Guccimobile

October 17, 2010

The most interesting thing about revolutionary new kinds of car propulsion, like in-wheel electric motors & hydrogen fuel cells, is nothing to do with the technology or even the environmental impact. It is the fact that it gives designers & consumers the opportunity to start completely from scratch.

With something like the original Audi etron concept, other than the (admittedly still quite lumpy, for now) battery pack, there are almost none of the packaging requirements that lead to the shape & interior layout of the humdrum carbon-buckets we all parp around in now. No engine (motors in the wheel hubs instead), no gearbox to speak of,  no fuel tank – nuffink.

Obviously car designers are playing it pretty safe in the short term – they don’t want to panic everyone with a whole new paradigm in transport, and at the same time confuse or damage the visual brand they have carefully built up over the many decades of conventional car production. OK, for some reason Renault are quite happy to, but most of the others aren’t.

But the really interesting thing here is contained in the idea of brands; every now & again a bored but fruity billionaire reawakens the essentially pre-war idea of coachbuilding, and commissions someone to build him a unique motoring icon on the chassis of an existing ubercar – gorgeous autoporn that still rolls over the  speed bump at the entrance to the yacht club.

But what if they didn’t need to – since all the oily bits in a car are no longer oily, and what’s more they don’t really intrude above the wheels anyway, then what’s to stop Audi, BMW and everyone else just making the base? Fast, frugal, but above all flat, you pop online and order whatever chassis makes the most sense for you size & cost-wise. Click ‘buy’, and the next step will be to decide which brand you want to be responsible for the outside and which for the inside of your new wheels – probably from a list of companies that this particular manufacturer works with.

Prestige car brands already basically operate as labels that say ‘I’m rich, rich! Now will you love me, mummy?’ (BMW X6) or ‘I’ve done fairly well, thank you for not mentioning it’ (Volvo XC60) or ‘I’ve never actually held money and went into the family arms business at 19’ (Maybach). So it’s not a stretch to imagine bringing other brands from outside the car world into play.

How about an Audi A1 etron chassis with a body by Apple and an interior by North Face? Or a Mercedes E-Class with a Mulberry interior and a nice subtle, grown-up outside by Gieves & Hawkes? We as consumers already see & understand these kind of relationships – Nike & Apple (music to run to) for example. Prestige car brands will still operate as labels – because you won’t be able to get Gucci seats in Ford Focus.

This will definitely happen.

Daimler in distress?

April 8, 2010

Should we be surprised that Daimler are already courting another corporate partner? After all, it’s hard to see how the previous relationship with Chrylser could have ended in a worse fashion.

But the simple fact is that the economies of scale in development & production, as well as the increasingly key group CO2 emissions, are just too big to ignore.

However, shouldn’t Nissan-Renault exercise some caution here? In a fairly astonishing case brought in America, Daimler have agreed to pay $185m in fines in order to settle a corruption case that covers at least the last 11 years.

It seems they were systematically handing over cash in exchange for contracts across 22 different countries – including in one particularly impressive case the gift of two armoured vehicles to one individual official in Turkmenistan. How did he manage to hide them? Surely the least subtle instance of company car park one-upmanship – “Nice 3-Series, Murik.. I parked on top of it.”

Everyone involved is terribly impressed with Daimler’s complicity in the investigation and generally seems at pains to point out how lovely they are. [From the Independent article covering the story]: ‘Prosecutor John Darden added that Daimler had “showed excellent co-operation. The company has undertaken an effort to clean its own house. That reflects a serious change of mind on part of Daimler. This deserves credit.’

In as much as they had any real choice, I suppose this does deserve credit.

But according to Deutsche Welle, Daimler gave out about 41m Euros in bribes between ’98 and ’08 – and in that same period “the deals earned the company 1.4bn Euros in revenue and at least 69bn Euros in allegedly illegal profits.”

So a pretty good deal then, albeit a distinctly shady one if it could be described as a policy decision.

On the other side of the fence, Carlos Ghosn – world-acclaimed saviour of Nissan & Renault and general all-round business good egg – once said: “I think that the best training a top manager can be engaged in is management by example. I want to make sure there is no discrepancy between what we say and what we do. […] Don’t believe what I say. Believe what I do.” (Thanks to Leadershipjot.com for the quote)

Hmmm. Do I detect an impending clash of management philosophy? That’s certainly what happened last time – Peter Schneider says that “The Germans [Daimler] found out Chrysler only planned ahead for four months on many issues, whereas the Germans planned ahead for almost 10 years on virtually everything”.

All in all, I can see the proposed partnership between Nissan-Renault & Daimler failing just as spectacularly as the Chrysler relationship did. It might take a while to do so, and actually I really hope it doesn’t – because I admire Carlos Ghosn and what he has achieved. But it’s hard to see how two such apparently distinct company ethoses (ethi?) can be reconciled, just because both parties need to make seatbelts & steering wheels.

We cannot recall

March 15, 2010

There are two interesting things about Toyota’s epic recall-a-thon:

1: They are not alone in recalling cars on a large scale. So far from alone, in fact, that they should get some badges and a special jacket made, and elect a club secretary.

2: They have handled it really, really badly.

To look at the first point, an instructive 15mins spent reformatting the list of all car recalls ever issued in the US from the NHTSA here shows you very quickly that pretty much every car manufacturer you can think of does this all the time. In 2010 alone, so far 22 different proper car marques have issued recalls in the US – more if you include Ford, Chrysler & GM!

Only joking – actually no I’m not. Anyone would think that the US media canon wasn’t very happy about Toyota taking over GM’s world number one spot… I must have missed the torrent of panic & opinion about the Chrysler 300 saloon’s wheel nuts being recalled, or the instrument display of the Jeep Grand Cherokee [both listed as 2010 recalls above].

Anyway, the point is everyone does this, all the time. Are they as serious as Toyota’s issues potentially are? Not always, but definitely sometimes.

So why is this such big news now?

Along with no doubt a number of other important factors, one reason is my second point; how was this issue fumbled so badly by such a massive company? The presumption here is that massive companies are more prepared & well fortified from a communications perspective. That may sometimes be the case, but often the reality is that it becomes another process, just like ordering new wheel nuts or instrument clusters.

In the case of Toyota, one of the things that happened was that this issue blew up 10 days before a scheduled fortnightly PR meeting – meaning no-one did anything until the process told them to. After all, you don’t want just-in-time automated systems ordering more wheel nuts whenever they fancy. And all those fancy haircuts at the PR agency are just another supplier, aren’t they?

So there was a big gap, which inevitably got filled with the opinions of everyone who could be bothered to give one. When President & CEO Akio Toyoda (yes, relation) did make a statement, he immediately personalised it by being ‘deeply sorry’ about everything – rather than appearing in control of what had caused the situation. And then he drove off in a nice big, safe Audi

Things to learn here:

1) People don’t hang around waiting for you (as the official brand) to tell them what actually happened; they will form conclusions based on the available evidence, and if you’re not there when that happens – tough.

2) Embrace all dialogue. Imagine you’re a Prius owner that gets an email from Toyota, before there is a story at all, saying ‘It’s no big deal, but because we’re so safety-minded and curious, we’d like to check our solution to the problem everyone has – of making cars stop & go – is still the best one in the market. So come and say hello and we’ll give you a free [insert anything of value here]’. It’s the same solution, but doesn’t totally destroy your brand’s core value..

3) Buy an Audi.

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