didi Kuaidi – made this point very clear in her talk with the Wallstreet Journal:
“We have a unique business model. We provide a comprehensive range of products. We are trying to serve every Chinese in every situation. (…) Our philosophy is we don’t really believe in disruptive termination. When it concerns millions of people’s jobs, and when it concerns tens of millions of people’s life, what we believe in is collaborative reform from within. We try to work with everyone.”
Jean Liu – President Didi Kuaidi